June begins in greater Milwaukee with a couple of shorts programs. Next week Cooperative Performance opens a shorts show downtown. This past weekend, the Village Playhouse opened its 33rd Annual One Act Play Festival. Produced by Milwaukee theatre veteran Tom Zuehlke, the show consists of six original shorts and one 15-minute intermission which run about 2 hours in length.
And if it was just me reading this (and not actually...writing it) I’d probably stop reading here. I like the mystery of an original shorts program. You know there are going to be six stories. You know there are going to be 2 hours in the theatre. The rest is a big question mark. It’s an intrepid exploration of art from a theatre seat. And since this is the Village Playhouse, none of the shorts are going to be weird and abstract. This isn’t experimental stuff that you’re going to have to be in the right mood for. Nothing too challenging. It’s all very accessible stuff. But there’s no telling how complete any of it might feel because nothing's going to be onstage for all that long. In the first half you don’t even necessarily know when any given short is going to be over. Sometimes the end of one short isn’t entirely clear until the show is well into its next one. I love that sense of earthbound disorientation--that sense of the approachable unknown.
But I'm not everyone and there are going to be people who want to have some idea what to expect. So from here on-in there are mild spoilers. Here’s a little bit of what to expect from each of the six shorts:
The first short is a piece by Deanna Strasse which weaves together with two other Strasse shorts. Rob Schreiner plays a writer having difficulty crafting a simple children’s theatre script. Schreiner has a very distinctive look about him...tattoos on his arms and spacers in his ears. Not exactly the picture one might conjure when thinking of someone writing children's fare. Schreiner's playing a guy who seems to be overthinking a show he's trying to write for a children’s audience. Though it’s never addressed in the script, the character clearly isn't familiar enough with contemporary children’s theatre or he would know the last thing you want to do is write down to your audience. The writer's difficulties develop and we run into a very promising, young Kellie Wambold in the role of his cleverly complicated muse. In her we see the origin of his distraction. Things ultimately get resolved, but not before Schreiner’s playwright is interrupted by a couple of other distracting Strasse-written shorts.
The Dolly Agenda
Donna McMaster and Kellie Wambold play a couple of precocious toddler girls playing with dolls when the echoes of politics begin to reverberate into their imaginative playtime. It’s a clever short in places, but the dialogue doesn’t seem quite authentic. As a father of two girls roughly the age of the characters, I know how truly complicated their language is. Every day is an immense discovery. There’s a tremendous amount being learned by anyone who is just beginning to understand the world and its mind-numbing complexities. It may not sound like much on the surface, but the language spoken by toddlers and young post-toddlers has its own kind of beautifully bewildering complexity. It’s almost impossible to write dialogue from that kind of an expanding intellect and get it right. Strasse does a pretty good job of capturing the essence of it nonetheless. And once again Wambold makes a really sharp and pleasantly clever appearance. This is quite an accomplishment on her part. All too often, adults playing kids miss the mark and seem...vaguely disturbing. With the right blend of confidence, curiosity and uncertainty, Wambold has just the right approach.
The Ambitious One
Strasse seems to be stumbling a bit with this one which involves a thoughtful, caring woman returning home to her live-in neurotic writer girlfriend. Karolyn Wolkos has some remarkably genuine moments dealing with the awkwardness of her girlfriend. As a romantic short, it almost sort of works, but there isn’t quite enough connection between Wolkos and her writer girlfriend (played by Donna McMaster.) The script isn’t of much help as it seems to be reaching for insight that is ever-so-narrowly out of reach. The script is edging over writer/artist cliches that are precariously dangled over the potential of real insight that the dialogue never quite stumbles into.
I love the way this one begins. There’s the ambient sound of a coffee shop being pumped-in through the sound system of a uniformly-lit stage. Nearly every actor in the show is sitting down in a coffeehouse atmosphere. As the short opens, the dialogue is only implied and we’re not exactly being directed to look at any one person. The first five minutes or so (possibly less) feel like a formless coffeehouse drama that could fuse into something truly interesting. It would have been cool to see the scene slowly congeal into something specific...possibly with implied dialogue the entire way--possibly without anyone ever saying anything perfectly audible. Playwright Mark Borchardt doesn't allow us this. Instead, the play rather rapidly descends into an awkward moment shared between two strangers. Rita Bates plays a woman on a laptop desperately trying to get work done. Michael Fisher-Zaragoza plays a very clingy and manipulative guy who seems obsessed with making a connection with the woman. Awkwardness ensues. There's a moral to the story at the end which feels almost oddly satisfying.
