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Best in high school theater comes to Tampa's Gorilla Theatre June 10-13

I must admit I haven't gotten much out of a play written by a high school student since I was that age myself. (The absurdist drama about a purple cowboy I wrote for sophomore English class — brilliant!) To someone like me who sees a lot of theater, even the best student plays tend to be more promising and "interesting'' than truly engaging.

Still, I got a kick out of this year's Young Dramatists' Project, celebrating its 10th anniversary at Gorilla Theatre. For one thing, Fourth and Inches by Nick Nunnelly (Shorecrest Preparatory School) featured a theatrical milestone: the polyester football coach's shorts worn by actor Eric Burgess. Never before had I seen that iconic garment on stage. Burgess played a manipulative high school coach putting pressure on a reluctant player (Keith Bachelor) to join the team for the joys of summer two-a-day drills. Directed by David O'Hara, Nunnelly's short play was a persuasive slice of high school life.

Burgess (who has a passing resemblance to John Belushi) turned in another pungent performance — as a debauched funeral home director in cowboy hat and boots — in The String That Fell, a play about a death in the family by Michael Kefeyalew (Hillsborough High School), given a surreal spin by director Chris Jackson. Pugilist by Zacharia Hartman (St. Petersburg High School) was about a group of barroom idlers doomed to hear the ex-boxer who tends bar (Joe Winskye) tell the story of his long-ago triumph in Golden Gloves every Saturday night.

Two young women playwrights took opposite tacks: serious and silly. The serious one was The Women's Ardor by Somar Lanh (Blake High School for the Arts) about the agony of Olivia (Johan Diaz) as she met her boyfriend's parents, including an over-the-top, hostile mom played by Carol Robinson. As for silliness, Backstage by Emily Guthy (Bloomingdale High School) was a Noises Off for the high school theater set, directed in madcap style by Ami Sallee Corley.

Gorilla and YDP artistic director James Rayfield have done a first-rate job with the five student plays, selected from 35 entries, presenting them with proficient actors, directors and designers. The video interviews with each playwright are a nice touch.

The plays will be performed at 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 and 7 p.m. Sunday at Gorilla, 4419 N Hubert Ave., Tampa. $5-$25. (813) 879-2914; gorillatheatre.com.

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Peter Stark has been named to the newly created position of chair of the Dance Department of the Patel Conservatory, part of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. Stark comes from Orlando Ballet School, where he has been director since 2000. Under him, the Orlando school formed a partnership with Patel.

Stark, 43, is a former dancer with New York City Ballet, Boston Ballet, Washington Ballet and Washington Opera. He taught at the Washington Ballet School and Maryland Youth Ballet before landing in Orlando.

Wendy Leigh, vice president of education at the Straz, said the Patel ballet program has 250 students. "Peter Stark is one of the finest ballet instructors in the business,'' Leigh said. "We are excited about this new chapter of dance education at the conservatory.''

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

Best in high school theater comes to Tampa's Gorilla Theatre June 10-13 06/08/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 8, 2010 11:41pm]

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