nytheatre.com review by Allison Taylor
February 9, 2008
When I was a kid and I couldn't sleep, I would steal a flashlight from the hallway closet and bury myself underneath my bedcovers to read and reread A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends. I'm sure it's just what Shel Silverstein would have wanted me to do. The poet and illustrator had a gleefully twisted sense of humor, with an anarchistic impulse to appeal to every mischievous child, and a moralistic message to please every parent. But it wasn't until I saw Project: Theater's Shel's Shorts, an interesting but uneven evening of 14 one-acts, that I realized the extent to Silverstein's mayhem.
The disobedient children of Silverstein's poetry have grown up into adults who cannot abide by the rules of society and revel in breaking social taboos. They curse frequently, they talk about sex loudly, and they threaten violence impulsively. (Suffice to say, this is not appropriate for kids.) In "Dreamers," two men argue about whether you're gay if you dream about having sex with another man, or if it's just symbolic. In "No Dogs Allowed," a woman at an exclusive club tries to persuade the club's manager that her sleeping husband, who barks and claws the air with furry paws, is not a dog. In "No Skronking," a man in a diner wonders what the sign above the counter means, and makes various attempts to "skronk," against an annoyed waitress's orders. Indeed, public signs play a large part of Shel's Shorts. Appropriately, J.J. Bernard and Francois Portier have not only created an intricate and flexible set, but they have covered the walls with various commands ("No Smoking," "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service") to point out the restrictions against which we rebel. And as in "Duck," where a sign either means "beware of a wild duck" or "please duck your head," communication and connection are nearly impossible in the restrictive society that we ourselves have created.
Ironically, Silverstein's writing is better when restricted—the freedom of writing for adults lets him go too over-the-top. The off-color humor of the plays almost always drowns out the social commentary, rather than reinforcing it. In fact, the jokes sometimes are so vulgar and unnecessary that they can only mean to shock the audience into chuckling. What's more, Silverstein's circuitous dialogue lacks the tightness of the vaudevillian language he seeks to emulate, and so it feels as if the same comedic beat is being played not only within one sketch, but throughout the entire set of plays. With the evening clocking in at two hours and 45 minutes, Shel's Shorts may have been more enjoyable had the company narrowed down the evening to ten plays, or even a brisk eight without an intermission.
The company of 12 actors embraces Silverstein's quirky world by uniformly playing on a heightened, slightly frenetic level. In "Do Not Feed the Animal," in which a woman contemplates what animal could possibly be housed in a miniscule box, Tara Franklin adeptly escalates from apologetic inquisitiveness to downright outrage, until she feeds the animal and faces the consequences. The skilled director of that short, Andrew McLeod, doubles as the charmingly matter-of-fact plumber in "Dreamers," interpreting a homoerotic dream while his buddy, Ben Rosenblatt, squirms and sweats anxiously. Sexual anxiety also features prominently in "Abandon All Hope," in which Brian Frank and Joe Jung stand before the infamous sign, wondering what could possibly be on the other side. While some of the other plays tend to drag, Frank and Jung incorporate smart comic timing as they bounce looks and lines off of each other in rapid-fire succession.
But perhaps the highlight of the evening comes during "Gone to Take A...". An uptight boss, Amanda Byron, cannot say the title's missing word until her employee, played with gleeful defiance by Mike Baker, provokes her—and then she unleashes a cathartic tidal wave of creatively-constructed profanity. As her tight-lipped grimace melts into a vicious smirk, and as she violently hurls insults and her petite body at Baker, Byron encapsulates the cathartic release Silverstein attempts in all of these short plays.