Theater / Film

Review: ‘Summer Shorts’ takes a wild ride with emerging Miami playwrights

Written By Christine Dolen
June 12, 2023 at 2:51 PM

Roderick Randle and Brette-Raia Curah face an apocalyptic future in “And Other Dreams We Had” by Phanésia Pharel. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

After a two-year pandemic/post-pandemic pause, City Theatre’s signature Summer Shorts festival came back blazing last June, belatedly celebrating its 25th anniversary with a collection of mini-musicals, short dramas, and concise comedies.

This year, the company has put together an eight-play festival that feels familiar yet different. “Summer Shorts: Homegrown Edition,” running through Sunday, June 25 in the Carnival Studio Theater at Miami’s Arsht Center, showcases the talent of emerging BIPOC/Latinx playwrights, new-to-the-festival directors, plus new and seasoned acting talent

Like earlier festivals, “Homegrown” follows a tried-and-true structure as it delivers plenty of delight. The eight writers have been honing their work with master playwright Vanessa Garcia, whose “#Graced” had its world premiere in the same Arsht Center space last month. Though the subjects of the short plays differ widely, as a whole, “Summer Shorts: Homegrown Edition” is a love letter to Miami talent.

Act One features four comedies, plays that get the audience crazy with laughter, practically guaranteeing they won’t skip out during the intermission. Act Two offers three plays with more serious themes (though two also have plenty of laughs) before wrapping up with an out-of-this-world farce set in outer space.

Shaina Joseph as Hansline, Toddra Brunson as Nubia and Brette-Raia Curah as Kayla debate a vow renewal in “7” by Lolita Stewart-White. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

“I Found This on the Web” by Ivan R. López kicks things off with an insightful, imaginative look at how devices can become an omnipresent third wheel when an online date becomes a fraught real-world experience.

Marcos (Raul Ramírez) is jittery as he waits for Jake (Samuel Krogh) in a nice restaurant.  The waiter (Graham Oberlink) is friendly and attentive, but once Jake walks through the door and starts talking, you think: Uh oh. Mismatch.

As it happens, Siri (Evelyn Perez), speaking from Marcos’s phone and watch, is of the same opinion. So she chimes in even when Marcos orders her to zip it (AI doomsday believers, beware).  The play gets crazier – see for yourself – but know that the script, performances and excellent direction by Alex Alvarez (an acting veteran of numerous City Theatre festivals) are moment-to-moment hilarious.

Alvarez was also at the helm of “7” by poet-turned-playwright Lolita Stewart-White. Set in the dressing room of a chapel in South Miami’s Richmond Heights neighborhood, the play imagines that married couples have to follow a federal law requiring them to renew their vows every seven years; if they don’t, the marriage is null and void.

Kayla (Brette-Raia Curah), a beautiful and decidedly nervous woman, is decked out like a bride but not at all certain about her next move.  Her elder sister Nubia (Toddra Brunson) and younger sister Hansline (Shaina Joseph) urge her to renew her vows with husband Curtis – Nubia is especially (and riotously) vociferous about it. But Kayla has just run into her bad-boy ex Troy, and she’s starting to feel like a runaway bride. So, Nubia goes nuclear as she reveals exactly why Kayla should stick with the good man she has.

Stewart-White spins a relatable tale out of her unusual premise, and Alvarez helps the cast deliver every laugh in the script.  Brunson, reminiscent of the actor-comedian Leslie Jones in this piece, steals the show.

Roderick Randle as Tyrone gets a piece of customer Chabely Ponce’s mind in Sefanja Richard Galon’s “Banana Bread.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

Sefanja Richard Galon’s “Banana Bread,” adroitly staged for maximum comedic effect by Joshua Jean-Baptiste, should speak to anyone who has ever had a going-nowhere fast food job.  Tyrone (Roderick Randle) and Sebastian (Ramírez) are coworkers under the thumb of high-octane manager Tony (Krogh), who starts their day at 7 a.m. by making them recite the corporate motto.

Their working styles reveal plenty about their values and motivations.  Sebastian is coasting, going out for a pre-shift smoke break involving weed, taking his sweet time to do anything.  Tyrone is hustling hard, going by the book, trying to be sure the customers leave happy.

That last part isn’t easy:  The first customer (Chabely Ponce) is hilariously intolerable without her heart-starting first dose of caffeine, and the second (Lauren Cristina López) is a sleek corporate type whose demands extend to the minutiae of her order.  Well-written, well-directed and well-acted, “Banana Bread” is a scrumptious little comedy.

“Plastic Flowers” by Luis Roberto Herrera is polished, achingly funny and comes with the perfect comedic twist at the end. Directed by Maha McCain, the play involves a pair of estranged coworkers, Thaylee (Brunson) and Raia (Perez), who unfortunately pick the same moment to visit a comatose coworker (Daniella Valdivieso) in the hospital.  Raia has brought a bouquet of plastic flowers for the patient – tacky, as far as Thaylee is concerned – and soon it’s off to the races with insults and f-bombs as the women resume insulting each other.

Coworkers Raia (Evelyn Perez, left) and Thaylee (Toddra Brunson) take their long-running argument into a hospital room in “Plastic Flowers” by Luis Roberto Herrera.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

Turns out, guilt is driving a lot of Thaylee’s behavior, particularly the last thing she said to the patient before her coworker landed in the hospital.  Perez and Brunson are seasoned actors who volley Herrera’s well-crafted dialogue so well that you wish “Plastic Flowers” were a little longer.

McCain is also the director of the most intense and sobering play in the “Homegrown” collection, “And Other Dreams We Had” by Phanésia Pharel.  The video that precedes the dialogue shows a disintegrating world filled with pollution, a ruined environment, flooding, the latter emphasized by the occasional sound of sloshing water.  Jules (Curah) and Mason (Randle) are a couple in crisis, trapped in an attic with a baby on the way – if they decide to go through with the pregnancy.

