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Cheerleader: New Works director Kent Nicholson encouraged the audiences throughout the TheatreWorks festival of new plays.

Looking Forward

TheatreWorks unveiled a raft of new works all in a rush last week

By Marianne Messina

AFTER A SATURDAY marathon of three new plays staged over eight hours, TheatreWorks' New Works director Kent Nicholson asks the audience, "How many of you have seen all three plays today?" Over half the house raises its hands. One has to wonder, Are these strung-out theater addicts or is there something about the New Works Festival that inspires such enthusiasm?

The productions are essentially staged readings, so all day, theatergoers saw actors holding scripts or reading the stage directions rather than acting them. Most of the shows had some blocked-out movement, but people were just as likely to see actors standing behind music stands or sitting in chairs. Costumes? Street clothes.

And yet, it's amazingly easy to overlook the missing elements. For example, not until several scenes into Funkentine Rapture, a full-blown, 16-cast-member musical, did I notice everyone carrying their floppy black-ring binders. And maybe the odd pair of urban baggies reminded the audience that they weren't looking at funk-era fashion. Still, Wm. Todd Tressler as Old Charlie Mills covered fashion for everyone when he came out in huge fur top hat and oversized Elton John glasses. And Dwayne Clark's voice, as he rendered aspiring funk master George Preston, was so captivating he could have sung the dictionary to "Row Your Boat" and gotten away with it. The same way it's easy to forget what's missing in these productions, it's also easy to appreciate what's there: the basics. Like quality singing voices and excellent acting. Superb, creative, versatile acting. In Janet Allard's new comedy, Vrooommm!, a cast of all women play four male race-car drivers trying to squeeze out a competitive female driver (voluptuous, high-booted Jessa Brie Berkner). Melanie Case plays the strong, silent Charley "Sly" Fox so well in her mirrored sunglasses that it's almost disappointing when Sly reveals that he's a she named Wendy.

In this loud (sound man Cliff Caruthers had his second childhood with the car crashes and vrooommming engines), fast-paced, quick-tongued comedy, the actors relished opposing roles. Julia Brothers captured the aging car star Kenneth "Rocky" Kane one minute and then poured into the role of flirtatious waitress/ star-struck fan the next. Berkner went from all that and Southern belle to macho father and race car fan from the Bronx (same boots—it's all in the walk). With equal aplomb, Amy Resnick caught the honest, if slightly dim, boyish charm of driver Chip Chowalsky, the grating Midwestern accent of the fanatical mom in the stands, and the adrenaline bluster of the good-ol' boy, ex-driver, speed-troping radio announcer ("For all the other sports you only need one ball").

In this unique New Works environment, audiences are especially lively. They participate, they laugh, they cheer, they hoot and holler. Nicholson helps set the environment before every show. He comes out to encourage people to respond, liberally reminding them that the works are in-progress and the artists want to know what works and what doesn't. For example, novelist Firoozeh Dumas took her very first shot at standup the first night of the festival. The "How's this working?" intimacy was palpable, the funny highs and fuzzy lows gave insight into the artist at work. It's hard not to feel like a collaborator. Each performance comes with a response sheet of four questions chosen by the play's creative team and assurances from the ushers—almost in disbelief—"They really use the comments."

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

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