Review: The 2023 Blurring Boundaries Short Play Festival Comes Up with Another Lucky 7

Blurring Boundaries 2023

Plays: Fragile, written by Dana Leslie Goldstein and directed by Brandon M. Weber; Settings, written by John Peña Griswold and directed by Jennifer Downes; The End of Society, written by Ben Scranton and directed by Claire Shiell; Prewritten, written by Erin Moughon and directed by Sydney Burtner; Wednesday in the Park with Blake, written by Nancy Hamada and directed by Perryn Pomatto; In the Garden of the Hesperides, written by David Adam Gill and directed by Marie Elèna O'Brien; and Podunk, written by David Taylor Little and directed by David Adam Gill.

Presented by New Ambassadors Theatre Company at The Hudson Guild Theater

441 W. 26th Street, Manhattan, NYC

June 14-18, 2023

(left to right, top) John Peña Griswold, La Veda Davis, Helene Galek, William Franke, Jeff Checkley, Josh Hemphill, Chase Naylor, Maya Rosewood, Saadiq Vaughan, Sandra Parris (left to right, bottom) Todd Butera, Claire Shiell, Mandy Murphy, E. B. Hinnant. Courtesy New Ambassadors Theatre Co.
With the 2023 edition of its annual Blurring Boundaries short play festival, New Ambassadors Theatre Company brings to the stage a program of seven more 10-minute plays that amplify LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, and marginalized voices. Some of the boundaries explored in this year's plays are ones that you might expect–class and race, for instance–but they also probe such divisions as those between friend and enabler, programming and personhood, and even alive and dead. Blurred Boundaries 2023 takes audiences from the tragic to the humorous to the uplifting, sometimes within the same ten minutes.
Saadiq Vaughan and Sandra Parris. Courtesy of New Ambassadors Theatre Company
The program gets off to a very strong–one might even say superpowered–start with Dana Leslie Goldstein's Fragile, directed by Brandon M. Weber. Rennie (Saadiq Vaughan), introduced dancing to an anime song while he works, runs a comic shop with an eye towards honesty and love of art rather than profit, as becomes clear when he assists a new customer, Alana (Sandra Parris), who says that she is there to buy something for her son (that he recommends Saga, an as-yet unfinished story with plenteous twists, might be seen as a meta choice). It turns out, though, that Alana has a connection to the looming sale of the building in which the struggling shop is housed. And the connections, it turns out, do not stop there. Fragile deftly employs Rennie's immersion in comics culture as a lens through which to examine themes of shaping and changing and self-reinvention, and Vaughan and Parris infuse fantastic, heartfelt depth into their characters' reckonings with who they are, can be, and want to be, for themselves and to one another.
Maya Rosewood and Chase Naylor. Courtesy of New Ambassadors Theatre Company
Settings, from John Peña Griswold and directed by New Ambassadors Associate Artistic Director Jennifer Downes, places its characters into the sort of situation that Rennie or his patrons would likely appreciate. Zade, played with borderline bro-ish charm by Chase Naylor, is experiencing the metaverse beta that he has paid for access to for the first time. In this virtual space, fittingly represented by an entirely bare stage (adornments, of course, must be purchased separately), Zade encounters Alex (Maya Rosewood), an A.I. host. Alex is eager to please not only because of programming but in order to stave off loneliness (required declarations of Alex's happiness notwithstanding)–disconnections from the metaverse by Zade, who is more interested in shooting some zombies, are effectively signaled by sudden and total darkness. Can Alex, both funny and poignant in Rosewood's hands, challenge Zade's perception of them as an object, and what about that pending update? Settings asks not only how we approach the Other but also what could be more human than the limitations of time (here limited even further by the profit motive).
Josh Hemphill and LaVeda Davis. Courtesy of New Ambassadors Theatre Company
We return to meatspace with Ben Scranton's The End of Society, directed by Claire Shiell. In Scranton's play, access to the physical spaces of the art world is inextricable from access to a position within the metaphorical bounds of art and art history. Doris (LaVeda Davis), a Black woman, has brought a piece of her artwork for inclusion in a show being held in an "underserved" community due to a state grant. White arts administrator Randall, radiating archness courtesy of Josh Hemphill, is, to put it mildly, less than keen on including Doris's work in the show, pretty much literally asking to see her papers at one point. Doris, meanwhile, says that she is tired of waiting to be accepted as an artist and will not be put off. By the time that pointy objects are pointed at people, it is an open question whether there is any way for Randall and Doris to find common ground. Whatever the outcome for them, the audience gets a smartly satirical glimpse into the nexus of race, class, and cultural gatekeeping (who gets to decide, for example, which found object is Great Art?).
