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;; "That was awful! Give me another one!"


; It's the Friday-night opening reception for the 2007 Harriet Lake Festival of New Plays at the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival, better known as PlayFest. The subject of my schizophrenia isn't any of the plays-in-progress being presented; rather, it's the complimentary cocktail on offer. Some satanic sommelier has decided that the perfect pairing for Pollo Tropical chicken and rice is a delicate blend of Red Bull and cheap champagne. The resulting libation is so evil that even Michael Wanzie can't finish it, but something compels me to another cup. And that is PlayFest in a nutshell — the sweet and sour mingled, pushing you away at the same time that it pulls you back for more.


; (Disclosure: Orlando Weekly is a sponsor of PlayFest, and this writing is a co-producer of one of the readings.)


; While Playfest's past drew from a wide range of local theater groups, this year's event is much more selective, with only a handful of readings not produced in-house. In theory, that should make for stricter quality control, but the trade-off is that while a reading committee has vetted the scripts, they are still works-in-progress, with all the risk that implies. Compounding the danger, the actors are limited to a few days or a week of rehearsal. The results can be thrilling for their potential, but less satisfying in the execution.


; This dichotomy is best seen in the workshop productions. Workshops are an intermediary stage between the bare-bones readings, which feature actors standing still and reading off of scripts, and a full-blown production. The idea of a workshop is to literally get the play "on its feet," with the actors trying to integrate movement and props with the scripts still in hand. Workshops can provide a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain of the creative process. Or, they can be under-rehearsed train wrecks.


; In China: The Whole Enchilada, Jim Helsinger directs actors Brad DePlanche, Philip Nolen and Eric Hissom to comically exploit the haphazard nature of Mark Brown's script, milking the fact that pages are being rewritten almost daily. Brown's Around the World in 80 Days and The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge were successfully incubated at OSF, so he knows how turn the weaknesses inherent in the workshop process into strengths. On the other hand, The Stone Face demonstrates how the workshop stage can sometimes be a step backward. Sherry MacDonald's clever fantasia on the real-life collaboration between Buster Keaton and Samuel Beckett was one of my favorite readings at last year's PlayFest. But watching the cast struggle with new staging while juggling props and scripts sapped this show's spark; once sprightly, it now limps along like an undergrad film history class.


; Another important side of PlayFest from Fringe is the panels, talkbacks and other forums for audience-author interaction. These should be great opportunities to dig below the surface, a rare chance for the audience to question and engage with writers. Unfortunately, you're more likely to experience a mutual admiration society than any real creative debate. At one post-show talkback, the most insightful participant was the 9-year old who really liked the cardboard box. Nearly as frustrating was the Playwright Panel; between thoughtful comments from Mark Routhier (literary manager of the famed Magic Theatre in San Francisco) and Mark Brown, we endured sour-grapes grousing about those evil new "pop musicals" (what did Gershwin and Porter write if not pop music?) and facile advocacy of auteur theory. The pontificating ate up most of the time for audience questions, and the few queries allowed were inarticulately dodged.


; The highlight for me was this year's "Play in a Day." This annual exercise in theatrical masochism pairs random teams of actors and directors, and gives them 24 hours to mount a 10-minute play. This year's theme, "Worth Waiting For," inspired six diverse scripts, ranging from a tender mother-daughter character vignette, to an after-school special on male anorexia, to a post-apocalyptic battle royal over the world's last Thin Mint. The climax came courtesy of David Lee, who put Doug Ba'aser in clown makeup and roller-skates as an absinthe-addled kid-show host. It won't go to Broadway, but the sight of Ba'aser careening around the Margeson Theater with cue-card-laden stagehands in tow is one that will stick long past the end of the festival.


; PlayFest is only in its fourth year, and while the growing pains are apparent, this is an event that deserves support. The organizers could still learn a little from their Fringe big brother, particularly in regards to scheduling. Multiple shows all start at the same time, instead of being staggered, preventing you from hopping from one to the next without a lot of wasted downtime in between. Paperwork slows box-office lines to a crawl. And worst of all, the beer tent is MIA. Nitpicks aside, the possibility of experiencing a pre-natal potential Pulitzer is enough to keep bringing theater fans back. With proper nurturing, this could help Orlando Shakes become, as festival director Patrick Flick says, a "destination theater." (PlayFest continues through March 4 at Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival; one-time purchase of button $5, tickets $3-$8; 407-447-1700, ext. 1;


;;— Seth Kubersky

;;Crime and Punishment

;; Already several weeks into production, OSF's Crime and Punishment is the only fully fleshed theater production that's taking place during PlayFest but is really like a regularly scheduled show. In attempting to compress Fyodor Dostoyevsky's intricate and rambling 1866 novel into a 90-minute chamber theater production, OSF and the work's adapters, Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus, have reduced its two dozen or so characters into a mere handful. Its many intersecting plot lines fall into one haltingly austere story of a thoughtless murder perpetrated by a reckless young man with nothing left to lose.

;; Three very adept actors play Crime and Punishment's major characters: Timothy Williams as the dissolute and self-indulgent murderer, Raskolnikov; Dan McCleary as the prescient and patient detective, Porfiry; and Beth Brown as the sad prostitute and eventual redeemer, Sonya. Yet while Williams, in particular, gives a solid performance, hitting the mark when portraying Raskolinikov's sharp intellect and bitter self-loathing, he is less able to convey the depth of his character's overriding megalomania and profound paranoia on which much of the novel's narrative is based. Dostoyevsky's protagonist is not a wayward student who has pushed an immature prank too far — he is a mentally unbalanced and morally challenged individual whose selfishness and compulsiveness leads him unequivocally to his bitter fate.

;; What remains on stage after the wholesale trimming is a tantalizing veneer of gristle, but with precious little meat left on the classic's bones. The result is a thin representation of the book's greatness. (through March 18 at Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival; $12-$35; 407-447-1700, ext. 1;


;;— Al Krulick



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