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Queens Chronicle

The World’s Fairs take center stage, at their home

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Posted: Thursday, July 17, 2014 10:30 am

In this year of celebrations marking the 50th and 75th anniversaries of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs, Queens Theatre is adding to the mix with “The World’s Fair Play Festival,” a presentation of a dozen five- to 10-minute performances from acclaimed national, international and local playwrights, running through July 27.

The venue is most appropriate — the theater is housed in the former Theaterama, one of only a handful of buildings constructed for the 1964 World’s Fair that is still standing.

The plays were commissioned specifically for the festival, which will mark the world premiere for each of the works.

The only requirement for the authors was that “the plays had to reflect something about either World’s Fair,” said Rob Urbinati, the theater’s director of new play development. “Their approaches are very distinct.”

Each playwright looks back through his or her own perspective, Urbinati said, together offering works which are alternately “tender, sweet, challenging, provoking.”

Some of the writers examine or challenge the notion of optimism, a feeling both fairs tried to promote. Another focuses on a woman protesting the unfairness in the world.

On a recent Sunday morning, the festival’s overall director, Brant Russell, who is also directing three of the individual plays, was seated at a table in the theater’s downstairs performance space, where the festival will take place. The intimate setting can accommodate only 80, so seating will be limited.

With Russell were his assistant director, Sarah Vargo, and the two actors who make up the cast of “Expositions,” by Craig Lucas, the best-known playwright among the festival’s contributors.

Diane Ciesla and Caleb Shomaker play a woman and her grandson. As the drama develops, the two reflect on their lives both past and future, thoughts that are brought to the fore by their attendance at the different World’s Fairs.

Discussions with their director help clarify for the actors certain elements of the piece, which, despite its brevity, runs the gamut of emotions. Each time they repeat the scene, the actors bring additional nuances to their characterizations.

The challenge of making such a short piece work, according to Russell, is primarily up to the playwright. From a director’s point of view, he said, “the craftsmanship required is much more precise.” For an actor to convey an idea, he said, “You only get one gesture. You better be sure it’s well-crafted.”

Putting the festival together has been a collaborative effort among Russell, Urbinati and the theater’s managing director, Taryn Sacramone.

“I felt this idea was really fun and interesting when we started. Getting a sense of what the overall show will be like, it’s even more exciting than I could have imagined,” Sacramone said.

Urbinati is “really pleased with how different the plays are from each other. Some are very naturalistic. Some are experimental. They are not all gentle, sweet little plays.” The festival, he added, should be “of particular interest to people who were there or who heard about the fairs.”

Among the characters who inhabit the plays are some who attended the fairs, some who are talking to people who were there and some who worked there, such as the cleanup people.

The festival is designed to celebrate the vibrancy that continues to animate Flushing Meadows Corona Park, site of the two fairs. According to a press release, the multiplicity of cultures on display at the fairs — which also populates Queens today — will play an integral part in the festival.

Race, Russell said, is “at the forefront of all but one or two” of the plays. “It’s unavoidable.”

With opening night approaching, the crunch is on. Time from first rehearsal to opening night: two weeks. And juggling a dozen different plays simultaneously can be daunting.

“It’s an organizational feat,” admitted Urbinati.

There are “a million moving pieces,” said Russell, for whom “how to make everything cohesive” is the primary challenge.

On Sunday, Russell looked forward to finally “hearing all the pieces in order,” saying, “We’ll figure out how to make it gel.”

Pointing out that both World’s Fairs were staged during tumultuous times in history, Russell said, “We’re trying to embrace the optimism. There’s something about the promise of the future that I want audiences to take away.”

Welcome to the discussion.