Not every trip to the theater needs to end with an earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting, consciousness-expanding lesson, but Summer Shorts does.
And here it is: Paul Tei is far and away the most exciting director in South Florida.
Summer Shorts allows folks the rare opportunity to see a very great many artists' works back-to-back. Program A, which began last weekend, features seven plays by seven writers, handled by five directors working with nine actors, so comparisons among the artists involved are inevitable and fun. Similarly inevitable are comparisons with Summer Shorts' Program B, which is kind of a mess. I'll get to that.
Through July 8. Program A runs Thursdays; Program B runs Fridays; both programs run Saturdays and Sundays. Studio Theater at the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd, Miami; 305-949-6722, www.citytheatre.com.
But first: Program A is delicious! Not in the beginning, maybe -- Sarah Hammond's 96 Stitches is a meditation on slavery, art, and obligation that is as exciting as ... actually meditating on slavery, art, and obligation. It centers on an incongruous mortal drama involving a dressmaker, his wife, and the crowing, garment-crazed, Grammy-winning harpy who pays their bills. The usually outstanding Kameshia Duncan brays through her part with all the sensitivity of a deranged foghorn, and director Desmond Gallant's attempt at developing a pensive atmosphere is ruined by Hammond's ham-handed, inexcusably clumsy writing (which crops up again in Program B, proving that genius might be unreliable, but flagrant incompetence is a friend forever). The lazy exposition, toxic threads, and dark generational secrets passed down from tailor to tailor are enough to make theatergoers surreptitiously eye their watches and programs, fearfully tallying the night's six remaining plays.
But then! Yes! Relief! Jessica Lind's What I Learned from Grizzly Bears is quirky and beautiful, full of commingled fun and sadness. In it Irene Adjan is a fruitcake and Antonio Amadeo is her sweet-hearted, long-suffering husband. Adjan, we learn, is a mother of twins (or was a mother of twins -- this point is not clarified, and it develops into an ominous question mark hanging over deceptively light action). There has been some vague accumulation of traumas in Adjan's house, and to escape them, she comes to the reactionary conclusion that she never wanted any of this in the first place. What she really desired was to go study grizzly bears in Alaska. Maybe the most trenchant moment of the entire festival is her discussion, at play's end, of the mothering habits of the bears she loves -- how mothers who lose their cubs show signs of clinical depression, how they forget to eat and wander aimlessly through the permafrost. Adjan brings this off with an effortless innocence and deeply sublimated sadness that seems almost too fully articulated for a play so short.
Then Paul Tei's first play shows up, and everything quickens. This is Tei's defining characteristic as a director, maybe -- I haven't seen enough of his work to be sure, but I think he might be a fundamentally accelerated human being. Even when his characters aren't doing anything but trading banalities, there is a sense of time running out, a bass note of desperation running through the proceedings -- facial expressions and patterns of movement intimating impending choices. Ron Bobby Had Too Big a Heart could easily have devolved into condescension. Playwright Rolin Jones is a Yale graduate, a former Pulitzer finalist, and a writer for the television show Weeds, and his basic thesis here is that teenage girls in Middle America have tragically "small dreams," like getting a "handsome husband" and procuring a job in the "dental arts." This makes one wonder what he'd do if he discovered his oral surgeon's receptionists all quit their jobs to pursue careers in television -- but it's treated here with deep humanity wrapped in perfectly pitched zaniness. Kameshia Duncan returns to her usual fabulousness as a high school senior who has, whoops, brutally stabbed the prom king to death. The character played by actress Ceci Fernandez helped her do it. Covered in blood and viscera, they escape across the stage with the prom queen tied up in the back seat. Their tone flashes at warp speed from squealing girlishness to swirling inchoate rage and back with a giddy ease that is both exhilarating and unsettling, and more fun than kidnapping, carjacking, and murder have any right to be.
And then, lessee, you've got Suspension, an improbably moving piece featuring Erik Fabregat as a good-hearted stoner and Bechir Sylvain as a weird pantheist messiah; The Sons of Mickey, a fast-paced radio play in which KKK members with Mickey Mouse ears perpetrate terrible crimes against an incomprehensibly geeky, terminally Disney-obsessed, outlandishly homosexual Tom Wahl; Susan Westfall's Uprising, an unapologetically manipulative and infuriatingly successful story about a mother and daughter drawing strength from an ancestor who fought the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto; and Craig Wright's Foul Territory, a play about the importance of, y'know, ducking when somebody hits a foul ball at your face. This is another Paul Tei joint, and in it Duncan and Wahl turn in the most engaging portraits of the festival -- Duncan exploding out of her skin with optimism and cartoonish baseball fanaticism, and Wahl just sitting there, taking every beating anybody ever wanted to give him, sighing and saying "C'est la vie," and then bleeding like a goddamn Romanov.
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Sorry for condensing all of that, but I'm running out of space. I still need to bitch about Program B.
The opening piece, Ambivalent, begins with a stunning declaration from Stephen Trovillion and then devolves into a dull morality play. Practicing and Flour Cloud are both stuck in the purgatorial middle ground between depth and puerility. The telenovela parody Donde Est Pedro Mano? is extremely funny but utterly inconsequential, and Michael McKeever's Splat! -- about Munchkins trying to clean up Dorothy's mess after she disappears down the Yellow Brick Road -- is a lot funnier in theory than in practice. I Am Not Batman would be revelatory if Bechir Sylvain's astonishing monologue weren't drowned out by utterly superfluous drumming (yes, drumming). Only John Walch's Angle of Attack and Kent Brown's Playtime are truly successful -- the former because it's sweet enough to make life seem worth living, and the latter for exactly the opposite reason.
It's worth noting that this year's Summer Shorts are being performed in the round, which is a helluva nice break, and it also merits attention that the production staff has made these plays move, transition, and communicate flawlessly, no matter where you happen to be sitting.
And that's everything, folks: the stage, the sets, the actors, and every damn play in the festival. I have covered them all. I hope this has been helpful. If not, then I guess that just goes to show you: Quantity and quality are often mutually exclusive. City Theatre, take note.