For anyone who questions solid theater talent in South Florida, look no further than Home Sweet Funeral Home, a collection of eight original plays, written by South Florida playwrights and starring some exceptional local actors.
Produced by Alliance Theatre Lab, the group that consistently presents top-notch work spotlighting homegrown talent in many forms, Home Sweet Funeral Home is billed as the First Annual Ten-Minute Play Festival, which means we can look forward to this fun theatrical journey each year. Judging from the sell out crowds they've been hosting in the intimate theater at Barry University's Pelican Theatre (there wasn't a seat left in the house Sunday), next year's should already be committed to a calendar.
The idea for the playfest? Eight ten-minute plays all sharing the same location, in this case one room in a funeral home, where the sparse set is only a few rows of chairs facing a black casket. Selected playwrights have four weeks to put together their 10-minute scripts, adhering to a few rules: the action has to take place in the aforementioned setting, the line: "Why did it have to be that book?" has to be incorporated as does a toothbrush as a prop. Characters need to be in their late teens or 20s. This makes it easier to have actors switching in and out of roles rather than casting each play individually.
The playwrights and their plays are Marjorie O'Neill-Butler's Scavenger Hunt, a two-person ditty about a couple who, like the title suggests searches for their treasures in a funeral home. Venom & Vodka by Tony Finstrom concerns a widow mourning her theater critic husband and the mistress that shows up as the only visitor to his wake. Protagonista by Christopher Demos-Brown is a tug of war between author and the character he's created. A planned suicide finds two women reacting to their young friend's demise in It's Just Not That Serious by Alexandria Iona, while Catapult Confection by David Michael Sirois (who also co-directed the playfest) has a daughter confronting her absent father's death. Four high schoolers seek extra credit at the funeral of their teacher's mother in Mr. Ross' Loss by Mark Della Ventura (co-director), a nerdy guy's dream to become a vampire has truth-or-consequences complications in Grave Matters by Mariah Reed, and Death gets an employee evaluation in Performance Review by Andie Arthur.
The "must have" elements create a bit of fun for the audience as it becomes a game to see how the book and toothbrush are weaved into the plots, with some of the writers having better success using the devices more seamlessly than others.
Two of the plays coincidentally target the toothbrush as a nerve calming device — Iona's play It's Just Not that Serious has jittery character Carly (Breeza Zeller) toothbrushing her hair, while Della Ventura's Mr. Ross' Loss finds Jillian (Anna Chamberlain) stroking her skin to soothe her anxiety, with both of these instances seeming forced and out of place. Maybe I missed it, but I couldn't find a toothbrush in Performance Review. All of the playwrights had an easier time incorporating a book rather than a brush with everything from Daddy Doesn't Live Here Anymore (a real life kids' book about divorce) being left in Daddy's coffin to a memorial guest book as another prize find to check off the hunt list in Scavenger.
The fast-moving stories, in which all the writers did a bang up job developing characters and plot in a short amount of time, offer a range of diversity in their storytelling from the laugh-a-minute Scavenger Hunt, Mr. Ross' Loss, Grave Matters and Performance Review, to the light dramedy of Catapult Confection and It's Just Not That Serious, which took a more emotional look at death.
Demos-Brown's Protagonista had an interesting foundation as a protagonist (superbly and slyly played by Rayner Garranchan) struggles to get his stick-in-the-mud author (Sirois) to give him some saucy bits of storytelling to chew on. However, Demos-Brown's tawdry sexual humor took focus away from what could have been a show stealer with its genius plot device. Finstrom's Venom & Vodka also had a good storyline but the over-caricatured widow Gail (Anne Chamberlain) made the short play more like a spoof episode of BBC's Ab Fab with Chamberlain channeling Jennifer Saunders. Chamberlain fared better as best friend Margaret to vampire wannabe Mark (Della Ventura) in Grave Matters and as Jillian, the Britney Spears-esque warbler in Mr. Ross' Loss. Della Ventura shows his knack for comic timing as a triple threat in Scavenger Hunt, Grave Matters, and Confection. All nine actors (Zeller, Della Ventura, Chamberlain, Sirois, Garranchan, Iona, Natasha Waisfeld, Stephanie Meskauskas and Jovon Jacobs), whether playing one role or a doubling up in others, were more than capable of creating the rich characters the playwrights had given them to flesh out.
There's much to like about Home Sweet Funeral Home and its tidbits of buffet-style theater. Knowingly, or not, it's almost like another game has been built in and that is, if one short play doesn't tempt your taste buds, hold on, there's another one right around the bend that may be more to your liking.
The Alliance Theatre Lab's First Annual Ten-Minute Play Festival, Home Sweet Funeral Home, runs from Sept. 6 through 23 at The Pelican Theatre at Barry University, 1300 NE 2nd Ave., Miami Shores. Tickets are $25; seniors, $15, students, $10. Reservations at firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com.