Short Shrift

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Imagination is in short supply at Stage-works Briefs 2001, currently playing at the Hillsborough Community College Performing Arts Hall in Ybor City. With only one major exception, the short plays in this year's festival (which I saw in a dress rehearsal) are dull, lacking in ideas, cliched and — even at 10 to 15 minutes apiece — too long. Yes, there's an occasional stretch of good acting here, but what's the use? The lines these characters speak are uninspired, and the problems they face are largely unexamined. We have the right to expect more than this from any theater event.

But then there's the one exception: Good Help by Tampa playwright Keven Renken. This brief, efficient play is Pinteresque in its suggestion of an unconscious world of illicit desires and unassuageable wounds. There are only two characters: Woman #1, lying on a hospital bed, her eyes wrapped in bandages, and Woman #2, a mysterious visitor apparently sent by the hospital patient's son to take care of her.

As beautifully played by Ginger King — who's hardly allowed to move throughout the sketch — Woman #1 reminisces about her relationship with her boy, how she tried to teach him to get over his night terrors and his desire to sleep beside her. Then Woman #2, menacingly portrayed by Linda Fajvan, tells the blind, bedridden patient what sort of "help" her son now has in mind for her: a chilling revenge for the adult behavior his mother once forced upon him. The play works so well because it suggests that, in a subterranean level of the mind, we not only resent the cost of our maturity, but we remain vindictive toward those who made us acquire it. Author Renken further impresses with his ability to evoke so much meaning with so few means: There's not one unnecessary word in the whole sketch. Peggy Huey's fine direction is equally crisp; and the result is a memorable, original several minutes of theater.

The same can't be said for any of the other pieces, though at least a couple of them benefit from talented acting. For example, there's Eileen Koteles' impressive performance as middle-class Mary in Roger Martin's Room 110 Wants ... Mary is a 34-year-old divorced mother of two who's only a few minutes away from remarrying when she decides that she can't go through with it. While her sisters Beth and Margot plead with her to don her wedding dress, she insists that instead she's going to have a fling with the young room service waiter at her hotel. There's not much more to this play; once you understand Mary's fear of bourgeois security and desire to regain her youth, you've basically learned everything there is to know.

But Room 110 Wants... at least allows us to enjoy the vivacious Koteles as she joyously tries to deny her age, her status as parent, and that her latest husband-to-be is waiting patiently at the altar. Unfortunately, Isabel Natera and Jennifer Meumann as the sisters aren't anywhere near as convincing, and Norm Augustinius as the Waiter seems more a good-natured oaf than the deal-breaking hunk of Mary's dreams. Add to this the uneven pacing in D. Davis' direction, and the result is that Koteles' performance virtually stands alone, unsupported by fellow actors, director or text. No man may be an island entire of itself, but this talented woman comes pretty close. She deserves a better play.

And something similar might be said about actress Chris Carlee in Jolene Goldenthal's Myra and ... Myra wants to tell the audience that 11 years ago she left her husband Joe for a guy named Bob. The problem is — or is supposed to be — that Joe's voice keeps interrupting her, as if from heaven (he died soon after the infidelities began). Now, as much as this seems like a fine premise for an innovative play, the fact is that Goldenthal does next to nothing with it: Myra's monologue isn't particularly insightful, and Joe's interruptions are usually colorless and drearily respectful. The result would be entirely bland if it weren't for Carlee's ingratiating acting as lonely Myra, a woman who once strove for very little and attained even less. But no amount of good acting, or of Dawn Truax's capable directing, can redeem this unsubstantial script, in which heaven itself is only a little less humdrum than earth.

And speaking of the commonplace, what could be more unoriginal than the conflict at the heart of Woody Goodface by Chicago's Johnny Knight. Musician Liz, it seems, is pregnant with musician Mick's baby. He wants her to have the child; she wants an abortion. He tries to make her come around to his way of seeing things: After all, he explains, his own mother almost aborted him, and aren't we glad that she didn't? She has an unexpected rebuttal (and the only truly interesting position in the play): What if his birth wasn't as fortunate as he thinks? What if the happiness his mother takes in his existence is only a fraction of what she would have known if she'd gone through with the abortion?

There's virtually nothing else going on in this mini-soap opera besides Mick's fascination with reruns of a Howdy Doody-type children's show and Liz's abhorrence of same (he likes kids, she's scared of them; get it?). As Mick, actor Drew Valins is nowhere near as consistent as he was in Let's Play Two at the Silver Meteor Gallery a few weeks ago, and Jennifer Newman as bad-tempered Liz is adequate if unilluminating. I did, after all, see a dress rehearsal, so maybe the acting and Scott Isert's direction will seem more rhythmic and natural by opening night.

And that leaves Radio Head, by Seminole's Christa Kreimendahl. This annoyingly dull play is about Effie, a chatterbox, and her grown son William, who spends much of the play trying to fix a clock radio. While Effie goes on and on over nothing, or sings "Tea for Two" and "Mr. Sandman," William opines that his deceased father, whom Effie idealizes, was really a demanding brute and unworthy of anyone's eulogies. And that's just about the whole play, with the exception of an entirely unremarkable "surprise" in the last moments. Cher Tanner does good work as Effie, but Shannon Armstrong is nothing but surly as William; and Richard Coppinger's direction is uneven and allows for no subtext.

Imagination, scribes, imagination! In premise, characters, language, everywhere! Make it new, make it innovative, original, unique!

The alternative is tiresome, and not nearly brief enough.

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