Sketchbook ‘One

CollaborAction Theatre Company

at the Viaduct Theater

By Kerry Reid

CollaborAction Theatre Com-pany describes its second annual festival of short plays as “a progressive mixed-media theatrical bazaar.” That’s just the sort of verbiage that makes me fear a theatrical cocktail made up of one part incoherence and two parts pretension, served with a twist of exhibitionism.

But I’m happy to report that my fears were misplaced. The CollaborAction team has taken all the possible meanings of “sketch,” thrown them into a blender, and hit frappe. The result is a lineup of 17 intriguing new playlets (16 were performed on the two nights I attended), deftly staged by 17 directors and featuring many fine performances. In keeping with the theme, the company also displays–and offers for sale–sketches by such visual-arts heavy hitters as Tony Fitzpatrick and Ed Paschke. And Wesley Kimler’s huge black-and-white cutouts adorn the playing areas, looking like faux cowhides designed by Jackson Pollock and Henri Matisse.

Before the show begins an announcer informs us that “drawing is another way of thinking” and notes that, since the pieces are staged in various locations around the theater, we may find our view obstructed from time to time. “We encourage you to move to a place of unobstruction,” he helpfully suggests. And several audience members did just that, though most contented themselves with craning their necks to catch what was happening behind them.

All the evenings start with Eric Bogosian’s monologue “Scenes From the New World,” directed by John Cabrera and performed with offhand charm by Anthony Moseley. The piece suffers from the usual Bogosian tendency to overstate the obvious–as humans, we eat, drink, defecate, and die, killing one another off from time to time. True, but hardly startling. And his suggestion that love is mostly people acting out what they’ve seen on television is too glib–blaming pop culture for romantic foibles has become a well-worn Twinkie defense.

Fortunately, most of the other pieces avoid Bogosian’s too-hip-by-half posturing. Ellen Fairey’s wistful “Goodbye Pablo, Goodbye George,” directed by Jessica Thebus, emphasizes the emptiness of the characters’ lives, as a 12-year-old girl begins to recognize the rift between her parents: mom is a librarian and Pablo Casals fan while unemployed dad loses himself in George Jones records. Maia Morgan plays the somber, confused girl with quiet maturity and poignant flashes of hope. When the father (Mark Hicks) takes the girl to lunch downtown–where the woman we presume is his mistress, played by Rosanna DiSilvio, works as a waitress–the daughter wonders why he would choose a neighborhood with “dead trees and no kids.”

Lindsay Price’s “Paper Thin” resembles John Cheever’s short story “The Enormous Radio” as reflected in a menacing fun-house mirror. Overhearing the fights of the newlyweds next door, a slightly older couple act them out in their own bizarre love play and games of one-upmanship. Director Eric Graves expertly veers from absurd slapstick to chilling violence, and Tim Curtis and Kristin Goodman hit all the notes of this gleefully dysfunctional duo, who reap pleasure from the misery of others. If Harold Pinter had created the execrable Big Brother, I think it might feel a bit like this. I mean that as a compliment.

By and large I enjoyed the plays of writers I’d never heard of more than those of the big names CollaborAction corralled for this festival, which includes 16 world premieres. An exception is David Mamet’s “Film Crew,” a slight but utterly delightful one-joke piece directed with painstaking precision by Jim Dennen. Combining two of Mamet’s favorite topics–moviemaking and cardplaying–this brief scene shows a grizzled grip (John Sierros) explaining the rules of an arcane game to a naive newcomer (Russell Hardin). The piece builds in hilarity in direct proportion to the ridiculousness of the rules: “If you play the queen of spades, the next man must take five cards.”

The piece that felt most incomplete was Regina Taylor’s labored “Love Poem #98,” directed by Kimberly Senior. Libya Pugh is powerful as an anguished woman of the streets, and Peter DeFaria is suitably creepy as the bum who hopes to save her. But though there are plenty of details about the characters (the grotesque litany of tortures endured by the woman almost veers into the comic), we’re not convinced there’s a connection between these two. Jerrard Harris’s moody sax accompaniment creates a noirish environment not sustained by Taylor’s writing.

Wendy MacLeod’s “Chemistry,” directed by Eric Ziegenhagen, is a bit more successful. A vixenish chemistry professor (Tina Martin) hits on a nerdy lab researcher (John Roberts) but only finds him attractive when he’s in his “praying mantis” lab goggles. (Anyone who’s seen MacLeod’s The House of Yes knows how she excels at making fetishes come alive.) Roberts delivers MacLeod’s zingers with a priceless deadpan. When the prof asks him if his mother picks out his clothes, he retorts, “How do you know my mother isn’t cool?” “Is she?” she asks. The monosyllabic answer comes after a perfectly timed pause: “No.”

What’s most enjoyable about many of the pieces is that the playwright understands the concept of sketching–giving us enough detail to engage our interest and trusting us to draw our own conclusions. Mandy Ratliff’s “Room 21,” directed by Joanie Schultz, is a fine example. An obsessive-compulsive young woman in a conservative pantsuit (Melissa Carlson-Joseph) checks into a hotel room and is informed by the manager that there’s a shotgun under the bed. After a hilarious alphabetical inventory of the contents of her suitcase, the woman hauls out the shotgun and, like a lascivious middle-management Hedda Gabler, proceeds to lick and caress it. Is she seriously suicidal? Does the hotel cater to the self-destructive? We don’t really know–and that’s the fun of it, that and Carlson-Joseph’s stunning body language and facial expressions.

All the directors succeed at making the cavernous Viaduct space feel intimate, paying careful attention to gestures, glances, and pauses, especially Saket Soni in Evan Cater’s “The Neighbor.” The Henrys–Hilary, Hank, Hal, and Hannah–are stuck in their home suffering from some form of agoraphobia. When the winsome teen daughter runs off to meet the neighbors, the rest of the family freezes in a tableau of terror and ends up being carted off on dollies as part of the scene change. Kenneth Lee’s fraidy-cat dad is a highlight of the festival, delivering Cater’s rather abstruse wordplay with assurance.

But the greatest success is CollaborAction’s creation of a community that welcomes its audience as collaborators and coconspirators, if only for a few nights. The bar stays open, the music plays between pieces, and there’s a genuine spirit of generosity in the writing, the performances, and the audience’s responses. With sketches this rich, who needs big, heavy paintings?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Juan Colon.