Local Playwrights, Casts, and Crew Truly Take Wing in First Flight Festival 2019!

by Scott Clark

Theatre-going Lincoln-ites have a rare and unique opportunity to celebrate the creative arts on stage here over the next two weeks – the Angels Theatre Company‘s “First Flight Festival”. 26 short plays – each anywhere from 10-20 minutes in length – have been split into three “Flights” – Flight A features 11 plays, Flight B has 10, and Flight C, which will exclusively feature young actors from Malcolm, Nebraska, has 7 (two of which also appear in A and B, but with adult casts).

All of the plays grew out of the Angels Play Writing Collective – a group of local and regional playwrights that gathers from September through April to write, critique, and workshop their short plays. The playwrights submit their works for consideration for the First Flight Festival, and during two days of auditions in April, directors and producers make final determinations on which plays they can effectively cast and include in this theatrical experiment.

Over the past two evenings, July 17th and 18th, I had the pleasure of attending the premieres of both Flight A and Flight B, which, combined, feature some works and performances of remarkable power. The plays range from light and filled with wry humor, to quirky and unexpected, to thought-provoking, to powerful dramatic showcases.

One of the challenges of reviewing short premiering works like these is in sharing enough information to tease your interest, while not spoiling some of the surprises that the plays reveal to their audiences. In the cases of both Flights A and B, several of the plays feature stunning twists, which I won’t give away here. One of the special treats on these two opening nights was being able to participate in Q&A sessions with the playwrights following the performances. Several “behind-the-scenes” tidbits came out of those Q&As, including the fact that several of this year’s plays tackled two challenges – the theme of “Borders”, and the inclusion of scenes in a Diner.

Flight A features plays by Paula Ray, Stephen Enersen, Paul Burrow (2), Cecilia Burkhart, Brigid Amos, John Burkhart, David Chapelle (2), Andy Dillehay and Charisa Ramsey. Six of the eleven plays in this group took place in Diners (or the closely-related Bar) settings.

Ray’s “Cruel to Be Kind” is set in a small-town middle-American diner and addresses issues of self-expectations, “the stranger”, bigotry and insular culture. Enersen’s “Coffee With Ed” is a humorous short conversation between two old friends over coffee, that takes an amusing look at long-term relationships. “The Wave” by Burrow features a quirky central character of a writer, essentially live-narrating everything he does during an encounter with an “intruder” who tries to share his café table. “Sing Daisy for Me” by C. Burkhart was a surprisingly emotional look at a unique relationship between two very diverse individuals, which is coming to an end. Burrow’s “The Male Brain Deconstructed” features three actors as the Olfactory, Visual and “CPU” components of a man who finds himself suddenly overwhelmed with sensory input during an encounter while taking a walk. “Shall We Dance” by Amos features a charged meeting between two dancers – one a rising star and the other her former instructor and mentor – as they come to terms with their changing roles. J. Burkhart’s “In N Out Café” is about the short interaction between a traveler and a waitress in a run-down, fly-speck, roadside diner. “The Beast” by Chapelle details a meeting between a colorful playwright and his no-nonsense literary agent, discussing his latest works. Dillehay’s “Knock Three Times” flapper-era period-piece involves a session between a shady medium and her client, with unexpected results. “Closing Time” by Chapelle is a compelling look at a developing friendship between a young bartender and her elderly “regular” customer. And Ramsey’s “The Way It Is” is a powerful look at a relationship between a young couple, which is facing unexpected emotional hurdles.

Flight B features plays by Enersen (2), Jillian Carter (2), Brian Bornstein (2), Judy Rae, Robin Buckallew, and Chapelle (2). There were no “diner” stories in this grouping.

The first two in this set were both by Enerson. “Humpty Dumpty” features a harsh encounter between two men on a rooftop, and “A Slight Misunderstanding” deals with a young couple in love who may need to look more closely at each other to appreciate what they’re taking for granted. “Just a Drill” by Carter is a short but charged scene in which a mother reacts to the complex life her young daughter has to live. “Wheelchair Karma” by Bornstein is a single-actor monologue that both humorously and contemplatively looks at why he’s stuck in a wheelchair, both now and in his past. “The Bereaved Widow” by Rae is a humorous conversation between two old friends as they discuss a third friend, recently widowed (not just for the first time). “Blue Screen of Death” by Buckallew features a back-and-forth between two computers, lamenting their relationships with their users and the fact that they (the computers) aren’t being allowed to live up to their full potentials. This was the most experimental of this year’s plays, with only the actors’ voices being present. Two Chapelle shorts were next, “Swipe Left” and “A Cool Margarita”. The former features an unexpected encounter and discussion between two very different women. The latter features a couple on the brink of a major event in their lives, and their tip-toeing around the implications it has for them. “Make My Decision For Me” by Bornstein has an older woman rejoining the job force as she encounters her new co-worker at a unique teleconferencing business. And “Two Pink Lines” by Carter features a couple in a fertility clinic’s office looking forward to her possible pregnancy, and their unplanned encounter with a pregnant stranger.

