World premier of an offbeat new comedy

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Michael Toscano
D. Grant Cloyd and Ann Fraistat vividly portray multiple characters, including an avenger who calls herself Vigil Ant, in the Venus Theater’s world premiere of A Girl Named Destiny.
Photo courtesy of Venus Theater

Are we all really romantics at heart? Playwright Rand Higbee tries to pose that question in his eccentric new comedy A Girl Named Destiny, now in its world premiere at Venus Theatre in Laurel, Md.

Higbee’s play delves into this theme by introducing us to two seemingly unremarkable people. They’re unremarkable even if the female — er, girl — of the title sees herself as a justice-seeking, masked vigilante.

But once she and Joe, the main male character, share a passing glimpse, they spend the rest of the story trying to find each other. Or themselves. Higbee is a little vague on his central premise and his theme, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Regardless, it’s bracing for theater lovers to be able to indulge their sense of adventure with something offbeat and new. That’s especially meaningful after several seasons where many of the recession-wracked mainstream theater companies have resorted to tried and true oldies to fill seats. (Arena Stage has The Sound of Music coming up, for Pete’s sake.)

New plays, little-known venue

The delightfully-named Venus Theatre Play Shack is located on the fringes of Laurel’s trendy, restaurant-filled and historic downtown in a newly zoned arts district. It’s near Laurel’s pleasant Riverfront Park on the Patuxent River.

It may be a bit off the beaten track for some. And the thought of seeing a new, untested work from an obscure playwright from Spearfish, S.D., may seem a waste of time.

But perhaps you should think of this production as part of a boxed set, and dive right in. That’s because it is the first of four brand-new plays in a row that Venus Theatre has planned for what they’re calling their “Bold Hope Season.”

So I decided to be bold and hope for the best.

Great actors, sputtering story

What I found are two first-rate actors, Ann Fraistat and D. Grant Cloyd, each playfully portraying a variety of roles in addition to the destiny-afflicted central characters, named Destiny and Joe. Both play male and female roles, a charming and effective theatrical maneuver in their capable hands.

There are plenty of appreciative chuckles and a few good laughs to be found here. Director Deborah Randall, the theater company’s founder, has set an active and dynamic pace for the duo.

But they have a challenge as they work their way through an uneven series of vignettes. Their vigor and their whimsy nicely accent the tightly-written, thematically cogent episodes. And they help gloss over flaws in some of the others.

But talent alone cannot save moments that feel like remnants of an earlier attempt to write an entirely different play. That play might have been about a girl named Destiny, but it’s not this girl named Destiny.

That play was probably about a young woman seeking some sense of herself and her place in the world. That would explain why she fancies herself a night-stalking crime fighter called “Vigil Ant,” who operates just outside lawful boundaries to achieve her ends while cultivating an ant motif. (I guess Batman and Spiderman were taken.)

So we meet Vigil Ant in confusing scenes that break the previously established and carefully cultivated aura of magical realism, tossing the effort deeply into wooly farce.

Furthermore, while the Vigil Ant idea pops up throughout the two acts, it adds nothing to the main story line about two people who are consumed by the romantic thought that there is someone special intended just for each of them. The quest to find that person and make two quotidian, humdrum existences meld into one fulfilling life is diluted.

Venus Theatre was founded to stage “new works with empowering roles for women,” but I cannot ascertain how that may have influenced the choice of this somewhat inchoate work.

A premier with potential

Higbee needs to pare down the play and sharpen his focus. Most of his vignettes here have an element of dualism, in that it’s possible to see events in more than one light.

But Higbee can overwork that device, as he does in a scene where Joe is eagerly receptive to a come-on from a police sketch artist who flaunts her sexuality. How does that fit into his mission to locate his lost true love? And how true is that quest if he is so easily sidetracked?

Other scenes repeat ideas and can be condensed or sacrificed, while Vigil Ant needs a hefty dose of Raid.

Still, with some work, this might make a pretty good one-act play. As it is, it’s the performances that hold our attention over two full acts, and not the story. Because of the excellent acting we root for these two likable schlubs to find each other. And we don’t get bored. And that’s worth something, isn’t it?

A Girl Named Destiny continues through April 14 at Venus Theatre, located at the Venus Theatre Play Shack, 21 C St., Laurel, Md.

Showtime on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings is 8 p.m. There are also Saturday matinees at 3 p.m. Ticket prices are $15 and $20, and are available by calling 1-866-811-4111 or visiting www.VenusTheatre.org. Tickets may also be purchased at the door prior to each performance.

The Venus Theatre Play Shack does not have special physical accommodations for those with disabilities or who are hearing impaired, but the performance area and its seating are easily wheelchair accessible. Free parking is plentiful on the street just outside the venue.

The theatre’s website, www.VenusTheatre.org, has information on numerous nearby restaurants and the waterfront park. And you can find information there on the other new plays that are part of the theatre’s Bold Hope Season.

Michael Toscano is the Beacon’s theatre critic.