The sixth installment of "Subversive Shorts" debuted Thursday, just in time for the hottest, longest, most insufferable days of summer. Even with new air conditioners, the room boils with piercing, vile scorn. And that's exactly the way the folks at Subversive Theatre like it.
This year's 14 plays are presented in two programs. Thursday's Artaud "A" Night offered seven political plays held loosely together by the barest, most obvious narratives in this genre: the haves are evil and the have-nots are more than ticked. My hunch tells me that the Brecht "B" Night follows suit.
Fortunately, Subversive's productions usually paint between the lines of these complex pictures; the principles of political protest can be clear-cut, but the complexities of real life are not. Unfortunately, this evening's program played it safe and stuck to one basic premise. Much of the night is entertaining, but little of it is thought provoking.
On-stage talent makes up for it in a big way, though. These are smart performers, much smarter than some of their material. Their commitment to doing it well is appreciated, and saves some of these pieces from boredom. Others are fantastic.
Jason Furlani's "Rocket's Red Glare" kicks things off with a perfect comedic splash. Director Kelly Beuth, whose work appears three times in the Artaud lineup, is a pro with this brand of short-form satire. She's all about subtle winks and casual jabs, absurd characters and outrageous behavior.
John Aramini and Virginia Brannon are hilarious as two gleefully clueless parents, giving into their kids' inappropriate requests for the sake of a happy, peaceful dinner. When the desires of these very American kids reveal horrible truths about today's adolescents, the adults in the kitchen and in the theater seats laugh in tandem, but for very different reasons.
Murry Galloway eats the scenery in Howard Kinkade's "A Scene from the Factory," in which he plays an upper-level manager who patronizes a plant worker. His schlocky nuances bring out the imbecilic audacity of this executive's mental absence. Galloway is every horrible manager you've ever worked for.
The humor in Mary Steelsmith's "Seldom Is Heard," directed by Christopher LaBanca, is calmer and naturalistic. It concerns a war veteran, now brain-damaged and uncontrollably loud, and his attentive, exhausted wife. Their neighbors want him to stay inside, where his verbal scars will go unheard. Shayna Raichilson-Zadok grounds the vitriol that this wife would have every right to feel.
Danica Riddick gives a glowing performance as a neighborhood association member who asks Raichilson-Zadok's character to quiet her husband. It is Riddick's second strong performance of the night. Even in her first appearance, in LaBanca's painfully clichéd "The Quality of Mercy," about a high school shooting, Riddick is mesmerizing. She holds captivating restraint as a terrified teacher, the production's one real asset.
The evening's most impressive performance, however, is that of Jim McLaughlin's brilliant pantomime. His interludes might be misconstrued as mere comic relief, but they're much more than that.
Political theater, at its heart, pushes, pulls and turns us inside out. It incites our anger; it provokes our reaction and it gives us permission to be louder than we might otherwise be. McLaughlin's skillful performance manipulates us for applause, spoon-feeding our emotions and exploiting our intelligence, all for the benefit of his own ego. It is at once pathetic, conniving, clever and captivating.
It is as politically astute as these subversive messages get.
3 stars (out of four)
Presented through July 15 by ?Subversive Theatre Collective in the Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave. Tickets are $15-$20. ?Call 408-0499 or visit www.subversivetheatre.org.