Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cut To The Quick

I'll be perfectly honest: when the side project announced they were doing a season of short play programs, I was a little bummed. I've seen (and participated in) enough one act and ten minute play festivals that were nothing more than a cheap way to promote interest and make a buck. Save a killing on royalties, save on tech by requiring something minimal enough to work for all the shows, guarantee heavy ticket sales simply by volume of people involved (meaning lots of friends and lots of families), there's all kinds of practical reasons to tackle the short play route. And, primarily because they've been done for practical reasons, every one I sit through, be it as an audience member, writer, director, or actor, is tremendously painful -- one, maybe two pieces of worth drowning in a sea of half-assedness. Of course, I know a good chunk of the gang up at the side project, and should have known better than to make this assumption about their Cut To The Quick festival -- especially with Artistic Director Adam Webster at the helm. What I found way up on Jarvis was beyond a pleasant surprise. Cut To The Quick, and all three programs at that, renewed my enthusiasm for the short form, an enthusiasm I know I once had but don't remember quite when it went away.

The most exciting part about the prospect of the short festival is the sheer amount of talent potentially on display. Within these three programs are the work of 18 playwrights, 16 directors, and 38 actors, leaving the audience scrambling between shows or at intermission to dig through their program to confirm artist names or find out who's done what. The wow factor is that on target here. So many of these shows work and work well, and even the ones not firing on all cylinders somebody or something to grab your attention and keep you connected. And then, every once and a while, a flash of genius comes out of the blue and just rivets you to your seat. Whether it's an actor (Otis Fine, a tragedy of vulnerability in the dueling monologue piece Three Hymns of Apathy), a director (Anna C. Bahow, whose ability to leave well enough alone and faith enough to sustain that decision turns What Happened When from uncomfortable confessional to voyeuristic cleansing), or a writer (Brett Neveu, working the ten-minute play to its inconclusive best in Ethnic Cleansing Day), you find yourself initially sad that their work is over so quickly, but upon discovering that this isn't an isolated incident, it makes every play a new thrill of possibility.

And when all cylinders happen to fire at exactly the same time, the result is theatre as strong as you'll find anywhere in the city condensed into five to twenty minutes of magnified, edge of your seat, unable to blink magic. It happened thrice in the day for me: Joseph Talarico's Dead Weight, proving that the apocalyptic teen girl downer comedy is a far underemployed genre, coaxed belly laughs (in a festival surprisingly full of drama) while simultaneously slicing me up for having the gall to laugh at the horror of it all; Brian Golden's Not That (But Something Else)'s self-fulfilling full cast achievement through denial brought everyone one rung closer to each other; and, by far my favorite of the festival, Matthew Ira Swaye's One Lucky Duck was a short, simple one woman burst of subconscious energy that director Gina LoPiccolo tamed down to allow actress Lisa Stevens to build back up. It might have been one of the shortest pieces of the festival -- it certainly felt like it -- but I couldn't move for fear of interrupting the unfiltered thought process unwinding itself in front of me. And then it was done. And then it moved on. (Sway's moot, also a part of the festival, helped launch him to the front of my artist to watch list, even if that one was far less served by the performers.)

I think the biggest sign of the side project's success, however, isn't the shows I liked, but those I didn't. After spending a good seven hours up in Rogers Park on a cold Sunday afternoon and taking in a grand total of 19 shows, only two at any point lost my interest: the busily written and clumsily directed Agony In The Gardens and Wilderness Sarchild's Slave Day, which acts as an illustrated guide through all of the annoying and preachy aspects of the social consciousness play. But when most short work festivals manage to find one or two moments of clarity in a sea of drek, to find one with only one or two missteps is just this side of miraculous. Congratulations to every one of the many, many, many people involved on this massive undertaking. Cut to the Quick is a benchmark for how this type of theatre should be presented


Also, I've stumbled across a new playwright to share. Go read you some Robert Pinget. If Beckett had a fraternal twin, it would be Pinget. I just read About Mortin and The Hypothesis and am beginning Clope. Hella good stuff all around.


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