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The kids are alright

A peerless pair at Perishable

by Bill Rodriguez

THE 7TH ANNUAL WOMEN'S PLAYWRITING FESTIVAL. Featuring Hyperactive, by Olga Humphrey, and Just Resting, by Jennifer Mattern. At Perishable Theatre through June 20.

[Perishable] It's a must-see this year. If the first of the two one-acts at Perishable Theatre's Seventh Annual Women's Playwriting Festival gets you to sit up

and notice the affecting performances in a skillful daughter-mother story, the second one will bowl you over. It too is a relationship tale and also has a serious side about a grim subject. But Hyperactive, by New York playwright Olga Humphrey, is foremost a hilarious comedy, an intelligent knee-slapper that audiences will be talking about for years.

Heart and droll soul of the play is Elizabeth Keiser as Leoda, a 14-year-old whiz kid who has taken over her late dad's work cloning animals -- resurrecting roadkill, to be specific. Keiser is as impressive as she is natural as the spunky genius, whether talking intently to us, or posing provocatively/ awkwardly in her first gawky but assertive stabs at being seductive.

What triggered her hovering cloud of hormones was Quigley (Mark O'Connell), the boy next door and erstwhile Blood Buddy. His dad is off on the road with the Aryan Nation Xylophone Band, playing First Kazoo, an the boy has become a chip off the unbalanced ol' block. Heavens to Columbine High: he has plans to lay waste to his class on National Mental Health Day. Anne Gardiner is wonderfully June Allyson-like as his mom, still cheerful and supportive when she gets an AK-47 from him for Mother's Day. But it is Leona who has a better chance at reaching Quigley. She was, after all, his partner in the spastic "Hyperactive Dance" they once devised in their angry loneliness as the smartest kids in their school.

Playwright Humphrey is terrific at not beating around the motivational bushes with these characters, which leaves more time to delight us. When did Quigley get into such apocalyptic violence? Oh, he says, "ever since the testosterone kicked in" (which also gives us some purchase on the why). Where is Leona coming from and where is she going? "I hold the secret to life everlasting!" she declares to us in a recurring mantra of affirmation that has profound additional dimension by the curtain.

Director Jen Swain makes sure the staging propels the antic action, for example simplifying the laboratory voodoo -- and cleverly having an LP turntable serve as a centrifuge. Eventually the two misfits are whirling around Leoda's lab counter to the music of the Gipsy Kings, trying as much to bring him soaring to life as to revive a pile of inert feathers. Don't expect it to work. However, the resolution is upbeat but not facile, certainly not as performed by this skilled little troupe.

Before intermission are two other offerings. The first is a 10-minute excerpt from Dead Wait, written by Carson Kreitzer and directed by Amy Lynn Budd. Set in purgatory, it consists of exchanges between former tennis coach and Armani model Ron (David Tessier) and lovelorn Chris (Andy Macdonald), who still misses his girlfriend. Interspersed are brief monologues by Jayne Mansfield (Julie McGetrick Buono), the archetypal love goddess, who informs us that everything from the heart-shaped swimming pool to the Bay of Pigs fiasco was her idea. The piece is an odd little fragment that never really jells. You might want to get a copy of the three plays -- printed as part of the festival, with thought-provoking essays -- to put it in context.

What comes next is well worth waiting for. Just Resting, by Jennifer Mattern and directed by Marilyn Dubois, takes place in a Philadelphia flea market. Pan (Kate Lester) is another antsy adolescent, and that her full name is Pandora is apt: lots of surprising feelings and resentments are bursting forth from her confined life. Her mother, Lena (Barb McElroy), needs Pan to support the family with her Red Lobster waitressing. An unnamed disease has her father (David Tessier) sitting there under a sun hat, paralyzed and probably comatose. We sense from the outset that Pan will have to escape this claustrophobic situation, not to mention the strain of being polite to potential customers for toasters and blenders and her mother's cutesy needlepoint pillows. Lester and McElroy convey convincing mother-daughter friction and closeness, especially by the time the low-key and poignant payoff arrives: Pan establishing her reluctant but vital need to leave, before she ends up like one, if not the other, of her parents.

So don't miss the choices this year, culled from 228 scripts. The Perishable festival has come a long way since it was known only locally. Nowadays it is bringing us reliably first-rate theater.

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