No Short Cut
We take a seat in front of the screen, stage, or box to disengage. Sometimes it has to do with art -- a riveting portrayal of the human drama -- sometimes not. TV and film provide many ways to disengage, through electronic hypnosis, surround-sound inoculation, big-screen digital imagery, and the comforting lull of our own chewing. Suffused with electronic impulses, sugar, warm butter, and cold drinks, we are at the very least distracted. Theater offers no short cut. We are confronted with ourselves (real, in-the-flesh human beings) and not images of ourselves. In theater we must engage to disengage. We must be pulled in. We must feel we have experienced something completely -- whether it be a moment, a conversation, or the entire life of a relationship. Hence the challenge and reward of the short-form play, when it works, is to experience something complete in about ten minutes. In this year's Summer Shorts 2000 we find that when it works, it's as entertaining and moving as any full-scale drama. When it doesn't well, at least it's over quickly.
City Theatre's Summer Shorts, now in its fifth year, is a month-long festival of short plays. This year the shortest play is six minutes and the longest is eighteen, but the average stage time of a short is ten minutes. Between the two programs offered there are sixteen plays, nine actors, and eight directors. Summer Shorts is dedicated to developing works of new and emerging artists. Each year plays are chosen from nearly 500 scripts submitted locally, nationally, and internationally.
The short-form playwright's challenge is very similar to that of the short fiction writer: To capture the intensity of language that one finds in poetry and the depth of a novel, all in a short period of time. As producer Susan Westfall describes, "The actors must be able to come in fast and complete and leave the audience with the feeling they have experienced a full moment." Each actor must perform an average of three to five roles per program. As one might guess, an actor must know his or her character just as thoroughly for a ten-minute act as for a two-hour performance. The positive aspect of short-form productions is that they are a showcase for a seasoned actor's versatility.
A good example of this versatility is actress Elizabeth Dimon, who plays four different roles in Program B. In each role Dimon is someone's mother. Dimon's capacity for accents (she can pretty much move across the country in accents) is not limited to the accents themselves. She uses them as a lever to support that particular character's way of speaking. She is a nagging, pessimistic mother in love.com; a hard-as-nails, working-class Southern mama in The Big Dance; and a loud, sarcastic Bostonian mom in How We Talk in South Boston. While all of Dimon's roles are not equally well written, her portrayal is consistently diverse and convincing.
Although themes inevitably arise, the shorts are not thematically or geographically connected. Consequently the design team's challenge is unique from that of other full-scale dramatic productions. Summer Shorts manages to not look like a chaotic hodge-podge thanks to its design team. Designers for sound, Steve Shapiro, and lighting, John D. Hall, along with set designer Rich Simone, manage to create cohesiveness as well as preserve the individual flair of each short. The smart set design offers a continuity that does not link the eight different plays but also does not alienate them from one another. Upbeat music and stagehands all dressed in black shorts and polo shirts provide quick and relatively fluid scene changes. The Jerry Herman Ring Theatre at the University of Miami is a nice-size venue that seats around 300 and is not so small that it comes off as cluttered but does not feel huge and cavernous.
The weakness in the overall production of Summer Shorts, Program B, is that some of the scripts, such as Arabian Nights and How We Talk in South Boston, are not as strong as others, such as The Divine Fallacy and Deaf Day. Arabian Nights, written by David Ives and directed by Barry Steinman, is the story of Norman (played by Keith Blaney), an American businessman traveling in a foreign land. He thinks he might have met his soul mate, Flora (played by Sharón Kremen), on his last day in a souvenir shop, thanks to the convoluted translations of the interpreter on hand (Stephen Trovillion). The play structurally does not hold up because there is not a central point of conflict in the action and no real resolution. Eventually the man leaves the souvenir shop and the audience thinks, OK, so what?
The production as a whole also relies a little too heavily on one type of humor. Part of the reason to have a succession of short plays is to show off the versatility of the actors, and these actors definitely seem up to the task. A few too many punchy one-liners and glib comebacks carry the show. With 500 scripts from which to choose and an array of dramatic possibilities, the organizers might have chosen works offering more diversity of humor and some more serious drama.
The two strongest plays, The Divine Fallacy (written by Tina Howe and directed by Marjorie O'Neill-Butler, City Theatre's Artistic Director) and Deaf Day (written by Leslie Ayvazian and also directed by O'Neill-Butler), manage to be both humorous and serious.
The Divine Fallacy is the story of Dorothy Kiss (played by Sharón Kremen), a novelist and the ugly duckling sister of a supermodel. As a favor to the supermodel, a top fashion photographer named Victor Hugo (played by Stephen Trovillion) agrees to photograph Dorothy for her next book. From the initial inquiry to the snapping of the photo, a string of events ends in the transformation of Dorothy from a neurotic nerdy romance novelist to a sensitive, attractive woman. Dorothy challenges the high-fashion photographer to take pictures of her mind -- the real locale of her beauty -- in a beautifully written monologue that juxtaposes women and elephants, tusks and arms, all merging in a mythical river.
Kremen makes an impressive transformation, one that is subtle and believable because of her use of body language and gesture. She does not betray the uncertain and even jerky gestures of her character, but she does peel away layers of coats, scarves, hats, and inhibitions, revealing an attractive and complex person.
In Deaf Day Tom Wahl portrays the father of a deaf child who on "English Day" must go to the park and interact with hearing children. The appealing aspect of Deaf Day is that it does not surround a dramatic event, but it uncovers the drama of a day-to-day event such as a trip to the park. This drama comes from a more neutral place and therefore seeps in instead of hitting you over the head. Structurally the piece is challenging because the child's presence is implied and not acted out. Wahl must maintain the energy and intimacy that one would have conversing with his or her child without the physical presence of the child. And the language is wonderful. At one point the father says to the child, referring to a ride on a swing: "Remember there was that moment when you and that little girl were both perfectly balanced? You were both sitting in the air. That's something special." The piece not only shows us the world of the deaf child (the taunting from other children, the fear of being an outcast, and the need for solitude), it also reveals the world of a parent whose child is disabled. It is both humorous and realistic. The father advises his son to find the kids who are nice and ignore the ones who say stupid things. He adds: "Remember what we think of stupid kids? We think the stupid kids are stupid."
Hats off to City Theatre for presenting short-form plays as a genre and not trying to relegate them as filler work. They have proved that a well-done ten-minute play can be as effective, emotionally and intellectually, as any full-length play. The cast is a high-energy, stimulating group that manages to infect the audience, and the dual-program, picnic-supper format makes for a full-length evening.
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