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Short and Sweet 

Theater Review: One Acts

Last Friday, Burlington's City Hall Auditorium was host to what might have been promoted as Theater for Adults with a Short Attention Span, or as Educators Take the Stage for a Good Cause. Instead, the program just described it as An Evening of Ten-Minute One-Act Plays. To be precise, there were five such pieces: all modern, all except one with a two-person cast, all performed in contemporary clothing and on minimal sets, but in other ways diverse. The troupe presenting this event has a name with a bit more panache: Theatre in the Nude Round.

As it happened, the group, which boasts several professional educators but not a single professional actor, did not perform in the round. Instead they opted to use the auditorium's stage. If there was a little false advertising, allowance for poetic license had to be made, because the members of this local troupe, and their choice of pieces, more than lived up to the playfulness of their moniker. These theater enthusiasts had been assembled by Paul Curtiss, who both acted and directed in this production. If the members of Theatre in the Nude Round have nearly as much fun in the classroom as they appear to have on stage, they must be inspiring pedagogues.

In "Sure Thing," veteran skit-writer David Ives jazzes up the tried-and-true boy-meets-girl scenario -- in this case, Bill meets Betty. We're all familiar with those Hollywood romances where guys use great pick-up lines and everything goes according to formula. "Sure Thing" is nothing like that. Betty and Bill experience plenty of cliches, missed connections and rejections. But after each misstep, a bell rings offstage, and they get to start over again from before the offending line. For example, Bill states that he's "a straight down-the-ticket Republican." Ding! "Straight down-the-ticket Democrat." Ding! "I'm unaffiliated," is his final answer, but he goes on: "So what if I got a 2.0 at --" Ding! "...3.0 at --" Ding! "...4.0 at school." In other words, like Bill Murray in the movie Ground Hog Day, Betty and Bill get do-overs. If only we were all so lucky.

To say the least, this would be a shaky premise for a full-length play; eventually, the audience would tire of Betty and Bill's shifting characteristics. But for 10 minutes it's pure entertainment. Sure, messages can be pulled from Ives' text, but its chief benefit may be the vicarious thrill that results when the bell-ringer erases Bill's line, "So, what's a girl like you doing alone on a Saturday night?"

Actors Paul Curtiss and Judith Kurtz, along with director Nina Hulst, could have played up that effect by making the transitions a bit crisper -- sometimes Kurtz was still reacting to Curtiss' faux pas (or vice versa) well after the bell had rung. This trio did master delivering lines, and bell rings, with delightful variety.

After a series of rapid-fire "So what if I..." lines and instant bell rings, Curtiss asked, "So what if I don't have a penis?" There was a pause. The audience waited. Then, to roars of laughter and spontaneous applause, Curtiss grimaced, the question clear on his face: What if the bell doesn't ring? The pause had obviously been planned; the bell did ring, and the couple continued until each was tailor-made for the other.

"Ferris Wheel," by Mary Miller, is a more typical boy-meets-girl piece, but it still has plenty of quirks. Two strangers, John and Dorrie, share a seat on a Ferris wheel. John, a traveling salesman, smokes, but Dorrie convinces him to quit cold-turkey. Dorrie talks too much when she's nervous -- and she's afraid of heights. The Ferris wheel is a birthday tradition for her; her father used to say you should do something you're afraid of at least once a year. The two bond over their neuroses until they step off the Ferris wheel and part until, perhaps, next year.

Actors Todd Norman and Julie May Daniels, with the assistance of director Jonathan Silverman, delivered an endearing piece. Daniels' demeanor communicated the source of her nervous chatting -- sometimes her acrophobia and sometimes John's advances. Norman's performance balanced John's insecurities and worldliness such that it was believable, and not aggressive, for him to kiss her "to stop [her] from talking."

Christopher Durang's "The Hardy Boys and the Mystery of Where Babies Come From," which might be subtitled "Boy Discovers Girl -- Almost," straddles a line between irreverent and tasteless. As there was some non-traditional casting, it was hard to tell just how old the Hardy boys were supposed to be. Brian MacDonald and Jonathan Silverman played about half their real ages as Frank and Joe Hardy.

They did almost too good a job: Sometimes Frank and Joe came off as a bit too young to be around the sex-fiend Nurse Ratched, played by Kym Mooney. But the fact that this skit parodies the '70s TV show "The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries," in which Frank and Joe were in their late teens, places it safely in the realm of irreverent and makes it all the funnier that they must go "sleuthing" to find out why Nancy Drew has to get married just because she has "a bun in the oven."

"Anything for You," by Cathy Celesia, was the evening's most dramatic piece. But there is plenty of humor involved as soon as happily married Lynette interrupts Gail's small talk to declare, "I have to have an affair."

What starts out as banter between best friends soon escalates to a test of their friendship. Jenifer Tuck as Lynette and Nina Hulst as Gail worked well together; Tuck's bold performance contrasted with Hulst's often guarded demeanor. Tuck's broad, comfortable gestures indicated she just might be serious when she said "anyone's a candidate." Hulst's superficially prissy objections made one wonder who she was protecting -- Lynette, Lynette's husband, or herself.

"American Welcome," by Irish playwright Brian Friel, addresses a relationship that is neither romantic nor platonic. Rather, it is a business meeting between a loquacious American director named Bert and a playwright. Friel simply lists the playwright as "foreigner," but Bert calls him everything from John Smith to Tony Brown in a running gag that never gets stale.

Meanwhile, Bert rapturously praises the script. He has, he says, only two complaints: the language and the form. Because of the language, which includes terms like boot (as in trunk) and chemist (as in pharmacist), Bert has had the play "translated" for an American audience. And because of its monologue-based form, he has had that adapted, too; the result, apparently, is less an example of sensitive storytelling and more like the in-your-face approach of, say, director Baz Luhrman.

One can imagine that Friel wrote "American Welcome" to get a little of his own back (perhaps after a real-life conversation with an American director about, say, his monologue-based play Molly Sweeney). And he does: "American Welcome" is an excellent example of how a monologue should work. In short, it should be a dialogue, usually between a character and himself. ("To be, or not to be," Hamlet wonders, and argues for both options.) But "American Welcome" is much more clearly a dialogue -- between Bert and the playwright. It's just that the playwright never gets a word in edgewise.

Paul Curtiss, who both directed and played the foreigner, and Josh Demers as Bert understand this. Demers achieved a variety of tones in his performance while playing to the speechless Curtiss, who responded with memorable expressions. But they could have developed this "dialogue" even further; for example, Curtiss might have almost spoken several times and been cut off by Demers. Still, this rendition certainly got the spirit of the piece across.

The most remarkable element of Theatre in the Nude Round's performance was the troupe's obvious eagerness to experiment and play. True, they lacked the polish of professional actors; most of the pieces contained pauses that, while realistic, are out of place on stage where anything that takes up time must be justified or deleted. But these volunteer actors and directors made strong choices and created compelling pieces. Their decision to donate the proceeds to Straight Talk Vermont was a strong choice as well.

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Kristen Eaton

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