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Theater review: 'What She Said' offers diverse women's voices

Selected from over 200 submissions, the seven one-act plays that comprise the first annual "What She Said" festival at the Underground offer stories that are — in order — cute, touching, intense, insane, unbelievably absurd, the opposite of boring, and an absolute comic gem.

The festival's mission statement is to feature female voices. The writers hail from around the country (three are from New York City), while the directors are all local, many of them well-known actresses. The organizational strategy in each act is to sandwich the dramatic offerings between the comic pieces.

The setup for "Seven Minutes of Heaven" is what the title suggests it's about. Ninth-graders Martin (Matias Valero) and Fredi (Kyliah Thompson) are thrown into a closet together. Unfortunately, she has no interest in him, and Eugenie Carabatsos's piece offers a unique twist on how some people see other people.

When Alice (Ellie Martin) goes missing from the hospital, her daughter, Elizabeth (Lacy Habdas) knows exactly where to find her terminally ill mother. "Independence Day" by Rhea MacCallum, focuses on the need for a different type of appreciation in such a situation, and comes complete with fireworks.

"Forbidden Friend," written by Andrea Fleck Clardy, is a dramatic monologue starring Cheryl Skafte as a high school English teacher whose assignments to her sophomore students resonate with a boy named Jason. As the subject moves from watercress to forbidden friendships, Skafte commands our absolute attention, aided by effective staging and lighting by director Kate Horvath.

Intermission is bracketed by a pair of works set before two decidedly different brides who are about to walk down their respective aisles. In "Her Big Day" by Heather Meyer, Heather Atherton plays Donna, a bride who is literally willing to do absolutely anything to ensure her friends Jane (Brooke Melek) and Mary (Liz Woodworth) have a good time at her wedding.

In Rachel Schroeder's "Ein Kleiner Kosmik Joke," Miriam (Habdas) tells her intended, Louis (Valero), "You can tell me anything." But the unbelievably horrible bad news Louis springs on her at the last minute leads Miriam (Habdas) to conclude that God has a sick sense of humor. She might be right.

Layla (Cat Rud), a 14-year-old whose head is filled with some very interesting ideas, is having a game of "Catch" with her widower father (Zach Stofer) down by the Pianovil River. In Shawna Casey's piece, unspoken things are finally said, and I especially liked the portrait of a father who might not know what to do, but who still knows the right things to say.

"What She Said" saves the best for last with a piece by Jessica Moss. Mary Fox and Luke Sharman play two people who show up at a cafe looking for, respectively, "Caleb and Rita," who do not seem to be there.

Directed by Skafte, the interplay between the brash Fox and the modest Sharman is nuanced, high-speed and drop-dead funny. This is what happens when you give actors a single scene to work on, especially one that is polished to sheer perfection as this one.

If you go

• What: "What She Said: One Act Festival"

• Where: The Underground, 506 W. Michigan St.

• When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday

• Tickets: $20 adults, $18 students at duluthunderground.org

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