My first introduction to Shel Silverstein was through music when I was a teenager, and I didn’t even know it. Songs like “A Boy Named Sue”, “Boa Constrictor”, “Unicorn” and others were all written by Shel Silverstein, and I didn’t know it. Of course, we all knew one Shel Silverstein song, thanks to Dr. Demento. How many of you can recite a few lines, if not the entirety, of “Sarah Cynthia Silvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out”? As I got older, I was introduced to Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” (despite its mixed messages) and his poetry books. I also discovered the Shel Silverstein wasn’t only a children’s author — he drew numerous cartoons for Playboy (which every teen boy, umm, reads), and if you’ve ever read “The ABZ Book” or looked at “Different Dances“, you know Shel worked at many different levels. So I knew the adult side of Shel, but what I didn’t know was that in addition to being an artist, author, poet, and songwriter, Shel was also a playwright. He wrote loads and loads (from what I’ve read, over 100) of short one-act plays and scenes. In 2001 (after Shel’s death), New York’s Atlantic Theatre Company collected ten of Shel’s more adult one-acts into a two-act production called “An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein“. The resulting production has been very popular with small theatres around the country; for the last two weekends, Repertory East Playhouse (REP East) (FB) has been presenting it as part of the short-run, more adult fare that they run during late summer.
Before I start describing the ten scenes and the performances therein, a few notes from the research I did to write this write-up. As I noted, a lot of theatres have presented this play, and it is interesting to see how they have adapted Shel’s child-oriented artwork to attract the adult market. I’ve captured a few examples to the right. These show that the licensing doesn’t provide an image for the show. The most common image seems to be an adaptation of “The Giving Tree” (his best known work); most seem to imply a heavily sexual nature to the show. Most seem to be designed to discourage children, demonstrating that Shel’s current association is with his children’s books. I’ll note the Playbill in the center is from the original Atlantic production. So how “adult” is this show? Will it scare the horses? There’s a fair amount of adult language in the show, but no actual nudity (there was more nudity on stage in Frankie and Johnny or The Graduate). Although in one scene the language may be a bit raunchy, most of the language is stuff that kids over 12 these days know from the playground or pay-TV. What is adult in this show are the concepts. There are notions and ideas in this show that will fly right past a child; they won’t see the humor and they won’t get the point. Those familiar with Shel’s adult work know that he used shock and strong images to make significant points about society. It is those ideas that make this show wrong for kids.
So let’s look at the scenes and performances in the show. REP East only listed the scene names, but luckily Dramatists Play Service and Wikipedia provide more information:
- One Tennis Shoe. Harvey (Jeff Johnson/FB) needs to broach a delicate subject with his wife. He claims Sylvia (Bridget Pugliese (FB)) is becoming a bag lady, but she protests that her Bloomingdales’ shopping bag doesn’t make her a bag lady. No, says Harvey, but the picture frame, couch cushion and single tennis shoe retrieved from the garbage do. Not to mention the cold cooked oatmeal in her purse. The leads in this scene created a believable couple, but what I found more interesting was the reactions to the argument from the unnamed actors and the waiter in the background.
- Bus Stop.Irwin (George D. Cummings (FB)) stands on a street corner with a sign reading “bust stop.” When Celia (Erin Rivlin (FB)) passes, he stops her and proceeds to run through the entire list of slang for her breasts, but Celia turns the tables on him with a lengthy and demeaning list of her own. This is perhaps the most NSFW scene, at least in terms of language. It is almost guaranteed that you will hear slang terms for either breasts or the penis that you have never heard before. It is a classic turnabout, and Erin and George have lots of fun with it.
- Going Once. In a simultaneously comic and chilling monologue an auctioneer (George D. Cummings (FB)) shows off a woman (apparently Annie (Erin Rivlin (FB))), who is putting herself up for auction to the highest bidder. This scene is a commentary on how women were often viewed in the 1960s and 1970s (I certainly hope that isn’t today’s view), and could be viewed by some as misogynistic (although if you read through Different Dances, you’ll come away with the impression that Shel Silverstein thought that way at one time). How much would you pay for a women who would do anything? Good performances by both leads, but even thought the body is sold, not much is revealed. You have to pay to see more .
- The Best Daddy. Lisa (Fiona Perry (FB))’s got the best daddy (Randy Aronson (FB)) in the world. After all, he bought her a pony for her birthday. Too bad he shot it dead. Or did he? Maybe it was Lisa’s older sister.Very strong performances from both; I really enjoyed Perry’s reactions to her father as he worked the expectations.
- The Lifeboat is Sinking. Jen (Hannah L. Endicott/G+) and Sherwin (Jason Endicott (FB)) sit safely on their bed, but Jen forces her husband to imagine they are on a sinking boat in the middle of a terrible storm. Waves fill the boat with water; there are no life jackets; and Sherwin must decide whether he should throw his mother overboard or condemn them all to die. The scene raises great questions about your priority in life, and who do you value more: your spouse or your parent, your spouse or your child? Given the great performances by newlyweds Hannah and Jason Endicott, one wonders if this triggered such a discussion in real life.
- Smile. Bender (Brent Christensen (FB)) and his henchmen (Jeff Hyde/FB, Nanook/FB) drag Gibby (Michael Keane/FB) into a room and throw him to the ground. Gibby protests that he hasn’t done anything wrong, but Bender and the others know better. They have found the man responsible for the ’70s smiley face and the phrase “Have a nice day,” and they’re going to make him pay. Loads of simulated physical violence by Christensen, Hyde, and Nanook (which they do so well), and Keane cowers quite well. A good commentary on how trite phrases can drive people crazy.
