As the Romans bequeathed us plumbing, the Chinese endowed us with fireworks, and Twentieth Century Fox gave us Shirley Temple, so Cleveland Public Theatre continues to offer the city's most esoteric yearly theatrical grab bag. Their New Plays Festival is entering its seventeenth year and is specifically designed for theatergoers who have a gambler's spirit, daring to venture beyond the brand-name megahits. Of course, the Cleveland Play House and the Jewish Community Center also have playwriting festivals, but their scripts tend to be already tamed and pasteurized before reaching audiences.
Ascending the foreboding flame-red CPT staircase, one feels akin to an explorer out of King Solomon's Mines. Nervous theatergoers tingle in trepidation as to what will be encountered--whether moments of terror with a snarling beast of a play about dispossessed lesbian grape-pickers on Saturn, or moments of ecstasy with a witty farce concerning a pregnant Mother Nature.
This absence of the tried and true is just where the fun begins. Standing at the portals is a CPT employee dispensing two cents to each incoming audience member as an inducement for them to contribute their opinions on each play at post-performance dissections. In other words, the laymen--those poor Janes and Joes who toil in the workaday world--are now opinion makers, bestowing approbation or censure while quivering, hidden playwrights display the fruits of their labor for judgment and tips for improvement.
Yearly, a dedicated board of experts sifts through hundreds of entries for a handful of works that show signs of poetic insight or apply a slashing blade to eternal human foibles, perhaps even a new Bald Soprano or American Dream.
There to inaugurate each evening's two play readings is the festival director, Terence Cranendonk. Glowing with the ancient patriarchal pride of a high priest commencing the yearly thespian festivities, he solicits patronage for the theater by encouraging audiences to buy a brick for the Gordon Square Theater restoration and makes happy announcements, such as the birth of CPT founder James Levin's new son, Frank, just in time for Elvis's birthday.
Among the rainbow-colored staccato of the outer lobby is a crowd that seems to reflect the cantina scene in Star Wars. Diversity here is a mania. There are playwrights from every state of the union and life: Old World traditionalists, new-age kooks, and every minority short of Aborigines. Audience members range from meek voyeurs to fiercely opinioned playwrights manque.
There is a buzz in the theater as at a racetrack, with theater touts all picking and laying odds on their favorite plays. Here audiences are not the passive zombies waiting to be entertained, but rather on-the-edge participants, studying each play with the intensity of medical students in an operating theater. In a city that usually holds its standing ovations for ice shows and other forms of spectacle, it is a rare delight to see those theater missionaries fervently hoping to discover a revelation that will bind the audience into an enriching camaraderie.
When the festival started, anyone who had a means of putting words to paper had their plays accepted, making for a mad free-for-all. This year, out of two hundred submissions from all over the planet, only ten plays have been selected. Each play is given three or four rehearsals and uses minimal props. Performing the readings with scripts in hand, the opportunity is ripe to discover fresh new talent along with old pros and unexpected thespians (like CPT's Randy Rollison) drafted into service. The pressure of this insane schedule turns some lumps of coal into gems.
Playwrights are flown in and choose a temporary residence, where they hone their scripts up till the moment of production.
Only the unpaid armchair critics who patronize the festival are allowed to evaluate these works in progress. Those who are remunerated to caress or crucify must resist temptation and keep opinions to themselves. Last weekend's crop will hence be described in only the vaguest of terms:
John-Gronbeck Tedesco's Coming Here is an inverted Godfather-type family saga--mean and fierce, managing to be Freudian and Brechtian, at the same time as it travels backwards to show the destructive ripples caused in a single family by one senseless act of violence.
Lucy Wang's Melting is a female flip side to David Mamet's corporate war plays, where a China Doll executive trumps her potential oppressors in business and in sex.
Taking Over the Family Business, by Athens, Ohio's Jack Matthews, is an Ionesco-flavored comedy of an alienated father who takes root in a phone booth.
Catherine Rogers's Einstein's Daughter is the theatrical equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting, concerning a poor waif who does not know whether her father is Freud, Einstein, or the local fabric merchant. Full of Strindbergian symbolism, it is the brand of play where the title character, at the drop of a meaningful stare, will declare, "I dreamt I was a snake and spit poison in my father's face."
So far, no turkeys. Each work pulled its weight, offering an illuminating glimpse into the inner workings that infuse a play with life.
After each reading comes the second part of the show, where a moderator cross-examines the audience, by turns playing high school teacher/disciplinarian, dentist extracting answers as if teeth, social worker, boy scout leader, and therapist. Each individual audience gives a different performance: Some do the obstinate adolescent routine, hemming and hawing ("Yeah, I sort of liked it."); others, the politically correct number ("Hey, that was kind of stereotyped, wasn't it?"); and still others, the oversensitive Bohemian ("I don't understand it, but I liked it. Actually, it was a beguiling enigma, an absolute poem."). Inevitably, the sessions end with the overeager grad students waving their scrawny arms, declaring the play was a metaphor for the Holocaust, the war in Bosnia, or Saving the Whales.
There are two more weekends and six more theatrical adventures to explore. In the lobby is a can where you can toss your two copper cents, while onstage is an idea-packed arena where you can glean your more-than-two-cents' worth of the stuff that dreams are made of.
New Plays Festival, through January 23, at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727.