Throughout his life, Shel Silverstein has been able to effortlessly slide between genres, making a name for himself as both a Playboy cartoonist and popular children’s author (The Giving Tree and Where The Sidewalk Ends are his most famous works). He is also a songwriter, author of the Johnny Cash hit, Boy Named Sue, which he once performed alongside Cash. His play, Shel’s Shorts is so named because it contains a string of fourteen short plays written with hilarious wit and vulgarity for the enjoyment of his more mature audiences. Project: Theater fully embraces this hilarity in their production of Shel’s Shorts. They had to. The material is too difficult to survive a half-hearted effort. There are many scene changes, a large ensemble of actor’s and long difficult monologues about strange and ridiculous topics. Silverstein’s dialogue is hard enough to wrap your mind around, let alone your tongue. Actress, Amanda Byron, in particular, seamlessly delivers an unbelievably challenging monologue in her skit, Gone To Take A… that seems to go on forever while twisting and turning in surprising new directions. Throughout the course of the play it was not uncommon to hear the audience applaud both the cleverness of a monologue and the actor’s ability to recite it.
The fun is not only in the words. It is also enjoyable to observe the many different tricks that resourceful scenic designers J.J Bernard and Francois Portier used to create fourteen different sets in a tight, limited space. The most creative invention of all is a bathtub where styrofoam peanuts piled on top of a bathing girl creates the illusion of a bubble bath.
There is not a clear unifying factor tying all fourteen plays together, though the usage of signs is apparent in all but three pieces; Dreamers, Hangnail, and Garbage Bags. Signs, in this collection of plays, stand for rules that some unknown entity sets and then applies to the world, apparently for the world’s own good. The side walls of the theatre reinforce this theme, displaying a collection of small signs from the standard “One Way,” “Keep Left” to the less traditional, “No Shirt, No Service,” and “Real Men Wanted.”
The collection of stories urge us to question a sign before blindly obeying it, even if it turns out that the sign is right after all. For example, a sign reading Do Not Feed The Animal, is most likely referring to a dangerous creature whose mouth you do not want your fingers near. On the other hand, a sign reading Duck, could mean look out above for a low awning, or look out below for a biting bird. Silverstein’s logic would have you believe that the sign only refers to the bird. A sign, he argues, should only tell you something that you can not see for yourself.
In another skit, two friends stare indignantly at an Abandon All Hope sign, yelling, “Just because you tell me to abandon all hope doesn’t mean I’m going to!” Even a sign as well meaning as No Dogs Allowed is challenged by a woman so adamant on having her dog by her side that she covers him in a towel and insists he is a Ringling Brothers Circus performer that goes by the name, “Jojo the Dog-Faced Man.”
Needless to say, Shel’s Shorts is the kind of play that comes with a built-in audience. Silverstein made a long career out of thrilling children with his whimsical stories and adults with plays that are so raunchy the playbill comes with a list of bold-faced warnings. Fortunately, in this off the wall recreation of Shel's work, Project: Theater did more than just stay true to the beloved author’s words; they also stayed true to his spirit.