There’s no question the three-week Source Festival offers tremendous opportunities for playwrights. They have the chance to stage new and in-progress work for audiences — full-length plays, 10-minute pieces and other artistic collaborations — with short runs of productions that are more polished than staged readings but not quite ready for prime time.
And how does this benefit audiences? In surprisingly big ways. Given that the selected playwrights are inventive up-and-comers, some of the pieces showcase delightful twists on standard fare.
“The Thrush and the Woodpecker” is a prime example. On Friday’s opening night, actors flubbed or forgot lines, quips failed to land and the final scene needed some tweaking. But the story tinkers with well-worn themes, setting the stage for a family-focused, living-room drama, only to transition into something wildly different. It’s not hard to see how the script was selected as one of three feature-length plays chosen from 120 submissions.
Of course, playwright Steve Yockey is hardly a novice. The Los Angeles-based writer also wrote “Pluto,” which Forum Theatre staged this year. And like that play, “Thrush” infuses some supernatural elements into a familiar story.
As the play begins, Noah (Alex Alferov) has just returned to his mother’s out-of-the-way California home after getting kicked out of a pricey private college for vandalism. Mom Brenda (Alison Bauer) is not amused, and she lets her son know it with a mix of passive-aggressive prose and bitter sarcasm. Noah did, in fact, break some rules — the astronomy major destroyed campus lights because he needed to see the night sky — but he seems like the kind of Montessori kid who probably was reared to find unorthodox solutions.
He’s also great at sparring, although he clearly learned from a pro. Brenda doesn’t have the mean streak of Violet Weston from “August: Osage County,” but the play’s atmosphere feels similarly charged, as familial peevishness plays out through gibes and quips.
But the play pivots as soon as Brenda leaves to run errands. A mysterious, fiery-haired woman named Róisín (Robin Covington) appears at the front door looking for Brenda. Noah invites her in and the two chat while awaiting his mother’s return. Róisín seems at once meek and terrifying, like a bespectacled librarian who spends her off-hours tending to a large collection of voodoo dolls. When Noah wanders into the kitchen to make tea, she picks up a photo of Brenda and her husband and with a laugh, spits out a quick, sharp, “B----.”
This would be a good time to mention that each play in this year’s Source Festival incorporates one of three themes — revenge, quests and mortality — and “Thrush” falls into the revenge bucket. The rest of the plot should be kept under wraps, but let’s say it only gets crazier.
Along with an imaginative narrative, there are some experimental touches. When Róisín tells Noah a story about a despondent woman nursing a wounded woodpecker back to life, the lights dim and the tale is told beautifully, using shadows of the woman and the bird projected on a white backdrop.
Despite the occasional flubs, all the actors hold their own in a production full of rich language and fast-paced exchanges. Alferov, particularly, delivers his lines with ease. He’s entirely believable as the boundary pusher who, despite missteps, remains a good kid. His character sets the stage for a fuller meditation on the shadowy line between right and wrong. It’s a theme that’s been done before but, even in this slightly unpolished state, is worth revisiting.