The 2012 Bring a Weasel Festival: a suite of new plays, war-torn, absurd, and sweet

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From The Bring a Weasel and a Pint of Your Own Blood Fest. (Dennis A. Allen II)
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Was New York City always so overloaded with theater and performance festivals?

Alongside older stalwarts like Next Wave, Performa, Ice Factory, and COIL are newcomers like the new American Realness Festival, or the upcoming PROTOTYPE: Opera/Theatre/Now Festival, set to have its premiere in January 2013. These festivals often produce some of the most daring new work on view anywhere in the country, and yet, while numerous, they remain relatively peripheral.

Then there are the older festivals that feel new precisely because they’ve managed to remain so effectively under the radar (if you'll pardon the pun). This was my experience attending the seventh annual Bring a Weasel and a Pint of Your Own Blood Festival at the East 13th Street Theatre (a.k.a. Classic Stage Company’s usual theatre space) on Thursday night (performances continue through Saturday night).

The Weasel Festival grew out of Brooklyn College’s playwriting M.F.A. program, which over the past decade has become a major force in the world of New York theater. Under Mac Wellman’s leadership, the program has churned out a steady stream of major players like Annie Baker, Young Jean Lee, Ken Urban, and Thomas Bradshaw. The Festival acts as a showcase of new work by the program’s recent graduates, and counts among its alumni the playwrights Erin Courtney, Sibyl Kempson, and Kristen Kosmas. In short, the Weasel Fest promises its attendees a chance to catch some of the city’s rising stars while they are still on the ascent.

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This year’s playwrights are newcomers Paul Ketchum, La Shea Delaney, Megan Murtha, and Mark Sitko: all four have been tasked with adapting the writings of Italian wartime novelist and diplomat Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957) into short one-acts of about 20 minutes. The results are mostly impressive, no doubt in some part because the source material provides a rich foundation. Like so many Mediterranean writers of the inter- and post-war period, Malaparte has typically been classed as a “magical realist”; in bringing together flights of dreamy lyricism with absurd comedy and acts of grotesque cruelty, the four plays also capture something of this designation.

Paul Ketchum’s The King of Poland is the most ambitious and freewheeling of the four plays, but also the most scattershot. It begins with a chilling monologue by Malaparte himself (played by Az Kelsey), who recounts how the search for his lost dog Febo ended at a laboratory where dog thieves sell their prey to researchers for horrifying veterinary experiments. Surrounded by suffering animals and pleading that Febo be spared by euthanasia, Malaparte learns that the animals’ eerie silence owes to the fact that their vocal cords have been cut. Ketchum’s writing throughout this initial narration is simple and evocative, gradually revealing each new graphic image at a steady pace. From there, the play careens into a comic mode: Malaparte in Poland, sharing a sauna with a towel-clad Heinrich Himmler (Bobby Moreno) and a cabal of knitting German women in bathrobes. The tone is satiric and campy, but there’s a bit too much going on at once for any overall dramaturgical coherence.

The festival’s second offering—Among the Bugs and Crows by LaShea Delaney—is a rich piece of dramatic writing. It focuses on two young girls, Pinky and Mabel (Penny Middleton and Maria Helan respectively), and their fantasies of becoming society ladies. Recalling Genet, the girls act out these fantasies in the shadowy attic space that they inhabit above a brothel. When their Uncle Rohl (Ryan McCarthy) bursts on the scene to take them downstairs among the puttane, the short play takes a turn for the nightmarish. Delaney revels in the menacing ambiguity of the situation, and the tenuous line it threads between play-acting and a reality gone brutally awry. In the dramatic reversal that unfolds in the play’s final line, she hauntingly leaves open the question of who these figures actually are and what’s actually happening between them outside of the sadistic games they play with one other.

Il Gradoni di Chiaia by Megan Murtha takes place (as its Italian title has it) on a set of steps in the Chiaia neighborhood in Naples. There, a group of streetwalkers has congregated to await passersby in the shadow of an erupting Vesuvius and with the ongoing war raging in the distance. Murtha’s text is the most lyrical offering in the program: she composes the prostitutes into a still image of sorts and draws out of it flights of startling wartime poetry built on the heaps of corpses left in the war's aftermath. Their rhapsodic dialogue oscillates between the sublime (angelic figures in the form of jellyfish) and the ridiculous (Italy's first encounter with American Spam). Though Il Gradoni di Chiaia shows Murtha's tremendous promise as a playwright, this brief piece ends before it has the opportunity to make a strong impression.

Weasel Fest 2012’s final offering is also, in some ways, its most realistic and its most wounding. Mark Sitko’s Febo, Spaghetti, and Spam picks up on threads of Ketchum and Murtha’s contributions, depicting Malaparte on the battlefield among Americans debating what to do about Fred, one of their fellow soldiers whose stomach has been blown open. Malaparte’s dog Febo has gone missing, but Fred’s eviscerated body and Malaparte’s desire for him to suffer as little as possible before death brings the tortured dog from Ketchum's play immediately back to mind. The company agrees not to risk causing Fred more futile pain by transporting him to aid. Instead they try to distract him with humor, impersonating one another’s ethnic and national identities. Tensions flare and moments of tenderness erupt unexpectedly around Fred’s deathbed. The piece recalls the structure and chiaroscuro effects of O’Neill’s short play Bound East for Cardiff—staged earlier in 2011 by Richard Maxwell and the Wooster Group at Saint Anne’s Warehouse—as well as the blending of starkly realistic and expressionistic elements that occurs in Sean O’Casey’s wartime play, The Silver Tassie—which played at the Lincoln Center Festival last summer.

Performances are strong all around, with particularly fine work by Bobby Moreno in a variety of roles, and by Az Kelsey in the recurring role of Malaparte. Also noteworthy is a strong ensemble of women—including Lanna Joffrey, Ana Grosse, and Anna LaMadrid among them—who form the core of Ketchum, Delaney, and Murtha’s plays. Under the strong and understated direction of José Zayas, the entire group performs together admirably. The festival takes an elegant and understated approach to its design elements, leaving the focus on the playwriting and the acting.

It’s most heartening to find that, in a city packed with such festivals, hidden gems remain.

The Seventh Annual Bring a Weasel and a Pint of Your Own Blood Festival is playing at the East 13th Street Theatre at 136 East 13th Street in Manhattan. Tickets are $15 to $18 and can be reserved by emailing bringaweasel@gmail.com.