Review: The Tampa Bay Theatre Festival Short Play Competition at The Straz Center in The Teco Theater

The Good, the Bad, and the Very, Very Strange!

By: Sep. 05, 2023
Review: The Tampa Bay Theatre Festival Short Play Competition at The Straz Center in The Teco Theater
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There are several reasons why I adore short play festivals, the main one being: If a play is good, then we yearn for it to be even longer; and if one of them is decidedly not up to snuff, then thank the Lord for brevity.  You know going in that you’re going to have a good time, even if most of the works come across as half-baked SNL sketches rather than short works that live and breathe and can exude the same power as their much-longer counterparts.  Look at them as short stories as opposed to novels, and maybe if we’re lucky, somewhere amid the myriad of styles and stories, you may find the likes of a Flannery O’Connor or a Raymond Carver.

At the recent tenth annual Tampa Bay Theatre Festiva Short Play Competition, held for a one-day-only (Sunday, September 3rd)  run at the Teco Theater at the Straz Center and led by the incomparable Rory Lawrence, there may not have been an O’Connor or a Carver present, but there were some quality pieces that made the endeavor pay off. There were also many misfires as well as some short works with potential and, yes, even a few that stood out due to memorable subject matter, strong dialogue and actors who stormed the stage and stepped up to bring the playwrights’ words to life.

I will cover each of the short plays in the order that they were presented…

1.  A BEAUTIFUL FUNERAL by Vicky Carr

Two mistresses of a married man sit together at a funeral and compare sex notes. “We did it in elevators,” one of them brags, “even in the prop room of a community theatre production of La Cage Aux Folles.”  The characters show a nice contrast, one having been more noticeably physical in the love department than the other.  A BEAUTIFUL FUNERAL doesn’t really go anywhere beyond its initial storyline, but it’s a nice way to start the proceedings.

2. CATFISH IN THE BASEMENT by Kathleen Coudle-King

A mother and son’s dynamics are explored as a flood approaches their abode.  The adult son, donning a shirt that exposes his belly, plays video games while his mother, her hair in curlers, can’t find the family cat.  Some funny moments, including a Fox News joke and the son more upset about a 9-1-1 operator saying “God bless” rather than the flood heading his way.  It nicely uses silences at the start, and it’s certainly fun to watch as the characters’ slapstick panic sets in. But, as often is the case, it comes across as a sketch rather than a short play, the difference between a glass of Pinot Noir and a paper cup of Kool Aid.

3. DOLLY AND JOSIE EXIT A BAR by Wendy Bryan Michels

Bar settings work especially well in the short play format. It’s like a joke: Two strangers walk into a bar…but here, with a simple set-up title that makes more powerful sense afterwards, a twist ensues. This is a very promising play that leaves us with much to think about.  The acting, by Kimber King and the exceptional Madelin Marchant, is off the charts, so real, so in the moment and specific.

4. THE LAST SHIRT OFF HIS BACK by Jim Moss

Local favorite playwright Jim Moss writes here about an older bare-chested man, who's an apparition of sorts, and a younger woman.  He is a grandad spirit who inhabited a pillow made from his shirt that was picked up at an estate sale.  Some interesting concepts and dynamics, with a twist or two (which seems par for the course in these festivals…it’s like every playwright wants to be Rod Serling or Richard Matheson). 

5. PIECES by Janel Stogdill

A typical squabble between an offstage child’s mom and stepmom. A nice, if not obvious symbol of a destroyed teddy bear being tied together by a shard of the mom’s and stepmom’s clothing works well enough.  “We’re doing this to her,” one of them says about the daughter as she holds the torn teddy bear, “we’re tearing her apart!”  It has some good moments, but it seems rather one note, and the ending reconciliation seemed strained and forced.

6. SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE CASE OF THE 5-POUND NOTE by Michael Cote

Hmm.  A work that features the world’s most famous public domain detective, the question becomes: What can this short play bring to us that hasn’t been covered in the numerous Sherlock Holmes stories, films and plays?  The answer is: Not much.  Unless something new is brought here--a reexamination of Holmes, or a dissection, or maybe a parody--then why are we watching this, no matter how cute or clever the short premise may be?

