Ten-minute plays have their merits: like short stories, they have to be precise yet subtle, revealing the heart of the story with scalpel-like implications or omissions. They hinge on situation more than character, which can yield highly creative in medias res storylines. And, as Todd McNerney of the CofC Theater Department says, they’re excellent teaching tools for young playwrights.
Under the Lights this year offers the best of all these short play characteristics. Add to this the truly studied and professional acting of many of the show’s actors, and you’ve got a really good show.
Under the Lights is a performance of 10 ten-minute plays written, acted, and directed by CofC students. Some are award-winners, but the standard set throughout the show is so high that these don’t stand out particularly (which is a good thing). The opening play, “Connected,” is about a college couple and their drug dealer, and starts the night off with a bang. Michael Smallwood’s drug addict in need of a fix is almost uncomfortably real; both Alex Hoffmann’s sleazy drug dealer and Laine Hester’s no-nonsense woman in a underworld ruled by men are believable.
While the first five plays were quite good, the second half is undeniably stronger than the first. Each hits its target perfectly, whether comic or tragic, satire or “play noir.” “The Exam,” written by Kaytlin Bailey, is a hilarious satire on women’s health issues, taking place in a doctor’s office soon after the state Senate passes a law requiring multifarious and insulting things of women wanting birth control. Mira Waters as the Bible-thumping, birth control-hating nurse is hilarious; Alex Hoffmann, this time as the slimy, slightly lecherous Sen. Whitehair, is absolutely on point. “Swing,” an interaction between two married people at a playground, is incredible in its emotional depth; at the end I had goosebumps. Finally, “Café Noir” is a daring comic noir, set in a Starbucks and using every 1930s detective movie expression you ever heard. What’s so satisfying about this one is that the playwrights went out on a limb here, and it works — the acting by Dallas Corbett and Matt Giedraitis (a co-author of the play with Emily McKay) is confident and breezy, just as it should be, and Michael Smallwood’s flustered barista is a perfect dash of reality in the main characters’ ridiculously anachronistic world.
There’s no doubt about it: CofC is turning out actors and writers who could, with the right luck, make it big. They impressed beyond my expectations with Under the Lights; if you’re interested at all in the young talent in this town, this is the show to see. And keep your program. In five years, there’s no telling which of these students might be a star.