‘When there’s nothing whatsoever on the stage but one set piece — a bench — the actors can’t rely on props. They have to act.” That’s how Odenbear Theatre’s founder and director, Jim Hatch, described the unique challenge of “The Bench Plays,” returning for the second year in a row to Metta Theatre, 1470 Paseo del Pueblo Norte in El Prado. The two-week run begins Wednesday (June 14) at 7:30 p.m.
“This year’s nine one-act plays were selected from among more than a hundred submissions from all over the country,” Hatch said. “They are all new work and have never been performed in New Mexico before. Two of the plays are by local Taos resident playwrights, David Pérez and Karen Thibodeau.”
Taos theater veteran Pam Parker spoke about the selection process. “Myself, Martha Grossman, Kristen Woolf and William Hall collectively read the plays, recommending 16 for Jim Hatch to read and select the final nine. We read them ‘blind,’ but now as I’m collecting bios, I’m amazed at what a distinguished selection of playwrights we have.”
Parker will be directing “A Moment of Clarity” by Philip Middleton Williams. In this play, the bench belongs to a pharmacy where a father and son wait for a prescription. “The father is struggling with dementia,” Parker explained. “The play is a heartfelt exploration of their need to connect and express the deep love they hold for one another. Jeff Spicer plays the son, and Bjorn Halvorsen plays the father.”
Bruce Katlin will be directing “Ten Minute Grief Counseling,” a play by John McDonnell. “I am extremely fortunate to be working with two wonderful actresses and human beings, Ruth Fahrbach and Mary Walker,” said Katlin. “The process of working together has been a complete delight and very collaborative.”
William Hall, an in-demand actor who recently starred in Teatro Serpiente’s “Rumors” and Gorilla Theater Festival, will be directing Hatch and Thibodeau in David MacGregor’s “Epiphany.”
Multitalented actor, singer and artist Woolf directs Thibodeau’s original play, “The Home,” with actors Fahrbach, Linda Stokas and Brayan Salinas.
“This is my second year directing for ‘Bench Plays,’” said Woolf. “I have a wonderful cast, and we’re definitely seeing everyone pushing their limits to find ways of expressing themselves. The idea of having such a range of ages makes it so refreshing.”
Thibodeau’s legendary Taos Children’s Theatre has featured hundreds of young thespians in imaginative reinventions of multicultural fairy tales. For “Bench Plays,” she will be multitasking as an actor, director and writer.
“I lost my brother a year and a half ago,” she said. “In writing ‘The Home,’ I was in part honoring the funeral home where my brother was laid to rest.” Thibodeau found similar meaning in the play she was given to direct, “Of Butterflies and Roses” by Claudia I. Haas. “This play is about a kind of life after death. It walks the borderline between belief and disbelief and so is a very credible revelation about how we can deal with the loss of a loved one.”
Cynthia Straus has a long résumé of acting credits on both coasts and points between. She will be directing Shannon Murdoch’s “Maisie in the Cold,” with actors Judith Rane and Mikala Martínez as mother and daughter. “This directing project marks my return to the New Mexico acting community after six years in Los Angeles,” said Straus. “I have a great cast, they’re doing a great job and I feel blessed to have such hardworking people. It’s an alive creative process all the time. We find things together.”
Taoseños enjoyed catching glimpses of Rane playing an office manager during the run of “Breaking Bad.” She is returning for her second year as an actor in “Bench Plays.” “It’s like taking a master class, working with Cynthia,” Rane said. “We’re all totally engaged, doing the best work we can.”
Martínez came to Taos from Philadelphia and quickly revived a yearslong interest in theater. “I’m having fun and learning a lot from these ladies, Cynthia and Judith. They’re amazing.”
Savannah Holden was recently featured in Odenbear’s Alan Ayckbourn farce, “How the Other Half Loves.” She will be directing “Show Me a Hero” by Tim J. Brennan.
Hatch will be directing “Nicknames,” written by Taos author, actor and activist David Pérez.
“‘Nicknames’ grew out of a personal essay originally called ‘Funeral for Fat Louie,’ written at least 10 years ago,” Pérez said. “I had typed up some notes and impressions after the funeral, including the observations about how we knew some guys from the neighborhood only by their nicknames.”
Years later, while working on his new book “WOW! 2,” a useful suggestion from a loved one brought the piece back to mind. “My son said, ‘You should stay in some of these scenes longer. Try treating it like a one-act [play], let the characters talk to each other, feel their surroundings,’” Pérez recalled. “So, I made one of my scenes longer and remembered ‘Fat Louie.’ I read it and thought it might make a nice, interesting theater piece. I’m thrilled that Jim Hatch is doing ‘Nicknames’ as part of the Bench Plays and am curious with what the actors will do with it. I love it when actors and directors reinterpret a piece, make it come alive in new ways. That’s the magic of theater.”
Jane Ayles, Odenbear Theatre’s self-described “general dogsbody” — an expression from her native England that she defines as “someone who does whatever needs to be done to make a production happen” — directs the closing show, Scott Mullen’s “Wheel Chair.”
Performances of “The Bench Plays” are Wednesday (June 14) through June 17 and June 21-24 at 7:30 p.m. Sunday matinees are planned June 18 and June 25 at 4 p.m.
Odenbear’s next production, Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana,” will hold auditions the first week of August for performances in September and early October.
For more information, call (575) 770-5591 or visit odenbeartheatre.com.