Ensemble Studio Theatre’s 38th Marathon of One-Act Plays, their first since 2019, is split up into two programs of five plays each, with an eleventh play, Vera Starbard’s “Yan Tután,” streaming free on-demand, in collaboration with Perseverance Theatre. Each of the plays in Program B is successful in telling us enough about the characters to make the audience care for them and empathize for what they experience in their short time on stage.
Brass Knuckles, written by Yussef El Guindi and directed with minimal intervention by Sivan Bittat, gives us some quality time with Maysoon, a Muslim woman described as “any age where the things she discusses can still hurt.” Maysoon, is played deadpan by Sarah Nina Hayon (think Carol Burnett) talking to her mirror (us, the audience) and psyching herself up to set out for the day. She is the “everyman” or in this case “everywoman” who has ever wanted to haul off and deck somebody who lives by their own rules as if the rest of us are just extras rather than supporting characters. From the very outset she tells us, “Today I will go out and try again…I will not crowd out God by feeling all the feelings I usually feel that make me want to scream.”
She nonchalantly removes from her jacket pocket a set of shiny new brass knuckles – a shocking gesture from an otherwise put-together woman of a certain age. She joyfully displays it as if she were a gleeful young fiancée showing off her engagement ring. Hayon consciously looks through that mirror, at us, for reinforcement and further breaking down of her mantras – “You feel. You Feel too much. You hurt – too easily. Focus on not hurting today. Focus on not hurting. Don’t flinch. Don’t bleed. Don’t break down and cry. Don’t – just – don’t embarrass me. Please.” She takes out a lipstick and applies it. She pockets the lipstick. She pats the pocket with the brass knuckles. “Hello, Day. I am ready for you. Are you ready for me?”
Tr@k Grls (Pt1), written by Bleu Beckford-Burrell, gives us the story of a graduating senior mentoring a naïve freshman, soon to be the new track star at Far Rockaway High in Queens, New York. Monique Robinson as college bound Raeni Bailey captures all the discipline and seriousness of the 18-year-old ready for the next chapter in her life. Sydney Lolita Cusic, as Anita Gordon, is the spot-on freshman that is trying hard to be the young woman her mother wants her to be. Her lack of discipline when she is not in her mother’s presence is the source of Bailey’s need to initiate the important lessons of tough love. Anita defends herself and inexperience, “Back home, nobody looks like me, nobody has hair like me, nobody sees me, nobody sees this skin I’m in, nobody says anything about it, I’m just that Trak Star Anita.” Bailey warns “When someone in these five boroughs calls you a track star that means you a hoe.” Not letting her off the hook one minute, “You’ve had us out here all morning avoiding doing our miles. If you don’t want to run, if you don’t want to be on this team, if you think you got it all figured out, E.T. go home.” Their stories point to the fact that each in her own situation has been an outsider with no true friends and only through their own strength of character have they amounted to anything at all. Only when butting heads do they each see how much life experience they actually share in common.
Keiko Green’s Prepared is a sobering post-apocalyptic view of the world as experienced by a scoutmaster and his boys who are gradually revealed to be the only people left on earth. The play opens on the scoutmaster, chillingly played by Fernando Gonzalez, in the midst of a communication trail, not giving up on the possibility there may very well be other survivors outside his group. As Todd, the lone dutiful scout we see, Will Dagger is flawless in the portrayal of a young man that very quickly has had to assume the role of an adult while still very much a child. He is particularly haunting in a speech detailing how the last survivors of the troop have chosen to take their own lives. Dagger doubles as a Bear that can speak, because now animals do talk.
Director Jess McLeod has found a way to milk every possible attempt at humor to skirt the issue that these few characters are the only remaining survivors of every imaginable act of mass destruction, as in Todd’s response to the scoutmaster regarding who told him that animals talk: “Oh, no, not that Kevin, sir. It’s a different Kevin than you’re thinking. It’s Kevin the badger. Other Kevin…our Kevin…is missing, sir.” The author is careful to remind us how they got to this point…”The end of the world didn’t come in toads and insects and judgement from on high. It came from us. People. We destroyed it, which means we can build on it just the same. And anyway, it wasn’t the end of the world, not really, because here I stand.. On the world, which is very much still here…The real ray of hope comes in the last two pages with the arrival of Agatha, the Girls’ scoutmaster, played charmingly by Kendyl Ito, who has survived by being swallowed by a whale and eating her way through it. Agatha: “I wish I could call my mom.” Scoutmaster: “I wish I wasn’t so sad.” The scoutmaster lays his head in her lap.
