Itsy Bitsy Drama
Has it already been a year since Summer Shorts was last in town? This festival of short plays (twenty minutes max) has become a nationally recognized event in its nine-year history and something of a must-see/must-be-seen-there social event for South Florida cognoscenti. Shorts has its own cheerily subversive personality; this is informal theater, a welcoming, Hawaiian-shirt-and-sandals style of outing that manages to be breezy and smart at the same time. Now back on the boards at the University of Miami's Ring Theatre for several weeks, Summer Shorts will then set up shop at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale for another multiweek run.
This year's edition features the works of seventeen playwrights over the course of two programs, which can be taken in separately or together, with a catered box meal in the interval. The writing ranges from sharp satire to serious drama to romantic comedy; the writers range from well-known veterans like Christopher Durang and Steven Dietz to up-and-comers from our area and across the country. That's all more than enough to recommend Summer Shorts. But add an ensemble of nine of South Florida's most versatile actors, eight talented directors, and a resourceful design team of six and the happy result is a showcase for the entire South Florida theatrical community.
The logistics of producing such an event are mind-boggling. Rehearsals must be a scheduling nightmare -- a company of nine actors may not seem like all that much, but this company appears in 21 plays directed by eight directors. We're talking 63 speaking roles (plus an array of walk-ons) and characters who must be costumed, directed, and propped. All 21 playlets must be lighted -- lighting designer John Hall has a separate plot for each one. Each play has a specific set of requirements: The floor of Rich Simone's nifty unit set, backed by sliding translucent panels, is peppered with dozens of colored tape marks -- every rolling set item, every piece of furniture has its own placement. The myriad set changes, each a complex ballet of precision backed by a terrific sampling of rock and roll tunes from sound designer Steve Shapiro, are a show in themselves. The acting company faces formidable character challenges -- each role must be researched, developed, thought through. It doesn't matter how long each play is; if the character's every moment onstage isn't completely alive, the play falls flat. It's tough enough to come up with one plausible characterization, but this ensemble must do so for six to eight roles apiece.
The range of dramatic material varies widely in tone, style, and impact. Some "plays" are merely brief sketches, what City Theatre calls "short hors d'oeuvres." Most of these are of necessity mere monologues, but Lauren Feldman's inspired "Monday in C Minor" shows what can be done in two minutes, making a witty connection between the morning rush to work and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Other offerings are fully realized dramas, with complete characters and developed story lines, albeit in compressed time frames. In program A, the standout is a playlet from local writer Robert Linfors, "Does Jesus Drum?" In the American South at the beginning of the Civil War, a stern mother (Elizabeth Dimon) tries to dissuade her son from joining the Confederate Army. A parent's anguish and the allure of war have obvious contemporary parallels, and Dimon's performance is riveting. Another standout is Christopher Durang's "DMV Tyrant," wherein a motorist (Steve Trovillian) is subjected to psychological torture from a smug bureaucrat (Dimon). Suzanne Bradbeer's "Bethlehem, PA" has to do with an ordinary man (Gregg Weiner) who's about to bury his beloved pet in his back yard, only to be interrupted by his new neighbor (Camille Carida, a Shorts newcomer with impressive range), a wacky modern dancer and ex-stripper with an agenda of her own. Director Barbara Lowery nicely balances Weiner's beat-by-beat naturalism with Carida's off-the-wall comedy.
Program B offers material with more political substance. In Rich Orloff's "The Right Sensation," a bumbling, would-be lover (Dave Corey) doesn't know what to do when his intended paramour (Angie Radosh) confides that her recent mastectomy has made her shy and insecure. The actors, under Kim St. Leon's nuanced direction, somehow manage to be both hilarious and poignant without tipping into maudlin sentimentality.
Some offerings, however short, feel like complete dramas. Lucinda McDermott's "Bricks" is one of these, in which a fifteen-year-old orphan girl (Lauren Feldman) must cope not only with the death of her guardian grandmother but also her mentally challenged brother (Brandon Morris), who seems unable to accept the death. Gail Garrisan's simple staging, at a kitchen table, evokes a complete family drama that might merit development into a full-length play. Morris, who makes his third consecutive appearance with Summer Shorts, shows an impressive emotional range and depth here. A similar richness can be found in "A Room Full of Lovely," another Lowery staging, in which a troubled artist (the resourceful Joe Kimble) has a fateful meeting in a diner with his equally troubled sister (Carida). Other offerings are decidedly hit-and-miss, though if one fails to please, the next is due in short order.
This year's version of Summer Shorts maintains the company's signature quick, upbeat pace and breezy style, but it adds a certain edge. A number of hot-button issues are touched upon: gay marriage, same-sex kissing, masturbation, and, with the program B's "A Speedy and Public Trial," a biting, Kafka-esque critique of the Bush administration's Patriot Act. There's nothing here you couldn't find on network television; the play selection limns a cultural geography that's white, upscale, gay-friendly, and left-of-center. That City's writers are individually raising such issues might be meritorious, but overall there's something missing here, something that's missing in virtually every South Florida theater -- a willingness to honestly give voice to and examine opposing sociopolitical views. Despite the obvious standoff in this deeply divided society, most arts professionals doggedly pursue a proscriptive liberal-left vision instead of offering a forum for opposing views that might challenge conventional thinking and provoke an exchange of ideas. More on this subject in a future column.
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