Variety. Economy. Wit. Pathos. Timeliness. Spontaneity. Talent. Intimacy. Individuality of voice. Make a list of the many different things that make live theater spring to life and, to varying degrees, you will find them all among the 10 short world premiere pieces — a mix of playlets, improvs and readings — that comprise the 2017 edition of “TEN,” The Gift Theatre’s now annual spice box of a season opener.
When: Through Jan. 15
Where: Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission
A program ideal for those with short attention spans and eclectic taste, “TEN” is much like Chicago weather, so if you don’t like any particular entry, be assured things will change in about 10 minutes.
While many of the pieces in the current edition play off the state of the world (and humanity) at this troubling moment in history, several of the best of them also are evergreen. And there is this bonus element: The presence of The Gift’s droll artistic director, Michael Patrick Thornton, who some TV network might want to tap as a late night talk show host.
“TEN” opens on the very dark side with Jose Nateras’ “Warrior,” directed by Vanessa Stalling. At the center of the piece is a young man (the remarkable Daniel Kyri, who first caught my attention in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of “Tug of War”), who is trying to hold on while being interrogated and electro-shocked by his interrogator (Christopher Michael Meister, who does nothing but flash possibly incriminating photos). During the ordeal he finds some solace in the imaginary arrival of Xena (Alexia Jasmene), the warrior princess of TV fame.
The program closer is “Arrangement for Red Bicycle and No Piano,” a magical piece by Will Eno [best known as the author of the monologue “Thom Pain (based on nothing)”] — directed by Marti Lyons. Perhaps best described as a Beckett-like, poetic-philosophical riff for an Everyman in the guise of two wheels and a handlebar, it puts a red bicycle in the spotlight, but it is Thornton’s deftly disguised live voice-over from the wings that is the star. Eno and Thornton combine to capture existentialism in all its “unbearable lightness” (and weight). Beguiling and moving all at once.
Between these bookend pieces are a number of other gems.
An entry from giftLIT, a project devised to keep the oral storytelling tradition alive, features Jennifer Rumberger reading a wonderfully written piece about her Florida childhood as part of a large, penniless family, and the death of her beautiful but troubled teenage sister whose funeral brings together a number of distracting and unwanted relatives.
“Love, America,” Amina Henry’s of-the-moment yet ever-surprising two-hander (deftly directed by Samuel Roberson) is set in a sports bar where a guy (Jay Worthington), a zealous Trump supporter with white supremacist ties and a volatile personality, suddenly proposes to his girlfriend (Becca Savoy), a divorced mom whose ex is African-American, and whose child is biracial. The two performances are first rate, as is the play’s ideally ambiguous ending.
Ambiguity also is at work in Eva Anderson’s cleverly imagined play, “Bye, Chuck,” directed by Lexi Saunders. It features Vincent Mahler as a middle-aged father of two who is emptying his desk after just being fired from the company where he has worked for many years, and Allie Long as the flirty and rather unstable younger woman who comes to bid him goodbye. Without giving anything away, it should be said there is more than meets the eye here.
The past returns for a reckoning in Paul D’Addario’s “A Little Feat,” directed by Phoebe Sullivan-Bing. Lindsey Page Morton plays an award-winning, verbally imaginative children’s book author who chats up a guy who looks like an aging hipster (played by Peter DeFaria). As it turns out, they knew each other at college, and the circumstances under which they parted remain troubling for her in this play that delivers a perfect punchline.
Dealing with the past also is the theme of Lekethia Dalcoe’s lyrical, yearning play, “Butterflies in the Midst,” in which the lovely Kiayla Jackson mourns the loss of her troubled true love (David Lawrence Hamilton). And very much in the present is the rebellious rapper girl (high-energy Hannah Toriumi, in a whirlwind of a performance directed by Darci Nalepa) who arrives in a red Trump cap turned backwards for Ed Flynn’s fired up piece of political protest, “They Are Decided.”
Finally, a few words about the audience-initiated improv (by The Gift’s Natural Gas Ensemble) that quickly put The Second City to shame. It will never be repeated, but let the record note that it dished out the tastiest of satires with an Olive Garden restaurant as backdrop, and a storyline about an improv group that dubbed itself “The Czech-Ins.” And there was plenty more where that came from.