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Playwrights tackle modern issues in new works fest

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Staged readings of works by Hansol Jung, Walt McGough, Philana Omorotionmwan, Andrew P. Saito, Jonathan Spector and Sarah Sander make up the 39th Bay Area Playwrights Festival. (Courtesy Photos)

Six brand-new plays delve into themes as contemporary as “cross-border social media romance gone awry” and “gamers’ alternate reality not an oasis after all” at the 39th annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival.

Starting Friday and running two weekends at Custom Made Theatre, the festival showcases the plays in their most basic form. Actors take the stage without sets or elaborate costumes, only scripts, after two weeks of rehearsal and, sometimes, just hours after the playwrights edit the texts.

The six works were selected from 500 submissions to the festival, which is presented by the Playwrights Foundation, one of the country’s top development groups dedicated to up-and-coming writers.

“Often playwrights are kind of the canary in coal mine. They’re often the first to speak about issues,” says the festival’s press agent David Hyry.

“Non-Player Character” is by avid gamer Walt McGough, who sets his lead character Katja in two worlds: an online role-playing game, and as a newcomer to Seattle trying to make it as a video game designer. In both, she’s flying solo in a male-centric gaming culture and online threats start becoming real.

McGough based the play on the Gamergate controversy of 2014, and challenged himself to create, he says, “something that feels like a Twitter onslaught, a phone that won’t stop ringing … how to make that feeling, for the audience, as scary and intimidating as it does for the character who is in it.”

Recent Yale playwriting graduate Hansol Jung’s “Wild Goose Dreams” is set in Korean social media where two lovers meet and then unravel.

Festival artistic director Amy Mueller says, “Even within the reading I shed a tear.” It’s punctuated by an experimental score of internet chatter by composer Paul Castles (whose website features a song about toilets as modern urban shrines to water).

Philana Omorotionmwan’s “Before Evening Comes,” set in 2083, imagines a future in which young black men’s right legs are systematically amputated in a twisted coming-of-age initiation ritual, and the to-be-amputees seem excited about it.

The darkly comedic “Good, Better, Best, Bested” is by Jonathan Spector, one of 10 Playwrights Foundation residents, whose characters rambunctiously stumble around Las Vegas’ “particularly American form of cultural appropriation” in the midst of a horrifying international crisis and drunkenly question whether to let it dampen their fun.

Playwrights Foundation residency alumnus Andrew P. Saito’s “whisper fish” highlights the little-known history of Japanese-Peruvians in World War II Peru threatened with deportation to internment camps in Crystal City, Texas. It’s told through a tale of two estranged adult siblings amid dancing devils, a big band-era orchestra of fish and other elements of magical realism.

A suburban Midwestern family is upended in Sarah Sander’s “Sycamore,” which explores sibling rivalry as the kids compete for the amorous attention of a mysterious new neighbor boy and their conflict calls the parents’ bond into question.

Festival claim to fame: “Grounded” by George Brant, which got its start at the festival in 2012, is being adapted into a film starring Anne Hathaway as a pregnant Air Force fighter pilot reassigned to remotely operating killer drones.

Bay Area Playwrights Festival
Where: Custom Made Theatre, 533 Sutter St, S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays; noon, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 6 p.m. Sundays; closes July 24
Tickets: $15-$90 for VIP pass
Contact: (415) 626-2176, www.bayareaplaywrightsfestival.org

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