This month marks my first time at an in-person event at the Pear Theatre since before the COVID-19 pandemic, and what more fitting way to return than by attending what is perhaps the Pear-iest of possible productions?
"Pear Slices" is a collection of mini-plays (nine, in this case) by members of the Pear Playwrights Guild put together into one production, and it's been an annual highlight from the Mountain View theater for nearly two decades now.
Don't go into "Pear Slices" expecting polished perfection. Instead, go with an open mind and a sense of excitement at getting to see a whole bunch (fruit pun not intended) of fresh ideas from local talent. Not every play will be a winner but there's surely something to pique everyone's interest, and if you aren't a fan of something, well, it'll soon be on to the next. Short attention span? You're in luck.
This year, the "Slices" are directed by Pear veteran Caitlin Papp and Pear newcomer Thomas Times, and were written by Barbara Anderson, Robin Booth, Leah Halper, Greg Lam, Sophia Naylor, Ross Peter Nelson and Bridgette Dutta Portman. The cast features Sarah Benjamin, Arturo Dirzo, Nique Eagen, Elizabeth Finkler, Bezachin Jifar, Sarah Kishler, Tiffany Nwogu, Collin Seaman and Sandy Sodos, all of whom get the chance to take on numerous roles throughout the two-act production.
As always, 2023's slate of shows covers a wide variety of themes. Two — "Aileen" by Anderson and "Sweet Dreams Are Made of This" by Nelson — deal with the dark side of technological progress, the former concerning an AI-determined justice system and the latter about a future in which lucrative information is harvested from dreams. Both premises are intriguing but "Aileen" is the more successful, telling a chilling sci-fi tale that doesn't seem far off from reality, where racism runs rampant and the wheels of (in)justice turn ultra-rapidly, despite repeated claims from the authorities that their software is a perfectly neutral and efficient system. Jifar is compelling as a suspect caught in its sinister, bigoted web.
Naylor's "The Witching Hour," which starts off the show, is a lyrical, dreamy introduction to a frolicking quartet (Benjamin, Kishler, Finkler and Sodos) of nocturnal spirits who are duty-bound to dance the sun up but forbidden from staying out to watch the sunrise. I found the aesthetic (twinkling and glow-in-the-dark accoutrements; costumes courtesy of Pati Bristow) appealing, even if I was unclear as to whether it's to be taken at face value or as an allegory.
Booth's "Fantasy Island" delves into wacky dark comedy, with Sodos as a castaway who makes frenemies with a talking coconut (Eagen). Lam's "The Street Has I's" is also comedic, blending thinly disguised "Sesame Street" characters with the tropes of film noir, and it's an enjoyable mash-up, despite the lack of a satisfactory resolution. Jifar again gives a memorable performance, this time as a potential villain who speaks in the high-pitch and third-person style of a certain fuzzy red puppet.
Halper goes quite serious with her two inclusions. The first, "Way Home" could serve for local theater fans as a little prequel of sorts to TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's recent "Fannie." It's a look into a moment in the life of civil rights hero Fannie Lou Hamer (Eagen). Her second offering, the sweet and sad "A Lift," features Benjamin as a hopeful teen connecting with her long-estranged, down-and-out father, the likable Dirzo.
Portman seems to have a penchant for playing with well-known characters from history, mythology and literature. While watching her amusing "Literary Mediation Services" I was reminded of her "Wheel of Fortuna" from a few "Slices" ago. This time, instead of dealing with characters from ancient history, famous literary figures in conflict are put into peace talks by Nwogu and Eagen. Sodos earned big laughs from the opening-night audience in her performance as the titular whale, Moby Dick. She's another of the most memorable cast members, bringing a manic energy and gleeful spark to every role she plays.
Naylor's oddball, one-woman "Nirvandraw" is another time for Sodos to shine. In one of my favorites of the night, Sodos plays Bethany, a self-help spokeswoman for a cult-like pyramid scheme that apparently rakes in profits by teaching others to make money off her patented "Nirvandraw" doodling instruction. Bethany's wild-eyed, frozen-grin facade starts to crumble mid-seminar thanks to the breakdown of her business and marriage partnership.
Sometimes hit-or-miss but always quirky and thought-provoking, "Pear Slices" remains a tradition I look forward to, and it sure was nice to be back.
"Pear Slices" runs through May 14 at the Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View. Tickets are $38. More information is available at thepear.org.