The New Georges Jam on Toast festival: In brief
New Georges spreads itself thick with a festival of new work by women, including Krista Knight's Primal Play, Caroline V. McGraw's The Vaults and Kate Benson's A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes.
The New Georges Jam on Toast festival: Review by Helen Shaw
New Georges—Susan Bernfield's haven for women playwrights—has, for the past three years, been offering writers and directors what they call a “performance gym.” The Jam, run by Portia Krieger and Jess Chayes, has provided a number of productions with a healthy development period, but only now have the festival directors brought the jams out of the cupboard, as it were. A frenzied few weeks at Dixon Place offer a number of readings and microperformances, which in turn surround the three mainstage productions: Caroline V. McGraw's The Vaults (which is not open for review), Krista Knight's bitter-hearted comedy Primal Play and Kate Benson's A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes.
A Beautiful Day seems, in some ways, like an early Caryl Churchill sketch, one served up with a side dish of yams. Benson imagines a typical Thanksgiving at the Wembly household, full of banal seasonal challenges: how to seat everyone, where to put the babies, when to turn the turkey. Will sisters Cherry Pie (Heather Alicia Simms), Cheesecake (Brooke Ishibashi) and Trifle (Nina Hellman) pull off the perfect holiday? The stakes, shall we say, seem low. Yet high above the action sit sports announcers (Dennis A. Allen II and Mike Iveson), giving us the play-by-play. They murmur appreciatively, shout “That's gotta hurt!” and add color commentary to show what makes this game so crucial.
Family bickering as football match-up: The idea's inspired, and the first part of A Beautiful Day operates like a fully imagined, well-constructed thing. The ending, a slide into Lovecraftian weirdness, boasts a kind of delicious horror. Its central portion, though, proves a victim of its own cleverness.
Director Lee Sunday Evans keeps the astonishing cast (other family members include Mia Katigbak and Jessica Almasy) moving in slow patterns. No one rushes on this field; rather, they glide across the floor (covered in the mysterious symbols of a defense diagram) with the deliberation of a demonstration play, one of those on-screen computer graphics that explain, say, the two-point conversion. This slow physical pace combined with the deliberately unexciting crises over the stuffing means that a chunk in the middle of A Beautfiul Day's short running time struggles desperately to hold our attention. Our heads nod from phantom tryptophan. It's like the show, dedicated to the sense memory of Thanksgiving football games past, accidentally included a section in which you get up to try the dip.
A festival in which three fully staged productions share a space throws up a number of terrifying obstacles. For example, set designer Sara C. Walsh has had to create an environment that can swing from suburban Michigan to deepest Tanzania in mere hours. Luckily, directorial and technical invention are two of the purest pleasures in Krista Knight's comedy Primal Play, the actual text of which turns somehow sour. Knight's setup is promisingly zany: a British primatologist desperate for a breakthrough takes her mother with her to Africa, where the mother subsequently wanders off. The perfect mum, she then dresses up like a gorilla in order to “teach” weird behaviors to a local chimpanzee. Once her daughter discovers these behaviors—Fame! Awards! Grants! If only all academics' moms could be so helpful.
Director Jess Chayes meets the piece's many challenges with playground aplomb. Dr. Valerie Naymark (Kate MacCluggage) and her trusty photographer Mabe (Genesis Oliver) crash-land in the jungle in a sweet, handmade cardboard plane, and Naymark's subject, the chimpanzee Lorelei (stunning Brenda Withers), is a triumph of physical invention. Naymark's mum, Cynthia (Susan Greenhill), hosts adorable tea parties for Lorelei, and the play's best moments come in these bizarro encounters.
Sadly, we keep returning to the vile Valerie. Knight has written a burlesque of the obsessed researcher, one oblivious to everyone's well-being but her own. MacCluggage, charmless, plays what she's given, turning us so completely against her that we can't forgive the play whenever it gives her what she wants. Knight unleashes a nastiness here that wants a bigger, darker play. Instead, unearned sentiment wells up—and a work that starts out wild turns into something conventional, even tame.—Theater review by Helen Shaw