Bawdy And Droll Evening of Shel Silverstein Shorts At Vanguard

comtrag2lg Even though it’s late March, we remain in one of the busiest seasons in South Florida theater. If you don’t see a review of a show that has opened while looking at the top of the front page, please scroll down the page or use the search function.

By Bill Hirschman

We’ve said for years that short plays pose a more difficult challenge than even most experienced theater professionals realize, let alone the fledgling or wannabe practitioners. Even City Theatre’s Shorts programs don’t succeed with every entry, even after choosing from hundreds of submissions.

But with one significant caveat, An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein at the Vanguard lands most of the ten quirky gems of satirical and somewhat blue comedy with a skill, energy and polish missing from many local anthologies of 10 or 15-minute playlets.

The premises on paper range from intriguing to headscratching. Their success stems from Silverstein’s ability to unreel these hypotheses to their delightfully absurd extreme and the Vanguard team’s facility for riding those set ups with an unshakeable comic commitment plus acting chops that invest variety into essentially a single idea.

Whether its two hookers who speak in iambic pentameter or a drunk reveling in reciting scores of synonyms for breasts, the actors under Matt Stabile’s direction embrace Silverstein’s off-beat counter-culture vibe and his virtuosic skill at wordplay.

Additionally, performers Casey Dressler, Niki Fridh, Christina Groom, Michael Small and Tom Wahl are just having one hell of a lot of infectious fun.

Admittedly, several episodes run too long as Silverstein savors spinning situations further and further out, almost daring the audience to cry “enough,” such as the endless entry entitled “Wash and Dry.” Silverstein died in Key West in 1999, two years before the anthology was created in New York, so the badly-needed trims can’t be made easily. Fortunately, the bottomless inventiveness and enthusiasm of Stabile and his cast keep the plates spinning just long enough to keep the crockery from crashing to the floor.

Dating back from the 1950s through the end of the century, Silverstein was a prolific producer of children’s books, 100 short plays, screenplays, volumes of poetry, scores of songs for artists like Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” and Dr. Hook’s “The Cover of the Rolling Stone,” and — for stunted adolescents of a certain period — cartoons for Playboy magazine. Most of his work featured  nose-tweaking satire.

But this program, like much of his work, is definitely not for the kiddies. It exemplifies his joyful embrace of sex as a source of broad humor, but also as commentary on society’s hypocritical obsession and simultaneously denial of it.

A mild spoiler as an example: A drunken Michael Small discovers a bus stop sign with an extra T spraypainted on the first word.  When the well-endowed Dressler arrives, Small takes the sign and her coincidental attributes as inspiration and begins to idly think of synonyms for bust, no matter how politically incorrect they might be today. He becomes increasingly animated and inventive, relishing the seemingly infinite variety of terms that men have come up with for breasts. In Small’s capable hands, this alone is both funny and digs at men’s objectifying obsession with women’s bodies.

But Silverstein isn’t done, and this is the spoiler: Dressler, who is just an everyday passerby, in revenge begins listing similar coarse and inventive terms for Small’s package. And she does it with even more verve than he and comes up with a much longer and varied list than Small did. Which is Silverstein saying to men: See what it feels like to be objectified by the opposite sex? It’s even funnier because those lists are the only dialogue between these two strangers meeting randomly.

But other sketches are rescued by the sheer energy that the actors invest, such as Wahl and Fridh as a married couple working out some relationship baggage with a game of “what-if.” In this case, the wife presses hard on what if they, their daughter and her mother-in-law were in a sinking lifeboat in a storm and somebody had to be tossed overboard. Under Stabile’s direction, the piece works because the actors sitting in the bed at home get deeper and deeper into this manic scenario that the wife is positing until they are being buffeted about by the imaginary tempest.

Silverstein’s love of words is no more evident than in the opening skit, “Buy One, Get One Free,” in which hookers Merilee (Fridh) and Sherilee (Groom), looking like refugees from a Dr. Seuss book, offer their wares to Small as a double act. Their verbose pitches and reactions to Small are in Shakespearean-like poesy with every line ending in the syllable “lee.” It showcases Silverstein’s droll imagination, but also his prodigious facility. This must have been hell to memorize, but Groom and Fridh, who have classic stage experience, pull it off smoothly.

Losing his Tri-Borough accent for a bit, Small portrays a street blues singer Blind Willie whose pet Barney (Wahl) is the world’s one and only talking dog, indeed an articulate soul who longs for Willie to take a back seat and allow Barney to have the spotlight.

In a minor tour de force, Wahl and Dressler pursue a domestic argument with a tragic end in which the only words spoken are “meat” and “potatoes,” well, and “and.” But those words are delivered over and over in scores of permutations that track the arc of the squabbling couple’s eventual clash. What doesn’t work so well is subsequent short blackouts as the aftermath of couple’s fight again reuses the idea again and again and again of just using the words “meat” and “potatoes.”

Shoutouts to Alyiece Moretto’s setting of a carnival depicted as line drawings in green and pink that vaguely imitate Silverstein’s cartoon style, the nimble lighting and sound design from David Nail, and Nicole Stodard’s basic black costumes highlighted with shocking pink and electric chartreuse accessories – a color scheme repeated in the props.

The evening is the first of three comedy-based theater pieces meant to expand the type of offerings to be found under different auspices at the Vanguard Sanctuary for the Arts. The renovated church south of downtown Fort Lauderdale is better known as the home for Thinking Cap Theatre’s productions – both enterprises headed by Stodard. Up next is Parallel Lives, the Kathy Najimy-Mo Gaffney satire on feminism and misogyny from the 1980s that has been a success locally for actress Elena Maria Garcia, slated for June 16 – 28.

An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein runs through April at The Vanguard Sanctuary for the Arts, 1501 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale, on the west side of the street across from Broward Health Center. Performances 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday. Runs 2 hour with one intermission. Tickets $35. Visit www.vanguardarts.org, thinkingcaptheatre.com or by phone at (813) 220-1546.

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