Museum of Dysfunction V: A Showcase of Sorts

The setup:

Mildred's Umbrella each year embraces the monumental task of wading through hundreds of manuscripts to find gems that sparkle. This year a panel of 13 experienced troupers reviewed more than 200 short plays for its fifth Museum of Dysfunction; the winners are presented in two separate productions. Group One is August 9 to 11, and 15 -- count them, 15 -- works hurtle through the new, attractive space at Studio 101. Group Two is presented August 16 to 18, with a new and different set of plays.

The execution:

There is a smorgasbord to savor, from very brief snatches of theater to extended comedies and dramas that shoehorn in enough plot and insights to make many a full-length play bristle with envy. The best of the comedies is Last Words by Philip Kaplan, directed by Mildred Umbrella's artistic director, Jennifer Decker. Ryan Kelly and Katie Basch brilliantly portray a brother and sister speaking at their father's funeral service, as their competitive nature and long-simmering mutual dislike emerge quickly and escalate into hilarity; the body language alone is priceless and the writing is incisive and witty.

In Future Forward by Diane Lefer, directed by Jennifer Decker, the amazing Danitra Luers dominates the stage with an extended monologue that holds the audience breathless, and breaks our hearts as we are drawn into the world of battered women and discover just how complex the needs of an individual can be. The writing is superb -- its dark power merits development into a full-length play, and I can't imagine anyone better than Luers to star in it. She shows her comedic talent, along with James Reed and L. Robert Westeen, in another comedy by the gifted Philip Kaplan, Whatever Happened to..., as a high school reunion reveals dark secrets, treated most amusingly. Reed's deadpan delivery is perfect for the role and is reminiscent of Buster Keaton of the silent films.

Kalid Puentes provides eye candy as a gigolo in bikini underwear in the play that opens the evening, the very amusing and character-driven Time to Eat by Elizabeth Earle, but he shows his range and demonstrates his acting chops in Donnie by Sam Alper, directed by Jennifer Decker, a gripping monologue of an actor out for a good time who finds some unexpected twists to his adventure. Puentes is very good indeed, and the writing is nuanced and suspenseful. In a monologue titled Gillean, by Belle Cumming-Kennedy, actor Rod Todd self-directed and found the drama and the pathos in a vivid portrayal of a man remembering the death of his wife.

On a considerably lighter note, Alien Hand Syndrome by Cristina Cigala has actress Arianna Bermudez discover that her right hand seems to have a mind of its own, and what a licentious mind it is! The skit is ably acted, and well-directed by Rob Kimbro. Julie Oliver is wonderful and exhilarating as a pickpocket in Shift by Deborah Magid. Jon Harvey is powerful and convincing as an applicant in desperate need of a job in Moon's Interview, by Robin Pond, where all the dialogue rhymes -- it may have been more fun to write than to listen to.

And Harvey directed the final play of the evening, the farcical Sinking Ship, by Ken Kaissar -- this had the largest cast and some wore very little clothing and I have no idea what was going on, but it was irreverent and original and as compelling as watching mud-wrestling -- and a lot more fun. Gaius Jones, with high energy and a stentorian, commanding voice, was especially good, and Lindsy Greig provided eye candy, so that actors who could be fitness models book-ended the evening's events.

I've touched on the cream, but the actors, plays and directors not cited are grade-A as well. The dada art movement influenced several plays: Sinking Ship, Shift (a huge fake fish is important here), and Ron Pullins's comedy is even titled Dada's Home. But the real common theme is rich originality, brought to vibrant life by skilled acting. I can't wait for next week -- is there a 12-step program for Mildred's Umbrella?

The verdict:

Mildred's Umbrella has scored again with this crop of rousing comedies and poignant dramas. The evening soars, buoyed by originality, wit and excellent acting. Don't miss it.

The first program (Group One) of Museum of Dysfunction V: a Showcase of Shorts ends August 11, and the second program (Group Two) of different plays runs August 16, 17 and 18, from Mildred's Umbrella, at Studio 101, 1824 Spring St. For information or ticketing, call 832-463-0409 or contact the theater's website.

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