BWW Review: The Highs and Lows of the 2019 Short Play Competition at the Tampa Bay Theatre Festival
On Sunday, September 1st, as Hurricane Dorian decided to play Hamlet on its dicey path toward the other coast, unsure where exactly to strike, dozens of actors and nearly twenty playwrights gathered at the Straz Center's TECO Theater for the 2019 Short Play Competition. This is one of the hot tickets for the much-anticipated Tampa Bay Theatre Festival, a Bay Area staple that gets better and better each year (thanks to local theatre hero Rory Lawrence and his staff). This is my third foray reviewing the short works, and though I enjoyed the mini-plays of the past, the 2019 entries as a whole seem to be the strongest collection yet. And the great thing about short play competitions is that each work is only about ten minutes in length: If they're good, it's a time for celebration; if not, if they have taken an unfortunate shoot straight down to Clunker Land in Hades, then at least they're mercifully short. (With a short play that doesn't work, you can blink and the badness is over quite soon; this is a godsend because it's tough going when, say, a three hour play dies before your eyes and you're stuck there for a marathon of mediocrity.)
At this year's Short Play Competition, there were some clunkers, lots of average works saved by a good performance or two, a hand full of above-average plays, and two pieces that I consider near-masterpieces of the short form. More on the latter two later.
Notice that this is a competition, sort of like AGT but with playwrights instead of sword swallowers and 10-year-old opera singers. Also, unlike AGT, the acts aren't given immediate feedback even though they are adjudicated; maybe this could be something for the future--immediate feedback from a panel of judges. Although there were two sessions of short plays, I will treat them as one and, unlike last year, skip around a bit until we get to the two standouts of the competition.
Things got off to a rocky start with WHERE'S THE BREAD? by Gabrielle Caberera. This short, set in a restaurant where two male lovers want to toast five years together, just didn't seem to go anywhere. Bay News 9 references, Gordon Ramsey jokes and groaning Asian insults (calling the waitress "Sushi," for instance) sum this piece up. The next short, Isabella Macchlone's ANTIQUE FOR SALE, didn't fare much better. It's a promising premise--the showing of a dilapidated house--where the two young actresses made the most of it. But it was way too short without going anywhere.
ASK THE PENDULUM by Joan Antonicelli, which satirized the college application process, was quite odd, to say the least. A good cast couldn't save the one-note premise. Jonathan Hornsberry's WHO'S GONNA GET CUT starts with a funny set-up--teachers state their case to a Superintendent (who seems straight out of Idiocracy) to save their job. But the promise ends there, and the piece seemed strained at best. (A snail joke went on way too long for my tastes.)
THE ABANDONED CREW by DTC, the same group that did a similar skit last year, was headed by young actors, which is always a delight. But the piece was like déjà vu, too close to last year's, with kidnapping, bank robbery, guns, and youths tied to chairs. I think these talented souls can up their game and stretch their imaginations even more. I love seeing them on stage, discovering the theatre for the first time, but there needs to be some challenge for them, an upping of the ante. Bank robberies and holdups seem too easy, and seeing a gun paraded around the stage by youths in a not-too-serious show is quite disquieting in this day and age.
BLONDE NOIR 3: THE IDIOM AND THE ODDITY by Michael Cote plays with the clichés of film noir. It's like a less-funny Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid with women as the gumshoe and villain (complete with forced-maniacal Dr. Evil laugh) But it doesn't venture from the satire and gets old very quickly. As one character says, "It's tired; it's cliched; it's true."
SLIP by Gabriel Snyder became quite the head-scratcher for the audience. I like the idea of hidden entity, a shadow beast of sorts, causing teenage mayhem with mere body motions. And the tall blonde in long black gloves became an unnerving presence. You can't take your eyes off this beautiful behemoth. Is she God? The Devil? A Force of Nature? Teen Angst Personified? "I'm not called a parasite for my good looks," she utters at one point. An interesting work overall, but severely muddled.
JUNKIE by LeeAnn Smith (not to be confused with the William S. Burroughs novel) proved quite powerful at times, a sad look at the downhill spiral of a nurse's drug abuse. It sometimes seems like an anti-drug PSA, sort of an updated Reefer Madness. (Call it Oxycontin Madness.) And I'm still wondering if the Strange Interlude-like monologues were necessary. The question remains, did we learn something new while watching it? What will make this rise above the drugs-are-bad afterschool specials like Stoned with Scott Baio or Desperate Lives with an Angel Dusted Helen Hunt jumping out a window? People titter at the camp aspect of those shows but thank God JUNKIE had nothing to titter about. It's quite serious and, in the end, rightfully horrifying. Obvious and didactic as much of it may be, it's also quite powerful.
FRENIA by Mary Boone Edwards, set in a mental institution, is filled with more twists and turns than Gone Girl and Shutter Island combined. It's far from perfect, but the twists were a hoot and caught me by surprise. Jim Moss' MYTH-TAKEN IDENTITY (great title), where a girl thinks a guy she met at a Sig Ep party is a royal prince, was certainly fun to watch. And Ryan Fisher as the princely college dude displays a keen versatility here, especially after his harrowing work as a school shooter in Columbinus earlier in the year.
