It's not always clear whether the folks at Subversive Theatre actually want to overthrow the government or if they want us to think that they do.
You can give them this much: They don't back down from their mission. In this year's Subversive Shorts showcase, the theater's fifth and largest installment of one-act plays, 12 local and national playwrights offer their viewpoints on American life.
It's not the warm slice of apple pie Americana that Normal Rockwell fit onto his canvases. Nor does it have the quaint and anecdotal bliss of a public radio address. No, this is the kind of political theater that screams from the boards and into the lobby. It's the kind that enters your mind in the auditorium and stays for hours, or days. It's the kind of social-action grandstanding that soapboxes were made for, and when done properly, call spectators to action.
This evening of shorts has its heart lodged appropriately between anger, dissidence and paranoia. But it might be barking up the wrong tree.
Theatrically speaking, things are in fine tune here. On the premiere night of Program B of the festival's lineup (Program A night alternates with B, with seven different plays in each lineup), we're treated to brief, intimate performances that try in earnest to make that leap off the stage and into our consciousnesses. Things move smoothly and are well rehearsed, for the most part, something that might seem counterintuitive when you consider the logistics of producing 14 plays with 10 directors.
Politically speaking, we run into the common trap niche theater companies like Subversive have, where a preaching-to-the-choir feeling sets in loud and early. But given company founder and director Kurt Schneiderman's involvement in Buffalo's Infringement Festival, hitting the pavement in Allentown and downtown next month, perhaps we realize that some topics are good to review once more.
Comedy sets the evening's pace in Rich Rubin's "Don't Ask," in which Sesame Street's favorite domestic duo Bert and Ernie square off against a congressional subcommittee about the nature of their relationship. It's obvious to them what their living arrangement is, though to the human committee members, their happy life together is ludicrous.
It ultimately comments louder on the bureaucratic overscheduling of government meetings, of committees and subcommittees, and probably sub-subcommittees, than the nature of who should be living with whom. The ripped-from-the-headlines framework is as uninspired as even the best "Law and Order," but these are such nuanced puppet performances that you're more than happy to go along for the ride.
Other pieces are more jolting and poignant, like Michael O'Donohoe's "Death Panels," a monologue about the health care industry given so sternly and vulnerably by Heather Fangsrud that you can't imagine her not being an actual nurse. This piece, easily the night's most heart-wrenching, does suffer from PSA-style preaching, but it has all the conviction and truth that is required. So you are left nodding your head in empathy and disgust.
It's the program's most successful piece thanks largely to Fangsrud's conviction. While it milks its sorrow like a Lifetime movie, there isn't a person in your life with whom you can't associate its harrowing stories of medical and financial burden. You just can't argue with an honest reaction.
The weakest link of the evening's plays is Jeff Stolzer's "Small World," a darkly comedic (though hardly either) piece about corporate downsizing and C-level pay-raises. Maybe its story of bloody revenge is misplaced in 2011, as true as it may still feel to some across the nation. But it still doesn't resonate, due to simple, lazy direction.
Whether we are enticed by the theater of real-life politics, or look for real-life politics in the theater, there's a lot happening on these stages. It's distinguishing the actors from the elected officials that tends to be the tricky part.
"Subversive Shorts 2011"
3 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: Through July 17
WHERE: Presented by Subversive Theatre in the Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave.