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Sketchbook: not doodling anymore

"Reincarnate" puts a little heft back in Collaboraction's short-play fest

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Sketchbook has gotten a makeover this year, and it's about time. Collaboraction's annual exercise in sensory overload—combining short plays, live music, art exhibits, and alcohol consumption—had been at risk of falling into irrelevance as its party atmosphere and ever fancier production values threatened to overwhelm the playlets that were supposed to be at the center of things.

It didn't help that those playlets kept getting slighter and sillier. In the beginning, Collaboraction's rule that entries couldn't last longer than seven minutes may've freed talented writers and directors to experiment by finding the contours of an idea with just a few bold brushstrokes. But by the time "Sketchbook X" rolled around in 2010, the daffy, disposable pieces in the lineup weren't even sketches. They were doodles.

Well, things are different this time. The 12th Sketchbook, appropriately titled "Reincarnate," is more substantial than its recent predecessors and more sober. (Don't worry, though, there's still a bar). Of the five programs comprising the festival, only one follows the seven-minute rule. The other four collectively offer three half-hour plays and three one-acts clocking in at about an hour each.

If I had to pick a theme uniting the longer shorts, I'd say it's "nonfiction." With one notable exception, all of them are concerned with depicting real events, or the fuzzy line between real and fake events, or both.

The most straightforward is Lawrence Bridges's The Interview, in which a guest (a different one at each performance; it was hip-hop artist Himself at the show I saw) sits onstage and answers personal questions read by an actor seated in the audience. The guest doesn't know what's going to be asked, presumably so that we can get the unadorned truth—but the format is also wide-open to long-winded rambling. I kept wishing for a documentary filmmaker to come along and edit out the boring bits.

A far more effective use of factual information—and one of the festival's highlights—is Last Meal Man by Dani Bryant. Building on the actual last-meal requests of five well-known convicts, Bryant depicts a kind of last supper of the damned, with diners ranging from Gary Gilmore, the subject of Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song (he asked for whiskey), to Troy Anthony Davis, the prisoner who was killed by the state of Georgia last year despite questions about testimony in his case (he declined a meal). Bryant writes with compassion and demonstrates a keen eye for the telling detail. She capitalizes on the ritualistic aspect of mealtime and the power certain foods have to transport us back to childhood, recognizing, for instance, the heart-piercing poignancy in a desire to leave this world with a bellyful of Dr. Pepper and German chocolate cake.

Psychonaut Librarians by James Asmus and Crystal Skillman is entirely made up, but even here the question of what constitutes reality is a central focus. The comic-book-like plot involves a cabal of powerful librarians whose job it is to classify things as fictional or real and ensure that supposedly mythical creatures like werewolves, mermaids, and imaginary friends stay put in the alternate universe to which they've been consigned. The premise is intriguing, but the play gets bogged down in backstory and lacks a payoff.

The seven-minute plays would fit right in with any recent Sketchbook lineup. As a group, they lean to quirkiness (a guy wakes up with a finger growing out of his nose, a middle school assembly on obesity gets out of hand), vary widely in quality, and have a tendency to evaporate in your memory as soon as they're over. My favorites were solo shows: Invention of Falling by Kristin Idaszak and The Abducted by Greg Moss. In the former, a contestant (Mallory Ness) fulfills the talent portion of a beauty pageant by re-creating Galileo's experiment on the "universality of free-fall acceleration in a vacuum." In the latter, a die-hard believer in UFOs (John Zinn) leads us through a slide show detailing his wife's abduction by extraterrestrials. Each piece transcends its zany scenario—Invention of Falling by creating a sense of existential terror, The Abducted by communicating irrevocable loss.

And then there's Honeybuns. Written and performed by Dean Evans, this one defies categorization. The title and only character in this hour-long performance is a mischievous actor wearing bright yellow long johns that appear to be stuffed with inner tubes of various sizes. He looks like a pile of lemon custard and talks like Patrick Stewart. There are a few expertly executed pantomime sequences, but Honeybuns spends most of the show ribbing, cajoling, embarrassing, and coming on to members of the audience—sort of like Dame Edna, only hornier. He asks to go through the dirty photos stored on our cell phones, persuades us to mime lewd gestures, does his best to unsettle the room, and somehow manages to make us laugh at our own discomfort. I know it sounds scary, but that's sort of the point. Honeybuns's credo is a rallying cry against complacency of any sort: "Goddammit . . . you're supposed to be a little bit terrified."

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