Review of the Seventh Annual Aphra Behn Festival at SATE

    SATE recently presented the Seventh Annual Aphra Behn Festival at Fontbonne University. The company established the festival in 2017 to provide growth opportunities for women interested in writing and directing plays. The festival is now even more inclusive, offering the same opportunities to transgender and non-binary artists. The festival’s namesake is thought to be the first woman in England to earn a living as a playwright.

    The theme for the 2023 Festival was “Re-Told.” Writers were challenged to re-tell, adapt, or respond to one of the plays on Hedgepig Theatre Ensemble’s “Expand the Canon” list. SATE hosted readings of the three chosen scripts before the full stagings.

    The first offering was Lieblingstante by Aurora Behlke. Its source was The Uncle by Princess Amalie of Saxony, from 1835. In Behlke’s play, Julius has brought his girlfriend, Anna, to meet his Aunt Claudia at her home in Vienna. Claudia says she is Julius’s lieblingstante (favorite aunt), but there is plenty of tension between the two. The reason for the tension becomes clear when Claudia begins putting the moves on Anna. Under Kayla Ailee Bush’s directions, Maida Dippel as Anna, Michael Pierce as Julius, Leslie Wobbe as Claudia, dug deeply into the comic opportunities of the script’s love triangle.

    reANIMA, by Aly Kantor, is “a speculative subversion” of Anima (or Her Soul), by Amelia P. Rosselli (1898).  The characters are Cricket and Aven, who are best friends. After suffering a trauma at a party, Cricket needed a new body. Aven could supply one because she is a designer for a company that creates robotic companions for “wealthy perverts and lonely trillionaires.”

    The setting is Aven’s apartment during Cricket’s first visit after receiving her new body. This situation is as new for characters as the world of the play for the audience.

    Kantor skillfully integrates the characters’ interactions with what the audience needs to know about their history and the play’s imagined future. When Cricket bites through her lip, the need for a repair introduces a new piece of technology as well as an opportunity for more intimacy between Cricket and Aven.

    Under Britney N. Daniels’ direction, Keating as Cricket and Taylor Kelly as Aven responded with affecting sensitivity to the awkwardness of reestablishing a relationship after a change of staggering proportions.

    According to its subtitle, Summer Baer’s Bold Stroke for a Villain is “A Different End to Hannah Cowley’s Bold Stroke for a Husband,” a play from 1783. The characters borrowed from Cowley’s play are Victoria and Laura. According to the summary on Hedgepig Theatre Ensemble’s website, “Laura and Victoria are wooing each other – yet competing with each other.”

    Baer’s opening introduces the idea of “Character Purgatory,” where fictional characters get what they deserve at the end of their stories. In the play’s reality, every character’s purgatory is different, and a séance is the only way to speak with characters who have escaped from their purgatories.

    The play’s setting is a cemetery in a character purgatory near a statute of Laura. After 250 years of thinking about her past, Victoria conducts a seance in hopes of summoning Laura and apologizing to her. The person who appears instead is Elle Woulds (so spelled in the program), a parody of the main character in Legally Blonde.

    Gabrielle Lynn as Victoria and Jaelyn Hawkins as Elle bring out the humor in Victoria’s effort to contact Laura. When she finally appears, Lynn and Greta Johnson as Laura were convincing in the serious interaction between the former friends and rivals. Emma Glose directed.

    The production ensemble included stage manager Spencer Lawton, lighting designer Michael Sullivan, costume designer Liz Henning, sound designers Ellie Schwetye and Emma Glose, and intimacy coordinator Rachel Tibbetts. The co-producers were Tibbetts and Schwetye.

    —Gerry Kowarsky