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PHYSICAL, SEXUAL VIOLENCE : 4 STUDENT PLAYS IMMERSED IN DESPAIR

Hope and optimism seem to be out of fashion these days on the UC San Diego campus.

The four graduate playwriting students whose works make up a New Play Festival being held in the Warren Theatre have immersed themselves in the lowest rungs of humanity--with physical and sexual violence featured in every play, even the comedy.

It was difficult not to be depressed about this cultural indicator, or to wonder about the kind of professorial guidance these writers are being given after leaving the four-hour marathon of despair, which continues through tonight and Sunday.

The festival is divided into two 90-minute groupings: a set of three one-acts, and one full-length work, with tickets available separately. Seeing all four plays in one evening is not a good idea.

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A program note by the head of UCSD’s playwriting program, Adele Edling Shank, pleads for understanding that these are not completed works. The festival’s purpose is to give the fledging writers audience feedback at an early stage, with rewriting a certainty.

Let us hope they heed the response.

The first of the one-acts, “Champions of the West” by Reid Jensen, is a dreary little number about a demented farmer and his crippled son, holed up at 4 a.m. in a Kansas bakery with ominous plans (never fully revealed) for the young woman who arrives to carry out her early-morning baking job.

Director Victoria Hunter misses the most blatant cues the script provides (“Don’t cry” directed to a dry-eyed actor, for instance). She allows actor Matthew Wright to forget that “Poppa” should be older than the son (Roger Nelson). Julie Briskman, as the girl/victim, was guided to deliver an almost comic performance in what seems to be a serious play.

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This is not entirely Hunter’s fault. Jensen seems unsure whether he is writing comedy (having thrown in gross amounts of toilet references) or a dark Sam Shepard imitation that, despite the preoccupation with Western-type characters, comes nowhere near Shepard’s poetry and brilliance of understatement.

Instead of relentlessly revealing his characters, Jensen thickly padded the work with repetition. He never resolves trails he enters--not a clever device but a failure in dramatic communication.

Caridad Svich displays greater fertility of mind in his comedy, “Winter in July,” skillfully milked for laugh potential by director Ross S. Wassermann. But what kind of weeds grow there?

The play unfolds like a sitcom gone completely out of control, focusing on a bizarre New Jersey family that lives in unspeakable filth and bears only cartoon-like resemblance to real human beings. They seem to have been created for no purpose beyond a showcase of actor Ivan G’Vera’s comic talents as a codeine-swilling, psychopathic gentleman caller.

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“Winter in July” is much like the kind of story little brothers tell to see if they can gross everyone out before Mom calls a halt to it. Every tasteless incident comes across like an impudent test of audience stupidity--how long will they sit still?

Jonathan Field’s “Businessman” takes the sex and violence back into a serious realm. Field and his director, Beth Ann Schachter, have achieved mood and character, with able help from actors Craig Green and Peter Carlton Brown--and especially from actress Theresa McCarthy as an off-kilter young woman hanging out in her brother’s desert bar.

Again the scene unfolds in the wee hours, with ominous hints of violence past and yet to be, this time incest and murder the methods of choice. Field has grown more comfortable with dramatic structure than his classmates, but he, too, has nothing but empty ugliness to deliver through his skillful manipulations of character.

Only the full-length play, “Cut to Sunset” by William Berno, hints at a talent willing to probe beyond the surface to bring forth something of value, some reason for people to watch this writer’s work.

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Berno may have preferred the company of prostitutes and small-time criminals during his months in the writing classes at UCSD, but he has also been toying with an illuminating concept of “Mother Hollywood.”

This slinky, white-sequined figure actually appears in the play (Nina Reynolds), haunting Berno’s intense scenes of domestic violence, rape, insanity, imprisonment, thievery, cruelty and so on. She either rhapsodizes in long-winded, semi-poetic, self eulogies about the glamour of the life she provides on the silver screen, or commands the action, movie-director fashion.

Berno uses another character, the photo-snapping Stranger (Deryl Caitlyn), to tell us more about her. She has covered darkness over with her glossy illusions, but brave souls willing to slice through her screen and pierce the darkness behind it will discover a realm of “pure imagination"--the resting place of “everything that was afraid to be created.”

If only Berno and his classmates would pay close attention to this little tidbit buried in the middle of “Cut to Sunset,” which unfortunately fails to follow this thread of fantasy. It might have led to a more satisfying work than what was presented Thursday.

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Directed by Ralph James, it does, however, showcase some fine acting by Carolyn Sweeney, Giovanni Felicioni, Caitlyn, and Josie Chavez.

NEW PLAY FESTIVAL “Champions of the West” by Reid Jensen, “Winter in July” by Caridad Svich and “Businessman” by Jonathan Field at 6 p.m. today and 8:30 p.m. Sunday. “Cut to Sunset” by William Berno at 8:30 p.m. today and 6 p.m. Sunday. At the Warren Theatre, UC San Diego campus, La Jolla.


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