New Works Festival showcases poignant pieces about youth, growth and rape

Original works by U.Va. Department of Drama students include relatable, heart-wrenching coming-of-age tales

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The New Works Festival showcased original works by U.Va. Department of Drama students.

Courtesy Michael Bailey

Revisiting the summer-before-college frame of mind is a mixed bag. The New Works Festival ruminated on this cringeworthy, nostalgic and often painful time of life in three student-devised works, each immensely different in content and style. Produced by Dave Dalton and Doug Grissom, both playwrights and professors in the U.Va. Department of Drama, the 2019 New Works Festival — which ran from Jan. 31 through Feb. 2  —  presents well-performed and relatable dialogue in three different flavors.    

With lighting design by second-year Julie Briski, sound design by fourth-year Kylan Luna and scenic design by first-year Jackson Key, the pieces were arranged in a tactfully simple manner, fitting for the intimate nature of the Helms Theatre.

To be sure, the outlier in dramatic performance and playwriting rested in fourth-year drama major Savannah Hard’s piece, “They’re Still Friends,” which delved deep into the complexities of sexual assault through two characters, Rebecca and Jordan, who are home after their first semester of college. It is notable that Grissom was also the creator of an educational theatre piece on acquaintance rape, “But I Said No.” Although the premise — the play is centered around sexual assault — is sadly nothing new, Hard’s skillful envisionment of flashbacks between the characters sews together a thought-provoking take on the nature of rape and relationships. 

Directed by third-year drama major Savannah Maive, “They’re Still Friends” shows Rebecca (fourth-year Jane Purnell) and Jordan (second-year Cameron Veach) re-telling the story of their relationship via younger, surreal-seeming figments of themselves, expertly played by fourth-year Elizabeth Steimel and third-year Jess Miller. The portrayal of Rebecca and Jordan’s younger selves by two different actors cleverly allows the older and younger versions to interact with each other onstage. Older versions argue about what really happened as younger versions become exasperated while attempting to reenact their story. In effect, the audience sees the importance of growth and perspective, especially when sympathy for Rebecca’s best friend uncomfortably veers toward disdain, and vice versa. 

Despite clues of an unspoken trauma between Rebecca and Jordan, Purnell’s heart-wrenching performance ambushes audiences with the eventual fact that Rebecca was raped by her best friend. A build-up of funny flashbacks about recess, awkward romantic encounters and fish funerals somehow manages to hauntingly reflect the bittersweetness of first relationships and the pain of betrayal and misunderstanding. “They’re Still Friends” is heartbreaking. 

Similarly poignant, but more reminiscent of the 1985 John Hughes classic “The Breakfast Club,” third-year Jessica Harris’s piece “I’m Game” tells the story of six friends struggling with difficult life decisions after they’ve just graduated high school. Instead of detention, these six friends are in a Game-of-Life-purgatory in one friend’s basement — and they’re already good friends, despite the stark but necessary differences in character. What initially is a fishbowl of mysteriously mismatched characters and impressively realistic scenes of friendly chatter around a couch soon becomes an impromptu audience-interactive game. 

Audience members lucky enough to sit in an aisle seat are invited by the characters Will (fourth-year Joseph French), Ethan (fourth-year Robby Hoffman), K.C. (second-year Fiona O’Reilly-Sanchez), Lily (first-year Avery Erskine), Max (first-year Kyara Mahlen) or Monica (first-year May Gong) to spin for their piece in the Game of Life. The ensemble comfortably improvises responses to spins from audience members. Although it is unclear how a Harvard-bound try-hard, a gay Jewish-Latino would-be actress and a cavalcade of other characters who can be described with dashed phrases become friends, the cast masterfully commits to its realities and as a result builds eye-catching momentum. 

On a completely different note, “Play it Cool,” third-year Ibrahim Muhammad’s first play, directed by fourth-year Tori Meyer, is a short comedy about Dan (first-year Associate of Arts Music student Isaac Tolliver), a high-schooler trying to impress a girl named Marissa (fourth-year Tiara Sparrow), whose defining characteristic is that she is hot but somehow cool enough to be in band and enjoy playing the video game Fortnite. The comedic timing between Dan and his offbeat parents (first-year Hannah Maupin and second-year Ryder Sadler) is enjoyable in spite of its corniness. 

The main conflict of “Play it Cool” is that a known criminal named Two Shot (Timothy Read) unexpectedly enters Dan’s suburban house after being shot — twice, probably. Following this, Dan’s friends Taylor (third-year Casey Breneman) and Mike (second-year Charles Hurt), along with the Pizza Guy (fourth-year Nathan Berelovich), playfully commit to the ridiculousness of a situation that could easily be the plot for an episode of “Drake and Josh.”

2019’s New Works Festival is a diverse showing, but the pieces all maintain a theme of youth and present dialogue which feels modern. Harris asks audiences to fill out a survey before the performances, allowing audience members to reflect on the decisions her characters must make in “I’m Game.” Would you move away from your family if it meant having access to better opportunities? Would you drop out of high school to take care of someone you love? Should you take a gap year? 

These questions hit close to home for many students — a reminder that student playwriting can be as relatable as it is fresh. 

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