It takes a long memory to recall a time when Los Angeles gave the short play its due respect. Decades of skyrocketing rents, plunging government arts support and the recent loss of Actors' Equity's fabled 99-Seat Plan, which made large-cast shows affordable for L.A.’s intimate stages, have transformed a once ubiquitous and vibrant playwriting showcase into an endangered species.
Fortunately, the thoughtfully produced evening of one-act plays lives on in "Nevertheless, She Persisted," Echo Theater Company’s latest collection of commissioned short works. This time, Echo targets the political dimensions of gender in the age of Donald Trump in an unusually strong, all-woman program of emerging playwrights backed by a rock-solid, 16-member ensemble drawn from Echo’s younger associate troupe of actors.
At Dawn is Chicago playwright Calamity West’s speculative look at a dystopian America 30 years after Trump's election. Joey Stromberg and Landon Mirisciotti are Arizona bordertown cops cut from the bigoted cloth of Joe Arpaio; Kaiti O’Connor is a hapless prostitute suspected of resistance activities. Her ensuing interrogation connects the dots between Trump’s “locker-room” misogyny and the racist economic nationalism of his build-the-wall immigration policies. Director Ahmed Best ups the ante with the blood-spattered hyperbole of Hollywood action-movie violence.
Writer-director Mary Laws upends gender stereotypes along with mother-daughter power dynamics in the wickedly funny Yaju. Maya Bowman plays an emotionally vacant adolescent daughter to Julie Dretzin’s increasingly horrified mother in a parent-child negotiation, whose grisly revelations underscore the pitch-black irony of Law’s moral that “there are some things worse than not knowing.”
The near-apocalyptic repercussions of an unnamed act of sexual violence is the subject of Sherry and Vince, Charlotte Miller’s effectively torqued drama about a prison visiting-room confrontation between convicted family friend Jose Corea and his teen victim, played by Jacqueline Besson. Driven by the quiet ferocity of Besson’s laserlike rage, director Tara Karsian’s skillfully restrained staging shrewdly invites the audience to complete the ellipses of Miller’s neorealist canvas.
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Act 2 shifts gears into a more poetically imagined world with writer-director Sharon Yablon’s whimsical dark comedy Do You See. In 1980s San Francisco, young office temps Dana (Ellen Neary), Wendy (Erin Scerbak) and Angela (Amanda Wagner) throw a party hoping to meet attractive guys. Instead, they get Dave (Alex Waxler), a man scarred by personal tragedy, and Violet (Susan Louise O’Connor), a mother searching for her missing daughter, who’s the girls’ age. Throughout it all, Yablon’s signature cocktail of period kitsch, imminent sexual violence and unfulfilled desire persuasively implicates the women’s alienated and rootless existence in the inchoate threat lurking just outside.
The sheer horror behind that threat is succinctly driven home by Violet, playwright Jacqueline Wright's climactic and surprisingly poignant study in trauma. Lindsay Graves-Fisher is the titular college student, who sits paralyzed in the dark just after being raped; Rachael Olsem is her roommate, at a loss on how to support her in her moment of crisis. Teagan Rose capably directs, but it is the quiet truth articulated by Wright’s persuasively imagined scene that delivers the evening’s haunting emotional punch even as it persuasively punctuates its political imperatives.
Echo Theater Company, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village; through Sept. 10. (310) 307-3753, echotheatercompany.com.