7. SENIOR DISCOUNT by Lou Clyde

This one, about the uncomfortable encounter between a young Belk salesperson and an older woman, clearly became an audience favorite.  Although it goes on a bit too long for its own good and should have ended the moment the older woman asks the younger woman if she’s pregnant, it shows so much promise.  Great performances, wonderful work overall.  (There’s even a Harry Chapin joke, and I think I was the only one in the audience who laughed at it.)  This was crowned by judges as the First Place Winner of the Short Play Competition.

8. FLIRTING WITH FREEDOM by Victoria Reed

Although it felt more like an SNL sketch at times, at least FLIRTING WITH FREEDOM was different in tone and character than the other pieces.  Featuring a pair of dogs patrolling a neighborhood, it has a good feel about it.  Also, unlike the other plays, this one featured quality sound effects and even contained a choreographed fight scene with a coyote.  A treat for dog lovers, this was judged Honorable Mention of the Short Play Competition.

9. CO-WORKERS by Coky Aguilera

A supremely important topic about a black man who is killed by a police officer, a la George Floyd, this focuses on the man's loved one’s ramifications at work when she speaks publicly out about it.  But this play is just all over the place with a clear lack of focus. It comes across didactic, with short vignettes chopping up an already-short piece, and too many characters popping in and out (we don’t get to know any of these people).  Once it settled at the work environment, CO-WORKERS started to find its voice, and perhaps this is where the ENTIRE play needs to be set--to leave a mystery in the story.  The play needs to peel its layers, not put everything out there at the start without anywhere to go.  Although there is the potential for a strong piece locked somewhere in there, it needs some major rewrites. That said, it was great seeing Joshua Goff on the stage, even if he was left with really nothing to do at all.

10. LOVE YOU MORE by Deborah Bostock-Kelley

This one has the power of two baseball bats crippling you at the knees. A troubled kid is mandated to see a therapist due to his rampant bullying of a transgendered friend. This was like a worst-case scenario snapshot of the DeSantis Era, and it plays frighteningly well.  Everyone should see this, especially certain leaders who use trans teens as punching bags, politicizing their very identity.  Ms. Bostock-Kelley has the makings of a great play here, but it seemed too confined for the short-play format.  It also contained too many interruptions by the receptionist (a “deus ex machina” or two too many).  A phone conversation between the bully and the hospitalized trans teen seems more like an Op-Ed piece rather than a real conversation, and the show would be better served without it.  The whole play comes across more preachy than powerful at times, and it’s way too rushed at the end.  But its heart, clearly worn on its sleeve, beats loudly and proudly. And it contains a bravura performance by Tito Mercado as the troubled teen, a young actor who should be on everyone’s radar.  He owned the stage and rattled me with an unbridled force; you didn’t know what he was going to do or say (or spit) next, and you couldn’t take your eyes off of him.  Sensational work.

11. SPIRITUAL COLLISION by James Madden

In this, the final play of the festival, a man watches over his dead body as emergency workers try to revive him.  It seems the perfect ending for the competition, since it contains so many of the ideas that we had seen before (it comes across as a sort of short-play festival gumbo): Alcoholism, death, a mourning widow, a ghost, a spiritual otherworldy guide, tales of regret and a wish for more life, etc.  There’s a lot going on and yet, oddly enough, nothing’s really going on either. An Interesting paradox.  

This September 3rd short play festival was nothing short of exciting, with new works breathing life onstage for the first time.  Yes, they were all over the place in subject matter and quality, but that’s part of what makes it so thrilling.  It’s a risky undertaking for the playwrights, creating  a play and putting it out there to be seen and, in this case, judged.  The competition is the perfect feather in the cap for what has become a  very successful Tampa Bay Theatre Festival.  Make no mistake; I’ll be back to see more of these unpolished gems next year.  Can’t wait!



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