Great Chicago Playwrights Exposition

at the Body Politic

Dramatists who write short stuff clearly defy the odds. Unless they provide a companion piece to complete a dynamite package deal, they can never know if their sketch, monologue, or one-act will ever see the light of day, let alone find worthy stage mates. Is half an evening better than none, particularly if the other playwrights’ brainstorms insult your muse and scare off the audience? “Hey, my show comes first, so you can always cut out during intermission . . .” A lot of bad marriages make more sense than the false cohabitations that some shorts programs require. And, since most audiences don’t take their theater table d’hote, they must choose their favorites a la carte.

In its outpouring of new, short theater pieces, Play Expo has found over a dozen strange bedfellows, sharing nothing but the same stage. In Shorts #1, the clear favorite is the most ambitious work, Charles Smith’s Takunda. It has the streamlined story telling and immediacy of a folk tale, plus the well-earned anger of such South African spectacles as Asinamali! and Poppie Nongena. Takunda tells the heartrending story of how a Zimbabwean girl in 1973 grows up brutally fast–but not brutal. As the inevitable tale takes its cruel course, Takunda (Synthia Hardy in a simple, steel-strong performance) loses her father to informers and ends up alone–on the same bitter road as Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena.

But Takunda is more than just one more third-world tragedy. Smith’s poetry ennobles every survivor and every fatality–Takunda’s frightened mother and fable-spinning grandmother (Pat Bowie), her self-serving lover (Michael E. Myers), and particularly her father (Johnny Lee Davenport)–whom she loses sooner than anyone so young can ever be ready for. In a gripping scene, Takunda finds herself torn from dreaming that she finally told her father goodbye–and Hardy is simply heartbreaking. Jeff Bauer’s bare white sheet of a set, beautifully colored by the riotous lighting of Michael Rourke, is the perfect background for Nick Faust’s supple staging, which capitalizes brilliantly on Takunda’s simple power. Great stuff here.

Centipede, by Rick Cleveland, a five-minute curtain raiser, is a wacky monologue about a big cockroach (Kafka fans, take note) that meets a squishy fate (the description of which bears a sickening resemblance to the final speech in Aunt Dan & Lemon). Ed Blatchford delivers the queasy goods, including a surprise ending, with appropriate shock tactics.

Pretentious armchair psychologizing mars John Logan’s John Wayne Movies, a play apparently triggered by the 20th anniversary of the Kitty Genovese killing: when 37 New Yorkers, refusing to get involved, watched from apartment windows as a young woman was repeatedly stabbed, finally to death; not one took her in or even called the police.

Staring blankly as they deliver their hollow explanations, Mary Seibel and Charles Noel depict Donna and Jerry, two of the 37 antiheroes. The cumulative effect of two decades of guilt, it seems, is that, he doesn’t know why, Jerry just can no longer enjoy The Searchers; the sight of John Wayne charging Comanches doesn’t pack quite the same righteous power it used to.

John Wayne Movies takes the extraordinarily easy course of contrasting John Wayne mythology with a middle-aged married couple’s free-floating anxiety. Moreover, the play ironically views this couple from the same heights as the couple did Kitty Genovese when they let her die; we’re on the outside looking in–to a depth of about two inches. More than a cheap distinction between Hollywood heroics and real-life cowardice is required to explain how two people could live for 20 years with the memory of Kitty Genovese’s screams. As he never did in Hauptmann and Never the Sinner, Logan patronizes his characters and exploits an American tragedy–and all to no purpose. At least Seibel and Noel deliver Logan’s halfheartedness with genuine confusion.

Last and least is Mothers and Sons, a literal actors’ exercise by Lonnie Carter. Pat Bowie and Virginia Smith play two joggers, Evangeline Poole and Deborah Libby, who rest and run and rest and run and rest and run around an empty stage, pursuing the dumbest, least coherent rant you’ve ever tried to decipher. Between episodes of an almost spastic, incomprehensible rhetoric, the aerobic duo natter on about their semirotten families, their fear of feeling, and the mean little secrets they’re forever hurling in each other’s paths. The runners may never stumble, but the play is a textbook case of sound and fury signifying nothing. Sandy Shinner, who also directed the Logan and Cleveland pieces, does her best with Mothers and Sons, but I’m afraid it’s the “expense of spirit in a waste of shame,” to quote the Bard a last time.