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Channel-surfing at the theater?

It's time to go 10 by 10 again

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Why do critics return, month in, year out, to companies or programs that haven't always lived up to their potential? It's more than simple masochism. If you dig deep--um, really deep, in certain cases--here's what you actually find: Good lord. We're optimists. Who knew? It's an exercise in faith when we keep showing up, demonstrating our belief that artists and companies can improve over time. It shows our commitment to take the good with the bad, in order to witness a company's ongoing progress. Being there is part of how we endorse the first rule of critical fair play: the proposition that any given team on any given day can knock the ball out of the park.

Most of all, our presence confirms that, even though we know we'll disagree at times, we're still committed to our relationship--and a robust, ongoing conversation--with a community of artists and their audiences about that art and the world in which it manifests.

Which brings me, happily enough, to the 10 BY 10 IN THE TRIANGLE FESTIVAL, the year's first harvest from the ArtsCenter's annual 10-minute play competition. Long-time theatergoers may recall our reservations with this showcase's three predecessors, whose inadequate stage resources and rehearsal time resulted in productions we then termed truncated and haphazard.

Gratefully, those deficits were entirely absent in the matinee we caught last Sunday. 10 by 10 has experienced a significant upgrade in all sectors: Script selection, direction and acting all have seen marked improvement over previous characters and situations best described as sketchy--in more than one sense of that word.

I've always been somewhat skeptical about this art form. Taking the term literally, a 10-minute play (as opposed to, say, a 10-minute scene or sketch) should constitute a freestanding work of art, complete within itself. (I usually forget that Beckett was a master at the form.)

Most contemporary examples come with a nagging sense of excerpt--usually of the first scene or the final one--from a significantly longer work.

But with productions as clear as these, the merits of the scripts become much easier to discern. In this truly engaging evening, almost all effectively drop us into different worlds--only to pick us up 10 minutes later. Even when works like Costumes, Naked Mole Rats in the World of Darkness and Turtle Shopping delve into sitcom, soap or sentimentality, they never stray far from entertainment. The least acute of these works still has something well worth offering.

As for the strongest? Laura Schellhardt's strange, affecting Inheritance explores the comic possibilities of a theme that could have come from Charlotte Perkins Gilman, despite one character's slightly over-the-top mannerisms on Sunday afternoon. Regional insiders got a first glimpse at Kendall Rileigh's Marginalia in a Burning Coal staged reading this spring; here director Rob Hamilton's work with Jane Hallstrom and Allan Vesley gave us a contentious old married couple with a surprise or two in the mix.

Since it has the strongest opening-scene flavor, Patrick Cleary should be particularly encouraged to continue work on Hit Me, in which the comic elements of a fight between brothers gives way to something darker. As things stand, even with notable performances by Joe Brack and Scott Franco, Cleary's work plateaus too long, as the initial questions we encounter--why are the brothers fighting, why in this particular way--linger without appreciable development. But when Cleary's finished marking time, he gets somewhere in a hurry, on a ride we hope is just beginning.

Also noteworthy: Katja Hill's performance in Patrick Gabridge's Insomnia; TeKay's direction of Steve Warnock and Torrey Lawrence in Kelly McAllister's The Morons; and the ensemble in Matt Casarino's amusing Key to the Mystic Halls of Time.

With sellout crowds last weekend, you might want to book passage on this 10-pack of trips sooner, not later.

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