Sunday, August 31, 2008

For Your Ears Only: three from Play It By Ear

Not too long ago (though perhaps longer than he expected), Lance Roger Axt, whom I met at last year’s National Audio Theatre Workshop sent me an e-mail telling me about a few more plays he and his group, Play It By Ear (duly listed on the blogroll to your left) have produced. He was kind enough to send me a few of ‘em, and I finally had a listen. Obviously I’m not an unbiased source, I know some of these people, but with that in mind, the three short plays I’ve been handed are all good listening.

First up is “The Field”, written by Elizabeth Martin and directed by Elizabeth Gottlieb and Nathan Dean. The longest of the plays, it’s a one-act centered around a house built near Lakota lands, where some tribal archaeologists have discovered the remains of a massacre. Needless to say this event may have supernatural repercussions, but the emphasis is on the conflict between the young couple who own the house; the husband is wary of the Lakota trying to reclaim the house he bought, but the wife thinks something genuinely strange is taking place. In some ways this play takes the familiar horror concept of “a house built on an Indian burial ground” and spins it into low-key drama. The portrayal of the Lakota is low-key and unsensationalized, though there’s really only one native character and not much time to develop him. It’s a solid story with a particularly good ending, and a strong atmosphere throughout. Not quite horror, more of a mystery. B+

“Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Chazz”, written and directed by Robert Grady, is the shortest piece and also the lightest, as its title suggests. It’s the story of the four authors of the Gospels, trying to work out just what they’re going to write. There’s substantial debate over whether to include material as provocative as Jesus’ “eye of a needle” speech (and whether a camel is really the best image), to say nothing of how many loaves and fishes there were. To complicate matters, John, now Chazz to avoid confusion with another local author putting together a Mithras story, has been spending much more time hyping up the Jesus story than actually writing it down, and the meeting between the four takes on the air of a dysfunctional story conference. It’s simple but exceedingly funny, with some terrific gags. A-

“The Love Song of...” by Lynn Rosen rounds out the trilogy, directed by Eileen Myers. Set in New York on a rainy day, it concerns a young woman and her mother going to the grandmother’s birthday party. There’s obviously more to it than that; the grandmother isn’t all there anymore, and there have been troubles between mother and father which slowly come out over the course of conversation. This one goes on for a bit longer than it needs to, and the mother fits a bit too well into the stereotypical Jewish matriarch mold, and while I’m sure there are Jewish mothers who are like that, she sometimes comes off more as a “type” than a character. The title is a reference to T. S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, which gets quoted extensively (perhaps too much- in the course of an audio drama, reciting someone else’s poetry can be a distraction from the present action.) Despite the obvious character beats and a bit of fat around the edges, I do like this in the end; the atmosphere is very strong, we get some more depth from the characters as the story progresses, and it resolves in a nicely ambiguous fashion. At a little under 20 minutes it’s an effective vignette, and even though I said it’s on the long side I would be interested to see if more time could be spent with these characters. B-

All of these productions (available here) were done in 2003 as part of the “We Have Ignition” series, featuring new writers and new talent, and in that respect they’re particularly successful; everyone comes across as knowing how to use the medium, how to tell a story in a short amount of time, and how to hold the listener’s attention. After five years I’m sure they’ve already developed even further, so keep your ears perked.

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