Miami’s City Theatre is throwing its annual welcome-to-summer party with the 18th edition of its popular Summer Shorts Festival.
The company has other treats in store -- the family musical The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful (and Her Dog) at the Arsht Center June 15-30, the CityWrights playwrights’ conference at Miami’s Epic Hotel June 19-23, Shorts Gone Wild at Fort Lauderdale’s Empire Stage Aug. 8-Sept. 1. But Summer Shorts, taking center stage in the Arsht’s Carnival Studio Theater through June 30, is the company’s core effort, its raison d’être.
Gone are the days when City Theatre presented two separate Shorts programs, linking them in a mini-marathon on weekends. This year’s production serves up 11 plays, mostly comedies with a bit of drama for variety. Theatergoers see a half-dozen shows before intermission, five after; for what it’s worth, there are more gems in the first half than the second.
The overall production is concept-driven, the idea dreamed up by artistic director John Manzelli and Antonio Amadeo, part of the directing team (Margaret M. Ledford and Mcley Lafrance are the others).
Each play is treated as if it were a piece in an art gallery, represented by a painting or poster or photograph on set designer Jodi Dellaventura’s maze of white walls. Props and furniture get switched, but the over-all design is elegant and effective, with tall, fringed curtains absorbing the ever-changing colors of Melissa Santiago-Keenan’s lighting palette. Add Ellis Tillman’s imaginative costumes and Matt Corey’s artful sound design, and you have one of the more appealingly realized Shorts productions in many years.
The plays, as usual, are a mixed bag -- some hilarious, others solid, still others flawed or unfinished or puzzling. Just remember the Shorts truism: If you’re watching something that isn’t working for you, just wait a few minutes and you’ll be plopped into an entirely different world.
Six talented actors, with an assist from Shorts interns, deliver all that variety. Shorts veteran (and audience favorite) Stephen Trovillion isn’t part of the company this year, but that allows a different actor -- Magic City’s Todd Allen Durkin -- to shine. He’s in great company with Irene Adjan, Ken Clement, Renata Eastlick, Vera Varlamov and Rayner Garranchan, but the richness, variety and finesse Durkin brings to each character are fascinating to watch.
So what are this year’s strongest shows?
Paul Rudnick’s stinging, riotously funny The Gay Agenda is a monologue superbly delivered by Adjan as a conservative Ohio housewife who swears she isn’t prejudiced then proceeds to disprove that notion with every word that comes out of her mouth. Rick Park’s quirky Please Report Any Suspicious Activity features Clement and Garranchan as subway-riding dolphins having a lovers’ quarrel, much to the priceless discomfort of a fellow passenger. Clement as a writing professor and Durkin as his endearingly oddball student have perfect chemistry and timing in Matt Hoverman’s The Student. Garranchan and Varlamov meet cute and grow cuter in Kendra Blevins’ iZombie, a funny meditation on just how tough it is to function without our omnipresent smart phones.
The program’s seven other plays don’t rise to that level, though there are no out-and-out duds this year.
Holly Hepp-Galvan’s Departure is a surreal piece about miserable 13-year-old Susan (Varlamov). Her less-than-empathetic mom (Adjan) wants her to soar, literally, while her sympathetic aunt (Eastlick) supports Susan’s bid to fit in. Weird, and it goes nowhere. Steve Yockey’s Serendipity is a strange drama about mistaken identity, but its film noir execution under Ledford’s direction (and Sam Spade-style narration by Clement) are better than the play itself.
Susan J. Westfall’s Feel the Tango is an amusing piece about a long-married couple (Adjan and Clement) being jolted out of their passionless routine by three aggressive servers (Garranchan, Eastlick and Varlamov) whose prescription for boredom is a hot tango. Sheri Wilner’s A Tall Order finds Garranchan and Eastlick on a tedious first date, with the woman agonizing over what the guy will think of her if she orders various items on the restaurant’s menu. Leslie Ayvazian’s The Favor features Adjan as a wife who asks her hubby (Durkin) to do a creepy favor for her dying mother.
In Nina Mansfield’s Bite Me, a spoiled housewife (Varlamov) cooks up a scheme to spend forever with her beleaguered attorney husband (Durkin), with the help of a cool-as-a-cucumber vampire (Clement). And the program’s “big” finish, David Bar Katz’s Mothra vs. the Casting Director: An Allegory, is unfortunately in inverse proportion to the wingspan of Clement as out-of-work movie monster Mothra.