Lee Kitchen's FOURTH QUARTER PICK-UP had a terrific cast (Staci Sabarsky and Pete Clapsis) as a couple that meets in a sports bar, where they talk about sex in sports terms. At one point, Clapsis gives a spit-take to end all spit-takes, spewing beer across the stage. ("You know, I can still smell the beer," the lady behind me said minutes later.) It was funny and likable, but the play went on too long. It should have ended with the characters exiting for their bathroom stall encounter. But it just kept going. Hearing the sounds of their sexual pleasure and then watching them in a disappointing follow-up scene proves that less is certainly more. Brevity would have worked wonders here, and had it concluded minutes earlier, it would have been up there with the better works of the competition. Alas, it ended with a thud. Still, it's always good seeing Ms. Sabarsky and Mr. Clapsis onstage, and they made the most out of it.
Stephen Bell's THERAPY was ten minutes of barbs and insults. The "jalapeno-grigio" line and bacon-scented baby wipes quip were certainly memorable. The acting was tops, and the twist at the end certainly worked. But it took quite a while to get there (there's just so much antagonism and arguing between a couple that an audience can take, even if that's the point of the work). Stephen Bell's other play in the competition, BREAKING UP, is better, where a bad cell phone connection causes a couple to break up. It was certainly one of the audience's favorites, and the judges awarded it as their pick for the best of the short play competition. But I've seen these types of scenes before (wasn't it in a commercial years ago, a man hearing "we're breaking up" and thinking it's the relationship and not the phone signal?). It's a one-joke premise and, though well-written and clever, didn't feel entirely original.
NYCCA by Tamara Boyer, about an NYC support group, was terrific fun. Their mantra ("Getta the F**k Outta The Way!") belted as loud as possible was a blast. It was goofy fun and, yes, went nowhere, but it was fun meandering with these New Yorkers. I feel that TWO MALFUNCTIONING ANDROIDS by Cory Baker was more my cup of tea than that audience's. This one was right up my quirky alley, sort of an absurdist classic for these dour days. Baker and Kathryn Lutes play androids whose pre-programmed spiel goes out of whack. Both actors were incredibly brave as the show proudly planted its proverbial freak flag in the middle of the competition. It worked perfectly for the short play format, and Baker's inventiveness knows no bounds (I can't wait to see what he comes up with next). It's a difficult play for some, not at all touchy-feely easy. I know that not all of the audience "got" this specific piece, but I thought it was outstanding in its creatively crazed worldview.
Writer's Block is an issue that everyone has confronted at least once in his or her life and has been notably covered in pop culture--with Adaptation, Barton Fink and Woody Allen's Writer's Block to name a few. And Deb Bostock-Kelley's ONCE UPON UHHH...nearly fits right up there with that illustrious group. This is a hilarious take on a frustrated playwright trying to create "an old-fashioned love story in this age of technology." Bostock-Kelley's writing is crisp, and her fine actors (Kennedi Shoverman, Michael C. de Baca, Suzy Duic and Amy C. Ragg) brought her words to life. Ms. Ragg steals the scene near the end, with a booming voice that would jolt anyone out of his or her seat.
And I saved my two favorites, the two best, for the end. First, Brick Brickel's FOR THE LOVE OF MARY. This really was a superlative piece of work. Although the script seemed more like a screenplay, it was beautifully performed on the stage and made thoroughly theatrical. Masterfully directed by Trevor Keller, FOR THE LOVE OF MARY starts off like a modern version of Umberto D (but with a much younger man): A puppy named Mary gives life to a man who is lost and bullied. But the twist at the end, including violence that almost had me screaming out, made such an impact. And the last bit--that this was based on an actual incident--left me speechless. I was blown away. It was a smart choice having the cast pantomime the various activities, including the dog. (We always got a sense that there was a dog in the actors' arms, licking its owner's face, even though of course there was nothing there.) The cast members (Daniel Harris, Skyla Luckey and playwright Brickel) were sensational. When I talked about the competition afterwards, this was the play I discussed the most. Wow.
Jim Moss' second play of the festival, THE COW SAYS, ties with FOR THE LOVE OF MARY as the best of the best. (I hear that next year the judges will pick a Best Comedic Short Play and a Best Dramatic Short Play, which would have worked wonders for this year in particular.) THE COW SAYS had me laughing out loud throughout it, and I'm not an easy laugher. A "See and Say" toy causes much disturbance when its messages, peppered with cuss words, are directed at a four-year-old's (Madison LeVine) terrible mom (Lisa Kirchner) and useless dad (Bo Smith). John Hooper's foul-mouthed voice-overs as the "See and Say" toy made the show...and maybe the entire festival. This was the final play of the competition, ending the day on a very high note.
After such a motley lot of works--the good, the bad, and the tepid--I can't wait to see what short play treasures are in store for next year's event!