The Blue Room shows off Shel Silverstein’s R-rated side
Blue Room Theatre artistic director Gail Holbrook had originally intended to stage a production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Anna in the Tropics in late February. She said finding the requisite number of local Latino male actors to cover the five lead parts in the production—about Cuban cigar-factory workers in Florida in the 19th century—was impossible.
It was that and the fact that Holbrook’s Paradise home was destroyed by a large fallen tree in last month’s major storm that made her decide to put on a comedy instead.
“I decided I needed something light between John & Jen and [the upcoming drama] Blue Surge,” said Holbrook, who is also a longtime Chico State theater arts professor.
Holbrook and co-director Sandy Barton chose the zany and thought-provoking Shel’s Shorts. The “Shel” in the title refers to the late Shel Silverstein, best known for writing and illustrating extraordinarily entertaining children’s classics like A Light in the Attic, Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree.
What may not be known about Silverstein (other than the fact he was a songwriter and penned the Johnny Cash hit “A Boy Named Sue") is that he was also a prolific playwright of some rather witty adult material.
“Shel Silverstein did a lot of writing over the years that’s not for kids, that’s relatively R-rated,” noted Holbrook.
“He used to write cartoons for Playboy,” added Barton, who is also the costume shop supervisor at Chico State.
Some of Silverstein’s short scenes that would later become part of Shel’s Shorts debuted at the Market Theatre in Boston in December 2001 over two separate evenings, titled Shel’s Shorts: Signs of Trouble and Shel’s Shorts: Shel Shocked. It wasn’t until 2003 (four years after Silverstein’s death) that the entire collection of scenes that has come to be known as Shel’s Shorts was published. The play is split into two sections: “Signs of the Times” and “Shel Shocked.” And, like another of Silverstein’s adult plays, An Adult Evening With Shel Silverstein, Shel’s Shorts is divided into vignettes or “scenes.”
“Signs of the Times” deals with signs we see all the time, like “No Soliciting” or “No Dogs Allowed,” and the conflicts and interesting situations provoked by them.
“No Dogs Allowed,” the opening scene in the Blue Room’s production, features an upper-class woman and her husband reclining on lounge chairs at a swanky resort. The husband is fully clothed in Panama hat, white pants and tennis shoes, and his face and arms are covered with towels. A resort employee looks him over and, pointing out the “No Dogs Allowed” sign, accuses the woman of trying to hide her dog. The woman defends her husband who, despite his stray hairs and occasional bark, is not a dog.
Another scene, titled “Hangnail,” is a monologue delivered by a young sorority girl obsessed with a hangnail.
One of the beauties of the play for the directors, said Barton, is that each scene is open to multiple interpretations. Barton, who directs half of the scenes, said she enjoyed being able to “twist” each one to fit her vision of it.
But even though Barton and Holbrook have put their own spin on the scenes they are directing, both agreed that much is still left up to the audience to interpret.
Six local actors ranging in age from 18 to 60—including seasoned veterans Quentin St. George and Drenia Acosta, and Blue Room newcomers Sarah Landers and Anthony Willis—will be bringing Shel’s Shorts to life.
“We cast Drenia because at auditions she was laughing at everything,” Holbrook recalled with a smile. “She got it!”
Barton, who used to work at the Blue Room back in “the crazy Latimer days,” added that working on Shel’s Shorts reminds her of the old Blue Room spirit.
“I really love experimental theater,” she said. “I really like the writing. It’s cuckoo. You can do [the scenes] many different ways, and that’s the allure. If people saw these done somewhere else, they may have seen them done in a totally different way.”