Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Photo: Sherman Edwards and Gift ensemble member Brittany Burch
Review: TEN at The Gift Theater
By Bec Willett
I have an admission. Here it goes. In my life as a theater artist, I have often had to convince certain people to attend a ten-minute play festival by employing the reasoning: “if you don’t like one play, you’ve only got to sit through it for ten minutes … Yay!” Fortunately, no such admission or reasoning is needed with Gift Theatre’s annual season opener, TEN.
Primarily featuring ten-minute plays, TEN was originally produced on Gift’s tenth anniversary in 2011 as a way to connect with their roots. The deal? They ask playwrights they have worked with to write short pieces, which are then produced in a festival format. As Artistic Director Michael Patrick Thornton introduced it: “No money, no set” and people who “relished” the chance to perform with each other. They also receive just ten hours (including one hour of tech) of rehearsal time.
2017’s edition of TEN is curated to feature pieces in a variety of styles, including work from Gift’s initiatives: giftED (their high school apprenticeship program), Natural Gas (their house improv team) and their literary extension giftLIT. It was from the latter that came one of the most memorable pieces of the evening — a story presented by its author, Jennifer Rumberger. Expertly crafted, this is a story about family, and home, and loss; it’s deliberate but no-frills delivery serving to intensify its impact.
Most of TEN’s pieces touched on current social and political issues. While these pieces almost always forwent the crude answer in favor of the complex question, LOVE, AMERICA by Amina Henry epitomized this. Henry’s writing, Samuel Roberson’s direction, and performances by Jay Worthington and Becca Savoy united in creating an excellent piece of theater that distilled and defined many of the issues and questions in our current collective minds. The complexity of the issues explored in these pieces also required many actors to take intense emotional journeys in short periods of time: no mean feat with a short rehearsal period. Notably, Daniel Kyri, who opened the night in WARRIOR, and Allie Long in BYE, CHUCK as the office goofball, traversed their journeys with specificity and humor.
While the ten hours of rehearsal time echoes the Gift’s roots, there were moments scattered throughout the festival where I wished they’d had slightly more time. BUTTERFLIES IN THE MIDST began with a cicada laden evening being hailed in by the warm and always in-the-moment Kialya Jackson. However, in contrast to the other plays, the cast read the script from music stands. Despite the magic of the piece being supported by some beautiful visual direction, this mood and thread of narrative struggled to remain afloat with the music stands making it difficult for the main character, Charlie Boy (David Lawrence Hamilton) to consistently connect with the audience.
A good short play festival ends with strength and TEN was no exception. The final piece, by ensemble member Will Eno, ARRANGEMENT FOR RED BICYCLE AND NO PIANO, was a perfect ending for the evening. With humor and sincerity, a spot-lit Red Bicycle, voiced by Jeff Raleigh, philosophized about the world and what it had learned from the people that have been astride it. Its advice? “Endure. Last. Continue.” Hopefully, that’s exactly what Gift’s TEN will do – and I’ll be able to avoid any more embarrassing admissions.