Saturday, June 11, 2011

Higher Education with the Pink Banana

Another Evening of Shorts With The Banana

By Russ Bickerstaff
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I could watch a different theatrical shorts program every week and be a very, very happy person. There’s a definite appeal to going into a single program for a series of shorter pieces that you just don’t get with the format of a single, longer program. Shorts programs end up being few and far between. One of the longest consecutively running shorts programs in Milwaukee—um . . . perhaps the only one currently running if I’m not mistaken . . . Pink Banana Theatre’s annual shorts program is always a lot of fun . . . the wildly erratic parade of drama, comedy, dramatic comedy and comedic drama ends up being hugely entertaining. Opening this weekend, Pink Banana’s latest is a bit more polished and less erratic than it has been in previous years. And while it may lack in that wild, chaotic charm that had been the hallmark of previous years’ shows, there is more than enough to recommend this year’s Banana shorts. Here’s a briefly long-winded look at the program short-by-short:

Toguh Cookie by Rich Orloff

A high school kid and his parents consult with a lawyer regarding his inadvertent lunchtime homicide. On one level, it’s a cute dark comedy. On another level—well—Orloff seems to have dropped the ball on any deeper exploration of some of the deeper darkly comic implications of accidental homicide in a school lunchroom. Uncharacteristically weak ending for an Orloff short. The production itself is very exaggerated and cartoonish Exaggerating the wacky surreal nature of the script does it no favors. Orloff’s stuff is naturally bizarre and surreal, so exaggerating it makes it lose its bite. Had the conference between client and lawyer played out more like a straight ahead scene from a bizarre episode of Law & Order, the scene would’ve played much better. Kris Puddicombe puts in an interesting performance as a redneck father to Rob Maass as a boy (Rob Maass) who killed over the potential theft of a cookie from his mother (played by Karina Lathrop.)

The Grade by Meghan McGee

Broadminded co-founder’s first of two pieces that were evidently originally intended for use in a program by the sketch comedy group. This first McGee sketch has a pair of teachers addressing a pair of students’ as they dispute their grades. It strikes me as being kind of a weaker Broadminded piece—one of those that might’ve been found uncomfortably sandwiched between two nearly brilliant pieces in a Broadminded show. The piece is clever enough, but there’s not much here that’s actually funny . . . and clever comedy that fails to be funny ends up coming across as merely smug, which isn’t terribly comfortable. It’s a pleasure to see Marion Araujo as one of the teachers here. With relatively little given to her in the script, she’s exotic, precise and intellectual. She’s made interesting appearances in a number of productions now. It’d be nice to see her in something more prominent.

Guess Who Died? by Allison Gruber

My personal vote for best short in the program, this short involves a relationship between two women who dated in school. The sweethearts are seen here years later having settled into a life together for quite some time. 

Beth Lewinski puts in a very sharply intuitive performance here as an English Lit teacher named Georgia. Lewinski’s comic instincts are weighted and balanced here remarkably well in a role that requires her to modulate pretty deftly between comedy and drama. Mandy Marcuccilli plays her partner Rose. Some of the dialogue here is absolutely brilliant. It’s very subtle in places. The argument the two of them still have over the deision to buy Folger’s coffee quite some time ago is delivered beautifully. (“You brought Folger’s into this house,” is one of the single best lines in the entire program. Lewinski delivers it with a very exhausted, very lived-in sort of passion.) And though she’s been featured semi-prominently before, I still feel like Lewinski doesn’t get enough prominent roles. She’s very, very good . . .

Gruber’s script has plenty of moving parts that will be of particular interest to those who spend a lot of time writing . . . those who have spent a lot of time in English Lit classes in particular. Comedy mixes with the drama of loss in a very, very cool package Alan Piotrowicz has done a good job of directing the pacing and movement of the piece. He’s directed a couple of other things in Milwaukee, but here we probably know him better as a freelance lighting designer who has worked with Milwaukee Chamber ,Milwaukee Rep, Next Act, Youngblood and so on. He’s working with some really good talent here, but there’s no questioning that the talent is really well directed.

Guess Who Died is a really good reason to see the program, actually. And you could probably leave at intermission without missing too much, but you would miss seeing a particularly surreal piece by Radio WHT’s Chalres Sommers featuring another rare performance by UWM grad Megan Kaminsky.

The Dilemma  By Sammi Ditloff 

Two college guys (Rob Maass and Michael T. Black) discuss the etiquette of social networking via Facebook in a particularly weak piece by Sammi Dittloff (who puts in a really good comic performance as a student in Megan McGee’s The Grade.) The dialogue works on a surface-level kind of comedy that serves it pretty well. Much of the strength of the piece seems to rely on an appropriation of Hamets “To Be Or Not To Be,” speech adapted to apply to the question of whether or not to Friend a woman in one’s class that one has not actually talked to. Clever, okay, but to someone who has seen quite a few comic adaptations of that monologue it’s not terribly funny. And again, cleverness without humor comes across to me as smug. To be fair, the audience seemed to like this one opening night. I failed to enjoy it as much as everyone else did.   

The Sound of One Loaf Baking By Charles Sommers.

Author of most of the material performed by retro-vintage radio comedy Wisconsin Hybrid Theatre, Charles Sommers puts in a truly surreal bit of allegory in this one. UWM grad Mgan Kaminsky plays Juliana Baker—a woman who seems destined to enter the occupation of her namesake like so many else in her family. She wants to break free from it to assert her own identity. She is caught between the Christianity represented by her father (played by Howie Magner) and the Buddhism espoused by her friend’s father (played by Joaquin Rodriguez.) Baking is used as a metaphor for exploring two drastically different religions in a way that recalls some of motifs central to The Nuclear Platypus Church of Arglebargle. Megan Kaminsky is profoundly sweet as the central character on a search for self-awareness in a short with that rare quality of becoming more funny the more it’s analyzed.

Portuguese By Megan McGee

The program of shorts ends with another uncharacteristically unimpressive piece by the usually sharp comic mind of Megan McGee. Here we have a sketch placed quite specifically in a Portuguese class in Curtin Hall at UWM. Allix Lahren plays the only student to sign-up for the class—which ends up being taught by a disturbingly interactive cassette tape voiced by Marion Araujo. Student and recording reach an agreement in another smugger than funny comic sketch. I got a bit distracted by this one . . . it reminded me of an old video sketch from the ‘80’s by the Funny Boys. I’d seen it like . . . once back in the early 1980’s on television. Kind of weird for a Megan Mcgee sketch to remind me of something I honestly hadn't thought about in over twenty years. I googled it and, sure enough the thing’s online. Here it is.

It’s a bit odd to see two less than impressive bits by McGee on a single program. I’m looking forward to what will undoubtedly be much better, far more recent work by McGee in the next Broadminded show

 

This year’s Pink Banana show may not have the kind of bizarre diversity found in previous offerings, but between the pieces by Gruber and Sommers, this is a show well worth seeing.

Pink Banana Theatre’s Higher Education runs through  June 18th at the Tenth Street Theatre, visit Brown Paper Tickets.com

 

 

 

 

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