PROVO — According to director George D. Nelson, the goal of the Microburst Theatre Festival, which played in BYU’s Nelke Experiment Theater Oct 23 – 26, was to teach his students to export the truth. This production was a collection of very short plays on the many facets of love, written by BYU students and performed for the first time ever. In a few cases I felt this goal was well met.
As an avid theater fan, frequent patron and occasional performer myself I find it important to discuss the overall aesthetics of attending local theater, in an effort that we, as a theater community, might elevate the overall event. My experience of attending this production got off to a very rocky start. I arrived at BYU 25 minutes before the show was scheduled to start. The will call office was absolutely swamped and woefully understaffed by very ill-prepared and unknowledgeable students, and many of the other patrons in line were voicing strong disapproval. Another shortcoming was the lack of signage as to exactly where the many different theaters in the Harris Fine Arts Center were located. Not having attended BYU, I went on a bit of a goose chase before I found an usher of a different theater who was able to help me find the Nelke Theater. I got to my seat just as the lights dimmed and a man I assumed to be the director, though he never introduced himself, took the stage to kick things off.
This was the first production I had seen in the Nelke Theater, and I found it to be a very nice, intimate space. The performers weren’t required to wear microphones, and I was able to easily hear every word. The stage was starkly lit, and set with a number of different props hanging from cables, or placed upon shallow pedestals. Throughout the performance those set pieces would be seamlessly woven into the stories to add some unity to what may have otherwise been fairly disparate vignettes. Once I had discovered the plan of using these pieces in the various plays I found myself guessing what might happen next according to what was left hanging. It was a nice touch.
After the opening prayer was said (remember, this is BYU), the first piece, entitled Twenty (written by Taryn Politis), began without any fanfare. In this piece, a pair of female college roommates are visited by a young man who is looking to court one of them. The subject matter was interesting enough, and I found myself enjoying the youthful back and forth of pushing a friend into a “romantic situation.” The roommates, played by Jasmine Fullmer and Emma Widtfeldt, had a very natural and believable chemistry (including a very fancy secret handshake, which I loved). The male caller, played by Jacob Swain, had stopped by while on a run. When he first arrived he went into a series of stretches; which seemed a bit excessive. He then proceeded to aggressively stretch throughout the remainder of the piece and it got ridiculous, but not in an interesting or ironic fashion; it just felt awkward. That aside, Twenty was a solid piece.
In the next play, A Modest Proposal (written by Amy McGreevy), the audience was introduced to Michael Comp and Gabriel Spencer, who were portraying a couple about to get engaged. This piece felt very forced and unnatural. I don’t think it was entirely the fault of the actors; the central conceit of A Modest Proposal just didn’t hit me as authentic, and a few of the blocking choices were strange and distancing. There were a few cute, well-played moments between Comp and Spencer, but in all I was heartened when we moved on to the next piece.
Rules (written by Kate Jarvis) was the title of the third show of the evening, and it may have been my favorite. This short play explored the relationship of an estranged father and daughter. Gabriel Spencer was back in the role of the video game obsessed, slovenly father, and I felt this role was a far better fit for him. The naïve, sweet, attention-seeking daughter was portrayed beautifully by Emma Whidtfeldt. These two actors were able to capture and hold my attention for several minutes without speaking a word.
The comic apex of the evening was Stealing Crowe (written by Amberly Lourde), in which two bumbling would be criminals, adeptly played by Jacob Swain and Michael Comp, attempt to rekindle the passion in their dusty old marriage by kidnapping “Russell Crowe,” played by Gabriel Spencer. There were several laugh out loud moments in this play. There was, however, one glaring blocking flaw, which actually was present in many of the pieces, but was chiefly apparent in this show: the characters spent an inordinate amount of time crawling on the floor. I didn’t see any motivation to do so and found it supremely distracting. That aside, Stealing Crowe was quite well done.
Another show in which the actors spent almost the entire span on the floor, was Man vs Mace (written by Amanda Welch). I found this play to be very forgettable. It was poorly blocked and cartoonish-ly over the top. It just didn’t sit well with me.
In the sixth show of the evening, entitled The Shoelace (written by Chelsea Hickman), Michael Comp showed one of the more difficult aspects of playing multiple characters in one evening: differentiating the characters. Comp’s portrayal of a young woman struggling with her faith in the face of indulgence, while being good, was very reminiscent of earlier characters she had portrayed that evening. Jacob Swain was serviceable in this performance. Although the subject matter of this play was very heavy, there was no gravity to the presentation from either player. The moments weren’t allowed to build and simmer as the actors rushed to their next line. Therefore, the tension level of The Shoelace was too uniform.
Jacob Swain and Emma Widtfeldt finished the evening quite nicely with a piece called Mississippi Izzie’s (written by Chauntel Lopez). This farce was utterly ridiculous in its presmise, but it really worked for me. Their chemistry was quite clean and very easy to watch. Swain struggled a bit with his southern drawl, but Widtfeldt had it down pat.
It has been some time since I have viewed a production of multiple short plays are cobbled together into a single evening. I went into this evening with trepidation and left quite pleased with the work these students had left on the stage. My time was certainly time well spent at the Microburst Theatre Festival.