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The T Plays: On That Midnight Train To Melrose

Jason Myatt and Janelle Mills in "Last Train." (Meg Taintor)

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BOSTON — Anyone who’s ridden the MBTA can tell you it’s full of colorful characters during the day, offering anonymity to the regular Joe commuting to work with his ear buds jammed in his ears and downward cast eyes, avoiding any and all interaction with his fellow riders. But ride the train at last call and the cars are empty and riders often let down their guard. Yours truly has been known to belt out show tunes to empty Red Line cars. Every year, Mill 6 Collaborative presents “The T-Plays,” a short play festival of stories written on the train. This year’s offerings (through Aug. 31 at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre) are an ode to the nearly empty train car.

On Aug. 16 six playwrights met in a bar and selected a public transit line from a hat. They rode their selected trains (or in the case of the “Wild Card” the #47 bus) during the last train of the night and each concocted a short play set on that line. Within 24 hours, each script was delivered into the waiting hands of a director. One day later, the directors completed rehearsals with the actors. Then they added the tech elements, and finally, an audience. Subject matter in the past has included nuns and Mormons, turtles and penguins, and secret agents. This year, though, the plays are more contemplative than I remember, perhaps due to the final train theme.

Playwright K. Alexa Mavromatis starts us out on a bus bound for the airport on the Silver Line in “SL1 12:32am” with Delia (Greer Rooney), a passenger so nervous about the tunnel she can’t stop hiccupping. When Max (Kevin LaVelle), sitting directly behind her, feels the need to start a conversation she groans, “Why do I always end up sitting with the freaks?” and we can all relate.

Greer Rooney and Kevin La Velle in "SL1 12:32 a.m." (Meg Taintor)

Greer Rooney and Kevin La Velle in “SL1 12:32 a.m.” (Meg Taintor)

He imparts his tried-and-true seven step system for never having to share a seat which includes the seat protection trifecta: acting insane, sneezing and sniffling like you are infected with a terrible influenza, and loudly talking on the phone, all at the same time. The sweet story is tidily wrapped up when the erstwhile travel companions soon realize they are more alike than they would have guessed as the bus heads through the Ted Williams Tunnel.

Next Emily Kaye Lazzaro drops us on the Green Line in time to overhear a mom (Irene Daly) tell her teenaged daughter (Jillian P. Couillard) she might need a little public shaming, which is why she’s on the Green Line instead of in a cab. While the daughter also says some terribly hurtful things, Mom reminds herself that those things should be like “water off a duck’s back.”

Soon we understand that the pair are returning from a visit to the emergency room in the latest turn in a series of uncomfortable decisions by the daughter, so Mom tells her a story to distract her from the pain. Simply and elegantly directed by Lindsay Eagle, it reminds us about the terribly harsh choices of parenthood, because even on an empty train, some things are too painful to look at directly.

Stephanie Yackovestsky and Bob Mussett in "Retriever." (Meg Taintor)

Stephanie Yackovestsky and Bob Mussett in “Retriever.” (Meg Taintor)

We transfer to the #47 bus where Patrick Gabridge has set Dana (Stephanie Yackovestsky), who is fleeing her high-school prom due to a certain wardrobe planning miscalculation, on the bus bound for Dudley Square. Arthur Lenox (Bob Mussett), a disgraced calculus teacher with a penchant for the superhero genre, trails her in a desperate attempt to regain some integrity after a rumored scandal involving one of his students.

When Dana opens up about the problems plaguing her, some that are far too heavy for a teenager, Mussett’s performance is full of compassion as he finds a teacher’s listening ear, even helping his student find a little solace in a superhero mask. I found the amount of movement on a city bus questionable (not to mention Dana removing her shoes and walking around the bus barefoot –ick!) and the direction from Kim Anton Myatt was only serviceable.

Mal Malme and Forrest Walte in "Princess." (Meg Taintor)

Mal Malme and Forrest Walte in “Princess.” (Meg Taintor)

Next R.D. Murphy brings us to the Orange Line where a farmer, Ari (Mal Malme), is heading from the Plain of Jamaica to the Groves of Oaks with more zucchini than she can ever hope to sell. She meets up with a mushroom poacher, Tip (Forrest Walter), who is headed to unload some black market produce at Downtown Crossing, when they encounter a specter of a Pretty Princess (Jillian P. Couillard) who is hoping to have a blueberry muffin at Jordan Marsh.

When her plans are solidly dashed by the realities of the current state of Downtown Crossing, it is up to Ari to help her find a little enchantment. Solidly directed by Kathy Maloney with outstanding performances by Malme and Walter, this story was a brilliant reminder of the magic of the MBTA. (Don’t believe in magic on the MBTA? Watch a little kid ride the train for the first time.)

Rick Park has written a surprising and suspenseful tale of murder and deception on the Red Line, which is up next. As an unknown person roams the Red Line slashing victims with a huge knife, Hank (Jason Myatt), who is clearly riding the train for the first time, tries to strike up a conversation with the iPod wielding Mich (Janelle Mills). “How can you know you’re safe?” he asks her, which makes me wonder whether we ever know we are safe. No spoilers here, but Mikey DiLoreto’s direction of creepy performances by both Myatt and Mills, combined with Park’s story, had me a little freaked out when I found myself on an empty red line car on the ride home.

Finally, Lisa Burdick drops us onto the Blue Line with Chet (Jacob Athyal) and Joe (Lonnie McAdoo) two “travelers” who ride the blue line to Airport station every day and back, over and over. While Chet imagines the adventure behind the names of the stations (the exotic Orient Heights, posh Beachmont, and, of course, Wonderland) they discuss the magic of falling in love as well as the benefits of blending in. The vague supernaturalism surrounding Chet and Joe is confusing, but it asks smart questions about anonymity and connections between strangers.

In fact, I left the theater mulling over the idea of anonymity among the masses of people who ride the train every day. We are mostly buried in our e-readers with music blasting out any other shred of noise through ear buds, wrapped in a shroud that protects us from meeting other riders’ gazes or answering their questions. When the train empties out and only two or three people occupy the cars, though, there are opportunities for vulnerability and connection. This year’s T-plays show the magical moments on the train as well as the dark and scary corners of the MBTA. See them before this train pulls out of the station for another year.

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