Theater review: Source Festival gets underway with flip and poignant playlets


Anna Lathrop, Emily Kester, Alex Badalov in the play "First Stop Niagara Falls" by Renee Calarco at the Source Festival. (C. Stanley Photography/C. Stanley Photography)

Things have changed around the Source Festival since it began in 1981. The nighttime sidewalk at 14th and T streets NW teems with hipsters bobbing from bar to bar. It used to be a scary strip.

It’s different inside Source, too, though perhaps not so dramatically. The Source Festival was always a jolly crapshoot: You knew the new works being slapped together in a frenzy of imagination and desperation (and in fairly derelict conditions) probably wouldn’t be much good.

Then again, they might be. And anyway, it would be fun.

That spirit persisted Friday as the latest three-week Source Festival got underway to the sounds of Vincent Price’s campy cackle from “Thriller.” The first night was a slate of 10-minute plays — the bonbon or McNugget of dramatic literature, depending — and soon enough two young adults were fretting about a mummy in the next room and dealing with their undead dad, an uncanny figure looking like a half-decayed Indiana Jones and sounding like Kenneth from “30 Rock.”

This evening of playlets, on tap again several times through the end of the month, is flip, then poign­ant (a young couple’s lyrical imaginings as they wait in a hospital), then flip again (online dating that blooms into ballet). A sober slate of 10-minute plays: inconceivable! But the channel-surfing vibe also shows there’s still a bit of kid in a festival that likes to act grown up.

Take this year’s themes. Nearly everything is governed by currents drawn from the festival’s three full-length plays. The 10-minute group “On the Cusp” is organized around Topher Payne’s “Perfect Arrangement,” set in the State Department and dealing with the anti-gay “lavender scare” in the 1950s. “In the Midst,” the 10-minute cluster that launched things Friday, all have something in common with Joe Waechter’s “Lake Untersee,” a family drama with Antarctica as a backdrop.

The “Afterward” 10-minute set is loosely connected to Jason Gray Platt’s “A Frontier, as Told by the Frontier,” about kids in an abandoned amusement park and inspired by the country’s recent economic troubles.

The 10-minute plays weren’t created in response to the full-length works, but the festival’s three “artistic blind dates” were. Those projects play matchmaker between theater artists, visual artists, composers and dancers in various combinations. They are experiments, with talkbacks after each performance.

That’s the kind of creative calculation that gives this once-raucous festival a deliberate feel. Experienced directors mentor the emerging directors of the 10-minute plays. Undergraduate designers intern with pros who know their way around sets, costumes and lights.

But will the plays be any good? More than 700 were submitted — most of them bonbons and McNuggets — and “In the Midst” features several nifty scripts. The simplicity of Molly Hagan’s “Pioneers” (the one about the couple in the hospital) is lovely. Krista Knight’s “Frosty: A Chilly Tragedy With Sexy Bits” confidently imagines a lighthearted and slightly naughty romance with a snowman. And Renee Calarco’s “First Stop: Niagara Falls” crisply pops the cork on a bottle of Awkward that might’ve come straight from “The Office.”

“Welcome to the sixth annual Source Festival,” came the greeting from the stage Friday. That jarred a little; the festival is in its fourth decade. But this is the sixth year since the foundering Source was saved by Cultural D.C., which promised to maintain the festival as part of its bid to buy and renovate the fabled hub of 1980s cheap-o theatrics. This is Source Festival 2.0.

Is it still worth doing now that practically every troupe, typically run by people with graduate degrees, has an in-house new-works mechanism? You can’t fault the professionalizing of the event — the organization, training, vision and discipline imposed on countless actors and behind-scenes people putting up two dozen new works.

Besides, the festival still offers a one-night-only talent show June 28, which promises to be slightly unhinged. And watching nearly 20 actors taking bows on the small stage after performing the first night’s six spooky, spunky skitlets, you could still get a whiff of the old Source funk.

Source Festival

Full-length plays, 10-minute plays and “artistic blind dates” through June 30 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Call 866-811-4111 or visit www.sourcefestival.org.

Nelson Pressley has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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