K. Mennem 7:17 p.m., June 17
Opening weekend is over for this year's version of the festival at the North Park Vaudeville and Candy Shop (2031 El Cajon Boulevard). Out of nearly 300 submissions from across the country, the community theater and its corps of amateur directors and actors have arranged a series of 28 short plays to be run through the end of October. This past weekend featured seven plays by playwrights from here in San Diego and as far away as Connecticut and New York.
Opening weekend this year was an effective crash course for anyone new to community theater; spectators and participants alike. Many of the actors had their stage debut, or close to it, and nervousness radiated out from the stage at intervals. Since the miniature theater has only 35 seats, the experience quickly became a shared one. Attendees were part and parcel of the learning curve and the handful of sublime moments were doubly rewarding in light of the lovable clumsiness that characterized the program.
The weekend's greatest achievement was Thank You, written by Roger Brookfield from Cheviot Ohio and directed by Loie Gail, who also starred in the play. The script's strength is in Brookfield's acknowledgement of the limitations of time and space and his ability to compress an effective narrative into a one-act play. Rudy (a noble, tragic, and geriatric soul played by Haig Koshkarian) gets off on watching mysterious neighbors perform an indeterminate, though vaguely sexual, activity from his darkened porch. He convinces his less-than-enthusiastic wife Wanda (played by Gail to be more crotchety than her husband but not without her charms) to join in his voyeurism and, despite her protesting nature, she capitulates to her husband's suggestions and they watch the neighbor's do whatever it is they do. At one point, by some magic effect that the neighbors have, the physical frailty that plagues the two characters slips away and they dance together to mid-century music as if they were young and in love.
In Working at the AMC, Samantha Goldstein ekes a lot of suburban angst out of Alisha Silver's script. Actress Loni Philbrick-Linzmeyer brings a huge personality to the stage as Sarah, an embittered teenage cineplex employee who resents the movie Titanic, but mostly because she split with her boyfriend on Valentine's Day. Her straight-laced boss, played with almost British sobriety by Andrew Pearson, balances Sarah's flamboyance with a can-do attitude and reliance on dental floss that's sincere enough to be heartwarming.
In a touching, albeit unexpected moment, actors from the theater's STARS program (which trains developmentally disabled people for the stage as a kind of art therapy) played in Have a Nice Death by Marissa Vaughan (dir. Patti Fay).
The plays from this last weekend have had their run and won't be seen again, but the actors and directors will return with new productions next weekend. Community theater might be one of the quirkiest local arenas for personal expression, and there's really no telling what the coming weekends will hold. At the very least, there will be an ample number of laughs, groans, perhaps a few tears, and surely a chance to applaud for new actors on the most intimate of stages.
Shows run Friday evening, Saturday evening, and Sunday afternoon. Admission is $14 and tickets are available at 619-647-4958. The theater sells penny candy for pre-show snacking so it's advisable to bring a few extra dollars for some violet breathmints, Mary Janes, and bite-sized Abba Zabbas.