'Dark Night' is full of life's complications

    Ashland New Plays Festival has debuted its 2017 season with a new play by Don Zolidis dealing with issues of gun use and the evolution of a troubled youth. "A Dark Night Full of Stars" — one of nearly 100 plays published thus far by Mr. Zolidis — is a good, if not great, play. One feels that a staged reading of so complicated a drama, in which six actors each play multiple roles, would benefit mightily from a full staging.

    However, the entire point of the Ashland New Plays Festival is to give new plays enough exposure and breathing room that they might flourish and obtain funding for such a staging. Incubation of genius has a periodic downside, and while "A Dark Night Full of Stars" is well-written and evenly paced, it's a little bit harrowing to make sense of all the characters without the context that might be provided by a full production team.

    The show has a pervasively male voice, but all of the actors onstage are female. While assigned gender is now so passe in the theater that it's barely worth mentioning, it is important to take note of gender when ANPF is being very clear in its marketing materials that this season is all about the female voice. They want that distinction made, so I'm happy to make it.

    On to the play, which is a distinctly heavy and R-rated affair, riddled with F-bombs, MF-bombs and rapid fire, Mamet-like dialogue that certainly must have blown back the hair of an audience made up predominantly of Silent Generation and Baby Boomer patrons. Some seemed to be having a hard time dealing with language that could only be considered truly rough if you've spent most of your life cosseted away in a country village.

    Brandon (Emily Ota) is a young man with a lot going on in his life. The play follows him, through the eyes of various characters, from infancy to the present day — a day that will, in fact, be his last. In an altercation with a trigger-nervous and equally troubled police officer (Briawna Jackson), Brandon is not quite quick enough in his supplication to the law, and pays for it with his life.

    Working backward from there, the excellent cast tells the stories of both Brandon and the officer's lives, their troubles and strife, their weird commonalities (both are expectant fathers hounded by family members) and the assorted incidents and actions that have led them both to this place in time.

    Brandon is shown to have had a troubled childhood, a problem with his family relationships, is irresponsible as a father and less than reliable as a friend. Still, the writing manages to paint him as a sympathetic character who is trying his best to transcend circumstance; when he takes a bullet, the situation seems deeply unjust. That's the most poignant point that this play makes — no two people are ever quite how they appear to be on the surface of things, and police "brutality" or the righteous justice served to a "criminal" is often a complicated and deeply human affair.

    The media impulse to paint such events as distinctly just or unjust — one might be tempted to say, black or white — misses the humanity inherent in such tragedies, which might serve to unite if they weren't so consistently polarizing. While every character portrayed in the play is complicated, and few are filled with redeeming qualities, the stresses of poverty, education, culture, race issues and family dynamic show up as strong influences on each. As a result, every role comes back to issues of heart, worldview and circumstance. There is a lot of love between the various characters here, but on a day-to-day basis, they don't like each other much.

    The actors contributing their time and effort to this production are all devoted and excellent artists. Ota and Jackson are joined by McKennat Twedt, Jennifer Lanier, Erica Sullivan and Aida Leguizamon, with stage direction from Savanna Padilla. While all are polished, the most valuable player of the night is Lanier, who is riveting as Brandon's pained, angry, but ultimately deeply loving and guilt-ridden father.

    While hard to follow, "A Dark Night Full of Stars" — directed by Claudia Alick — will reward patrons who play close attention to the unfolding drama. It's worth seeing, and will be staged again at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21 at the Unitarian Center, 87 Fourth St., Ashland.

    ANPF 2017 will present "A Dark Night Full of Stars" at 1:30 p.m. today and "What We Were" at 7:30 this evening. It closes with a 3 p.m. matinee Sunday of "Sofonisba." Tickets are $20 and are available both online and at the door, subject to availability.

    — Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.


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