In ten plays, each lasting about ten minutes, an audience can experience just about every human emotion. From hope to despair, from anger to sensual fulfillment, from compassion to a murderous humility, the plays in this year's edition of the Barrington Stage Company's "10 x 10 Upstreet" festival manage to make us laugh, cry, empathize, criticize, avert our eyes and wish for a hug to solace us from the pain we feel at another's loss. Reportedly the result of more than 180 submissions, this year's choices truly run the gamut and the company assembled by Barrington Stage to play out these many sides of human nature is a great company, some underutilized.
In "Christmas Eve, Many Years From Now," by Martha Patterson, three cave dwellers named June, Margie and Richard, live out the pleasures of sensual relationship, hunting-gathering, domesticity, historical perspective and religion. What is remarkable is finding out who, what, when and where -- though never why -- life has become what it is for these three and for others like them.
Dustin Charles is an endearing know-it-all in this play while Elizabeth Aspenlieder and Emily Taplin Boyd take on the dual tasks of sexual exploitation and gender reverence. The actors here make the play work. Aspenlieder, in particular, understands the force of exuberance and leadership taken in equal measure.
That play is the centerpiece of part one of the two-hour evening. It is preceded by two short plays that are among the finest of the collection. Craig Pospisil's "There's No Here Here" includes as a principal character the poet and mentor Gertrude Stein played to perfection here by Peggy Pharr Wilson.
She has the most diverse group of roles in the collection and here she is that wonder-of-wonders, the American ex-patriot who is more French than the French, an extoller of the mediocre (a rose is a rose becomes an aphorism about pink wine, for example). Emily Boyd is the personification of the Parisian mademoiselle and Charles the ideal self-concerned American.
This is followed by "You Haven't Changed at All" by Donna Hoke. On the one hand it is a nostalgic bit of romantic fluff played by Wilson and Matt Neely. On the other it is a play about obsessive behavior as the slow reveal lets us in on the darker secret of a ninety-plus-year-old man's adoration of a classmate. Neely is very good in this play, taking the quiet reaction to a new, dark height.
In "The Wilderness" by James McLindon, Neely is an injured Confederate soldier whose fate is left in the hands of a wounded Yankee played by Scott Drummond. If ever anger, hatred and resentment are provided an opportunity to rule the day, this confrontation exposes those sensibilities to the utmost.
As directed by Christopher Innvar, the play uses both physical and emotional differences as well as political and religious beliefs to distance the two men and yet bring them so close that pity and compassion overwhelms the piece. All that in ten minutes!
"Camberwell House" by Amelia Roper ends the first half of the show. A monologue performed by Wilson, it tells the story of a long friendship and a pledge that takes that friendship to a new level. I cannot imagine a better actress for this role. She presides over a dollhouse that holds secrets she can divulge only sparingly.
This play touches on Albee-like people who confine themselves to an individual, inexorable goal. It also moves quickly, though perfectly from charming comedy to a frightening conclusion. Julianne Boyd has controlled the action and the emotions perfectly within a confined space on a broad stage.
The second half opens with Aurin Squire's play "Freefalling" in which an airline stewardess played to perfection by Aspenlieder and two male passengers relive their anxieties and thrills on airplanes. This is one of the strongest entries in the collection. To discuss it in any way is to diminish its impact. Drummond is superb in this play as is Charles.
This is followed by the two weakest entries in show. First is "Context" by John C. Davenport, a clever play in which the dialogue is not so much dialogue as one sees in the actor's bodily movement. Wonderfully directed by Kristin van Ginhoven, the play exposes the interior monologues of four people as a relationship meanders from one sincerity to another. It's just that the play itself showcases the most banal relationships and that is unfortunate.
Jacqueline Goldfinger's "The Bounce" gives Aspenlieder a chance to recreate the sort of character she has played so often at Shakespeare and Company, the looser, more southern woman for whom sex is a tool and storytelling is a necessity. This is the second monologue play in the group and not nearly as effective as the first one. Nothing director Frank LaFrazia does with it can save it.
Innvar's play "Higher Ground" was inspired by the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and, as directed by the author, it is a two-part piece; a somewhat maudlin first half between a father and son left to fend for themselves after the storm and a second half between husband and wife which is so emotionally engaging that most of the audience could be heard sniffling and sobbing, including this critic. Drummond and Aspenlieder as the adults are brilliant and Shea Mcilquham as the son is both touching and loveable. This play is one of the true highlights of the show.
"The Stand-In" by Brett Hursey is a play that works on multiple levels. Emily Boyd plays a young actress, new to New York, who is auditioning for a company that uses actors for multiple roles within a season. Her audition mate, one of the company's premiere performers named Xocko, a role handled with finesse and an aggressive energy by Charles, manages to upstage the actress in each and every improvisation. At least, that is the opinion of the director. A piece that touches every theater professional who will see it, it is still an accessible comic relief and a very good choice for the final play.
Julianne Boyd directed "Camberwell House," "Freefalling," and "The Stand-In." Christopher Innvar directed "There's No Here Here," "The Wilderness," and "Higher Ground." Frank LaFrazia directed "Christmas Eve, Many Years From Now," and "The Bounce." Kristen van Ginhoven directed "You Haven't Changed a Bit," and "Context." The production staff has done a good job; there is no costume designer credited in the program.
This is an opportunity to visit with the playwrights of the future. It is most enjoyable and one not to be missed.
"10X10 Upstreet" plays through March 3 on the St. Germain Stage at the Blatt Center, 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield, MA. For information and tickets, call 413-236-8888 or visit www.barringtonstageco.org.