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Theater Review:

Pegasus Players’ "YOUNG PLAYWRIGHTS FESTIVAL" at Truman College’s O’Rourke Center for the Performing Arts

BY LUCIA MAURO

Pegasus Players in Uptown has done a commendable job of cultivating and encouraging future theater scribes. Now in its 16th year, the Young Playwrights Festival – held at Truman College’s O’Rourke Center for the Performing Arts – has made a great difference in many lives. Since the Festival’s inception, Pegasus artists have been going into Chicago schools; teaming up with English teachers; and inviting students to submit an original one-act play. The four winners then have the opportunity to work with professional directors and actors on bringing their plays from the page to the stage.

In the past, while the work has been impressive, the subject matter tended to be restricted to teen-angst issues. And it was common to view more than one creaky staging. But, this year, Pegasus boasts an all-time high of 511 submissions stretching across a vast ocean of genres and topics. Students also were brave enough to give in to their creative-experimental urges.

On opening night, I was immediately struck by the seamless way each of the four winning plays were connected; the honest and insightful comments made by the writers themselves; the maturity of the writing; and the winners’ keen ability to tackle relevant and all-encompassing subject matter. These inspiring factors almost made me overlook the ongoing dragged-out nature of Pegasus Players’ opening nights in general. Unfortunately, while seamlessness was mastered on stage, the late start time and interminable intermission nearly turned an inspiring evening into a tedious one.

That said, the writers and their creative teams deserve much praise for demonstrating how honesty and commitment to craft can result in fortifying theater.

The Festival opened with "The Downtown Train" by Emily Rabkin of Northside College Prep. This tender, bittersweet look at mental illness is set on a Chicago "L", where a frustrated 16-year-old girl (Stella) is drawn into a difficult friendship with a fellow passenger: George, a schizophrenic teen, who longs to silence the menacing voices in his head.

Director Susan Padveen gives this gently luminous work an abstracted quality, with the ensemble floating in and out of Nick Mozak’s marvelously malleable set design of steel poles and benches. The antagonistic demons burrowing into George’s brain are illustrated by voiceovers and actors engaged in a terrifying collective hiss. Although Rabkin’s story gets repetitive in parts – especially the scenes between Stella and her psychologist dad – she is adapt at writing compelling, naturalistic dialogue and does not settle for a pat ending. Rabkin astutely reminds audiences that "it takes conversations to stop being strangers."

Kevin Stark delivers an intensely unsympathetic performance as George – illustrating his traumatized characters’ need to express himself through a charmingly tragic sense of storytelling that cuts to the quick of George’s involuntary alienation. Rachel Wilson tempers Stella’s rage-filled confusion with cautious compassion.

In "The Elevator Syndrome," Maria Sutcliffe-Hetman of Gallery 37 demonstrates a perceptive eye and ear for the downspiraling conversations of a troubled married couple. She also incorporates surreal elements in the form of idealized counterparts to a husband and wife on the verge of getting a divorce. And she unselfconsciously makes her lead characters an interracial couple. But, although the playwright captures the frustrating emotional claustrophobia connected with denial and falling out of love, she does not always follow logically through on her characters’ arguments, detachment and stream-of-consciousness meandering.

Brian Posen and Makeba Ayo Pace (who gracefully handled a malfunctioning telephone prop) deliver textured individual performances but – with a nod to the natural distance required of their characters – they do not seem to be on the same dramatic page. Director Ugur Baburhan could vary the production’s sleepily monotonous pace.

One of the more inventive plays on the program is "Free Will!" by Ruth Martin of Gallery 37. No doubt influenced by Samuel Beckett and Luigi Pirandello, she creates an alternate comedic universe for a writer pondering the meaning of life (or lack thereof) – only to find he’s been cast in a strange existentialist drama somewhere in the limbo of dramatic thought. William Shakespeare -- tinged with absurdist notions -- propels this clever two-character play capable of dissecting the theatrical form while wryly commenting on the futility of finding answers.

And, while Martin gets a little too caught up in her historic-artistic references, she dares to break boundaries and displays a fresh and prescient literary voice. Alex Levy directs, with a brisk and smart tongue-in-cheek touch, the wise-cracking clownish Posen and Stark as the paradoxically hyper-aware yet oblivious wordsmith suffering from writer’s block.

The evening concludes with "Chameleon" by Marques Alexander Jackson of Senn High School, who crafts believable characters and hard-hitting realistic dialogue entwined with poetic cadences. His drama with music could be a contender for a TV mini-series or a future production at Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater (which specializes in African-American musical biographies). "Chameleon" centers on a young African-American woman, Nina, who escapes her life of prostitution to pursue a career as an R&B singer in a girl-group during the late 1960s.

Once inaugurated into the equally brutal world of music, Nina befriends one of the tough-talking singers while faced with revealing her true self and the possibility of being stalked by her pimp. Also in the mix is a diva-esque leading lady romantically involved with her white manager. The corruption of the record industry is subtly revealed, and the playwright raises pertinent questions of limited choices and opportunities available to African Americans even at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

The story ends on a triumphant but melancholy note. Yet Jackson could still expand this play, particularly the embittered diva character of Simone. She often comes across as a one-dimensional villain; she deserves more depth.

Director Andrea Dymond has assembled a synergistic cast, featuring particularly honest work from Barbara L.W. Myers as Nina’s flawed but loyal friend Patrice.•

Pegasus Players’ "Young Playwrights Festival" runs through January 27 at Truman College’s O’Rourke Center for the Performing Arts, 1145 W. Wilson. Tickets: $12. Call 773-878-9761.

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