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Stageworks's death by playlets is a bit too much

By PETER SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 2, 2001


TAMPA -- Four of the five short plays that make up Stageworks Briefs 2001 are about death. You need to know this because this is at least two plays too many on that topic, no matter how good they are.

And the playlets are for the most part reasonably good, but these four beat the same drum a little too steadily. The fifth short play, Room 110 Wants ... is a charmingly silly comedy sketch with one of the most delightful characters you'll find anywhere.

The first play, Jolene Goldenthal's Myra and ..., features a winning character in Myra, who left her husband to find romance. As played by Chris Carlee, Myra is a ditz who creates a world of pain with her decisions, yet we like her. She has just seen too many Cary Grant movies, as have we all. Carlee talks to the shade of her husband (played by Norm Augustinius) in a wide range of tones from almost affection to total exasperation, without the sense God gave a table. Dawn Truax's direction is simple and subtle.

The next play, Radio Head, by Christa Kreimendahl, is a tale of a Southern mother and her son. Cher Tanner and Shannon Armstrong work well together, giving what could be a painfully cliched Tennessee Williams-lite piece a sense of real drama. Richard Coppinger's direction finds what strength this piece has.

A story of two young, struggling musicians, Johnny Knight's Woody Goodface tries to walk a line that it can't quite manage. While the actors, Jennifer Newman and Drew Valins, and director Scott Isert struggle valiantly, the piece is simply too loony to carry off the emotions hoped for.

Keven Renken's Good Help is certainly the oddest one-act presented here. A woman with her eyes bandaged is approached by a woman who says she is there to help her, sent by the blinded woman's son. What's really going on slowly becomes evident, and the creepy feeling it engenders is strangely unique. Peggy Huey's direction adds to the unease, as do the performances of Ginger King and Linda Fajvan.

After all this death and destruction, here comes the silly, well-written and delightfully acted Room 110 Wants ..., by Roger Martin, and the audience breathes a sigh of relief. Jennifer Newman is back, in a funny minor role, ably assisted by Isabel Natera. They support Eileen Koteles, easily one of the finest natural talents you'll see on the stage. Koteles' character doesn't want to get married, and is flirting wildly with the mute Room Service waiter (Augustinius again, subtly funny). Her reactions to her sisters and the waiter are so effervescently alive that the gloom of the first four plays dissipates under the glow of her 1,000-watt smile. Director D. Davis has made a find here.

Four plays about death are actually at least three too many, possibly four, especially in this context. For a tragedy to be tragic, and not merely cheap theatrics, we have to know more about the characters than we can possibly learn in these short pieces. Without this knowledge, we're just getting our chains yanked, and none too well. But there are some good actors here, and a few moving moments, and there is Eileen Koteles, who after all that death and despair, will make you glad you're alive.

* * *

REVIEW: Stageworks Briefs 2001 continues through Sunday at Hillsborough Community College, Ybor Performing Arts Theater, Palm Avenue and 15th Street. 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. $12, $10 seniors, $7 student rush. (813) 258-6757.

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