Ten-Tucky Festival of Ten-Minute Plays offers a mixed bag

Michael Smith in “Squirrels in a Knothole” | Photo by Eli Keel

For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn,” the famous six-word story by Ernest Hemingway, is an excellent argument for the position that it doesn’t take great length to tell an entire story. It’s got pathos, backstory, humanity and an ultimately tragic thrust.

The Bard’s Town is no stranger to the theatrical equivalent, the 10-minute play. Its annual Ten-Tucky Festival dives into the genre again this weekend, bringing with it a mix of new faces and voices.

In a lot of theater scenes, including Louisville’s, 10-minute play collections act as something of a boot camp, allowing new writers, directors and sometimes new actors the opportunity to get their feet wet and start to develop new skills.

The result is a gift in the long run. It helps grow our community and bring in new blood. And in the short run, it creates a mixed bag, with the results only seldom reaching the higher echelons of what the format of the 10-minute play can achieve in the hands of more experienced practitioners.

This year’s plays offer a uniformly comedic take on the genre. It provides a good number of laughs but seldom dives deeper than a quick chuckle derived from an outrageous premise. The evening left me wishing for a little more dramatic heft and more well-rounded characters.

“Different Parts” by Gary Wadley, which presents perhaps the most structured piece of the evening, delves into comedic territory with a Ozzie & Harriet”-style sitcom focused on the undead. It’s not anything new, but it was quick and snappy, with some solid jokes, smooth direction and nice acting.

“Seventeen” by Teri Foltz is the story of two teenagers working for minimum wage and engaging in some circuitous flirting. While the dialogue was nice, the central joke/conceit was that teens are dark and moody. It felt like a satire of teen behavior rather than an attempt to portray it with honesty.

Courtney Groszhans’ “Murder in the Night” also was structured pretty well, with a solid beginning, middle and end, a good chance for the characters to grow, and it showcased some good acting. But I’ve seen this specific premise several times before — a thief breaks into an occupied house and ends up making an unlikely friend —  and I also grow tired of the general range of “Hey, what if the threat of violence toward women and poverty was hilarious.”

“An Invasive Procedure” by Jacob Cooper rounded out the evening’s first half. Based on a satirical look at gay conversion therapy, the idea could support a longer work if Cooper would like to follow the absurd threads he’s laid down here.

He already hints at a larger, stranger world in which his characters live — a world that served to deepen his script a bit — and it would be nice to see his characters move beyond the initial humor of the premise, which did provide some nice laughs.

Peter Stavros’ entry, “Squirrels in a Knothole,” was the evening’s clear winner. It has solid direction from Nick Hulstine, decent comedic chops from the actors, and a script that works on several different levels. It examined toxic masculinity in a corporate environment and frenemies, all with a touch of nihilism and a subtle hint toward the realities of living in a violent world. And it’s all accomplished in between pretty solid squirrel jokes.

“Faux News” by Jennifer Donlon makes good on old jokes about PC culture, taking them to a ridiculous extreme by examining the effect on children’s toys. These toys are personified, given life by a visit to the Island of Misfit Toys.

She cleverly couches this in a news report by a thinly veiled Fox News, commenting on that station’s tendency to report its own outlandish flights of fancy. In another nice twist, she lets one dissenting voice criticize the other toys, a Second Amendment-crazy Nerf Gun, exactly the sort of hero Fox News viewers would love.

Donlon gave us one of the best premises of the evening, but I wish she’d showed more interest in setting up a conflict, stakes or motivations for the characters.

“Gratitude Attitude” by Ashley Flesher left me scratching my head a bit. Its one conceit wasn’t really a joke or a jumping off point for characters. There were also some extended pauses that made me think the actors were struggling with their lines, so perhaps with a couple of performances under their belt, this piece will bloom a bit.

The festival closed out with “The Yam Dynasty” by Abby Schroering. While several of Ten-Tucky’s offerings seemed to shoot for absurd, “The Yam Dynasty” hits the mark squarely, taking several comedic tropes and blending them into something that felt unique.

Cory Music and Lee Stein in “Faux News” | Photo by Eli Keel

While there is a some promising playwrighting on display here, I’m particularly interested in seeing more work from Stavros and Schroering.

One of the chief joys of the event are the handful of actors who show up repeatedly, bringing a poise and clarity to their work that was missing from a few of the evening’s greener hands. That group includes Ryan Watson, Sabrina Spalding, Meghan Logue, Cameron Murphy and Alex Haydon.

Add Tessa McShane to the list of actors whose performances I particularly enjoyed.

Special shoutouts should go to Spalding and Watson, who also took turns in the director’s chairs, helming “Different Parts” and “The Yam Dynasty,” respectively.

While those five performers were already on my list of actors to look out for, Spalding and Watson’s names are getting adding to the list of directors whose work I’ll show up to see. Nick Hulstine, director of “Squirrels in a Knothole,” also joins that list.

While the offerings were mixed, Ten-Tucky remains an important proving ground for new creative voices and, as such, will be of particular interest to those who follow the theater scene closely.

Ten-Tucky continues this week, Sept. 14-17. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. at The Bard’s Town, 1801 Bardstown Road. Tickets are $18 in advance or $20 at the door, but be warned this event frequently sells out.