THE BASICS: The 30th annual BUFFALO QUICKIES short play festival continues this year at the Alleyway Theatre with six new plays presented through July 10, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:15pm on the 600 block of Main Street. Last year QUICKIES were all virtual but this year storefronts to the left and right of the Alleyway have been transformed into distinct live theater stages, with most of the sets much more elaborate that you’d typically get if all six plays had to share the same Alleyway indoor stage. So how did this work? Upon arrival at the pedestrian alley just north of Shea’s back wall (8:00 is suggested to get oriented before the 8:15 start) we went into the Alleyway lobby and exchanged photo IDs (or a credit card) for a set of sterilized headphones with individual volume controls and channel selectors linked to each storefront/stage.
Then small audience groups (I think ten of us were assigned to “Group E”) were led to the appropriate location/stage by an usher. The usher/guides stayed with their groups all evening. We watched from seats set up on the sidewalk, and listened through the headphones, as the actors performed behind the various windows. Then each audience group rotated to the next window to watch another play, seeing all six by the end of the evening. Fully vaccinated patrons can remove their masks during the performances although it’s suggested that you wear one whenever you’re moving or in the Alleyway building. While each group will have a fifteen-minute intermission (staggered throughout the evening) bathroom facilities inside the Alleyway are available all evening, and there is always a staff member on hand in the lobby. However, patrons are advised to keep conversations inside the lobby to a minimum because two of the performances are close to the bathrooms. (One indoors in the Alleyway Theatre’s main stage space and one using the Alleyway’s small lobby off Main Street with that audience “outdoors.”)
Runtime: A little 2 hours with one intermission
The theatre has a full slate of COVID protocols, including weekly testing of its artists, and a designated Covid Compliance Officer is now on staff. Actors are tested weekly. A guide / usher leads each audience group between windows, ensuring masking and distancing. Stage management sanitizes seats in between use. And the Alleyway informed us that they installed “new MERV-13 filters and air/surface sterilizers throughout its HVAC system.” I’m sure that will become more important as the regular “indoor” season begins in September.
With six events happening simultaneously, over and over for the evening, with six extra guides/ushers and cleaners, it is a bit labor intensive, reminding me of a high end restaurant, with a swirl of staff, seen and unseen, making it all happen seamlessly. Kudos here to Technical Director Rick Haug (who has an actual B.F.A. in Technical Direction … these kids today!) and Stage Manager Andrew McLaughlin for coordinating this six-ring circus along with six Assistant Stage Managers: Katie Bergstrom, Eve Brunswick, Ella Colbus, Jessica Lynn, Maureen Sheldon, and Cali Smith. Well done, y’all. Costumes, always done with care, were under Todd Warfield.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Typical of BUFFALO QUICKIES, the plays are around ten minutes long (the one musical is around 17). And they range from comedic to, while not tragic in the usual sense, very poignant and moving. Those were the three with younger characters (two of them we meet, one is referenced). And the musical, based on the 1892 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, is just as creepy as the original work.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAYS, AND THE PRODUCTIONS: What was the last play you saw live? And were you one of many who had tickets in hand when the theater doors were locked? So, fifteen months after the pandemic shutdown began, the Alleyway has figured out a way to present a complete live theatrical evening downtown.
It felt so exciting, so “big city,” to be part of this evening, reminding me of The New Yorker magazine pieces in “Talk of the Town” which have you wishing you were there in Manhattan for one quintessentially urban experience or another. Well, for a couple of hours on a night of your choosing, I believe that you can get that vibe, 400 miles away, right here in Buffalo.
According to the Alleyway’s new Artistic and Executive Director, Chris J. Handley, some of the plays were chosen from recent submissions to the annual Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition, while others are plays and playwrights the company has had its eye on. “We think these are some of the best playwrights working today. Their plays are delightful, funny, challenging, and timely. It’s everything Quickies has been for the last thirty years and more…if you haven’t seen what we’re doing, this is the perfect time to check us out.” You can also listen to this May 21 episode of WBFO’s weekly “Theater Talk” where Anthony Chase and I have a conversation with Chris J. Handley. Note that the Mazumdar winning play, BERSERKER, will be presented next April, but the playwright, Bruce Walsh, has an entry in this current QUICKIES.
About the plays: I’ve included the notes as provided by The Alleyway Theatre with a short MY COMMENTARY section of my own after each.