Goldie E. Patrick’s Breath of Life is described as “a choreoplay of Black Love.” We are introduced to Toni, balancing her career as a university professor, writer and protest demonstration organizer with being mom to a newborn; Drew, her partner and the father of her child DJ; and their friends Ayo and Kris, a legal professional and a medical professional, respectively. This play is set at the height of Covid sheltering in place and the general unrest that prompted Black Lives Matter protests. Drew and Ayo (Biko Eisen-Martin and Margaret Odette) have gone into his office downtown for necessary files. Kris (David J. Cork) reaches out to Toni (Ashley Bufkin) while she tends to her newborn. All interactions are conducted with tender and loving care. Even the most otherwise insignificant gesture of Margaret Odette looking into a knapsack for something to drink to offer to her asthmatic friend is done as if it were the most important chore of her day. Cork’s heartbreak is genuine in the doorway of Toni’s apartment as he is not admitted in to help her to care for her newborn as he may have been exposed to someone with Covid while working at the hospital. The concept of the newborn is still so fresh for Bufkin’s Toni that she is all set to try to find Drew in the midst of street chaos at the Black Lives Matter demonstration and bring him safely back to the apartment until she catches sight of baby DJ in the crib.
Eisen-Martin’s panic when he can’t communicate with his partner because of signal failure on his phone is heightened raw anguish. Director Jonathan McCrory has the display of pure emotions as emblematic of the significant connections these people have to each other. The only fault in this piece comes towards the very end of the play where they interchange roles. The preface to the play does make a statement that the roles are not gender specific and often there are inconsistencies in stage directions that refer to Ayo as “he” in one instance and “she” in another. Flipping the roles at the end of the play only serves to confuse what has been an otherwise linear and very touching performance mostly about the anxiety the first time a couple is separated from each other in months, again because of Covid.
Blooms by a.k. payne is short enough to make an audience wonder what happens to its two protagonists at the end of the day. Two women who work at a grocery store are very much a couple. Director Chika Ike is subtle with the differences in the two characters in how they say things, yet being very different in their potential. As Leticia, Kai Heath is beautifully nuanced as someone who clearly is more in love than the person she is with, and sometimes that does mean setting that person free, as in “You won’t leave cause you think it’s too late. You won’t leave cause you’re scared of ending up like your mom. You won’t leave cause of me which I think is stupid but I couldn’t tell you that without telling you I love you too. I love you too.” It is an absolutely heartbreaking juncture in a relationship. As Kim, Alisha Espinosa has her moments too, particularly with a decision made as she takes off the vest to hand it to her partner…no words…a kiss…and then she walks away.
The five playwrights have been supported by a sensitive team of designers. Set pieces are kept to a minimum for easy on and off as there are three plays before the intermission. The scenic design by Riw Rakkulchon is a simple color concept that can be outdoors, or paint on an interior wall – shades of blue, mixed with streaks of grey and black. Christopher Wong’s lighting design is sensitive to the outdoor and indoor settings and how they appear on the walls. The costumes of Isabella Fernandez Rasdal are character-appropriate, but she outdoes herself with the witty bear costume that leaves room for Will Dagger’s face to be completely out as a very cheeky stab that maybe he was eaten by the bear.
The Marathon is a great venue for up-and-coming writers to hone their characterization skills. Some of these writers have already had full productions of other plays in their resumés, so for some their success is in full swing. Program B is a definite tease towards coming back to experience Program A.
38th Marathon of One-Act Plays (through November 13, 2022)
Ensemble Studio Theatre, 545 West 52nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.ensemblestudiotheatre.org/marathon
Running time: two hours and ten minutes including one intermission
Note: Vera Starbard’s “Yan Tután,” streaming free on-demand, in collaboration with Perseverance Theatre