This year, the Firth Chew Studio Theatre committee decided to present a full year of original plays. This is a noteworthy and ambitious project. Back in June of 1977, Bryan Harnetiaux's first play, Caution: The Surgeon General Has Determined... premiered, and Harnetiaux became the Civic's playwright in residence. The Civic's Studio has produced at least two dozen original works since then. In fact, for 16 years, original short plays have been sponsored by the Civic Theatre's Playwrights Forum Festival. The Festival is the longest running event of its kind in the Northwest.
Playwright Rita Nachtmann came through Spokane with a touring production and made contact with the theater and Bryan Harnetiaux. Since then, she has had plays produced in the Studio. Her PEN Center USA West Literary Award winning How I Spent My Life's Vacation debuted in 1996 at the Spokane Civic Theatre. Rita also co-authored Mama Drama, which went on to win a national award for the Civic. She also wrote Pee Wee and the Wheelman, which debuted at Civic about three years ago.
Her current collection of one-acts, Hunger Shorts, took the stage Friday night for its world premiere. Nachtmann says the basic theme of each play has to do with longing, wanting something; thus she was able to string these five one-acts together.
Last week, in fact, the playwright gave a workshop at the Civic entitled "Fuel the Muse." And I did feel fueled after the performance... to have Nachtmann make the plays shorter and to have Director Dennis Ashley exert stronger control and rein in the actors so the plays would work better.
While some of the plays are really quite intriguing, they just need pruning. All of them seemed too long -- a snip here or there would have remedied that. The actors were all quite competent, with kudos to newcomer Robb Padgett, who was a delight in several roles. Janice Abramson, a long time producer at the Civic, did a good turn as two eccentric characters; and Jamie Sciarrio, another newcomer to the Civic, shows great promise. Brad Picard, Tanya Ihnen and Brian Cheney round out the ensemble.
The first play, The Sniffers, is truly hilarious. The premise: women testing deodorant on men in a lab situation. Still, I don't know whether it was first night jitters, a script that was a tad too long or lack of direction, but it lagged about halfway through and the ending fizzled out.
The Python gave us a few stereotypical characters in a gun shop. With a faster pace, we wouldn't have been predicting the ending. We could have been drawn into a drama that would leave us wondering what was going to happen when the young girl leaves the shop.
Liver for a Scot came to Nachtmann when she and Harnetiaux were in Scotland, both on writing fellowships. She saw a hospital called the Liver Hospital. Working on that theme, she created a play where a Scotsman is waiting for a liver, but when he finds out it's from a Catholic, he rejects it. Once again, the play has the possibility to be outrageously funny, but the actors were way over the top in this one without any clear direction. With a tighter rein and some weeding, this play, too, could really work.
My favorite was Feeding the Meter. I have watched many actresses run out during a rehearsal (never during a performance) to feed the meter. Watching an actress in Restoration period costume, running outside to feed her meter, just cracked me up. Abramson and Sciarrio play two patrons who accost her before she can get to her car giving her ideas for revising her play. She is stuck, unable to get to her car (hence a ticket), and not sure how seriously she should take this threat.
The Snapper, about a young girl getting her professional picture taken in the hopes of a new business venture, left me cold. It dragged, and it did not have the psychological impact that I know the playwright intended. It was pedantic and just too bloody long.
The Civic's Firth Chew Studio Theatre is about the only place in town where experimental or new works can be tackled. The Studio offers a venue for the type of fare that graces off or even off-off Broadway. I applaud the courage of the Studio committee to offer this opportunity to struggling playwrights, and I encourage theatergoers to support the Studio in its yearlong commitment to provide you with new plays.