Valentine’s Day with a twist

Tired of buying a box of imported chocolates or a dozen red roses for your true love on Valentine’s Day?

Then consider a nontraditional gift for this romantic holiday by getting tickets to the “Twisted Valentines Festival,” presented by the Axial Theatre at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Pleasantville on two weekends, Feb. 9 through 11 and 16 through 18.

 One of Westchester’s beloved professional theater companies, Axial views the national day of lovers through the lenses of six original one-act plays. Each has a unique twist on relationships, ranging from hilarious to heartbreaking.

Logo for Axial Theatre’s “Twisted Valentines Festival,” Feb. 9 through 11 and 16 through 18. Courtesy Axial Theatre.

“We’re trying to capture the human experience and hoping that our audiences will be touched by the performances, identify with what they hear and maybe see things a little differently afterwards,” says Howard Meyer, Axial’s founding artistic director as well as head of the company’s acting and playwright programs. “I think people will be laughing, crying and nodding their heads and that, ultimately, they’ll be moved and might learn something about themselves.”

In explaining how the February production came about, Meyer says that Axial, which was founded in 1999, had always presented two main-stage productions each year and was looking for a way to add more offerings. The company found the answer in one-night-only programs that helped develop new works. One such event was “Twisted Valentines,” which began in 2015 as a “book-in-hand” production, in which actors read aloud from scripts on music stands. 

“It was a three-hour marathon with 12 plays and proved so popular that it was standing room only,” says Meyer, a longtime resident of Yorktown who moved to Poughkeepsie several years ago.

Due to “Twisted Valentines’” huge success, Axial repeated the same format the following year. “When we were underwritten to do a third round, we decided not only to continue involving our writers, directors and actors, but also to create fully produced programs with props, sets, costuming and lighting, as well as an expanded run of eight performances,” Meyer says.  This year, there are six plays, five directors and 12 actors, and tickets are already selling at a fast pace.

Among the directors is Catherine Banks of Ossining, who has taken master classes in acting with Axial, performed in its shows and assisted in directing many of its student workshop productions. 

“As a professional theater that maintains an ensemble, Axial held particular interest for me,” Banks says. “I was very drawn to the idea of being part of a community — a theater family that collaborated and created together on an ongoing basis. 

“Having a core group of actors, directors, playwrights and technicians who work together builds a character for the theater company itself. Add to that the level of talent, emphasis on the truthfulness of the art, the nurturing and supportive environment and I felt I had found my theater home.”

Banks will be directing “More Myself Than I Am” by Brooklyn resident David Gill. The one-act play takes the soul mates of Emily Brontë’s timeless “Wuthering Heights” and gives Cathy and Heathcliff a long-awaited reunion on the moors, only this time in the afterlife. In this fresh, witty spin, “the characters have modern, relatable traits that bring the Victorian tale into the present,” Banks says.

She also directs “Fix” by Atlanta resident John Patrick Bray, which takes place on New Year’s Eve, a night when resolutions are quickly made and broken. Featuring a man and a woman in recovery, one day at a time quickly becomes one second at a time. As midnight approaches, they find keeping it simple becomes complicated by feelings of regret and longing.

“John writes about the condition of being human, in this world, in this time, and he does it without sentimentality, without judgment, but always with hope,” Banks says.

Other one-act plays in the festival include “Fraught” by Briarcliff Manor resident Evelyn Mertens and directed by Susan Ward of Ossining.  As Mertens explains, “A couple enjoying a casual December to May fling has second — and third and fourth — thoughts and then some as their camping trip takes on unforeseen significance.”

“Love at Worst Sight” by New Rochelle resident Ed Friedman and directed by Robin Anne Joseph of Hastings, features two enlightened, politically correct singles seeking love. The play questions whether they can reach past blind spots and prejudices to discern what is an illusion and what is a connection worth pursuing.

Written and directed by Bronx resident Wayne Paul Mattingly, “Worlds Apart” looks at two high school sweethearts who are facing the threshold of graduation and dreams, while on a racier note, “Miss Pudding Doesn’t Work Here Anymore” — written by Montgomery, New York, resident Lisa Kimball and directed by Ginny Reynolds of Patterson — spotlights a disobedient submissive who encounters a rule-breaking dominant deaf to safe words.  

According to Meyer, what ties the eclectic “Twisted Valentines” plays together are three words that define what Axial’s philosophy is all about. They’re relevant, provocative and collaborative: 

“They’re relevant to the community. They’re provocative in that they ‘twist’ and create a more challenging look at relationships. And they’re collaborative, in that we get many of our writers, actors and directors involved.”

Adding to his sentiments, Linda Giuliano, Axial’s associate artistic director and literary manager, says, “I think what also binds the plays, whether comedic or traumatic, is that the characters are at a crossroads where there’s no turning back from the decisions they are faced with at the moment. All of them place the characters on an edge that involves confrontation with what is difficult to see and from which there is no escape.”

The Axial Theatre’s “Twisted Valentines Festival” will be presented at 8 p.m. Feb. 9 and 16, at 3 and 8 p.m. Feb. 10 and 17 and at 4 p.m. Feb. 11 and 18 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 8 Sunnyside Ave., Pleasantville. Tickets are $27.50; $22.50 for senior citizens and students and can be purchased online at brownpapertickets.com. (Search for Axial Theatre.)

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