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Review: Shorts Gone Wild 6 is long on laughs and talent

SouthFlorida.com correspondent

In many ways, Shorts Gone Wild 6 is an impressive numbers game.

The annual summer collaboration between Wilton Manors’ Island City Stage and Miami’s City Theatre this year features seven short plays by six playwrights (Rich Orloff wrote two), six versatile actors working up a sweat in multiple roles, three designers (plus two more for props and wigs) and a musical director, stage manager and theater staff.

That’s a lot of talent deployed in the service of plays that last just 10 to 15 minutes each.

An outgrowth of City Theatre’s enduringly popular Summer Shorts Festival, Shorts Gone Wild 6 is the original fest’s looser, more outspoken LGBTQ-themed cousin.

Less elaborately produced, this program asks its actors to be supple at improvisation, as the performers interact with audience members who pull numbers out of a hat to determine the running order of the plays. This year, each of the lucky “volunteers” was asked whether his or her “first time” was good, bad or ugly (details not encouraged). Since the chosen ones were usually sitting with a spouse or partner, “good” was the safe and popular choice.

As is usually the case, this edition of Shorts Gone Wild is a mixed bag, one heavy on comedy yet capable of suddenly tugging at your heartstrings. A couple of them don’t quite land — even short plays can have dramaturgical issues — but most communicate, connect and entertain.

Michael Leeds’ “Triple Threat,” staged by Island City artistic director Andy Rogow, is an inside-theater hoot. A director (Jovon Jacobs) and choreographer (Daniel Llaca) are holding auditions to try to find the perfect Laurey for their production of “Oklahoma!” The guys are exes, and between seeing actors, they snipe and bicker (hilariously). The first actress (Daryl Patrice) picks the wrong audition song, which she sings off key. Then comes Emily (Casey Sacco), a true triple threat singer, dancer and actor — with a surprise something extra. Leeds’ message is that the pendulum between acceptance and prejudice can swing quite suddenly.

In Joe Gulla’s “Sleeping With the Fishes,” “The Sopranos” gets an LGBTQ twist. Don (Llaca) and Ron (Noah Levine) are a pair of Jersey boys, married with children, taking the Staten Island Ferry back from a hit. They’re full of tough bravado not quite masking a secret: They’re crazy for each other. Director John Manzelli guides Llaca and the exquisitely funny Levine to performances that walk the line between mob-guy parody and genuine feeling.

Orloff’s “The Crass Menagerie,” staged by Gail Garrisan, is arguably the highlight of Shorts Gone Wild 6. A parody of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” the play features extreme versions of Williams’ familiar Southern Gothic characters.

The Wingfields become the Wingnuts, with aspiring playwright Tim (Jacobs) narrating and interacting with his disabled sister, Clara (Patrice), and his lascivious mama, Miranda (Christina Groom). The gentleman caller Jimmy (Levine) isn’t the engaged almost-white knight of “The Glass Menagerie,” and when he reveals that women with disabilities turn him on, Miranda claims a host of heretofore unseen medical problems as she slowly removes Jimmy’s tie and belt. And Clara? She’s a collector, all right, but not of pretty, innocent-looking glass figurines.

Orloff’s “Defender of the Tender Gender Bender,” staged by Rogow, features a precocious kid named Sandy (Levine) who’s about to go to a new school. His parents, Roberta (Groom) and Carl (Llaca), are worried, because their not-so-little bundle of energy is a hermaphrodite — the term Sandy prefers to “intersex” — and the school has asked that Sandy enroll as a girl or boy but not both. Sandy pitches an amusing and ever-varying fit, even as the parents’ try to be gently encouraging and supportive, but the play ends weakly.

Llaca, Jacobs and Levine all get a chance to shine in R. Eric Thomas’ “When You Put It Like That, It Just Sounds Ridiculous.” Director Garrisan and the actors find all the poignant moments — and there are many — in the story of the transgender Liz (Llaca), her gay brother and confidante, Ezra (Jacobs), and a potential boyfriend named Ben (Levine), whom Liz is having a hard time reading. Llaca’s Liz, sharing her hopes and insecurities as she dreams of her first romance as a woman, is especially moving.

Staged by Manzelli, John Bavoso’s “Plus One” features Groom as Shari, a lesbian who has been out for two decades, Sacco as her partner Deanna, a woman in her first same-sex relationship. Things have gone quickly south at a family wedding after Deanna punched Shari’s 80-year-old grandmother. The younger woman is full of bravado — turns out she had a good reason for doing what she did — but as the conversation shifts from her aggression to the couple’s relationship, deeper feelings and vulnerabilities are revealed.

“What Happened at the Dolphin Show,” a mini play-with-music by Miranda Rose Hall, closes out the lineup as the only piece in which all the cast members appear. Too bad, because despite the best efforts of City Theatre artistic director Margaret M. Ledford and musical director Kunya Rowley, “Dolphin Show” is the weakest offering.

The setup is that Cheryl (Groom) and her unseen hubby have promised to take their daughter, Heidi (Sacco), a girl of indeterminate age, to see a dolphin show. Yet when the time comes to go, Heidi throws a screechy toddler’s tantrum, telling her mom she doesn’t want to go. After some prodding, Heidi admits that she fears she’ll spend all her time ogling the female employees and the gals in the audience, and that everyone will notice and figure out she likes girls. The message of self-acceptance in “Dolphin Show” is a valuable one, but it is wrapped in one silly package.

Shorts Gone Wild 6 takes some of its design cues from the rainbow pride flag, with set and lighting designer Ardean Landhuis “dressing” large pixelated rear-view cutouts of the cast in different colors of shorts with a play title on the back of each. Costume designer W. Emil White carries out the color-coded theme — there’s a red play, a pink play, a lavender play, an orange play, a blue play, a green play and a yellow play — with outfits ranging from simple to elaborate. David Hart’s sound design includes some just-right music, everything from the “Godfather” theme to the “Chicken Dance.”

Well-acted by a cast that seems to relish morphing from one character to the next, Shorts Gone Wild 6 is an end-of-summer giggle with moments that dive deeper. The collection speaks most directly to an LGBTQ audience, but its themes of surrendering to love, accepting oneself and the insidiousness of prejudice resonate with one and all.

“Shorts Gone Wild 6” is running through Aug. 26 at Island City Stage, 2034 N. Dixie Highway, in Wilton Manors. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $35. To order, call 954-519-2533 or go to IslandCityStage.org.

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