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Theater Review: ‘Black Box Black Blocks 2’

“Black Box Black Blocks 2”

» Where: Ernst Lab Theatre, University of Hawaii at Manoa
» When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday; also 2 p.m. Sunday
» Cost: $7 general admission; $5 for students and seniors (tickets go on sale at the door one hour before each performance; cash only)
» Info: blackboxblackblocks.wordpress.com

Cannibals, “Dungeons & Dragons” and the aftermath of dysfunctional relationships are key themes this weekend in “Black Box Black Blocks 2” at the UH-Manoa Earle Ernst Lab Theatre.

Conceived and produced last year by Elisa Diehl as a showcase for new playwrights, directors and choreographers, the program is again worth seeing as a preview of the up and coming. Most of the playwrights succeed as effective story tellers. Two of the choreographed pieces are also interesting.

Chris Slagle stars in “Voicemail,” playwright Rosina Favors’ thoroughly modern tale of a man who deals with loneliness by leaving messages on his girlfriend’s cell phone. The playwright’s surprise twist in the story comes early but the strength of Slagle’s performance carries the action past that point and holds our interest through each subsequent scene.

A talented quintet – Jillian Blakkan-Strauss, Erin Chung, Chris McGahan and Dan D. Randerson – performs tag team style in “It’s All Relative,” playwright Siobhan Ni Dhonacha’s dissection of dysfunctional relationships. Each of the four takes a turn playing a heart-broken victim, each takes a turn as a person whose actions ended a relationship. Cast members go out into the audience seeking validation and one storms out of the theater in rage.

The fact that the cast was still “on book” (referring to the script for their lines) at Wednesday’s preview performance didn’t lessen the power of the performance. Credit director Lindsay Timmington McGahan (wife of cast member McGahan) with expert work in presenting the playwright’s final message on relationships.

A WELCOME comic interlude pops up as Raymond Rivera (Stefan) and Tempest Hayes (David) star in Anna Cole’s “Dungeons and Dragons.” Stefen is a 28-year-old sometime-college-student and passionate Dungeon Master (a combination referee and rules interpreter) who is in his element conducting a D&D game in his mother’s basement.

David, a life-long friend, is playing a “Level 2 half-ogre half-fairy” character that has just been killed by a bad throw of the dice. All the other players have left the basement and their characters are therefore inactive. Since Stefen in his all-powerful role of Dungeon Master won’t allow David’s character to survive the die role or be revived through a magic spell or in some other way, David decides to leave as well.

What follows is a beautifully played true-to-live comedy about friendship and competitiveness.

Hard-core “D&D” players may take it personally as attack on their board-gaming universe, but Cole could probably have written the story around other arcane pastimes that evoke passionate commitment from aficionados and patronizing bewilderment from outsiders.

Actor McGahan returns to direct “One Percent,” playwright Sean M Yannell’s tale of a man who goes home with a woman he meets in a bar and discovers that she and her husband are cannibals — and that he’s their next meal.

Yannell is successful in writing a character who can explain in articulate terms why he exempts himself from social norms. However, the victim’s abrupt acceptance of his fate seems unrealistic even by the norms of “Twilight Zone” style fiction.

Music by the Cranberries provides the frame of reference for “Linger,” choreographer/dancer Becky McGarvey’s one-woman piece about a woman struggling to cope while she waits for a telephone call. McGarvey’s use of movement effectively portrays the tumult of waiting and hoping and killing time while the photo doesn’t ring. She ends it on an ironic note that takes the piece in a different direction.

THERE ARE performers to watch for elsewhere. Andy Hwang and Jason Wong stand out as break dancers in “JARP,” choreographer Phoebe Hwang’s piece on dolls that come to life. Choreographer Spencer Garrod assigns five dancers the task of moving the three black blocks from one side of the stage to the other in “Caravan.”

Director Jenn Thomas makes good use of music to provide emotional reference points in “Voicemail.”

On the flipside, while the choreographers’ musical choices support the movement in their pieces, the work of all but Hwang would have been much enhanced by input from a good costume designer.

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