History was made Sunday at the Dayton Playhouse as the organization’s 23rd annual FutureFest of new plays gave top honors to Steven Young’s fascinating historical drama “The King’s Face” and Hal Borden’s hilariously topical comedy “A Position of Relative Importance.”
Last weekend’s jaw-dropping yet welcomed tie primarily reflected the refreshing strengths and enormous potential of this year’s six diverse, developing finalists, which included the cross-cultural dramedy “Veils” by Tom Coash of New Haven, Connecticut, quirky abstract art-centered dramedy “The One with Olives” by Sam Havens of Houston, Texas, psychological drama “On the Road to Kingdom Come” by 2009 FutureFest winner and Dayton native Michael Feely of Woodland Hills, California, and the gay marriage-themed comedy “St. Paulie’s Delight” by J. Joseph Cox of Chicago, Illinois. Each contender was judged on criteria including character development, conflict, dramatic structure, plot, page-to-stage and the next stage. The adjudicators consisted of New York-based trio Helen Sneed, Eleanore Speert and David Finkle along with 1997 FutureFest winner Faye Sholiton of Cleveland and 2002 FutureFest finalist Robert Koon of Chicago.
“The King’s Face,” an engrossingly intimate two-hander superbly directed with palpable unease by Geoff Burkman, concerned the true story of Prince Harry of Monmouth, who was struck by an arrow during the 1403 battle of Shrewsbury. Inside a chamber at Kenilworth Castle, London surgeon and counterfeiter Jonathan Bradmore had the enormously difficult task of attempting to save Harry’s life by meticulously extracting the arrowhead from his skull while simultaneously saving his own.
As the sickly, agitated and paranoid Harry, Josh Katawick delivered a tremendously mature, extraordinarily emotional performance. Consistently discovering delicious nuances inside Young’s beautifully descriptive language, particularly when Harry recounts the elation and horror of battle, Katawick took his lines to Shakespearean heights while remaining astutely connected to the doubt, fear and panic boiling beneath Harry’s youthful bravado. At one point, Harry awakened from a terrible nightmare executed so brilliantly by Katawick you could feel every morsel of his anguish.
At the same rate, the outstanding Charles Larkowski, an absolute natural as Bradmore, effortlessly supported Katawick, genuinely yet cautiously fueling Bradmore’s desire to create a connection and establish trust with his future king. Adopting the warm, personable tones in his narrative duties that served him well as Cosmé McMoon in the Dayton Theatre Guild’s 2011 production of “Souvenir,” Larkowski excellently blended the roles of father, brother, therapist, priest and teacher as the play’s vivid portrait of friendship evolved.
“I enjoyed every minute of the whole process of putting (the play) together,” said Larkowski, a retired music historian who ensured all of the music in the play had a connection to Henry V. “I found both characters to be interesting and even enigmatic in certain ways. Bradmore’s professed aloofness and professionalism are a wonderful contrast to Henry’s more fiery or mercurial nature. Also noteworthy is the play’s range from highly intellectual/abstract content to the immediate, physical and visceral, which makes audiences think and squirm in their seats multiple times before the evening ends. I’ve been really overwhelmed by the response to this play. It’s definitely one of my most memorable theatrical experiences.”
“This play has a heart and a head,” said Sneed. “It is very original and highly dramatic with extreme theatricality. It is one of the best examples of a play staying in period but (remaining) accessible. I felt like I was watching a very good example of a playwright being a master of his universe.”
“This play could be performed anywhere,” said Sholiton. “It is a fully realized piece with stunning, brilliant writing.”
“I was astonished by the acting,” added Finkle, who rated the performances on par with the best of John Gielgud, Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Olivier. “This was a superlative production.”
“The actors were very attentive to the heighted language and dialect needs of the script,” said Young, a Dallas-based playwright. “They fully embraced the physical demands of (Harry’s) injury as well as the psychological state of a wounded warrior. I thought Geoff Burkman had a fantastic sense of the pacing, mood and arc of the play. Also, the simplicity of the production values supported the performances, but allowed the acting and text to remain in the forefront. Given the response of the adjudicators I was pleased they touched on the relationship of the characters, the search for a father figure, the nature of leadership and war.”
“A Position of Relative Importance,” Borden’s impressive playwrighting debut which opened the festival Friday, was also a veritable home run. Breezily and sharply directed by Debra Kent, “Position” told the charming story of humble, educated and unemployed Frank (a thoroughly engaging Titus Wolverton) who suddenly advances within a New York City business due to mistaken identity and unexpected bonds. Kent’s terrific cast included David Gaylor, Meagan Kuchan, Jared Mola and Dave Nickel.
