This weekend Seat of Our Pants Readers Theatre and 53212 Presents stage a cozy evening of shorts in a warm corner of Riverwest on a second floor amidst floorboards and Cream City Brick. The six-short program features a cast of four: Posy Knight, Nate Press, Kirk Thomsen, and Tess Rutkowski. L. Mark Flagg directs the program. Flagg and company glide through six quick narratives including the premiere of Jon Kolb’s The Waitress. Seat of Out Pants and 53212 Presents make another strong case for the appeal of the theatrical shorts format that really SHOULD make it to the stage more often. The reader’s theatre format keeps the comedy and drama pleasantly informal.
The program opens with two of Karen Ellison’s Harry and Sam Dialogues. Kirk Thomsen and Nate Press play a couple of guys engaging in casual philosophy and theology. The first takes place in a bar. The second takes place at a baseball diamond. Thomsen and Press have solidly comic bromantic chemistry as a couple of guys who know enough to know exactly how to annoy each other intellectually. Press and Thomsen have a clever grasp of the subtly playful antagonism that runs throughout both dialogues.
Conrad Bishop’s Anniversary is a harrowingly disturbing, little comedy in which Nate Press and Tess Rutkowski play an alarmingly smug couple celebrating their first wedding anniversary. Everything’s perfect but for the small matter of the trash...both real and metaphorical which seems to be piling-up around the edges of everything. It’s a cleverly absurdist short which has deeply disturbing implications as the nature of human connection continues to get increasingly disconnected from an ecosystem that’s rapidly decaying due to human dysfunction. I may be reading A BIT into the implications of this piece, but not by much. And I realize that it’s only a short, but I’d LOVE to see a group like Theatre Gigante or Milwaukee Opera Theatre add additional music and/or dance material to expand this one into something more substantial than a short on a reader’s theatre program. Intentional or not, the deeper allegory of this one is very, very important.
Posy Knight has radiant, comfortingly hypnotic eyes. She wields her unique gaze with a surgeon’s precision in the Beverly Creasey short Auld Lang Syne or, I’ll Bet You Think This Play is About You. Knight plays a cripplingly sensitive person confronting an ex-boyfriend (played by Kirk Thomsen.) Flagg’s reader’s theatre staging has both actors facing the audience as they speak to each other. This produces a really weird and compelling kind of empathy. The audience is thrust into the position of both of the characters in turn in an increasingly surreal alternation between man and woman. It’s an interesting experience, but my focus on it hit a bit of a snag early on. Creasey’s script is quite intricate in its characterization, but there isn’t a huge window of time for characterization in a short. My initial impression was that of a generic obsessive ex-girlfriend stereotype and an equally generic aloof, emotionally distant male stereotype. By the time I was able to overcome this and start accepting the characters as unique individuals, the short was already over.
The final short before the half is a strikingly clever 2-man piece from a number of years ago written by Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! (Search for it on You Tube and you’ll find fuzzy footage of Sagal himself performing the piece with MST3K’s Bill Corbett.) Game Theory features Press and Thomsen as a couple of guys at a corporate leadership-building retreat. They’re playing a simple game: There’s a line between them. Each of the two can win the game if they can convince the other two step across to their side of the line. Press and Thomsen play the comedy well, but I found myself tripping over my own ideas as the script ran its course. The two characters reminded me of like...every sleazy competitive corporate asshole I’ve ever met. Sagal’s script could have been interpreted in a way in which every single line was an attempt to gain leverage over the other whether it was in idle small talk or overt, manipulative coerciveness. The YouTube video mentioned above shows that even Sagal didn’t really have this interpretation of his own script, though...so...clearly this was all in my head. Still would have been fun to see it performed in more of slimy, competitive way.
Press DOES get in touch with his inner douchebag as the boss in the final short of the program: Jon Kolb’s The Waitress. A very captivatingly nuanced Tess Rutkowski plays a scrappy waitress from the other side of the river working at a coffee shop managed by a guy from this side of the river played by Kirk Thomsen. The manager has caught the waitress stealing from the till. Thomsen plays to the thoughtful vulnerability of the manager as Rutkowski renders depth and complexity to a waitress who is cunningly trying to advance her position. The aforementioned Press is suitably slimy as the owner of the business...a man who has vulnerabilities all his own. It’s a complex drama that closes the program on a smartly provocative note.
Seat of Our Pants/53212 Presents’ Winter Shorts runs through Feb. 1 on 731 E. Center St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Brown Paper Tickets.com.