Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Shel's Shorts"

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note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Carl A. Rossi


Two Series of Short plays by Shel Silverstein:

Part One: Signs of Trouble
Directed by Wesley Savick

Part Two: Shel Shocked
Directed by Larry Coen

Neil A. Casey, Stephanie Clayman, Marin Ireland, John Kuntz, Laura Latreille and Robert Pemberston

And now for something completely different….my comments on a show that is STILL RUNNING (!): the world premiere (in repertory) of the late Shel Silverstein's SHEL'S SHORTS: PART ONE: SIGNS OF TROUBLE and PART TWO: SHEL SHOCKED, and you must, dear readers, get thee to the Market Theater, for two actresses – Laura Latreille (Part I) and Cynthia Clayman (Part II) – give two of the most hilarious turns to be seen in Beantown in recent memory (well, mine, anyway).

Those who know Mr. Silverstein only as a children's author may be surprised to find that in these short plays (sketches, really) he was a kindred spirit to the equally late Edward Gorey, whose oddball whimsy meshed with the sinister. Mr. Silverstein was also kin to Dave Ives ("Reflections on Ice Breaking") in that he had a "voice", could set up novel situations and knew not how to end them other than with blackouts. Most of these plays simply run out of gas, often when they just begin to travel (bits of Part Two are even carbon copies of Part One), but with the help of clever lighting, spacey music and an ingenious pop-open brick setting, one play segues into another (despite scene changes done in half light – ARGH!!!), so the effect is more "Meanwhile, on the other side of town…" rather than "Huh?" A world of sorts is thus created – which includes a finger-chewing Thing-in-a-box, killer ducks, a closed door behind which you ABANDON ALL HOPE, cold oatmeal in a purse, a vacationing husband who may not be human, and (whisper the word) "skronking".

Seven SHORTS in PART ONE: SIGNS OF TROUBLE do indeed deal with printed signs – statements or warnings – and the discussions/arguments they provoke and the unsettling conclusions they lead to. (If signs be Part One's theme, then the motto-less "Click" – where a husband and wife play Russian roulette in their bathroom – is out of place here.) PART TWO: SHEL SHOCKED – which begins with an alarmed close-up of Mr. Silverstein – is more random in its subjects, but no less off-kilter.

Part One's three actresses shine brighter than its three actors – they have the more interesting characters – "types" if you will – with enough handles to punch their roles into the two (if not three) dimensional. Stephanie Clayman gives a truly disembodied performance: submerged in a bathtub for all of "Click" (where she effortlessly slides from tormented wife into an all-too-eager participant in her husband's gunplay) and then dowdied and bewigged as an old woman who could have used a sign or two in her lonely life in the sentimental "No Soliciting" – you'd swear Ms. Clayman exists only in bits and pieces, but, happily, a complete human being comes out to take her bows. Marin Ireland, a pop-eyed beanpole, is wonderful in her variations on the role of the Ditz, and she has the honor of closing Part One with her recital (in a child's fluorescent dress) of the famous "Sahra Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out". No signs here, either, but a most arresting image.

Part One, however, belongs to Ms. Latreille. "Have a Nice Day" is a bit of fluff (two advertisers trying to combine a Happy Face and the Peace Sign for a client), but in "No Skronking" (which opens the show) and "Gone to Take a …", Ms. Latreille – so moving in last year's SIN and BASH – proves to be a most inventive (and subversive) comedienne. As Bertha the Waitress in "No Skronking", evading a diner's questions over what the "No Skronking" sign means, Ms. Latreille embodies every maternal, teased-haired woman who's handed out a grease-covered menu, which only adds to the surrealism of the piece (I expected Bertha to turn alien on the spot). No doubt the word "skronking" will pursue Ms. Latreille into the future ("Hey! What's Skronking?") but that's the happy price you pay when you make a role your own.

But Ms. Latreille's Big Moment comes when she is paired with Ms. Ireland in "Gone to Take a…". The scene is a cosmetics counter in a department store. To the buttoned-up horror of BJ (Ms. Latreille), her punk assistant Annette (Ms. Ireland) announces she must answer the Call of Nature by displaying a "Gone To Take a Shit" sign on the counter. The two lock horns over what is proper/improper, causing the repressed BJ to explode in a scatological tirade both disturbing and liberating to witness – and HILARIOUS as all get out. Truly. NO SHIT.

Happily, Messrs. Kuntz and Pemberston get their chance to shine in PART TWO: SHEL SHOCKED, even though it means the Misses Latreille and Ireland have to dim their own zaniness. In Part One, Mr. Kuntz more or less plays the hyper/hysterical characters and Mr. Pemberston, the "butches". In Part Two, their roles are reversed; thus they are amusing together as sex-obsessed plumbers in "Dreamers"; Mr. Pemberston even throws in a snooty/elegant turn in "No Dogs Allowed", suspecting that a woman's bundled-up husband in a No-Dogs-Allowed resort might really be a Man's Best Friend. Mr. Casey, who stole everything he could lay his hands on during his stint for SHEAR MADNESS ("Oooo….NICE!"), doesn't get the kind of variety that Messrs. K. & P. receive; but if you enjoyed his rabbitty fellows in Part One – and I did – he pulls more of them out of his hat in Part Two. Calling James Thurber….?

But this time around, it is Ms. Clayman who puts these SHORTS in her pocket and takes them home: simultaneously elegant and unhinged, with a rich, loopy voice pouring out of a matron's poker face. In "All Cotton", her irate shopper becomes a curse-laying witch when refused a refund for a shrunken blouse, and she had me stifling guffaws with her obsessing over a peeling cuticle in "Hangnail", babbling her way – and life – through a movie, having sex, attending a funeral and being robbed, among other encounters.

Both Parts perform the sketch "Abandon All Hope" (a doorway with its ominous warning) but with different interpretations. In Part One, Messrs. Casey and Pemberton conventionally perform before a door in an alleyway(?); in Part Two, Mr. Kuntz and Ms. Latreille play husband and wife at an airport, debating whether or not to pass through security? a departure gate? which takes on an added resonance what with all the jumped-up security that Frequent Fliers now have to face. And Mr. Kuntz is touchingly vulnerable as the brave/cowardly husband; I do believe this clown has it in him to make an audience weep as well as laugh.

Perhaps the Market Theater should put up its own signs – "CLOSING SOON", "LIMITED RUN", "IT'S A HIT!"; maybe even "I WOULD NOT SEE THIS SHOW IF I WERE YOU" – to lure audiences into Mr. Silverstein's warped little funhouse, which was only half-full when I attended Part One. The theatre is small, but the writing is good and the ensemble is talented – though you'll have to attend both Parts in order to see all six actors at their best.

"Shel's Shorts" (till 27 January in rep)
One Winthrop Square, Harvard Yard, CAMBRIDGE, MA
(617) 576-0808

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