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This past June, City Theatre's annual Miami production of "Summer Shorts" — a festival of short-form plays — was certifiably nuts. The shows were weirder than David Lynch's Twitter feed. There were works about former B-movie baddie Mothra, bickering dolphins on a subway train, a nail-filing vampire, a wing-growing adolescent, and an icky deathbed smooch.
Producing artistic director John Manzelli had also been planning to launch a similar short-play festival in Broward. Befitting his company's brand and proclivity for the bizarre, he named it "Shorts Gone Wild." Except that once he received the scripts for the plays, which open this Friday at Empire Stage, they were more small-c conservative than their Miami-Dade County counterparts.
"As we started to round up writers for it, it turned out the pieces didn't gravitate toward being crazy and ridiculous," Manzelli says. "They actually gravitated much more toward nice, legitimate pieces that have something to say on social issues."
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Many of the issues have to do with being gay in America. City Theatre has had much success in presenting LGBT-centric works in recent years, including a cabaret show from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's Jai Rodriguez and the Broward Center production of "Standing on Ceremony," a collection of short plays with gay subjects. Coproduced with the LGBT company Island City Stage, "Shorts Gone Wild" will hope to replicate the success of "Standing on Ceremony" using South Florida's own talented crop of playwrights, five of whom will debut new works, performed by a rotating cast of six. (There also will be an encore presentation of national playwright Paul Rudnick's wry The Gay Agenda, as well as a surprise play.)
Among the world premieres is Happy Ones, the first produced short from actress Kim Ehly, whose 2012 play Baby GirL depicted her personal lesbian awakening to much critical acclaim. This time, she sees herself once again in Happy Ones' protagonist, a gay actress who scores lodging in a posh Los Angeles neighborhood only to encounter the unexpected when she meets a neighbor for a glass of wine.
"I lived in L.A., in a very quirky, wealthy neighborhood, and I kept running into these people who were quite strange, and so it helped me birth the idea for the piece," Ehly says. "It explores the idea of people needing someone in a slot in their life — that love slot."
Christopher Demos-Brown also explores love and friendship in Mallory Square. The playwright sets his drama between two couples — one straight and one gay, and all of them best friends — whose relationships are upturned when the gay couple requests a highly personal favor from their hetero pals.
Demos-Brown is not gay, but he has included gay characters in all but one of his full-length plays. "I think that it's an issue that is probably the most prominent social issue of our time, so to not write about it, whether you're gay or straight, would be to leave out such a large segment of society that it would make your play seem artificial," he says. "And I think to be a decent writer, you have to try to insert yourself into personalities and characters that are different from you."
Other premieres include Mark Della Ventura's Unexpected, about two friends' surprising connection in the final moments before a new year begins; and Michael Leeds' A Lyrical Fable, a play about an aspiring Rockette's big-city adventures that is composed entirely of spoken song lyrics from Broadway tunes ranging from Damn Yankees to Wicked.
"In order for the actors to really be able to get a sense of what they were doing, I gave a crash course in musical theater," Leeds says. "So it uses lyrics from around 50 musical songs; sometimes the lyric would occur to me first, and then sometimes I'd have a specific story and I'd search for lyrics to back it up."
Of course, this wouldn't be a City Theatre production without some strangeness. Tony Finstrom's Mr. & Mr. Smith centers on a present-day Hollywood heartthrob who wakes up from an automobile accident only to find himself wed to his stand-in.
"I knew this would be the summer of the Supreme Court dealing with same-sex marriage issues, so I set out to write a screwball comedy about marriage — the sort where, back in 1935, Irene Dunne would wake up in a hospital bed to discover she's married to a complete stranger in the form of Robert Montgomery. Hence, the name for my piece became a twist on one of those old comedies: Mr. & Mr. Smith."
And finally, Leeds' second play of the evening, Read This Play!, is a self-reflexive revenge fantasy about a frustrated playwright who holds an artistic director of a theater company hostage and forces him to, finally, read his play. "There was no gay reference [originally]," Leeds says. "It was just about this playwright who kidnaps an artistic director, but John Manzelli said, 'Can you reference what we're doing — the shorts, perhaps, and also a gay sensibility?' And that was fairly easy to put in."
Manzelli expects "Shorts Gone Wild" to become an annual Fort Lauderdale tradition, akin to his highly successful Miami venture. It may even influence future "Summer Shorts," as Manzelli would like to steer that program toward a similar kind of thematic cohesion. For now, though, he's enjoying the smallness, if not the wildness, of this latest production.
"Because of the nature of the Adrienne Arsht Center [where 'Summer Shorts' is produced], we've gotten so large and so grand and theatrical that we've gotten away from the thing that started the company: the small, local, intimate, fun theater company. So this gave us the opportunity to go back to producing a locally generated, intimate theater evening."