“This play is totally wonderful and very fresh,” said Finkle, who noted the script brought to mind musical theater classics “A Chorus Line” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. “It’s all very real but also surreal. You never know where the story is going but it’s always a surprise.”
“The characters are sparkling and keep you interested,” said Speert. “It was a lot of fun.”
“Seeing the play on its feet for the first time, I was surprised at how little it surprised me,” said Borden, a Philadelphia trademark lawyer. “To a remarkable degree, what I saw on stage matched what I’d seen in my head when I wrote it even though the script itself says very little about the physical aspects of the production.”
Borden was also appreciative of the commitment and generous hospitality displayed by the festival’s numerous volunteers.
“I can’t talk about FutureFest without talking about the devotion of the organizers and volunteers,” he said. “On Saturday, Chuck Larkowski chauffeured a group of writers from the Playhouse to Marion’s Piazza for lunch. By Sunday, he was on stage giving one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in a role he might only play once in his life. I’m not sure that kind of thing happens anywhere else. In three days, I met more interesting people, and made more new friends, than I had in the past three years.”
Mola, likely to receive DayTony Awards this weekend for his knockout performances last season in the Dayton Playhouse’s “Dracula” and the Dayton Theatre Guild’s “Ghosts,” was the only actor featured in two plays. Juggling the roles of marketing whiz Trevor in “Position” and inquisitive young artist Danny in “Olives” may have appeared daunting, but he regards both assignments as an unforgettable introduction.
“From the time I started doing shows in Dayton last year, people have been telling me about how amazing and unique FutureFest is,” said Mola. “Six original plays in 48 hours takes a lot of effort and a lot of love from everyone involved. I can say with only slight hyperbole that the experience was awe-inspiring. It was everything it was built up to be and more. I think ‘Position’ is a really successful comedy because it’s layered with immediate punchlines and setups that build throughout. It’s that kind of intricate ebb and flow that makes writing a tight comedy so difficult, but this was one of those shows where every joke lands. Even as a ‘straightforward’ comedy in a field of shows with more emotional heft and tackling serious subject matter, I’m thrilled the adjudicators knew how rare of a feat it was.”
Additional components of the festival included a slew of fine performances: Risa Hillsman and a truly mesmerizing Annie Pesch in “Veils” (directed by FutureFest program director Fran Pesch); Wendi Michael, Jim Lockwood, Jordan Norgaard, Richard Young, David Hollowren and Cynthia Karns in “The One with Olives” (directed by Nancy K. Campbell); Shawn Hooks, Jennifer Lockwood, K.L. Storer, Heather Campbell Martin and John Bukowski in “On the Road to Kingdom Come” (directed by Saul Caplan); and Rick Flynn, Brian Sharp, Leo Santucci, Travis J. Cook, Naman Clark, Dodie Lockwood, Art Fabian and Kelli Locker in “St. Paulie’s Delight” (directed by Kathy Mola). The striking technical contributions for “The King’s Face” (costume design by Deirdre Root, scenic design by Fran Pesch, lighting design by John A. Falkenbach, props/extractor fabrication by Blake Senseman, prosthetics/makeup by Jacklyn Alexa, and properties by Jim Foreman and Amanday Gray) are equally praiseworthy.
Looking back on the whirlwind weekend, Young and Borden, who will each receive a plaque and $1,000, remain grateful to have been finalists and share the coveted title of outstanding playwright. It’s not out of the question to assume they will spread the word about just how special this nationally recognized festival continues to be.
“FutureFest is a unique event in the theater world and the experience speaks well of Dayton, the Playhouse and the commitment of its leadership and supporters,” said Young. “I found the entire weekend to be inspiring and invigorating.”
“FutureFest was one of the best experiences I’ve had as a writer,” added Borden. “I’m going to have to come back to Dayton some other time of year just to confirm that it’s a real place and not an illusion Fran Pesch pulled out of her magic hat.”
Mark your calendars! FutureFest will return July 25-27, 2014. For more information, visit www.daytonplayhouse.org.
My 2013 FutureFest Ranking:
1. “The King’s Face”
2. “A Position of Relative Importance”
4. “St. Paulie’s Delight”
5. “On the Road to Kingdom Come”
6. “The One with Olives”