Mandy Murphy and Claire Shiell. Courtesy of New Ambassadors Theatre Company
Spaces and their boundaries play a different kind of role in the heart-rending Prewritten, written by Erin Moughon and directed by Sydney Burtner. Cassidy (Mandy Murphy), a doctor, begins the play passed out on the couch with one croc on and one croc off, exhausted from her shift. Shortly, she is awoken with a "Boo!" from her wife, Angie (Claire Shiell), a teacher. It doesn't take too long for Cass to ask Angie why she is home in the middle of the day, and the answer is one that no one wants to hear. Saying much more here would lessen the play's undeniable impact, which draws a lot of power from how palpably Murphy and Shiell embody Cass and Angie's love and affection for one another, along with their sense of fun and enjoyment of one another's company. Their relationship and their selfless instincts only deepen the play's indictment of the way we live now.
Helene Galek and Jeff Checkley. Courtesy of New Ambassadors Theatre Company
The platonic relationship between Carole (Helene Galek) and Blake (Jeff Checkley) in Nancy Hamada's playfully titled Wednesday in the Park with Blake, directed by Perryn Pomatto, has lasted longer than many (most?) marriages. These friends of more than 40 years are meeting up the day following Blake being rushed to the ER overnight, an incident for which the hospital ended up contacting Carole. The more that Carole prises out of Blake regarding what exactly happened with this Grindr-related blackout, the more it causes her to question the dynamics of their relationship. Checkley and Galek bring a real sense of shared history to their characters, and Checkley makes it easy to see why Carole has stuck with Blake for so long (but also why she has begun to reconsider).
Todd Butera and William Franke. Courtesy of New Ambassadors Theatre Company
The pair of characters in New Ambassadors' Artistic Director David Adam Gill's play In the Garden of the Hesperides, directed by Marie Elèna O'Brien, are more or less the opposite of long-time friends. Dilworth (William Franke) is relaxing in the gay bar where he goes to unwind when he is interrupted by the arrival of Boris (Todd Butera), who bullied him incessantly throughout much of high school. Boris, now, decades later married and a father, wants to make amends. Dilworth is not disposed to forgiveness. This attempted detente, played out with both sensitivity and intensity by Franke and Butera, lays bare how bullying and trauma are passed around and passed on, including that Boris worries that his non-binary child will be bullied or hurt by someone like Boris himself.
John Peña Griswold and E. B. Hinnant. Courtesy of New Ambassadors Theatre Company
The program closes with Podunk, written by David Taylor Little and directed by David Adam Gill, a play that feels especially urgent during a Pride month that has seen a regressive resurgence in anti-queer sentiments and actions, doubtless helped along by years of cynically self-serving messaging from certain quarters. New Yorker Tyson (E. B. Hinnant) and transplant Micah (John Peña Griswold) are finishing a first date. It has gone well, but when Tyson leans in for a kiss, Micah deflects. The conversation about why that ensues makes it clear that Micah's reluctance relates not only to his Indiana upbringing but also to the violence that he has witnessed, from an incident in his small town to the club shootings that made national headlines. Griswold and Hinnant make it impossible not to root for this (potential) couple, and in defiance of the fear and hatred that their talk addresses, they give the audience a cathartically heartwarming moment on which to end the show and the evening.

The possibilities for staking out common ground resonate through more than one play in the 2023 Blurring Boundaries festival. The festival reminds us that the theater is one of those spaces within the bounds of which we can come together and, as Doris says of art, be challenged and perhaps even changed.
 
-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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