BERKELEY -- The 11th annual Teen One-Acts Festival at Berkeley Repertory Theatre opens March 22 with an "I'm back, baby" play by Lafayette playwright Frances Maples and a swirling, knot-filled portrait of a man running from his past by Sophia Cannata-Bowman of San Francisco.

Maples and Cannata-Bowman were selected by their peers and will see their plays entirely produced, directed, designed and performed by 24 high school students from nine local communities.

Maples, a 17-year old Acalanes High School senior, returns for a second straight year after previously stunning audiences -- and herself -- with a gender-bending creation story about internalized evil.

"Orpheum," this year's entry by Maples, promises to cauterize another wound on the female psyche, specifically, the injurious "damsel in distress needs a male hero" myth.

"Even in movies where the female is the main character, she's always being saved by men," Maples complained in an interview.

The play is based on Orpheus, the mythical Greek musician who famously attempts to rescue his wife from Hades and Persephone. In Maples' version, both damsel and hero are dames and the afterlife is a narrative tool.

"Reality isn't required," Maples said. "My last play dealt with gods and the mythos also. As an atheist, I don't believe in (the afterlife), but I like to explore why other people might."

She also likes to unravel motivational patterns across less-traveled territory.

"Yes, it's lesbian love," she said. "The media talks about the male gay community. I wanted (the main characters) to both be female to tackle an entire theme of feminism."

Ironically, the earliest drafts were a "fluffy, rom-com" (romantic comedy) mash up. Switching to "a play with substance" during rewrites, Maples has retained the play's musical underscoring with a "tender, reflective, teen romance" soundtrack.

"It adds a sweet tone to a play about death and the Apocalypse," she said.

Maples said adult directing mentor Nora Casey helped her "get outside her head" during script refinements. Berkeley High School senior and play director Ivy Olesen, 17, contributed surprising ideas for casting and transition scenes.

Eve Ensler, who Maples named as her playwriting hero the first time she won the teen competition, continues to represent someone whose work she admires. Ensler is best known for her play "The Vagina Monologues."

"Theater is a way to promote a gradual change in society's thought process," Maples said. "Anything that doesn't treat women as an object for romance, anything where (a woman is) an intelligent or a strong leader, is a part of a gradually changing society."

Maples is still waiting to hear from top choice of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and said her plans for next year are pending.

Sophia Cannata-Bowman

"Story by Leonard Watts" is Cannata-Bowman's first dive into the festival. Her acting teacher at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory suggested she enter the competition.

"I'm the kind of person who jumps on any opportunity to have my work published," she said.

Cannata-Bowman was at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco to see "Lawrence of Arabia," when she got the call telling her the play had been selected.

"I was literally surprised, because this was the first play I'd ever written. It was mostly shock and gratefulness," she recalled.

Cannata-Bowman dislikes the artificiality of writing from outlines; preferring to let the characters take her words to a spontaneous, more-real place.

"The characters are driving the story, not me," she said about the arduous, two-year writing process she followed.

"I liked the character from an isolated scene I had written," Cannata-Bowman said. "I wanted to expand it. I'd write, then have long pauses, then come back to it. It was insane how many (rewrites) I did. It's not a number I can even count."

After working with Casey to fill narrative holes and develop characters involved in the play's many flashbacks, director Elia Chuaqui, a 16-year-old junior at El Cerrito High School, led the cast through readings of the play.

"She's putting her own vision on it: I respect that entirely," Cannata-Bowman said, adding that she likes the extended implications of Chuaqui's multiple-roles casting of several actors.

New York University and an individualized major focusing on dramatic writing and incorporating history are next on Cannata-Bowman's to-do list.

Teen one-acts
The 11th annual Teen One-Acts Festival at Berkeley Rep's School of Theatre runs March 22 to 24. For tickets and details visit www.berkeleyrep.org/school/teen
council_oneacts.asp