Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Theater review: At Summer Shorts, the players are the thing

From left: Steve Trovillion, Laura Turnbull,
John Manzelli and Stephen G. Anthony in
Sodom and Gomorrah: Priced to Sell, by Ken Brisbois.
(Photo by George Schiavone)

By Hap Erstein

If they had to write the perennial “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” some of South Florida’s best, most versatile actors could wax enthusiastically about immersing themselves in City Theatre’s Summer Shorts, an annual festival of 10-15 minute playlets, now in its 14th year.

If this 2009 edition, which opened Saturday evening at the Arsht Center in Miami, seems stronger in its performances than in its writing, the two-part program is still sufficiently entertaining to warrant audience attention and attendance.

For many of those 14 summers, former Floridian Stephen Trovillion has returned to the area to dominate the mini-play ensemble. He does so again this year, appearing in 10 of the double-bill’s 17 works, but he gets some stiff competition for performance honors from the wildly comic Elena Maria Garcia.

Trovillion, who can convulse an audience with a low-key take, demonstrates his versatility and comic instincts here playing a world-class Lothario, a human storm magnet, a starving shipwreck survivor on a lifeboat, a patron at an unusual restaurant, a Bulgarian peasant and a foul-mouthed, long-married husband, among others. In most of these pieces, he elevates them with his sly timing and textbook display of the art of underplaying.

Still, he is well paired with the remarkable Garcia, a more overt farceur whose performance as a brazenly sexual feline waitress in Christopher Durang’s Kitty the Waitress is the comic high point of this year’s Shorts. That it is Trovillion as a bemused diner on vacation that she comes on to only adds to the fun.

The two also appear together in a weak sketch called Pass the Salt, Please by Jeffrey James Ircink, about a much-married, weary couple describing their sexual urges for each other as they dispassionately eat their dinner. The script barely rises to its single joke, but the two performers sell it with deadpan finesse.

Also impressive is Laura Turnbull in a variety of dry, wry characterizations including a Bulgarian matriarch and God’s messenger to the heathens of Sodom and Gomorrah. Stephen G. Anthony nimbly kicks off one of the programs as a concert trombonist involved in a feverish intermission affair with a flautist (Garcia) and later as a highly verbal torturer in the late Harold Pinter’s tribute to enhanced interrogation, The New World Order. Also in the company, streaking from role to role, are Erin Joy Schmidt, John Manzelli and David Hemphill, not a weak link in the bunch.

This year’s Summer Shorts is divided into a Signature Shorts program -- sort of standard Shorts -- and a program of Undershorts, billed as edgy theater for adults only. While the language is somewhat stronger in Undershorts, both programs sport the vocabulary of a truck driver and many of the plays in both shows are fixated on sex. That is simply business as usual for Summer Shorts, with the Undershorts label more of a marketing come-on.

Signature Shorts starts well with the musician tryst of C.S. Hanson’s Falutin, followed by the latest from local playwriting machine Michael McKeever, Cravin Tutweiler (The Real Life Story of), the tale of how an enigmatic Lothario rocked the world of three very different women. In the title role, Trovillion does not have much stage time or much to say, but he makes a lot of each.

Over the years, there have been a few dramatic plays that have made an impact, but the Shorts format seems to favor sketch comedy. That seemed to hold this time, with a few exceptions, such as brief, underwritten slice of history, Andrew Rosendorf’s Orlah, about the persecution of Jews in 15th-century Spain, and a feeble tale of survival, Jettison by Brendan Andolsek Bradley, which takes place mid-ocean on a lifeboat populated by three starving guys and a bunny rabbit. The Pinter play seemed to substitute verbal abuse for physical torture, and while the dialogue crackled, the script had no real payoff.

Undershorts too had lots of intriguing premises, but little in-depth development, an occupational hazard of short plays. This program was at its best in silly mode, like Ken Brisbois’s Sodom and Gomorrah: Priced to Sell, a series of running single-entendre gags with a Biblical bent -- with an emphasis on the bent. And the finale piece, Bulgarian Rhapsody by Rich Orloff, about an homely Bulgarian lass (Schmidt) being pimped to an American tourist (Hemphill). These too seemed minor on the page, but the cast added the needed controlled giddiness.

Summer Shorts remains at the Arsht Center through June 21, before moving north to the Broward Center for a brief engagement, June 25-28. The question remains of when City Theatre is going to make this seasonal institution a true tri-county event and bring the fun to Palm Beach.

SUMMER SHORTS 2009, Adrienne Arsht Center Carnival Studio Theater, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Through June 21. Tickets: $42 for each program. Call: (305) 949-6722.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

if Pass the Salt, Please is a weak script and script barely rises to its single joke, BUT the two performers SELL IT with deadpan finesse...wasn't the play successful?

i saw Summer Shorts - and this play. the audience loved it.