Review: Chicago One-Minute Play Festival (Victory Gardens)

  
  

OMPF - One Minute Play Festival - Victory Gardens - banner

 

New Festival Showcases Short Works by Local Artists, Sampler-style

 

by Dan Jakes and Oliver Sava

This May 15-16, Victory Gardens premiered Chicago’s first One-Minute Play Festival (OMPF), a benefit event that featured bite-sized works by an eclectic mix of prominent and upcoming local theater artists. Creator and “curator” Dominic D’Andrea originally debuted the series in New York in 2007, where it has since grown to San Francisco and Los Angeles . For its first ever stop in the Midwest, considering the event’s magnitude–50 playwrights, 10 directors, and nearly 60 actors–this year’s showcase demonstrated promising potential for an exciting annual Chicago theater institution.

That is, if it finds a stronger footing. Micro-plays are nothing new, especially in the Windy City, long-time home to the Neo-Futurists’ Too Much Light and Second City; one set the bar for two-minute plays, and the other made one-joke flash bits a sketch trademark. D’Andrea and producer Will Rogers’ OMPF also rides off the larger 10-minute play trend. Their efforts to boil down theater even further, though, prove to be fruitful–sometimes even enlightening. Below is a list of the night’s highlights.

Paper Airplane, Aaron Carter  

     
   The finest piece in the festival. A young boy expresses his anguish over his father’s looming death while tossing folded paper planes across the stage. His ability to speak is limited to the papers’ flight, leaving him choked and frustrated with each audible crash landing. In less than a minute, Carter encapsulates the panic of grief, and animates the cruel handicap children endure to express pain. Those planes approached visual poetry.

Two Vegans, Robert Tenges

     
   A couple engaged in love making–some of it hilariously acrobatic–get their kink on by dirty-talking their favorite (or to cool things off, least favorite: (“raw kale…raw kale!”) foods. At first, it’s funny nonsense. Then, after you uncomfortably internalize your own link between taste/sexual satisfaction, it’s hysterical.

A Play, Kristoffer Diaz

     
   You’re the hero in this monologue. The audience member to your right is the protagonist. Your left, the antagonist. Diaz’s simple, straight-forward instructions don’t feel like a gimmick. His inconclusive end ponders some sophisticated ideas about the broader implications of storytelling, ones that resonate long after the play’s 60 seconds are up.

The Last Walk, Lisa Dillman

     
   Sad pets are an easy go-to for emotional impact…but that doesn’t make using them any less effective. A dog reminisces about the good days with her very recently deceased owner. Confused, she brushes up against his dead body for affection…and if you don’t cry a little at the thought of that, then you’re a monster. Only a few high-pitched “aw’s” were heard in the house during an otherwise hushed fade-to-black.

Inequity, Jake Minton

     
   Penis envy comes early for two little boys (played by full-grown adults, of course) in a school bathroom: One stands proud, pants down and bare-butted at a urinal, while the other sits devastated, hiding his…well, you know. Minton makes a nice little joke about men’s biggest insecurity.

Haiku Fight, Caitlin Montanye Parrish

     
   A couple hashes out an argument by having a refereed 8 Mile-style slam, with Japanese poetry filling in for hip-hop. It’s a simple, wonderfully clever juxtaposition of the writing form’s serenity versus the needling aggravation of a relationship fight.

This Just In, Stephen Louis Grush

     
  Liberal sensibilities about prejudice get turned over on their heads when one easily dismissible stereotype gets paired with one that’s equally unfair, but–for many viewers–may hit a little closer to home. Those might sound like the makings for a didactic issues play. With the right amounts of humor and levity here, they aren’t.

Bag Thief, Laura Jacqmin

     
   A mix-up at an airport luggage carousel leads to suspicion and accusations. Jacqmin doesn’t quite know how to end her play–what she settles for lets the air out of its balloon and betrays her otherwise solid work. Up until the final seconds, though, it’s fun stuff watching two men calmly navigate each other’s logic and contemplate one another’s mind games.

