Ashland New Plays Festival has been a longtime, reliable incubator for compelling new works of art under the leadership of James Pagliasotti and his board. Now in their 25th year, the ANPF continues to shine as a uniquely homegrown institution.
It’s no surprise, then, that the reading of Scott Kaiser’s “Now This” on Monday evening was an event as robustly attended as it was enjoyable. And, while the presentation for the event looked initially suspect — actors were seated sedately at music lecterns, in the sparsest of settings — it was clear from the get-go that the performers would not be luring us into the sort of monotonal agony that is often a prescript of staged readings.
Mr. Kaiser is no stranger to good writing, having written myriad full-length plays, both on his own and under commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. As OSF’s director of company development, he stands at the main intersection of an artistic behemoth. But this work — a galloping and varied piece that might rightly be called Homeric in scale — was anchored in rich language, hilarious characters and powerful narrative, all held together by Kaiser’s obvious gift for drawing his audience into a world that reminds us all of home.
Wherever one's particular home might be, the horsepower of Kaiser’s language draws our attention to the fictitious town of Purple Mountain, a place where the townsfolk are as superficially ordinary and discreetly insane as in any small American city. As each character is announced by Kaiser — himself playing the character of “First Voice,” a psychedelic conductor who teases out the lyricism and pace of each of his onstage creations — they leap to their feet.
It’s a pretty motley crew. Indeed, there are 14 performers here, playing no fewer than 64 roles. Kaiser has written a play best described as the hallucinogenic lovechild of Garrison Keillor and Hunter S. Thompson. His narrative descriptions of the imaginary town in which his denizens dwell is sweet and heartfelt. However, the various citizens are all victims of an overarching materialism that leaves them stranded on the tarmac of American commercialism.
With names like Purrelle Swiffer and Avis Adderall, the characters in this play become tools of corporate overreach, while at the same time giving their audience insights into their deepest hopes and fears. One gets the impression that Kaiser could only sit down to dinner with John Steinbeck after a lengthy afternoon session in the company of Timothy Leary.
Despite the unrelenting onslaught of hilarity (actors playing “Yoghurt” and “Bacon” vie for the attention of their potential breakfast customer) there are painful moments, too. A closeted local priest writes love poems to a lost boy of whom he is secretly enamored. That same young man, a soul at sea in the bleakness that can often only come as a result of an isolation felt in small town living, eventually tries to take his own life.
Weird flights into trippy language and bawdy humor make way for more soulful disclosures; a local policeman talks about the pain he experienced in having to put down a wounded deer. A nurse in the throes of a midlife crisis drives too fast in a car filled with boxes of faded memories. Coming back to humor, we meet a sushi chef who is dealing with road rage, his only companion on the journey is an “anger management” CD … played by another actor, whose calm demeanor and reassuring presence does little to soothe the irate driver. There are overly optimistic school teachers and aging, failed local athletes.
Kaiser has a knack for touching on many of the archetypal characters of village life.
The assembled actors are all excellent sports, and their professionalism is spectacular, thanks in no small part to the fact that the ensemble is made up entirely of moonlighting OSF artists. There wasn’t a weak showing in the bunch, although there were standout performances from Armando McClain, who, with his resonant voice and pitch-perfect delivery, cleverly caricatured the slightly fruity thespian style of a bygone era. Triney Sandoval was outstanding in character as “Mr. Hyper-Griper,” a raging, twitching heart-attack of a man, seemingly always on the brink of keeling over. Jamie Ann Romero, another OSF actor in good form, was a step above in her various roles.
Overall, the reading was a night well spent, and Kaiser, as well as his director, Sara Becker, should be congratulated for bringing such quality language and artistry together on one stage, if only for the night. Your critic looks forward to seeing what could be done with this brilliant and quirky play were it to be fully produced. In the meantime, ANPF continues to be a reliable avenue for intelligent and engaging work that leaves the audience hungry for more.
Let’s hope they keep feeding us in the coming years.
Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at email@example.com.