By Bill Hirschman
Inescapably and intentionally, the 26th edition of City Theatre’s Summer Shorts vibrates with the unique distinctive essence that exceeds traditional adjectives and can best be captured in the word “Miami.”
Indeed, the production is subtitled “Homegrown Edition,” but the venerable company has committed for the first time to brand new works exclusively written by, directed by and acted by BIPOC/LatinX artists who reflect the region’s multi-culturalism.
Few of the eight short plays at the Arsht Center pointedly trumpet that Miami quality or the diversity in the productions’ corps, but all but one of the playlets have those qualities baked into them and all of them have diverse casts.
One character says just in passing that he wants a promotion so he can help his dad pay for immigration paperwork. One play has several punch lines that garnered considerable laughter opening night, but only if you understood Spanish. Another depicts a couple honeymooning in Havana where the wife’s family originated but whose husband has no concept of its importance.
Additionally, much if not all of the talent involved represent a new up and coming generation – this critic recognized only two of the actors, the names of only two of the playwrights and all four directors, but those primarily as actors. Most of the playwrights currently live or used to live in Miami and left seeking opportunities.
All of these playwrights, these world premiere works and their other works in progress have been mentored by Vanessa Garcia, the veteran playwright-director who has worked with the playwrights and these works in City Theatre’s 18-month Homegrown Playwright Development Program.
As always with Summer Shorts, the quality of the work is uneven, frequently eliciting considerable chuckles, occasionally resulting in an undisciplined wacky mess. But also as always, the evening is entertaining and worth the audience investment of time and ticket.
I Found This On The Web, by Ivan R. López, a Cuban-American actor-playwright-director who is an FIU faculty member, is a droll opener in which a slightly nerdy young man (Raul Ramírez) is on a first date with a smooth urbanite (Samuel Krough). But he is constantly interrupted with advice from an unusually intrusive Siri on his watch (voiced by Evelyn Perez like a cyber-surrogate mother). The engaging piece, one of the funniest of the evening, was directed by Alex Alvarez, best known locally as an acclaimed actor. It should be noted, indicative of the entire evening’s upspoken progressive-ism, that the script never spends a milli-second acknowledging that the protagonists are gay.
7, by Lolita Stewart-White, an African-American poet and filmmaker, is humorous with a serious spin: An incipient “bride” Kayla (Brette-Raia Curah) is preparing for the ceremony with her older sister, Nubia (Toddra Brunson) and younger sister, Hansline (Saina Joseph). Stewart-White’s imaginative kicker is that this is actually a recommitment ceremony required by an imaginary (at the moment) new law passed by Congress that couples must renew their vows every seven years or the union is voided. The ensuing conversation includes Kayla pining over a past troubled pre-marriage relationship and all three weigh the varied wisdom in staying married (such as the need to maintain health insurance).
It’s one of the stronger written pieces, directed by Alvarez, that forces the characters to reexamine the institution. Brunson, who has more pizzazz and energy than anyone in the cast in every role she takes, has been becoming increasingly noticed for roles at M Ensemble including a female African soldier in Dahomey Warriors and as the film director in Ronnie Larsen’s recent musical One More Yesterday.
Banana Bread is a cute divertisement by Sefanja Richard Galon, an actor-director-playwright who attracted considerable praise this year for directing Main Street Players’ production of Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, even though the ink is still wet on his diploma from New World School of the Arts. Bread is a familiar brand of comedy about two young men (Roderick Randle and Ramírez) left on their own running a manic morning shift at a very corporate sandwich/coffee shop while their jerk of a boss (Krough) is evaluating their hopes for needed promotions. One customer (Chabely Ponce) is the kind of hyper patron who cannot function in any way without that initial cup. Another (Lauren Cristina López) is a lovely but very business-like type who can rattle off an infinitely complex order. The sketch was directed by Haitian-American Joshua Jean-Baptiste (who scored as an actor in GableStage’s two-hander Actually). Randle has impressed audiences in the past year both in M Ensemble’s The River Niger and Main Street Players’ Topdog/Underdog.
Plastic Flower is by Luis Roberto Herrera, one of the more experienced playwrights in the group, a Colombian-American writer and actor who graduated from the University of Florida and The New School. The current teacher at New World School of the Arts has created a fun little piece in which two friends (Brunson and Perez) argue over the comatose and heavily bandaged body of a colleague in the hospital. The increasingly nasty byplay reflecting their desire to claim the most connection with the injured woman is a hoot. The work is helmed by actor-director Maha McCain who teaches at the University of Miami.
