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Playful summer festival

It's not quite round-the-clock theater, but it comes close.

July means it's time again for the Summer Theatre Festival at Live Arts, a whirlwind saturation experience that makes it possible to see 13 performances in about a week. The festival, slightly smaller than Scotland's famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival, operates on the same principle as that larger event - offer artistic volume and diversity as keys to intensity of experience.

The Fringe Festival, held in and around Edinburgh, Scotland every August since 1947, sets the gold standard for summer insanity in theater. Last year, over 600 groups from 49 different countries performed 1,462 shows in about three weeks. Live Arts attempts a more modest menu of 12 plays in nine performances (three of the nine are double-bills). Plus there is the bonus "No Shame Theatre," Live Arts' version of open-mic night. The action begins tonight and runs through August 3 on Live Arts' main and LA.B stages.

"The great thing about the festival is that people with varying levels of experience and exposure are thrown in with each other and pretty quickly have to find a common language," No Shame Theatre's founder Todd Ristau said. "It's all very fresh."

Things get started tonight at 7 p.m. on the LA.B stage with "The Compleat Works of William Shkspr. (abridged)," the much-heralded comedy that attempts to jam pieces of all 37 of Shakespeare's plays into a farcical collage.

Meanwhile, the main stage events begin at 7:30 p.m. with the first performance of a double-bill about modern femininity and sexuality. Candace Burton directs Erin Cressida Wilson and Lillian Ann Slugocki's "The Erotica Project," and Ristau directs Sandra Dietrick's "The Biology Lesson and Other Experiments."

"Our understandings of women and their sexuality are often disjointed," said Burton, a University alumna who has brought this play to Charlottesville from Seattle, where she saw it performed last year. "We don't usually get a complete picture of women as sexual beings."

"The Erotica Project," Burton said, gives a window into the normal thoughts that women have as a part of being alive. The stage allows three women to explore their own lives in ways that propriety and social mores might ordinarily prohibit.

"It's a similar format to [Eve Ensler's Obie award-winning play] 'The Vagina Monologues' in that consists of monologues and ensemble pieces about women and their sexuality," Burton said. "But it has a less political focus than 'The Vagina Monologues' did. 'The Erotica Project' is more a personal force than a political one."

"It's really new and really edgy," she added. "People need to be challenged to confront certain things. Theater helps do that."

Ristau explains that "The Biology Lesson" is similar in its exploration of women's lives. Above all, Ristau said, the play is a character study.

"It's less issue-focused than it is character-focused," Ristau said. "The issues come along with the strong, individual characters in this play." The 13 women characters provide material for examining the themes of hardship and emotional struggle that the play seeks to highlight.

"Just because you're fragile doesn't mean you're inevitably going to break. But just because you're strong doesn't mean you're not vulnerable," Ristau said.

Arthur Kopit's "Y2K," opening at 9 p.m. in the LA.B space, rounds out the first night of the festival. Mark Valahovic, a veteran Live Arts actor and University graduate, directs this modern thriller, about the disintegration of a Manhattan couple's life amid the new challenges that technology poses to our privacy.

Tomorrow, a fourth show opens in the main space: a double-bill by talented comic playwright Christopher Durang. Live Arts general manager Ronda Hewitt directs the Obie award-winning "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You," a darkly humorous look at the Catholic church and the challenges of faith.

"I have wanted to direct this play for 10 years. "Sister Mary" not only makes you laugh but also makes you ask, 'why am I laughing?'" Hewitt said. "I ultimately believe comedy is the best teacher."

Sister Mary Ignatius leads the audience in a lecture on religion and religious institutions.

"This play is not anti-Catholic," Hewitt said. "The play is jabbing at the dogma or doctrine of a church - any church."

"I've laughed through every single rehearsal. And I have learned so much because of it," Hewitt added.

Emma Givens, a senior at Charlottesville's private high school, Renaissance School, directs the second half of the Durang double-bill, "The Actor's Nightmare."

"Durang has dramatized the dream every actor has had where you find yourself on stage and you can't remember your lines or even what you're supposed to be doing," Givens said.

The protagonist finds himself, successively, in the midst of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," Beckett's "Happy Days" and Bolt's "A Man For All Seasons" and has to react.

Every Friday during the Festival, the evening will close with the 11 p.m. performance of "No Shame Theatre" in the LA.B space, an open forum in which anyone can bring original three to five minute pieces to perform or have on-hand actors perform. They take the 15 or so pieces on a first-come basis.

"No Shame" began at the University of Iowa as part of the MFA playwriting program. "It provided a low-risk way to experiment with playwriting and acting" without fear of failure, Ristau said.

The first performances took place from the back of a pickup truck. The movement grew from there. Ristau brought "No Shame" to Charlottesville from Iowa last year. Now 11 chapters of "No Shame" operate in the United States and Britain.

In the festival's second week, the remaining shows open. Tim VanDyck directs Stephen Dietz's "Private Eyes," which Live Arts describes as "Private Lives" meets "Get Shorty." "Private Eyes" opens next Thursday at 7 p.m. in the LA.B space.

The same evening, at 7:30 p.m. in the main space, Amy and David Sedaris's "The Book of Liz" opens. Glenn Harris directs this absurd satire of modern community life set in an Amish community.

"The play is about what happens when Liz gets dissatisfied with her community and leaves, and then about what she brings back upon her return," Harris said.

Harris describes the writing as absurd, offbeat and quirky, yet more subtle and serious than David Sedaris's usual.

"Liz makes the cheese balls in the town. When she leaves, the community threatens to fall apart because no one else can make the cheese balls," Harris said.

"These things that come from nowhere and go nowhere end up making you both laugh and think," he added.

Two plays by Eugene Ionesco, the so-called father of the Theater of the Absurd movement, open in the LA.B space next Thursday at 9 p.m. Bill Niebel directs "The Bald Soprano" and "The Lesson," two warped but pointed looks at modern society.

Next Friday, the final two shows begin their runs in the LA.B space. "Improveganza," led by J. Taylor and Ron Heller, puts the audience in the driver's seat of a wild ride. That performance begins at 7:30 p.m.

"Kiss Me Nate," written and directed by Sebastian Greiman, opens next Friday at 9 p.m. The play is an almost all-male adaptation of Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew," the product of Greiman's playwriting efforts after several years of being unsatisfied with his original scripts.

"I basically took Shakespeare's play and 'gayified' it," Greiman explained. "It's high-octane and hot. It will definitely raise some eyebrows."

The theatrics don't stop at the door, though. Throughout the festival, the Live Arts outdoor courtyard will provide a home to the Guerrilla Arts in Action Theater Organization, a new group that Live Arts promises will bring lots of theatrical surprises and impromptu performances. Expect the unexpected.

Single tickets are $9 for main space performances, $7 for LA.B space shows, and $5 for "No Shame." Festival passes good for all 12 shows plus "No Shame" are $50. Tickets must be purchased in person at the Live Arts box office. For more information, call the festival hotline at 977-4177, extension 308.