Worry and fear are omnipresent as they subsist on canned food and wonder (as so many parents do) how they could bring a child into a despoiled world. But their love is still alive in that attic, allowing them a brief escape into a reverie of beauty and hope. Pharel’s powerful, poetic voice marks her as a playwright to watch.

Ariel Cipolla’s “The Vultures” is a sly, layered piece that manages to combine the behavior of actual vultures (though the explanation of most of that is in the script’s stage directions) with the actions of three teen girls who have just finished middle school.  Those years weren’t a happy time for Jade (Ponce), Hazel (López) and Riley (Curah), and Jade is determined they’ll reinvent themselves with fresh social media personas that will make them bully-proof.

Brette-Raia Curah’s Riley, left, is not happy with the demands of Chabely Ponce as Jade in Ariel Cipolla’s “The Vultures.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

Director Melissa Almaguer gets truthful teen behavior from her young adult actors, and she flawlessly guides them through the characters’ constantly shifting emotions.  Pushy, controlling Jade turns out to be the alpha vulture, wielding social media as a weapon, though Hazel’s no saint either.  Part of the pleasure of Cipolla’s short play is that it’s full of surprise and emotional depth.

Almaguer has also staged Joel Castillo’s “Balloo(n),” a piece full of conflicting elements, including love, anger, comedy and condescension. Miami honeymooners Olivia (López) and Jason (Krogh) have gone to Havana, she to explore her family’s history, gringo Jason to be supportive and have an adventure. Outside the dolphin show at the Acuario Nacional, a smiling globera (Perez as the balloon  seller) tries to get them to buy one of her red, blue or green balloons. Jason gives the older woman the brushoff, barely looking at her, but this globera stands her ground nearby – which proves to be a great thing.

Honeymooners Olivia (Lauren Cristina López) and Jason (Samuel Krogh) decline a balloon offered by a globera (Evelyn Perez) outside Havana’s national aquarium in Joel Castillo’s “Balloo(n).” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

Perez emerges as the star of “Balloo(n),” a Cuban woman who has lived nearby with her English husband for most of her life.  When Jason’s comments about the run-down condition of the country and its pushy people cause Olivia to go nuclear, the globera offers her wise, funny counsel about men, husbands and more in a mix of Spanish and enough English so that everyone in the audience gets her drift.  Perez’s timing and delivery are perfección.

In “2201: Xibalba,” playwright Chris Anthony Ferrer has dreamed up a tongue-in-cheek space farce.  Staged by Jean-Baptiste, who brings the quirkiness of the characters to the forefront, the play is set aboard the massive Space Station Xibalba, standing guard just outside a wormhole to prevent universe-destroying aliens from taking over our solar system.

Diverse personalities and multiple crises collide as the Xibalba crew prepares to celebrate New Year’s Eve with plenty of booze and raunchy language.

Bombastic Commander Dax Lobo (Brunson) is justifiably nervous about turning over the controls to shaking cadet Cicero Lipschitz (Ramírez), who tries to convey a confidence way beyond his capabilities – but hey, Lobo’s got a party to attend. Major Gronkzalez (Randle) appears on the Jetsons-style control deck as a hologram, just long enough to threaten Lipschitz with the deadly consequences of dereliction of duty.  Sarai (Ponce, memorable again), an effervescent golden android, demonstrates that turning off her comedy function makes her an unhappy, aggressive, not-so-shiny girl.  Fireworks – the traditional kind and the firepower of an approaching alien armada – close out a New Year’s Eve to remember (if anyone survives the “celebration”).

Chabely Ponce as the joke-loving android Sarai fails to amuse Toddra Brunson as Commander Dax Lobo in Chris Anthony Ferrer’s “2201: Xibalba.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

“Summer Shorts: Homegrown Edition” may seem like a fairly compact endeavor, with eight actors performing eight plays.  It isn’t, of course: More than 40 people are involved. They include City Theatre artistic director Margaret M. Ledford and executive director Gladys Ramirez, intimacy choreographer Nicole Perry, fight choreographer David Hyland, stage manager Randall Swinton, production manager Preston Bircher, and five interns.

Special kudos go to the designers:  Marina Pareja, who has underscored the personalities from so many worlds with her costumes; lighting designer Eric Nelson, who summons night, day and so many moods; scenic and prop designer Jodi Dellaventura; scenic and projection designer Natalie Taveras; sound designer Ernesto K. Gonzalez; projection specialist Steven Covey; videographer Christian Vandepas.

Video and projections are a major component of “Summer Shorts: Homegrown Edition.” Before and between plays, the audience goes along on a high-speed driving tour of Miami-Dade’s cities and neighborhoods, with the camera lingering just long enough on signs for theatergoers to experience that little flash of local relatability.  Props to City Theatre, too, for celebrating the theater community with shots of such companies as GableStage, Actors’ Playhouse and the much-missed Coconut Grove Playhouse.

Overall, “Summer Shorts: Homegrown Edition” proves the company’s premise — that there is depth and breadth of undiscovered and emerging theatrical talent here, and that the stories BIPOC and Latinx playwrights have to tell are both culturally specific and more broadly resonant.  And these writers know how to make you laugh.

WHAT: “Summer Shorts: Homegrown Edition” by Joel Castillo, Ariel Cipolla, Chris Anthony Ferrer, Sefanja Richard Galon, Luis Roberto Herrera, Ivan R. López, Phanésia Pharel,  Lolita Stewart-White

 WHERE: Carnival Studio Theater in the Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through June 25

COST: $50-$75 (student tickets $15 with ID)

INFORMATION:  305-949-6722 or arshtcenter.org

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