Then there’s intermission.
(It’s 15 minutes long.)
Carl Liden and Sandra Wiss play upper-middle-class husband and wife in this short by Nick Schweitzer. He’s a lawyer. She’s a therapist. (I think. Maybe a social worker.) As the play opens, she hasn’t arrived home yet. He’s having a beer while hanging out with a man he’s hired as a gardner for a couple of days. Scott Stenstrup plays the gardner...a guy who turns out to have been an ex-boyfriend of hers from college. He’s an intellectual drifter. She’s settled-down and perhaps tempted to rekindle things with him.
It's subtle but...Liden nails the casual feel of a white collar guy on a day off at home...which is probably a lot more difficult than it would seem. He’s relating to the stage like it actually IS the living room. It's difficult to describe how difficult that is. A stage (particularly a small one) is NOT a natural place. Liden makes it feel like home. Normally you don't notice this quite as much in a live show, but on a stage this intimate, it's actually quite an accomplishment to simply appear to be at home.
Wiss is given the rather difficult task of trying to make the drifter she's attracted to seem appealing enough to the audience to believably establish the conflict she’s feeling.
The drifter is written in a way that could theoretically show some charm, but there’s a strong undercurrent in his dialogue which suggests that he’s almost pathologically manipulative. Stenstrup’s slimy, sensually reptilian slowness tilts the character really, really heavily in the direction of creepiness. This makes the whole thing seem really uncomfortable.
(And now that I’m thinking about it, there are socially awkward moments written into nearly every short in the program. If there’s a theme here, it’s definitely social awkwardness in multiple different shades from many different angles. This has got to be the most deeply cringe-inducing awkwardness in the whole program.)
The Last Love Story
Mike Willis writes the story of a Hollywood producer meeting with a screenwriter (Scott Sorenson,) and a couple of actors (Sandra Hollander and Jacob Ortiz) As the story opens, the producer (capably played by Greg Ryan) is agonizing over a script written by the screenwriter. Judy Parelli-Wambach is appealing as his shrewd and capable assistant.
Basically this short is a meeting to discuss with a screenwriter the possibility of producing a romantic drama. The writer isn't doing a terribly good job of selling it. A six-hour romantic drama is NOT going to be produced. Any successful screenwriter is going to know that. With some tweaking and editing, the producer is interested in having a big named action star (Jacob Ortiz) and a Hollywood sex symbol (Sandra Hollander) into being in a serious romantic drama that features no gratuitous sex or violence. It's a short comedy. With heart. The cast is fun in places. It’s the last short on the program.
There are numerous problems with Willis’ story. It’s difficult to tell what era the story is set in. There’s language in the script that suggests that it could be anywhere from the ’60s to the ’70s to...now. The business of Hollywood is distinctly different every decade and the changes are never subtle. So it's difficult to tell exactly where the action of the short is grounded. Naturally this feels...uncomfortable.
The comedy of trying to get a wholesome drama green-lit in Hollywood has potential, but it would need to be framed differently in order to make it really work. The central premise here seems to be that sex and violence sell in Hollywood where as simple romance is never given a chance. Hollywood doesn't seem to understand the potential in real romantic human drama anymore.
The problem is that Hollywood DOES love a romance. Granted...romance DOESN’T generally make a whole lot of money in Hollywood. James Cameron’s historical romance Titanic is the second highest-grossing film of all-time worldwide (not accounting for inflation) but it IS the exception. That being said, producers are well-aware that romantic dramas CAN be highly profitable. They cost relatively little to make and given the right mojo, they can bring in more than enough money to make a huge profit on a relatively small investment even if they're NOT topping the box office on any given week.
Put a big name action star and a hot sex symbol in a serious drama and theoretically you could make a huge profit on a small-budget film. THAT'S where Willis' short has potential. I think it’d be fun to re-frame this short as the story of a producer and a screenwriter trying to get two big-name actors who have NEVER done serious drama to wrap their minds around the idea that there isn’t going to be any sex or violence in the movie they're being asked to appear in. Willis' script has an element of that, but that’s not quite what’s going on here. The short seems to be trying to lean to far into the idea that Hollywood just doesn't understand that real-life makes the best drama. This might be true (if a bit oversimplified) but it's a statement that doesn't necessarily make for a great comedy. The cast manages to juggle the energy enough to make it a fun ending for the program, though.
The Village Playhouse’s 33rd Annual Original One Act Festival runs through June 17th at the Village Playhouse on 1500 S. 73rd St. in West Allis. For ticket reservations and more, visit the Village Playhouse online.