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'Shorts Gone Wild 5' offers thought-provoking fun in Wilton Manors

Correspondent

When “Shorts Gone Wild” began, the often-raunchier cousin to City Theatre’s popular “Summer Shorts Festival” aimed to provoke thought, entertain and sometimes shock with its LGBTQ-themed fare.

The wilder version of “Summer Shorts” has turned 5 now. And over time, City Theatre’s collaboration with Island City Stage on “Shorts Gone Wild” has led to a program that’s deeper and more movingly insightful while still providing plenty of wild and woolly fun. At least, that’s what “Shorts Gone Wild 5” at the Abyss Stage in Wilton Manors looks like.

Three guys and three gals — Marquise Rogers, Lawrence Buzzeo, Jordon Armstrong, Rita Joe, Christina Groom and Sabrina Gore — jump into roles in eight short plays, impressively morphing as they move from one little comedy or drama to the next. This year’s troupe is a skillful one, and as always, one of the great pleasures of watching a “Shorts” rep company is seeing what each actor brings to very different roles.

One of the gimmicks of “Shorts Gone Wild” is that the plays are performed in random order. This year, the order is determined by a faux game show, with the actors taking turns as emcee and audience “volunteers” calling out numbers to match concealed photos that will determine which play comes next.

The gimmick is cute the first time, tedious by the last, and it doesn’t merely stretch out the evening. The directors in charge of the program — Margaret M. Ledford for City Theatre, Michael Leeds for Island City — can’t place the plays in the strongest order to create a dramatic arc for the evening. On opening night, for instance, the strongest plays got done before intermission, making the second act (with one exception) feel like an afterthought.

That said, this is a very good year for “Shorts Gone Wild.” Ledford, Leeds and fellow directors Gladys Ramirez and Matt Stabile have found the right tone for each piece and for the performances within them. Some play choices are head scratchers — “who thought this was going to be good?” you wonder — but a few not-quite-clunkers aren’t enough to spoil the fun.

Three of the strongest pieces, arguably the best of this year’s bunch, are quite different in tone and style.

In “Carly’s Last Call,” playwright Michael McKeever brings to the short-form play the adroit blending of comedy and serious loss that he displayed in his award-winning “Daniel’s Husband” and “After.” With deft staging by Stabile, at first, the edgy Carly (Rita Joe), her conciliatory friend Derek (Buzzeo) and her passing-out-drunk pal Janice (Groom) seem to be all about hilariously annoying a bartender named Larry (Armstrong), who wants them gone so he can close up. Soon enough, though, we learn the poignant reason that Carly doesn’t want this evening, like so many before it, to end.

Korde Tuttle’s “Clarity” is a powerful, harrowing blend of monologue and spoken-word piece, one that gets a masterful performance by Rogers under Ramirez’s direction. Initially, a young black man named Cameron appears to be oversharing about the rough sex that turns him on. Then, the piece takes a turn toward unexpected love and family reconciliation, as Cameron gets ready for a life-changing ritual.

Leeds both wrote and directed “So a Rabbi, a Priest and a Minister Walk Into a Bar,” with its title that’s the start of many a joke. With Groom as the rabbi, Armstrong as a naughty priest, Buzzeo as a judgmental minister and Rogers as a beleaguered gay bar mixologist, Leeds turns a joke into a comedy whose punchline pays off.

Leeds also directs Steve Yockey’s clever “Déjà Vu.” In this one, Jack (Buzzeo) wants his relatively new lover, Billy (Rogers), to try something kinky, but Billy isn’t having it. The scene plays out with variations, as Other Jack (Gore) and Other Billy (Armstrong) join in, then a gun-totin’ gal named Liesel (Rita Joe) appears to terrorize them all. A bit reminiscent of “Groundhog Day,” “Déjà Vu” is funny and a little unsettling, as is déjà vu itself.

Cassandra Rose’s “Persona,” staged by Ledford, delves into the awkward first date of two women who met online. Joan (Groom) is out and experienced. Nervous Emma (Gore) isn’t sure about the range and nature of her sexual longing. The actors convey the characters’ delicate emotional dance beautifully.

Spenser Davis’ “Give Me Space,” directed by Ledford, and Seamus Sullivan’s “Valkyrie in the Roller Derby,” staged by Ramirez, are less successful. In the former, Buzzeo and Rogers play Mars-bound astronauts whose tiff leads to disaster. In the latter, an uncommonly dense short play, Gore is an Odin handmaiden-goddess redefining her relationship with Rita Joe as a mortal who happens to be a roller derby champ.

Kris Thompson’s “The Adventures of Gay Man – Birth of a Hero” is always saved for last as a “bonus” short. Directed by Stabile, it features the charismatic Armstrong as Randy Stone, a dashing, young gay man who has decided to pursue a career as a superhero. His mission? Fighting dangerous stereotypes. Funny? Not terribly.

For “Shorts Gone Wild 5,” Island City lighting designer Ardean Landhuis has also contributed the brightly colored, game-show-style set; Peter A. Lovello the costumes that convey plenty about each character; and David Hart the necessarily flexible sound design.

One of the truths about taking in an evening of short plays is that even if you’re watching a piece that doesn’t quite click, in 10 minutes, you may be laughing or sobbing at something else. In “Shorts Gone Wild 5,” the good stuff far outweighs the few so-so offerings.

“Shorts Gone Wild 5” is running through Sept. 10 at the Abyss 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 or CityTheatre.com.

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