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Gilding The GrooveLily: Rock band GrooveLily gets into the 'Wheelhouse' at TheatreWorks' festival of new plays.

Diamonds In the Rough

Betting on the future at TheatreWorks' annual New Works Festival

By Marianne Messina

COMING UP on its fourth-annual New Works Festival, TheatreWorks has already been able to include in its regular season several productions that grew out of the New Works program, directed since 2001 by Kent Nicholson. "I expected it would take a decade before we would see the level of works ... that we wanted to produce," says TheatreWorks artistic director Robert Kelley.

At the Mountain View Performing Arts Center's Second Stage—what Kelley calls a "wonderfully intimate theater"—the festival productions can be as rudimentary as actors in street clothes standing at music stands and reading scripts. Piece, this year's likely "music-stand production," was still undergoing character additions as Kelley spoke. Less than two weeks before the festival, actors, scripts and creative teams meet for the first time—leaving only seven days, in some cases, for rehearsal.

The most elaborate production of this year's festival, a musical called The Funkentine Rapture (directed by Kelley), will have the full two weeks for rehearsal. But by showtime, it will still have actors carrying music and reading text; a bare-bones three-piece band will try to create the Shaft-like musical groove of '70s funk, and without time for costuming, Kelley is still looking for a way to project the feel of the "larger-than-life world of platform shoes, Afros, outrageous bell bottoms."

Kelley says that what draws audiences to these rough-hewn productions is the sense of being speculators on the ground level of something big as well as the knowledge that "they may be a part of shaping a show." Likewise, Nicholson credits the Bay Area's famed entrepreneurial spirit for making TheatreWorks competitive in attracting a national talent pool and making the area a "fertile ground" for new works.

This year, the festival weekend is a full one. "We're cramming more pieces into a shorter period of time," Nicholson announces, which is part of the reason the company has decided to expand the festival to two weeks next year. And Nicholson believes that the lineup has more energy than any before it.

Part of that high energy comes from comedy—fast-paced humor like that in the NASCAR musical Vrooommm and charming, personal humor like that in the one-woman standup of Firoozeh Dumas in Laughing Without an Accent.

Dumas was touring with her book Funny in Farsi when, according to Dumas, TheatreWorks managing director Randy Adams told her over lunch, "You've got a one-woman show in you." Dumas' first reaction was "I'm Iranian; that's not an option." But on her book tour, people also told her she should do standup. She would respond, "It's bad enough that I'm not a doctor," referring to her family's opinion of her college major: humanities. "No one's going to pay you to look at paintings," Dumas quotes dismayed relatives.

But while doing a brief routine at a reading, Dumas found out she loved standup. Dumas reports that audiences are always surprised to see an Iranian being funny in contrast to the serious, pious ideologue of the stereotype. "What really has made me want to do this show more than anything else is there is such a big climate of fear right now. And to me this is the antidote to that. It's a process of humanizing people who have been dehumanized so much in the past few years." When she told Adams of her change of heart, the New Works process went into action. Nicholson hooked Dumas up with director/dramaturge David Ford, who specializes in one-person shows.

Also contributing to the high energy of this year's lineup, the rock band GrooveLily returns with Wheelhouse. If you saw its Christmas production, Striking 12, you may remember the teaser promising to document the group's down-and-out cross-country tour in a broken-down RV—something about a propane tank ... well, the explosive details unfold at the New Works Festival.

The 2005 Spring Festival of New Works runs April 27-May 1 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. (theatreworks.org)

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From the April 20-26, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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