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Theater Review: Collaboraction’s Sketchbook ’07 in Chicago

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I remember, when I was a freshman in high school, buying a pair of black and white checked Vans. You may not remember them but they were those slip on sneakers that were the low-tech version of Sketchers that were so cool and quirky and all the "hip" kids wore them. I didn't buy them because they were practical (I lived out in the middle of nowhere Kansas) or particularly comfortable. I bought them because when you're in ninth grade, being cool is a big deal and I wanted to be cool.

I stopped worrying about the "cool" thing a long time ago. To quote Steve Gadlin, now I'm just a "a mean old man" of a ripe forty-one years. As a decidedly uncool cat, I have never been a huge fan of the Collaboraction Sketchbooks.

I have been to three (four counting this latest version) and my primary criticism has been that the “scene” (a booming sound system with an ultracool DJ, a “hipper than thou” vibe, lots of lights and hoopla, booze by the gallon, and sub-par modern art surrounding every square inch of the vast Chopin Theatre) always seemed to completely obfuscate the fact that the short plays (the sketches) were often complete shit and folks didn’t notice how bad the writing, directing, and acting was because of the blinding noise all around — like going to a frat party and getting so drunk that you completely forget that most frat guys are poser shitheads and that you’re eating some guy’s puke out of peer pressure.

With the move to the smaller Steppenwolf Garage, Artistic Director Anthony Moseley and his crew are starting to get this thing right. It's still a hipster scene – there’s still the DJ (an excellent Anacron hosted the opening night festivities), lots of high-tech lighting that takes you back to the days when disco was king, and, of course, a completely unnecessary fog machine. The difference is the quality of the plays. Sure, out of the eight I saw from Schedule A (there are eight more in schedule B), there were a few duds, but the plays that were good, were good. Like the House Theatre has perfected the art of creating theater for fans of Harry Potter, Collaboraction has nearly perfected theater for fans of Carson Daley and the MTV rave.

The difficulty in a ten-minute play festival is that in ten minutes, you are either going to tell a joke, create a character sketch, or make an “important” point. There isn’t time to accomplish much more than that (which is the biggest problem with the 365 Plays/365 Days gimmick-fest). You ain't gonna get Hamlet or Buried Child in ten minutes, so the effort to avoid obvious sketch-comedy-ness and maudlin political agitprop is a key to making that ten minutes seem like seven rather than twenty-five. The second hurdle is that there needs to be a balance between The Event and The Plays. You can tout the fact that you are presenting sixteen World Premieres until your marketing dollars evaporate but if I can't remember any of them but remember The Event, you kind of shafted the playwrights, directors, and actors a bit with "Look at us!" narcissism. It is interesting to note that not one piece of biographical info is presented on anyone involved in the book-sized, twelve-page program.

Like a Mary Zimmerman production, the actors in the Sketchbook are no different from the furniture except they breathe and can move themselves, so the few that stand out really stand out. Peggy Roeder (the actress who played Bill Murray's piano teacher in Groundhog Day) is superb in Stephen Cone's equally superb We Came Here Because It's Beautiful; Nancy Friedrich is wonderfully quirky in Emily Schwartz' Boat at Sea (which was not only one of my favorite pieces, it was also directed by my hot wife, Jen Ellison); both John Zinn and J.C. Brown are a hoot in Wendy Mcleod's Downstairs/Upstairs.

As each play finishes up, the DJ launches into a segue and the "space invaders" move the old set pieces out of the way and place the ones for the next. The audience is encouraged to move around from bench to bench as the plays are presented in a gallery-esque, in-the-round method. This presents some sight-line issues but as Bob put it, "The audience isn't going to mind moving around if there is a reason to do it and the seats are comfortable," and I agree. It was nice moving around, watching each piece and then shifting to another vantage point – I, indeed, felt "hip" and "in the now."

One of the benefits of "hipster theater" is that, hopefully, it draws in new audiences, anxious to be with it. There are, of course, plenty who will come because it makes them feel all cultured and intellectual (making this sort of Rave Scene Theater border on Brook's Deadly Theater) but it is driving people to experience new playwrights and for that, I applaud the effort.

I moved around the space for nearly two hours and it never once felt like two hours had passed. Unlike years past, there was not one play that made me want to go punch someone in the head and a couple that left me wanting more (the previously mentioned We Came Here Because It's Beautiful and Boat at Sea). For the most part, I genuinely enjoyed the evening and will definitely come back to see the second set of pieces later in the run. I will try to find some parachute pants, a mesh shirt with zippers and some Vans to wear when I go back; then I'll fit right in.

The 7th Annual Sketchbook
Presented by Collaboraction at The Steppenwolf Garage in Chicago
Featuring Eight short plays, a DJ, lots of expensive lighting equipment, and a cool set. Oh yeah – and a fog machine.

MAY 31 – JULY 1, 2007
Thursdays – Sundays @ 8pm
Matinee Performances on Saturdays at 5:30pm
Tickets are $30.00
Go check it out

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