A Potpourri of Playlets

Just like Cracker Jacks, good things come in small packages at Dobama.

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All the well-meaning social workers and chiropodists who descend Dobama's formica staircase in their imported sandals and Apache jewelry have a ringside seat to the damned. So far this season they've been put through incest in the deep South; Scott Plate's naked, redheaded AIDS weltschmerz; the exhausting rigors of slavery; and the wails of a waiting room of mutilated women. In June, audiences will gather once again to bolster the egos of adolescent wunderkinds at the 21st Annual Kids Playwrighting Festival.

For spring, Dobama is giving Cleveland Heights consciences a rest. With Mortals, Mayflies and Monkeys, they are enacting a handful of David Ives's playlets--a revivifying, crackpot revue that pays big dividends in existential mirth.

Ives is a gifted miniaturist who dabbles in onomatopoeia, dadaism, absurdism, surrealism, and satiric shrinkwraps of pretentious modern artists. His playlets are a shimmering collection of multifaceted prisms, emitting myriad changing hues to different brands of twentieth-century satire.

Ives is an anthropological bard, charting bizarre little pockets of chimpanzee, human, and insect behavior. His works are only remotely of earth and mainly of an effortless imagination. He puts us in a hallucinogenic netherworld, where old forms, sitcoms, avant-garde operas, and even old bromides about monkeys at typewriters take on new life as if suddenly inhabited by aliens. He wields yuppie seduction to oratorio with come-on lines repeatedly chanted by identical couples. A gathering of lunchbox bravado can suddenly lead into mystical reincarnation and the identity of the lost Lindbergh baby. The rushed, 24-hour courtship of mayflies becomes a Love, American Style race against time. In what could be a mouthwash commercial written by Kafka, viewers learn that "the first three minutes of conversation can determine two people's relationship for the rest of eternity," and then, in a ten-minute verbal boxing match, the same couple jumps from intro to intro, taking on identities, in a matter of seconds, from old lovers to archenemies to best friends.

In the Drew Carey tradition, the three man, three woman cast fulfills Ives's grueling demands with extraordinary ordinariness. Kirk Brown, Fred Gloor, and Andrew Narten are respectively the pop-eyed, paunchy, and balding exemplars of the common man. They call up visions of Ed Norton, Homer Simpson, and George Jetson. The women--Amanda Gaspar, Molly McGinnis, and Tracey Field--are perky, exasperating, and biting, recalling Wilma Flintstone, Mary Richards, and Roseanne Barr. All six are like comfort food, and their ingratiating ways take the audience securely over Ives's tumultuous speed bumps.

Foreplay is an attempt at a dramatic equivalent of a musical fugue. On Lilliput Lane, a miniature golf course, three couples--the men (all named Chuck), in identical L.L. Bean uniforms of pastel and tan, and three wary, potential lays--play out the musical notes: "Golf is an erotic thrill," "When elves ruled the world, this windmill was their Stonehenge." These same lines and quips are rhythmically tossed about by the six players until they reach a Marx Brothers speed and a Pinteresque cacophony, ending in a chaotic crescendo as one of the players observes "the nine circles of hell." It has all the hypnotic effect of one of Rube Goldberg's whirling contraptions.

In Mere Mortals, the audience finds itself on top of scaffolding with three burly construction workers. The conversation escalates from bowling escapades to the joys of Grey Poupon mustard to the revelation that one of them is the famed missing Lindbergh baby. Another is the supposed murdered son of Czar Nicholas II, and the third is the reincarnation of Marie Antoinette. It becomes apparent that this is in reality the testosterone flip side of The Madwoman of Chaillot. What started out as a plebian Hostess Twinkie evolves into an aged-in-brandy fruitcake.

The ghosts of Ernie Kovacs's musical chimps reign over Words, Words, Words, about Kafka, Swift, and Milton--three anthropoids enslaved in a scientific experiment to type into infinity until they produce Hamlet. As the three neurotic chimps, Field, Brown, and Gloor do simian variations on the Little Rascals. Swinging their arms and scratching fleas, they accidentally come up with snatches of Paradise Lost among their exquisite nonsense and gibberish.

As two mayflies who flit around like Don Knotts on speed, Amanda Gaspar and Andrew Narten have the ultimate brief encounter as they endeavor to fit love, nooky, courtship, and family into a jam-packed 24-hour lifespan. Costume designer Nettie Kobus's hairy fly stockings are the most effective comedy props since the Cowardly Lion's tail.

Playwright David Mamet's mad ellipses, rhythmic profanity, and macho nihilism have sent many a delicate theatergoer over the edge and into hydrotherapy. If this fails, they ultimately rush to the Shaw Festival for a quick cure with tea, scones, and Shavian elegance. With Speed the Play, Ives has challenged Mamet's autonomy and knocked him off his horse with a satiric lance. In a bogus roast, a pumped-up emcee announces, "We're going to give you the Master's oeuvre." Then, with nosebleed speed, we have five Mamet plays in eight minutes. Mamet is exposed and improved in minute sound bites.

"All women are alike, Danny."
"Essentially they're bitches."
"Or else they're whores."
"Yes, or else they're whores."

Occasionally, Ives can be rarefied, pushing his word games to the breaking point, making his interpreters ceaselessly chattering mechanical parrots. These lapses, however, are momentary. Ultimately, he's a glorious chameleon, tapping the joyous essence of sketch humor, performing an exhilarating dance, bringing to life the giddy splendor of Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. For those with well-earned gray hairs, it's a bit of The Milton Berle Show.

Set designer Ron Newell is the glorious Speedy Gonzalez of the occasion, concocting whimsical wonders out of bare planks and then directing with the aplomb of one being paid by the laugh.

Mortals, Mayflies, and Monkeys, through May 16 at Dobama Theatre, 1846 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-6838.

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