Writing a short play isn't as easy as it seems, but give playwrights some parameters, like a time limit and a deadline—not to mention the possibility of a cash prize—and it sure does help the process. For TeCo Theatrical Productions' 11th Annual New Play Competition, running through Sunday at the Bishop Arts Theater Center, so did the promise of mentoring by nationally known playwright Will Power, who has been in residence at Southern Methodist University and is the new and first playwright-in-residence at the Dallas Theater Center.
This year's presentation of six plays, each with a maximum time limit of 20 minutes (although many feel closer to 10), is the best crop of works I've seen in this event during the past four years that I've been attending it. They're not all home-runs, and a few feel more like scenes or sketch comedy rather than a play with an arc, but overall, it's an entertaining evening.
Power helped select the plays from all the submissions, and he mentored the directors, who are all directing students at SMU.
Let's start with the sixth show in the line-up, and clearly one of the audience hits judging by the reaction on Tuesday night, Pious by Kyndal Robertson and Camika Spencer. Directed by Josh Kumler, it stars Shenaque Hurd and Patrica Hill as Gaile and Lorraine, a pair of black church ladies who go on a wild car ride with their new iPhones in hand, playing to the stereotype of the hat-wearing, church-all-day-Sunday, gossip-loving women. These sisters (as in siblings) spend most of the show in their car, which has a vanity plate HOLY ROLN, actin' a fool. A tambourine emerges from a purse when they start singing, and they have some fun with Siri. It's outrageous and funny, but it's sketch comedy.
The slightest of the bunch is The Dog Play by W. R. Maxwell and directed by Justin Amos, in which Coney Hewitt, Jr. and Jasmine Giles are the dogs owned by a married couple played by Davis Harris and Sherry Hurnes. The pooches, Buster (a bulldog) and Cookie (something small and yappy) do things dogs do, like fight over a blanket and drool over their humans' leftover lasagna. Fun enough, but there's nothing interesting about any of these characters, human or canine.
Antay Bilgutay delves into mythology with Theophany, or The Tree in the Living Room, in which the Greek goddess Artemis (Robin Daniels) is summoned by a human, Gabriel (Davis Harris), whose lover Oscar (Sam Green) seems to have been turned into a tree that's potted in the couples' home. There's a sweet message about holding on to someone you love, although it's not clear if Oscar has died or is simply no longer in this relationship. As directed by Jeffery Moffitt, Daniels, with her quiver and bow (she's the goddess of the hunt), gives a funny turn. And give Bilgutay credit for a nontraditional narrative.
A more straightforward drama is Amaryllis by Ruth Cantrell, directed by Miranda Parham. The Beasleys, a middle-aged married couple, played by Stacey Martin and Vontress Mitchell, are visited by a young man, Alex (Sam Green), who gives them news about their son, who they all but disowned years ago because he was gay. Mr. Beasley is more willing to accept what has happened and move on, but she is still holding on to some bitterness. It's nicely acted on the stage's apron, and if it doesn't feel a bit original, it's still somewhat affecting.
Victor Bravo scores one of the better plays with his Steel Bird, which focuses on a homeless veteran of Desert Storm, Ruben (Dennis Raveneau), who encounters a young, possibly newly homeless man, T-Dog (Brandon White). Directed by Ruben Carrazana, it's a generation clash, but Bravo works in some vivid imagery of war, and stays topical with the drone debate (although drones aren't mentioned). White is good, and Raveneau, always a pleasure to watch, is great. He'd get this showcase's acting award if it weren't for...
The Red Dress by Isabella Russell-Ides, the best written, performed and directed play in this year's competition. This two-hander, directed by Marissa Paris Romer, displays Russell-Ides' knack for musical language and gift for creating characters. Esme (Ashley Wilkerson) and Daikan (Vontress Mitchell) have just spent some time together in Esme's bedroom, having met at an office party, at which she assumed he was the guest of a coworker. We find out more about their philosophies on love and relationships in this post-coital 10-minute chat than you'll get in some longer plays on the same subject. Wilkerson, looking luminous, is engaging as an OCD woman with a highly mathematical mind; and Mitchell, who's relatively new to Dallas, looks like the ladies' man we assume Daikan is (he spends the show in his boxers; her in her negligee), but Mitchell nicely plays up the character's romantic side. This guy's no player.
Mitchell, who is also in Amaryllis and has a bit part in Pious, is the standout performer of the showcase.
I really hope that TeCo gets Power involved again next year; it seems to have upped their game. This is a group with a fantastic theater space in Oak Cliff that does some terrific community outreach, and has a popular jazz and speaker series. With growing recognition will come more professionalism for their theater productions.