Backstage: Capital Fringe Festival Is a Chance for Playwrights to Shine in D.C.

James Finley and Lindsay Haynes star in the one-acts
James Finley and Lindsay Haynes star in the one-acts "MAY 39th/40th," Callie Kimball's futuristic treatises on love, pain and connection. (By Kari Ginsburg)
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By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Murder, revenge, hostage-taking, war, father-son estrangement, family secrets and painful love affairs. Those elements have sparked six playwrights -- five of them area residents, the sixth a former Washingtonian -- whose efforts will take bows as part of this month's wide-ranging Capital Fringe Festival.

John Morogiello was invited by Georgetown Theatre Company's Catherine Aselford to write a Jacobean-style revenge tragedy for the Fringe Festival, which runs July 9-26. (His simultaneous spoof of terrorism and Irish literary greats, "Irish Authors Held Hostage," which ran in Washington in 2006, will have a Cap Fringe run July 10-26.)

Being a wag, Morogiello realized he had to mess with the idea of revenge. Aselford "wanted a revenge tragedy in one act. I looked at the genre and realized I could not write a very straight one. I had to make it my own."

The result is "Jack the Ticket Ripper" (July 11-19), about an usher who, having been replaced by an optical scanner, "seeks revenge upon everyone at the theater," Morogiello says. There are "lots of inside-theater jokes" in it, Morogiello admits, but adds, "You need not know anything about theater to enjoy it, because it's just very silly."

Speaking of murder, the tiny Virginia-based Starving Artist Theatre is presenting a trio of one-act comedies about murder under the umbrella title "Thou Shalt Not Kill" (July 11-19), a reference to the Sixth Commandment.

Company founder Sage Costanzo has written two of the three comedies -- "Number 6" and "Why It's Okay to Kill an Old Lady." Costanzo says she has been fascinated by "how easily and innocently sometimes we think about murder." Instead of writing more comedies about love and marriage, Costanzo says he wanted to see whether he "could make something like murder just as funny as husbands and wives fighting."

Washington actor Danny Devlin contributed the third one-act for Starving Artist: "Let's Go Kill a Guy," about two men who plot to commit the perfect crime. "You're saying I'm going to kill that guy, that's a powerful combination of words," Devlin says. "What I was looking to do with this play was to put a human face on that rage. . . . If you could actually do this and get away with it, would you?"

Susan Austin Roth spent a career writing nonfiction -- especially gardening books. Now she's written "Missing Pages" (July 16-26), inspired by her late father's World War II experiences in the Counter Intelligence Corps. It began when she discovered a briefcase full of old documents and a war diary that her father, suffering from Alzheimer's, had never shown her. She had thought of writing a play about caring for parents who have dementia, but then broadened her scope. She realized her father had been a spy catcher for the Army.

When Austin Roth started reading history, she says, "I could correlate it, like, he was in such and such a place, and what happened in that place." Then she made the aged World War II veteran's estranged son a Vietnam War veteran, which allowed the two men to clash over the validity of the two conflicts. "The first draft had all kinds of rhetoric in it that I took out," Austin Roth says of her antiwar themes. "It's really about family healing, but it's also about what war does to families."

Ambitious newshounds jockey for power, have inappropriate sex in the workplace and file sex discrimination lawsuits in Rachael Bail's "Immoral Combat" (July 11-26), set in a radio network newsroom. The play had a reading at the National Press Club and a recent run at McLean Drama Company. The Fringe will feature a partly new cast and new director (Bail's grandson Ely).

Bail herself had a long career in print and broadcasting as a reporter here and abroad. She retired in 2001 after more than 20 years at Voice of America. Of changes in the news biz, she says: "There are always people who are trying to get you to do the news their way. And you may or may not like it. If you like it, fine. If you don't, you have two choices -- you either go along or you get out. So I thought it would be interesting to show that nothing is perfect in the news business."

Adds Bail, "Most people go into the news business because they want to express the truth . . . and then they run into everything."

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