By Philip Brandes
Though the late Shel Silverstein is best remembered as an author of wryly subversive children’s poetry, his 40-year career spanned a dizzying array of artistic media: songwriter-musician, cartoonist, screenwriter and playwright. His work in that latter capacity, aimed at adult audiences, forms the bulk of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble‘s “Shel Silverstein Uncensored!”
Assembled by director Dan Bonnell, this evening of satirical comedy peppered with oddball songs offers some first-rate interpretive performances of material with admittedly specialized appeal.
In his whimsical kids’ fables, Silverstein’s embrace of inappropriate behavior was a refreshing antidote to prevailing sanitized visions of childhood. Fans will appreciate that same irreverence transposed into a grown-up key. At its best, Silverstein’s writing inspires some delightfully loopy performances. A smooth-talking auctioneer (James MacDonald) offers up a woman (Martha Gehman) for sale as if she were livestock. A sadistic father (Tony Pasqualini) torments his daughter (Colleen Kane) with increasingly horrific hints about the birthday present awaiting her. The fears of a concerned husband (Daniel Zacapa) that his wife (Sarah Brooke) is turning into a bag lady prove justified as he plumbs the contents of her purse. MacDonald and Zacapa also nail the existential bickering between a blind street musician and his talking dog.
Nevertheless, Silverstein was more of a sprinter in his stage writing, and his two-character duets tend to stretch one-note concepts past their expiration date. Viewers not attuned to his quirky wavelength will likely find more belly laughs at a traditional sketch comedy show.
By Jay Reiner
Bottom Line: Shel Silverstein’s sketch humor hasn’t aged that well.
When Shel Silverstein was in his heyday as a cartoonist for Playboy (1957 through the mid-’70s), songwriter (Grammy winner “A Boy Named Sue”) and author of popular children’s books (“Where the Sidewalk Ends”), he also was busy writing short, satiric plays more in the line of sketch humor. It has to be said that of his many talents, the plays are least likely to stand the test of time.
But time is just one of the problems with “Shel Silverstein Uncensored!” an eclectic evening of short plays and songs devised by director Dan Bonnell. These dated pieces might have been considered slightly daring in their time, if only because Silverstein was an iconoclast with a whimsical sense of humor. Now most of them seem simply silly, mirthless, obvious or muddled, a cocktail unlikely to intoxicate.
The evening gets off to a poor start with a slight piece about a man (Daniel Zacapa) who accuses his wife (Sarah Brooke) of turning into a bag lady because of all the junk she totes around. The rhythm and feel of the sketch brings to mind early Nichols and May at first, but the one-joke idea wears out its welcome long before it ends.
Two pieces are based on misunderstandings about words. In one, a woman (Colleen Kane) is badly treated and blackmailed at a laundry because she mistakes “Watch and Dry” for “Wash and Dry.” In the other, a sign that appears to say “Bus Stop” actually says “Bust Stop,” leading to an abusive war of words between a man and woman. We go from a barrage of synonyms for breast to a deluge of synonyms for penis, with the woman finally gaining the upper hand. Several of the pieces focus on the battle of the sexes, with the male often getting the worst of it.
The evening’s most amusing piece centers on a 10-year-old girl (a very funny Kane) whose father (Tony Pasqualini) is tormenting her on her birthday by lying about his gift. Of all the sketches, this one appears to be the most emotionally open and honest, which is probably why it touches a nerve with the audience. Most everything else has a gimmicky feel or suggests that Silverstein is hiding his true feelings.
Maybe that’ why the evening closes with a cross-dressing ball in which the actors convey that, when it comes to gender things aren’t always what they seem. We’re left with the impression that Silverstein’s psyche is the real subject of the evening, only we’ve been given no more than a glimpse of this troubled terrain.
GO SHEL SILVERSTEIN UNCENSORED Adapted from An Adult Evening With Shel Silverstein, 11 sketches and songs by the late poet/folksinger and longtime cartoonist for Playboy, this is an insightful and pointed look at the darkness in the human psyche — though it’s also a throwback to the satire of decades past. Five appealing actors hit just the right notes of whimsy and farce, under Dan Bonnell’s direction. Daniel Zacapa has wonderfully piercing concern for his flighty wife (Sarah Brooke) and her growing proclivities toward kleptomania. Her latest escapade was to sit at an uncleaned restaurant table and deposit an unfinished bowl of oatmeal into her bag. Beneath their bickering over linguistic distinctions — whether or not she is a “bag lady” or is becoming one — is a sketch of a marriage that’s unraveling for reasons neither has a grip on. The fraying relationship is timeless, while the “bag lady” reference is older than the picture frame she grabbed from the garbage and also stuffed into her bag. “Best Daddy” is a Monty Python–like skit in which the cruelest father in the world (Tony Pasqualini) gives his daughter (squeaky voiced Colleen Kane) a pony for her birthday, or says he does. She sees the pony dead and covered by a sheet. He shot it after it bit him. Just kidding. It’s not really a pony, but what is it? And so the sketch probes into ever darker caves. Martha Gehman tortures her husband through a game of “Life Boat” — goading him to throw one of the family members overboard during an imagined typhoon. It’s a hideous exercise that reduces hubby James MacDonald to a beautifully performed quivering blob.
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