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Playwrights In Performance

Three Original Plays By Three Talented Playwrights

By Fred Choi

Directed by Professor Alan Brody

Featuring plays by Damian Isla G, Thomas Cork ’00, and Viengvilay Oudonesom G

One of the most tragic and special things about theater is its temporariness. Even when a production is excellent, one is disappointed that after the show’s run there will never be an opportunity to witness an identical gathering of talents as the one assembled. However, when the production is as fantastic as Playwrights in Performance, a showcase for the best work from Associate Provost for the Arts and Professor Alan Brody’s Advanced Playwriting class, one not only feels his own disappointment for the lost opportunity, but moreover feels a sharp disappointment for all the people who didn’t have the chance to experience it even once.

The first of the three plays presented for PiP was The Shape of My Heart by Damian Isla. The play opens on four friends playing poker: Josh, a health club owner (Fernando Padilla G), Everett, a successful online kitchenware vendor (Sagara Wickramasekara ’03), Paul, an out-of-work writer (Jeffrey Lee), and Lenny, an out-of-work actor (Jeremy Lueck G). As the four begin setting their bids for the next hand, each, sure of success, bids more and more. As they do so, their bids, once their cash runs out, get progressively funnier. Isla cleverly uses the structure of the poker game to reveal the value each of the four friends puts on the things in their lives and simultaneously reveals their hopes, insecurities, and other hidden sides of their character.

The information that the characters give away is never contrived, and confessions such as Everett’s that the 1.2 million dollars he claimed to have made from selling cutting boards was really due to the fact that he “runs a porn site on the side,” offers one of the greatest sources of humor in the play. In addition, Isla keeps careful control of the mounting ridiculousness of the wages, and consciously avoids “upping his own ante” such that even when Paul gives in and bids “all the dedications to all of his future works” he still has his “homosexual virginity” to bid.

Although well-written, it takes time for the dialogue to settle into the play’s tone. The language during the first five minutes is filled with more four-letter words than almost all of Kevin Smith’s movies combined, but unlike Smith’s effective juxtaposition of the vernacular and the highbrow, Isla’s abrupt shift in tone caused by Lenny’s sudden declamation on the need to “seize opportunity” sounds more out of place than temporary faculty offices built on the Dot. Despite this small complaint, Shape was well-constructed and insightful and featured a strong cast.

Sandcastles by Thomas Cork ’00, was the most ambitious play of the evening. Almost entirely serious and introspective, the play concentrates on the lives of two brothers, Eddie (Rony Kubat ’00) and Oliver (Aaron Santos ’01), and shows the evolution of their relationship through three scenes set at different stages of their lives. Kubat and Santos sensitively bring to life Cork’s portrayal of the brothers’ devotion and loyalty, and Cork’s deft characterization makes the audience feel keenly aware of Eddie’s agony due to his fatal mistake which is revealed during the third scene.

The story unfolds slowly and subtly and Santos particularly excels in his adoption of distinct mannerisms for each of the three ages of his character. However, the progression of emotions during the vital second scene proves to be rather too subtle such that Oliver’s anger at his brother in the final scene seems too unmotivated for too long as the audience doesn’t gain a full understanding of his rage until the end of the scene. Regardless, the play was earnest, dramatic, and highly poignant.

Holes, by Viengvily Oudonesom G was, quite simply, a mini-masterpiece. Oudonesom, certainly one of the most talented student playwrights at MIT, presented a play that in an amazingly short amount of time develops an entire ensemble of strong three-dimensional personalities. At the center of the community that Oudonesom builds is Dara (played magnificently by Debora Lui ’02), a Chinese-American girl who on the outside may seem to be a confident, albeit neurotic, pre-med student, but who in reality is insecure and haunted.

Oudonesom uses Dara and her other characters to explore a slew of themes, including the relationship between parents and children, neighbors, friends, and sisters, along with the search for one’s identity and the experience of growing up Asian in the United States. Her adroit manipulation of the large variety of themes and characters is astounding, made all the more impressive by her masterful use of dialogue, physical comedy, and flashbacks, and her inclusion of an opening dream sequence.

It is in the staging that Professor Alan Brody’s lucid direction is most apparent, as transitions between moods were smooth and the use of physical space was often exploited to maximum comical effect. Indeed, the image of a frantic Dara trying to force Mrs. Lang, an old, frail Chinese woman (the hilarious, regal Talia Kingsbury ’00), into a Chinese robe that she refuses to wear, was priceless, as was the final chase scene in which Dara repeatedly finds herself in and escapes from the grasp of her would-be suitor Eban (Sean Austin, in his most skillful performance ever).

Oudonesom has a natural ear for language and her accurate portrayal of life and people’s realistic eccentricities provide almost non-stop laughter. She finds a perfect voice in Lui especially, who as Dara displays her acting maturity and her passion, whether she is chastising her nose in a reflection (“Don’t spread out when I laugh! Up! Up!”) or recalling the rages of her drunken father or pointedly commenting on her older sister’s skimpy outfits (“She has to take off some more clothes before she can come out.”). The stunning, vivacious Teresa Huang (as Noy, Dara’s older, wild sister), Linda Tsang (as Liz, Dara’s mother), and Autumn Steuckrath ’00 (as Dara’s neighbor) round out the strong ensemble.

The wonderfully satisfying Playwrights in Performance demonstrated the strengths of the cast, crew, and director, but more importantly, it showed off the work of three outstanding playwrights. Although this was a missed opportunity for many, for those who did get to see the show it was truly a night which far into the future we will look back onto and say, “I was there!”