Ten-minute plays are a demanding art form. In the time it takes most of us to run a mile, cast members have to economically introduce themselves and convince us they’re compelling enough to keep us hanging on for the remaining nine and a half minutes. The situation can’t be overly complicated but must be interesting enough for the audience to stay rapt. And the plot has to move quickly enough to come to a sense of completion in a sixth of an hour, but the wrap-up has to avoid being too easy, the resolution too after-school special.
Add to this the theme of Christmas and as an actor or playwright, you’ve really painted yourself into a corner.
Theater 150’s holiday undertaking — \”Saving Christmas! One Story at a Time!\” — gives us seven quick acts of bravery, assembled with the deft arrangement of a good mixed tape. All the prominent themes of Christmas take to the stage: family dysfunction, isolation and job dissatisfaction.
Valerie Levett’s \”Diamonds\” studies the gray holiday area that is Christmas Eve, where family expectations come crashing down around a well-intentioned mother and a chaotic family that isn’t on the same page. The hearth is all that remains after a quick transition to the next piece, Doc and Zoe Murdocks’ stark tale of a man slowly drinking himself through an existential crisis in \”A Gift from a Reverse Santa.\” A shadowy face-off between a chimney-hopping burglar and a forlorn shut-in ends “A Gift.” Next up is Jock Doubleday’s \”Star 69,\” a one-man show where protagonist Len is himself the stage dressing, as a disabled, rolling holiday force.
It is \”Star 69\” that gives the lineup pause. The first two plays are in the realm of the familiar — the humorous family holiday fiasco is followed by a slightly Hitchcockian bait-and-switch. But Doubleday supplies us with a deceptively challenging theatrical experience: there is no backstory, little discernible dialog. We are left to draw our own conclusions about the man who has chosen to deck out his wheelchair apparatus with Christmas lights that illuminate his frequent episodes of muscle spasms. We are also left wondering why this man of few words, this man who makes us mildly uncomfortable, is so compelling.
Deb Norton’s \”Humble Pie\” takes us back to the recognizable trappings of the holiday season, relegating us to kitchen duty with the two black sheep of the family, a charming, organic couple who fight off an invasive rodent while trying to win the acceptance of a hairsplitting family. Intermission marks a change of venue (figuratively speaking), and we are put in the company of a species on the verge of a nervous breakdown in Nealla Spano Gordon’s \”Holiday at the Dog Park.\” In addition to the predictably easy laughs always garnered by humans playing animals, Gordon plays with stage direction and, by refusing to put her actors on all fours, draws interesting parallels between the human and canine psyches.
A three-way collaboration between producer Chris Nottoli and actors Stuart Winecoff and Jeffrey Reeser gives us \”Waiting for Blitzen,\” an insight into North Pole working conditions. A revolutionary elf plays with spoken word and rhyme in an attempt to convert a co-worker to his way of thinking. There is a lot of potential here for holding up Christmas mythology to the harsh light of socialism for a little scrutiny. The three men speak in sharp dialog that is well played between the two young actors.
The collection comes to a languidly romantic close with \”The Sapling,\” Stephen Bauer’s peek at an amorous young man’s a.m. wake-up call to a classmate. Although sweet, \”Sapling\” was perhaps one revision away from being fully realized; the suitor speaks the nonsensical language of a guy in love. Why, despite shared history between the two, his potential ladylove suffers through both sub-freezing weather and a Seinfeldian monologue about shrubs? Still, her inexplicable patience makes for a stunning tableaux between the two and gives the talented young actors a lot of ponderous material to wade through. Bauer manages to create a moment seemingly frozen in time, heavy on the atmosphere of expectation and reversal.
Just as presents don’t simply appear under the Christmas tree without a little help, the set pieces don’t move themselves, and instead of black-clad stagehands we get the Sugarplums: Beth Baker, Felix Penny, Emily Thelander and Carina White, a ragtag ballet troupe that transforms the set to the strains of Tchaikovsky, and not without hijinx. Those interludes between acts that you usually ignore become just as engaging as the plays themselves.