Just as I put a figurative pen to paper in commentary about last night’s performances at Glen Street Theatre of “Shorter and Sweeter”, a ping announced the special offer: a two seats for one deal. Clearly seat sales are poor. All I can say is “with good reason”.
The pre-season hyperbole from the copywriters should have aroused some caution. “One of the most exciting innovations in Australian Theatre in recent years…..” . The quote from the Sydney Morning Herald’s un-attributed critic (certainly no Frank Rich) was ambiguous: “To taste the state of Australian Theatre, try Short +Sweet.”
Like so many innovations, this genre has been around much longer than the organisers of the Short+Sweet ten minute playfest may have admitted to themselves. Sketches, comedy routines, review items, short monologues have been presented since actors first stood in front of audiences. And many a poetry reading could surely be considered to fit the mould. At the micro end of the scale, one enduring example is “Too Much Light”, a setting which can squeeze up to thirty plays into sixty minutes. It began in Chicago in 1988, apparently as a response to young people’s disillusionment with traditional theatre and their, now, ubiquitous shortening attention span. Samuel Becket has “Breath” to his credit, running less than forty seconds. Generally acknowledged as the shortest opera, Darius Milhaud’s “The Deliverance of Theseus”, runs only seven minutes. (Trivia experts, however, may claim Welsh composer Peter Reynold’s “Sands of Time”). Having no personal experience of these works, it is perhaps unfair to cite them, an indulgence permitted only by the magic of Google. “Breath” was performed in Melbourne last year in a program of nine Beckett short plays which Alison Croggon reviewed, writing at the end that this was “theatre cut back to its most essential elements, the body in space, the breath, the word, light and darkness, inescapable transience.”
Would that I could have been so moved last night. The evening opened with a rather hackneyed mobile phone joke. We were supposed to be taken in by the startled actress repeating her lines, overcome with emotion at the carelessness of a couple of audience members. Surely in the real actor’s world, today’s NIDA graduates are trained to carry on regardless in the face of phones, faintings, flatulence and whatever else an audience can throw at the stage.
The second item “Hi, it’s me, I’m on the train”, another (mock) mobile phone enabled piece, was more promising. It was tight, well acted and a neat commentary on the community of the commuter. The only difficulty was inherent in its tightness, with simultaneous conversations going on, at times it was difficult to keep up
Sadly, the promise was less than fulfilled in ”The Rehearsal”, a standard theme piece about preparing for the difficult human interaction about to occur. While well enough acted, the writer had not quite worked out whether this was comedy or drama, leaving the audience somewhat underwhelmed.
The only import, from the USA, was boring and pointless. It should have been left at home. “49 stories about Brian McKenzie”, a piece of mime with slide show, gave the poor actor nowhere to go. The polite applause expressed sadness for a competent actor working with poor material.
“Perfect Stillness” fared better in the hands of its three presenters. But even here the emotional promise of tearing truth from the necessary white lies of a relationship, told in the development of a eulogy for a departing partner, was lost through an inability to express the intensity of loss and fear for the memories.
Rugby journalist and playwright Alex Broun’s elegantly staged piece “10,000 cigarettes” was a pleasant interlude, reminiscent of university reviews of the past. It lacked bite, however, in dealing with the addiction and its ever-present scourge.
Jimmy Drake’s 1950s hit song “Transfusion” came to me during the staging of “Mandragora”. Supposed to be a car crash victim’s battle to acknowledge his fault, this play failed to grip with any intensity whatsoever. It may have been the distraction of marbles tossed into jugs in a sort of “loves me, loves me not” game of spot the real memory, or it may have been overacting on the part of the victim. Anyway,in Jimmy Drake’s words, he’s “never, never, never gonna speed again”, of that we can be certain.
We were then whisked back to the university revue style, but of a decidedly non ivy league establishment. “Trough” is an inconsequential sketch about three urinal deodorant tablets. It tried to tell a little story about self-esteem and respect. It failed.
“Sleepless Night”, a sort of 10 minute “When Harry Met Sally” of mutual dislike turned into happy ending was a welcome finish, not because it continued the failings of the earlier pieces, but happily because it was presented with flair and was well written, giving the actors something to work with.
Why most works of the evening met with less than half hearted response may perhaps be best answered by the playwright/scriptwriters. Short form genres of all types have particular issues, long overcome by poets, short story writers, composers of music (and indeed filmmakers, if Tropfest is anything to go on). If something is to be “cut back to its most essential elements” the ideas must be focused, the intent clear, the words tight, and the editing superb. Only then can the actors employ their skills to good effect: “the body in space, the breath, the word, light and darkness, inescapable transience.”
Short+Sweet would do well to consider not only Alison Croggon’s words, but the short works of the man that prompted them and his like.