Short Order

The logistics of Summer Shorts seem to require a calculator and slide rule to figure out what's going on. An invigorating festival of eighteen one-act plays (each fifteen minutes long or less) that features a twelve-member acting company and eleven different directors, it runs through the end of this weekend with two separate programs appearing over the course of three nights. Program A plays on Friday and Saturday, program B on Saturday and Sunday, and both programs, separated by a dinner break, on Saturday. Don't be daunted, though. Math skills are not required to enjoy these impeccably produced and thought-provoking comedies and dramas.

One-act fests have cropped up around the nation in recent years, produced by Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Naked Angels Theatre Company in New York City, the MET Theatre in Los Angeles, and the Source Theatre in D.C. But nothing like it has ever been attempted in South Florida. Susan Westfall, Stephanie Norman, and Elena Wohl were convinced Miami's time had come.

Playwright Westfall, actor and Colony Theater manager Norman, and actor and director Wohl joined forces late this past year to create City Theatre. Then they hatched the idea for Summer Shorts, a three-week project featuring short works -- world premieres or Florida premieres -- to be presented by their nascent organization.

As mothers of young children, the women shared a desire to pursue novel career avenues without compromising time with their kids. "We wanted to do one thing and we wanted to do it well," explains Norman. "We didn't want a regular theater. We didn't want a season. We didn't want overhead. But we felt very strongly that bringing new theater to South Florida was important to each of us."

The trio envisioned a showcase that would spotlight the work of local writers, actors, directors, and technicians -- work that would appeal to a wider audience than that of a traditional theater. "We wanted to do a festival that was accessible to everyone," Norman says. "Put on your shorts, grab a beer. It's not going to be painful. It's going to be fun."

They issued a call for scripts at the beginning of this year. Over the next few months, wearing producer hats for the first time, the women read a total of 400 submissions, then organized staged readings of almost 50 of these, finally settling on 18. ("I always thought producers hung around and played pinochle in the back room and smoked cigars," quips Wohl, who adds that she and her partners have since learned the demands of that chaotic and stressful job.) The threesome also hand-picked a crew of actors and directors whose work they respected and with whom they thought it would be great to collaborate. And they enlisted the help of the University of Miami's theater department: The festival takes place in the campus's renovated, state-of-the-art Jerry Herman Ring Theatre; the theater's general manager, Kent Lantaff, and theater department faculty member Bruce Lecure each direct two pieces; faculty member Kenneth N. Kurtz designed the minimal yet inventive sets as well as the lighting; Ring costume designer Jeffery B. Phipps dressed the actors; and the theater's technical director Steve Martin serves as festival production manager.

Although the producers received fewer South Florida submissions than they had hoped, they managed to include pieces by four area writers (David Fleisher's Coq au Vin, Manny Diez's Caller I.D., David Latner's Closing Time, and Westfall's Once Upon a Time), each of which adds to the gestalt of the entire mix. Among the eighteen offerings, you've got your work written by men, your work written by women, your sexual politics, your racial struggle, your class conflicts, your moments of magical realism, your incidents of cynicism. There are drugs, guns, rock and roll, a murder on-stage, and even a medieval rack used as a sight gag metaphor for girlfriends torturing their beaus.

Yet this something-for-everyone approach never seems overly contrived, and none of the pieces appears chosen because it is politically correct. Each flows rhythmically, offering this talented group of actors and directors a chance to show off their range. Take, for example, James Samuel Randolph, who transforms from a working-class man on a subway platform at midnight in one play into a pampered and decadent family cat, complete with an enormous tail, in another. With equal ease, Peter Haig moves from smarmy business executive in one offering to homeless alcoholic later in the evening. Margot Moreland is an image-conscious wretch of a suburban mother, then a suicidal bed and breakfast proprietor. Without skipping a beat, Aymee Garcia goes from overwrought toddler in one piece to bored office worker in another. Similarly, directors Bruce Lecure, Elena Wohl, Gail Garrisan, Kent Lantaff, Joseph Adler, and Barry Steinman, each of whom directs more than one show, bring a different sensibility to each piece.

Not surprisingly, with such a range of material, not all the writing is as dramatic as it might be, not every director sees his or her original concept through to its end, and some actors tend to overstate their interpretations. Yet considering how unwieldy such an ambitious project might have turned out, the offerings are almost uniformly engaging. Some of the highlights:

Degas C'est Moi, a humorous and cerebral work by David Ives, tightly directed by Michael Montel, with Adam Koster delivering a well-tuned tongue-in-cheek performance as Ed, the regular schnook who wakes up convinced he's the dead French painter.

The Twelve-Forty, written by Barry Brodsky and directed by Steve Wise, in which a white man (Koster) with everything to lose encounters a black man (Randolph) while waiting for a train in the dark.

The Heartsick Pioneer, written by Kenneth Lonergan and directed by Elena Wohl. Nellie Gwynn, a sublime young actress with a sensual voice and a killer stage presence, plays a cop fending off the advances of a security guard (Todd Behrend).

The Pennysaver, Staci Swedeen's comic swipe at a dysfunctional family preparing to leave one house and move into a bigger and better one. Directed by Gail Garrisan, it features Randolph as Puss Cat, Moreland as the mother, and Garcia as a toddler, along with Behrend, Wise, and Finnerty Steeves.

Undiscovered Medicine, Craig Carlisle's exploration of friendship and mortality insightfully directed by Gary Sales, with Randolph, Paul Tei, and George Contini as three buddies (one with a terminal illness) who commiserate around a coffee-shop table.

Downtown, written by Jeffrey Hatcher with crisp direction by Maria Banda-Rodaz, in which three writer wanna-be's (Moreland, Contini, Gwynn) lust for success while dissing the crowd in a hip downtown club.

Closing Time, a powerful work by Miami writer David Latner, with direction by Barry Steinman. What seems at first to be yet another piece in which a hopeless drunk monopolizes the stage while philosophizing about life turns into a paean to friendship between an alcoholic and the owner of a liquor store. Movingly interpreted by Haig and Contini.

American Welcome, acclaimed Irish dramatist Brian Friel's monologue about the uneasy cultural alliance between Britain and the U.S., wherein the playwright proves that English is an utterly different language than American. Directed by Lantaff with a stinging performance by Contini.

The Office, a brilliant farce by Kate Hoffower, hilariously directed by Lecure, and splendidly acted by Steeves, Garcia, and Norman -- three women who ricochet between ennui and fantasy within the paper-clip crisis atmosphere of modern office life. (My personal favorite -- girlfriend, I've been there.)

Summer Shorts offers at least a few more pleasures than the ones mentioned above, and I recommend taking in the entire fete in one evening, total-immersion style, with a break for a picnic dinner on sale in the Ring Theatre's courtyard between programs. Then again, a theater critic has a higher tolerance for sitting through long nights in one chair than does the average spectator. However you decide to divide and conquer its offerings, this festival delivers some of the freshest -- and sauciest -- works in town.

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