Happy Talk: The Antidepressant Festival Spreads Cheer at the Brick

"The world financial markets have collapsed," begins the promotional video for the Brick Theater's annual summer play festival, and continues with a litany of current crises. "But you know what? That's great."

Dubbed "The Anti-Depressant Festival," this year's festival aims to cheer. With seventeen fully mounted productions rotating in a month-long repertory, there is much off-kilter escapism to be had. "We wanted to talk about 'the downturn,'" explains Michael Garder, Co-Artistic Director of the Brick, "without calling it The Recession Festival."

Even in a year when securing funding for the arts poses a bigger challenge than it usually does, New York has its standard abundance of summer theater festivals. There's a bevy of free outdoor Shakespeare, most famously the Public Theater's star-studded Shakespeare in the Park, which draws long lines to Central Park's Delacorte Theater. For some reason, Shakespeare festivals seem to concentrate in upper Manhattan: there's also the Inwood Shakespeare Festival, presented by Moose Hall Theater Company in Inwood Hill Park, and the Hudson Warehouse's Shakespeare productions at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument on Riverside Drive. Other, non-festival opportunities to catch some free Shakespeare this June include two traveling productions: New York Classical Theatre's King Lear uptown at Central Park West and 103rd Street and downtown in Battery Park, as well as TheaterSmarts' Much Ado About Nothing, performed in parks across Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens.

The Bard aside, many summer theater festivals have an emphasis on developing new work. The multitudinous New York International Fringe Festival, with its 200+ productions that range from re-imagined classics to cabaret burlesque, features companies of all stripes performing shows of all genres, subgenres, hybrid-genres, and genres as yet undefined. Other annual favorites include the Ensemble Studio Theater Marathon, which debuts ten-minute plays in Hell's Kitchen this May and June as it has each summer for more than three decades, and the Summer Play Festival, at The Public Theater in July and August, which is devoted to work by early-career playwrights.

One of the great pleasures of a theater festival is the opportunity it provides to see singular work within a larger context. The EST Marathon, for example, celebrates the ten-minute play by showcasing a variety of forms that exist within the time constraint. What sets the Brick's festival apart is its thematic focus; The Antidepressant Festival is as likely to spark audience rumination on subject matter as it is on form.

Theme-based festivals also help curb the tendency of audiences and critics alike to focus on finding the "best" play of festival. Rather than trying to identify, say, the sharpest young playwright, a festival with a thematic focus perhaps better emphasizes the shared energies that accompany putting together a diverse collection of shows. Each of the plays in The Antidepressant Festival has its own, decidedly unique slant, yet functions in a sort of conversation with the rest of the fest.

A lot of ground will be covered by the festival's eighteen productions, in part due to The Brick's affection for the unexpected. In considering prospective plays to showcase in the festival, Gardner notes, "If the application raised the question 'why the hell would you put that in an Antidepressant Festival' it was already tantalizing." Part of the fun that the festival promises will be an opportunity to see many disparate, light-hearted takes on the problems of our age. Two different productions, dance-theater piece WILM 690: Pirate Radio as well as Afternoon Playland, which features sock puppets, address the impending doom said to accompany the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012. Other issues addressed by the fest include amnesia (Cabaret Terrarium), serial killers (Your Lithopedian), and the pharmaceutical industry (The Tale of the Good Whistleblower of Chaillot's Caucasian Mother and Her Other Children of a Lesser Marriage Chalk Circle, a title that will delight competitive charades players everywhere), among others.

Participation in the Antidepressant festival was open to the general public, by application. Although a few companies may have had cheer-up plays already in the works, by setting a prescribed topic, the Brick's festival served as a prompt for artists to create productions that, when performed in repertory, play as variations on a theme. According to Gardner, selecting play submissions for inclusion in the festival is primarily about finding good material, adding that, "anyone who knows us recognizes our affinity for weird and twisted." Such projects are a specialty of the Brick's, which is home to The Baby Jesus One-Act Jubilee, an annual winter festival of new, yuletide-themed short plays and The New York Clown Theatre Festival, an acclaimed festival of (yes, that's right) clown theater in New York.

Of all the festivals at The Brick, it's the annual summer festival, with a new theme each year, which attracts the most attention. The Antidepressant Festival follows last year's cheekily titled The Film Festival: A Theater Festival, which challenged theater practitioners to use film in constructive ways. Though the resulting plays were hardly uniform - in addition a lot of mixed media pieces, there were plays about cinephiles and film scripts performed solely as live theater - the link between the festival's shows fell more heavily on approaches to form. This year The Brick's summer festival returns to the irreverent, content driven themes of The Pretentious Festival in 2007 and The $ellout Festival in 2006. With its acknowledgement of a recession-driven need for escapism, The Antidepressant Festival also marks a return to the politically driven Moral Values Festival of 2005, developed in the wake of so-called "values voters" dominating the polls during the national elections the previous fall.

The Antidepressant Festival opens Friday, June 5th, following the previous evening's kickoff cabaret, and runs through Saturday, July 4th, at The Brick in Williamsburg. Tickets are a helpfully inexpensive $15 per show, in keeping the festival's downturn-inspired, don't-worry-be-happy theme. "It's interesting," says Gardner, "putting on a festival about happiness. You start to realize that every play is about happiness."

For a complete listing of plays in the Antidepressant Festival, the performance schedule and other helpful festival links, visit www.bricktheater.com/antidepressant.

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