The Ring
The Ring Credit: Saverio Truglia

Sketchbook X Collaboraction

The theme of Sketchbook X, Collaboraction’s tenth annual festival of short plays, is “Exponential,” defined by the company’s artistic director, Anthony Moseley, as “variable X, the infinite, and the way we connect with and affect one another.” That strays pretty far from the definition in my dictionary—but on the other hand, it’s got the virtue of being vague enough to justify including pretty much anything. Can you name any play ever written that isn’t in some way about either the unknown, the unlimited, or the interpersonal?

A few of the nerdier pieces in the festival’s lineup actually reference the exponent’s mathematical function, often using repetition to tease out literal and figurative implications of raising a given quantity to a certain power. In Cory Tamler’s Eighty-Four, for instance, a Pennsylvania town called Eighty-Four is magically squared, or multiplied by itself, so that suddenly 84 nearly identical Eighty-Fours dot the globe. Ira Gamerman’s Play (by Play by Play by Play by Play by Play by Play by Play by Play by Play by Play. No Repetition.) shows a couple chained to each other, repeating the same argument in an endless loop. But there’s also a satire on psychopharmacology, an absurdist seder, a dance set to Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” and a comedy called Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche that’s sure enough about five lesbians eating a quiche. I’d say the theme has a lot more to do with the fact that X is the Roman numeral for ten than with anything else. If this were Sketchbook IV, it could be “Intravenous” (life, death, and the way we connect with one another) and most of this year’s 19 works would still fit in just fine.

But maybe I’m nitpicking. After all, thematic unity has never been the festival’s strong suit. Far more often it’s been admired for the two qualities suggested by Collaboraction’s name: active energy and a strong communal spirit. Both are abundant here, even during scene changes. After each piece, a DJ or live band plays music while audience members are encouraged to buy booze, mill around, dance, whatever. If you didn’t know better you’d think you were at a nightclub or a party—which is the point. You’re supposed to feel like part of something inclusive, anarchic, and fun.

Of course, that can undermine other, no less valuable things theater can offer—stuff like a satisfying arc, a sense of focus, and opportunity for reflection. Sketchbook’s relentlessly celebratory atmosphere can wear on the nerves. And sometimes, for all of Collaboraction’s vaunted dedication to daring experimental work, it feels like an avoidance of the serious.

Many of the plays themselves seem allergic to substance. Though often amusing and almost uniformly well presented, they frequently offer little more than a few minutes of arty slapstick or absurdism-lite. Dean Evans’s clown piece, Sacrebleu—in which two French-speaking, cartoonish bushmen take a fishing trip into the audience before encountering a big, feathered creature who beats them up and forces them to dance—calls to mind the strange, childlike antics in Alfred Jarry works like Ubu Roi, but without the disquieting savagery that made those works revolutionary. In Jason Grote’s Yetsi’at Metzrayim, a family of four, gathered for what appears to be a Passover meal, tell a wacky version of the Exodus story featuring non sequiturs drawn from philosophers, poets, and Fight Club. It’s notable chiefly for the cast’s inventive use of puppets fashioned on the fly from various foodstuffs. (Moses is a pickle.)

Those are two of the better comic entries. The festival’s biggest clunker, Carolyn Hoerdemann’s The Saint and the Imp, stars Hoerdemann and Kennedy Greenrod as a 15th-century saint and monk who travel through time mostly to try out 20th-century pop music styles. At each stop, a black-and-white video shows the pair, dressed for a given genre—rockabilly, say, or punk—and playing an appropriate song. The piece is basically an exercise in look-at-me-ism and seems to last an eternity.

Of course, the problem of length has bedeviled comedy since time immemorial, and here it fells some initially promising offerings. In the past Collaboraction’s seven-minute rule helped keep bloat at bay, but it no longer seems to be enforced—a good many entries stretch well past that mark. Going on too long hurts Andy Grigg’s otherwise entertaining The Untimely Death of Adolf Hitler, in which Moseley plays a well-meaning MIT professor who travels back to 1930s Berlin—again with the time travel!—to assassinate Hitler before he can do too much harm. The gag is that other time travelers keep showing up to save the Führer because offing him will somehow lead to the creation of killer robots hellbent on destroying all of humanity. It’s a funny and provocative premise, but feels less so after the fourth iteration.

Other prime candidates for pruning include Greg Hardigan’s The Ring—which envisions an antidepressant’s side effects as a long string of nasty prize fighters and martial artists the pill-popper has to fight—and the aforementioned Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche, Evan Linder and Andrew Hobgood’s protracted visit with a quintet of sapphic 1950s housewives, which gets by on the appealing exuberance of its cast.

Amid all the noise and frivolity, pieces that show some depth or sincerity tend to stand out. Ira Murfin’s Magillicutty’s—about a waiter’s fistfight with a customer—starts as a kind of pissing contest but deepens with the playwright’s shifts of perspective from the waiter to the man he attacks to the man’s wife, ultimately revealing our frustrating inability to understand the people right in front of us. In When I Was . . ., the talented members of A Red Orchid Theatre Youth Ensemble juxtapose interviews they conducted with adults and their impressions of the grownups in their own lives, providing a guileless and perceptive outsider’s look at adulthood. Finally, Spider in the Attic, with Jessica Hudson as a lonesome, deformed creature who sits alone at a typewriter, pounding out sentences and looking through fading photographs, presents a moving snapshot of memory and loss.

Such moments—quiet, affecting, true—flicker into view now and then throughout Sketchbook X. But all too soon the DJ cranks up the music and the party rolls on.