Performing Arts

Summer Shorts celebrates its 20th with a strong program at the Arsht Center

Michael Uribe and Bechir Sylvain hang out in ‘Mandate,’ part of City Theatre’s Summer Shorts.
Michael Uribe and Bechir Sylvain hang out in ‘Mandate,’ part of City Theatre’s Summer Shorts. George Schiavone

Now that’s how you celebrate a 20th anniversary.

No, not two decades of wedded bliss. We’re talking about a milestone for a company devoted to the art of the short play, a company that on balance has given fans of the form a lot more of the good than the bad or ugly. Also loads of laughs, the occasional, tear and the pleasure of watching great South Florida actors morph from one character to the next in the time it takes to move furniture around.

The 20th edition of City Theatre’s popular Summer Shorts festival is up and running at Miami’s Arsht Center (to be precise, it’s on the Susan J. Westfall Playwrights Stage at the Carnival Studio Theater in Arsht’s Ziff Ballet Opera House, a locator almost as long as some of the plays).

For those who have been around since founders Westfall, Stephanie Norman and Elena Wohl dreamed up the festival, Jodi Dellaventura’s set gets the nostalgia going even before the house lights go down.

Large photos from Summer Shorts past — some from shows, others of casts smiling for the camera — capture some of the finest moments in the company’s history. Center stage, producing artistic director John Manzelli welcomes the crowd via a funny video he created that suggests some of the craziness of putting together a program of nine short plays staged by four directors featuring six actors. Happy anniversary messages pop up, including one from Stephen Trovillion, a Wisconsin-based theater professor who performed in so many festivals he was known as “Mr. Summer Shorts.”

But the plays, of course, are the thing. All the design touches, videos and messages wouldn’t matter, of course, if the plays weren’t strong — but they are, to different degrees. The nine in the anniversary edition are varied, smart, staged well and wonderfully acted. From raucous comedies to thought-provoking short dramas, each play is really a play, not a sketch. Short-form theater is the festival’s bread and butter, and this year City Theatre is mostly serving up gourmet fare.

Holli Harms’ Cougar, staged by Manzelli, features Elizabeth Dimon as Eleanor, an amusingly sardonic woman who’s used to drinking alone on a Saturday night. Kate (Karen Stephens), a pretty woman in her 40s, arrives and nervously awaits a romantic old lover who has reconnected with her on Facebook. He doesn’t show, but his handsome son Mark (Michael Uribe) does, and that’s when things get interesting.

Kelly Younger’s Let’s Get Physical, a world premiere directed by Paul Tei, revolves around an odd triangle: Dr. Munt (Bechir Sylvain), a doctor giving an annual physical to a pilot named Gerard (Tom Wahl), as the doc’s potential associate Dr. Deveraux (Chastity Hart) uncomfortably looks on. It’s not the medical procedures creating the play’s absurdist conflict, though; it’s the rivalry between male doctor and patient.

Director Margaret M. Ledford and actors Dimon and Wahl deliver a crackerjack version of Edith Freni’s Flare, a play about one very nervous passenger (Dimon) and the cool-as-a-cucumber pilot (Wahl) seated next to her on a flight from New York to Miami. The actors never leave their seats, but the two polished Summer Shorts vets vividly share their characters’ quirks and secrets, so although our journey with them isn’t long, it’s amusing and revelatory.

France-Luce Benson’s Risen from the Dough, which won City Theatre’s national award for short playwriting, gives Stephens the opportunity to create a rich portrait of a Haitian-American widow — grieving, stubborn, suspicious — as she and her youner sister (Hart) await the return of a health inspector to their bakery. Directed by the Haitian-American Sylvain, the play draws audiences into a world in which death doesn’t mean the end of the conversation.

R. Eric Thomas’ Human Resources, staged by Manzelli, looks at the corporate culture clash between a pair of traditionalists (Wahl and Dimon) and the younger colleagues (Uribe, Stephens, Sylvain, Hart) who behave any way they please after a merger. The play utilizes Avenue Q-style puppets in a way that’s boisterous and occasionally raunchy, though Human Resources isn’t nearly as clever as that Tony Award-winning musical. Ellis Tillman’s costumes are, though, turning the puppets into mini versions of their puppeteers.

Jane Martin’s Bedtime is a complicated dance, focusing on a couple just before their wedding and in middle age. The action has the younger Claire and Joseph (Hart and Uribe) occupying their bedroom at the same time as their older selves (Stephens and Wahl). Ledford and the actors pull off the pendulum swing between young dreams and life-burnished reality, though it’s not easy to buy the performers as younger and older versions of the same people.

Younger’s Mandate is one of the festival’s gems. Directed by Manzelli, the play features Uribe as Drew and Sylvain as Marc, guys whose wives think their spouses could become pals. Uribe does good work in each of his plays, but he’s stellar in Mandate as a young dad in an otherwise all-female household. Desperate for a best friend, he jumps from nice-to-meet-you to bromance way too fast, to Sylvain’s understandable discomfort.

Patricia Cotter’s The Anthropology Section brings together former partners who run into each other in a bookstore and do a post-mortem on their relationship. Staged by Ledford, the piece has a marriage equality theme, and it allows Stephens and Dimon to deftly explore the women’s intellectual similarities and life-choice differences.

The program ends with Steve Yockey’s Mrs. Evelyn Foxy & Her Low Orbit Anxiety, a commissioned play directed by Tei. Just odd initially, as middle-aged housewife Evelyn (Dimon) has a guy (Sylvain) who was going door-to-door taking a survey about spotted owls trapped in her living room, the play turns delightfully nutty as Evelyn’s disapproving grown daughter Barbara (Hart) shows up unexpectedly, followed by Billy (Uribe), a hunky jogger Barbara used to babysit back in the day. The plot twists are off the wall, the actors hilarious. It’s a perfect Summer Shorts play in an impressive anniversary edition.

If you go

What: City Theatre’s 20th annual Summer Shorts Festival (‘Bedtime’ by Jane Martin, ‘Mrs. Evelyn Foxy & Her Low Orbit Anxiety’ by Steve Yockey, ‘Risen from the Dough’ by France-Luce Benson, ‘Cougar’ by Holli Harms, ‘Flare’ by Edith Freni, ‘Let’s Get Physical’ and ‘Mandate’ by Kelly Younger, ‘The Anthropology Section’ by Patricia Cotter, ‘Human Resources’ by R. Eric Thomas).

Where: Carnival Studio Theater in the Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday, through June 28.

Cost: $35-$45.

Information: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.

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