January 12 - 23, WINTER'S TALES '94 ran 11 consecutive days at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. James Morrison, continuing his professional association with Emily Mann, performed in her contributed piece, the prologue of her adapted play TO KNOW A MONSTER: THE STORY OF THE GREENSBORO MASSACRE.

Contemplate the third millennium. What matters? Write a play about it. No restrictions; only keep it short, about 10 to 30 minutes.

Setting these ground rules, three women who make things happen at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton -- Emily Mann, artistic director; Loretta Greco, staff producer and Janice Paran, literary manager -- drew up a wish list of writers (some playwrights, some not) and asked them to participate in the theater's first mid-season short-play festival.

Those invited who were on deadlines of another kind simply asked to be asked again. Two who agreed couldn't get a manuscript to the McCarter in time. "They're on the top of our list for next year," Greco said.

But most said yes, and these included three off-Broadway veterans: Jane Anderson, THE BABY DANCE, and Adrienne Kennedy who won an Obie for FUNNYHOUSE OF NEGRO -- and Emily Mann herself.

Mann will not direct any of the plays during this festival because she'll be busy watching the one she wrote. In the process of adapting her screenplay TO KNOW A MONSTER for the stage, she noted that its prologue commented on the approaching millennium. She gave it to WINTER'S TALES '94.

Also came some "promising playwrights" like Han Ong, a performance artist, and the famed novelist Joyce Carol Oates.

Writers new to the stage included Deborah Tannen, author of YOU JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND: WOMEN AND MEN IN CONVERSATION, now in its third year on the New York Times best-seller list; Russell Banks, a major magazine writer and novelist; Leigh Beinen, a criminal defense attorney whose areas of expertise include capital punishment, sex crimes and rape reform legislation; Hector Tobar, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist; Gayle Pemberton, a Princeton faculty member; and an emerging playwright, actress Nicole Burdette.

"In addition to proven writers for the stage," Greco said, "we wanted to lure authors who have never written for the stage before, who could bring a new perspective and tone to it. When we proposed the year 2000 as a point of departure, leaving open structure and style, we didn't expect the plays to have such a shared through line: a looking back, to face history in order to sort out and to understand what we need to bring from it, and the baggage we have to leave behind to move on."

WINTERS TALES '94 is the outcome. Three programs in all are being produced in rotation, beginning Wednesday and going on through January 23. Two programs are of short plays in staged readings -- SHORTS I and SHORTS II -- and one program is a full-length work. On Saturdays and Sundays, the designated marathon days, the entire series can be seen on the same day, with time out for dinner.

Though THE NANJING RACE is a full-length, fully prepared play unto itself, the remaining programs, aptly titled "shorts" are collections of commissioned works, each with its own director (Adam Arkin, Michael Kahn, Jorge Ledesma, Evan Yionoulis, Loretta Greco, Tamsen Wolff, Nikki Appino, Laura Huntsman, and Jennifer Nelson) and sharing a company of 12 actors (Terry Alexander, Katherine Borowitz, Jere Edmunds, Karen Garvey, Stephen Lee, Karl Light, Brandan McClain, James Morrison, James Puig, Allen Swift, Lynne Thigpen, Richard Thompson) who work with scripts in hand, minimalistic costumes, a few set pieces, and a full range of props.

THE NANJING RACE by Reggie Cheong-Leen stars B.D. Wong (Tony Award-winning star in M. BUTTERFLY) as an alienated, angry young Japanese-American who, on a business trip to China, becomes chummy with one hotel employee who dreams of America, and one who refuses to be seduced by it.

The short plays also reflect Greco's expressed theme as "the importance of balancing future and past." Inevitably, family links are explored and dramatic forms are opened to experimentation.

SHORTS I includes:

Han Ong's MY DEAD FATHER'S BODY AT THE CARLTON FLOPHOUSE REDISCOVERED AS ANTHROPOLOGY. A young Asian-American, hearing the voice of his dead father, is looking for clues, in verse fragments, to the man's identity.

