Since Tracy Callahan started teaching at Weber State University 16 years ago, she has always had her students in her Directing II class produce one-act plays that were actually cast by the student directors and performed and hence was born the One-Act Festival.
This year, seven student directors took on a variety of plays, including one that, for the first time, was written by a current student, Shauna Ross. Every night for approximately five nights, you can see three different shows in one night. This generally means that each production is seen three times within the run.
Wednesday night, I got to get loaded up with Tennessee Williams’ “27 Wagons Full of Cotton,” directed by Scott Nielsen. It might not be possible to go horribly wrong with a Tennessee Williams piece, but it is possible to match or surpass expectations. This one-act did exactly that. Beautifully directed and acted by Connor Padilla as Jake Meighan, freshman Kacee Hill as Flora Meighan and double-major Aaron Ross as Silva Vicarro, “powerful” is the only way to describe it. Hill’s performance was riveting, as she held her own between the well-seasoned Padilla and Ross, who performed in an off-campus production last semester at Salt Lake Acting Company. Inequity of circumstance takes more than one form in the play as the men take matters, and Miss Meighan (Hill), into their own hands under the “good neighbor policy.” When the vision of the playwright and the director and the actors come together, magic can happen. It was raw and stunningly beautiful magic.
“Counting the Ways” is an Edward Albee play that was directed by Rick Rea. Albee is best known for his play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and the themes he explored in that. This play is like Samuel Beckett’s absurdist plays for a good reason: It was part of a pairing of exploration by the two playwrights. Exploration of themes in the absurdist style is how “Counting the Ways” is driven. And Rea drove it well. The inherent lies and humor (full of pathos for the sake of a feigned or forced compassion) that we use as buffers against loneliness (even or especially within a long-standing marriage) seemed to be the central theme that showed up in the play. The comic sensibility, perfectly timed, made it entertaining while the themes and the obvious pathos made it poignant. Combining those two elements in one performance had to be challenging for both director and actors, but they all (Rea, Zakk Burdick as “He” and Kelsie Slaugh as “She”) pulled it off with both lightness and profundity.
A play written by a Latino playwright, Fernando Arrabal, translated well on the stage into the English production directed by Ally Berry. “Picnic on the Battlefield” literally does become a picnic on a battlefield, where the main character, Zapo (Tanner Rampton), calls his commanding officer and complains of loneliness after crawling out from recent mortar fire. Before we even know the commander’s answer, enter Mom and Dad (Shae Wilson and Aaron Ross) of Zapo, complete with picnic accoutrements, and then enters Zepo (Justin Mendez), an enemy soldier Zapo captures in a comic, almost slow-motion moment as a mere distraction during the ensuing picnic. Even though Zapo initially objects to his parents being on the battlefield, Mom and Pop act as if it is in their blood to be there and that no harm will befall them due to their lack of fear and military inclinations of the past. Zapo and Zepo befriend one another after the initial show of tying Zepo up (Zapo’s parents just happen to have rope in their picnic basket) and then untying him once their commonality is revealed (they both pray either an “Our Father” or a shorter “Hail Mary”) before loosely taking aim on an enemy, and they learn that the rumors of torture (pebbles in the boots) from either side are the same for both camps. In this way, it is as if they discover their common enemy is the war itself and all the trappings that come with it. And in the end, that conclusion proves correct. Cleverly blocked with great sound effects and nicely hit comically absurd moments, “Picnic on the Battlefield” sends a thinly veiled message about what it means to remain human in the most inhumane of circumstances.
All the plays were produced with minimal scenery, but excellent lighting and sound generated by other students, with the overall effect permitting a real focus on the storytelling of each piece. The festival runs two more nights, Friday and Saturday, at 7:30 in the Ellen Eccles Theater with a Saturday matinee at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are available through the Dee Events Center at 801-626-7000 or www.weberstatetickets.com.