Theatre St. Thomas’ What’s Next Festival debuted to hearty laughs and tremendous applause Jan. 31.
The festival featured three one-act plays written and directed by St. Thomas University students and alumni. The first play in the line-up was Michael Pallotto’s Thieves of Paradise, which was directed by Laura-Beth Bird.
Thieves was a solid opener to the festival. It focused on the story of three men on a holy quest to return the body of a saint from Turkey to Italy. The men were spurred on their quest after one of them received a vision from God, which the other two have to accept on faith. This leads to some philosophical debates surrounding the interpretation of God’s will, which serve as the meat of the play.
Thieves does a decent job of telling its story, but it suffers from being too short. The story feels crammed into its 40-minute runtime and the characters didn’t have time to be fully fleshed out, leading me to think Pallotto’s play would benefit from a longer run time.
Where Thieves excelled was in its use of stage effects to set a scene. In one scene the three lead characters, Ferrando (Dylan Grant), Antonello (Jason McIntyre) and Raffiano (Lucas Gutiérrez-Robert), find themselves sailing through a raging storm. The audience finds themselves there too, thanks to the faux lightning, in the form of a flash bulb and the accompanying rain and thunder sound effects.
Following Thieves was Anthony Bryan’s play, I Love This City. I Love This City, directed by Esther Soucoup, follows a former gameshow contestant who teams up with an unlicensed private investigator to find an internet celebrity. They never actually get around to finding the celebrity though, because this is just part one of a series of plays Bryan is writing.
They do, however, get around to some great one-liners and snappy retorts. I Love This City may have had some of the best lines in the whole festival, judging from the audience reaction. Here’s one from private investigator Ambrose Holiday (portrayed by Emma Dufour):
“I once ate a large swan. No one willed me to do it. I just looked at it and thought, ‘yup, this is happening.’”
If the line seems out of context, that’s because it is. But that is a part of the charm of Bryan’s play. Between an omnipotent narrator/barista, an ex-gameshow contestant with anger management issues and a high functioning alcoholic turned detective, I Love This City is a wild ride.
What’s Next saved its best for last with And Above All. Written by Thomas MacDougall and directed by Samuel Crowell, this play nearly had the audience falling out of its seat from laughter.
The play was set in a small-town convenience store during a nuclear alert and focuses on the story of its customers and employees as they ride out the crisis. Seeking solace, they turn to an old copy of the Nuclear Preparation Guide for Small Businesses they find in a box of junk.
What makes this play stand out is that the guide is portrayed by Naomi McGowan, and she by far steals the show. Any time she was on stage it was hard to hear the other characters over the audience’s laughter. Whether she was delivering lines in the foreground, or waving her American flags in the background, all eyes were on her.
That’s not to say the rest of the cast didn’t play an important role. The other cast members nailed the portrayal of their characters, whether it was the cowardly authority figure of Jack Flannigan (Miguel Roy) or the petite, take-charge cashier Melly Baker (Brenna Gauthier), every character was a welcome part of the play.
And Above All succeeded in large part thanks to MacDougall’s ability to twist his story from delightful comedy to dark tragedy in an instant, along with his ability to make us connect to his characters in such a short time. MacDougall packed his 40-minute runtime to the brim without it ever feeling like too much and ended it on the perfect emotional note.
Overall the What’s Next festival was a wonderful experience and I look forward to future iterations of the event.