Blackout, Chisa Hutchinson

      
   As the name suggests, Hutchinson’s play takes place with the house and stage lights off. Her monologue discusses nyctophobia (fear of darkness) in friendly, clinical terms. Once she starts in about the ghastly things you could be imagining, it’s hard not to nervously giggle and realize you’re an adult who’s once again–briefly–afraid of the dark.

In Not Our Finest Hour, Andrew Hinderaker

     
   You can spot a gag coming within the first few seconds of this context-free comedy. A line of actors take a swig from a water bottle and pass it on. Anticipation builds; titters slip. The fact that the punch line is exactly what you’d expect compounds the simple humor in this satisfying, straightforward piece.

Wisconsin, Andrew Hinderaker 

     
   Anyone who’s experienced the unique isolation of a rural Midwest winter can attest to the truth and melancholy spoken in this eloquent monologue. A young man describes a blackened hand rising out of the snow. Hinderaker’s vivid image is striking on conflicting levels–it’s unsettling, somber, and in its own way, serene.

Free, Zayd Dohrn

     
   A United States Marine quietly bemoans the chaos of modern war and rejects America’s authoritative façade. His speech is upsetting for all the obvious reasons, and for some less common: notably, the futility of humanitarian efforts and the false hope instilled by the military’s hierarchy.

A Short Story, Emily Schwartz 

     
   A narrator gives up on his own story, much to the protagonist’s chagrin. Schwartz’s non-story leaves the nameless hero waiting and frustrated as the nonchalant storyteller signs off on her would-be adventure. Smart, funny metatheater.

Love Play for Two Chairs, Seth Bockley 

     
   When you think about chairs having sex (though in any other context, why would you?) the word “whimsical” probably doesn’t come to mind. And yet, like an x-rated Fantasia, Bockley and director Jeffrey Stanton achieve just that. Annoyed by the noise of his enchanted furniture getting it on, an apartment owner sets out to end his two chairs’ tryst. His solution is delightfully absurd–the fact that it’s irresistibly adorable makes matters even stranger.

Unsolicited Advice for Next Year’s Fest

Now that the One-Minute Play Festival has taken its first entertaining, successful baby steps in Chicago, here’s what we at we’d would like to see from the show in its future incarnations…

A Greater Assortment of Styles:

Only a few plays in 2011 were noteworthy for really bucking traditional conventions. The message in Gloria Bond Clunie’s Falling about resilience in the face of natural disasters, for instance, wasn’t particularly moving or inspired, but her play stood out from its peers for its striking use of projections and puppetry. That left us with a question: How can the other works of 50 unique artists have looked so homogeneous? Talking animals, inner-monologues, contentless scenes and gripes about public transit bore the brunt of too many shows. No movement pieces? No one-minute musicals? Festival organizers take pride in the lack of dictated thematic guidelines for the playwrights (as they should). Still, there has to be a way to commission a more diverse body of work.

Super-titles:

Many of the short plays benefited from having the names of the shows known; some even took on new light. Dimmed houselights and tiny program font made seeing them impractical–unless you were really straining, you had to do without. An inexpensive or creative way to integrate the show names could further enrich the work.

Clear Intent Behind Curation:

Was there or was there not an intended arc to the evening? We couldn’t tell. Directors took on about 10 plays each, and their pieces were presented together in ten unique “clumps.” The order that clumps were presented in and the plays within them, though, did not have an obvious flow. Perhaps one wasn’t intended–regardless, having one might keep the night as a whole engaging.


The Chicago One-Minute Play Festival is produced as a benefit for Victory Gardens Fresh Squeezed, their alternative programming and audience engagement initiative. With a shared mission, both Fresh Squeezed and the festival aim to represent a wide and diverse range of playwrights, actors, and directors working in the great city of Chicago.

