Like a good work of theater should do, last weekend’s New Works Festival forced audiences to examine themselves through a critical lens and made them laugh the whole way through.
The fifth annual festival, presented by Florida Players at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, featured three short plays by UF students Andrew Bailes, Amelia Harris and Josh Sallerson.
In keeping with Florida Players’ style, the works presented at the festival were more relatable to students than the mainstage productions of the School of Theatre were.
This is probably due in part to the fact that the works that were written, directed and produced by students, but another reason for the increased accessibility of these works is that the playwrights didn’t seem to try to impress anyone.
The festival opened with Bailes’ “Front Porch Play,” the story of a friendship between a graduate student and a recovering drug addict, presented through a lens of racial inequality.
When a playwright tries to make a comment about an issue as heavy and nuanced as racism, he or she can unconsciously (or consciously) bash his audience over the head with it.
Bailes didn’t whitewash or oversimplify his protagonists Abe, the privileged white graduate student played by Logan Wolfe, and Moses, a black man trying to stay off the streets, played by Joel Oramas.
Wolfe and Oramas’ easy chemistry adds even more believability to the work.
Abe and Moses both possess elements of good and evil, evidenced throughout the hour long work.
During a conversation about religion between the two, Abe, defending his atheist beliefs, says everyone has a right to an opinion. To this, Moses replies that everyone has a right to be an ignorant motherf***er, amid raucous laughter from the audience.
The play gets serious quickly, ending after Abe is stabbed by Moses’ drug-abusing ex-girlfriend. The open ending on a note of violence is jarring, but it solidifies Bailes’ message that racial inequality still pervades what some consider a post-racial society.
“12.21.12,” written by Amelia Harris and directed by Colin Hudson, is much lighter fare.
Harris’ 45-minute work consists of a handful of interrelated storylines, played out in scenes as short as 30 seconds, depicting the last day of the Mayan calendar.
Although the work seemed at first to venture into the absurd, the intersectionality of the plot eventually reveals how connected all humans are, even as strangers.
A pot-smoking college student who kidnaps and accidentally drowns a girl she’s assigned as a role model to, a pill-happy Christian missionary who commits suicide when he realizes he’s gay and a young psychiatrist struggling with his father’s mental and financial issues all intersect through their relationship with Lane, played by Rhiannon Tasker.
Lane is a reflection of us all, insecure with her appearance and desperate for attention from her friends and loved ones.
Confused by messages from her aforementioned missionary boyfriend, Lane gets plastic surgery, only to find out too late the psychiatrist friend she secretly loves will only be with her if she stays as she is.
New Works closed on an uproarious crescendo of wild with Josh Sallerson’s “The Bender Method.”
Without being heavy-handed, Sallerson managed to completely defy traditional gender classification with Princess Queely and her three descendents, all sporting massive female and male genitalia.
In about 30 minutes, Princess Queely, a genderless alien played by Logan Wolfe, takes a clean-cut youth named Sam, played by Fernando Masterson, on a sexual journey through the universe.
While Princess Queely helps Sam accept his feminine side, the plot of “The Bender Method” incorporates neon costuming, a few dozen yards of bubble wrap and an eclectic performance of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” to underscore its theme of breaking gender stereotypes.
Juxtaposed with all of that colorful brouhaha is Sam’s chaste, straight-laced sister Mary, played by Gabriela Barrios.
And Sallerson’s message about being the person you were born to be and embracing sexuality makes it all the way through the bubble wrap.