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PlayFest heads toward the future

Actor Wendie Malick and PlayFest Co-chairman Terry Bacon speak at the Festival Kick-Off Party on June 27, in a tribute to the late Christina Erteszek, co-founder and former chairwoman. (Courtesy of Judith Reynolds)

PlayFest 2023 has set sail with a dedication, a playwright panel and a stunning opening-night solo show that all signal a promising future.

Last Sunday, the festival got underway as company members, including playwrights Molly Carden, William Ludel, David Myers and Alex Riad, arrived. Actors and directors followed. A gaggle of local volunteers and board members, as well as students from Fort Lewis College, filled in with helping hands for various events. Daily workshop-rehearsals at the college dominate the weeklong calendar. Final readings are scheduled at the Durango Arts Center.

Tuesday night’s PlayFest kickoff at the Rochester Hotel brimmed with players, founders, supporters and volunteers who dedicated the fifth festival to Christina Erteszek. The effervescent businesswoman, writer and activist died unexpectedly last fall, and the evening proceeded with mixed emotions. Ertexzek’s co-founders Terry Bacon, Dan Lauria and Wendie Malick publicly remembered Erteszek and invited everyone to write a one-word description on a big PlayFest poster. The first submission: “passionate.”

The annual playwright’s panel took place Wednesday afternoon at the new Blue Rain Gallery on Main Avenue. A large crowd gathered to hear host and PlayFest Co-Chairwoman Debbie Pfeifer orchestrate a series of questions put to three of the four playwrights. Carden was in a tech rehearsal for her evening performance.

Pfeiffer asked about inspiration, early writing experiences and the importance of process. Her questions about beginnings brought forth humorous stories about clunky, first efforts. Myers’ reference to a womb-like setting of his first play, got picked up by Ludel and Riad more than once. Although the conversation was generally lighthearted, one moment surprised everyone, including Ludel. Discussing his play, “Dr. Arthur Goldman’s Birthday Party,” Ludel quietly stalled out. A strong emotion surfaced, he acknowledged it and then went on. Ludel’s family drama is scheduled for two readings: Friday evening and Saturday afternoon.

PlayFest Co-chairwoman Debbie Pfeifer and 2023 PlayFest playwrights William Ludel, David Myers and Alex Riad participate in the panel discussion Wednesday at Blue Rain Gallery. (Courtesy of Judith Reynolds)

When the panel concluded, playwrights, actors and directors lingered for conversation with PlayFest supporters before the first formal presentation that evening at DAC.

PlayFest Artistic Director Felicia Lansbury Meyer welcomed the sold-out evening audience to “I Came Back for Molly,” a solo work written and performed by Carden. The autobiographical, 90-minute piece is new, but she has performed it before. PlayFest organizers selected the work when no submissions came in from local playwrights. Managing Director Mandy Mikulencak said the five-person reading committee found Carden’s script clear and compelling.

“I Came Back for Molly” is a vivid, dramatic, first-person account of a descent into anxiety and depression with suicidal elements. Attendees had been alerted to the serious nature of the play, and at the end of Wednesday’s intense performance, surprisingly punctuated with humor and moments of enlightenment, Carden received a standing ovation.

Using music, lighting, simple props and intelligent blocking, Carden creatively reconstructed a series of crises through flashbacks. An impressive act of storytelling and self-examination, the work clearly positions the 17-year-old Carden at the center. She introduces other characters – a therapist, parent, hospital inmates, hallucinatory figures and, importantly, Jordan, a mentally compromised inmate who gives Carden the title of the play.

In performance, Carden moved fluidly through a five-quadrant playing area, marking out her central storyteller’s chair and her sojourn as a barista at Starbucks. Another chair represented each of the three treatment locations, vividly named for colors: blue, white and beige. She kept the edge of the stage for key moments with direct address.

Carden’s friend and director of “Molly,” Abigail Zealey Bess, was in the audience Wednesday night. She teaches at Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, Columbia University, and heads up Weird Sisters, an endeavor that promotes women artists and writers. Carden credited her colleague during the talkback session with fellow playwright Riad. Stage Manager Bud Franks wisely urged Carden to use a headset microphone because of the generally poor acoustics at DAC. Light and sound cues all merged tellingly into this modern descent into madness.

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.