Through the fires – a festival opens

Thursday, June 14, 2018 5:31 PM

Despite the 416 Fire and highway closures in the Animas Valley corridor, The Silverton Theatre Mine staged its first full new plays festival last weekend at the Grand Imperial Hotel.

“I wrangled writers from various locations and was able, finally, to obtain working titles and synopses,” Daniel Sullivan said about the yearlong planning cycle. Artistic director and co-founder of TSTM, Sullivan introduced a dozen or so submissions over three days. One afternoon session was generally followed by three evening readings.

Sullivan and co-founders Judy Graham and Matthew Vire envisioned attracting writers, directors and actors who were inspired by the late Mollie Mook-Fiddler to a new play summit in her honor. (See preview, Herald, June 1). Launched in 2017 in limited format, the festival proceeded June 7-9 as Sullivan planned.

Friday’s plays were the only ones I was able to see. They represent one-third of the festival, so they warrant comment.

The matinee, identified simply as a new play by Los Angeles-based screenwriter and director Jena Serbu, seemed an odd choice. Actors Delena Britnell and Marley Roberts read parallel monologues by fictional sisters in a dark tale of childhood abuse. The work unfolded like a short story, not a play-in-progress. Full of description, the tale of Brenda and little sister Hannah unfurled in a rather dry, episodic manner.

Serbu explained that she had recently written a backstory for a screenplay she’s working on about a serial killer. In that light, the form made sense, but it didn’t explain why a story landed one of a dozen coveted slots.

Evening offerings began with a new work by Sarah Syverson: “The Alchemy of Change.” The well-regarded Mancos writer, co-founder of the Raven Narratives and consummate raconteur, invited feedback for her 23-scene solo show. Theresa Carson, visiting professor of drama at Fort Lewis College, read stage directions, including a framing device with four iterations.

Throughout the play, Syverson brought a multitude of characters to life. She riffed on water rituals and issues. In one spectacular scene, she delivered a hilarious monologue as an experienced water molecule that spanned millennia.

The winner of Durango’s recent 10-Minute Play Festival, “After Her,” by Elizabeth Hofeld, followed. Carson again read stage directions with actors Pam Breithaupt, Charmain Howington and Ted Pope fleshing out the story of a family coping with dementia. A complex sequence of events included flashbacks, too much for a short dramatic form. The players made it believable, even if the script was predictable.

Capping the evening, Peter Gil-Sheridan’s “A Long Way From Home” delivered a well-realized comedy.

“This is my new play,” he said. A member of the faculty of the University of Indiana at Bloomington, Gil-Sheridan met Mook-Fiddler at the University of Iowa.

“No single person except Mollie made me into a playwright, and I’m touched that she continues to make me write plays. I wrote this here in town last week. It’s a play for seven characters.”

“Home” quickly revealed comic faultlines in the family Miller. Carson and Charles Pike played the parents; Nancy Hoffman read Deb’s sister; Ben Mattson, with expert timing, read the troubled adult son; Vire provided contrast with the son’s partner; and two family friends spiced several scenes performed by Charmain Howington and Lauren Berkman.

The full-length play ignited old and new tensions, surging toward unexpected plot twists and a gratifying conclusion. I’ll remember the Miller family for a long time.

Next year, talk-back sessions might be scheduled to make the festival more inclusive for playgoers.

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.