The Venus Adonis Theater Festival, already gaining a strong reputation for offering a wealth of wonderful new material with each yearly outing, did not wait long to dazzle with this week’s new court thriller by S. Karlan, “ Second Seat.”
The festival, which opened January 4th and runs into March 2016 has gained momentum among playwrights and producers for its unique ability to allow their participating productions more tech time, an abundance of set pieces and props, and more evening time slots than many other festivals. With so much attention, effort and time offered to participants, the festival has managed to up the game insofar as festivals in the Northeast are concerned. That the festival is held at the fairly modern 96-seat Hudson Guild Theatre certainly does help. There are no fancy concessions or elaborate box office set up at this theater (so grab your drink before the show), but once inside, the venue itself is leagues above others in this city of decrepit spaces.
That said, what the folks behind “Second Seat,” directed by Cristhian Andrews, have managed to accomplish is remarkably new and exciting by any standard. They have certainly capitalized on what the festival offers and then some.
For director and producer Andrews and his lead and co-producer, Ruya Koman, this was a project that was treated with a quasi-filmic approach that is usually frowned upon in theatre circles. To make matters even more challenging, they applied an improvised directing style that is contrary to the usual festival process and quite dangerous given the short and stressful rehearsal schedule often involved in these festivals. (You can shoot and reshoot an improvised scene in film, but on stage what you do is what we get.) If that wasn’t enough, they lugged computers and desks and flags (for the court scenes) to the already well-stocked venue and brought along an unheard cast of more than 30 actors and filled every nook and cranny of that already large stage. By any standard, this is insane. But I have to admit, I was impressed by the realism of the work and it worked in many ways.
The opening scene feels very real, almost as if being present at a crime scene on a dark, wet, gritty New York City night. The lighting is surreal and before you realize it, the scene is filled with cops and CSI personnel and witnesses, the victim’s crying family members and the DA’s office, specifically a young lawyer, Susan Martinez (played by Koman) who is about to be offered the opportunity to be part of a case that could make her career. The characters are rough and believable and played with skill as the scene is heightened with a cinematic score that plays throughout most of the play. The combination of all these elements is surprisingly clean and expertly handled and the play has moments that really dazzle. I’ve personally started to notice how little attention is given to sound and music and sound effects in most off/off and off Broadway productions these days, and Andrews and company have reminded me just how effective this technique can be! Why are so many directors not doing this?
For a festival production that could at best be described as a “work-in-progress,” with the hope of taking it on a longer run after all the kinks have been worked out, this production was not only different and enjoyable, but worth seeing now.
Many of the 30+ actors – only 15 or so with actual speaking parts – were excellent. From the two witnesses brought into the interrogation room, to the lead prosecutors, the DA, the detectives and even
the victim’s sister, to the leads, you really had the sense that these were real people inhabiting their real world. Koman is the perfect leading lady; strong, intelligent, yet naïve, she is ready to take her character on a journey that will likely break her if not kill her...but her conviction for the truth is too strong and she forges ahead.
The overlapping dialogue and unique pacing contributed to the sense of filmic realism, even though at times it wasn’t as neat as or effective as it could be. One or two scenes could certainly be tightened and in some instances, I would have loved to have seen more. It’s a balance that I am sure would evolve given more than just three performances in a venue in which the actors have barely rehearsed. But based on what I witnessed, I have to believe that with more rehearsal and time, this show could end up enjoying a nice run at some regular Off Broadway theatre.
The script itself was also quite engaging and well crafted and I enjoyed it. For playwright S. Karlan, who happens to be a working New York attorney using a pseudonym (I can understand why), the ability to give you a close look at the judicial system is fascinating. His expertise lends great credibility to the material. That said, I personally feel that it still requires some minor tweaks and, with all due respect, a new ending. I won’t reveal why so as not to spoil the play, but suffice it to say that it certainly has room for experimentation and perhaps an alternate finale.
For now, unless it into the finals, you can see the show Sunday, January 17th at 8:30PM at the Hudson Guild Theatre on 26th Street. For tickets go to: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2461161
UPDATE: Second Seat went on to win BEST PLAY in the The Venus Adonis festival in 2016.