The one-act play is largely a twentieth-century phenomenon. Shakespeare evidently never wrote a one-act play to encapsulate his feelings and thoughts, even though his world may have seemed smaller to him than our modern, global network of communications does to us. Relying mostly on his knowledge of human nature, the Bard of Avon managed to pen full-blown studies of life, whereas contemporary writers, with the Internet at their fingertips and directors looking over their shoulders, often have trouble creating plays of lesser scope.
Be that as it may, the one-act is popular with both developing and seasoned playwrights for its usefulness in giving safe passage to human truths considered unfit for longer theatrical voyages. Although some one-acts are compromised by two-dimensional characters and others are mere scenes in search of a full-length play, at its best the one-act has the capacity to examine people and situations in depth while remaining short and sweet.
Two local theater companies are currently devoting entire evenings of entertainment to one-acts. At the Eulipions Cultural Center, two musicians and four actors present George C. Wolfe's Spunk, which has been adapted from three short stories by African-American author Zora Neale Hurston. The Smokebrush Theater production, visiting Denver following a successful run at its Colorado Springs home base, uses an episodic form that nonetheless allows for significant expression of thought.
Simply staged by director Shabaka Henley and interwoven with songs by musical director Chic Street Man, Hurston's trio of fables transcends cultural differences to address universal values. And the soulful singing of Guitar Man ("Mississippi" Charles Bevel) and Blues Speak Woman (Debbie Lee) provides a natural score for this tender, intimate look at our common yearning to live a better life.
In "Sweat," an abusive man, Sykes (Jimmy Walker), thinks more of his pet rattlesnake than he does of his battered wife, Delia (Melissa Taylor), who has come to fear both him and the snake. As the bellicose Sykes struts about the house, Delia ekes out the family's living by taking in washing. Eventually, the true master of the house emerges, as Delia rejoices in driving both of her reptilian housemates out the door.
Next up is "Harlem," a vignette laden with 1940s Harlemese (a glossary of street slang is included in the program) that tells the story of two zoot-suited louts on the make. Jelly (Walker) and Sweet Back (donnie l. betts) playfully boast and lie to each other until a young woman (Taylor) arrives on their street corner. Certain that the domestic worker desires their services as lovers (the least she'll do, they wager, is spring for a free lunch in exchange for their company), both men fall over each other to secure her attention and hard-earned money. Her rebuff to their advances--"I'll holler like a pretty white woman!"--works like a charm.
"Gilded Six Bits" makes up the evening's second half, depicting a young couple whose marriage is threatened by an affair between Missie May (Taylor) and Slemmons (Donahue Hayes), the well-to-do proprietor of an ice-cream shop. Though Missie May's husband, Joe, is neither a Rockefeller nor a Ford, he is nevertheless a steady worker and faithful mate. By forgiving each other and themselves, they salvage their love.
Imbued throughout with Hurston's marvelous use of language, the production contains several moments of poignancy but few of substantive passion. Though we can periodically identify with one character or another, the collection of stories lacks a central protagonist with whom we can empathize. We feel more like passive observers at a theatrical buffet than participants in one character's emotional odyssey.
What's more, the production belongs in a more intimate space, where its superbly played nuances can be fully appreciated by both the actors and the spectators. Major portions of dialogue are swallowed up in Eulipions' cavernous hall, despite the actors' stouthearted attempts to communicate to the far-flung gallery. Fortu-nately, the talented cast has an innate feel for the material, and Hurston's poetry reaches our souls even if it occasionally misses our ears.
Placing its trust in playwrights rather than authors is the HorseChart Theatre Company, which is presenting Salt-Water Moon, by David French, and Tough!, by George F. Walker, in repertory.
Moon is set in 1926 Newfoundland, where Mary Snow (Shannon Woolley) begins the drama by gazing at the stars above Coley's Point. In due time, her former lover, Jacob Mercer (Brett Aune), appears on the scene, having returned home from his travels abroad in the hope that his sweetheart will take him back.
The two discuss celestial bodies, silent movies and their families' roles in Canadian military history, all the while evaluating their feelings for each other. Our attention is focused on these scatterbrained characters more by default than out of genuine interest, however. Scott Blackburn's meandering direction, combined with several inconsistencies in the actors' performances, has the cumulative effect of jarring our senses throughout the seventy-minute play.
By contrast, Tough! features the same actors in a present-day relationship, and the difference in their work is considerable. Directed by J.K. Palmer and Matt Saunders, the play examines Tina's and Bobby's faltering attempts to come to terms with their impending responsibilities as teenaged parents.
Their reactions to Tina's pregnancy, as well as the responses of Woolley's sidekick, Jill (Catherine DiBella), are fairly predictable. Unlike its companion piece, however, this play's highly charged exchanges resonate with both the acting company and the audience. If it weren't for its pervasive profanity, Tough! would make an ideal show for high-school students. But then, the dialogue probably isn't much different from what teenagers hear every day in far less constructive surroundings. Regardless of how crudely it is expressed at times, the play's sobering message remains as timeless as it is immediate.
Spunk, through November 8 at the Eulipions Cultural Center, 1770 Sherman Street, 863-0026. Salt-Water Moon and Tough!, in repertory through November 15 at the Acoma City Center, 1080 Acoma Street, 458-0755.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.