Organic Lab Theater

In a city gripped by theater-fest frenzy, the Summer Shorts Festival looks positively venerable. It’s a full two years old, after all — older than its cousins, the Chicago Young Playwrights Festival and the Great Chicago Playwrights Exposition, put together. Nothing less than the oldest annual showcase of local work we’ve got.

Great age has conferred a certain savoir faire. This year’s offering of ten monologues, sketches, and one-acts — parceled out over two evenings and performed in repertory — is a thousand times better than its predecessor. The number of outright embarrassments is way down from last time, the level of technical sophistication’s noticeably higher, a surprising amount of the comedy actually works, and there are even two or three genuinely interesting theatrical ideas.

The only important problems are those you’d expect from a festival run by playwrights and mounted without the editorial influence a good dramaturge can provide: many of the scripts are overlong and few are fully developed. Some of the festival’s best works come across, ultimately, as little more than intriguing half-thoughts.

That’s the sad fate, in fact, of two contributions from Kathleen Thompson. Thompson’s clearly one of the stars here: a solid writer with a fine, funny mind and a respectable oeuvre. But she’s yet to find her subject — the vision that will give her work cohesion, momentum, and a sense of necessity. The lack of a real subject is apparent in her previous efforts, and it shows up in these festival entries too. Opalina presents us with a sort of protozoan Quentin Crisp, a single-celled diva in feathers and lame, who “fibrillates through dark corridors” and discourses on the pleasures of asexual reproduction. The critter’s rather marvelous at first — especially as she’s incarnated by the oddly, ingeniously cast Michael Nowak. But she goes dry as a drop on a biologist’s glass slide after just a few minutes’ exposure. A great idea, dehydrated, as it were, by Thompson’s lack of purpose. Kindness, too, entrances us early on with its delicate, quirky depiction of three Oklahoma ladies at lunch — and then disperses in a puff.

Both of Thompson’s pieces turn out to be lovely, witty, exceedingly generous, and utterly static. They simply don’t go anywhere.

And neither does Richard Strand’s one-act, Can You Hear Me, Mr. Szczepanski? — which plays on a separate program, along with Douglas Post’s Detective Sketches and David Rush’s Times With Lorenzo. Like Thompson, Strand takes a neat little concept and fails to exploit it. Unlike Thompson, however, his failure’s got more to do with a lack of skill than of purpose. Strand’s script is plain clunky. It posits a comic situation — three circus clowns stuck in a Loop office, waiting for the Polish Godot of the title — and then drains away all the comedy, turning it instead into a Play Writing 101 exercise. A catalog of hokey tricks, badly handled. If not for Dennis Cockrum’s savvy direction, and a couple of good — really, amazingly good — performances by Paul Scheier and Timothy R. Monsion, Strand’s folly would’ve been the bore of the festival rather than the mild fun it is.

Happily, after the boredom there would still have been Douglas Post’s Detective Sketches. Subtitled “Trouble Is Eating My Pants,” and riddled with characters like Nolips Noleski and The Lady in Green, Post’s one-act is an unabashed goof on every hard-boiled detective story from The Maltese Falcon to Chinatown. That it works despite the redundancy of yet another unabashed goof on hard-boiled detective stories is a testament to Post’s lack of self-control in the writing and directing — as well as to a series of nicely modulated deadpan performances by Steve Pickering, David Ward, Mark Edward Heap, and Jane Lynch.

David Rush’s Times With Lorenzo is a genre treatment, too, though I’m not sure Rush knows it. The evening’s companion to Can You Hear Me and Detective Sketches, Lorenzo’s basically a gay version of The Blue Angel, with David Zak as an advertising “creative” who becomes obsessed with the title tramp, a blithely opportunistic teenage hustler played by Paul Raedyn. The gay angle is novel, the ending’s an intriguing surprise, the characters are sharply drawn and engagingly acted under Tom Mula’s direction — but Lorenzo is hokey and schematic at heart: a long-winded rehash of familiar elements, not up to Rush’s successful entry from last year.

Speaking of last year, Sally Nemeth’s back with two short pieces as fascinatingly opaque as any of the four she exhibited back then. Nemeth’s work isn’t the best of the fest, and it’s far from the most accessible, but it unquestionably makes the fullest use of theatrical reality. Her sweetly obscene Pagan Day — a sort of monologue for two voices — functions in the manner of an erotic exorcism, simultaneously building up and releasing the ambient sexual energy by spinning out a litany of fantasies and highly charged words. The thing’s a dramatic orgone box.

And it’s miles ahead of Robyn Dana Guest’s prissy trio of monologues about school experiences. Guest’s first effort snivels, the Second grates. Only the third–a comic narrative about a boy, a nun, and the nun’s sweet jelly roll — entertains, thanks to an energetic selling job by Cameron Pfiffner and director Susan Padveen.

Of all the contributions to this year’s festival, Nicholas A. Patricca’s are the tightest, the smoothest, the most finished. My sentimental favorite, naturally, is Hail Mary II, the sequel to last year’s monologue featuring the insights of a crazy/wise Catholic lady named Mary. Her subject this time around is gays and the church, and she’s endearingly portrayed, as before, by Lucina Paquet. I’d love to see Hail Mary III through X, and then maybe an Evening With Mary. I’m more ambivalent, on the other hand, about Patricca’s Father — which is as it should be, because the piece is a fairly successful attempt to render a horrible person comprehensible, a la Aunt Dan & Lemon.

I feel obliged to offer some kind of recommendation for people who can only attend one of the two nights of the Summer Shorts Festival, and I guess my choice is the one featuring those short pieces by Thompson, Nemeth, Patricca, and Guest. Still, that means you’ll miss Detective Sketches and those wonderful performances in Can You Hear Me, Mr. Szczepanski? Maybe you can get to both. Try.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne N. Plunkett.