Theater Review - Eight is enough

8 1/2 x 11 swings on the side of slapstick

This year's installment of the short play festival 8 1/2 x 11 supports the theory that environment shapes character. Originating as 10x10 by barking dog theater, the shows initially presented 10 serious, funny and abstract works, each representing artists from a different Atlanta troupe.

Picked up by Dad's Garage Theatre, the concept has turned almost entirely comic, more like a party mix tape than a diverse blend of tones and styles. The latest 8 1/2 x 11 is the most madcap yet, featuring a huge digital clock that counts down the 11-minute time limit, several sketches driven by audience participation and a framing device hosted by shadow puppets.

The evening gets off to an agonizing start with "8 1/2 Clowns," a cloying, strenuous indulgence in red-nosed, baggy-faced clowning. Most of the other humorous efforts are more satisfying, like Chris Brown's droll puppet show "Clutter" and Tom Key's take on The Glass Menagerie, with an amusingly full-of-himself John Benziger dragooning an audience member into playing a scene from the Tennessee Williams play.

With such an emphasis on comedy, the pieces that aren't zany slapstick stick out uncomfortably. The audience seemed rather perplexed by the feminist message of Zoetic Dance Ensemble's muscular dance piece, "The Weight of Water," featuring apron-clad women dancing with washtubs. Tim Habeger colorfully performs a Garrison Keillor-esque monologue by Rob Nixon about a lumberjack preacher, while Kendra Myers' "A Season on Paper," directed by Damon Boggess, offers a charming, well-observed depiction of e-mail flirtation.

New Hope Productions (apparently taking their name from the first Star Wars movie), takes the potentially grim subject of George Harrison's death as a jumping-off point for a hilarious riff on Beatles mythos, spoofing everything from Yellow Submarine to the knife fight in Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video. The group also performs improv-heavy bits between the plays, presenting a post-apocalyptic conflict between George Lucas and George Bush (not surprisingly, pretzels provide a frequent punchline).

Any short play festival with a strictly observed time limit is bound to emphasize laughs. Entertaining as 8 1/2 x 11 is, though, one can't help but think it's a bit more frivolous than it needs to be. Perhaps the pendulum will swing back at the next time out.

8 1/2 x 11 plays through Feb. 16 at Dad's Garage Theatre Company, 280 Elizabeth St., Thurs.-Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 5 p.m. $12-$15. 404-523-3141. www.dadsgarage.com.??

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