Grad Bag

College theater depends heavily on the largess of its audience. It may be fair to expect a workmanlike performance from an Equity player, or to grumble about a crummy community-theater production, but it's unreasonable to expect greatness from theater-student shows. Student productions--the bulk of whose audiences are usually blood-related--beg our forgiveness for their shortcomings.

But thanks to some pretty impressive budgets and a talented and credible faculty, ASU's theater department tends to turn out several worthy student plays, and at least one exceptional main-stage production, each year. This ASU season winds up with 5 AZ Pieces, a program of original plays written by theater students currently studying with instructor Marshall W. Mason. An Obie Award-winning director and co-founder of New York's Circle in the Square theater, Mason has overseen the production of 5 AZ Pieces and directs two of the one-acts himself.

Three of the plays were developed in a class Mason teaches on the collaborative process among playwrights, directors and actors. Each semester, Mason's students select a particular theme and, with the help of an assigned director, draft short plays based on the theme. The one-acts are workshopped and later presented to students; 5 AZ Pieces represents the best plays by Mason's students of the past few years.

The project provides the opportunity for students and faculty to test their stage strengths and weaknesses. Acting instructor Daniel Irvine, for example, is an exceptionally awful actor. His performance in Final Vow, a talky piece about a woman who's about to join a nunnery, was so mannered and fanatically fey that I couldn't wait for him to leave the stage. But as the director of Picture Postcard From Reno, Irvine's talent for building a scene for more competent actors turns this tumid tale about a prostitute and her married john into a nervy narrative of betrayal and violence. Irvine draws our attention away from the one-act's more hackneyed plot points with dramatic details and throbbing lights, and patches up its predictable curtain speech with a truly scary finale.

This sort of creative collusion is the real charm of the collected pieces: Each script and performance is informed by the wisdom of several directors and actors before they reach the stage--a kind of collaboration that's different from the traditional workshop programs that most theater schools provide. Three minutes into Picture Postcard From Reno, I knew the fate of the prostitute and was pretty certain the play would end with a radio voice-over. But Irvine kept me interested with amusing bits of business and imaginative blocking, and the actors playing the scene made the most of a couple of creaky archetypes.

I suppose it's time I stopped being surprised at the competency of the acting students at ASU. I've been wowed by enough performances there to admit that it probably isn't a fluke that several of Phoenix's better performers are products of the school (if only they'd stop running off to Los Angeles after they graduate).

For 5 AZ Pieces, Mason has assembled a company of mostly talented players, and several who turn in outstanding performances. In Tori King-Moore's Common Skippers, one of the better long pieces here, Kathleen Butler plays a 50ish stroke victim with some aplomb, and graduate student Martha Slater delivers a light, enthusiastic performance as Butler's long-suffering daughter. Slater's graceful performance made me forgive Moore her use of stale fourth-wall narration, because it gave Slater more stage time and let her play a little comedy against the tragedy of this unusual hospital drama. And Joel David Maurice is a riot as a cheesy lounge lizard on the dole in Gregory Mitchell's Crop Circles, the most engaging of the plays.

Crop Circles is a hypnotic commentary on confinement and human nature that evolved from an idea suggested by ASU theater student Ben Brittain last year. The finished play owes its success to Mason's sharp direction as much as to some really fine writing. The story takes place in a roadside diner, where we overhear conversations at three different tables. The first vignette is a rambling, nonsensical discussion among three young women that appears at first to be a terrible piece of writing, further ravaged by inept staging: The characters at the background tables loudly draw our attention away from the action center stage.

Then the three women stand, grab their table, and move it and themselves upstage, while the team of actors at another table moves its operations to center stage. The new group then replays its background scene, only this time at center stage, revealing what all the shouts and whistles were about. By the time the third table arrives center stage, we're both listening to the dialogue being spoken there and anticipating the actions of the characters we've already heard from. I actually found myself leaning in closer to the stage, afraid I'd miss a bit of dialogue and wanting to know more about the strange diners in this ugly restaurant.

Award-winning playwright Tania L. Katan contributes a clump of uneven playlets that are scattered throughout the evening, each introduced by an annoying video clip in which ASU theater professor David Vining portrays a goofy college instructor who's teaching a class on slackers called GenX 101. About half of these brief bits work. In the enormously amusing A Coffee House Encounter, a skateboarding slacker trades quips with an arrogant yuppie; later, in another coffee house, An Extra Shot misses entirely with dumb dialogue and a silly wind-up. Graduation Blues is unfathomable but mercifully short, while On the Net's depiction of cybersex is laugh-out-loud funny and could have gone on twice as long. Collectively, these pieces are titled Shut Up! I Can't Hear You! and demonstrate the failures of contemporary communication. Katan holds up coffee-house lingo, slacker speak and Internet jargon as examples of how ineffective our intercourse has become, a trite construct that surely nobody but a college playwright would want to explore.

But it's that very naivete that provides these plays with their fresh, guileless conviction and with much of their humor. Katan's blackouts made me laugh at the vapidity of her MTV generation, but they left me feeling unhip and middle-aged for not getting some of the references--I was pleased to discover that "a mobile home up my ass" means I'm disturbed about something, but I'm still not certain whether Katan's homage to Pedro Zamora, the actor from MTV's The Real World who died from AIDS last year, was meant to be ironic or sincere.

No matter. These fresh, unconventional bits of theater provide a brisk evening's entertainment as well as a peek into the future of contemporary playwriting. If this show is any indication, the next generation of theatergoers won't have to suffer through repeated remounts of old Neil Simon plays. Bravo.

5 AZ Pieces continues through Saturday, May 3, at ASU's Lyceum Theatre, Myrtle and Forest in Tempe. For more details, see Calendar.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela