These plays are all quite short, running as little as five minutes, but are wonderfully funny and clever, with much witty language and playful use of time. A case in point was the first piece, “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread.” The composer (Todd Herdt) enters a baker’s shop. One of the customers (Patricia Wikenhauser) present says words to the effect of “Isn’t that Philip Glass?” Another (Christina Schauer) replies, “I think it is.” The baker (Adeola Giwa) says, “May I help you, sir?” Glass replies, “Yes, I need a loaf of bread, please.” Baker: “Just one moment.” First woman: “It’s time now.” Second woman: “Yes, let’s go.” Baker: “Do you know that woman, sir?” Then, the cast begins to riff on the elements of the short exchange in the style of Glass’ music, with repetitions and reordering of the words: “ Isn’t that, isn’t that, isn’t that, isn’t that,” “Think it is, think it is, think it is,” reformulating the phrases to get declarations such as “Philip Glass is a loaf of bread.” The changes continue, accompanied by rhythmic movement, until a second set of themes is introduced, and the variations begin again.
“Variations on the Death of Trotsky” was equally surreal in a different way. The scene begins with Leon Trotsky (Paul Pfannenstiel) sitting at his desk writing. It isn’t immediately obvious that he apparently has a mountain climber’s ice axe embedded in the top of his head. Trotsky’s wife (Ms. Wikenhauser) enters reading an encyclopedia (or, in this production, Wikipedia on a tablet) dated the year of the performance (i.e., Trotsky’s future), and reads out the entry describing the attack on Trotsky on August 20, 1940, and his death the following day. Trotsky asks what day is it, and she tells him, August 21st. Trotsky replies that it must be a hoax, since he is not dead. She points out that he does, in fact, appear to have an axe in his head. Trotsky examines himself in the mirror, agrees, and falls over dead. At a bell, the scene resets, and plays through variations in which Trotsky discusses his murder, and even calls in the assassin and grills him as to his motives. This sounds more macabre than it is, and is also very funny.
“The Universal Language” was a very cute play, in which a shy young woman afflicted with a stutter (Ms. Schauer) tries learning the “Unamunda,” which she hopes will help her overcome her stuttering. The language is a parody, full of cultural references: The affirmative word is Ding! (with exclamation point). The word for “English” is “jonklees” (John Cleese), and so forth. A lot of this segment’s humor comes from these jokes and the fact that you can indeed (mostly) understand the instructor (Mr. Giwa).
“Words, Words, Words,” was a very clever play on the myth that an infinite number of monkeys, given infinite time and typewriters would eventually by chance produce the works of Shakespeare. In this case, we see the experiment from the viewpoint of three chimpanzees, Swift (Herdt), Milton (Rolando Kahn), and Kafka (Schauer), who engage in an existential debate about their lives, what is Shakespeare anyway, how will they know it if they see it, and does it matter to the experiment.
In “Sure Thing,” a man (John McGreal) and woman (Robyn Beckley) meet in a coffee shop, and, using the same “reset” device as in “Trotsky”, work through seemingly all the iterations of ways the encounter can go wrong before finally agreeing on a date at the movies.
The last play, “The Philadelphia,” reminds one of a “Twilight Zone” episode. Mark (Kahn) meets his friend Al (Pfannensteil) in a café, in a bad mood because he’s been thwarted at every turn this morning, not only did his newsstand not have the New York Times, the vendor denied it existed, and so forth. Al tells Mark he is stuck in a “Philadelphia,” a state in which it is impossible to get anything you ask for directly. Al, on the other hand, is blissful, because he is experiencing a “Los Angeles” in which life is beautiful no matter what happens. He coaches Mark on how to get along, but, when the waitress brings him the wrong order, Al realizes with horror he has caught “Philadelphia” from Mark and rushes out. Using Al’s guidelines, Mark manages to order a meal and to chat up the waitress (Ms. Beckley), who confides that she has been “stuck in a Cleveland” all her life.
The plays were done against a minimalist background cleverly decorated with a theme of clocks. All the actors did excellent work with the very difficult scripts, which require precise timing, and must have been hard to memorize, especially given that much of it isn’t in standard English, and that there are lots of variations on a similar theme that would be easy to get lost in. Director Mark Wyss did a really excellent job of putting this show together.
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