BWW Review: SUMMER SHORTS at City Theatre
Summer has arrived in South Florida, and that means three things: schools are closed, temperatures are in the 90's and City Theatre has opened its annual Summer Shorts Festival at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts' Carnival Studio Theater. This year's Summer Shorts (City Theatre's 24th) features eight short one act plays--including two musicals. While seen as Miami's equivalent to Saturday Night Live, Summer Shorts is a festival celebrating new works by developing playwrights, composers and lyricists. Together, these plays are the perfect balance of wit, slapstick humor, and cultural relevance neatly packaged and wrapped in a bow.
The evening begins with the world-premiere of Franklin Pierce: Dragon Slayer, with book and lyrics by Preston Max Allen and music by Will Buck. Eighth grader Jennifer (Hannah Richter) is assigned to give a presentation on Franklin Pierce (Brian Reiff) for her class President's Day project, much to her disappointment. She sings an entire solo about how America's fourteenth president is the lamest and least memorable in American history, while praising the attributes (and atrocities) of other commanders in chief ("Clinton had relations, Kennedy was hot...Nixon had his scandals, Kennedy was shot"). Franklin Pierce then rises from the dead, appearing in Jennifer's stuffed-animal filled bedroom. He explains that historians failed to address his accomplishments as a dragon slayer-a fabricated story that Jennifer struggles to believe. Richter makes the pubescent Jennifer appear precocious yet naive. Vocally, Richter's tone is bright and well-supported, even while singing in a childish character voice. Reiff's performance as Pierce is seen as static. While he could portray Pierce as a mentor (as Allen's script indicates), Reiff seems to treat his character like an egotistic buffoon who simply wants to be a hero.
Next on the menu is Ian August's play Frozen Foods, making its Southeastern premiere. Suburban mom Carol (Lindsey Corey) experiences an existential crisis in the frozen food aisle of her local supermarket. When she discovers that her favorite frozen dinners are on sale, Carol starts to question her belief in God-since she paid full price for the same prepackaged meals the week before! Fellow mother Linda (Daryl Patrice) humorously plays along with Carol's queries in the middle of the store. Corey's performance as Carol is well-layered. Audiences can see Corey's deliberate thought process as her character analyzes the universe in its particles. Patrice gives sass and bubbliness to Linda, serving as the perfect foil to Corey's heightened hysterics.
Jeff Locker's world-premiere play, The Forgotten Place, is next at bat. Eric (Jovon Jacobs) is interviewing Kip (Reiff) for the position of "best friend." In an interview that feels like the male-bonding equivalent of "If First Dates Were Honest" on BuzzFeed, Kip and Eric go through the ups and downs of a typical male friendship. Jacobs and Reiff play well off each other as actors. There is a believable exchange between Eric and Kip as the interview progresses-as if the two actors were playing the improv game "Yes, And..."
Act One of the show's program concludes with the world premiere of Stephen Yockey's play Telephones and Bad Weather. Global warming has taken its toll on the Earth's climate. In the middle of a never-ending storm, Scott (Gregg Weiner) is building an ark in his backyard-despite his lack of boatbuilding experience as a dentist. He receives messages from God via an old-fashioned orange telephone. Scott's wife, Brenda (Corey), is irritated by the phone's constant ringing. Her stress is exacerbated by a group of Scott's disciples meditating in their living room. This ensemble piece is staged with synergy and snappiness. Every actor is truly connected to this absurd plot line-from Corey and Weiner playing a couple on the verge of divorce to the ensemble of City Theatre interns humming in harmony as yogi-like Disciples. Corey, once again, steals the spotlight in the role of Brenda. There is a sense of urgency in her performance as she balances the insanity that her character experiences onstage.
After a brief intermission, Summer Shorts continues with the world premiere of Jen Diamond's This is How Ghosts Speak. The power goes out in the basement of a cash-strapped theater on the night of a performance. The manager, Jessie (Patrice), must keep her cool as she tries to call the power company. The theater's maintenance guy, Walt (Weiner), recalls his experience with an elderly stagehand who supposedly haunts the basement as a ghost. He convinces young intern Molly (Richter), a self-proclaimed necromancer, to speak with the stagehand's spirit in hopes of fixing the power. This play is performed with no stage lighting, with the only source of illumination coming from the flashlights in the actors' hands. With the stage pitch-black, the actors effectively use their voices to keep the story moving despite the lack of visual focus onstage. Richter and Weiner display spot-on comic timing in this piece. Every time Richter speaks in her valley-girl dialect as Molly (peppered with "like's" and "um's"), audiences roar with laughter. Similarly, Weiner's relaxed characterizations as Walt bring belly laughs from the audience-even during mundane moments like the crunch of a potato chip.
