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Gaslamp Theatre Play Project Not Wasted on Young

The range of subjects in the three winning plays at the California Young Playwrights Project at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre reveals a breadth of teen-age concerns that tells a story of its own.

Beckie Andersen’s “Searching for the Big Dipper” starts innocently in a teen-ager’s present, with a wispy story of a high school friendship yearning--but not knowing quite how--to evolve into love.

Michele L. Mitchell’s “Runner’s High” tackles the tension of competition on a high school track team, exploring the values of winning those races and showing where they join--and where they conflict with--the races of life.

In the last play, “A Toast to Leslie,” Pamela Mshana delivers a chilling portrait of an abused wife held hostage in her own home by a crazed and violent husband.

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These productions, culled from 400 entries by playwrights under age 19, don’t provide adult answers to the questions they pose. To their credit, these writers are attracted to complex issues, but, not surprisingly, they have yet to grasp the means of providing insight into the reasons for situations that, at times, are compellingly described.

Still, the skill in the telling is a reminder that CYPP’s goal is not just to pick and choose winners, but to teach the craft of writing to thousands of students and to introduce the chosen few to top-flight productions of the plays they’ve written.

“A Toast to Leslie” is a standout in illustrating that Mshana, an 18-year-old New York University sophomore, wields a masterful technique remarkable for a writer her age. She evokes jump-out-of-your-seat tension in this finely acted piece as Beth (Tracy Bryce) scurries to do the bidding of her husband (Zachary Weintraub) like a frightened animal, taking her eyes off him only once, briefly, as he plays a game of Russian Roulette with her, and then their baby’s, head. The very details of the set are frightening--the locks her husband keeps on the refrigerator, the grimy cupboards and, of course, the front door that symbolizes escape.

But what does Mshana have to say about domestic violence other than showing that it exists? What insights does she provide for her husband’s violent nature other than showing that he was laid off, then fired? What understanding do we glean about the women who put up with such abuse other than Beth’s admission, near the end, that she once believed he loved her?

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Last year’s winning piece by Mshana posed the same problem. “Ebony” told the story of a daughter of a poor, unwed mother who tries unsuccessfully to escape her mother’s fate. And that is all it did--simply tell that such situations occur.

“Searching for the Big Dipper” by Andersen, a senior at Crawford High School in San Diego, is worlds away from “A Toast to Leslie” in terms of place, location and subject matter. The dirty, cramped apartment of “A Toast” becomes an open grassy knoll with a starlit sky. Instead of the deadly battle between two taut animals in “A Toast” is the innocence of a boy who likes a girl whose biggest, darkest secret is that she has lied all her life about being able to locate the Big Dipper.

And yet the plays runs afoul of a similar black hole. “Big Dipper” describes the situation of love that is not to be--lyrically--but without telling us why the two are fated to remain only friends.

Curiously, the most ambitious play in terms of insight is, structurally, the biggest mess.

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Rather like the racing track the runners complain about in “Runner’s High,” the script itself is a hodgepodge of styles, with uneven comic pockets sparkling amid jerky, emotional terrain. And yet this play by Mitchell, a freshman at Northwestern University, commands attention by virtue of its seriousness in attempting to understand why some people compete and others don’t.

It explores how races begun in high school can take different forms in college--some for the better and some for the worse. Most important, it addresses the difficulty of choices.

Yes, the coach obsessed with winning and the assistant coach obsessed with women both slip, slide and slosh into caricature. But the script as a whole is funny and quirky--particularly in one choice vignette where the audience hears what the runners are thinking, in voice-overs, while they race (much of which has to do with how sorry they are they took up the sport). And every once in a while someone says something worth listening to , even if it’s only “Sports is just serious recreation” or “Dedication is a lot like insanity.”

The plays’ directors, Carla Kirkwood (“A Toast to Leslie”), Ralph Elias (“Searching for the Big Dipper”) and Walter Bilderback (“Runner’s High”) are all to be commended, as are the production qualities lent by Lawrence Czoka’s music, J. A. Roth’s lighting and Beeb Salzer’s inventive set design, which turns the “Runner’s High” track around to reveal the kitchen cupboards and sink of “A Toast for Leslie.”

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But the biggest hand goes to the CYPP and its co-sponsors, the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre and the San Diego public schools. They, after all, wrote the original script that gives these playwrights their annual weeks in the sun.

CALIFORNIA YOUNG PLAYWRIGHTS PROJECT presents PLAYS BY YOUNG WRITERS ’88

“Searching for the Big Dipper,” by Beckie Andersen, directed by Ralph Elias. “Runner’s High,” by Michele L. Mitchell, directed by Walter Bilderback. “A Toast to Leslie,” by Pamela Mariva Mshana, directed by Carla Kirkwood. Sets by Beeb Salzer. Lighting by J. A. Roth. Costumes by Margaret S. Hagar. Sound by Lawrence Czoka. Stage manager is Bernadette Anderson. With Jay Dysart, Kimber Riddle, Ted Price, Louis Seitchik, David Baldwin, Francesca L. Miller, Mark A. Bollinger, Myrna Leah Kranz, Jesse Longoria, Carol Gann Finch, Zachary Weintraub and Tracy Bryce. At 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays through Jan. 22. At the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre, 547 4th Ave., San Diego.


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