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From 10-minute plays to a four-hour opera

Tossing her hands in the air, fortune teller Samantha proclaims: “Fate is fate.” And so it was at Durango Art Center’s ninth annual 10-Minute Play Festival last weekend.

“Ring of Truth,” a 10-minute comedy by Marsha Roberts, didn’t win either the grand prize or popular choice award in the festival’s first phase last spring. Still, it was forwarded to October’s full-production weekend by audience vote.

And that’s a good thing. “Ring” appeared to be the most fully realized production of the five short works presented. Directed by Michael Chapman, the story began before intermission ended as Samantha (a salty and wizened Dolores Mazurkewicz), set up shop on stage sorting her cards, awaiting gullible customers. Charlene and Dwayne (bewildered young lovers played coyly by Nicole Oury and Matt Jones) soon arrive, having opened the play with a giggly purchase of an engagement ring.

As the play unfolded, a fluid three-part structure revealed a taut, comedic universe. Beginning with a short setup (buying the ring), the exposition followed with the fortune teller and concluded in an unexpected denouement. Throughout, Chapman’s pacing and simple staging enabled the humor to shine through.

The other plays included an absurdist comedy, “Waiting for God-Knows-What,” by Mario Rivas; a romantic comedy, “Speed Dating,” by Nedra Pezold Roberts, which won the popular choice award; a reunion drama, “Thank You for Your Service,” by Mike Solomonson; and a revenge drama, “Just Desserts,” which won the grand prize, also by Solomonson.

The 10-minute form has been around for almost 50 years starting with The Actors Studio in Louisville. It’s caught on nationwide, and credit Dinah and Terry Swan with starting a festival in Durango nine years ago. They had previously launched a similar festival with script submissions and judging in Oxford, Mississippi.

The form lends itself most easily to comedic situations. As the years have passed, serious drama seems more difficult to realize in 10 minutes. Maybe, tragedy belongs to longer forms.

Enter the world of opera, where tragedy slowly blooms as in the upcoming livestreamed production of “Manon” at 10:55 a.m. Saturday at Fort Lewis College.

From 10-minute plays to a four-hour opera is a stretch that spans more than a century. And it tells us something about the evolution of art forms and audience expectations.

“Manon” is a fictional character from an early 18th-century novel by a Benedictine monk. Her story is a cautionary tale about a confused but ambitious young woman. In the novel and the three subsequent operas based on it, Manon is headed for a convent on her father’s orders, but she yearns for a lavish life in the big city. She falls in love with a young aristocrat but abandons him for a Parisian sugar daddy.

Abbé Prévost’s 1718 novel describes Manon’s bad choices that briefly lead to a glamorous life then her comeuppance. The novel spawned three operas: Daniel Auber’s 1856 work flamed out quickly. Jules Massenet’s 1884 treatment won immediate acclaim, which Puccini knew about and wanted to surpass.

“Massenet feels the subject as a Frenchman, with the powder and the minuets,” Puccini wrote derisively when his version was about to open in 1893. “I shall feel it as an Italian, with desperate passion.”

Well, both versions spill over with gooey Romanticism and have achieved lasting admiration. You may prefer Puccini’s music to Massenet’s, so judge for yourself. In 2016, The Met livestreamed Puccini’s version. Saturday, you can see Massenet’s very French version with soprano Lisette Oropesa. Even the fabulous tenor Michael Fabiano (des Grieux) cannot dissuade Manon from the wealthy de Brétigny, the Harvey Weinstein of the opera (baritone Brett Polegato). Meanwhile, des Grieux joined the priesthood. But when he learns about Manon, he finds and persuades her to escape with him. She agrees, but hesitates to pack her jewelry, gets arrested and is imprisoned.

The story doesn’t end there, but it ends badly. Today’s #MeToo movement might envision Manon’s trajectory differently. And, to return to the comparison of 10-minute plays with opera, “Manon” unwinds in four hours and two minutes.

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.


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