And Other Dreams We Had is the sole serious play (the festival usually has one) whose second act opener slot is preceded with videos depicting a variety of world-wide environmental disasters in 2034. The horrors have trapped a young unmarried couple in their attic with the house surrounded by flood water from melting icecap.
Written with painful depth by former Miamian Phanésia Pharel, it’s unclear whether they have been there long with their meager supplies and if there is any realistic hope. But at the play’s heart is the question whether to bring a baby into what is may well be a doomed future. Randle and Curah are directed by McCain to make the most of the drama. Randle scores as he tries to calm his partner with Pharel’s eloquent moving monologue imagining how their daughter will grow up in a world that will likely never exist again and in which she might not exist either.
The Vultures is a strange slightly unclear piece by Ariel Cipolla about three teenage friends ending middle school. Jade, a highly-agitated socially awkward girl (Ponce) is practicing filming her online pitch for “rebranding” herself before entering high school. But her buddies (Currah and Lopez) become increasingly alienated by the charted change in her personality. Buried somewhere in here is the meaning of the title although its not at all precisely apparent.
What starts out as a sort of cute character comedy ends up with a commentary on the shallowness of the modern social order. True believer Jade patronizingly lectures her friends: “Remember, a selfie is not just a snapshot. It is a reflection. The ultimate symbol of self-expression. In a single image, you convey exactly who you are. Every time. So ask yourself, what is your brand? What are you selling? What message does your outfit send?”
It is directed Melissa Almaguer, an actor-director-teacher last seen on the same stage as the road trip storyteller in Zoetic Stage’s Graced by Garcia.
Balloo(n) is written by Joel Castillo, a Cuban-American University of Miami graduate who teaches at the arts magnet Coral Reef Senior High School. Directed by Almaguer, a just married couple (Krough and Lopez) honeymooning in Havana are having an early cultural disagreement as Lopez is seeing echoes of her family’s past and her Anglo husband cannot appreciate her desire to connect with it. He openly disparages the living conditions he is seeing. The argument which explodes into fury is interrupted by an older balloon seller who has minimal English (Perez) but some helpful insight. But the seller, who has been married to an Englishman for decades, offers the new wife crucial insights that help lead to a happy ending.
And finally, Shorts seems compelled to always have one broad comedy that often ends the evening and barely works. This year, it’s 2201:Xibalba a (Short) Space Farce by Chris Anthony Ferrer, a first-generation Cuban-American directed by Baptiste. This bizarre unfocused throwaway skit – like a weak Saturday Night Live entry — has spaceship captain (Brunson trying to be the heroic image of a Star Trek film) approaching a wormhole but still turning over the bridge of her starship just before a New Year’s Eve celebration to cadet (Ramírez). Meanwhile, an android “Sarai” (Ponce) wanders through, as does a video interruption from a partying superior (Randle).
Most of the pieces feel as if they could use yet another tightening and toughening up even though most were developed as part of City Theatre’s laudable playwright development program. But as with nearly every new play festival in the country, these justify an unwritten expectation that these are promising works in progress with a future.
Credit the actors and directors (who have to divide up what little rehearsal time they have among eight projects) who deliver all of these with a smooth polish and confidence.
All of the actors and directors have invested passion and professionalism with one asterisk: Over and over and over, actors mumbled lines, garbled lines and often could not be heard if they turned stage left or right away from half the audience. Therefore, many lines got laughs literally from one half of the audience. Someone really needs to remind these youngsters about the old-fashioned thespian skill called projection.
One inspired invention underscoring the homegrown theme: Videographer Christian Vandepas and projection specialist Steven Covey set the tone in an engaging prelude and between each segment with rapid fire car tours through the streets of various Miami-Dade neighborhoods.
Note: One decidedly weird choice is the Playbill. At least this one is printed, which this season many companies forced audiences to find on their phones with a QR code. This time, the printed Playbill fails to identify who the characters and actors are in each play. If you happened to walk across the lobby, you might see a large board with the names that you can check at intermission or after the show is over with the information.
Summer Shorts runs through June 25 (a slightly shorter run than usual) at the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Performances 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Running time is 1 hour 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission. Tickets cost $50-$75. Call (305) 949-6722 or visit www.arshtcenter.org
For advice on parking, go to https://www.arshtcenter.org/plan-your-visit/parking-and-transportation/