The air-conditioning wasn't the only thing underperforming on the opening night of Sketchbook. Collaboraction's annual festival of short plays begins its second decade by taking up the theme of evolution—but much of what's on display seems stuck in the primordial soup.
An assortment of 16 short plays and "devised" pieces (i.e., created through processes that don't center on a writer) presented in two programs of eight works each, the 2011 Sketchbook entries tend to stick close to the fest's focus on teasing out links between human emotions and technological advancements. And that may be the problem. Their fidelity to the announced theme reduces the chances for creative mutation.
The evening I attended kicked off with Ken Urban's Termination of Species, in which regular guy Henry discovers a VHS tape in his basement. On the tape, an alien named Steve reveals that the human race will soon be as kaput as Betamax. The cause of the extinction isn't clear, but based on the scene Henry's wife describes having witnessed at the supermarket, it sounds like something out of The Stand, Stephen King's novel about an apocalyptic superflu. People are simply dropping in their tracks.
Urban's gimmick of having a few audience plants get up and flee falls flat. People around me didn't seem to realize that the deserters were part of the show—and, given the heat in the theater, I figured at first that they just wanted to get some fresh air. If Urban's point is that our technology carries the seeds of our destruction, he should either put it on a firmer foundation or get a better handle on how to generate old-school, Outer Limits-style creepiness.
Focused on a teenage girl facing an intervention for her smartphone addiction, Mat Smart's I and My iPhone plays like a cutesy public service announcement about not letting texting get in the way of your real life. The actors—members of the A Red Orchid Youth Ensemble—are charming, but the idea that teens have a hard time letting go of their attachment to instant communication isn't revelatory. And neither is Danielle Littman's Dead Letters, in which a postman laments the extinction of handwritten love notes.
A few pieces meditate on the dangers and delights of physical love. Nathan, the hero of Jack Miggins's Confluence, has a "death button" on his leg that will kill him if it's touched. He falls in love with klutzy, adorable, symbolically named Joy, and—like John Travolta in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble—ditches the protective covering that keeps him alive but prevents him from fully engaging with life. In Meredith Miller's beguiling I Wish You Love, a ship (Miller, sporting a clever masted-schooner hat) and a lighthouse woo each other until the ship runs aground and breaks apart on the shoals of unwise passion.
The fourth wall comes under examination in Evolution. Both the author and main character of the piece, Kristoffer Diaz takes on New York Times critic Charles Isherwood, who singled out Diaz's The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity for indulging in what Isherwood called the "kudzu" of direct address. After rehashing his argument with Isherwood, Peter Sipla's Diaz pulls Sean Ewert's Isherwood out of the audience—along with an actual audience member who's asked to choose from a menu of play endings that range from Diaz punching Isherwood to the audience member giving Diaz a cuddle. It's a fun inside-baseball look at a theatrical spat, but the more evolutionarily transformative move would've been to let the audience member make up her own ending.
The evening's most thoughtful piece dispenses with the evolution theme altogether. Devised and performed by Meida McNeal, Felicia Holman, and Abra Johnson, Suspect Politic takes a Bell Hooks approach to black feminism with its rat-a-tat series of questions, answers, and accusations covering 40 years of debate in eight minutes: "How does black feminism make for a better world? Doesn't black feminism separate you from everyone else? What distinctions are you making between yourself and real feminists?"
Suspect Politic also provides a stiletto-sharp rundown of Strong Black Woman cliches in mass culture and a pungent reminder of the limited representations of black female experience, both in feminism and movies. It's raw, uneven, discursive, and the only piece I saw at Sketchbook that really strives to spark a dialogue. Amid a placid pool filled mostly with inoffensive offerings swimming in circles, Suspect Politic is the fish that's taking a walk up the bank.