10 By 10 in the Triangle

The ArtsCenter
Through July 21

The upgrade in curation and production continues at 10 By 10 in the Triangle, The ArtsCenter’s longtime annual showcase devoted to 10-minute plays submitted from around the world.

We haven’t always known just how seriously to take this festival; at times, it hasn’t been clear how seriously the series has taken itself. Between the swap-shop casting and direction, the primitive hammer-and-nail set pieces of its earlier years and, more recently, Nathan Jeremy Logan’s deliberately threadbare one-man band, production values have long veered somewhere between charmingly shoestring and simply slipshod.

Curation has also been problematic. At times, we could hardly imagine hundreds of scriptsthe also-rans, rejected by 10 By 10‘s judgesbeing weaker than some of the putative winners. At other points, sketch comedies were substituted wholesale among the entries; in 2011 we concluded that only four of that year’s group actually qualified as one-act plays.

That’s hardly the case with the class of 2013, the quality of which underlines a marked improvement in recent years. It also speaks to the degree to which this contest derives its distinction and authorityor lack thereoffrom its panel of readers and judges. Though this year’s program had its dips and spikes, only one work struggles to transcend a sketchy foundation. Less auspiciously, it was the evening’s only contribution by a local playwright, Mora Harris’ “What You Don’t Know.”

For the rest, fully committed actors lifted even the lower-hanging fruit, as was the case with playwright David MacGregor’s somewhat soapy “New Year’s Eve”; its nursing-home meditation on the brevity of life was redeemed by Owen Daly’s performance as a disgruntled resident. Similarly, director Gregor McElvogue and actors LaKeisha Coffey, Mary Forester and Amanda Scherle transcended the easy prescription of Carol Mullen’s post-breakup piece, “Zero Mile Mark.”

Playwright Patrick Gabridge’s “will/did/is” may have been too compacted a vector change in the relationship between a woman with a past and a man from the future during a Boston subway trip. Still, with Joshua Benjamin directing, Alphonse Nicholson and Scherle, with supporting actors Mark Filiaci and Leanne Heintz, had us along for the ride.

Among the stronger titles of the night, Abe Koogler’s provocative “Fruit” proved a funny-’til-it-wasn’t take on the ageless gay slur in the title. Leslie Cloninger’s discerning direction deployed Brett Stafford, Heintz and Coffey to look at the results of a metaphorical but still closeted desire.

In a disquieting evening for two middle-aged British homebodies (ably depicted by Filiaci and Bonnie Roe under Chris Chiron’s direction), Margy Ragsdale’s innovative “Gun on the Table” asked if Chekhov’s famous maxim about guns on stage applies in a 10-minute one-act.

Cleverness was also the hallmark of Tom Swift’s “My Name Is Yin” and Philip Kaplan’s “Detective Stories,” the evening’s opening and closing acts. The latter featured Michael Brocki and Filiaci’s rewarding takes on famous gumshoes in a work that finally puts the audience on trial; the former was a barn-side-broad lampoon of a true story from 2003well, up to the part about the lesbian bear, at least.

And, as directed by veteran Lori Mahl, Nicholson and Forester sold us on the funny and touching “5564 to Toronto,” playwright Karen Howes’ thoughts on whether a paranormal gift is a blessing or a curse.

Of the night’s offerings, the seed-play most in need of expansion as a full-length work was “Dr. Jekyll and Little Miss Hyde.” In this rewarding gender-role comedy, playwright Sean Abley gives the Robert Louis Stevenson potboiler the Charles Ludlam (Irma Vep) treatment, assigning multiple roles across gender to two actors. Abley’s witty writing hinges on the definitions of monstrous behavior that differed substantially for men and women in Victorian Englandbefore connecting Stevenson’s “horror” to the rise of the suffragettes.

Which brings us to the box scores this time out: nine plays, five of them clearly commendable, with distinctive direction and performances scattered throughout. By all means, let the upgrade at 10 By 10 continue.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Short, but above average.”