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Three charms
Perishable’s winning women
The 11th International Women’s Playwriting Festival
Plays by Mary F. Unser, Quiara Alegria Hudes, and Kathryn Walat. Directed by Brooke O’Harra, Nadia Mahdi, and Bob Jaffe. With Casey Seymour Kim, Marilyn Dubois, Grian Gaston, Kevin Coccio, Sylvia Ann Soares, Maritza Martell, Cathy Mendonca, and Tanya Anderson. At Perishable Theatre through November 1.

Perishable Theatre’s 11th International Women’s Playwriting Festival isn’t just about providing a much needed venue for writers of a still-dissed gender. It’s about giving the stage to playwrights who take chances. In this year’s triumvirate of winners — selected from 374 entries from around the world — each short one-act play takes a decidedly non-mainstream approach and relies on directing and acting creativity that’s as inventive as the writing. As usual, Perishable comes through.

Temporaria, by Mary F. Unser, is a surreal and darkly funny scream dream, the title character an office temp. Have you had a work experience so over-the-top horrific that you find yourself making it hilarious in the retelling? Well, Temporaria (Casey Seymour Kim) is Everytemp, a model of efficiency and patience. She hits the tiles running when she reports from Indentured Personnel Express to LBBMSD&T (don’t ask), a hyperactive corporate money machine.

She’s a receptionist/secretary/psychotherapist, a blame magnet with the sort of impossible tasks to fulfill that anxiety nightmares are made of. The two mergers and acquisitions overlords we meet are nostril-flaring dragons. Do they work late? Investment Banker #1,462 (Marilyn Dubois) has hardly left the building since she arrived out of college. Are they overpaid and underbrained? Banker #953 can’t spell and needs 400 bound and collated color copies in 41/2 minutes. Temp fears for her soul if she doesn’t take a stand.

Director Brooke O’Harra amps all this up by more than maintaining a finger-popping pace. For example, sexual exploitation doesn’t enter the text, but O’Harra adds it to the mix in a briskly casual way that fits the tone of this cartoon escapade just right. Most crucially for the piece, Kim captures the tensions between I’m-a-good-person patience and pent-up outrage perfectly, delicately, as we read the changes on her face like a ticker tape tracking roller-coaster fluctuations.

Kathryn Walat’s Johnny Hong Kong, directed by Bob Jaffe, draws another patented, nuanced performance from Kim. Here she is the uncomplaining Mom of Johnny, a 51/2-year-old ball-of-fire played by 13-year-old Kevin Coccio with naturalness as well as energy. "I’m his Mom, but I don’t know where he came from" neatly sums up the awe and exasperation of every parent.

He knows he came from far away, like Hong Kong is far away, thus his name for himself. Ketchup is his favorite food, goldfish are his favorite pets. Processing being new to the planet and figuring out his place on it is mind expanding. His head is getting too big for his pillow, he is convinced. So many thoughts. Mom spelled upside-down is wow! Fish don’t brush their teeth . . . hmmm. Can the Tooth Fairy swim?

Something more than cuteness is going on — not much more, but somewhat. The opening and closing fantasy image is Mom dropping a goldfish into his mouth. Subsequent references turn that, for us, into an image of his head as a goldfish bowl, his mind circling ceaselessly within. We know what you mean, Johnny. It sometimes seems like that to us, too.

Holy Broth, by Quiara Alegria Hudes and directed by Nadia Mahdi, can be thought of and appreciated as an interesting sociological observation, but only if you miss the more significant point it makes. If you enter into the glow of the play’s concluding moments, before you know it you will understand the place of the sacred in human interchange, and respect the place of ritual. All without benefit of priest, rabbi or shaman.

Nena (Cathy Mendonca) is a third-generation Latina student who has studiously insisted on speaking English at home, judging from the uncertain replies to her blond Spanish teacher (Tanya Anderson). Nena’s mother (Maritza Martell) discusses how her abuela (Sylvia Ann Soares) won the island competition for caldo santo seven years running. It is only when her grandmother shows her how to make the traditional Puerto Rican soup, complete with proper silence and attention, that Nena learns what true communication is about.

The set for all three plays, designed by Jeremy Woodward, enfolds the actors above and below, allowing slide projections to be more intimately part of the physical space — undersea patterns, Spanish phrases. Other design enhancements are the lighting by Deb Sullivan, costumes by Marilyn Salvatore, and sound by Peter Hurowitz and Brendan Connelly.

As usual, the playscripts are available in a reasonably priced paperback. Once again, the cream of the playwriting festival crop will reward revisiting on the page.

Issue Date: October 10 - 16, 2003
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