Young mortals take on Ives

by Amy Kingsley

If I were as efficient as the playwright David Ives, I could finish this article in a handful of sentences.

That’s because Ives, a Chicago-born playwright, is a master of the one-act – a style of short-form dramatic writing familiar to anyone who’s ever dabbled in the high-stakes world of competitive high school theater. By the time most of these kids move on to college and shelve their acting ribbons, their goals change accordingly. The theatrical brass ring becomes a lead role in a full-length play or a solo in the latest department musical.

But the students enrolled in this summer’s Theatre 232 are renewing their relationships with the humble one-act by producing Mere Mortals, a collection of five of Ives’ shorts.

The class meets off campus in Triad Stage’s UpStage Cabaret. Students in the program produce two plays, one for children and one most definitely for adults. This year those students involved in the second production – the Ives shorts – don’t report to class until well after nightfall.

Here’s a word about their classroom: it has a cash bar. It’s not for the students, though, but for the audience, which starts to trickle in at around 10 p.m.

Nearly an hour later, the curtain comes up on Joe, Charlie and Frank in “Mere Mortals.” The three men take their lunches high above Manhattan, on a steel beam said to exist some 50 stories above the intersection of 18th Street and 12th Avenue.

It’s a good place to contemplate your mortality, as per the series title. But instead the men talk about identity. You see, the three bowling buddies all have some connection to aristocracy – not that you’d know it from the hard hats and lunch pails.

That’s the essence of the piece’s humor. During their lunch break, the three brawny men become little girls playing princess. Then the whistle blows.

The second piece, “Foreplay,” is about the Don Juan of mini-golf, a man by the name of Chuck with the unfortunate habit of forgetting his dates’ names. Three separate dates unfold in the aisles.

Its staging exploits the cabaret setup by sending the actors around the islands of audience members. That keeps the energy high and the action moving – which is important if you want to keep a late-night audience of questionable sobriety awake.

The UpStage Cabaret is Triad Stage’s repository of bawdiness, promising the type of risqué fare you won’t find in main stage productions. The third piece, “Time Flies,” takes advantage of this with lots of simulated fly sex and a giant bowl of goo.

If you’re like me and prefer to take your theater unmolested, you’ll want to take a seat at the back of the room. The cast members do interact with the audience, particularly at the top of the fourth piece “Speed the Play.”

It’s a sendup on the oeuvre of playwright David Mamet, another Chicagoan, notorious pottymouth and sometime chauvinist. The cast wears ripped jeans and vinyl miniskirts, speaks with a pronounced Great Lakes vowel shift and spits vulgarities in the audience’s general direction.

Some familiarity with Mamet’s work will help you get the subtler humor. But most of it is broad enough to appeal to anyone who likes crotch gestures, bad accents and cuss words.

The final piece, like the first one, deals with notions of identity. A man wakes up one morning and decides he will be the French painter Degas, despite not knowing much about the Impressionist, including his first name.

His experiments with identity prove unsatisfying, although he hints at the end that appropriation of the artist’s perspective has given him a new way to look at the life he has. The piece eases the audience out of the evening’s loud middle section – the Mamet-esque shouting and the sexual hysteria of doomed mayflies. When Degas tucks himself in, the lights come on and the evening ends – another assignment completed.

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