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Salt Lake Acting Company is one of the few theater operations in the valley capable of multitasking. Friday's opening night of the company's second annual "Fearless Fringe Festival" proves it.
With "Saturday's Voyeur 2011" wringing laughter out of SLAC's main stage next door, the Chapel Theatre hosted the first two productions of "Fearless Fringe," which runs through Sunday.
"Fearless" it may be, but long it isn't. But what the festival lacks in terms of length it compensates for with lots of substantive drama packed into its modest time frame. Supported in part by the John and Marcia Price Family Foundation, the festival's three-day lifespan will hopefully gather more days, and audience members, with each annual installment.
For now, at least, ticket-holders can take advantage of the festival's pioneering spirit toward both plays in their formative stages and full-fledged productions.
"Little Happy Secrets," a 70-minute chamber piece written by Melissa Leilani Larson, falls into the first category.
It begins with the reunion of two friends, the ironic and cynical Claire (played by Emily Bell) and Brennan (played by Emily Burnworth), her renegade roommate just back from Australia. Claire feels an exhilarating but unsettling sense of chemistry whenever she's with Brennan, but refuses to speak its name in the conservative environs of Utah County.
Her feelings go from push to shove, however, when Brennan suits up with a bland but nice boyfriend, Carter (Alex Ungerman). Then, as Brennan and Carter inch toward engagement, Claire decides to go for broke. Larson's play draws considerable friction in the cross-currents of religious faith and jealousy.
"We're really good at keeping secrets," Claire notes about Mormons. "We're so good that even when a secret comes out it seems like a sin."
Soon after Claire confides her feelings about Brennan to her sister Natalie (Elise Groves), the play successfully juxtaposes the meaninglessness of a family tragedy with the question of whether God controls anyone's fates or desires at all. Although acted to its full potential even with scripts in hand, the play's chief fault is that it can't quite decide on a course between exploring the nuances of infatuation or the burden of a sexual identity that can't be acknowledged.
"Do Not Hit Golf Balls Into Mexico," which premiered last year at Logan's Caine Lyric Theatre, takes its personal focus almost as deep as Larson's work, albeit with a larger campus.
Written by Shawn Fisher, an associate professor at Utah State University where he also heads the graduate program in theater, its action takes place somewhere near Tucson. Its emotional centrifuge, though, is all about sorting through events that resulted in the haphazard burial of 12 bodies in the merciless desert where Mexican workers risk life and limb for a chance, as one character put it, "to clean $8 toilet bowls and eat 50-cent noodles."
Fisher's play works backward, starting with the police interrogation of old bus driver Calvin Wesley (played by John R. Belliston), a man who once held hopes of a cheap retirement in Mexico. Calvin's daughter Carrie died, while his grandson Abel (Christian Seiter) has become an emotionally damaged adolescent who takes a putting iron to desert lizards.
The play uncoils to embrace a trio of female Minutemen who travel all the way from Alabama to guard the Arizona-Mexico border, a host of scenes inside a restaurant Calvin acquired following a tragic bus accident, plus the laugh-out-loud, subtext-rich dialogue of two hapless men who just happen to be transporting human contraband into the United States.
Calvin's past conspires to bring him face-to-face with the person of America (Jessica Jackson), a young Mexican woman he saved from the wreckage of an accident he may or may not have caused years ago.
The play's overarching structure announces people's common fate at every opportunity. It's a place where the hope of a white American bus driver for a cheap Mexican retirement intersect with the hopes of countless Mexicans striving for a life across the border, with a landscape of heartbreak that's blind to skin color and country.
"Making Waves," by veteran teacher Heidi Van Ert, resides in its own category. Assembled from the real-life experiences of Van Ert herself, in addition to those of her three supporting cast members who teach in local schools, this two-hour work has all the gritty feel of a stage documentary. Delivered script-in-hand, and with several segments of audience participation that mimic the classroom environment, this work aims for nothing less than conveying the passion, hard work, and heartache of America's most misunderstood, yet oddly underestimated, profession.
More a delivery system of issues that plague the profession low pay, long hours, the trials of class discipline and challenges of learning disabled students, and so on "Making Waves" often veers perilously close to being a polemic. Van Ert's galvanizing tales from the front-lines are backed by Joshua Long, who teaches drama at Hillcrest High School, Nicole Robinson of North Davis Preparatory Academy charter school and teacher-in-training Amber Meyer.
What saves "Making Waves" from being a mere agenda-making tool, however, is the undeniable strength, truth and even heroism of its core message: No other profession charts the success or failure of young lives. Not for one second does the work sound hollow. Not for one second do we doubt the veracity of its cast. Drama rarely comes this close to truth.
Salt Lake Acting Company's Second Annual 'Fearless Fringe Festival'
R When • "Little Happy Secrets," Saturday, 8:30 p.m.; "Do Not Hit Golf Balls Into Mexico," Saturday, 4 p.m.; "Making Waves," Saturday, 6:30 p.m. and Sunday, noon.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Info • $12 or $24 for festival pass. Call 801-363-7522 or visit saltlakeactingcompany.org for more information.
Bottom line • "Little Happy Secrets," despite a loss of direction at the end, offers an aching portrait of frustrated friendship; 70 minutes. "Do Not Hit Golf Balls Into Mexico" crosses borders that bind the emotional destinies of a young Mexican woman and an aging bus driver; 21/2 hours with 10-minute intermission. "Making Waves," a bracing stage docu-drama that will remind you of your best teacher; 2 hours with 10-minute intermission.