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Playwrights aim to pack maximum effect into one-act festival's short stories

Playwrights aim to pack maximum effect into one-act festival's short stories
Cathy Diane Tomlin and Mona Lee Wylde in "Lizzy," one of 14 works in Ensemble Studio Theatre/Los Angeles' one-act festival. (Ensemble Studio Theatre/Los Angeles)

Ensemble Studio Theatre/Los Angeles has launched its first one-act play festival, and the 14 works divided into three programs run the gamut from traditional to experimental.

I saw Program A, which included "The Big Hill," playwright and performer James Macdonald's account of reckless hang gliding and dubious adolescent crushes. Using electronic music from accompanist Drake Macdonald (James' son)  and simple, effective paintings by Susie Pak, the piece falls somewhere between a David Sedaris essay and a particularly gritty "Prairie Home Companion" segment.

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Then there is "Tempted," in which author Jennifer Maisel draws a compelling stream-of-consciousness portrait of a modern New York City woman's inner thoughts at the local pool. Director Roderick Menzies keeps things focused, and actor Patty Cornell brings considerable nuance to an edgy character that Anne Tyler might recognize.

Eliana Pipes' "To Serve Butter" was easily the most crowd-pleasing piece, a funny study of two actresses on an audition that caters to America's worst racially skewed instincts. Virtic Emil Brown's disbelieving Juilliard graduate, Denah Angel's street-smart pragmatist and David Franklin's supercilious director do yeoman work, although the final kicker is strictly "Saturday Night Live" territory.

"Lizzy," Roger Q. Mason's two-hander between bereaved Mary Todd Lincoln (Mona Lee Wylde) and dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley (Cathy Diane Tomlin), is the most ambitious play. Staged with aplomb by Jonathan Muñoz-Proulx, the narrative sustains tension, even if one senses a larger work waiting to bust out.

And "Red and Blue," Wendy Graf's account of two Sapphic political opposites, has assets in Simone McAlonen and Tarah Pollock as fearless post-coital debaters, but the whole feels more notion than fully realized piece.

The other programs include works by playwrights Tony Foster and José Rivera, with the acting roster featuring such known quantities as Toni Sawyer, Michael Mantell and Tony Pasqualini (and in author Stevie Stern's "David Hockney's Couch," the artist's actual sofa). It's a promising start for what I hope will become an annual event.

Ensemble Studio Theatre / LA's 'One-Act Festival'

Where: Atwater Village Theatre, EST/LA's The Speakeasy, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles

When: Rotating programs 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Sundays through July 31.

Tickets: $25-$30

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Info: www.estlosangeles.org

Follow The Times' arts team @culturemonster.

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