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Big Gamble in MadLab’s 2018 Theatre Roulette

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Big Gamble in MadLab’s 2018 Theatre RouletteTravis Irvine as Pylon, l-r, with Cat McAlpine as Hipster in "The Credible Adventures of Pylon and Thunderthighs" by J. Snodgrass, part of the MadLab Theatre production of "Theatre Roulette 2018." Photo by Anna Leeper.
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True to its namesake, MadLab’s annual multi-night short play showcase Theatre Roulette is always a risky proposition. Sometimes the audience witnesses a breathtaking miniature we’d never get to see anywhere else. Some nights we hope to break even on the time we invested and don’t quite get there. The “Future” night of this year’s Roulette – the only night this critic was able to see – is the latter.

This year’s Theatre Roulette takes an interesting approach, moving away from one director’s vision to having each night curated by one or two MadLab members with different writers and directors on the pieces. Laura Spires and Kyle Jepson, who also provide some solid direction this go-round, handle curating duties.

At 98 minutes the night I attended, “Future” felt like the longest Theatre Roulette night I’ve seen in years and the majority of that length was filler. Six of the seven sketches are two-handers with the finale, “K.T.W.” as a quartet. With only two characters on the stage, their interactions have to be more fresh/surprising/funny to keep us interested and they don’t often hit that bar.

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Matt Schlichting as Chad, l-r, with Malerie Torres as Mary, Nick Arganbright as Jay, and Casey May as Brad in “The Counselors” by Mike Miersen, part of the MadLab Theatre production of “Theatre Roulette 2018.” Photo by Anna Leeper.

The writing was the weakest link by far. Every sketch would have benefited from being cut down by a third or more. The evening gets bogged down as people incessantly belabor mundane details and the details are often wrong. “Old maid” apparently just means “widow” as both the characters are talking about their husbands; “punch drunk” gets used in a context I was 90% sure just meant drunk; there’s a conversation about a would-be serial killer cutting a car’s “oil line” which I guess meant the cooling line.

These are minor things but they happened often, each time they threw me out of the play, and they made me spend brain cycles trying to resolve the cognitive dissonance. Then, in each of these cases, the punch lines weren’t strong enough to make up for that earlier frustration. Worse, anyone raising their hands during the reading could have easily fixed these cracks.

downtown theater show madlab short plays

Megan Lear as Lyla, l-r, with Chad Anderson as Hal in “Lyla Builds A Spaceship” by Darren V. Michael, part of the MadLab Theatre production of “Theatre Roulette 2018.” Photo by Anna Leeper.

Multiple sketches rely on a Twilight Zone-style twist ending that the characters try to talk in circles so it’s a “gotcha” at the end that’s just frustrating. One of the best sketches overall, “Intro to Human Anatomy,” features dynamic, cracking performances from Dalia Natour and Daryan Arnold, and suffers most from this as I felt robbed of more and deeper time with these characters as Natour’s character contorts herself to not say what they’re talking about. The worst offender is “More Human” whis wraps pseudo-poetic language around a premise lifted from Caves of Steel and the first twenty minutes of Blade Runner and seems three times as long any other long sketch: excruciating and never lands on the profundity it’s shooting for.

The last sketch, “K.T.W.”, about CIA agents trying to incentivize more successful investigations by “killing all the agents’ wives” (not a spoiler as that’s the first sentence in the sketch) seemed to take as a given that every agent was male – the sketch occurs in the present as one agent referenced, “Diego,” has a husband – which was another example of the sketches not being thought through and something that could have been remedied with a line about “Only men respond in the way this works” or some other hand waving.

madlab downtown theater short plays

Andy Woodmansee as The Brute, l-r, with Sam Clements as Heretic 1 in “The Confession” by Alex Moon, part of the MadLab Theatre production of “Theatre Roulette 2018.” Photo by Anna Leeper.

There are gems for the audience member willing to dig a little deeper. Great, energetic performances by Jessica Gibson and Dallas Ray, and lively direction from Jepson, buoys Ken Presuss’ “A Dave With Destiny.” It subverts the cliches of opposites attracting and the cliche of dreams foretelling someone’s love life in a way that’s sweet and funny. David Susman’s “Meet the Author,” directed by Stephen Woosley, has the strongest premise and asks the most interesting questions – can you love someone and not like their work, especially if their work is the core of their self-image – and the charming chemistry of Jason Sudy as Marvin, the writer, and Kyle Jepson as Jennifer the not-quite-fan, is so delightful it almost gets past the same issues with being too long.

May Theatre Roulette run another 20+ years. It’s the best chance in town to sample a variety of writers’ work. But some nights you walk home with empty pockets.

Theatre Roulette runs through May 26 with the Past night showing on May 11, 19, and 24; Present on May 12, 17, and 25; Future on May 18; and all three shows over the course of May 26. For tickets and more info, visit madlab.net/theatre-roulette-2018.

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