The Young Playwrights Festival gets a new home, for now | Bleader

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Young Playwrights Festival gets a new home, for now

Posted By on 01.22.12 at 02:42 PM

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The Mural
Now in its 25th year, the Young Playwrights Festival is a lot older than the high schoolers the festival celebrates. My hope is that the institution's additional experience can help it face adversity a bit better than the characters in the three plays I saw last night.

This year the Pegasus Players, Uptown's socially conscious theater troupe that has put on the Festival for a quarter century, moved to the Uptown Hull House Center from nearby Truman College, and the timing couldn't be worse.

Hull House announced this week that it would be closing down by the end of March, citing a paucity of government funds and its inability to shrink costs, not poor ticket sales. But if the minuscule crowd at the show I attended—there were just six of us—doesn't speak to what's knocked out the Hull House, I worry it could do for the Pegasus Players, whose production of the Festival is always on point, even when the writing dips. I'm sure the Players will land on their feet, but I hate to see a lack of interest compounding the Pegasus Players' problems.

Anyway, on to the shows.

There are six plays in this year's Festival, the three winners from 2010 alternating nights with those from 2011. I saw the former: A Business Affair by Northside College Prep's Hunter Speese, The Mural by Whitney Young's Trina Young, and Karl & Joey by Arthur Pascale, also from Whitney Young (whose Jim English taught three of six writers). All have to do with two characters faced with a very obvious path they can't, but must, walk down. What separates the student-written plays is how, or really if, the problem is developed.

In the psychological thriller A Business Affair, two strangers are told by their boss they're to be terminated (the murder kind). A conniving messenger enters the bathroom where they swear they'll make a last stand and makes an offer—kill the other and you're free to walk—which is when the pact starts to break down. Deeper characters might have kept the tension higher, but a few hairpin turns right at the end give Speese's play an appropriate gravity.

The Mural is looking for that same emotional heft, but can't find it. A boy named Shane clashes over and over with his father a couple of months after Shane's mother leaves the family. Shane and his father won't or can't help the other feel any better, though it's unclear why, even with the help of a number of heart-on-his-sleeve soliloquies from the annoying kid. Chad Bay's hair-flipping Shane and spot-on hoodie add to the play's adolescent, sometimes caricatured feel. Young tackled a big, fraught topic, and I'd be interested to see what she would do with the same subject in ten years.

Where Speese and Young went for adult subjects, Pascale keeps it age-appropriate in the night's best show, Karl & Joey, about two Xbox-playing teens who'd rather make some money for food than ask their parents for it. Their solution is inventing a baseball player and selling an autographed baseball on eBay, but their scheme works too well, turning them into wacky, stressed-out businessmen in what could be mistaken for a parody of Glengarry Glen Ross. Funny, tight, not at all self-serious but offering a real transformation, this was better than some of the stuff I've seen the pros do. Well, professionals were involved: Alex Levy's direction made nice use of the really great Hull House Uptown stage while Ian Daniel McLaren and Kaelen Strouse balanced Karl and Joey between wisecracking nerds and ambitious young men. Richard Perez, who was great in all three plays, has a funny bit part as the commissioner of Major League Baseball.

The Young Playwrights Festival runs today at 3 PM and next Friday-Sunday. (It's run since January 5, but this review is late due to illness. Sorry Pegasus Players!)

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March 21
Galleries & Museums
Monet and Chicago Art Institute of Chicago
February 11

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