‘The Rainbow Plays’ at Baltimore Playwrights Festival by Amanda Gunther

FOUR STARS
Kicking off the first of four productions in this year’s Baltimore Playwrights Festival, area playwright Rich Espey presents his newest work The Rainbow Plays, a series of seven ten-minute productions that symbolically represent the six colored stripes of The Rainbow Flag, a symbol all its own of gay pride and gay rights. The seventh play ties all of the colors together. Directed by Lisa Davidson, the plays come together with nine actors rotating through the roles of all seven shows presenting the overall moral to the audience that you should live your life, no matter who you are and how you relate to the world, and live it with pride

(l to r) Poss (Steve Ferguson) and David (Rasheed Green). Photo by Ken Stanek.

(l to r) Poss (Steve Ferguson) and David (Rasheed Green) in ‘Hoya Saxa.’ Photo by Ken Stanek.

Espey’s work, by comparison to some of his other feature length plays like Following Sarah, feels unfinished in places and in need of polishing. While the plays run tightly together and all have the unifying theme of being about gay rights and issues, some of them lack substance. Espey’s layered work of thematic elements is missing from a few of the plays, being a straight forward presentation of: “I am gay, this is my issue,” rather than the intricate way in which his previous works build drama, connections, and emotions. With further work this series of plays could really shine and do the message Espey is trying to send a great deal of justice.

Last Blackberries of Summer (The Red Play)

Featuring a lesbian couple and their friend who is in a bi-racial marriage, this production is meant to symbolically align with the red theme of life. Which it does in more ways than one, as the lesbian couple are on the brink of having a baby and starting a new life together, and Annamarie (Grace Yeon) copes with the struggles of having a baby that makes her appear like the ‘Asian nanny’ rather than the child’s mother. This play, however, is poorly structured in the sense that it’s just the characters sitting around blatantly saying that they feel angry or frightened, though Kelly Cavanaugh’s character of Leah does get to act out her anger from time to time. This play lacks subtlety and has clunky dialogue that reads like a bad health-class documentary. The ideas are there, but the time to flesh them into a fully developed story is lacking.

Hoya Saxa (The Orange Play)

Set in the training room of St. Vincent Palotti’s High School in Laurel, MD this production illustrates local flavor. Reflecting the orange’s representation of healing, this play tackles not only subliminal plot themes of accepting homosexuality in a high school setting, but also coming to terms with racial and social class differences. One of the better composed of the seven, this performance only suffers from the actors racing a little too quickly through their text at times. Poss (Steve Ferguson) and David (Rasheed Green) both have passionate emotions that are veiled more subtly and build to a head, bursting out when truths ring out, but there are times, particularly with Green’s character, where moments of both punctuated comedy and grave emotions get sped through as he races to finish his lines. Slowing down the actor’s speech rate would make this performance solid.

Choreography of Cyn & Marta (The Yellow Play)

This is the production with the most potential in its unfinished state. A truly touching emotional story where Cyn (Amy Miller) and Marta (Vanessa Lee) reflect the struggles of being lesbians in love through the times, from Nixon’s presidency and resignation to modern day. Espey sets up a brief series of ‘flashbacks’ indicated with dimmed lights and oddly placed snippets of dancing, and it isn’t until midway through the dialogue of these scenes that the audience realizes they’ve traveled back in time. Both actresses, while nailing the emotional depths of their characters, especially Miller’s fright of what will happen if they do tie the knot in Tennessee as an inter-racial lesbian couple, are a bit too young for the age the audience is expected to believe they are, which only added to the time-shift confusion during the unclear flashbacks. But the story is beautiful. With tightening of the flashbacks, or perhaps an addition of more than just the two we see, this play will be incredibly effective.

