BWW Review: Highs and Lows at the Short Play Competition at the Tampa Bay Theatre Festival
Short plays are not unlike short stories. Some can be just as effective, perhaps even more powerful, than many full-length works. (If you doubt this, then please read The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor. Now.) I had the pleasure of attending the Short Play Competition at the TECO Theatre of the Straz Center on Sunday, September 3rd; this has become one of the highlights of the Tampa Bay Theatre Festival. Out of roughly fifty entries, only 14 10-minute plays were chosen (and 13 performed). While some were obvious throwaways and irredeemably forgettable, several were quite entertaining, and two of them as powerful as many full-length dramas I've seen lately.
Some came across as half-baked, trying-too-hard-to-be-funny SNL-type skits, and one, "Fortune Kooky," in writing and performance, did not even rise to that low level. (It didn't even rise to the level of many middle school performances). And another short, "Be Prepared," wasn't much better.
The competition started on firm ground with the first show--the clever "First Date Jitters" by April Bender, and then wound up in Shtick Land with "One Naughty Box" by Jim Moss. The idea of "One Naughty Box" was potentially comic gold--older women find a myriad of sex toys in their church yard sale--but it turned out to be a one joke affair: One minute of laughs, and nine minutes of watching the same thing over and over. One question inevitably popped up: What unlucky (or, if you desire, lucky) soul had to buy all of the sex props for this particular piece?
"Behind the Badge," set in Ybor, is about a white cop and a black woman who doesn't trust him; not bad, but not very memorable either, though the no-frills set with tape used as parking spaces worked for me. Zachary Michael Jack's "Hurricane Andrew" had funny moments, but may be a little too timely for Floridians' tastes with Hurricane Irma's wrath knocking on the Sunshine State's door. "The Garage Sale," the last short piece of the lot, had good performers, but ended the show on an odd and underwhelming note.
Monica Milell's "I Don't Want to Be Mediocre" is harrowing to watch at times, but it included lovely vocal work by the lead actress (singing a line or two of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough") and a fine performance by the younger actress. (This is where a program would help, so good performances can be identified by name.) The piece ends on a positive note, but it would be stronger if Milell concluded it at the exact moment that the young girl opens a special letter and smiles while Mom hums Diana Ross songs. The playwright doesn't need the excessive dialogue that followed; she had the perfect ending right there in a young girl's smile.
"La Mariposa," featuring young local talent, was created, improvised, written, rehearsed, designed, and performed by the students of Dreamer's Teatro Crew (led by local actor Coky Aguilera). The short play had its heart in the right place, but it was all over the map with too much to say (and too many actors) for such a short work. But kudos to the young performers who helped bring it to life: Fernando Mota, Angel Mendez, Sarah Cruz, Isabel Lopez, Osvaldo Limas, Marque Morales, Kayla Conrad, Sierra Conrad, Luke Tran, and María Mendez.
"The Shrink" by Lames Boone and Mary Anne Edwards was fun to watch, but it's not one I thought about much afterwards. Still, the audience enjoyed it thoroughly.
The audience favorite, however, would have to be Kevin Michael Wesson's "No Hole, No Soul." This funny take using jelly donuts as a metaphor for marriage equality was a hoot to watch, especially with the hilarious performance of Hayden Baker. It won the entire short play competition, and the audience gave it a sustained ovation afterwards. But it was my third favorite of the short plays; two others left a more permanent mark.
"11:11" was as dramatic as it comes. Deb Kelley's play about parents in a support group (their children died in a school shooting) shook the audience; we were suddenly in something more than the usual SNL knockoff that so often rears its head at these events. This was different. We watched in hushed silence, our hearts accelerating due to the tension. I love how the playwright forces us to feel sorry for a character that we soon find out is the mother of a so-called monster. The actresses were all top notch, especially Amy C. Ragg and Monique Brown (Brown's erupting entrance is not something I will soon forget). Kym Welch also gets a powerful moment (and a great speech); I recall her scene-stealing role in Doubt at the Carrollwood Players three years ago, and she's equally riveting here. Playwright Kelley has packed a lot of emotion into a mere 10 minutes, sometimes too much, but it's worth sitting through some of the less stellar short shows of the competition to witness this satisfying, heavy, emotional ride.
"Hearsay," written by Lisa VillaMil and directed by Nick Hoop, ends up tied with "11:11" as the strongest work of the day. It starred two very different actors playing well off each other--the electric Marlene Peralta and the very real Travis Brown. I haven't seen Brown for three years (since Superior Donuts at Stageworks), and I realized how much we missed his likable presence onstage in the area. He's so real, so in the moment, responding to Peralta's accusations and putting an all-too-human face on a possible rapist. It's a very serious scene--two friends at a crossroad due to some very damning hearsay--that unfolds beautifully thanks to VillaMil's spot-on script. Performances, writing, subject matter and direction all add up to an extraordinary short work.
It's hard to review a competition like this because the plays wind up being so eclectic: Sex toys, jelly donuts, hurricanes, funerals, and stale fortune cookies. It's also difficult when the shows, playwrights, casts and directors do not appear in the program. Sometimes we didn't know what we were watching, the title of the work being performed or whose short play. This will change in the future, according to the Tampa Bay Theatre Festival organizers, and I for one am grateful for that news.
The Tampa Bay Theatre Festival has grown into a major force in our area, and I can't wait to see next year's crop of short plays. If it offers anything half as powerful as "11:11" or "Hearsay," then it will be more than worth your time to attend.