There are two kinds of short-play festivals.
In one, the members of a company see what they can scrabble together in a mad rush from blank page to lit stage, usually popping out a handful of playlets in a weekend. It’s a lot of fun, and seldom produces any shows worth doing again (but nobody expects it to).
In the other, a company invites playwrights to submit short works, then chooses a half-dozen or so to mount — usually in an evening of theatre that gets a regular run. This is the only way most short plays ever get seen, so most writers are pretty serious about the works they send (no mere bagatelles), and most companies are serious about producing them.
Out San Pedro way, a small company named Little Fish has been holding the second kind of festival for 15 years now. For the current “Pick of the Vine,” more than 700 playwrights sent in one play each. (That’s right — 700 plays. In San Pedro.)
The judges selected 9 winners, and the troupe has spent the last couple of months creating a show that will run through mid-February. It’s lively evening, full of variety — and rich in surprises.
Four of the plays are dramas, and five are comedies. Eight actors handle the 28 roles, and four directors divide up the duties. Things get a little busy between plays, but the changes are swift and (thanks to some clever design work by Christopher Beyries) at times a source of delight.
Interestingly, all four dramas are two-handers. Ten minutes isn’t much time; each of the four authors uses it wisely, keeping a tight focus and deepening our sense of character and conflict.
In Wheelchair (by Hollywood screenwriter Scott Mullen), two strangers meet in a park. Their curiosity about a nearby couple takes us to a place we can’t foresee. Bill Wolski’s brash fellow unwittingly peels himself like an onion, while Olivia Schlueter-Corey’s charming woman uses others’ underestimation of her like an aikido master. Director Richard Perloff’s light hand lets the tension beneath the new friendship build almost subliminally, so the reveal is a slap.
By contrast, Screaming (by Stephen Peirick, a Little Fish alum now in St. Louis) begins in high tension and winds steadily higher, as a young couple struggles with severe post-partum depression — an arrival they didn’t expect. Jessica Winward makes us feel her death-grip on the frayed end of her rope; and Wolski nicely delivers her confused mate’s stumbles toward empathy. Perloff again keeps things on the understated side, even in the midst of rising hysteria.
Although it’s a drama, taking us into its characters, Thick Gnat Hands (by New York’s Erin Mallon) includes laugh-out-loud comedy. As a dialysis-clinic veteran, Don Schlossman bubbles over with an enthusiasm that makes first-timer Wolski’s anxiety unbearable. Director Elissa Anne Polansky lets the mix simmer but not boil, so we reach the deeper levels of emotion beneath the laughter.
The Way It Really, Truly Almost Was (by veteran Seattle dramatist Brendan Healy) is the most ambitious drama, sliding between reality, memory and imagination in a mere 10 minutes. Schlossman bares the hope and suffering of a man whose beloved lies comatose; Holly Baker-Kreiswirth embodies calm in the face of death, and a love that tries to guide her mate. Polansky’s delicate touch holds this piece on the edge of pathos, and our eyes are never dry.
All five of the comic plays benefit from a playful inventiveness, in the writing and in the production.
Santa Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (by Boston’s Patrick Gabridge) has the simplest premise: Parents wonder when to tell their son about Santa Claus. Geraldine Fuentes and Rodney Rincon are an irrepressible pair, improvising boldly amid the debris of shattered myths, and Brendan Gill gives their son a nice naivete. Director Gigi Fusco Meese maintains a brisk pace, while keeping the stakes high.
I Don’t Know (by James McLindon, a New York lawyer turned writer) also builds on a simple conceit — a drill instructor tries to use age-old marching chants with a group of modern recruits. Rincon rings the frustrated DI’s changes deftly, while Wolski, Gill, Schlueter-Corey and Baker-Kreiswirth gingerly challenge him. The ensemble — tight as a parade team — keeps the satire sharply topical but light.
Another simple idea underlies A Very Short Play about the Very Short Presidency of William Henry Harrison (by Connecticut’s Jonathan Yukich, a Kennedy Center honoree). In a swift handful of scenelets, Rincon slideshows through the would-be statesman’s rapid decline, with Schlossman as his imperturbable aide. Meese makes it tick, and lets us laugh about our dark fear — an ambitious, incompetent chief.
A Womb with a View (by New York’s widely produced Rich Orloff) has a more complex setting — an infant’s about to enter this dimension, aided by an otherworld clinical team. Baker-Kreiswirth oscillates between eagerness and terror, while Fuentes, Schlueter-Corey, Winward and Gill ineptly assist her. Perloff shows a sure comic hand, never letting the goofy machinery slow the 11th-hour story.
The Holy Grill (by New Jersey theatre prof Gary Shaffer) has the most complex comic setup. Two worlds collide as a couple seeking prenuptial counsel get interrogated by detectives. Rincon and Schlossman create a good cop/ bad cop team with a borscht belt flavor; Winward and Wolski are increasingly rattled innocents.
Despite some muddled blocking, the actors make it work.
The fact that 700 authors sent in plays for “Pick of the Vine” might seem to say that today’s playwrights are desperate to have their work produced. And perhaps they are.
But the quality of these plays — and the almost uniformly high quality of their production — says more about Little Fish Theatre. This company invests seriously in its short-play festival (they even pay the actors!), and the word is on the street: If you want your best short play done proud, send it to San Pedro.
And if you want to see some of the best short plays being written, smartly staged by talented thespians, get yourself to San Pedro. “Pick of the Vine” is well worth a bit of driving.
“Pick of the Vine,” written by nine authors, directed by four directors.
Presented by Little Fish Theatre, 777 Centre St., San Pedro 90731.
Thursdays (except Jan. 19) at 8:00,
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through February 11th.
Tickets: <www.littlefishtheatre.org> or (310) 510-6030.