The Padua Hills Playwrights Festival isn't so much a festival as a rite--an annual midsummer attempt to conjure up the theatrical spirits under the moon, at some remote location where the actors can yell a lot.
Over the years, the spirits have appeared about half the time, which isn't a bad percentage, considering that Padua Hills specializes in untried scripts. The "right to fail" isn't just respected here. It's almost a fetish.
The festival actually left Padua Hills years ago. This year's location is the grounds of Cal State Northridge's Art and Design Center. "Compound" might describe the layout better. Think chain-link fence and dusty trees.
Still, it is outdoors. The crowd still troops from one staging area to the next, as in the old days. (Each play is "site specific," tailored for a particular spot and sometimes even written for it.) And when the moon comes up, it's easy to imagine yourself miles from the city. Good conditions for story telling, if the playwright has one to tell.
Four writers were represented on Thursday night's "A" series (the "B" series joins the repertory tonight). We began with Alan Bolt's "Amado Amor." The story here was a true one from Nicaragua. The ingredients were promising--jealousy, love, murder.
But the telling was tedious. From his taped stage directions, Bolt has too much faith that a given theatrical image will produce a given theatrical effect. It all depends on the execution, and the execution here was fairly clumsy. (Amy Glazer-Connolly was the director.)
Susan Mosakowski's "Cities Out of Print" (she directed it as well) also fell victim to the notional fallacy. The conceit was that its two characters (well played by John Diehl and Shawna Casey) could assume any number of famous personas (James Dean, Isadora Duncan, etc.) but didn't have any existence in themselves. Once you got the idea, which was early, the play had no place to go.
The good news started with Martin Epstein's "The Ordeal of Nancy Fergusson." Again, the author directed. But this time, it was impossible to guess the ending.
The story is a tall one, not unlike that of David Mamet's "Edmond"--a civilized man (Don Keith Opper, at his most punctilious) yearns to have an adventure and ends up caught in a nightmare. But where Mamet forced his play into allegory, Epstein plays it like a burlesque sketch--dark, but never too dark to laugh at.
Certainly Kathleen Cramer makes Nancy Fergusson a very knowing young miss as she hops onto the teacher's desk. This is what Opper came to see, sitting out there in the nervous dark of the adult theater, but he didn't figure on getting mixed up in the action.
Epstein doesn't have a proper punch line for his play, but the plot is cleverly developed, and the tone is outrageous without being off-putting: a good trick, considering some of the areas it touches on.
A curious innocence, for example, pervades the performances of John Achorn and Jack Slater as two of Nancy's most faithful schoolteachers. Dirty old men? Never! Well, hardly ever. It's a rowdy play with something to say about people who want to look but not touch.
John Pappas' "Increments of Three" is set in a clearing around a campfire. The situation is classic, indeed biblical: two grown brothers at odds, one of them "normal" (Robert Hummer), one slightly retarded (Pappas, who also directed). The prize is a young woman (Deirdre Hade), but that isn't basically what the struggle is about. It goes so far back that neither of them can quite remember what it is about. But it's there, it's deep and it plays itself out in an entirely plausible and very physical way.
There's nothing "experimental" about this play, except for the use of a real tree, a real campfire, a real car and a real moon. It could even be called a live movie. No matter. The writing (which could be trimmed a bit) and the acting have the point-to-point immediacy of American naturalism at its best. The spirits of the theater are summoned, and we go home hungry for Series "B."
It will consist of Leon Martel's "Kindling," Julie Hebert's "Almost Asleep," Maria Irene Fornes' "Oscar and Martha" and John Steppling's "The Theory of Miracles." Note: Performances start at 7:30 p.m. and go on well past 11. Bring a sweater.
Series "A" plays Thursdays and Fridays, Series "B" Saturdays and Sundays, at 7:30 p.m. Closes Aug. 6. Art and Design Center, Cal State Northridge, on Halsted Street off Reseda Boulevard. Information: (818) 885-3093.