A Box of Surprises : Unleashed’s “Stage Fright”

There’s some good writing going on at Theatre Unleashed.

In their little black box, they’re hiding some jewels.  Well, they are putting them on display – but only for intrepid souls who find their way upstairs at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church this weekend.

Stage Fright, the current offering, lays out five short pieces (some restaged from the annual 24-hour-play fest). Each starts on familiar terrain, then wanders into realms that are less expected.

Under Ann Hurd’s direction, each play finds its own voice and style. Being very short, they all must capture our attention at once, and each does. Each also involves a quick twist or two, as short plays often do. But otherwise, they’re all over the map.

Lee Pollero, Eric Stachura, Melita M. Camilo

Lee Pollero, Eric Stachura, Melita M. Camilo

The Affair, by Liesl Jackson, looks most familiar. A busy executive (Mandy Muenzer) calls in a junior employee (Alex Bonetti) for a reprimand. A tense moment too many of us have known. But soon, the restraint crumbles, and we experience far more with these two women than we planned. Jackson’s writing, and Muenzer’s and Bonetti’s focused acting, take us from an office onto a roller-coaster easily and credibly. Hurd, wisely, stays out of their way, keeping things spare and effective.

Eric Cire’s All There Is to Say About the Floor also begins on home turf. In a trashed apartment, a man with a bottle (Carey Matthews) mourns the end of a long affair. A shadow in the corner moves slowly toward him, becoming a woman (Liesl Jackson) who throws his story into limbo. As they struggle over whether they are – or were – lovers, they draw closer. And behind them … . Both actors shift often, subtly, between certainty and doubt, anger and affection; and Hurd paces the darkening mystery just right.

The least familiar setting is a post-apocalyptic sewage tunnel, in Famous Last Words. But Gregory Crafts equips it with shards from our world, including the deathbed quotes traded by the three last-standers (Melita M. Camilo, Lee Pollero and Erich Stachura).  Facing assured extinction, they react to their plight — and each other — in a swift, dark comedy of character. Hurd keeps it sprightly, and Crafts also shines (pardon the pun) as creator of a shadowy, shifting noir light design.

In Hang a Lampshade on It, Crafts switches to a prosaic mis en scene – two women in a stalled car, at night, on an empty road. He then plays hilariously with what we know, or think we do, and why we think so. Courtney Bell inhabits a loveable but loony certainty, which Liesl Jackson foils perfectly with sanity slipping from patient to pissed. Again, Hurd shows sure comic timing, and an economic use of movement. As set designer, she also finds a delightful solution to a perplexing challenge.

Finally, in UFOh NO You Didn’t!, Ben Atkinson enters the well-known world of a cable TV studio. Our host, Nicole A. Craig nicely sends up the sexualized pitch of  a Chelsea Handler, while her guest Lee Pollero pushes a stereotype toward an actual character. Both are full of energy and absolute conviction – which, as we know, seldom ends happily.  Hurd, with sure hands on the burner and the whisk, heats and stirs this delicate froth til it pops.

Aside from some oddly irrelevant titles, the Stage Fright writers reveal a high level of skill – and, in various ways, daring. This pleasant surprise is reason enough to go where Camarillo, Lankershim and Vineland meet, and seek out the upstairs loft.

Hurd’s direction, which grows increasingly assured, is another.  And then there’s the acting, a world away from the showcase posing we all wish weren’t so familiar. The Unleashed actors show what focus and intensity can do — even in very small  containers.

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Stage Fright, by Liesl Jackson, Eric Cire, Gregory Crafts and Ben Atkinson, directed by Ann Hurd.
Presented by Theatre Unleashed at the Belfry Theatre, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood.

Friday at 8:00 pm, Saturday at 10:30 pm, Sunday at 9:30 pm through Nov. 9.

Tickets: <https://theatreunleashed.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0OF000000DpjToMAJ>