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60 minutes, 6 plays

by Peter D. Kramer

January 25, 2008

Actors and directors often talk about being "in the moment," reacting to what's going on in a performance as if they're experiencing it for the first time. That approach, they say, gives each performance a grounding in the truth.

Axial Theatre - an 8-year-old ensemble based in Yorktown with rehearsal studios in Pleasantville -takes that premise and runs with it, with its second annual "Ten-Minute Play Festival," now through Feb. 2 at St. John's Episcopal Church in Pleasantville.

The festival's six plays - each reasonably close to 10 minutes long - put a premium on moments.

Stephen Palgon, the festival's producer, performs in one of the six short plays and has written another. He says this is not theater on a grand scale.

"That's the thing with these 10-minute plays: They're very much moment in time, little picture," he says during a break from rehearsals.

Moments can be surreal - as in Ryan Mallon's "The Tunnel," when an old man appears from nowhere to advise a young man who is contemplating a journey. Or they can be a slice of life - as in Patrick Davin's "Balls," where two old rivals, now stay-at-home dads, meet at a driving range and renew their rivalry on a different stage.

The fact that these are small moments doesn't mean they are quickly arrived at. The plays have been crafted by Axial members, two of whom - Mallon and Gaby Fox - are having their works produced here for the first time. Both have been studying with Axial playwrighting guru Tony Howarth, who directs Linda Giuliano's play "Whale Watch" in the festival.

Mallon, who has studied with Axial founder Howard Meyer for years, says he expected to be in the festival, but not with "The Tunnel." He had another play, "The Red Dress," that he thought was further along in the process and a more likely candidate.

But the festival's producers picked "The Tunnel," which stars Robert Kya-Hill and Michael Pennacchio as an older man and a younger man.

Kya-Hill, who lives in Co-op City in The Bronx, came to Axial through auditions.

He's a working actor, with a specialty in Shakespeare, which has "kept me working," he says including in productions of "The Tempest," "A Winter's Tale" and "Othello."

When a visitor points out that his rehearsal of "The Tunnel" for the "Ten-Minute Play Festival" ran upward of 13 minutes, Kya-Hill is ready with a response.

"Those extra three minutes, once you get the whole thing down, it starts to congeal and that space in there will be taken away," he says with a broad smile. "We'll get it down to 10."

"Each piece has its own universe, its own reality that appeals to you on some level," he says. "This piece has a mysterious quality that I like. You don't know where this old guy comes from."

Kya-Hill's co-star is Michael Pennacchio, a 23-year-old Pleasantville native and graduate of Westlake High School. After graduating from SUNY Oneonta with an acting degree, he got in touch with Meyer and began taking acting classes.

He came to "The Tunnel" through the back door. Producers needed someone to read with auditioners and Pennacchio got the call. After reading lines with several actors, it turned into an audition for Pennacchio.

"And poof! Here I am!" he says with a laugh.

He plays a character named Young Man, who wants to go through the tunnel, but is unsure. Mallon's script is full of unknowns, something that appeals to Pennacchio.

"Ambiguity is an awesome theme in this play. I love the ambiguity," he says.

Mallon, 24, is a Carmel High School graduate who now lives in Yorktown. He has studied with Meyer for nearly a decade and has turned to playwrighting in recent years.

Mallon says Meyer's use of the Meisner Technique - which puts an emphasis on imagination - has spurred him along creatively, making him look at the world "as if something has happened to me and bringing that to the stage, putting my emotional past to work."

Mallon has learned much over the years, he says, and one revelation sparked his turn to playwriting.

"I don't like being exposed," he says. "As an actor, you're kind of screwed if you don't like to be exposed. I miss acting, but it's very tough. Not that writing's easy."

It's also not easy, he says, to have one of his plays produced for the first time and hearing actors not saying his lines correctly.

"I picked those words very carefully," he says, adding quickly, "but that's what rehearsals are for."

"I have a totally different perspective from this side," he says. "I'll definitely be a different actor after this."

"The Tunnel" is about initiation - the older generation helping the younger - and about brotherhood. It's also about taking risks at a crossroads in your life, he says, and facing your fears.

Writing, Mallon has learned, is about rewriting, with the input of actors and directors. Palgon, who directs the play, had some concerns at the outset, Mallon recalls.

"Stephen was looking for the old man's stakes in the play - and he was right about it," Mallon says.

"The Tunnel" came to Axial's attention during the ensemble's reading series, a regular look at new works that is the company's lifeblood.

Mallon joined Axial as an apprentice, working for a year to prove himself and earn membership in the group, which numbers 15 theater artists in all aspects of production: producers, directors, writers, actors.

Palgon says the company is selective, not competitive.

"It's not about competition. We kind of select the people and it's about finding the people who feel right and are dedicated. The biggest thing is there's a big difference between being a member of a company and being an actor who's a lone wolf and just going off and doing your thing.

"To be a company member, you've gotta want to do all the other stuff that has nothing to do with being on stage.

"Those moments to me, I love them. I've done a lot of acting in the city where I've just acted. This, to me, is so much more fulfilling," he says.

A TV producer by trade, he wears many hats at Axial, particularly with this festival.

"I worked on the design for the postcard, I'm in touch with the set designer, I'm working with everybody to make sure the plays are coming together, I'm helping with the casting. Then when it all comes up, it's just a full experience," he says. "I love being in this company. I think we have something really special here."

Casting Axial shows is tricky: They want to hire people who share their commitment, but can't pay what Equity companies can. So it's rewarding for Palgon to have found an actor like Kya-Hill, who gets it and can bring a depth of experience to the stage at St. John's Episcopal Church for the next couple of weekends.

"We've gotten burned sometimes when we've brought people in from the outside," Palgon says, "but he was just a right fit. He speaks our language and he's just a good man," he says.

Putting an experienced actor alongside a newcomer like Pennacchio plays perfectly into the action of "The Tunnel" - old teaching young, Palgon says.

The entire process is a teachable moment, Palgon says, recalling playwright Mallon's awe at hearing actors speak his words for the first time at the audition.

"That's what this stuff is about," he says. "This is about discovering new voices. And our audience gets the experience of being there for the first time."

That first moment.