City Theatre's Summer Shorts Festival Is Filthy and Fabulous

Show us your Undershorts.
George Schiavone

City Theatre's Summer Shorts is the second-largest "short play" festival in the nation, "short plays" being little dramatic nuggets with run times under ten minutes. This is the festival's 14th year, and the plays are divided into three programs: the X-rated Undershorts, the merely R-rated Signature Shorts, and the G-rated Shorts 4 Kids.

Go see Summer Shorts. Just do. It's a lot cheaper than the imported Broadway dealio (Chicago) running in the larger theater down the hall, and no doubt you'll find City Theatre's digs in the Arsht Center's Carnival Studio Theater far more conducive to the live theater experience than the Arsht's cavernous ballet and opera hall (which really is good for opera, but which is about three times too large for anything else, save maybe a U2 concert). And if you have your druthers, you might as well take your Shorts on a Saturday — the only evening when you can see both Signature Shorts and Undershorts back-to-back. They are both see-worthy for the same reasons: novelty, naughtiness, inventiveness, and a madcap, almost desperate kind of verve that comes only from talented people working at the extremity of their abilities.

Look at your program. Note there is an actress listed in the cast of six of the two programs' 16 shows who never once appears onstage and whose roles have been either redistributed or edited out altogether. Also note the program's mention of a play, "In the Trenches/On the Couch," that is never performed. This is evidence of a recent cataclysm in Summer Shorts' development, and it is the only such evidence you'll see. Though pulling together Summer Shorts — with its truckload of scripts, its busload of directors, its gaggle of actors — must be a fraught and frantic process, the caliber of artists is such that you'll never see a bead of sweat. When the occasional show misfires, it has nothing to do with the people performing it; this year's few flops are the results of defective scripts.

Two such scripts are those of Gary Garrison's "Storm on Storm" (Signature Shorts) and Tim Acito's "I Call Your Name" (Undershorts). "Storm" begins as a mordantly funny "what if": What if your husband got struck by lightening, twice, and from then on was followed by bad weather wherever he went? How might you discuss this? And how do you deal with his broken heart when his daughter doesn't invite him to her open-air wedding? It's in these ridonkulous posits that Summer Shorts' actors find their mojo, and it's in concluding them that the playwrights often lose theirs. Garrison could have had an absurd and charming little ditty on his hands, but he couldn't resist the natural temptation to go deeper — to turn his piece into a meditation on love and domestic bliss that is both unnecessary and, given the nutty premise that spawned it, surprisingly dull. Acito's "I Call Your Name" has an even nuttier premise played out to even duller effect. In it, a woman is teleported to the bed of whomever's name she calls out when she's having sex. The play is more moaning than dialogue, and when she can't even come up with anything interesting to say while under the covers with God the Father Almighty, it's apparent Acito is spinning his wheels.

These shows whiz by quickly enough, and Summer Shorts' prevailing ethic of awesomeness reasserts itself. In short after short, Signature Shorts and Undershorts will make you gasp at the audacity of both the writers and the performers, who take good ideas and push them further than you'd think they could be pushed. The best pieces are Michael McKeever's "Cravin Tutweiler: (The Real Life Story Of)" (Signature Shorts), Christopher Durang's "Kitty the Waitress" (Signature Shorts), and Jeffrey James Ircink's "Pass the Salt, Please" (Undershorts). These bawdy, viciously witty, and unerringly self-aware little plays demonstrate a control of tone and speed that writers and interpreters of even very long plays should study and emulate.

"Cravin Tutweiler" was originally composed for last year's 24 Hour Theatre Project, and it features three women (played by Erin Joy Schmidt, Laura Turnbull, and Elena Maria Garcia) paying verbal tribute to the man they loved, Cravin Tutweiler (Stephen Trovillion, who appears onstage from time to time in a smoking jacket and says, in a sex-soaked purr, "My name is Cravin Tutweiler, and I'm going to change your life"). There is no particular reason for this play's existence, but the women are so different — a hard-core libertarian harpy, a hippie performance artist, and a rich French socialite with pretensions of intellectualism — and their ardor so intense that you can't help but respond to its vibrancy.

"Kitty the Waitress" is typical Durang, but even more so — kind of like a truncated version of the 1989 Dr. Caligari but set in a French restaurant. A man (Trovillion) would like very much to eat his food and forget his worries, but high-stepping servers and a meowing waitress (Garcia) won't let him. The waitress keeps rubbing her crotch in his face, and she becomes intensely uncomfortable whenever she is forced to retract her poonanny. He dismisses her but later comes to regret it when she is sent to the pound and euthanized. (Seriously.)

"Pass the Salt" is a dinner table conversation between a husband and wife (Trovillion and Garcia) who at first appear totally indifferent to one another, but for whom indifference is revealed to be part of an ongoing and very intense kind of sexual role-playing. They're not truly indifferent — they're merely comfortable with each other — and by the time Trovillion explains he'd like to squirt Garcia's boobies with honey, or Garcia calls Trovillion her "piggy" in the same deadly monotone with which they ask each other to "pass the salt," they have created a vision of domestic bliss that is as sweet and enviable as it is weird.

The acting throughout all of this is sublime. Stephen Trovillion, Erin Joy Schmidt, Laura Turnbull, John Manzelli, Stephen G. Anthony, David Hemphill, and especially Elena Maria Garcia wear so many masks so comfortably that, by the middle of Undershorts, the effort begins to look a little superhuman. The thought and heart they've invested in each of their small characters is shocking, and their dedication is absolutely moving. Look at how much emotion Turnbull injects into a monologue in "Snow" (Signature Shorts), in which she plays a shut-in (and in which she wasn't even supposed to appear; the MIA actress was slated to do the part). Look at the way Garcia uses her body in role after role, sensuously dancing with her lines and using her pneumatic hips to create laughs where none are written and to magnify the ones that are. These are acrobatic, athletic, and aesthetic feats — meaningless and delightful and delirious. You won't find them anywhere else.

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