By ERIC GRODE
For a playwright, it's the dramaturgical equivalent of a blank check: a theatre company asking for a piece, or at least the beginnings of a piece, with a big cast, a berserk structure, and as unwieldy a setting as you can possibly imagine.
This was the offer that four playwrights couldn't refuse when New Georges, an acclaimed company that focuses on female writers, came calling. The Germ Project, which opened last week at 3LD Arts and Technology Center, showcases the products of these four scribes' newly unfettered imaginations.
"We assured them that no matter what happened, we'd find a way to do it," says New Georges artistic director Susan Bernfield. "Maybe not with [stage effects company] Flying by Foy, but we'll find a way. That's where our producing skills lie: People throw things at us, and we say, 'Okay, we'll try.' "
By presenting four mini-epics in an evening, The Germ Project at first glance resembles the one-act festivals that are so common among off- and off-off-Broadway theatres. But Bernfield stresses that these 20-minute playlets are more like Act Ones (or maybe Act Threes) of developing projects.
For now, audiences will get a sampler of four very different works. One of them, Kara Lee Corthron's three-character AliceGraceAnon is so intricately choreographed that the script is written in Excel, not Microsoft Word. Joining it are Kathryn Walat's This Is Not Antigone, which transposes the dispute over an unburied body to rural America; Anna Ziegler's Evening All Afternoon, about a Latina mother and daughter; and Lynn Rosen's Goldor $ Mythyka: A Hero Is Born, which vaults its larcenous protagonists---"a Bonnie and Clyde for the Internet era," as Rosen describes them---into a Dungeons and Dragons-style fantasy world.
It was this last piece, Bernfield says, that tested the parameters of the project's no-questions-asked ethos. "We had a technical problem last week when the fog machine kept setting off the fire alarm," she says, and some of the acrobatics were modified a bit.
"The only limits came as a result of shared rehearsal time," Rosen says, "but that helped me keep things clear without losing the epicness." The origins of Goldor $ Mythyka, in fact, predate the New Georges commission. Rosen recalls, "I wrote the first draft, and I could just see my agent saying, 'What are you talking about?' So I put it away, until Susan called me. They really gave me the green light to be as bold and daring as I want."
Bold and daring doesn't necessarily mean undisciplined, however: "The sky's the limit, but at 20 minutes, you still have to use all your tools to keep things clear, " Rosen says, and she adds that in all four Germs, the authors have distilled "what we think are the most theatrical and thrilling pieces of our plays."
If any particular Germs strike your fancy, you'll need to wait a bit to see more: While New Georges is moving forward with other readings and also looking into coproductions, Bernfield says it will be 2012 at the earliest before any of the individual pieces are fleshed out. "I hope the work they're doing on the Germs now will impact the way they grow into full pieces," she says. "It wasn't hard to find 20 minutes of cohesive structure in each piece. Frankly, we've had bigger producing challenges with other shows."
Eric Grode, the author of the recently released “Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation” (Running Press), was theatre critic at the New York Sun from 2005 to 2008.