THE YELLOW WALLPAPER
Music by Eliza Randall
Book and Lyrics by Sam Norman
2020 Mazumdar New Play Competition Finalist
World Premiere directed by Susan Drozd
Music Direction by Phil Farugia
Starring Kelly Copps (Charlotte), Amy Jakiel (Charlotte’s S-I-L Mary) Steve Copps (Charlotte’s husband John)
Developed in a reading with HARP Theatricals
ALLEYWAY’S NOTES: “It’s 1890 and Charlotte is forced into isolation following a postpartum disorder diagnosis. Charlotte’s husband and sister-in-law, following doctor’s orders, keep Charlotte away from her newborn son, sending her deeper into despair. Eventually, in her seclusion, she becomes convinced another woman is living inside the wallpaper. Charlotte desperately tries to free the shadow – but at what cost?
“This story is reimagined in a beautiful new musical score based on the famous short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which in 1892 was considered a hallmark of feminist literature.”
MY COMMENTARY: That Kelly Copps is one helluva good actor. Even through a pane of glass you could feel the chilling vapor of madness thicken around her character Charlotte. As creepy as it was, I imagine, in 1892 to read as her family isolated her “for her own good” it is just as disturbing to watch today. Actual incidents of domestic abuse have only increased during the current pandemic while the shutdown of services to women has only driven the problem deeper, letting it fester. So this musical is just as timely now as it ever could be.
Kelly Copps’ husband in real life, Steve Copps, offered a good performance as the clueless “father knows best” character John while her sister in real life, Amy Jakiel, played Mary the sister-in-law to good effect. The small stage was effective as the limited space only intensified the feeling of loneliness and separation felt by the young mother. Especially chilling were the occasional appearances of John and Mary in a window above Charlotte’s room, like overseers in a prison.
There is a slight shift in attitude on the part of Mary and Charlotte’s (unseen) mother that, if this musical were expanded, might make for a compelling dramatic arc. If that happens, I hope that they bring in a musical collaborator. I wasn’t swept away by the music, which seemed repetitious to me, but your mileage may vary. Here’s a tip when you go: For an uncredited bonus, turn your earphones on early because local actor Kristen Tripp Kelley reads some passages from the original Gilman story as a sort of prologue.
PAY YOUR FERRYMAN
By Lauren Davenport
World Premiere Directed by Chris J Handley
Starring Victor Morales (Charon the Ferryman)
ALLEYWAY’S NOTES: “Charon, the ferryman of Hades, is in desperate need of a break. You just happen to be next in line for passage into the Afterlife. Your afterlife, to be exact. How you choose to compensate Charon for your passage will determine where you end up.”
MY COMMENTARY: Because each play was offered its own set, which didn’t have to be quickly struck after each short in order to free up the stage for the next short, designers were free to offer much more elaborate environments, and this play’s set was the most involved. Given that it was directed by “the boss” (Chris J. Handley) I supposed that he was in a position to go bigger. However it came to be, it was really fun to observe the space, both before and during the performance, with all sorts of little extras, such as the counting hash marks on the wall, the bucket scale to weigh souls, and the coffee machine for the coffee break Charon the Ferryman gets to enjoy after every 100 souls have “crossed over.”
One neat twist was that we sat on the usual stage while we looked down on the larger area normally reserved for the seats. I can’t explain why that was so effective, but it was. I hope it’s not a spoiler, but we find out that Charon is a multi-dimensional “real” person, with aches and pains and problems of his own. Victor Morales was picture perfect as the sole worker in what might be an Amazon warehouse or on some assembly line, albeit one as long as eternity. As I mentioned above, every play with a younger person in it (including this one with Charon’s unseen daughter) was especially poignant.
HELEN MIRREN TAKES A DAY OFF
By Alex Lin
Directed by Steve Vaughan
Starring Shanntina Moore (Helen Mirren)
ALLEYWAY’S NOTES: “Helen Mirren has a day off. Helen Mirren needs to work on her monologue. Helen Mirren’s brother needs way too much attention. Helen Mirren gets a call from frenemy Judi Dench with ex-husband Kenneth Branagh on the same line. Helen Mirren’s dog is dying. Can she handle it? Of course she can. She’s Helen Mirren.”
MY COMMENTARY: The fun here was watching the great, cool, calm, “veddy British” Helen Mirren get frazzled, get it back together, only to get frazzled again, and really actor Shanntina Moore’s only prop was a telephone. One sided telephone conversations have been comic gold for comedians such as Shelly Berman and Lily Tomlin and, what can I say? It never gets old.
By Rachel Lynett
Directed by Josie DiVincenzo
Starring Victoria Pérez (Becca) and Smirna Mercedes (Ryan)
ALLEYWAY’S NOTES: “Becca and Ryan run into each other at an airport having not seen each other for five years. This chance encounter asks them both to reflect on their past relationship and navigate their possible future.”
MY COMMENTARY: There’s a lot of subtle stage business in this play with a minimal set (an airport gate seat and a trash receptacle) brought out by two experienced actors, Victoria Pérez and Smirna, who have worked together “once or twice” before. Every time you think you know the characters… you don’t. Let’s also give credit to director Josie DiVincenzo on this one. The minute the two first spot each other, the tension comes right through the glass. And everytime you think it’s resolved, it’s not.