Bang Day (The Green Play)

This play seems to sit outside the realm of direct issues in relation to the other six. Dealing with high school students in the Christian focused south, Luke (Jared Jiacinto) intends to lead a protest against evolution in class, with a violent twist that his worrisome girlfriend (Jennifer Hasselbusch) wants no parts of. The antagonist Rain (Kelly Cavanaugh) of the stereotypical goth/outcast variety, fuels the fire between them. There is unintentional symbolism wound into the production as Cavanaugh’s character continues to offer an apple to Hasselbusch, who eventually excepts— turning the tables on the old Garden of Eden story as this time it appears the Christians are in the wrong, as opposed to the dark side of temptation. Meant to be focusing on nature, this play ties loosely to the ideas of creationism verses evolution and just seems out of place from the others, despite the intense acting delivered by the trio.

Message Deleted (The Blue Play)

The most haunting and well executed play in the series, this tear-jerker could have stood to have been longer. It is fully functional as a brief scene; however, it is so moving and impacts the viewer so greatly that you desperately want to see more. In this play, Espey turns the blue theme of harmony into disharmony, showing how difficult it is to have true harmony when one lives their life in fear and falsehoods. It is difficult to talk about this production without giving away the shocker and twists, but it is his best crafted piece of work in the seven and involves deeply emotional acting from Steve Ferguson and Jared Jiacinto. Watching the sorrow play out over Ferguson’s face when the reality of situation is presented, and the struggles that his character now faces in this play is truly harrowing. This play sends a clear message to the audience: don’t ever hide who you truly are regardless of how other people might view you once you tell them because you never know how it will affect those you love and those that love you once you’ve moved on.

Catch of the Day (The Purple Play)

(l to r) Zoogoers (Jennifer Hasselbusch, Vanessa Lee, Kelly Cavanaugh), and Buttercup The Penguin (Steve Ferguson). Photo  by Ken Stanek.

(l to r) Zoogoers (Jennifer Hasselbusch, Vanessa Lee, Kelly Cavanaugh), and Buttercup The Penguin (Steve Ferguson) in “Catch of the Day.’ Photo by Ken Stanek.

Meant to represent spirit, this play is a quirky little piece that doesn’t exactly fit in with the rest of them, but not in the severe manner in which the green play stands out. Taking place inside a sushi bar the show quickly becomes about Charlie (Kelly Cavanaugh) trying to hit on and pick up her waitress Kelly (Jennifer Hasselbusch). With a peculiar riddle-speaking guest in the corner, known only as Mr. Fugu (Amy Miller) the play quickly twists into taking risks by eating Fugu— a sushi if prepared incorrectly will kill you. The act of eating Fugu becomes a metaphor for taking chances and being in love, whether or not the risk and outcome of pursuing these venues are worth what one must go through to get them. Miller shows superior acting skills in this production despite her limited lines and keeps the overall nature of the production mysterious but light. The moral of the story here is that if you have a person in your life that you would eat Fugu for, then you have a good catch.

Zoo Story 2.0 (The Rainbow Play)

The cutest and most perfect ending to the series, this little play becomes a Dr. Seuss message for adults. Spoke in the adorable rhyming verse style of Seussical poems, the story follows two gay penguins at a zoo that are lovingly raising a baby penguin together. Their lives are torn asunder when bitchy protesters show up on the scene to say that penguins shouldn’t be gay, it’s a choice not a part of nature and they intend to fix the atrocity before it can continue. The play escalates in awkwardly comic moments as they try to force Buttercup (Steve Ferguson) through ‘corrective therapy’ (featuring a series of inhumane treatments like steroid pumping, and electro-shock therapy) in order to make him straight. He mates with the female penguins (who each have a hilariously unique personality and accent) only to become depressed, stressed and eventually suicidal. But don’t worry, this play has a happy ending with Bob (Rasheed Green) the original partner of Buttercup, coming to the rescue with their baby. This well crafted poem-play is literal perfect ending to the production and features all seven of the main players.

With additional work and polishing, Espey’s work could be sensational, following in the footsteps of his other great works. It’s still worth seeing, as it sends a strong message and does feature some very talented actors. It is brief, so those in the series that need work, move by quickly without too much notice.

Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, with no intermission.

The Rainbow Plays play through July 21, 2013 as a part of the XXII Baltimore Playwrights Festival at The Fells Point Corner Theatre – 251 S. Ann Street in Fells Point, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 276-7837 or purchase them online.

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