Reviewers: Dan Jakes and Oliver Sava

     
     

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Review: Sketchbook Reverb (Collaboraction)

  
  

High-energy company serves up so-so sample platter

  
  

Dan Krall, James Zoccoli, Kim Lyle, Saverio Truglia, Collaboraction, Sketchbook Reverb

   
Collaboraction presents
   
Sketchbook Reverb
  
Directed by Anthony Moseley
at
Flat Iron Arts Building, 1575 N. Milwaukee (map)
thru March 27  | 
tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Collaboraction has to be one of the most energetic theatre companies on the planet. If you’ve ever seen a past Sketchbook, the company’s signature showcase for new avant-garde works, you understand what I’m talking about. Anthony Moseley and his band of merry artists are like a bunch of teenagers who have forgotten to take their Adderall. The creativity bubbles forth, frequently with a lack of clear direction and focus, making the final product a sight to see but not always a comprehensible sight.

Saverio Truglia, Sketchbook Reverb, Amy Speckien, CollaboractionSketchbook REVERB certainly delivers on whimsy and inventiveness. And just like the eponymous annual series from which its one acts have been borrowed, its inconsistent. Some of the pieces are absolutely brilliant, reaching intense levels of poignancy through bare-knuckled honest comedy. Other times, the wackiness of the plays feels put on in a desperate attempt to appear cutting edge and quirky. When it works, it works. And when it doesn’t, you eye the program seeing what’s next on the menu.

Let’s first discuss some of the winners. “My Yeti Dreams”, written by Lisa Dillman, is a soliloquy delivered by a woman (Laura Shatkus) who falls in love with a grunting, half-naked Yeti (HB Ward). It’s an absurd premise with honest and relatable underpinnings. This woman finds freedom in her love for something so free of social mores. Shatkus delivers a breathy, heartfelt monologue as Ward jumps and grunts with gusto.

Another highlight of the night was “I’ll Never Tell You”, written by Stephen Cone. In this short, a man (HB Ward) is mourning privately over his wife’s corpse (Laura Shatkus). The man reveals to his wife things he regrets not telling her, specifically his many infidelities. Despite the fact that he’s a chronic cheater, the man’s awkwardness and sadness overshadow any judgment we may reserve for him. Instead, we are compelled to sympathize. This time, Ward delivers the monologue, and he does it with great patience and passion. It’s a beautiful performance.

The last high point of the night was “The Lurker Radio Hour”, written by Drew Dir. The short takes the form of an old radio show, which is always a fun format to see staged. The show’s host Steve Larker (James Zoccoli) dawns a sinister-sounding voice while his assistant Alice (Amy Speckien) creates the sound effects. Steve’s wife has left him, and so he uses the radio show as a platform to beg her to return. Meanwhile, Steve is blind to the fact that Alice pines for him. It’s a tale of unrequited love, played out with comedic sincerity by the talented Zoccoli. Speckien does a great job with amplifying the laughs as the timid sidekick.

Cast of "The Untimely Death of Adolf Hitler," part of "Sketchbook REVERB." Photo by Saverio Truglia.

The show’s five other plays range from mildly amusing to aggravating. “The Deep Blue Sea”, by Keith Huff, is bloated with stale, overwrought dialogue. “Tuning in El Paso”, by Ellen Fairey, tries too hard to appeal to our emotions. “Dating: A Cautionary Tale for Facebook Users”, by Ira Gamerman, is like a stand-up routine that doesn’t know when to stop. “A Domestic Disturbance at Little Fat Charlie’s Seventh Birthday Party”, by Andrew Hobgood, is a poor man’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. And “The Untimely Death of Adolph Hitler”, by Andy Grigg, is a decent sketch that quickly wears out its premise.

