The Source Festival: British Unicorns, Drunken Mermaids, and Lovestruck Chihuahuas

We caught a sampling of six 10-minute plays at the 14th Street theater festival.

By: Sophie Gilbert

In a mere 90 minutes at this year’s Source Festival, audiences can see plays about a unicorn harassing women in the street, a mermaid living in apparent captivity at the back of a supermarket, a woman who compares her relationship to modern art, and a family of men who move back into their matriarch’s uterus after the complexities of modern life become too overwhelming.

If it sounds quirky, it is, but one of the strengths of the festival’s format has always been its presentation of 10-minute plays, offering new and untested playwrights the chance to showcase their ideas alongside better-known ones and allowing writers the freedom to experiment with stories that might collapse under the weight of a full-length play. At a showcase titled “On the Cusp” presented last weekend, short plays by Jessica Huang, Sherry Kramer, Eric Pfeffinger, Peter J. Roth, David Mitchell Robinson, and Jami Brandli explored the beginnings and ends of relationships, from two chihuahuas debating the state of their owner’s relationship and the “scent of love” in Kramer’s Cake, to a man and a woman embarking on a complex and funny game of espionage in Roth’s Strangers on a Train.

Some actors appear in several different plays, switching costumes and sometimes disguises before reappearing onstage, while the sets are seamlessly brought into Source’s black box theater and then removed by a handful of cast and crew members. Design elements are minimalist, but effective enough to create the sense of a whole new theatrical universe for each mini-production.

Some concepts work better than others—Jami Brandli’s drunken, heartbroken mermaid, abandoned by her captor with nothing to sustain her but light beer and Swedish fish, is particularly engaging—but the nature of the format means if one play starts to become tedious, it morphs into another one quickly enough. There are three sets of six 10-minute plays (18 in total) at this year’s festival, as well as three full-length plays by Jason Gray Platt, Joe Waechter, and Topher Payne, and three artistic blind dates (or cross-genre mashups), in which nine artists collaborate over the course of six months to present unique and inspired collaborations. In the words of a character from Pfeffinger’s short, it’s theater that’s “easy and organic, like a Rothko,” and a valuable addition to the summer calendar.

The Source Festival, presented by Cultural DC, runs through June 30 at Source. For more information, visit the Source Festival website.