Annual fast-paced Summer Shorts Festival runs hot, cold

City Theatre’s annual Summer Shorts Festival, the event that signals summer for any theater-crazed South Floridian, has just kicked off its 15th edition at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
Both the eight short plays in Signature Shorts and the seven in the R-rated undershorts offer the mixed-bag experience of festivals past: Some shows will make you flip, while others flop. True, the “agony” of a weird/flawed play doesn’t last long, and there’s usually something moving or hilarious just minutes away. Still, you’d think that picking 15 gems from 1,200 submissions might be a little easier than it seems to be.
Among the pleasures of Summer Shorts is watching a top-notch acting ensemble. Chameleonic actors do best in this quick-change format, and this year’s standouts are Stephen “Mr. Summer Shorts” Trovillion, David Hemphill and Chaz Mena among the men; Laura Turnbull and Elena Maria Garcia among the women. Erin Joy Schmidt, Scott Genn and Breeza Zeller also have some touching or funny moments, but their fellow actors make more of better roles.

The multicharacter hits in Signature Shorts are the opening play, Jay Rehak’s The End of a Perfect Game, about a pitcher (Genn) having an existential crisis at the end of the seventh game in the World Series; the reprise of Rich Orloff’s Matterhorn, about a couple (Trovillion and Garcia) parsing their marriage while waiting in line at Disneyland; and the closing black-comic piece Not a Creature Was Stirring by Christopher Durang, in which Trovillion plays a tyrant-father to Turnbull’s housewife with a dark side.
Two intense solo pieces are also memorable. Trovillion plays a teacher who relates the story of a childhood tragedy in Dan Dietz’s Lobster Boy; initially in pure lecture mode, he pushes into emotion at just the right moment, carrying the audience along with him. In Bridget Carpenter’s Euxious, the compelling Turnbull portrays a mom and way-stressed executive being questioned after an accident involving a mysterious phone call that takes the play to an other-worldly place.
Susan Westfall’s Look at Me, about a troubled veteran (Genn) and the wife (Zeller) determined to reignite their passion, is hampered by less-than-riveting performances from both actors. And both Gregory Hischak’s Poor Shem (about a guy done in by a copying machine) and John Olive’s Iddle Minglish (about a pair of communication-challenged guys spat into a strange dimension — or something like that) are reminders of how very strange absurdist theater can be.
The bawdy, adults-only undershorts starts off with a bang — specifically, Michael Elyanow’s Banging Ann Coulter in which a monstrous version (Turnbull) of the hate-spewing conservative babe is portrayed as a gal who gets it on with one and all. Other pieces have their moments, thanks to the actors: Hemphill as an on-the-make college loan advisor in Bekah Brunstetter’s Daddy Took My Debt Away; Mena as a cheater who can’t believe his mistress (Turnbull) is cheating on him in Susan Cinoman’s Beds; Hemphill and Genn as Sizzler employees whose love of extreme experiences eventually leave both of them naked (except for gigantic fake penises) in Rolin Jones’ Extremely.
Not so hot are Joshua James’ F**k You!, in which actors repeatedly hurl the title phrase at the audience, and Laura Eason’s It Was Fun While It Lasted, an oddity that squanders the considerable talents of Mena and Schmidt.
But the second-to-last piece in undershorts is so worth waiting for: In James’ The Pap, Garcia and Hemphill play experienced patient and brand-new gynecologist, and though they keep their acting real, the two offer a master class in how to milk every imaginable laugh from observing a woman in stirrups with nary a horse in sight.

Christine Dolen is The Miami Herald’s theater critic.