The next presentation of the evening is known simply as The Presentation. This play by Lia Romero, making its Southeastern premiere, is a unique response to the #MeToo movement. Samantha Friedman (Corey) has given talks on sexual harassment in the workplace around the world for groups in every industry. But when she presents to a group of Vikings (Weiner, Jacobs and Zye Reid), Samantha must adapt her talking points to appeal to natural-born rapists and killers. In her third standout performance of the evening, Corey maintains a composed yet professional aura in her role. On one hand, we see Corey's Samantha as a woman trying to make the world a safer place. On the other hand, we see her character struggle to communicate abstract concepts like toxic masculinity in simplistic "Viking speak." Weiner, Jacobs and Reid work effectively as an ensemble of manly men. Jacobs in particular gives his one-armed Viking character a heart when he realizes the harm he's caused by pilfering foreign lands.
The program shifts from #MeToo to #BlackLivesMatter with the Southeastern premiere of Schrödinger's Gun by Greg A. Smith. A white police trainee, Roland (Reiff), is given a test by two black officers, Freeman (Jacobs) and Griggs (Patrice). On the table sits a briefcase, which may or may not contain a loaded gun. Freeman provides Roland a weapon of his own, with hopes that the rookie learn a lesson about truth, trust and discipline. When Freeman and Griggs re-enact a typical encounter between white officers and black civilians, will Roland react appropriately or "f*** things up" and pull the trigger? Of all the plays featured in this evening's lineup, Schrödinger's Gun certainly caused more audience members to cringe than laugh. Jacobs and Patrice play their roles with the stern and intimidating characterizations one could expect from a man or woman in law enforcement. However, as the play progresses, they heighten the reality of their roles as civilians in Roland's training, creating a dynamic contrast from their officer personas.
For the final show of the night, City Theatre decided to select the world premiere MOO-sical: Big Fat Cow. With book and lyrics by Hilary Rollins and music By William Johnson, this musical is based on the real-life Jersey heifer and Borden Dairy mascot Elsie the Cow. An older, washed up Elsie (Weiner) appears, addressing the audience about her rise to fame from the New York World's Fair to the Hollywood spotlight. The show is performed in the style of an old-fashioned musical comedy. In one particular scene, an Andrews Sisters style trio of bovines (Richter, Patrice and Katherine Berger) are being milked on a Rotolactor machine while singing in close harmony. Weiner gives his strongest performance in Big Fat Cow by showcasing his brassy baritone voice and self-deprecating humor. Weiner's stage presence is so evident in his brown cow costume that he convinces everybody in the audience to look their partner in the eye and say "Honey, you are a big fat cow."
City Theatre Artistic Director Margaret M. Ledford recruits a creative team that truly enhances the short plays being presented. Scenic designer Jodi Dellaventura gives Summer Shorts a vibrant and two-dimensional look with cutouts of surfboards and palm trees along with beach balls and bright-colored umbrellas. Properties designer Natalie Taveras comes up with scenic elements unique to each play-from Jennifer's stuffed animals in Franklin Pierce to the industrial freezer in Frozen Foods to the Rotolactor in Big Fat Cow. All scene changes were swift and well-executed by the Summer Shorts crew, led by assistant stage manager and deck chief Oriana Urdaneta.
Lighting designer Eric Nelson utilizes some captivating effects in this production, including moving gobos to represent lightning bolts (in Telephones and Bad Weather) and the cosmos (in Frozen Foods). Nelson also takes the impressively bold risk of not lighting the stage for This is How Ghosts Speak. Sound designer Steve Shapiro effectively utilizes body mics to provide echoic reverb during ethereal moments like Carol's hallucination in Frozen Foods. The songs in the two musicals were well-sung thanks in part to music director Caryl Fantel, who helped some of the ensemble members blend during some of the tight harmonies in Big Fat Cow.
This year's Summer Shorts is a true representation of quality theatre for the short attention span. If you are in Miami for the summer, this annual production is a must-see.
City Theatre presents
Summer Shorts 2019
Opened: June 1
Closing: June 23
Carnival Studio Theatre, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
1300 Biscayne Blvd, Miami, FL 33132.
Margaret M. Ledford, Andy Quiroga, Gladys Ramirez, Michael Yawney
The Acting Ensemble
Lindsey Corey, Jovon Jacobs, Daryl Patrice, Brian Reiff, Hannah Richter* Gregg Weiner
The Playwrights, Composers and Lyricists
Ian August, Jen Diamond, Lia Romeo, Greg A Smith, Steve Yockey, Hillary Rollins & Bill Johnson, Preston Max Allen & Will Buck
Musical Director: Caryl Fantel
Production Stage Manager: Naomi Zapata*
Production Manager: Amy Rauchwerger
Choreography: Sandra Portal-Andreu
Lighting Design: Eric Nelson
Costume Design: Ellis Tillman
Scenic Design: Jodi Dellaventura
Sound Design: Steve Shapiro
Assistant Stage Manager/Deck Manager: Oriana Urdaneta
Properties Design: Natalie Taveras
*Appears through the courtesy of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.