This week, I want to start with a bit of horticulture. As you probably already know, a hothouse is a structure that provides a carefully controlled system for creating the most favorable environment for growing plants, fruits and vegetables.
I took that little dip into horticulture because the Wilma Theater folks have been keeping their creative talents fresh during this late phase of the pandemic with a series of short pieces, they call HotHouse Shorts. The title is a sound choice: like the other hothouses, this project seeks to provide a protected and supportive environment for actors, writers, directors, dancers, musicians and composers to incubate their bents and visions. In doing so, the Wilma Theater and its various talents can try out new works and hone their skills during a time of reduced theatrical opportunities.
The works given a platform here are all digital video shorts, some of which actually resemble one-act plays. The Floor Wipers is a good example of this type.
The Floor Wipers was co-written by Jaylene Clark Owens and Taysha Marie Canales and Akeem Davis, with Davis also serving as director. The idea, conceived by Taysha Marie Canales, is to peek in on snippets of the working lives two floor wipers led during the NBA’s 2019-2020 Bubble season. The playlet is set during the playoffs and cover two-and-a-half months of playoff action up through the Finals, where the Lakers cooled off the Heat in six games.
The two women in this two-hander are tasked with wiping off the flop sweat of the players every time there’s a break in the action. One of the women has an agenda beyond keeping the courts dry: God had supposedly told her when she was very young that she would marry a basketball player. Now, decades later, still single, she’s sure that the NBA Bubble is the perfect opportunity for fulfilling her lifelong dream of marriage with a star hoopster.
The one-act rolls out with a deep-voiced narrator delivering a pitch-perfect parody of the opening of the SVU crime show, suggesting that the two floor wipers are engaged in a day-to-day life-saving operation.
Just under 15 minutes in length, The Floor Wipers is a mildly entertaining vignette that manages to be, by turns, amusing, informative and touching. There are a number of slip-in social distancing jokes, as well as reminders of how many of us strove to keep up some normal patterns during the abnormal period of high Covid days and a crucial election.
The two floor wipers are portrayed by two of the co-writers – Jaylene Clark Owens and Taysha Marie Canales, and both give credible and commendable performances. Both use the upper parts of their faces well to deliver a salutary subtext, Canales being especially good in this regard. They could only use the upper half of the face because both wear masks during the entire performance.
The two most interesting works in Wilma’s HotHouse project are dominated by dance and music. The Rot could best be described as a high-end music video, well-conceived and well-executed. The central talent in this piece is Sarah Gliko, who wrote and performed the song that runs throughout the video. Gliko. who wrote both music and lyrics of that song, is joined by Anthony Martinez-Briggs, who wrote the rap lyrics spoken over the music at certain stretches delivering his lyrics powerfully. Gliko is also joined in The Rot by Campbell O’Hare and Justin Jain, who perform manically energetic dance numbers that are well suited to Gliko’s music. (O’Hare and Jain apparently did their own choreography for their appearances.) Michael Kiley handled the audio mix and production, while the video editing was handled by Campbell O’Hare.
Like many music videos, The Rot also has a number of elements that seem too (??) random, awhile nervous jump cuts sometimes detract from, rather than enhance, the strong visual images. But taken as a whole, this is an engaging piece of collaborative performances that is well worth a view. Make that a repeated view.
The most interesting piece in the HotHouse Shorts program so far is Hold Fast. The sole performer here is Steven Rishard. Rishard is a visual artist as well as an accomplished actor. (Some of his paintings were featured online in Art From the Walls of Azuka in the spring of 2020.) His sensibilities in that discipline are reflected in Hold Fast, where a series of engrossing visual images are enhanced by a captivating soundscape. That soundscape blends a range of mesmeric music, much of it minimalist, and a voice-over which is essentially dark-tinged poetry describing the emotional journey of an individual trying to find his place in a world that is no longer fully recognizable. In addition to being the sole performer, Rishard also wrote the text, designed the sound and worked out his cryptic choreography.
The Lagniappe Project is a short documentary showing actor Melanye Finister meeting a group of young people from Northern Children’s Services and collaborating with those youngsters to make a rich gumbo. Finister, a Louisiana native, is proud of the gumbo recipe she shares with the young people and all the viewers of this video. She has reason for that pride – the recipe has evidently been passed down through generations of her Creole family, most recently from Melanye’s mother. You can almost taste the intense flavors of this stew as Minister and the young prepare it and then savor it. Briana Gause served as the videographer and editor of this documentary that captures the importance of people connecting in times like these and how the act of preparing and enjoying food together is one of the prime ways of connecting.
All of the Wilma HotHouse Shorts, including ones not mentioned here, are available free online. To view any or all of the Shorts, simply go to the Wilma website or the Theatre Philadelphia website, click on through, register and enjoy the works at your convenience. Once you’re registered, the Shorts are available for viewing – or repeat viewing – at any time.