By Bill Hirschman
They make it look so easy.
The 23rd annual City Theatre Summer Shorts crew slip seamlessly from broad comedy with a hint of a moral to bittersweet drama with a soupcon of dry wit and back again in nine separate playlets.
But anyone who knows the challenges of writing and performing an evening of 10- to 15-minute self-contained theater works knows how difficult it is to switch from gear to gear seemingly without effort.
This 2018 edition of the nationally-revered program is arguably more consistent in quality than it has ever been (often in the past there was one head-scratching misfire per year) with a collection of world premieres and local premieres including the first glimpse of a 15-minute musical.
As always, the premises are imaginative, ranging from a nascent couple’s attempt to copulate being repeatedly interrupted by a jealous cat (impersonated by a six-foot human being) to the work-related tedium felt by the international assemblage of cute (but world weary) dolls in Disney’s “It’s A Small World” ride.
What City Theatre’s play selectors excel at, especially this year, is how those premises are developed and — sidestepping the fatal shortcoming of most short plays – coalescing them into a satisfying finale narratively and thematically. It’s what Broadway musical composers call a button and what Saturday Night Live rarely does.
Even when the scripts stumble a bit, they are rescued by the directors and a cast that magically dons as diverse a set of roles imaginable. Normally, some actors take a pre-show half-hour or an hour to dig deeply into their single role in Shakespeare or O’Neill. Shorts requires creating the same convincing inhabitation in a little as two minutes.
For instance, Tom Wahl can be a genial fatherly elf, then that smug self-centered cat, then a suburbanite surprised at the accumulation of clutter, then a burned out alcoholic writer, then a grass-skirt shaking hula girl. Beth Dimon can be the elf’s spouse, then a B-movie monster and finally a little Dutch girl doll.
What Shorts has that others such festivals do not is an invisible vision guiding the selection from hundreds of submissions to assemble a subtly unified vibe from nine playwrights with disparate visions.
That vibe is the flavor of modern Miami. All of the pieces – even the most farcical – resonate with a glimpse of 21st Century life and issues. One play is based on body image, another lampoons ethnocentric racism, another gigs violence in pop culture, another exposes the less-divine underlying motive for continued devotion to religion in the modern world.
Peopled with a color-blind diverse cast, each individual work is a Miami-like urban acknowledgement that humor and pathos elements coexist in every moment. All this makes Shorts sound far more intellectual than what it is at its heart: a thoroughly entertaining evening.
The directors this year are City Theatre Artistic Director Margaret M. Ledford, City Theatre co-founder and Director of Special Projects Gail S. Garrisan, City Theatre Administrative Manager and playwright Jessica Farr, Palm Beach Dramaworks’ mainstay director of musicals Clive Cholerton, and FIU educator and Shorts newbie Michael Yawney.
They are paired with serious actors masquerading as inspired clowns: the aforementioned Shorts vets Dimon and Wahl, whose skill at this specialized genre is unequaled in the region; Diana Garle, who just finished three months in the company’s inaugural cruise-based program, Shorts on Ships; steadfast Alex Alvarez, Marquise Rogers (late of Kings of Harlem) and first-timer Daryl Patrice, recently one of the preachers in M Ensemble’s God’s Trombones.
The works this year are:
One of the gems is The Almost In Laws, a world premiere musical by Greg Edwards and Andy Roninson whose Evelyn Shaffer and the Chance of a Lifetime won City Theatre’s National Award for Short Playwriting two years ago. Directed by Cholerton and musical director Caryl Fantel, the wry entry has more polish than many of its competitors.
The story opens as Alvarez takes his fiancée Patrice to meet his parents who live in the woods, for they turn out to be incredibly cute Santa/Keebler-like elves. Alvarez warns in song that “I am not like my parents. I wear khakis not tights.”
The parents Wahl and Dimon put on a welcoming front but they are paternalistically dismissive of humans, what they call being species-ist. The father sings, “Some of our best friends are people…. It’s totally fine / she’s a person,/ though thirty-million elves may disagree / she couldn’t be more great/ so please miscegenate.”
