And Now, Let the Heat Begin
Never mind the calendar; summer arrives in South Florida when City Theatre rolls out its annual festival of short plays, "Summer Shorts 2003." Now in its eighth year, this well-produced, stylish event has become a part of the area's social scene as well as a highlight of the theater season. This year's offering features 15 very short plays, five to 20 minutes in length, from a wide range of writers. Famed playwrights Neil LaBute, William Mastrosimone, Shel Silverstein, and Jon Robin Baitz are joined by some talented lesser-known South Florida writers. The program includes a variety of subjects and styles performed by a nimble acting ensemble of eight with a like accompaniment of guest directors, which includes a pantheon of area talent: Joe Adler from GableStage and Desmond Gallant from Florida Stage, among other notables. This is theater for the high-speed computer age. The plays come and go quickly and easily, like theatrical dim sum, a little of this, a little of that, and if one doesn't click, the next will. City rolls out this array of treats in two programs, A and B, that can be taken in on alternate nights or on special weekend marathons with a catered dinner provided during the interval.
The program is nicely chosen, though some plays fare better than others. In program A, standouts include 5 Minutes, Mastrosimone's hospital drama about a dying man's last request of his best friend. Funny, obscene, and poignant, this tiny script could have been the climactic scene in a complete drama. It's cleanly guided by festival director Gail Garrisan and well-performed by Chaz Mena and Stephen Trovillion in a nice balance of humor, pathos, and sorrow. Other highlights include Scripted, the opening play, in which a married couple wakes up to discover that the day ahead has already been written down in a play script. Guest director Rich Simone, from Shores Performing Arts Theatre, directs Trovillion and Jenny Levine in a stylish comedy romp. Same can be said of the program's closer, My Name Is Leslie, a hilarious tale of three desperate diners trying to get the attention of their waitress. Garrisan again directs effectively, with Kim Ostrenko a standout as the deliciously malicious waitress, Leslie. Program B's highlights include Pipo and Fufo, a slice-of-life comedy about two Cuban pals in 1969 Miami. The script is written by a local, Marco Ramirez, who, in his early 20s, is clearly a writer with significant gifts and tremendous promise. He's blessed by his cast, Brandon Morris and Chaz Mena, and careful direction from Barbara Lowery. Another local writing talent, Lauren Feldman, is represented by and also performs in Asteroid Belt, a poetic but harrowing tale of a young woman's last few moments of life before a car crash.
As must be expected, some offerings don't click. Mary Gallagher's First Communion, is an obvious, tedious exercise in Catholic bashing. Neil LaBute's Merge is an obvious, tedious exercise in misogyny. The late Shel Silverstein's One Tennis Shoe is a funny, frightening take on mental disintegration, but while director Lowery locks in on the broadly funny aspects, she doesn't nail the scary ones. Trovillion delivers a bravura turn as the queenly title role in Mister Charles, Currently of Palm Beach, but Paul Rudnick's wry comedy could and should have been trimmed severely. But you don't need me to pick and choose: Part of the fun of "Summer Shorts" is the ad hoc audience critiques they engender afterward as playgoers review their lists of favorites.
All the plays are designed by a resourceful production staff that by now must be ready for long vacations in quiet places. Set designer Michael N. Williams uses a unit set design of pastel-colored metal grids on wheels that are moved about the wide bare Ring theater stage. To this, he adds details as each play requires -- a flounce-covered bed, an airport bar, some restaurant tables. John Hall somehow manages to light all these settings to stylish effect. Michiko Kitayama and Meredith Lasher alternate costume-design responsibilities in what seems to be an endless stream of inventive outfits, while Steve Shapiro provides evocative sound design for all the plays. Both slates of plays are linked together by some bouncy island music and energetic set changes by a young stage crew. Though no one is credited for these upbeat, efficient set shifts, they act as interstitial rest breaks, a significant support for the plays themselves.
"Summer Shorts" is significant from several points of view. It's stylish, thoroughly professional entertainment that pulls in a broader, younger audience than many South Florida theaters. It's also a fine opportunity for theatergoers to sample a wide range of actors, directors, and designers as well as a fine -- and rare -- chance for those artists to collaborate with one another. Most obvious of all, the program is an excellent showcase for both established and emerging writers. All of this circulation helps promote a healthier theater scene.
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