If you’re a fan of past Sketchbook shows, you’ll definitely enjoy Reverb. If you’ve always wanted to see a Collaboraction performance, Reverb is a great introduction. If you enjoy consistently good, grounded theatre, then Reverb probably isn’t for you. Personally, I applaud Collaboraction for taking risks and not always succeeding, and I appreciate the opportunities they give to new playwrights. They serve to remind other companies that artistic vision should always come before critical recognition.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Pictured: HB Ward (Yeti) and Laura Shatkus (Christine) in "My Yeti Dreams," part of "Sketchbook REVERB" presented by Collaboraction. Photo by Saverio Truglia.

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REVIEW: Pancake Breakfast (The New Colony)

      
     

Family dysfunction stacked high and covered with syrup

     
     

Pancake Breakfast - The New Colony - Viaduct Theatre

   
The New Colony presents
   
Pancake Breakfast
   
Written by Tara Sissom
Directed by
Sean Kelly
at
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $10-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Independence Day is an annual celebration of liberation. For Beatrice, this year is D-Day for the release of a captive, her brother. The New Colony presents the world premiere of Pancake Breakfast. Beatrice resurrects the 4th of July family tradition. Her plan is to get the estranged family together to intervene in her mother’s unhealthy relationship with her brother. But before the clan can instigate the interference, they need to re-enact the holiday family rituals from pancake breakfast to fireworks. ‘Going home again’ is a craving never quite satisfied. Do pancakes ever taste as good as the childhood memory of them? Pancake Breakfast is family dysfunction stacked high and served with fruits and nuts.

Pancake Breakfast - The New Colony - Viaduct Theatre 4Playwright Tara Sissom devised the Pancake Breakfast script in collaboration with the actors. Sissom laid out the premise and the ensemble developed individual characters. The result is an IHOP menu of tasty options that don’t quite go together for one well-balanced meal. Some of the characters are a bounty of flavor. Arlene Malinowski (Lillian) is a delicious loud-mouthed, mean-spirited, mother flapjack. Evan Linder (Randy) is a delectably hilarious, Asperger’s son-of-a-bitch. Jack McCabe (Arlie) stirs the pot for laughs as an eccentric nut. Megan Johns (Darcy)smokes the pot as the amusing, carefree 2nd wife. It’s these tangy portrayals that overshadow the other milder ingredients. What are the other tastes? Gary Tiedemann is definitely sweet, but how does he blend with his bitter partner, Andrew Hobgood (Bobby)? And Steve Ratcliff (Bud) seems a little bland for marrying zesty… both times.

The script can be confusing. In the first scenes, it’s unclear who Eleanor (Susan Veronika Adler) is. Adler brings some spice but is more seasoned for the grandmother’s role than the grown-up version of a youthful single parent. Thea Lux (Beatrice) goes to a lot of trouble to serve pancakes but seems more like a waffle eater. Lux is a quandary. What does she want? And where is she going? Her last line at the show’s end adds to the mystery.

Director Sean Kelly stages the show on a long linear stage. It’s an interesting floor plan representing a variety of rooms (scenic design by Nick Sieben). But in the cavernous Viaduct Theatre, this layout muffles some pertinent dialogue because of the obstructive angles. Sometimes the audio barrier is actually another actor standing directly in front of the speaker. From the southeast corner, a tub conversation is muffled between the submerged and the percher.

Pancake Breakfast - The New Colony - Viaduct Theatre 3

Simultaneous staged activity occurs for a horizontal visual feast, tasty or otherwise. In an initial scene, the march to the breakfast table is a light-hearted patriotic salute. Often when family gets together for a holiday, there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Relative cooking can get confusing. No need to start from scratch, Playwright Sissom just needs to clarify the recipe’s direction and whisk the lumps until smooth. Pancake Breakfast is a Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity combo platter in the making. Order up!

  
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Pancake Breakfast - The New Colony - Viaduct Theatre 2

Pancake Breakfast continues thru December 19th, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm.  Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission.

