Theatre Unbound has put together another intriguing assortment of short scripts by female playwrights, this one a gathering of established plays and newly commissioned work, under the collective title Mere Trifles. But there’s nothing mere or trifling about it. It’s another solid outing in Unbound’s tradition of past presentations of short works old and new - Girls Got Pluck, Aphra’s Attic, and Girl Shorts 2013, 2014 and 2015.
“If there’d been years and years of nothing, then a bird to sing to you…”
Mere Trifles is partly in celebration of the fact that the lead-off script of the evening, Susan Glaspell’s Trifles, is over 100 years old (1916). Glaspell’s script is paired with Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s short play Poof! (from 1993) to bookend the evening. In between are two brand new scripts commissioned by Unbound from Rhiana Yazzie (A Few Pearls) and Maxie Rockymore (Bang-Bang Check!). The whole evening is directed by Kate Powers, guiding an ensemble of six actors playing in combination across all four scripts (Lynda Dahl, Pedro Juan Fonseca, Adam Gauger, Nicole Goeden, Brian Joyce and Delinda “Oogie” Pushetonequa). A quick shout out has to go to Ursula Bowden’s scenic design, which thanks to an industrious stage crew transforms quickly into four different setttings, all the while a profusion of chairs stacked high on stage and floating in the air, surround the proceedings.
“Oh, I wish I’d come over here once in a while. That was a crime. That was a crime. Who’s going to punish that?”
This isn’t the first time Unbound has tackled Trifles. I remember seeing their first presentation of it in Girls Got Pluck back in 2005. Trifles is a polished little gem of a play, well worth revisiting. There’s a reason it’s held up so well over time. Glaspell brought her journalist’s eye for detail to this reimagining of an actual court case she followed for the newspapers. A farmer has been murdered. His wife is suspected. Two women (Goeden and Pushetonequa), one of them the wife of the sheriff, accompany the sheriff (Gauger), the county attorney (Fonseca) and a neighboring farmer who found the body (Joyce), back to the crime scene. The men are there looking for clues. The women are there to gather some things to take to the dead man’s wife in her jail cell. This is the early 20th century, so the men aren’t paying a lot of attention to the women. But the women end up seeing key clues about the case around the house which the men completely miss. This leaves the women needing to decide what they’re going to do about the knowledge they’ve acquired.
“The patron saint of battered wives.”
Nottage’s Poof! is a bit of a revenge fantasy. It’s a most amusing dark comedy about a woman (Dahl) who tells her abusive husband to go to hell, whereupon he spontaneously combusts down into a pile of ash and a bad pair of eyeglasses. The woman calls down her upstairs neighbor (Pushetonequa) for help with what to do next.
“Take that, genocide!”
The best of the new works is Yazzie’s A Few Pearls. An estranged mother (Dahl) and her adult daughter (Pushetonequa) accidentally cross paths at the airport, both of them headed home for the grandmother’s funeral. Long buried family secrets and the source of old resentments of course come bubbling to the surface. The mother is written as a delightfully cold fish. She’s too smart and too strong to succumb to sentimentality and emotion - both of which her daughter loves to wallow in. Yazzie’s motherly creation is a treat for an actor to play and Dahl takes full advantage of the opportunity. At a few points, the script leans a bit too heavily on spelling out the symbolic significance of its title. The rest of the script, and the two actresses, are all so good that the audience really doesn’t need the metaphor hammered home for them. In fact, you could skip the explanation and callbacks to it altogether and the script would be just as satisfying. Most audience members could come up with their own explanation of the title, given the scene they’ve witnessed done so well.
“The princess of miscarriages.”
The other new script, Rockymore’s Bang-Bang Check!, is less successful, mostly because it requires so much suspension of disbelief that it ceases to hold together as a story with any characters we care about. The set-up is that there’s a TV crew filming a piece about an unemployed abusive drunk (Joyce) and the cop wife (Dahl) who lets him push her around. The director for the TV show (Gauger) is verbally abusive in real-life to the stage hand (Goeden) as well as his own offstage wife on the phone, while in reality the actors playing the husband and wife caught in a cycle of abuse get along just fine. Where the whole thing stretches credulity until it breaks revolves around two things - a prop gun/real gun switcheroo, and a TV script so bad that even soap operas don’t sink to its simplistic depths anymore (and I doubt they ever did). If Bang-Bang Check! is meant to be a satire, then it’s pitching itself wrong both on the page and in production. Everyone on stage commits to the premise, but sadly it’s a failed enterprise.
“Somehow we just don’t see how it is with other folks until - something comes up.”
That said, three out of four isn’t a bad average for a collection of shorts, and Trifles, Poof!, and A Few Pearls are all so good that they more than make up for the other script. You can catch Theatre Unbound’s Mere Trifles at SteppingStone Theatre through March 12, 2018
4 stars - Highly Recommended