REVIEW: The Alley’s New Shorts Squeeze Huge Life Questions into 20-Minute Virtual Shows
Fresh off the heels of its contemporary production of Euripides's classic Medea, The Alley is making sure the show goes on with an array of powerful short productions. Two of them, Man. Kind. and For Steve Wozniak, on His 67th Birthday, which are available digitally through July 4, really hit home.
Audiences will enjoy playwright Don X Nguyen’s compelling conversation between two Neanderthals. Through the direction of Brandon Weinbrenner, we are taken inside a cave and meet Credo (Shawn Hamilton), who claims he has created fire, and Dalfede (Melissa Pritchett), who invented it yesterday and isn’t getting any credit for it. Familiar, right? Opening on a backdrop of primitive cave paintings, Nguyen’s short almost immediately forces the audience to examine the origins of mankind and our sensibilities of the time, as well as how this affected our subsequent history.
Hamilton is fun to watch as the self-absorbed, pot-smoking cave man—picture ’80s stoner stereotypes, à la Wayne’s World for full effect—who makes fire (a scientific breakthrough that results in an exclamation of, “FINALLY! SWEEEEEET!”) purely for self-indulgence. His spot-on comic timing makes this play engaging. As counterpoint, Pritchett is wonderfully expressive playing a cave person banished from her clan. And with a tribal drumbeat, courtesy of sound designer Bradley Jay Gowers, punctuating the play’s action, what ensues is their conversation that reveals two world views: one that is selfish, and one that is selfless.
This debate over how to live our lives is not only relatable, but also captivating as Credo justifies his selfishness as part of the survival instinct, asking, “Who am I to defy nature?,” and eschewing Dalfede's arguments for thinking of humankind as a group that should collectively help each other. Meanwhile, Dalfede has dreams, or possibly nightmares, of future historical tragedies rife with war and conflict and still argues that good can be found if we help each other.
Clocking in at less than 20 minutes, Man. Kind. is fast and fascinating, and I loved it.
For Steve Wozniak, on His 67th Birthday
Written by 2021 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize-finalist Jiehae Park, this short, woman-led play opens with a narrator (Jessica Jain) stating, “This is not an important story,” but it sure is interesting.
Michelle Elaine plays birthday boy and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (referred to as Steve #1), complete with a gray, yarn beard. Describing himself as a “cuddly bear,” Wozniak, downplays his massive professional and philanthropic contributions, providing a striking contrast with Steve #2 (played by Houston favorite Patricia Duran) as the dour Steve Jobs, who is dead but still there for Wozniak’s 67th birthday celebration.
Duran is excellent, with her poker face, exquisite keyboard turtleneck—a clever costume design from Kim Cook—and her mantra of “I should be working.” Then there’s Steve #3 (Mai Le), the immigrant superintendent of a building. Although Steve #3 has accomplished so much through sheer survival of cultural oppression and violence, Steve #2 tells him, “You are nobody.”
The whole set up, with the narrator interviewing these Steves and their responding monologues, is riveting as it forces you to think about, well, all the big things in life: work, fame, love, and death. For such a short play, there is great profundity here, as when supposed cruel genius Jobs confesses that his workaholism is part of a warped way of viewing the world: “If I love the world, I cannot make beautiful things.” The irony is not lost on the audience that Jobs’s emotional remoteness is part of his existence as someone who is “not very nice,” while Wozniak, whose generosity is legendary, was the inventor of the universal remote.
All three Steves are “super” in their own ways, but fame and immortality are never guaranteed, the play reminds. While this play’s exposition insists, perhaps too much, it’s “a story not meant to linger,” it will stay with me for a long time.
And guess which Steve says, “I love the world?” That line may be the best birthday gift of all.
Through July 4. Free. More info and registration at alleytheatre.org.