On Saturday night, I finally dragged myself out of the house and headed to the theater — the Bartell Theatre in Downtown Madison, to be precise — to take in the closing night performance of “Queer Shorts 10.” For those not in Madison or unfamiliar with “Queer Shorts,” it’s an annual performance of short plays put on by Stage Q, a theater company that specializes in theater by, for, and about the LGBTQ community as a whole and said community in Madison in particular. “Queer Shorts” is a very popular production, and it did attract almost a full house to the Bartell on Saturday evening (not bad for the first weekend of summer).
Admittedly, this was my first time ever taking in “Queer Shorts” [insert embarrassed face here], though I’m not unfamiliar with the short play concept while part of a theater audience. I’ve seen a few past performances of “Blitz,” a show put on a few times in the past by another Bartell-based theater group, Mercury Players Theatre. While “Blitz” and “Queer Shorts” share similarities in concept, there are notable differences:
- As its name suggests, “Blitz” is theater in a crucible, or a microwave to be more apropos. The mini-plays are conceived, written, cast, and rehearsed all within a 24-hour period, after which they are performed only once. “Blitz” plays have usually been loosely tied to a certain theme; the writers could go as wild and crazy as they wanted, but had to base their script around a certain title pulled from a hat. For a couple of “Blitzes,” they each also had to incorporate a certain prop or character, such as a package or a delivery person.
- Though “Queer Shorts” plays are also inspired by a certain theme and are part of a one-week run, the process involved doesn’t go at a “Blitz”-like breakneck speed. “QS” has attracted playwrights from Madison, Wisconsin, and across the country, who submit their scripts to Stage Q for consideration months in advance; there were reportedly 300 submissions for “QS10” according to this nice write-up in Isthmus, with 13 plays chosen. It doesn’t have any title or prop requirements either, and the plays can be as funny or serious as the writers want them to be (whereas “Blitz” sketches historically have had a humorous vein).
The 13 plays selected for “QS10” were wide-ranging in tone, and were all inspired by the theme of “Remembrance” — that is, various types of memories, from childhood memories to growing old, coming out to raising a family, those still with us to those no longer with us. Here’s a chronological rundown and review of what “QS10” included:
“Brenda Gets Herself Slapped” — Good line deliveries highlight this light yet bawdy play centered on two women playing cards and conversing about one of the women’s daughters, who’s bringing her girlfriend home to visit, as well as said mother’s possible past sexual peccadilloes.
“Graceful” — The first serious play of the night, this featured a man and woman mourning the loss of his husband/her son. It’s becomes an argument over what to do with the deceased’s ashes, but at the end anger is put aside in favor of shared sense of loss. Quite moving, with powerful performances.
“The Lie” — Perhaps more bawdier than “Brenda,” this play centered on a faded country starlet; her US Senator husband, who’s being henpecked by his party leadership; and the plan they hatch (or more precisely, she hatches) to get the spotlight back on them. The script nicely develops the characters and throws in a nice twist at the end.
“Boredom & Ecstasy” — A generally simple play about a male couple trying to get that romantic feeling back. The first of a few humorous displays on the night of a committed same sex couple (always good to see that).
“Another Damn Bucket List” — Two older women (one an out lesbian, one still mourning her husband’s loss) fondly recall the good old days. Quite funny with moving moments and thoroughly developed characters, the play takes a poignant 180 at the end, so much so that a part of you wants to spend more time with this pair than the 10 minutes or so of this play’s length.
“For Unto Us” — Christmas in June! One of two “QS10” plays with a Christmas theme, this featured a boy and girl (two adult actors, for the record) from different backgrounds: She has straight, Christian parents; he is being raised Jewish by two dads. This was the funniest, most joyously performed play of the night, and it delivered the night’s best laugh line (I’ll just say it involved Chick-fil-A).
“Olivia Names Her Octopus” — So simple (and funny), the title says what’s about: Olivia has adopted an octopus through a website and is debating with her girlfriend over what to name it. Playful performances here.
“Record” — Somewhat like “Bucket List” though a little more serious (and with its own twist ending), this play featured a couple getting ready for dinner with one of their families, with the conversation turning to the health of the male figure (a trans male, perhaps, since the actor playing him is gender-neutral); the question he asks his partner (“You’re recording me again?”) has significant weight.
“One” — Unique and captivating in its simplicity, this focused on two male lovers, identified in the program as only “A” and “B,” arguing by using only one-syllable words. Through the staccato-like delivery between the two men (“You!” “Me?” “Out!” “What?” “Done!” “Why?!”), you still comprehend the characters’ depth and emotions.
“Christmas Morning” — This play had two characters not unlike Cameron and Mitchell of Modern Family; here, this couple converse over the presents they’ve bought for their children (newly adopted, the script suggests). Both men come across as caring parents truly concerned about their kids’ happiness and well being on Christmas Day and beyond.
“If Knives Were Butterflies” — This 8-minute monologue had the highlight performance of the night. The actor (Donnovan Moen) delivers thoughts on the senseless loss of a trans woman murdered while on vacation in Mexico. The emotion is raw and real: Admiration over how the deceased served others; frustration over her death and the circumstances surrounding it; anger over how the authorities in Mexico and the mainstream media in Madison treated her. The performance is even more moving when you realize or know beforehand that the deceased, despite the actor referring to her as only “my friend,” was a real Madisonian — Felicia Melton-Smyth, a drag performer and AIDS activist who was murdered in Puerto Vallerta in 2008. This play received — nay, earned — the loudest, most appreciative applause of the night from the audience after its conclusion.
“The Virgin Abduction” — This was perhaps the equivalent of the type of bizarre sketches Saturday Night Live puts on as their last sketch of the night (“yeah, let’s just put it in the 10-minutes-before-1 slot and see if it gets laughs”). It was indeed the last full-length play of the night, in which a thug kidnaps a vacationer from some poolside resort but errs in not leaving a ransom note. It was kind of disconcerting that this followed “If Knives Were Butterflies,” especially taking into account the tragic circumstances that inspired that monologue. However, it did generate laughs, thanks in part to the carefree performance of the actor playing the kidnapped, who flirts often with his captor.
It should be noted that “QS10” also featured two series of interstitial sketches. One set was patterned after the “Joke Wall” of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, parroting the innuendo and even some of the recurring characters of that show. The other, a 4-part sketch that opened and closed the night and bookended the intermission, was titled “The Star.” This sketch had even fewer spoken words than “One” — none, in fact, as it featured a Chaplin-like tramp; a servant dressed similarly to Aladdin; and the royalty the servant caters to and the tramp wants to woo romantically, an arrogant “princess” played in full drag by an actor who, as he notes in the program, jumped at the chance to play her when reading her costume description. (He indeed looked glamorous in that tiara and gown; in my next life, I want to look as fierce as his character did.)
The night at “Queer Shorts 10” was a fun and enjoyable one. The only drawback was the length of the night; the whole show clocked in at just under 3 hours (including a 15-minute intermission), but the quality of the plays and the performances outweighed the length. Notice how I mentioned or suggested the simplicity of some of the plays; the set design was simple, too, with an assortment of wooden boxes and platforms standing in for chairs, tables, etc.
Stage Q does have plans for another “Queer Shorts” show next June, though the tentative title (“Queer Shorts 2.0: The Reboot”) suggests a modification in scope. I can’t wait to see it next year. By the way, if you want to get a sense of “QS10” and its featured plays, check out the promotional video embedded below.