Philly Theatre Week kicked off two weekends ago, and the deluge of theatrical and quasi-theatrical events with short (mostly online) stays began.
One quite praiseworthy facet of the Theatre Week is that it gives a platform to small, independent groups to showcase their skills and visions. A good example of this was Business Casual, a show that ran online for the first few days of the festival and proved that giving groups like this an opportunity to be seen is good for writers, performers and potential audiences alike. The program notes from one of the producers suggest that the project was somewhat ad hoc, put together when the opportunity for a Theatre Week slot arose.
Billing itself as “a collection of short, workplace comedies” mounted by “the unemployed”, it proved true to that billing. (Or at least to the first part. I haven’t checked the employment status of all those involved.) Business Casual is a quartet of short plays that tap into the quirky, humorous sides of the contemporary business scene. Though the argument could be made that a more appropriate title for this show might be Business Casualty - or more precisely Business Causualties.
The program opened with one of the best of the four pieces – Studio Executive. This playlet involved two scriptwriters looking for a breakthrough meeting with the eponymous studio exec who has the godlike power to kill the project or to give it full life. The working script submitted has as its main character a “tragic” figure – “an orphaned assassin trained in an underground fighting organization”. Studio exec Heather likes the basic concept of the script, but is convinced it would work better if that tragic figure/assassin was also a member of her school ultimate frisbee team. Also, she asks that the screenwriters tweak the script ever so slightly so that the main plot line becomes how that frisbee team ripens into an upstart team that snares the championship in overtime.
Jake Segelbaum not only wrote the well-paced, witty script, he also directed Studio Executive. He saw that the three-member cast gave convincing performances, but some of his decisions on the visual side of the direction were questionable. To wit: he had Heather turn around twice and hold up a mirror to which she delivered her lines. What was that all about? He also had Greg, one of the screenwriting team, get assaulted and (apparently) murdered in his box on the screen as the two women wrangle over the direction of the story.
The actors in this piece were good to quite good. Brooke de Zutter was delightfully unctuous as the studio executive, while Nick Erholm was spot-on as the screenwriter all too willing to compromise so as to see his name on a big screen. But the best performance belonged to Satchel Williams as Claire, the screenwriter who seems ready to go down in flames rather than see her script turned into a cheesy Hollywood farce.
A Smooth Transition(written by Mrinalini Kamath) shows how the tyranny of sensitivity has taught many people in the business sphere how to walk on verbal eggshells. Susan, a petite Asian woman, is offered a high managerial position at the company head office. However, the company honcho who delivers this good news needs to point out that as a petite Asian woman, she might have problems. Those problems, he cautions, would come from subordinates resenting someone like her giving orders and expecting deference. So the brains at the company have come up with a solution: Susan will give her orders through an android who will play the part of the new manager.
Much of the comedic lift here comes from Walter, the honcho offering the promotion as he performs verbal gymnastics to make sure his choice of words and phrasing is not going to be offensive in any way. He’s even brought a lawyer to the meeting to advise him on what’s “woke” and what could be the stuff of a lawsuit in his choice of phrasing.
The cast of this playlet was perfect. Vida Manalang was spot on as a slightly baffled Susan; as Walter, Michael Stahler delivered a splendidly textured rendition of the contemporary corner-office hypocrite; Gary Bowman was a most believable android; and Jordan Dallam was absolutely splendid as the lawyer who didn’t utter a word, but expressed so much with his reactions to Walter’s wobbly explanations. Evidently, director Rita Castagna was in tune with Mrinalini Kamath’s deft dialogue and guided the talented cast to a fine execution of the work.
The Long Haul(written by Brian Diroff and Devin O’Brien)takes a mildly interesting but not terribly original idea and then gives it a by-the-numbers treatment. The idea is that four long-haul truck drivers have formed a club of sorts, and the play is one of their meetings as they roll merrily along. A serious road incident made worse by the hit-and-run follow-up tried to insert some drama, but it didn’t really give the playlet much additional weight or even more humor.
Three of the four performances here were caricatures. This is not an insult to the actors or their director, Satchel Williams; the parts are written that way, and the actors played them as written. The odd man out here was Jordan Dallam, whose Steve serves as the rational, moral compass the other characters lack. Dallam’s performance was solid all the way through, the best thing about this piece.
The best piece in the quartet was the closing number, Foaming At The Mouth. This playlet presented two employees of a local park service brought together for a counseling session because they despise each other and each wants to see the other fired forthwith. As it turns out, both have good reasons for seeing the other get the boot, but they’re both partly involved in the other’s transgressions. Not only that, but the counselor sent in to resolve the problems is actually a couple’s counselor on her first assignment who expected this session to be a patch-up of a love relationship turned sour.
Foaming At The Mouth was written and directed by Liv Shoup, who deserves solid praise for both of those contributions. The script was a nicely packed look at how venom flows in the modern workplace, and her direction of the actors assured that the humor and the nastiness was delivered delightfully.
The trio of actors here were first-rate. Caroline Juelke was perfect as the counselor who is clearly out of her depth but trying to twist things around to make it seem like she’s in command of the volatile situation. Rita Castagna was absolutely convincing as the unapologetic termagant who has mastered the art of dirty infighting. Michael Stahler was even better here than he was in Smooth Transition. His David gets yanked through a mental wringer, and Stahler took every painful twist and turn of that experience in a pitch-perfect manner.
Caroline Juelke and Rita Castagna were not only the co-stars of that last short play, they were also co-producers of the show. It seems they came up with the idea for the program and then formed a production company, We’re Trying Up Here! Entertainment, to bring it to life.
Philly Theatre Week offers an opening for shows like Business Casual which otherwise might have trouble getting staged and drawing attention. And right there you have a strong justification for the importance of the Theatre Week. It gives talented young writers, directors and actors a chance to show just how good they are. In this case, most of those talents were good indeed.