Last year, Collaboraction's annual festival of super-short (seven minutes or less) pieces revolved around the theme of evolution — but the inchoate work on display felt stuck at a "missing link" level. This year, they've shaken up the Etch A Sketch and come up with a new approach.
"Sketchbook: Reincarnate" provides a welcome reimagining for the festival's 12th year by featuring three stand-alone pieces that run close to an hour, a sampler platter of three "devised" pieces running 25-45 minutes apiece, as well as a program of seven shorts more in line with the old-school "Sketchbook concept" — all touching in some way on the theme of reincarnation. You can pick and choose from the menu of options or, as I did, see the whole thing start to finish in one long day with a dinner break.
This "Sketchbook" is also far less dependent on multimedia and loud interstitial music than past years, letting the stage pictures and language do the heavy lifting. Indeed, the opening piece this past Saturday, "Interview," featured the most stripped-down concept imaginable. One person (Collaboraction actor/designer John Ross Wilson) answered an hourlong series of questions created by documentarian Lawrence Bridges and posed by director Ian Forester. Wilson, who didn't know what the questions would be ahead of time, spun out memories of his childhood from queries such as, "Tell a story about somebody who influenced you."
Though the interviewee will be different each time, Wilson's responses set up resonances about loss, revelation, and the unexpected bonds between both strangers and family members that would echo throughout the daylong series of shows. A particularly fine segment recounted how his Texas grandfather stabbed a would-be Latino assailant — only to end up paying for the boy's hospital bills and his college education.
The star turn of the festival comes courtesy of clown/mime/Neo-Futurist vet Dean Evans in the stand-alone "Honeybuns." Looking like a banana with a glandular condition in his overstuffed yellow spandex costume, Evans' menacing title character explores and explodes the popular notions of mime, with generous dollops of audience participation and wry aphorisms, such as "I wouldn't want you to do something you'd regret — but then I don't want you to regret doing nothing at all." Fans of the Neo-Futurists won't be surprised to find out that the piece not only breaks the fourth wall, but takes the action outside the theater. It's a near-brilliant outing that deserves a longer run on its own.
The other stand-alone, "Four Women," takes Nina Simone's song about black women's stereotypes and strains it through a movement/storytelling piece "devised" by Patrese McClain and TayLar. There are some gorgeous stage pictures, but the text itself could use some fresher imagery in making its points.
On the bill of three midlength pieces, "Last Meal Man" was the most compelling. Dani Bryant's concept explored the stories of five executed death row inmates through their final meal. The gallery of the damned includes James Smith, who requested dirt (apparently as part of a Vodou ritual) but settled for yogurt; moonshine-swilling Gary Gilmore; and Georgia inmate Troy Davis, whose execution last fall in light of what many believed to be compelling proof of his innocence set off an international furor. (Davis refused his last meal.) Sarah Rose Graber also delivers a stellar and disturbingly sexual take on Karla Faye Tucker (who became born-again in jail and whose pleas for clemency were allegedly mocked by then-governor of TexasGeorge W. Bush) as she savors her last meal of banana and peach.
The theme of self-revelation as a form of reincarnation continues in the seven short pieces. Mary Fons' "Gutsy" plays off the interview idea by having Jessica Anne's "Nellie Bly" (the pioneering female journalist) conduct an interview-by-typing about Fons' recent surgeries for abdominal disorders — Fons appears in a hospital gown and wheelchair. And composer Kevin O'Donnell and choreographer Kasey Foster's "Untitled 862" pays subtle homage to Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire" in a movement piece where angels guide several people through moments of their lives both profound and mundane. It's a fine coda to a festival that, though it has its rough patches, reinvents Collaboraction's signature show with heart and simplicity.
When: Through July 15
Where: Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Tickets: $10-$20 individual shows, festival pass $35-$65 at 312-226-9633 or collaboraction.orgCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times