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As the Source Festival’s short-play showcase “Afterward” makes clear, writing in short form has its challenges. Occasionally, that becomes all too evident in some of these short works, which the festival broadly tasked with “examin[ing] the past through the lens of the present.” But the showcase’s most successful pieces were those that offered a sense of humor and a strong voice. Here’s a look at the slate.

50 Guns

Alex Broun’s piece has its roots in a sad 2009 news item from Knoxville, in which an 11-year-old accidentally shot his 20-year old brother who was about to go into the Air Force. The death of William “Trent” Lockett was especially tragic because he had been babysitting his younger brother, who idolized him, and knew how to use guns. He just didn’t know there was another round left in the chamber.

There are several ways you could work from a story like this, but Broun chooses an unsubtle route.

Emma walks onstage and empties a carton of different metal parts onto the floor—-presumably components of a gun. “I’ve always been fascinated by guns,” she says, and then proceeds to put back one piece at a time as she lists different cases of people getting shot, with a voice that—-to actress Kathryn Ryan‘s credit—-never gives way to melodrama.

Yet, 50 Guns is the history of gun violence by way of Wikipedia. The battle of Agincourt, the suicide of a Sarasota woman, Brandon Lee, Newtown, Virginia Tech, Columbine, Norway, the rape and murder of Iraqi civilians by American soldiers. Through it all, there are wince-inducing lines like, “Guns cannot undo what they have done. The genie cannot go back in the bottle.” By the time you discover what Emma actually represents, you may have already checked out; rehashing an agitating series of news stories that have been told the same way again and again doesn’t bring a fresh treatment to the very real issue of gun violence.

Lost in Thought

As a Man (Bru Ajueyitsi) washes a dishes in the center of the room, he is plagued by the things his ex-lover—-Kathryn Ryan’s Woman—-said to him. “I miss feeling pretty,” she says at one point, while he continues to scrub and determinedly ignore her. Finally, after several minutes of this, Man has had enough and gets up to push the thoughts of her out of his head, pushing Woman literally out of the room. But she just keeps coming back. Nicely acted by both leads, the ending of Christopher Lockheardt‘s short piece may be predictable, but it feels spot on.

Minus You

In a play that’s full of equations, here’s one: Two actors plus one ambiguous script equals headscratching.

In Jennifer Barclay‘s meditation on matrimony and the afterlife, we know that Gracie (Meredith Richard) and Lennox (Christian Sullivan) were hitched at some point, though we don’t really know for how long or how old they’re supposed to be. What we do know is that Lennox is trying to get in touch with Gracie in whatever nebulous limbo they’ve ended up in, which he does by yelling at the ceiling, or talking indirectly at her form as she passes by. There are allusions to some kind of pill that Lennox may have been peddling when he was alive, and skydiving figures prominently into the plot. There are also implications of possible domestic abuse, or at least intimidation. I’m not sure why it was necessary to have Lennox and Gracie recite math problems at each other (“You minus life, plus negative space, plus one phone call…”), but one thing is clear: None of it adds up.

Edward Cullen Ruined My Mother’s Love Life

We open on Ramona (Carol McCaffrey), a middle-aged woman crying on the couch. Behind her, a younger man (Christian Sullivan) approaches, doing a Bela Lugosi voice, holding a cape over his face. Is it kinky roleplaying? She’s unimpressed, so he asks if this is what she was talking about. She yells that it’s all wrong. “So wrong it’s… right?” He replies, hopefully. It’s a promising start to this cutesy but unsatisfying tale of abandonment, told in the first person by teenager Lily (Meredith Richard) who’s frustrated with her mom’s addiction to Twilight.

But it isn’t Edward Cullen who’s ruining Lily’s mother’s love life, as the title promises; her mother is fully responsible for that. She tosses out boyfriends left and right, claiming they won’t give her the “eternal love” of a sparkly Robert Pattinson. What’s behind mom’s obsession? It’s unclear. Very suddenly at the end, we get a hint about Lily’s father, who may have left or been killed. But this revelation lands with a thud; we haven’t been given a reason to care.

Riot Grrrl Reunion

The one play that got big laughs, Darin J. Dunston’s roller-derby rollick centers on a fight during a boys’ basketball game, narrated and reenacted with vigor by the largest cast of the night. The Evil Sisterhood of Holy Rollers clique is like bloodthirstier Power Puff Girls, who tough-pose with Joan Jett‘s “Bad Reputation” in the background and go by names like Hermione Maimher—-clad in the schoolgirl garb of the Harry Potter character—-who clumsily shrieks her tag line: “A horcrux that… uh, fucks.”

In a twist of events, the day gets saved by a former derby queen, who appears from underneath the mild-mannered persona of the school librarian, who had settled into the mundane routine of motherhood. It’s an old trick, but you can’t help but laugh as Mrs. Newsome (Alina Collins-Maldonado, in her second well-delivered turn of the night) describes her actions in an intense monologue, explaining, “Sometimes it’s just nice to show those bitches they still can’t fuck with me.”

The Man in the Powder Blue Suit

Showcase highlight The Man in the Powder Blue Suit takes a personal storytelling approach that feels like a short chapter in a coming-of-age memoir. In it, Naomi (another appearance by Alina Collins-Maldonado) recalls a childhood experience traveling with her parents to see her grandmother in Arizona in the dead of summer, and the trip leads to a pivotal encounter with a stranger by a motel pool while her parents are napping.

The minute the dapper evangelist (John Tweel) enters, wearing the blue suit of the play’s title, this could easily veer into disturbing territory, but the story stays ambiguous, instead flowering into a moment of shocking clarity for Naomi when she sees a different side of her dad. When the man asks Naomi if she loves her parents, she says yes, then adds, “It never occurred to me—-at least not then—-not to love them.” Here, the uncertainty of how the action will finish, the boredom of the open road, and the tension vaguely understood by a child who hasn’t yet learned the language of adult conflict all vividly spring to life.

The Afterward short plays run tonight at 8 p.m., June 22 at 1 p.m., and June 29 at 4 p.m.

All photos courtesy CulturalDC