Spanx You Very Much Credit: Joel Masonet

In its 15th and final installment, the fundamental problems with Collaboraction’s Sketchbook Festival are unmistakable: its scale and its irrelevance.
Collaboraction artistic director Anthony Moseley admits to the latter, after a fashion, in his program note. What began a decade and a half ago as an experiment in “the convergence of theatre, music and visual art” has become to a large extent de rigueur on the theater fringe. “Multidisciplinary short play festivals are the new norm,” Moseley writes, and he’s dead-on. Chicago theater artists don’t need Sketchbook half so urgently as they might have in 2000.

But Sketchbook’s irrelevance also stems from the nature of the 16 pieces presented this year in two excessively long programs, “Life” and “Death.” The works, each between three and eight minutes, fall into the indeterminate mush of too much or not enough—and sometimes both. While clever staging, ingenious lighting, and winning performances abound (Jonathan Nieves blows the roof off the place as a Romeo in Jackson Doran and JQ’s High School Musical-esque revision of Shakespeare’s balcony scene, and Christine Vrem-Yostie eviscerates a self-absorbed Ivanka Trump attempting to “sell luxury” in Trump International Tower: Raw Footage), none of the works’ creators makes a short piece feel full.
All of which is exacerbated by the production’s scale. By all reports, Sketchbook began as an intimate, informal affair, as much a collegial salon as a public show. Although it’s returned to its original location at the Chopin Theatre, the stage is a wide expanse backed by a white brick wall with an enormous hole blown through it. Beyond the hole a small stage hosts a rotating lineup of musical guests who provide interludes between the pieces—interludes that on opening night often stretched beyond reasonable endurance and common sense. Huge atavistic images created from splattered black paint festoon the room, as do slick projections of black-and-white geometric shapes morphing into and out of one another. Colored lights swoop and flash. A huge chandelier looking for all the world like an illuminated skeletal melon looms above. The message is clear: this is a big blowout, the place to be, a message enhanced on opening night by the presence of four live cameras filming the whole thing.

It all provides for a lively atmosphere, but it leaves the work itself—arguably the most important element in the evening—overwhelmed and trivialized. Many of the pieces are decidedly insignificant on their own. Emily Schwartz’s three-minute Open Arms (The Rapture), for example, presents a stereotypical high school prom where one jilted girl gets revenge when the rapture comes and the guy who ditched her is obliterated—all to the accompaniment of Journey. Joe Zarrow’s Overnight Parking Ban, in Effect lingers over the frustrations of recovering an impounded car.

In other works, the attempt to present big issues results in reductiveness. Samantha Dean’s The After, a dance and spoken-word piece about the aftereffects of rape, dwells on the self-evident necessity for victims to banish shame. The only piece that successfully inhabits the space is Dani Bryant’s Spanx You Very Much, a clubby dance piece about women’s conflicted relationships with their bodies and “controlling” undergarments like Spanx. Director Erica Barnes and choreographer Sheena Laird miraculously make 47 flexing, writhing, dutifully sassy women visually compelling. But for all the fierce attitude, there’s nothing here specific about women’s love-hate relationship with their bodies, just that there is one.

But whether driven by spectacle or intimacy, the works rattle about in a distracting, oversize container. They’re set up to disappoint, especially when we’re asked to spend nearly as much time waiting between the pieces as watching the pieces themselves.

A final fundamental problem runs through Sketchbook: these artists’ pieces are, well, sketchy. Most come across as staged initial impulses, broad strokes pointing in the general direction of something the creators haven’t fully investigated. Surely there’s value to putting barely limned ideas on their feet—but that’s what rehearsals are for. v