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Shel games
Silverstein shorted at the Market


Shel’s Shorts:Signs of Trouble
By Shel Silverstein. Directed by Wesley Savick. Set design by Caleb Wertenbaker. Costumes by Gail Astrid Buckley. Lighting by Herrick Goldman. Sound by J. Hagenbuckle. With Neil A. Casey, Stephanie Clayman, Marin Ireland, John Kuntz, Laura Latreille, and Robert Pemberton. At the Market Theater, in repertory through January 27.

Picture a noose hanging from a branch of the Giving Tree and you get an inkling of Shel’s Shorts: Signs of Trouble. Oh yes, and add a placard that says, " Noose. " This first of two programs of " short plays for adults " by the late, beloved children’s author Shel Silverstein consists of nine slightly sinister playlets rooted in signage, from the enigmatic " No Skronking " of the initial vignette to the brimstone-dripping " Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here. " (The second program of shorts, Shel Shocked, joins the repertory December 29.) And if not all the signs in the show are vital, the best are writ in ominous neon.

Silverstein, who died of a heart attack in 1999, is best remembered as the author of whimsical children’s verse set down in such tomes as The Giving Tree, A Light in the Attic, and Where the Sidewalk Ends. He was, however, a versatile soul who also penned drawings, poems, and stories for Playboy, plus the Johnny Cash tune " A Boy Named Sue. " He produced several play collections; the contents of some have never been performed. Silverstein friend and aficionado David Mamet introduced Market Theater director Tom Cole to the works, an assortment of which is enjoying its world premiere in this double smorgasbord of edgy trifles. The pieces are breezily, bristlingly dished out by Neil A. Casey, Stephanie Clayman, John Kuntz, Laura Latreille, and Robert Pemberton, with Marin Ireland a glistening, frantic cherry on top, threatening to tumble south at any moment.

The plays are not political per se, though most reflect the anxiety and aggression bubbling just beneath life’s surface. Menace is both tweaked and undefinable in Signs of Trouble, whose first sketch finds a diner (Kuntz) inquiring about the sign on his table that reads " No Skronking. " The waitress (Latreille) seems determined not to explain, admonishing the fellow to " stay in your safe, secure little world " (which is evidently defined by ignorance of the unspeakable skronking). Here as elsewhere, mounting paranoia and anger combine to turn the tables — in this case, planks that fold out of Caleb Wertenbaker’s simple brick cell of a set, from which all manner of items, including a bathtub, emerge.

Silverstein’s best dramaticules are not necessarily his most perverse. In " Gone to Take a . . . , " Ireland is a provocative salesperson who has temporarily abandoned her post, leaving a terse if earthy explanation that nature has called. Latreille is the uptight superior who has a problem with that. Goaded to the breaking point, this prude flings her glasses off and proceeds to a bravura tirade that includes (often reprised) every cliché’d phrase involving the word " shit " ever coined. The piece is as funny as, well, never mind. And " Have a Nice Day, " in which two advertising types (an insistently upbeat Latreille and a smoldering Casey) try to convince a suit (an unctuous Pemberton) that a logo conflating the peace symbol and the have-a-nice-day happy face cannot be had, is a riot.

There is something to be said, too, for the skits that do involve bloodshed. These include " Do Not Feed the Animal, " in which Ireland’s rattling Ann must ultimately take a stand for freedom and ignore a posted warning against nourishing the ostensible varmint Casey’s silent Vern keeps in a small box. Then there’s " Duck, " in which Kuntz’s construction-site inspector misconstrues a sign reading " Duck " and lands in a hostile bed of quackery. There are hints in Silverstein’s short plays, with their macabre edge and emphasis on semantics, of both Edward Gorey and All in the Timing author David Ives.

There are, however, some longueurs amid Shel’s Shorts, never more so than in " No Soliciting, " in which a pair hawking signs stir the sadness of a mousy old woman who would have liked a few placards to help her communicate with a belittling husband. This skit is forlorn and too long, though Kuntz and Ireland jazz it up with some inspired bits of danced salesmanship. And elements of " Abandon All Hope " beggar (or should that be bugger?) taste.

In the end, even the Silverstein we thought we knew is introduced to The Twilight Zone. In " Garbage Bags, " Ireland’s Sarah Cynthia Stout, who " would not take the garbage out, " appears like some glowing, pigtailed alien in a doorway. After she recites a cautionary ditty involving irredeemably mounting waste, Latreille’s waitress of the first play arrives bearing a sundae. As the little girl laps it up against a backdrop of eerie green light, you’re pretty certain that, if you tarry, skronking will ensue.


Issue Date: December 13-20, 2001

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