Original Theater in Ancient City St. Augustine Fest Features Works of Florida Playwrights

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Byline: Ivette M. Yee, Times-Union staff writer

ST. AUGUSTINE -- Jacksonville's Brian Devinney wrote a catchy line on a napkin and stuffed it in his coat pocket. That line (which can't be repeated in a family newspaper) grew into a play called Strange Poison, and it makes its theatrical debut this weekend at the Limelight Theatre in St. Augustine. It's part of the third annual Florida Playwrights' Festival.

Strange Poison is a story about two city slickers who take turns knocking off the annoying people in their lives. It will be performed Thursdays through Saturdays until July 20. The Bitter Prince, an original adaptation of a Japanese folktale by St. Augustine's Pamela Shook, takes the stage Aug. 8 and runs through Aug. 17.

The festival's continuation couldn't be more timely. Since Sept. 11, Broadway seems to be favoring revivals over original works because the revivals are more likely to fill seats.

But new and emerging playwrights are out there. When the festival began in 2000, the theater received 100 scripts from as far away as Israel, but script readers determined that it was in our own sunny back yard that the best new material was sprouting.

"We decided to focus on Florida, because there is such an artistic community here," said Jean Rahner, artistic director for the Limelight Theatre.

A special committee made up of members with a background in theater selects the winners, which must contain no musical numbers, no more than 120 pages and no more than seven characters. Rahner said once the scripts are chosen, the winning playwrights get a small stipend, and the theater gets a "first-produced" credit.

Past winners include Jack McGrath, 39, of Oviedo, who won last year for House Rules. His play This House is On Fire was selected for the 2002 Orlando International Fringe Festival in March, and his comedy Valerie-entine's Day is scheduled to debut next week at the Valencia Character Company Theatre in Orlando.

This year, the committee reviewed 22 scripts. Strange Poison met their guidelines and then some.

"It had everything we were looking for," Rahner said. "It smacked so much of the old classic Arsenic and Old Lace (the 1941 play by Joseph Kesselring), but this was a contemporary version that had an interesting set of characters."

While Devinney's comedic yarn was an updated classic with shades of the past, Shook's The Bitter Prince held something excitingly new. …