It’s kind of a fun fact that 60 miles per hour means you are traveling an entire mile in a minute. Or 88 feet per second. In baseball terms, that means you could reach home plate from third base in a single second!
These are my thoughts when I travel on LA freeways (wishing I was traveling at 88 feet per second). So perhaps it is not surprising that these were the thoughts I had while waiting for Theatre Unleashed’s 25 plays per hour to begin: 25 short plays (sketches, really) means 24 scene changes and if the actors were really disciplined (they were) they could change sets in about 5 seconds (they did) to make each play (sketches, really) an average of 2 minutes 19 seconds. On average.
Now 139 seconds doesn’t seem that long, but I am reminded of Einstein who, when asked to explain relativity, responded with:
Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.
Sadly, the short plays (sketches, really) in this uneven production, both individually and collectively, are more hot stove than hot girl.
Sure, there were moments like Ian Federgreen’s quirky “Risk” which revealed that my personal experiences with the board game were more universal than I thought. But, more often than not, the moments were like Wayland McQueen’s “The General’s Speech” or Wendy Gough Soroka’s “In the Box” where half the length would have created twice the fun. Less is more even at 139 seconds.
Acting in pieces this short also poses special challenges: the characterization must be immediately crisp without becoming cliché. Though the cast is uneven, several actors demonstrated how to lift the material off the page. Courtney Sara Bell, for example, launches into a hyper-charged, wall-to-wall-words monologue on the existential nature of an empty chair that’s terrific. There is the on-stage magic between Bell’s oblivious old lady and the put-upon “little girl” (age 30), Michelle Hasson. Hasson and Bethy Poluikis are instantly believable as airhead Valley Girls. And I’d write something positive about Poluikis’ ability to tap into her inner ho but I’m worried about it being quoted out of context. Most of the pieces, however, lacked the strong finish required to signal the ending of the sketch emotionally rather than merely visually.
The shining gem in this lot of 25, in which both writing and acting united to create a moment, is Gregory Crafts’ “The Tweet Poet” with Alessandra Bonetti playing the titular character. It’s funny, contemporary, fresh. Bonetti, literally in an instant, builds a character based solely on a rhythmic speech pattern. #MoreLikeThisPlease.
Director Aaron Kozak supposedly crafted the sketch-to-sketch flow “in a specific order to provide an emotional crux and unique thru-line” but I must have missed it. And the inclusion of Rod Byrnes’s drama-heavy “The Box,” complete with guns, severed body parts, and death, felt like hitting a pothole at 88 feet per second. And I wished the program had identified which actors played in which sketch.
Short form isn’t easy. Ultra-short form is even harder. Much discipline is required to squeeze a clear arc into the time it takes to recite the Gettysburg Address. Like haiku, every syllable counts. It’s not easy. But it is possible. The twitter account @shitmydadsays has over 3 million followers with less than 200 tweets. There’s as much opportunity in 139 seconds as in 140 characters.
I wasn’t expecting all 25 of these sketches to be funny (to me). Comedy is a tough thing; people have different notions of humor. Even the best of the classic Saturday Night Live shows only had about 50% funny content in any given evening. But the hit-to-miss ratio in the 2013 version of 25 plays per hour is unsafe at any speed. I’m hoping next year’s model will be better.
Final thoughts on the 2013 Hollywood Fringe Festival: Ich bin ein Frïnger
Originally published June 26, 2013 in Bitter Lemons.