AN ACT OF DEVOTION by Deborah Tannen, a university professor and best-selling novelist, involves a young, Jewish woman visiting Warsaw to affirm her connection to her father -- and to the Holocaust.

In Leigh Bienen's one-character play, HE WAS A BIG BOY, a lawyer is cross-examining a criminal's mother, but her answers come from the minds of the audience members.

Adrienne Kennedy sets her play, MOTHERHOOD 2000 -- directed by Michael Kahn, once the McCarter's artistic director -- in the apocalyptic future. A mother puts on a passion play to realize a lifelong vendetta against her son's murderer -- and to recapture the beauty of a New York of old.

In SMART CHOICES FOR THE NEW CENTURY subtitled A SEMINAR FOR RESPONSIBLE LIVING, Jane Anderson shows a woman in her 30's conducting a self-defense clinic while her assistant passes around a .38 revolver, an easy first gun to handle and one with "guaranteed stopping power."

Acting honors in this group belong to Katherine Borowitz (who later starred in McCarter's THE MAI) as the Jewish daughter in Tannen's work and the legal aid lawyer in Bienen's monologue. In Anderson's work she plays a gun-toting talk show host with a program called "Defending Your Life" in which she presents what seem like perfectly sane arguments for carrying and using personal firearms.

SHORTS II includes:

In WHITE FOLKS SHO' IS CRAZY playwright Russell Banks pits John Brown against Frederick Douglass in a debate about risk versus expediency. Little Eva and Huck Finn are among the play's six characters in search of the possibilities of common citizenship.

Joyce Carol Oates in THE INTERVIEW, directed by Adam Arkin, has a reporter interrogating with comic intent an imaginary "immortal" from the past.

WHAT'S A HEAVEN FOR, by actress Nicole Burdette, depicts Robert F. Kennedy in heaven, reading his fan mail.

In MINI-MALL HEROES, Hector Tobar -- a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that reported on the Los Angeles riots and then was a dramaturge for Anna Deavere Smith's theater piece TWILIGHT: LOS ANGELES, 1992 -- continues an investigation, this time theatrically, of urban chaos in East Hollywood.

The festival's sole AIDS play is AND I AM NOT RESIGNED by Gayle Pemberton, who is associate director of Afro-American studies at Princeton University. In this two-character piece, two friends face what could be their last meeting. Annie has known Larry for 30 years.
He is a fellow member of academia, and they were also schoolmates. But since school, they still meet for all-night dinners or spend hours on phone conversations, though only occasionally. Now, Larry is dying of AIDS, and Annie can't face life without him. She must confront and communicate her heretofore unarticulated feelings to her dying friend. This small, perfect gem gives some forceful, emotional moments about friendship, and the performers (Terry Alexander and Lynne Thigpen) are heartbreaking.

For Oates and Mann, the festival is granting double exposure on the short and the long side of the program. Two readings of full-length new plays in their first drafts are being offered free, as a festival bonus. BAD GIRLS by Oates will be presented January 17, and TO KNOW A MONSTER: THE STORY OF THE GREENSBORO MASSACRE by Mann will be January 20. Each play reading is to be followed by a discussion with the playwright.

All this activity is the stuff of which "second stage spaces" are made. Says Mann, "Having a second stage has been my dream for McCarter since I arrived. It would allow us to explore works suited for a more intimate venue, to create a laboratory to develop daring ideas, and to make a safe place for first efforts."

Alas, Mann doesn't yet have her second stage -- a tad embarrassing for McCarter, given that many regional theatres of equivalent reputation have some experimental venue. For now, Mann's first stage must literally serve as her second. Spectators will sit in 150 yellow plastic chairs ensconced on three sides of the actual stage as the readings and THE NANJING RACE unfold in an improvised thrust-stage setting.

Synopsized from reviews by Alvin Klein for the New York Times, Peter Filichia for The Sunday Star-Ledger, Ted Otten for The Times and another, uncredited article for The Times.


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