You are in good hands with this play. In addition to the talents of Pérez and Mercedes and DiVincenzo, playwright Rachel Lynett is the winner of the 2021 Yale Drama Series Prize. Not too shabby! From her bio: “Rachel Lynett is a queer Afro-Latinx playwright who writes dark comedies about complex, complicated women of color.” And from her Artist Statement: “These women are neither saints or villains; they’re eternally both. These women are intelligent, blistered, and, most importantly, real. As these women navigate through the American landscape with a series of different issues, they all also struggle with the complicated idea of what it means to be a woman today and the layered complexity that adds to their various dilemmas.” This play, IN TRANSIT, seems right at home in Lynett’s collection.
While not about the play itself, I couldn’t help noticing that above the windows of the Shea’s 710 lobby where the play was performed, there were giant posters promoting the last two events (CURIOUS INCIDENT and BRIGHT STAR) scheduled for that theater that I never got to see because of the pandemic shutdown. I found it “poetic” or “ironic” to be watching the first live downtown, post-shutdown play under the posters for two of the last events affected by COVID.
By Bruce Walsh
Winner 2017 Actors Theatre of Louisville Heideman Award and Kennedy Center Gary Garrision National Ten-Minute Play Award
Directed by Chris J Handley
Starring David C. Mitchell (Everybody else) and Trevor Dugan (Louis)
ALLEYWAY’S NOTES: “When Louis was eleven years old, he wrote a note to his recently deceased father, tied it to a balloon, and released it to the heavens. But now, even though he’s a grown-ass man, he can’t stop wondering if his dad ever received the message.”
MY COMMENTARY: Fathers and sons, always a rich vein for any writer to mine gold, here had the backstory that Louis’s father died when Louis was at a formative age. In this sometimes wistful, sometimes hilarious short, David C. Mitchell plays a number of people in Louis’s (Trevor Dugan) life. It’s a super role for Mitchell who usually plays hard-ass, tough guys, including, now that I think of it, Ebenezer Scrooge). Here he gets to display his comedic range.
The location was an inspired choice in that each actor was in a display window to the left (Dugan) and right (Mitchell) of the “dPost” entrance except at the very end. As with the play IN TRANSIT wait for the end to bring a little twist and here a big tug at the heart. We all might be grown-ass now, but inside of us there will always be an eleven year old. Note: playwright Bruce Walsh’s Mazumdar-winning play BERSERKER will be onstage at the Alleyway in April, 2022.
LILY AND TESSA’S SUPER STAR SHOW, EPISODE 37
By Devon Hayakawa
World Premiere directed by Robyn Lee Horn
Starring Jane Hereth (Tessa)
ALLEYWAY’S NOTES: “It’s time for Lily and Tessa’s Super Star Super Special Show, and they’re going to revive all of their greatest hits — Avril Lavigne dance party! Celebrity impressions! Puppet shows! The only problem is that Lily still hasn’t shown up yet… and Tessa might have to do the whole show alone.”
MY COMMENTARY: As with GROWN ASS LOUIS, we might all be grown-ass now, but who doesn’t remember teenage disappointment? By Episode 37 of the Lily and Tessa Super Star Show, shot “live” from Tessa’s room, she knows that “the show must go on” and so it does, at least for this episode. And, actually, that might be a good thing. Finally, Tessa can do all the skits and bits she’s always wanted to do. We never do find out why Lily didn’t show, but there are some unhealthy undercurrents. Still, as we might say today, with eyeroll and a huge exhalation of breath, “whatever!”
One high point was a simulated video projected on the outside wall of the building, very clever stage magic, but unfortunately, especially with all the tchotchkes, posters, stuffed animals and other teenage girl stuff in the room, and the fact that we were looking at the stage through glass doors, it was easy to lose track of Tessa. Maybe that was intentional. Maybe that was the whole point. Hmmmm.
WHAT’S NEXT AT THE ALLEYWAY? The play WHITE RABBIT RED RABBIT by Nassim Soleimanpour will run September 9 through October 2, 2021 and is described by the Alleyway as follows: “Forbidden to leave his country, playwright Soleimanpour distills the experience of an entire generation in this wild, utterly original play. A remarkable theatrical experience where a different actor each night is presented with a script sealed in an envelope, the play can never be performed by the same actor ever again. It’s the true meaning of one-night-only.”
Along with that and four other plays (including A CHRISTMAS CAROL and Bruce Walsh’s BERSERKER) the 31st annual BUFFALO QUICKIES for 2022 will be back February 10 to March 5, 2022. For details visit alleyway.com.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!