The Arts
February 15-21, 2006

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Nobody's Bench

Territorial Skirmish: Sarah Eismann and Manuel Caneri star in 'Nobody's Bench,' the first of eight short plays at the Pear Avenue Theatre.

Any Way You Slice It

Short plays are long on audience impact at Pear Avenue Theatre

By Marianne Messina

PEAR AVENUE Theatre in Mountain View is serving up its third year of "Pear Slices," an evening of eight flash plays bisected by an intermission. Over the course of a brief 20 minutes, many of this year's Slices took a recent audience from laughing to crying, and in the case of Paul Braverman's "Storm Warning," to audible sighs of "Oh" and "How sweet." Though these world-premiere plays take place everywhere—Boston; Florence, Italy; Florida—they're all written by local playwrights and can't help but hang together with a certain Bay Area flavor.

Most of the female characters are educated, career-oriented and professional or artistic, with a marked aloofness from domestic skills. Most of the characters are travelers or transplants with a shifting sense of home. And one of the most striking similarities is a sweeping drive to come to terms with "the other." Characters who on first glance come from different worlds are challenged (and with them the audience) to release expectations and drop shields of distancing and alienation.

Aptly, the opener, Nobody's Bench, starts the show with quirky territorial skirmishes when an ex-nun (Elizabeth Lowe), a homeless man (John Watson) and an ad agent (Manuel Caneri) come to sit on the same park bench. Most of the ambiance comes from Ian Hargrave Nelson's sound design: ominous hurricane winds, passing taxis, lonely-man harmonica strains escorting the rejected lover (Caneri) to his exit.

The tribal drumming is brilliant behind the cut-to-black for a couple about to make love in The Goddess, Deborah Dutton's odd blurring of shamanic initiation and romantic negotiation. Though minimal settings and the proximity of the action throw a lot of weight on the actors and the language, the dialogue doesn't disappoint—tight writing, solid acting, good chemistry. Per "Pear Slice" tradition, each actor assumes roles in three plays. Sigal, Watson and Terry Boero (a psychotherapist possessed by W.B. Yeats in Elyce Melmon's hilarious Transference) show particularly impressive range over the course of the plays. Sarah Eismann (the lover who's moving on in Neva Marie's The Cockatiel) and Manuel Caneri exude a natural scene-stealing charisma. Throughout the plays, characters are rarely what they seem. In The Cockatiel, an apparent tough guy (Sigal) turns out to be a masochist. In two postmortem plays, Bill D'Agostino's Broken Things (a brother and sister en route to their mother's funeral) and Paul Braverman's In Memory of Roderick Hollingsworth (a brother and two sisters await the reading of their father's will), the sibling who appears most remote turns out to be the one most emotionally invested. (Thanks to a powerful performance by Josh Sigal as the brother in Broken Things, D'Agostino's howling sequence is hair-raisingly beautiful.)

This tendency for people to be misread culminates in Paul Braverman's Storm Warning. (A meteorological photo looking down on the huge swirl of a hurricane cloud fills the projection screen behind the action—set design, Ron Gasparinetti). At the onset of a hurricane, Matthew (John Watson) a world-traveling Carter Foundation analyst finds himself trapped in a Florida elevator with a bumbling, husband-quoting redneck (Terry Boero). At one point, she asks Matt if she's got "stuff hanging out my nose." It's amazing to watch these two cultural aliens—Boero's character shifts ever so delicately—make a touching connection and end up revisiting earlier lines from a totally different angle.

Pear Slices 2006 plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Feb. 26 at the Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Ave., Unit K, Mountain View. Tickets are $10-$20. (650.254.1148)

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