First Annual Playwrights' Party/Kid Dinosaur | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

First Annual Playwrights' Party/Kid Dinosaur 

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FIRST ANNUAL PLAYWRIGHTS' PARTY

Wild Onion Theatre Company

at No Exit Cafe and Sheffield's School Street Cafe

KID DINOSAUR

Stage Left Theatre

It would be difficult to assess Picasso's entire oeuvre by looking at just one of his early sketches. Similarly, it's hard to tell a playwright's potential by looking at just one scene. There may or may not be a great playwright lurking behind one of the brief plays and monologues on display at the Wild Onion Theatre Company's First Annual Playwrights' Party, performed at Sheffield's School Street Cafe and the No Exit Cafe--it's a tough call. The first two programs in the three-program festival, "Satirical Sketches" and "The Guys Nite Out," offered brief--often too brief--glimpses into the work of ten different writers.

Though Wild Onion bills this as a playwrights' fest, it's more a showcase for the performers and Wild Onion's own quirky style of theater. The brevity of the works makes it impossible to form any cogent conclusions about the playwrights' talents--indeed, if you didn't know this was a playwrights' fest, you might not necessarily assume that a playwright had a hand in some of these pieces.

"Satirical Sketches" offers a quintet of politically correct segments that are sometimes amusing, sometimes dull, sometimes promising, and sometimes incomprehensible. With the exception of Jeanne E. Martinelli's staged poem, Roots Grow Towards Their Water Source, these sketches rely heavily on audience participation--unfortunate, given the size of the audience Wild Onion had to pick from on the night I attended.

Pen as Shield/Pen as Sword, by Joseph Fedorko, takes us to an Amnesty International meeting where the group rep, played by Sue Parcell, entreats us to write letters on behalf of a political prisoner while she questions the effectiveness of AI's letter-writing campaigns. In Assault and Battery, by Sandra Steingraber, one woman presents her version of what happened when she "assaulted" a police officer while an audience member reads from a transcript of Oliver North's congressional testimony; the cruel irony is that a woman tells the truth and gets railroaded while the glib North dupes Congress and becomes a national hero. In Tyrone Finch's I Will Not Shut Up! a finger-pointing homeless person rails against our hypocrisy and complacency. In Sandra Bykowski's Vision in Crisp Manila a phone is passed around to various audience members who are invited to try to reach a "supervisor" through a dense tangle of red tape.

What Wild Onion calls its "in your face" staging grows tiresome after a while, especially when the audience participants aren't really allowed to participate. The performers either yell at them, stare them down, tell them what to do, or cut them off in mid-sentence--not exactly playing fair. This method doesn't really break down the fourth wall; it just puts it in a different place. I kept thinking of my mother's Yiddish phrase, something like: "First time's OK, second time's all right, and the third time I'll give you a hit in the head."

Wild Onion does a little better with its second program, "The Guys Nite Out," mainly because a couple of these sketches allow for some good performances. O'Niell's, by Dominic Taylor, is about a coupla guys sittin' around drinking and talking about chicks, sports, and fights. The play is second-rate Mamet and far from complete, but Hugh Callaly as a guy who likes to slam his fist into people's heads and Dean Dedes as something of a lip fetishist make the work come to life. Watching these two is like eavesdropping on some entertaining folks at the next table. Break, by Robert Poole, is an intense monologue about a man's life in prison. Tom Daniel has a burning, whacked-out quality that's riveting. Daniel provides some of the few occasions when the "in your face" technique actually works; he creates a tangible discomfort in the audience.

The other three pieces in "The Guys Nite Out" are less successful. In Greengrocer, by Ted Ziter, a produce man gets the attention of a female audience member by discussing her ripe melons and succulent cherries, then tells her about the demise of his father; it's crude but not clever. I Remember Mimi, Carol Bates's brief scene of a cigar-chomping Hollywood exec reminiscing about an old-time actress, is a little whisper that ends before it has a chance to go anywhere. And Mark J. Dalton's 1 of U Guize, a sort of deconstruction of gangsterspeak that invites audience members to engage in a squirt-gun fight, is cute but not much more.

Some of the pieces in these programs do show potential, but a format that squeezes five plays into an hour allows little room for the playwright to grow. True, there are great ten-minute plays (such as Pinter's latest, Mountain Language) just as there are great four-hour ones, but when a company is obviously much more concerned with its own needs than with the author's, the work will inevitably suffer.

Last weekend Stage Left Theatre opened its first children's production, Kid Dinosaur, a musical comedy by Jim Houle with music and lyrics by Amy Wooley and Adam Wilner. It tells the tale of a young dinosaur who must convince the ineffectual Queen Tyranna to clean up her kingdom before Tyrell the Terridactyl tears down Raincloud Forest to make way for a new trash heap; along the way it offers a few musical numbers, comic sequences, and a hip 90s moral about recycling and the importance of listening to the voice inside us that tells us the right thing to do.

The performers are enthusiastic, the backdrop magnificent, and the costumes and makeup jobs rather icky and unappealing: the dinosaurs tend to look more like bullfrogs. Though much of the dialogue and many of the songs sound as recycled as the pop cans in Dinosaur Kingdom, Dennis McCullough's direction keeps the show bouncy and entertaining enough for an audience that may well be hearing Kid Dinosaur's messages for the first time.

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