Many theatres tend to ignore the potential of short plays, but Contemporary American Theatre Company's popular biennial festival -- plays typically run 10 to 15 minutes each -- has become a reliable and enjoyable showcase for Ohio playwrights.
And Ghost Light: The Shorts Festival 2006 ranks as one of CATCO's best. Not one of the eight new short plays is a dud under Jonathan Putnam's brisk but nuanced direction, partly because playwrights have apparently been inspired by the historical, metatheatrical, and supernatural potential of a common setting: Columbus' long-gone Hartman Theatre, the primary downtown venue for touring plays from the 1920s through the 1960s.
CATCO asks participating playwrights to share a common setting in part to ensure smooth set changes; previous settings have been a restaurant, an airport, and a hotel. In this case, CATCO's choice of a legendary but long-gone local theatre has liberated playwrights to imagine what was, what never was, and what might have been.
Eric Coble, a Cleveland-area writer with recent Humana Festival credits, employs fluid wit and concise imagination to fill Haunted, arguably the festival's best work. Maya Sayre plays a struggling actor whose imminent stage entrance is interrupted by theatre ghosts. It's hilarious because it rings true, especially for thespians.
Peter Pauze weaves romance, pathos, hopes, and regrets into Perpetual Present Tense, an elegiac ode to theatre set simultaneously in four eras at the Hartman. It's a fitting finale because it raises wistful questions about the meaning of theatre and what the loss of a theatre means to a community.
Mostly whimsical and comic, the well-staged and deftly designed evening also provides an admirable showcase for eight talented actors, led by charismatic local veteran Ed Vaughan. Among other roles, he brings to imposing life the character of businessman Samuel Hartman, who built the structure that bore his name.
Wendy MacLeod, a Kenyon College professor and Off-Broadway playwright (The House of Yes), tackles the monologue form with mostly positive results. In the evening-opener, Snake Oil, a slyly satiric paean to old-fashioned American salesmanship, Vaughan plays a younger Hartman, hard-selling the Peruna elixir that would make the fortune that made the theatre possible.
Chris Roche and Alex Beekman find humor and flashes of supernatural terror in Two Clowns, Scott Tobin's clever comedy about two actors rehearsing Hamlet when a dead-body prop seemingly comes to life.
Among the other playwrights finding some measure of success are Marianne Timmons and Jim Vess. Timmons' playful The Blueballs paints a convincing portrait of a flirting young couple who break into the still-standing Hartman looking for an illegal party site and an alternate-reality future. Vess deftly shapes the conflicted characters of two actors (Malcolm Callan and Tom Holliday) rehearsing under a director (flamboyant Alex Beekman) in The Death Scene From Edward Albee's The Zoo Story. If James Thurber had written an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, this might be it.
Although it generates laughs, Jerry Holt's ghost-filled Merely Players piles on too many one-note characters that trade on famous stereotypes. While Us Chickens also brings in a cavalcade of supernatural caricatures, Mary Tensing's farcical comedy works better because it presents life -- actually, the afterlife -- from the rueful perspective of those who have died but still want to live onstage.
Ghost Light: The Shorts Festival 2006 runs Oct. 8-29 at the Riffe Center's Studio One Theatre, 77 S. High St., Columbus, Ohio. Tickets: (614) 469-0939. Website: www.catco.org.