   
  

 

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REVIEW: That Sordid Little Story (The New Colony Theatre)

Tall Tale Is Too Big

 

The New Colony presents That Sordid Little Story, from L to R - Thea Lux, Tara Sissom, Brandon Rutter, Chris Gingrich, Henry Riggs - photo by Anne Peterson

   
The New Colony Theatre presents
   
That Sordid Little Story
   
By Will Cavedo, Andrew Hobgood and Benno Nelson
Composed by
H. Riggs, C. Gingrich, T. Sissom and T. Lux
Directed by Andrew Hobgood
Music Directed by
Henry Riggs
at
Viaduct Theater, 3111 N. Western, Chicago (map)
through August 7th  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

The New Colony Theatre’s original play That Sordid Little Story is a huge production, both figuratively and literally. It fills the spacious Viaduct Theater with a two-tiered  stage that is flanked with jutting runways. There are two intermissions throughout the 2.5-hour long piece. Including musicians, the cast just jumps the dozen marker, which I know is no Cherrywood, but it’s The New Colony, That Sordid Little Story, from L to R - Patriac Coakley and Danny Taylorstill a sizeable amount of people for an off-Loop production.

The play also feels huge. It’s epic in its nature, with its protagonist, Billy Lomax (Patriac Coakley), journeying from Fayetteville Georgia across the South in search of a bluegrass band that may just hold the answers to the identity and whereabouts of his father. Along the way, Billy encounters a cast of colorful characters including a manipulative antique shop owner (Caitlin Chuckta) and her jealous brother (Wes Needham), a man of color who claims he’s half Cherokee (Anthony DiNicola), a stand-up comic (Sean Ellis), a couple of Latino day laborers (Aaron Alonso and Gary Tiedemann) and others.

The elusive bluegrass band serves as the soundtrack to Billy’s life. Each song inexplicably represents Billy’s current situation, or at least that’s how he reads into it. And so the band becomes the fuel that drives Billy, and for that matter the rest of the play, forward.

I should note that The New Colony takes a unique approach to creating a new production like this. The lines delineating actor, writer and director are blurred, with all cast members getting some say in the development of the play and its final treatment. With a company of about 30 members, this sounds like a situation where too many cooks could have spoiled the pot. And while the pot is not spoiled, it suffers from too many ingredients.

The New Colony, Sordid Little Story, from L to R - Aaron Alonso, Patriac Coakley and Sean Ellis - Photo by Anne Petersen The New Colony presents That Sordid Little Story, from L to R - Patriac Coakley and Jack McCabe.  Photo by Anne Petersen.
Sordid_7 Sordid_9 Sordid_3

The play practically bursts at the seams. There’s just so much in it. Issues of race, issues of family, issues of wealth and social class. In covering so much territory, very little is actually said.

In addition, there are too many characters that come in and out of Billy’s life for us to really care about them. Once Billy starts developing a connection with someone, he leaves or he is left. We as the audience catch on to this pattern quickly, which means mentally we know there’s little at stake with these friendships. Once that happens, we know we can check out, and thus the relationships that Billy is making just don’t have Sordid_11 much of an impact. In the end, you’re left just waiting to see how the whole thing wraps up.

Also, some of these scenes lag. There are conversations between talking heads that sound reminiscent of college-level discussion groups. Much of this dialogue could be cut, and we’d still get the point. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a 2.5-hour long play as long as your play needs to be 2.5 hours. With some obvious editing, That Sordid Little Story could shave off a good 30 minutes.

But let’s take a moment to focus on what this play does well, namely, the music. This is a four-star score, lyrically and melodically. Heart-wrenching at times, uplifting at others, the music overshadows the rest of the play with its spot-on descant harmonies and its band’s down-home-country affection.

Also, the acting is consistently solid. Standout performances include Sean Ellis as the drunk comic, Aaron Alonso as a non-English speaking immigrant and Caitlin Chuckta, who reminded me of comic actress Stephnie Weir.

That Sordid Little Story is anything but little. It’s a big piece – too big. With some self-editing, this could have been more than just a cool concept. But as it stands, I’d rather just listen to the soundtrack.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
  
   

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