Baltimore Playwrights Festival lets many hues shine

The Rainbow Plays

By Rich Espey

At Fells Point Corner Theatre through July 21

The penguins did it. The two football players who maybe flirt after getting knocked out and rejected from the game is cute. The mixed-race, same-sex couple getting married in the South is touching. The high school kids planning a "Creation Day" protest asserts such evangelical certainty that it frequently feels uncomfortably real. And the woman thinking about trying the potentially poisonous fugu just to make conversation with a sushi restaurant waitress is silly. But those damned penguins are way, way, way too funny. And gay.

The 32nd annual Baltimore Playwrights Festival kicks off with Fells Point Corner Theatre's production of Rich Espey's The Rainbow Plays, and it's a refreshingly playful, low-impact, and mundane production. Mundane and low-impact aren't intended as knocks, merely an embrace of Rainbow's format. It's a collection of seven short plays that kinda-sorta touch upon the LGBT experience-yes, it's named/modeled after the rainbow flag-but it never wanders into didacticism or obviousness. The whole evening transpires in about 80 minutes, making each play barely a 10-minute narrative. That's not much time to dive deep into narrative, and instead Espey allows each play to focus more on character and relationships. Props, set decoration, wardrobe, and production design are streamlined and simple under Lisa Davidson's dierection, resting Rainbow entirely on the shoulders of the performers.

This cast-Rodney Bonds, Kelly Cavanaugh, Steve Ferguson, Rasheed Green, Jennifer Hasselbusch, Jared Jiacinto, Vanessa Lee, Amy Miller, Grace Yeon-is for the most part up to the task. Most play multiple roles, moving from high school football player to the boyfriend of a closeted man who recently died (Ferguson); a woman considering having a baby by in vitro fertilization to the woman who takes a full-page ad in her small-town Tennessee newspaper announcing the day and time of her marriage to a white woman (Lee); from a woman who isn't afraid to chase juvenile, bigoted boys down the beach to a sarcastic high school metalhead who knows just how to needle a born-again teen dude who wants to bring a knife to a classroom walkout on the day evolution is taught (Cavanaugh), and from a linebacker who intentionally knocks a quarterback out of the game just to get some alone time with him to, well, a gay penguin (Green).

The BPF is a local community theater institution, and over the years the quality of its productions have expectedly varied from quite good to undercooked, and unless you've been attending the readings of the annual entries, it's difficult to predict what you're going to experience beforehand. Plays by Espey, who is also an actor and president of the Single Carrot Theatre's Board of Directors, have appeared in the BPF since 2001, and he's become-like Joe Dennison, Mark Scharf, and Rosemary Frisino Toohey-a local playwright who's name is enough to make a theatergoer curious.

What makes Espey's Rainbow such a welcome change of pace for the BPF is its shorts format. You can watch anything for 10 minutes, and the frequently sold-out runs of Un Saddest Factory's Ten Minute Play festivals over its 2009-2012 existence proved that there was an audience for such quick-hit approaches to stage productions. Not saying community theater should become the breeding ground for a DIY avant-garde-but, then again, why not?-but the BPF's biggest hurdle over the years has been its adherence to conventionalism. Entries typically follow the traditional model of American plays that are derided as being produced year-in and year-out in high school; and when you base your production ideal on the capital-T Theater model of Broadway, you often can't see the quality of the talent involved when all that's apparent is the striking difference in budget resources. Rainbow allows a small cast and production to have a great deal of fun while showing an impressive range realizing these slice-of-life mini-narratives.

And in brevity Espey explores a kind of ordinary humanism. You just can't go too deep in a short format, and these plays don't aim for grandiose statements about the human condition. Instead, Espey allows almost sketch-comedy setups to become snapshots of relationships. The two football players in "Hoya Saxa (The Orange Play)" touch on class, race, and teenage anomie while arguing about if David (Green) hit Poss (Ferguson) after the whistle had blown. Mark (Ferguson) does his best to camouflage his relationship to the late Sam (Jiacinto) when Sam's father (Bonds) comes to get a suit for the funeral. In this intimacy, Rainbow focuses on these everyday streaks of sweetness, poignancy, and humor that are recognizable if you're black or white, gay or straight, fat or skinny.

Or, for that matter, a penguin. The Rainbow Plays end with "Zoo Story 2.0," a ridiculous comic gem. It tells the story of Bob (Green) and Buttercup (Ferguson), two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo who are in love. News crews make the penguins famous, which rankles reactionary zoogoers who think it's wrong that penguins are gay. So the zoo puts drugs in Buttercup's daily krill feed that make him more "straight," and soon he's trolling the zoo like a macho tool, calling himself Ramone and looking for some lovely ladies to get with. Oh, by the way, the whole play is written in Dr. Suessical ridiculous rhymed lines.

Almost immediately in this short it becomes belly-laugh apparent that the only sane way to deal with something as insane as conversion therapy is through rhyming penguins, and as a result The Rainbow Plays finishes very strong. Does the evening have a few rough spots? Yes. But wait a few minutes, the next short will start soon enough. And it's worth the wait, because the sight of a gay, drugged-straight penguin breaking into R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly" doesn't happen on local stages very often.

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