Bench Warmers VII is indeed a fine show. But the series of eight one-act plays, which is intended to be a showcase of local talent, should discourage so-called professional talent that couldnï¿½t make it elsewhere, as there is plenty of excellent talent here in New Mexico. ***image1***
Upon reading the program and biographies of the playwrights, directors and actors, one notices that many of those involved in the production have plenty of Hollywood credentials but very little else to show for it.
In addition, perhaps the Santa Fe Playhouse should include a few more minority playwrights on the bill, as there were none. The Spanish Lesson, which tells a tale of Latino lore, is the only production that comes close, but it falls short due to its stereotypical and sexist depiction of Mexican women as thick-accented, genteel, dominatrix sluts just waiting for some stupid white dude to spank. For future reference, let the minorities and Santa Feans to tell their unique stories.
When the locals do just that, as in a few of the Bench Warmers VIIï¿½s short plays, it is that talent that outshines the rest. And the best of those acts are:
Best Play: Written by Tom Woodard and directed by Pal Dybel, So Whatï¿½s Up With Eliot? wins best production of the evening for its depth, originality, storytelling and performance. Frank Bond, as Eliot, does a poignant job on multiple levels in his portrayal of Eliotï¿½s personal struggle with psychological depression, which is due to merciless cancer and insensitive people.
Best Playwright: Credit must be given to Robert Benjamin, Elaine Jarvik, Ron Bloomberg, Gary Dontzig, Tom Woodward, Peggy van Hulsteyn and ***image2***Deborah Finkelstein for turning in witty scripts. These playwrights bring to the stage original miasmas of diverse talent, imagination and enjoyable loquacity. Woodwardï¿½s depiction of a man confronting cancer, death and an unapologetic God in So Whatï¿½s Up With Eliot? takes the top spot strictly for its power.
Best Overall Performance: It is a close call between Bondï¿½s Eliot, not to mention his two other solid performances, and Annie Goodwinï¿½s portrayal of Emily in A Life. The top accolade goes to Goodwin, who is more than a fine actress. In her portrayal of Emily, she runs the gamut from baby girl to college queen to mature woman to broken-hearted, cuckolded mid-life wife to wise elder and, finally, to serene apparition. Goodwin steals the show, punching out a repertoire that consists of grace, delicacy, concentration, presence and intensity, while still retaining the unconscious playfulness necessary to define great characters. We can only hope sheï¿½ll continue to act in Santa Fe to teach all the wanna-bes out there how to find their light.
Best Director: Barry Hazen takes the crown for incorporating 11 characters into the mind of one young self-obsessed girl, played by playwright Peggy van Hulsteyn (who also plays herself in The Wedding That Was Not Meant To Be). Hazen somehow finds a way to tame van Hulsteynï¿½s narcissistic character by working with imagery, character, costumes, dialogue and story in a way that makes it feel like a good acid trip. Notwithstanding the fact that he is the only director with the vision to actually move the bench from its centerpiece position, he is one of the few directors who decides not to place anything else on stage opposite the centerpiece bench. This is surprising because the production is, in fact, called Benchwarmers and part of the appeal is to see what dramatists can do with a bench as the only scenery on stage.
Best Technical Feature: Jessica Bracichï¿½s lighting design, which brushstrokes emotive sensual images with a symphony of soft, dark, bold, metamorphosing textures that illuminate the purple, turquoise, sea green, ocean blue and blood red shadows, and shine magnificently off the plain white scrim backdrop.