"Selfie!" a Sketchbook audience member yelled when asked to toss out a word that best sums up the state of civilization. The word also happens to accurately describe Sketchbook 14: 2049, Collaboraction's festival of 17 new short plays. As the "2049" might indicate, this year's fest has a postapocalyptic theme, but the offerings seem to mirror our current digitally driven times, giving us many a self-absorbed character high on pain, loneliness, and futility.
Some plays here feel like they're reaching out to the universe for the keys to unlock humanity. And some feel like they were dropped from outer space, only to begin drunkenly pounding on a neighbor's door to let them in. The play that without doubt gets handed the freaking keys is Asshole, Lisa Kenner Grissom's one-woman show about the "infernal ass pain" of having a hemorrhoid. Actress Sarah Gitenstein carries out Grissom's vision with dutiful joy, finding the high highs and low lows that come with complications from those "universally accepted ugly words" "anus" and "rectum."
But, I hear you querying, where does one woman's search for relief from ass pain fit into the postapocalyptic world? Right you'd be to wonder. This is Sketchbook's 14th year, yet even under guest curator Ike Holter, the plays fail to achieve much synthesis. "Pushing into the future" is how Holter describes the fest. The shows are "all about what it's like to be alive and human in Chicago," festival director Anthony Moseley said opening Sunday's performance. So is the focus now or the future? And if it's now, why summon 2049? One minute we're in the present, watching two young boys question god (and the worth of each other's dad) in Mackenzie Yeager's Boys and Violence. Then we're deep underground, waiting with a pregnant woman who might as well be waiting for Godot, in Jack Miggins's Until the World Is Beautiful. Often the juxtaposition of the shorts feels disjointed, with some taking the theme literally and some just not taking it.
At least many of the plays seem to ask the same questions, even if we don't get necessarily get answers. "I have full clearance to become a scavenger," says Mari in Holter's own piece, Dream Scenario, as she puts back a bottle of alcohol she was about to swipe. Constant alertness is what characters scavenge for in Nick Delehanty's Goodbye, Night, which imagines seven people on the verge of becoming the first in history to have no need of sleep. But other shorts fail to provoke, and the only thing I found really unnerving is the way some of the writers gathered material: one play's based on a YouTube video, another on a Facebook exchange.
Lengthwise, this year's fest has been sheared down to two 90-minute programs—a huge departure from the nine-hour opening day of last year's overstuffed fest. Some of this owes to Holter's decision to include several very short plays, a few of which run no longer than a minute. But for the most part these bog the show down rather than speed it along, and a couple seem designed for purely commercial purposes: in the case of two minis—one where a man kills himself before he realizes his friends have thrown him a surprise party and one totally unnecessary bit about NSA agents—you can pay $500 to play a walk-on role, part of Collaboraction's attempt to meet a $5,000 June fund-raising goal. It's a move that adds a layer of ick.
One thing about postapocalyptic worlds: they're usually dark and windowless. As far as I'm concerned, that's not an issue as long as there's some postapocalyptic air conditioning circulating. But while cold air gushed from the lounge connected to the performance space, the theater itself left many using the show's nicely designed programs for fanning rather than following along.
But if you can handle the heat, there are some moments of honesty worth the sweat. In Goodbye, Night, Jimmy, who's trying to talk his friend Nate out of the antisleep program, challenges him: What if dreaming is exactly where our greatest ideas come from? Then the two go off on a seeming tangent about Ms. Pac-Man and whether it's eating the electronic fruit or the little point-ridden pellets that ultimately scores you the victory.
"Points," Nate says. "That's how you win games."
"No, fuck that," Jimmy smiles. "Die for the fruit every time."