Ailurphobia by Scott Gibson – Garle invites promising match material Rogers to her apartment for their first carnal hook-up, but each attempt at getting hot and heavy is interrupted persistently by Wahl’s black and white tabby staring and whining to disrupt the proceedings. Directed by Yawney, Wahl’s Jinx is as hilariously imaginative interloper.
bedtime by Steve Yockey – This spoof by a favorite of City Theatre’s staff, posits a woman driven to the breaking point by a Nightmare on Elm Street-type stalker. She brings in her best friend to serve as bait as she tries to trap him. This one probably looked funnier in paper than it does on stage. Still Garle and Patrice and Ledford do their best with it.
Bloodbath at the Fillmore by Audrey Cefaly – Wahl is the center of this world premiere directed by Garrisan as Max Jones, a lionized author trapped in a deep alcoholic mid-life crisis depression. Jones has shown up late to a reading of his latest work at the Fillmore. The stage manager (and budding writer) played by Garle is in awe of the threadbare icon, but his truancy spurred by a creative paralysis is enraging his entourage played by Dimon, Patrice and Rogers. As the evening’s obligatory drama, the script looks deep into the malaise that can follow success – a portrait perfectly limned by Wahl.
Covenant (…or bagels and butchery) by Ken Weitzman – The world premiere directed by Farr posits Jewish husband Alvarez and Christian wife Garle a few minutes before their child is set to have a bris in their home – to be executed by a cross-eyed moil. What starts a quiet comedy turns into Garle’s cross-examination of why the cultural Jewish Alvarez is bent on this ceremony when his faith is not all that devout. Alvarez has a reason, but it’s far more complicated than it initially appears.
Duck by Sheila Cowley – This world premiere directed by Garrisan is a gentle comedy about a modern-day rite that aging yuppies face with increasing regularity. Wahl and Dimon are sorting through their garage filled not only with an unmanageable accumulation of priceless junk representing moments in their own lives, but unintelligible curios left behind by their parents and grandparents.
Melto Man and Lady Mantis by Eric Pfeffinger is the silliest and slimmest in the bunch, but echoes Shorts’ predilection for spoofy comic-book style premises. In this case, a monster with melting flesh is an accountant counseling a giant green homicidal mantis — as tax deadline nears and she seeks financial advice. It only works because of Ledford’s lovely loopy direction, Alvarez and Dimon’s delightfully demented characters (the Mantis has a Brooklyn accent).
Run by Bekah Brunstetter – is a 2012 City Theatre National Award for Short Playwriting Contest Finalist and one of the plays on the troupe’s tour program. Retired Navy captain and baseball player played by Alvarez takes his somewhat portly and awkward 17-year-old daughter played by Patrice on a one-mile run to try to push her to get into shape. But during the run, the daughter vents in two brilliantly written arias about all the worries facing the upcoming generation from AP History class to whether anyone will ever love her. Directed by Yawney.
One More Time by Mark Harvey Levine, another frequent Shorts contributor — A sardonic group of dolls including an American cowboy, French ballerina, Dutch girl, Russian dancer and others looking like refugees from a United Nations video are complaining about their job when they suddenly snap into their characters as the cheery chorus in Disney’s “It’s A Small World” ride. They are as tired of the earworm as anyone since they sing 1,200 times day (literally) in various languages. One says Sartre is wrong about Hell being other people, “Well, he was wrong. Hell is three hundred grinning dolls screaming the same song over and over and over and over.” The skit doesn’t really end, even though it’s the end of the evening, so the actors lead the audience in a group sing of the damnable tune. The entire cast fills out the ride’s denizens, directed by Ledford.
As always, the design teams led by the directors do wonders with relatively modest budgets, from Jodi Dellaventura’s simple but evocative sets, Steve Shapiro’s sound design including wry selections of music for scene changes commenting on the each previous playlet, Eric Nelson’s lighting as chameleonic as the play’s material, all overseen by stage manager Naomi Zapata, production manager David Radunsky, the weird laundry list of properties from Jameelah Bailey, choreography by Sandra Portal-Andreu, plus a host of other backstage magicians and interns.
But the star is veteran costumer Ellis Tillman whose work from the elves to the oversized praying mantis are comic masterpieces in themselves.
Summer Shorts runs through July 1 at the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Performances 7:30 Thursdays and Fridays; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; 4 p.m. Sundays. Running time is 1 hour 50 minutes including a 15-minute intermission. Tickets cost $39-$54. Call (305) 949-6722 or visit www.arshtcenter.org.