There’s nothing quite like 14/48 in Seattle — or anywhere else for that matter. Billed as “the world’s quickest theater festival,” 14/48 requires seven teams of playwrights, directors, technical directors, and actors, all assigned at random, to produce seven 10-minute plays in 24 hours. Over two consecutive weekends, a total of 28 plays are presented — 14 each weekend. For participants, the experience can be terrifying, or exhilarating; for the audience it’s a chance to see the range of talent in Seattle’s thriving theater community, flying without a safety net.
Here’s how 14/48 works: On Thursday evening at 8 (January 5 this year), the entire ensemble randomly chooses a theme for Friday night’s performances. At 8:30 pm, the playwrights randomly choose the number and gender of actors they’ll be using, then disperse to write their 10-minute plays on the chosen theme. On Friday morning at 9, the playwrights deliver their scripts and each director selects a play, again at random. At 10, the actors are randomly assigned a play, and at 10:30 rehearsals begin. At 11, designers, musicians, and technical crew show up. Tech rehearsals begin at 3:30 pm and the curtain goes up on the first of each evening’s seven plays at 8 pm. All plays repeat at 10:30 pm and then the process starts all over again with the theme of the next night’s seven new plays chosen at random from suggestions offered by the early show audience. The following weekend, 14 more plays are presented using a completely different group of artists.
If your reaction to all of this is “whew!” you’re not alone. At Friday night’s opening, ACT’s Falls Theatre felt like a flash mob, giddy at the prospect of seeing actors and directors run off a cliff at breakneck speed. As you might expect, most teams' plays landed with a thud, but there were two offerings that, if they didn’t quite soar, offered moments of true beauty and feeling.
“Dream Come True,” by Juliet Walter Pruzan tells the story of a blind Russian, whose dying wish is to see Elvis. He and his Russian keeper visit an American company, whose business is to make dreams come true. When the owner hears his story, she is reluctant to dash his hopes by telling him Elvis is dead. It is only at the very end, when the proprietor hands him his tickets to Graceland, that he acknowledge he knows Elvis is gone. It’s a poignant final moment and brings what has seemed an absurd situation to a very real, human conclusion. Under Meghan Arnette’s skillful direction, Paul Mullin, Keith Dahlgren, and Samie Detzer keep the farcical elements in check, enabling us to feel the sadness at the core of this moving story.
The plot of Daniel Tarker’s “The Fortune Teller” is more straightforward. A woman (Renata Friedman), the mistress of a rich and powerful man, has just broken up with her lover and, having been supported by him, is in despair about what to do with her life. As she waits for a cab outside her former apartment, she comes across a self-described fortune teller (Brandon J. Simmons), who claims he will tell her the future for the price of a beer. At first, she’s skeptical. But then he begins to say things about her life that he can’t possibly know. He tells her he sees much happiness in her future and when he asks where she thinks she would be content, she blurts out, “Argentina.” Somehow naming the place out loud gives her the courage to make her dream real; she decides on the spot to take off for South America.
It’s a testament to Tarker’s skill as a storyteller that he is able to spin such a compelling tale in so few minutes and to Friedman’s and Simmons’ talent that they can make their characters and the situation completely believable. Tarker taps an emotional truth in “The Fortune Teller” that sometimes naming our dreams gives us the strength to pursue them. The performance proved that, though it’s not easy to craft a coherent stage play that runs just ten short minutes, in the right hands it can be done.
As for the other offerings, Doug Willott’s “Duck/Penguin” is about two migrating ducks who wind up way south of their intended destination and land in Antarctica, where they meet a flamboyant, oversexed Penguin couple. Although there were a few genuinely funny moments, the humor grew lame as the minutes wore on. The final scene — a Bob-Ted-Carol-Alice sequence — ended what could have been a pleasant diversion on a low note.
Unfortunately, Friday night’s theme, Headin’ Down South, leant itself too easily to sexual innuendo. Two plays took an even lower road by focusing on a woman’s nether regions. Eric Lane Barnes’ “The Descent” dealt with a sexual practice not suitable for discussion in an online newspaper; “The Procedure,” by Celene Ramadan likened bikini waxing to major surgery — with the “patient’s” mother and father providing emotional support during the procedure. Both plays went for easy laughs and puerile jokes and felt more like comedy skits than abbreviated plays, demonstrating once again the challenges inherent in the 14/48 festival.
Still, all of those who take part in 14/48, are to be commended for their willingness to step outside their comfort zone and demonstrate once again what a thriving theater community Seattle is fortunate to have.
More of that community will be on-view again this weekend, when 14/48 repeats the production process with 14 new plays offered between Friday and Saturday nights. Since the themes and casts aren’t selected until the last minute, it’s impossible to predict how many, if any, of those plays will be successful. But that’s not really the point. Besides giving artists a chance to fine-tune their skills and work with those outside their normal circle, 14/48 allows Seattle’s committed theater audience to show its support for the writers, directors, actors, musicians, and technical staff who choose to make Seattle their home.
If you go: 14 48, ACT Theatre, 700 Union Street, through January 14. Shows at 8 and 10:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 online, http://www.acttheatre.org/Tickets/OnStage/1448, or $25 at the door; students $10. Limited festival passes available.