Organized chronologically in three series and presented in repertory through Oct. 28, the 10 plays provide a historical overview of comic theater's evolution in the past century. It's an ambitious undertaking, one that showcases a cross-section of major schools and styles, including farce, parody, vaudeville, and satire, but an effort that's well worth it, according to Jeff Thompson, publicist for the Eastenders. A little lightness and humor, says Thompson, give "people a chance to get away from things and to breathe again, and not just to dwell."
Still, there's no escaping the trickle-down effects of such an enormous event, and like many groups, the Eastenders have struggled with last-minute revisions of previously planned programs. Thompson says the group's artistic directors considered removing Eugène Ionesco's 1962 absurdist farce Frenzy for Two, or More from the second series because it is set in the midst of war. The story of an embittered husband and wife oblivious to the chaos unfolding in the world at large was considered too disquieting. But in the end, the troupe kept the play: The couple's petty bickering and senseless need to be right seemed appropriate.
If escape is your goal, the festival should not disappoint, with its broad selection of seldom-seen short plays. "One show may not be your style, but the next one may be exactly what you're looking for," explains Thompson. Series A is an exercise in folly; it mixes Mixed Doubles, a tale of belle époque Paris society by French author Georges Feydeau and his frequent collaborator, Maurice Desvallières, with Overruled, George Bernard Shaw's controversial take on adultery and infidelity. Series B features the Ionesco play along with George S. Kaufman's musical revue Local Boy Makes Good, and Dario Fo's political critique of Italian bureaucracy and social mores in Women Undressed and Bodies to Be Despatched.
When I asked him about his top pick, Thompson was wary of playing favorites. But he finally admitted his preference for the third and most contemporary series. It includes Tom Stoppard's The Boundary, a chaotic burlesque packed with double entendres and wordplay written in collaboration with Clive Exton, and Tony Kushner's Reverse Transcription, a short meditation on friendship and AIDS. Each night boasts an audience favorite: freedom of choice -- and that's no laughing matter.