The Columbia University Players are running their annual One Act Festival this weekend and one thing is for sure: I won’t be forgetting this showcase anytime soon.
Tonight, Columbia University Players will end their annual One Act Festival with a final performance at 8 pm in the Lerner Black Box theater. If you like the fringe of avant-garde and absurdist theater, talented student cast and crew members, or fever dreams and waking nightmares, I can’t recommend this festival highly enough. Just don’t forget to bring an open mind.
I should be clear about two things right off the bat. Firstly, I am not a professional theater critic (or semi-professional, or even a slightly qualified amateur.) Secondly, none of the problems with this weekend’s showcase are the fault of any of the cast or crew members in CU Players. Stiff Competition by John Busser, The Sandbox by Edward Albee, and 4-H Club by Sam Shepard are just, unfortunately, not very good plays.
Don’t believe me? Then maybe you’ll take the word of an actual professional theater critic, Jack Helbig, who wrote of 4-H Club, the climactic final play of the festival, in the Chicago Reader in 1991, “4-H Club, a play so plotless, aimless, and infuriatingly vague that… what we’re left with 26 years later is a play fragment, something that works better as an actor’s exercise than as part of an evening’s entertainment.” Considering the amount of student talent at Columbia, perhaps CU players should have sought to highlight student playwrights alongside student actors and dramaturges.
However, as CU Players wrote themselves in the evening’s program, “This festival is aimed to provide actors, producers, directors, designers, stage managers, etc. – early in their craft with the opportunity to hone their talent and enthusiasm in a student-theatre setting.” With this goal in mind, the evening should be counted as a success. Despite their scripts, the cast and crew put on a show that was not only worth the price of admission but successfully showcased the talent of the actors, set designers, and technical crew involved.
The first show of the night, Stiff Competition, especially highlighted the prowess of the tech crew, with particularly inventive and engaging lighting and sound cues. One harsh white overhead bulb provided most of the light for the majority of the play, which took place in the surrealist Hell of an elementary school principal’s office. As the principal, portrayed with unsettling merriment by Olivia Mendez, breezed her way through long monologues about the educational value of murder, this lighting choice cast ghoulish shadows down her smiling face.
The sound cues added another layer of humor to the play as well, with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor rumbling throughout the Black Box at every line of spooky dialogue. This single technical choice probably led to more laughs than any of the myriad puns littered throughout the script itself.
The next play, The Sandbox, was unquestionably the highlight of my evening, a sentiment that seemed to be shared by many spectators at the end of the night. This was largely due to the consistently committed performances of the cast, which made the experience a pleasant and (comparatively) light one. Gabrielle DuBrul and Jonathan Pankauski, as Mommy and Daddy, mixed deadpan delivery with earnest content to make the audience explode with laughter every time they spoke to one another. Erik Larsson brought a layer of childlike innocence to his portrayal of the mostly nude Angel of Death. Even Margaret Mushi as the onstage musician, who had no lines and only functioned to provide an aural distraction from Grandma’s death scene, added to the scene’s strange ambiance.
But no performance stood out quite like Daisy Byers as the fourth-wall-breaking, self-aware, withering-away-to-nothing, Grandma who spent most of the play primally grunting in the face of her own mortality. Despite the nihilistic content (and its critique of capitalism, which the program assures me totally exists) these performances brought a welcome respite from some of the more intense moments of the evening.
And then there was 4-H Club. Again, what should have been a pretty unbearable recreation of a nearly 60-year-old flop was made nearly enjoyable by the commitment of the actors on stage. Jane Walsh, Eduardo Ramirez, and Erik Larsson (fully clothed this time around) starred as Joe, John, and Bob respectively. Though don’t worry too much if you can’t keep them straight; none of their names, their relationships to one another, or even their relative roles within the confines of the play itself matter at all.
The plot of this play cycled between long, shaggy dog monologues and violent, senseless action. Despite the cyclical meaninglessness of each of the monologues, the actor’s delivery still draws you in and makes sure you can’t look away, even if you want to. Walsh in particular performed a nearly five-minute oration about a boy who mowed lawns for old women in a far-off town before getting rich and moving away. The old women all die, but the story doesn’t end until John freaks out, tweaking about imaginary mice. Still, Walsh’s wistful reminiscence of a simpler time that has since tarnished and fallen away was impressively arresting.
Walsh’s scene with Larsson, too, in which they imagine a battle between swarms of apples flying through the air like war-drones, was exhilarating and fun, even if still a bit off-putting. Yet, by the time the play draws to a close, with all the characters screeching and banging pans at the top of their lungs to drive away the imaginary rats in the walls, the end of the night is a welcome relief.
There is something that sticks with you after the show, though. Something about the snarling, animalistic faces pointing at you in the audience and calling you a dirty rat, watching from within their walls doesn’t sit well on the walk home. Next time I sit down to see another production, I’m not sure I’ll be able to shake the feeling of being a rodent voyeur enjoying the perverse spectacle before me.
Spring 2022 One Acts Festival Poster via Columbia University Players