Learning as we go

As a genre, the 10-minute play highlights how simple, poor, and brief theater can be. Because the short play is more of a burst of inspiration than a sustained effort, the genre has the potential to foster something crucial for theater’s growth: experimentation. 

In that spirit, congratulations to the Flat Earth Plays (on through December 13 at the Overtime Theater) for offering a forum for trying out half-baked ideas. Although some of the plays, all written by local playwrights, are hopelessly melodramatic, formulaic, or reminiscent of made-for-TV movies, a couple of real gems earn the ticket price.   

The first play of the evening, Scott MacDowell’s “Silent Night” — a movement piece decked out in dark trench coats and fedoras — stands out for its physical precision and saturated moodiness. This staged bit of film noir tells a standard detective story clearly, gracefully, and with only a single line of dialogue at the end. The impeccable movements collaborate with a shadowy, crisp, haunting lighting scheme to evoke a seedy criminal underworld. 

The final play, Rebecca Coffey’s “Boxing Day,” is remarkable for its conceit. Coffey creates a hypothetical afterlife scenario in which the recently departed get to choose between living with Sherie (aka God) in a heaven she describes as similar to Santa Monica, only better, or with Sherie’s husband Dave (aka Satan) in a hell that he describes as likewise similar to Santa Monica — the only difference is that heaven gets a little cooler at night. Both Sherie and Dave agree that their newest arrival Ishmael should be cautious about the third option: a mysterious box that leads even God knows not where, from whence no soul has returned — the unknown, the void.

This thoughtful, funny, often absurd, and weirdly hopeful play is clearly indebted to Kafka and Sartre, as well as Christopher Durang, David Ives, and a whole host of short plays and Saturday Night Live skits. What makes Coffey’s piece unique is its matter-of-fact normalcy, the healthy marriage between God and Satan (far happier than most couples together for billions of years), the dialogue’s light touch, and the play’s commitment to its peculiar metaphysics.

The other Flat Earth Plays mostly fall — er — flat. Though MacDowell’s “Silent Night” is spooky, original, and compelling, his second play, “Ring Rust,” is a tired and poorly developed melodramatic yarn about an aging boxer whose wife and daughter urge him to accept an offer of $60,000 to fall in the fifth round. The play ends before we know his decision, which is good, but also before his character has been developed enough for the decision to matter, which is not. Will he take the money? No one cares.   

Lupe Flores’ “In My Hands, the Stars, the Stars” drips with melodrama and sentimentality. Its dysfunctional, sarcastic family, including an autistic brother who can always be counted on to repeat poignant words on cue like a parrot, is a cross between a made-for-TV Sally Field tear-jerker and Rain Man.   

Mellissa Marlowe’s “Win-Win Situation” is kind of funny but also sitcomy and superficial. Marlowe probes a newlywed woman’s disappointing sex life, but not very deeply. A slide show about nymphomaniacs provides multimedia fun, but without much payoff. 

One play stands out as neither great nor boring: the spectacularly interesting failure (and terribly titled) “Shattered Past and Broken Glass,” by Michael Burger. As Katie sits on a miniature chair at a perpetual tea party and talks to her horrifying patchwork bunny, ominously named Mr. Flopsy, visions of her dead father and the real presence of her husband Anthony compete for her attention and belief. Through a theatrically striking substitution, we see the child actor playing Katie replaced by her adult self, Cat (also the voice of Mr Flopsy), at the exact moment of her epiphany. As long as the audience doesn’t know quite what is going on, the piece has a compelling, baffling, maddening spark to it, but Burger finally ties up the play neatly in contrived exposition. 

The acting is generally strong throughout. John Poole, who stars in every piece, is remarkably versatile. He particularly shines as Dave (Satan from “Boxing Day”), the lead detective in “Silent Night,” and Katie’s Daddy in “Shattered Past.” Sophie Bolles’ Katie, for all the part’s pitfalls, is engaging and disturbing, and Julie Vaquera’s Cat is truthful and confused. 

For this reviewer, Flat Earth’s hits are slightly better than the misses are bad. As entertainment, they are ultimately worth the price of admission. Perhaps more importantly in the long run, as a forum for experimentation, this kind of work deserves our attention and patronage.

Like a shark, theater has to continue moving in order to avoid death by asphyxiation, to avoid choking on its own clichés. Yesterday’s shocking innovations become today’s tired conventions, so the medium must constantly reinvent itself to stay relevant, to refresh its cache of gestures, situations, and language. The spectacular failure of “Shattered Past,” like the banality of “Ring Rust,” may be the necessary sacrifice for the kind of risk that fosters the unique vision of “Silent Night” or the existential depth of “Boxing Day.”

We cannot have striking and original work without accepting many failures.  Kudos to the Overtime Theater for opening itself up to the 10-minute play’s inevitable risks and, thereby, its occasional rewards. •


The Flat Earth Plays
8pm Thu, 9:30pm Fri, 8pm Sat
Through Dec 13
$9-12; Thu roll the dice
The Overtime Theater
1216 West Ave.
(210) 380-0326

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