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Working Miracles 

by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & grandmother will appear in a one-person play about a grandmother who criticizes one-person plays. That's how life and art will intermingle for Patty Duke in Billion Dollar Baby at the University of Idaho's New Works Festival (through Feb. 17).





UI theater professor and festival director Robert Caisley says that Duke's character, Holly, "is a grandmother who's forced to watch as her son and daughter-in-law raise their precious child Bernice while installing way too many safety devices in their home and insisting on the best possible day care. In addition, Holly is a theater critic who's writing a magazine story about the American theater's obsession with one-person plays and whether that's interesting or just cheap. And what does that say about our narcissistic culture?"





Playwright Julie Jensen describes 4-year-old Bernice as "bossy -- she chooses when to go to sleep and when to get up. She gets to tell her parents what they should be doing. That's why Holly is worried that her granddaughter will turn out to be a fascist."





Duke will play "something like" nine different characters in the show. "But I'm not going to wear something different for each one of them," she says. "No glasses on and off. It really is my job as an actor to portray them with just a slight difference in my voice or posture."


Duke is developing the play with Jensen and director Jere Hodgin -- "we cut another, probably, five minutes or 10 minutes out of it this afternoon," she says -- and intends to continue developing it. In fact, Jensen has been rewriting so extensively -- "I've got 44 more cuts today," Caisley recalls her saying at one point -- and Duke has had to deal with so many textual changes that she'll perform Billion Dollar Baby with script in hand.


"Technically, it's a workshop," says Jensen. "It's fully staged and fully performed, but this is not the world premiere of this play."





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n addition to Duke's appearance, there's another draw at New Works this year as well: liquid scenery. (No, the actors won't be acting inside aquariums while wearing scuba gear. That's "liquid" as in "capable of morphing or shape-shifting.") It's part of a collaboration that Caisley started with the Virtual Technology Design department at UI: digitizing scenes and actor movements, then projecting them onto the stage's rear wall so that the plays' "sets" can be changed rapidly.





One of the five short plays on the program for each night of the festival, for example, is Ulrike Rosser's "Myth of Maria the Virgin," in which a fallen angel works to recover her lost innocence -- a project which, intriguingly, involves Jason the Argonaut. "Maria" will be set, says Caisley, in a classical Greek garden: "In compressed time, for just a 12-minute play, we'll move through the seasons: We'll see the leaves fall, the onset of winter ... and it's all done digitally. It's uncanny.





"We actually have two design teams for each show," Caisley continues. "What we call the 'tangible design team' creates all the things that the actors will stand on, sit on or lean against. The 'virtual design team' has created the liquid scenery."





Caisley says that his own play, "Santa Fe" (about two traveling salesman meeting in a Mexican cantina, reviewing their lives and regretting their mistakes), "takes place in the imagination of one character. So the images we'll see [in the liquid scenery] are entirely in the rear-view mirror of the car as he goes back to this Mexican village. It's kind of a metaphor for being stuck in the past."





Ginger Rankin's "Option" focuses on a young woman struggling with her identity because, as an infant, she had been placed for adoption. Rankin -- herself the adoptive mother of three adult children -- comments that "Jennifer feels disconnected, alienated, no matter what others did 'in her behalf.'" Recalling a moment when the adoptive mother waxes nostalgic, Rankin quotes from her own script: "As soon as they put you in my arms, you were mine. There was no past ... just future." And Jennifer responds, "That's because you took my past."





In "By Design" by David Eames-Harlan of the UI theater department, a Christian college student arrives at her science professor's office to argue a grade on an assignment. Eames-Harlan says that ultimately, "the play isn't Christian versus humanist or scientist versus believer, but human versus human. They never agree, but they move closer to each other's views. People want this play to be more polarizing than it ends up being."





With their contrasts between literal and evanescent scenery, between the clutter of everyday life and the streamlining of art, the five plays in the New Works Festival won't be polarizing or off-putting as much as they'll be engaging and welcoming.





The New Works Festival will present five plays at each performance on Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 8-10, at 7:30 pm; on Sunday, Feb. 11, at 2 pm; and on Wednesday-Saturday, Feb. 14-17, at 7:30 pm at the Hartung Theater, Sixth St. and Stadium Rd. on the UI campus in Moscow, Idaho. Tickets: $10; $8, seniors; $5, faculty, students and youth. Visit www.uitheatre.com or call (208) 885-7212.

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