- Wash and Dry. Marianne (Beth Ann Sweezer (FB)) stops by the laundromat, but she’s horrified to discover that her laundry hasn’t been cleaned. George (Ben Marcus/FB – Week 2; J. T. Centonze (FB) – Week 1) counters he never agreed to wash it. “George’s Watch and Dry,” he says. “You gotta pay attention.” A very good commentary on the prevalence of fine print these days; one wonders what Silverstein would make of shrinkwrap agreements. Good performances by Marcus as George and Beth Ann as Marianne.
- Thinking Up a New Name for the Act. Pete (Mikee Schwinn (FB) hits on the phrase “Meat and Potatoes” as the perfect name for their vaudeville act, but Lucy (Amber Schwinn (FB)) doesn’t like it. They get into a terrible fight, and Lucy kills Pete. A police investigation, trial and execution quickly follow. The only words in this farcical sketch are “Meat and Potatoes.” A very well performed scene, especially as the actors could not depend on the dialogue (“meat and potatoes”) to convey the message–it had to be entirely through their performances. I believed they conveyed the message well; additionally, the fact that the leads were husband and wife permitted them to take certain, umm, liberties in action that other actors might not be afforded. Supporting the leads in the smaller roles were Barry Agin (FB) [Judge]; George D. Cummings (FB) [Priest]; Hannah L. Endicott/G+ [Prosecutor], Jason Endicott (FB) [Sergeant], Jeff Johnson/FB [Executioner] and Michael Keane/FB [Inspector].
- Buy One Get One Free. Merrilee (Alexis Crane (FB)) and Sherilee (Kelly Bader (FB)) are offering the deal of the century. “Buy one, get one free,” the hookers sing to a tempted Lee (Barry Agin (FB)). It’s a golden opportunity. And it all rhymes. This is perhaps the most traditional Shel Silverstein piece with the nature of the rhymes, but the subject matter is clearly not for children. Good performances by both Alexis and Kelly, given the large amount of dialogue.
- Blind Willie and the Talking Dog. Blind Willie (George Chavez/FB) – Week 2; Billy Davis/FB – Week 1) sings the blues and asks passersby if they can spare a nickel or dime to help him and his hungry dog (Jeff Johnson/FB). But his dog can’t understand why Willie refuses to use the fact that he owns a talking dog to make some real money. A wonderful performance by George (who can sing quite well), and Johnson played the dog quite well (although I hear his costume is a bitch).
Overall, this was a large cast (many of whom are local performers at REP or CTG, as opposed to heavy regulars elsewhere in the LA theatre scene) who were having fun with a short run production. They clearly enjoyed the production, and the direction of Jeff Johnson/FB kept everything running smoothly (it did make more work for me, as I try to find links for every actor, and many took quite a bit of hunting to find anything other than Facebook).
Technically, this was very simple. There was no real set; there were a number of prop pieces used to establish the scenes. Sound design was by Steven “Nanook” Burkholder/FB, who found the few Shel Silverstein CDs out there for interstitial music (I know he used “Freakers at the Freakers Ball”, and I think I heard a few songs from “Inside Folk Songs”). There was no credit for lighting, but I’m guessing REP regular Tim Christianson/FB was involved. “An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein” was produced by Jeff Johnson/FB, Mikee Schwinn (FB) and Ovington Michael Owston (FB).
Alas, I saw the last performance of “An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein“. You could get tickets for “The Great Gatsby“, the next production at Repertory East Playhouse (REP East) (FB) [ETA: Which just went up on Goldstar].
[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I've been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I've been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I'm a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]
Upcoming Theatre and Concerts: August will end with “An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein” at REP East (FB). September is filling out. So far, the plans include “Earth/Quaked starring Savion Glover” as part of Muse/ique in Pasadena on Sun 9/7, “Moon Over Buffalo” (Goldstar) at the GTC in Burbank on Sat 9/13, “Bat Boy: The Musical” at CSUN for the Friday night before Slichot (9/19), “What I Learned in Paris” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on Sat 9/27, and “The Great Gatsby” at Repertory East (FB) on Sun 9/29. October currently has two shows (three if you count Yom Kippur on 10/4): “Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married” at the Group Rep (FB) on Sat 10/18 (when Karen is at PIQF), and “Pippin” at the Pantages (FB) on 10/25. November is back to busy, with dates held or ticketed for “Big Fish” at Musical Theatre West (FB) on Sat 11/1, “Handle with Care” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on Sat 11/8 (shifting to avoid ACSAC), a trip out to Orange Empire Railway Museum to see my buddy Thomas on 11/11, “Sherlock Holmes and the Suicide Club” at REP East (FB) on Sat 11/15, the Nottingham Festival on Sun 11/16, and “Kinky Boots” at the Pantages (FB) on Sat 11/29. I’d love to get down to San Diego to see either (or both) of “Bright Star“, the new Steve Martin/Edie Brikell musical, at The Old Globe Theatre (FB) (September 13-November 2), or “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (based on the Disney film) at The La Jolla Playhouse (FB) (October 25-December 2), but I’m not sure either would work in the schedule. As for December, right now I’m just holding one date: “She Loves Me” at Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim on 12/20. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.