In its 21st edition, City Theatre’s Summer Shorts Festival is offering up a lovesick alien (the green kind), a questionably heroic flight attendant and an aspiring comedian who can no longer laugh.
Scheming mothers-in-law, radically overprotective parents and a touching if mortifying mother-daughter talk are also part of the mix. So are a grieving man who finds out that God and a newbie EMT have other plans for him, a wife who’s had quite enough of her annoying hubby and a video game designer with a heroine’s moral strength.
Running through July 3 in the Carnival Studio Theater at Miami’s Arsht Center, this year’s Summer Shorts is the first under the artistic leadership of Margaret M. Ledford.
This is a back-to-basics festival, with simple set pieces by Jodi Dellaventura, imaginative costumes from Ellis Tillman, spot-on lighting by Preston Bircher, and rocking sound design from Steve Shapiro. The emphasis is on content, not packaging or concept, on the eclectic blend of seven short plays and two brief musicals, as well as the sheer pleasure of watching seven talented actors demonstrate their versatility.
As always with Summer Shorts, there are stronger and weaker pieces, but this year’s festival is qualitatively consistent and clunker-free, with fine direction of the various plays by Ledford, Paul Tei, Jessica Farr and acting company member Elizabeth Dimon.
Kelly Younger’s Best Lei’d Plans kicks things off with masterful comic acting from Dimon as Trisha and Karen Stephens as Karen. Shapiro supplies the sounds of rolling waves, Bircher the projected palm trees that evoke a destination wedding in Hawaii — where the two women have just watched their kids get married. As they chat and sip flower-bedecked drinks from coconut shells, each praising the other’s child, an unexpected agenda emerges.
Festival veteran Tom Wahl then provides a monologue master class as he performs Paul Rudnick’s Cabin Pressure. As Ronald, a gay flight attendant being honored with the Medal of Valor for foiling a terrorist, he regales the president, the media, his judgmental partner Clive and the audience with the story of his bravery — though it’s a comic tale that meanders wildly before ending with a twist.
Jennifer Jasper’s cautionary Eggs imagines a not-too-distant future in which a kid-centric society has rendered children brainy but helpless, and parents Don and Judy Heeler (Alex Alvarez and Meredith Bartmon) discover that defying the norm can lead to irreversible loss.
Stephens returns in France-Luce Benson’s The Talk, a piece that deftly captures the love, awkward embarrassment and beginnings of a more open relationship between Manu (Stephens), a Haitian-American widow, and her grown daughter Claire (Cherise James). Like last year’s Risen from the Dough, this play by former Miamian and New World School of the Arts grad Benson is both culturally specific and broadly relatable.
Winner of City Theatre’s national short playwriting contest, Evelyn Shaffer and the Chance of a Lifetime, a world premiere mini-musical with book and lyrics by Greg Edwards and music by Andy Roninson, impressively closes out the first half of the program. With three engaging songs and a message about staying true to one’s vision, the story soars as Bartmon, her lovely voice perfectly suited to the material, reveals the title character’s inner life. A video game designer with a lot on the line, she’s plucky and flat-out adorable as she does battle with Mr. Beck (Alvarez), a shark who could make her fortune as he ravages her soul.
The program’s other musical, the world premiere Warped, begins the second part of the program with a zany outer space adventure. Concocted by book writer-lyricist Chris Critelli and composer-lyricist Roninson, the story centers on Zulax (Andres Maldonado), a bug-like alien who has fallen hard for his human commander, Captain Jade (Stephens). Examined by Dr. Wip Wip (Wahl, who communicates plenty and hilariously without uttering a word), Zulax seeks love advice from CLIO (Dimon), the ship’s onboard “Computerized Logistics and Intelligence Officer.” CLIO searches her database, then croons a tune with a grab-bag of famous lines about love, which Dimon turns into a comic tour de force.
Elin Hampton’s F4 is arguably the most serious piece in the festival, pairing an injured older man named Crisco (Wahl) and a fresh-from-training paramedic, Wallis Higgs (James). Suffering from depression after his wife’s death, estranged from his daughter, Crisco saw an approaching tornado as a way to end his torment. Wallis begs to differ, meeting his testiness with a caring sweetness.
In Patricia Cotter’s The Rules of Comedy, Bartmon plays Caroline, a young woman who has signed up for one-on-one lessons from Guy (Maldonado), a working if not terribly successful comedian. She’s a problematic student, argumentative and sad, and he’s defensive and impatient. But their contentiousness leads to possibility.
Closing out the program is a commissioned world premiere, Steve Yockey’s I Buried Doug Biggers Alive, But He’s Probably Dead by Now. Featuring all seven actors, the play centers on Diane Biggers (Dimon), an almost-widow so fed up with her hubby that she’s done what the title suggests. Stephens plays a big-box employee, Bartmon a customer who wanders into the action, Alvarez a sexy beast who’s handy with a shovel, James and Maldonado married amateur entomologists on the outs, Wahl a TV weather man in mourning. Doug Biggers is meant to bring Shorts 2016 to a riotously funny close, and though it has its moments, it’s a tonally odd piece that reads better than it plays.
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If You Go
What: City Theatre’s 21st annual Summer Shorts Festival.
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 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday (additional matinees 2 p.m. June 4 and June 11, 7 p.m. Wednesday shows starting June 15), through July 3.
Cost: $39 to $59.
Information: 305-949-6722 or arshtcenter.org