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Elevating the Unknown, the Short and the Funny

Sarah Natochenny and Ellot White in An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein. Photo by Dusty Heger.

When you think of Shel Silverstein, you probably think of books and music, including beloved classics like The Giving Tree and Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue.” Ethan Coen is an Oscar-winning screenwriter, Wendy Wasserstein is a Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning playwright.

But did you know that all of these writers also experimented with short plays, brought to light by Foster Cat Productions? First up was An Evening of One-Acts by Ethan Coen, which had a successful run last fall at the Hudson Guild Theatre. Now that show, as well as An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein and Five One-Act Plays by Wendy Wasserstein, are drawing crowds at a small here theater in Hollywood.

Producer Jan McAdoo collaborated with Foster Cat Productions for last fall’s sold-out run of the Coen show. She says, “The mission statement of Foster Cat Productions is to illuminate the lesser-known works of great writers. It takes a lot of research and deep diving required to find these hidden gems. Our team is just dedicated, passionate, and crazy enough to dig into the theatrical canon and come out with the perfect pieces that exemplify our mission statement.”

In the current Festival of Jewish Playwrights that incorporates Silverstein, Coen and Wasserstein, there are some common themes. McAdoo says, “Although they come from different disciplines their writing styles are strikingly similar. Each piece is self-deprecating, acerbic and of course humorous, but the most interesting similarity among the pieces is the irreverence. All the writers, as with their other works are constantly shaking up the formula.”

For example, “Ethan Coen uses some very ‘meta’ storytelling devices in his plays, and brings a very cinematic method of theatrical storytelling. Shel Silverstein’s pieces feel like they were written specifically to push boundaries through the raunchy humor and use of different styles of poetry throughout. Wendy Wasserstein wrote fully fleshed out young female characters before it was the norm, and her one-acts also experiment with style and content to a wide degree. They’re all trailblazers.”

Foster Cat’s overriding priority while bringing the series to the stage, McAdoo says, was illuminating the writing. “Every decision in the production comes from how we can get all the fluff out of the way so that there is a streamlined connection between the audience and the brilliant dialogue each writer has given us.” She adds, “We are very proud of the scrappy nature of our productions. There is no spectacle, nothing flashy, nothing that can distract from the writing and the acting.”

Live theater, she says, is a connection between the audience and the writer through the conduit of actors; unlike other art forms, in theater, “the craft is being exercised in real time.  We want to take theatre back to that, to telling stories directly to an audience in front of a campfire.”

Those conduits must themselves relate to the writing. McAdoo says, “With casting, the most important thing is the passion each actor has for the pieces. They have to be in love with the writing as much as we are. It is a punk-rock theatre company with actors who are willing to get their hands dirty and forsake looking pretty in service of the artform.”

When asked if she has a favorite moment from the series, McAdoo names one from each show:   “In An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein, there is a beautiful absurdist piece about a blind man and his dog that can really pull on the heartstrings. In An Evening of One-Acts by Ethan Coen the last one-act play deconstructs the entire evening right before the audience’s very eyes in some of the most clever playwriting I’ve ever seen. In Five One-Act Plays by Wendy Wasserstein, there is a beautiful piece inspired by a short story from Anton Chekhov where the moment-to-moment work is some of the strongest and most beautiful I’ve ever seen.”

Stay tuned for other potential iterations of this approach to finding the hidden gems. McAdoo notes, “There are indeed lots of other one-acts we left out from some of the writers in our festival, as well as other writers we thought about including. Shel Silverstein wrote over 100 one-act plays, but the majority of them are unpublished.”

Who are these mysterious fonts of one-acts? McAdoo is cagey: “I’ll leave that a mystery in case we decide to produce them in the future.”

Sarah Natochenny and Will Fulginiti in An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein.  Dusty Heger.

The Festival of Jewish Playwrights runs at 905 Cole (905 Cole Ave in Hollywood) through April 7 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 7:00 pm. Each show performs on a different night. Please check the schedule for each. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased here. Purchase tickets to all three shows to receive a complimentary glass of wine.

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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