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The LaBute Festival Returns with New Plays That Are Smarter Than Ever

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The fourth installment of the always-anticipated LaBute New Theater Festival presents a slate of easy-going, fun-time plays about nothing.

OK, not really. As always, the first half of the festival comprises four one-act plays that tackle the weighty issues of Western culture. What is art, and who gets to decide? Which is more endangered right now, the nuclear family or the environment? Islam — religion of peace, or is Fox News right about that "Islamo-fascism"? And finally, is it possible to use the lingua academia (otherwise known as, "high-falutin' bullshit") to justify any old assemblage of nonsense that makes it to the stage as "good theater"?

Are you excited yet? You should be; this is high-stakes, thought-provoking theater performed at an exceptional level by a terrific ensemble cast in our own front yard.

The eponymous Neil LaBute's two-character "Life Model" opens the bill, and will be performed at every show of his namesake festival (three new plays slot in behind it starting at the midpoint of the run, July 22). Bridgette Bassa plays a high-minded artist's model who demands that any artist who pays her to pose be proficient; Jenny Smith is the artist currently employing her, who does not show her work in any galleries or exhibitions. When Bassa sneaks a peek at the day's drawings, she's horrified to discover why the artist is so secretive. What follows is a whip-smart, funny and tense argument about what makes art "real." The two women will make you pick a side by dint of their righteous (and self-righteous, at times) arguments, even if you think you don't care.

"Fire Sans Matches" by San Francisco playwright Jeff Carter, is a comic fantasia about a family on a picnic ordered by their therapist. Eric Dean White and Emily Baker play the parents, with Jeremy Pinson as son Randall, a teenager glued to his phone. Baker needles and belittles her husband while he vainly attempts to build a fire using his Boy Scout training (bow drill, a stick and a pile of twigs) rather than a match. Baker cackles at his failure, White has an explosive meltdown and Randall ignores them both as he tries to figure out why he's receiving so many emergency texts from friends. The play zips by in a welter of laughs and then ends with a big bang. John Pierson directs this and "Life Model" with flair and a keen eye for tension-building pauses.

James Haigney's "Winter Break" is a spellbinding three-sided argument between a college-age brother and sister (Ryan Foizey and Leerin Campbell), with their mother, Jenny Smith, caught in the middle. Campbell's character has recently converted to Islam and plans to study with Sufis in Turkey. Foizey is an arrogant and politically riled gay grad student who finds every opportunity to demean his sister's new faith and her "terrorist friends," and then guilt her by claiming he's doing it because he loves her. The play is tough to watch because it's so unflinching in its characterizations, and because Campbell deflects every insult with grace and forgiveness, but it's impossible to look away.

"Mark My Worms" is the grand finale, and it's a comic romp about a newly discovered play by a "great satirist who was a terrible typist." Cary Pepper's script would be a funny read, but on stage it blossoms into a spectacular cascade of laughs as Emily Baker, Eric Dean White and David Wassilak amplify the humor with their brilliant, daffy performances. Wassilak is the director, a prickly fuss-budget in heels and a Mr. Spock haircut who keeps stressing that there are no typos in this play about a man with a bun who threatens to hoot. White is the frustrated actor who decries the script as nonsense, while Baker is the wide-eyed actress, dressed in black-tights and flowy skirt, who found a doctoral dissertation that contextualizes the nonsense — at least for her and the director. Michael Hogan directs these final two plays with a steady hand, despite their being vastly different in tone, style and emotional content.

So, best LaBute Fest yet? You're goddamn right it is, and it's only half over.

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