Not only do the lengths of the plays differ, they also have differing impacts on the audiences. Casting was very good across the board, with a lot of fine to very-good performances scattered across these 21 one-acts. A few performances in particular stood out for me, and I’d like to offer my congratulations to those actors for grabbing my attention: Eleanor Schmeichel as Emily in “Cruel to Be Kind” was strong; Matthew Bejjani as Fillmore in “The Wave” had tremendous comic timing and physicality. Both Sandra Halpern and Maribel Cruz were excellent as the two dancers in “Shall We Dance”, a play I believe was written with them in mind; Ruth Kohtz Ek and Fred Vogel played off each other extremely well in “In N Out Café”, in a story with lots of unexpected twists and turns; Richard Nielsen was exuberant as the playwright in “The Beast”; Kathy Disney as the medium Griselda, and her co-stars Suzan Lund and Jenny Tyner, were all terrific in “Knock Three Times”; the chemistry between John Burkhart and Brenna Thompson in “Closing Time” was palpable; Katy Morehouse was breathtaking as Emily in “The Way It Is”, and then subtly impressive again in “Just a Drill”; both Rachele Stoops and Matthew Soderquist shone in the snappy back-and-forth in “A Slight Misunderstanding”; Dale Hayes Jr. did a very effective monologue in “Wheelchair Karma”; Jules Howard and Kristine Kapustka played off each other very well in “Swipe Left”‘s complex, multi-layered conversation; Allison Mollenkamp brought emotional depth to the young woman in “A Cool Margarita”; and both Louise McDonald Alfrey and Lindsay Masin showed great chemistry in “Make My Decision For Me”.

The considerable variety in the subject matters and tones of these 21 plays make for some intense experiences in the audience. Some of the plays are frothy little tidbits, and others require you to invest yourself emotionally in the characters and explore some weighty topics. During intermission on both nights, and after each evening’s performances ended, I could hear my fellow audience members debating the meaning of several of the pieces, and marveling at some of the performances. The playwrights work well within the somewhat restricted “black box” performance space at The Temple Building, where the audience sits on two different sides of the stage. Set pieces were, intentionally, very limited, and could quickly be changed by the efficient stage crew between plays. Lighting and sound were handled very well. The directing was subtle and the “natural” feeling of the interactions in most of the plays indicates good choices were made in how to stage them.

The First Flight Festival is a unique and unforgettable experience – you get to see the world premieres of multiple short plays, performed by some of the best community-theatre actors in the Lincoln area. Not every play may be your particular cup of tea, but with an average length of only 15 minutes, you’ll know that something else, with a completely different feel, is coming up. Personally, four or five of these works are going to stick with me for quite some time! If you love theatre, you do NOT want to miss seeing Flights A and B in their remaining performances, not to mention the Malcolm students’ performances in Flight C next week.

If you go: All plays are performed in UNL’s Studio Theatre located on the first floor of the Temple Building, 12th & R Streets, Lincoln. Tickets are available one hour before the show at the box office or you can buy them online at First-Flight-Festival-2019.

Remaining Performance Schedule:
Flight A – Sunday, July 21 @ 2pm, July 25 @ 7:30pm, and Saturday, July 27 @ 4pm
Flight B – July 20, 21, 26 @ 7:30pm and Saturday, July 27 at 8pm
Flight C – July 23 & 24 @ 7:30pm and Sunday, July 28 at 2pm

Scott Clark has worked in a variety of roles for the Lincoln City Libraries for nearly 40 years, where he regularly shares book, music and film reviews on their readers advisory website. He’s also reviewed books for the Lincoln Journal Star, and KFOR radio, and has shared his reviews of films and stage shows on his blog and Facebook feeds for many years. He’s a reader, writer, and sometimes actor, who loves to share his enthusiasms, in an effort to connect people with things they just might fall in love with!

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