The setup: One of the myriad ways Space 55 Ensemble enriches our community is by developing, training, and showcasing new writers, whether they're creating solo performance pieces or plays with several characters, a plot, the whole nine yards. Space 55's current mainstage show, Heyre Be Dragons . . . In My Mind, is a fully staged collection of very short plays by local playwrights, all hanging together, per the directors' notes, in their focus on the "many things we still do not understand about why we think and feel the way we do." My favorite! (Well, not alone at 3 a.m. in my mind, but my favorite topic for good art.)
The execution: A glancing familiarity with playwriting programs indicates that new writers are encouraged to start with short works -- 10 minutes is the typical length. Not only does this keep the author's morale up by being able to have something in semi-complete shape relatively soon, it imposes helpful limitations -- you can't hide elements that aren't working when the structure's so skeletal, and the skills you're developing are called upon constantly: Any lack of conflict or resolution, for example, is going to be immediately apparent.
And it doesn't mean your instructor and workshop-mates aren't going to offer just as much constructive criticism and push you to make your message clear, even if it takes a while. I happened to visit Kim Porter's Tuesday evening writers' group once last year (Space 55 was inviting people for a free sample session), back when one of the plays I saw Saturday was in its early stages. So I also got to hear the group discuss how the initial reading made them feel about the characters, what questions they had, what the author was inspired by and trying to express -- really, there are a lot of ways to critique, and it's typically fun, not a drag. And that writer's had that little script on the burner this whole time, and it was really cool in its final form!
The plays in Heyre Be Dragons (the umbrella title comes from the label that sometimes appeared on uncharted areas of old maps) were rehearsed and directed by four directors, some of whose work I've experienced before and all of whom did a fine job. The playlets have costumes and action and props and sound design -- excellent, by David Kenton (Big Love, Eurydice) -- and all, and they play out against a nicely painted blue and white backdrop that seems to represent the cosmos and the brain's synapses sort of at the same time. It's a real show.
Each scene is strongly written, produced, and performed, but my favorites include Brian Brunson's Scrutiny, in which a dating couple talks about the kind of thoughts that we don't talk about. Amy London's sweet but needling pillow talk, and its converse from stolid Jeremy Brunansky, are impeccably timed and relatable. That level of acting persists all evening, another reason the diverse little plays feel as though they "go together."
Around 10:30 most Saturday nights, Space 55 also hosts a recurring show of some sort -- a strange sitcom or variety extravaganza or sketch pastiche or compilation of solo performances. It's the Late Night Series, and generally a particular group performs once a month until it doesn't any more, and then another group takes its place.
So you've missed (or seen) Hollis' Traveling Treehouse and Dance Party, The WTF Variety Hour, or Down-Lo Solo, for instance, but 2014's brought a new, brisk, and crazed entry courtesy of Charlie Steak and musical prodigy Ron Foligno, with contributions from batshit (in public, I mean) former New Times contributor Ashley Naftule. It's Captain Jack's Space Attack, kind of a futuristic, satirical, outer-space serial with a three-piece rock band. Episode 4 followed Saturday's Heyre Be Dragons. There's one more in June, I don't stay out late often enough to describe these things for you, and so I gave it a go.
The premise is sort of 2001 meets Idiocracy. If your ship is really smart, how smart do you have to be? One-hit wonder Captain Jack (B.J. Garrett) and his band Space Attack travel around with Queen Mozambique, the surviving leader of a destroyed Earth, a crew member who's half human, half bighorn sheep, and a gutter-minded cultural repository (I think) named Viscount Earl (Naftule). In this episode, Ken Burns VIII is documenting the ship's mission, and because things happen very efficiently in the future, the film is already in contention on Planet Cannes by the time everybody gets there.
By the time I left, the creative team was discussing introducing a tote board that displays how many months the show has gone without having an audience member walk out. It would currently be set at 0.
The verdict: What a great evening! Sometimes new, offbeat theater is just the best thing ever, whether it's thoughtful and well-made with subtle wit and heavy philosophy (Dragons) or rehearsed so well that it feels just loud and fast and insane, like a memorable weekend (Captain Jack). Sometimes you can get both! (This weekend, the Late Night show is Arcana Collective's Má: A Mother's Night Ritual, though Captain Jack will be back once more this season.)
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Heyre Be Dragons . . . In My Mind continues through Saturday, May 10, at 636 East Pierce Street. Admission is $15. The theater is small. Purchase your tickets here or call 602-663-4032. Stick around Saturday and throw the box office person another $5 to see Má: A Mother's Night Ritual.
The season finale of Captain Jack's Space Attack will take place at 10:30 p.m. Saturday, June 7. Tickets are $5 at the door.
Editor's note: This post has been altered from its original version.