At the very same time the world premiere of David Rabe’s “Good for Otto” continues its hugely successful extended run at The Gift Theatre through Feb. 7, the company has gathered a winningly diverse group of artists to stage its annual season-opening “TEN” festival – an exhilarating anthology of  10 short plays spiced by the addition of an improv sequence, an essay and an ensemble-generated work.

This year’s collection of pieces is a snap, crackle and pop assemblage featuring almost as many actors on stage as there are seats in the audience. Timely, stylish, richly varied and expertly realized, the evening is a treat at every turn. Tickets are free (and officially, all have been spoken for), but it would be well worth your while to try for last minute returns or cancellations.

F. David Roth and Aila Peck are part of the cast of Jenny Davis'  "Last Stop," part of The Gift Theatre's "TEN" project. (Photo: Claire Demos)

F. David Roth and Aila Peck are part of the cast of Jenny Davis’ “Last Stop,” part of The Gift Theatre’s “TEN” project. (Photo: Claire Demos)

‘TEN’

Highly recommended

When: Through Jan. 10

Where: The Gift Theatre,

4802 N. Milwaukee

Tickets: Free (reservations required)

Info: (773) 283-7071;

http://www.thegifttheatre.org

Run time: 2 hours and

40 minutes with one intermission

As The Gift’s artistic director and “host, ” Michael Patrick Thornton, noted in his welcome chat, this year’s lineup includes contributions by everyone from a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (Tracy Letts, in sensational form), to relative unknowns. But each and every one of them have something of value to say, inadvertently demonstrating the truth of the maxim that “less is more.”

Lets start with Letts’ “The Stretch,” ideally directed by Marti Lyons. A tragicomic tour de force bearing echoes of both Tom Stoppard and Samuel Beckett, Letts gives us nothing less than a horse race that brilliantly turns into the human rat race in all its furor. As a pair of posh spectators (the phenomenal actress, Brittany Burch, along with Sherman Edwards, neither of whom say a word, but whose faces say everything) watch the high-stakes event, an unseen English-accented commentator (the spot-on Thornton) calls the race, which includes creatures named everything from My Enormous Ego to Architect and Scrod. Their behavior – which moves from the competitive to the bizarre – grows ever more desperate, futile and absurd.

Jenny Davis’ haunting “Last Stop” delves intriguingly into the whole issue of mortality in a time-and-place-warped tale of ordinary commuters who board and depart a subway car with a public address system that is frustratingly muffled and incomprehensible. Some of these travelers seem to have had relationships in the past, some are unsure of just where and when they will be getting off. The existential mystery of it all is handled ideally, with a cast of seven expertly directed by Brian Balcom.

Ike Holter’s “Stay Woke,” zestily directed by Samuel Roberson, is a fevered, sometimes self-mockingly comic response to the personal chaos generated by the highly politicized temper of our times. Two young activists (Robert Howard and Tricia Rodriguez), who have just come home from a protest, find themselves unable to unwind and enjoy a bit of “normal” life. Everything, from the wine they drink to their comments about sex, seem trapped in absurd political correctness to the point where happiness becomes almost impossible.

Tricia Rodriguez and Robert Howard star in Ike Holter's Stay Woke," part of The Gift Theatre's "TEN" project. (Photo: Claire Demos)

Tricia Rodriguez and Robert Howard star in Ike Holter’s Stay Woke,” part of The Gift Theatre’s “TEN” project. (Photo: Claire Demos)

It is the pervasive aura of fear in a time of terrorism and other violence that drives Will Eno’s play, “Furcher vs. The Dark.” Feeling the danger and uncertainty now lurking in the world with overwhelming intensity, a couple (Boyd Harris and Linsey Page Morton)wonder if they should bring a child into being. And in Andrew Hinderaker’s compelling “Austin, Texas,” a struggling screenwriter (fine work by Timothy Hull), now a finalist in a major contest, not only wallows in self-doubt, but as he attends a chic party he muses on the costs exacted for upward mobility and “success” by those all around him.

Lavina Jadhwani’s “Sitayana,” winningly performed by Adithi Chandrashekar, is an artful, winkingly shrewd modern transposition of a Hindu myth about love, marriage, betrayal and acceptance. Michael Patrick Thornton’s “Signs,” directed by Darci Nalepa, is a sharply etched, well-played  tale of a web-arranged date in which an obsessive talker (Havalah Grace) meets her “match” – a deaf man who reads lips and signs (Robert Schleifer. He proposes a four-minute exercise that proves most revealing.

Jennifer Rumberger’s “Mare Cognitum” finds a father and daughter gazing at a lunar eclipse as they communicate by Skype. Ed Flynn’s “Filmmaker” features a young woman (Anu Bhatt) riffing on making porno podcasts. And in Jacqueline Lawton’s “A Long, Arduous Journey,” Stephanie Diaz skillfully leads us on a refugee’s journey in record time.

The Gift’s youth ensemble, giftED, devised “Needles at the Bottom of the Sea,” directed by Jay Worthington, a smart and zany look at three very different “types” – a Harvard bound brain with beauty (Symone Rodriguez), and her classmates (Owen  O’Malley and Jacapo DeMarinis). Samantha Bailey (part of giftLIT), read her impressively multi-layered essay about Wicker Park and her encounters with a homeless “ghetto artist.” And two guys (Ed Flynn and Kieran Fitzgerald) from Natural Gas, the Gift’s house improv team, engaged in the sort of fast, edgy, topical, whip-smart volleys you rarely hear these days. (Just wish that improv could be repeated.)

And one more thing: Throughout “TEN,” the design of sound and musical interludes (by Matthew Chapman) was superb, with lighting by Ben White. High marks to everyone.