Review: TLT's Night of Shorts

Some productions stay in process for years before they are brought before an audience, and that's not always a good thing. Sometimes the rough edges of new work are what give it a distinctive texture, and those features are often edited out during the workshop process, so that by the time a play is presented, there is little to distinguish it from others in the same style. 

Tiger Lilly Theatre's, A Night of Shorts happily breaks with that model, and offers up a commendable diversity of satisfying theatre moments that remind us: a script is sometimes at its best when its still a little bit vulnerable.

When you go to a night of new short plays, you expect the quality of the work to run the gamut between the earnestly impressive and the largely unprepared. Happily, A Night of Shorts presents none of the latter, while delivering several of the former. What's more, all of the 11 short plays had moments that worked, were staged competently, and solidly acted. Here I'd like to highlight four pieces that, even without the strong support from the other works presented, made A Night of Shorts worth attending. 

The Hardest Part 1
Dialogue between close friends that's meant to portray a lifetime of intimacy is a hard thing to write without resorting to camp or boring long-winded narratives. The Hardest Part 1 written and directed by Asya Mounger avoids these pitfalls while still managing to make us care about the shared lives of two individuals at the moment when their paths are diverging. Having worked closely together on a number of occasions, Raine Palmer and Sakie Marie Harp are natural choices for best friends Lindsey and Lily, and the actresses bring a palpable chemistry to their characters' relationship, keeping the tempo up, and relying on nuanced delivery rather than long emotion-laden pauses for dramatic effect. There are no deep secrets for the characters to reveal here, nothing designed to manipulate the audience into caring more than we can about two characters we just met five minutes ago. Still though, for anyone who has ever misplaced a dear friend through the natural course of daily life, this piece speaks both plainly and eloquently. Perhaps it carries on just a bit longer than necessary, but that's a small complaint to lodge against a piece that otherwise hits all the right notes.

No Props
Normally I don't like plays about theatre or artists. Too often we prescribe more honor and meaning to our chosen vocation than it actually merits, but No Props delivers plenty of solid comedy sans the self aggrandizement. Playwright Harrison Young, teams up again with director Crystal Braeuner after presenting last month's stage combat showcase, Online Fighting at Gibbs High School. With No Props, Young demonstrates his solid grasp of lighthearted theatrical storytelling. Raine Palmer delights as  Barbara, the play's protagonist: a frenetic props-based stand-up comedian struggling to keep her career from evaporating mid-tour. She is joined by Ashley Freitag, a veteran member of Tiger Lilly who gives every bit as good as she gets during the  fast paced quippy exchanges as she portrays Fiorina, Barbara's exasperated tour manager. As school-aged Latise, Madison Mansouri makes a very strong and funny character choice that warrants more than a few chuckles (and maybe a few slightly disgusted groans) from the audience. It's a solid piece of situational comedy, and displays, in a very concrete way, that Knoxville possesses all the nuts and bolts stagecraft needed to make solid theatre from the ground up. There are a few bits that fall flat, and a couple of moments that could be reworked or cut, but they are few and far between in this otherwise clever and enjoyable work.   

Other Songs About Rocky Top
It is right and good that in a developing theatre market, we search out stories and voices from our own lives and histories with the power to speak directly to our audiences about their contemporary experiences. With Other Songs About Rocky Top, Katie Myers has not only written a powerful and relevant story, but in choosing an East Tennessee legend as its source material she has drawn a direct link from the region's rich storytelling tradition to the output of its contemporary theatre artists. 

As we hear all the time: representation matters. It matters that as East Tennesseans and southerners we are able to see honest reflections of ourselves and our history played out on stage in ways that speak to us directly without lecturing (or as is more often the case) satirizing. Other Songs is based on events surrounding the Coal Creek War and the hanging of local miner Dick Drummond in what is now the town of Rocky Top. Myers' script is well crafted, displaying a natural ear for authentic voices and moving the action along with a solid mix of drama, narration, and song. Director Jennifer Alldredge does a commendable job of staging the piece, carrying us across several locations and generations with clarity and precision, even though the play could benefit from a more fully fleshed out set and lighting design than was available on the night. It is to Myers' and Alldrege's credit and the credit of the ensemble that out of the 11 pieces presented, this piece felt the most like a complete production in its own right. Each of the players tackle multiple roles, with the exception of Caleb Burnham's haunting (forgive me) portrayal of Drummond's ghost, and Tyler Gregory as the play's narrator and minstrel. Other Songs is a relevant and worthwhile piece of local theatre, that deserves a bit more money to add some polish, and rehearsal time to clean up the songs a bit, but it proves a memorable and effective piece of theatre even without these trappings.

Summer 1605
I laughed my ass off. Full stop. Top to bottom, start to finish, this play written and directed by Christina Scott Sayer is just hilarious. Sayer, of Clever By Half Productions assembles three very funny dudes: Noah McBrayer Jones, Curtis Bower, and Tyler Gregory, then puts two of them in Elizabethan drag, gives them all Monty Python-esque British accents, then lets them tear into the punchy fast-paced dialogue. It's the kind of play with lines you find yourself quoting under your breath and grinning about the next day. Sayer even manages to stick the landing with an unexpected conclusion that I can't risk ruining by going into details about. There's really not much else to say other than Sayer is an obvious talent, and after seeing this piece I'm excited to enjoy more of her work.   

A Night of Shorts was staged at Modern Studio, a venue that, since its opening earlier this year, has made large strides toward becoming the de facto hub for Knoxville's burgeoning fringe theatre scene. I counted about 35 seats in the house, which was just right for this intimate gathering, though the space easily accommodates more.  

There's one more chance to catch Tiger Lilly's Night of Shorts, Sunday May 14 @ 2pm.  

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JP Schuffman is the Managing Artistic Director of the Knoxville Theatre Club, a novice stilt walker, theatre theorist, and huge nerd.