Like the recent Beignet Plays featured at Le Chat Noir's One-Act Play Festival, the Root [Cel.lar] featured short installments written specifically for the show by a host of local playwrights, including many of the same participants. The Alamo Underground was a perfect setting, given that it's a musty, garagelike ground-floor space with no real stage and mismatched lawn chairs, office chairs and couches set about. What the space lacks in comfort was more than compensated for in the energy of the young cast, many of whom perform regularly with the NOLA Project. In assorted appearances, James Bartelle, A.J. Allegra, Andrew Larimer, Kathlyn Tarwater and Sean Glaebrook stood out.
The two strongest pieces bracketed the program. Peter McElligott's Double Hockey Stick was an engaging short piece in which two men (Bartelle, Allegra) " reasonably sure that they are dead though not sure of any details " find themselves wondering if they are in heaven merely because it says so on a hanging sign. It looks like a basement outfitted with no more than a couch, the sign and a bathroom. So is two-men-sharing-a-bathroom truly heaven or hell? It's 10 intriguing minutes in limbo.
Andrew Larimer's concluding Ballad of Sylvia Post was an inspired anti-fairy tale told in a maddening " but never forced " nursery rhyme scheme by a slightly pompous narrator sitting at the front of the stage. In the absurd story, Sylvia (Tarwater) is afflicted with such fine eyesight that she sees all the world's tiny flaws and the sunlight is so bright (and painful to her) that she must live in a basement. A slightly creepy opthamologist gives her Coke-bottle eyeglasses to tame her vision, but this turns out to be a stage ruse to reveal that she also has prodigious tear glands. The eyeglass frames turn into doublebarrel firehoselike fountains as Sylvia sits on the edge of her bed, soaking in sorrow as she sprays the first row of the audience, an uproariously funny Monty Python-esque tableau. The doctor removes her tear glands, she meets a boy and eventually she is freed from the basement, not in a happily-ever-after ending, but to look for love in the real world that her obscure childhood had kept her from. It is a clever story, brilliantly played out.
One might have expected more darkness given the premise of the setting, but most of the pieces cut against the grain and moved towards the light. A.J. Allegra's Icorollas turned out to be a sweet but not too sweet homage to a first kiss on a basement couch. Allegra and Kate Adair made the teens convincingly vulnerable and earnest. Also trapped in a basement were Bartelle and Larimer in Michael Aaron Santos' amusing bit about two just-barely-twentysomething comic book artists still living at home. The two actors made the camaraderie viable after the opening moments' implications amounted to a misdirection that left too little happening in the actual scene. In Lester's Legacy, an extended joke about cleaning up a friend's dirty laundry, Tarwater's exasperated determination did an admirable job maintaining suspense even though the punch line was flat by the time it arrived. Sean Glazebrook was entertaining in Relationships Are Hard When Your Landlord's a Gypsy, though ultimately the piece's absurd humor become unwieldy.
If the basement setting was an invitation to darkness, no one accepted quite like R.J. Tsarov, author of the second segment, Gasoline Story. A man with a job answering emergency poison hotline calls recounts the bleakness of being in a dark and barren space assigned to assist disembodied voices calling for help. There are clever turns of phrase as he tries to connect with a woman, but ultimately the two characters don't become distinct or compelling as they continually attest to their alienating environments.
Ten-minute windows are short timeframes with which to work, but there were many compelling characters and stories in the program. While the title was meant to refer to etymology, it's great to see so many young talents blossoming in the Underground and elsewhere in the local theater scene.