Environmental Studies: PlayGround's Inventive Playwriting Series Opens with a Question That Plagues Us All: Are We Totally Screwed?

The primary reason the Earth is fucked is largely due to people who think of themselves as one, instead of one of many.

Or so say the six playwrights chosen to splash down on the Berkeley Repertory Theatre stage for IS EARTH F**CKED?, PlayGround's 20th anniversary season opener.

The Monday Night PlayGround series brings thematically connected short plays by Bay Area playwrights, staged by professional actors and directors to audiences hungry for unadulterated, script-in-hand readings. It's like swiping a few pages out of a new novel by Dave Eggers or Alice Munro, handing them to a director and a handful of actors, giving them 90 minutes to rehearse, and then opening the curtain.

Except the playwrights themselves have only four-and-a-half days after a topic is announced to generate their original short scripts. And only six scripts survive the selection gauntlet and make it to the stage, though if one of the 50 playwrights in the PlayGround corral doesn't have a play selected, he or she can suck it up and try again. The series is presented every third Monday of the month, October through March.

Perhaps the most delectable aspect of the PlayGround ethos — other than raw expression on intensely relevant subjects — is its affirmation of Bay Area artists. This isn't amateur hour; it's amazing. Even if one or two of the six scripts is sour (or more often, blasts off with promise, then fizzles), audiences are still treated to a display that is 100 percent talent. It's not just the actors' beauty, rage, physical comedy, deft vocalization, subtle delivery, clever prop-handling, or striking use of language that leaves an impression. Behind the action are solid writing chops.

For the October show, PlayGround collaborated with Sustainable World Coalition, a project of the Earth Island Institute, to create plays based around planetary sustainability and social justice.

Surprisingly, given the weighty Earth-is-dying subject, laughter was the six plays' common denominator on Oct. 20. Even playwright Erin Marie Panttaja's grim-on-bleak Preapocalyptica, about a woman whose self-denial and uber environmentalism drives her into starvation and homelessness, drew chuckles.

The Bake Sale by Mandy Hodge Rizvi was tart, biting not only at plastic bags and gluten-free dining but also at overzealous moms trying to inject a cause into their kids' veins. William Bivins' The Announcement introduced the idea that “we've been fucked since the dawn of consciousness” with biblical references and a backpacking couple's arguments over ending a pregnancy, lacing its serious message with humor.

Saving a life was out of reach in Reading Babar in 2070 by Rachel Bublitz. Elephants were already extinct, the parents of a young girl revealed, breaking their daughter's heart and sending stuffed animals flying. “You let the elephants die!” the girl raged at her parents, convincingly.

Kirk Shimano's The Android and the Bishop and The Universe on Ice by Maury Zeff were thick with historical references and carried a more complicated theatrical infrastructure than the preceding works. In the former, crisp direction and a skillful turn by Valerie Weak as Jane-droid made the past/present/simulated future farce crackle.

Ultimately, characters throughout the evening didn't live in a time of seeing, to paraphrase Shimano. “What difference do I, can I, will I make?” they asked each other and, by extension, the audience. Presumably, in a culture made for selfies, it's hard to imagine an “everyone-sie.”

But that's what theater is for: to imagine a better world. If nothing else, Monday Night PlayGround sent a crowd of people onto the street who weren't talking about what can't be done. They were too busy imagining what might be done to change the answer to the night's question from “yes” to “no.”

Sustainability bonus: By presenting six top picks from the Monday series in the annual Best of PlayGround Festival in May — and with some of the works serving as seeds for full-fledged productions on other Bay Area stages — PlayGround recycles, reuses, repurposes, and in all ways turns green many of the season's 36 works.

This month's theme for the Nov. 17 performance is “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” an evening of short musicals inspired by the songs of George and Ira Gershwin.


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