Set on the tiny Rarig Xperimental stage (a venue that’s apparently as experimental as the local energy company), An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein was the hottest ticket of the 2010 Minnesota Fringe Festival, the only show to sell every possible available ticket. The resulting attention is long-deserved and well-earned for stars Lacey Piotter and John T. Zeiler. Given the show’s success, I’d be surprised if it didn’t reappear at the BLB or the Theatre Garage in coming months, and if it does, you should definitely grab the opportunity to see it.
The show comprises six short plays by the late writer who’s best known for his children’s stories and poetry. The dark, cynical cast of the plays surely surprised many attendees (at least one woman at the Sunday afternoon performance audibly gasped), but right on the cover of the program is an illustration based on The Giving Tree, a beloved story with a dark heart. The fable about a tree that gladly offers itself to be used by a boy over the course of a lifetime is typically read as an inspiring tale about devoted friendship, but it can also be seen as a dramatization of an abusive relationship.
Abusive relationships are what An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein is all about. The chilling scenarios include a man selling a smiling woman who offers herself, seemingly willingly, to the highest buyer; a service worker cruelly manipulating an unwitting client who just wanted her laundry cleaned; and a wife forcing her husband to choose whether he would choose her life over that of his mother, and then that of his daughter. Silverstein is not widely known for his playwriting, but he’s cunningly adept at crafting short scripts that draw you in like lobster traps. The scripts are very funny, and it’s searingly dark humor—not dark humor in the sense of cracking jokes at a funeral, dark humor in the sense of the shock of recognition at how appalling people can really be to one another.
This script would probably have been a hit even if only competently performed, but Piotter and Zeiler were much more than competent. They enlisted six different directors for the six individual segments, which gave the show a gratifying sense of texture and momentum. As performers, they blew me away. I was familiar with the work of both actors—I admired Zeiler in The Awakening, and Cromulent Shakespeare Company’s Troilus and Cressida demonstrated that Piotter was capable of much more than the light comedy I’d seen her perform in A Christmas Carol: The Golden Girls Remix and In the Weeds—but nothing I’d seen prepared me for the power they brought to An Adult Evening. Both actors demonstrated great range, perfect timing, and a sense of empathetic connection with one another and with the audience; it was that mixture of vulnerability and courage that made these plays work so remarkably well.
As the two took their bows, Piotter revealed that just a couple of weeks ago she had accepted Zeiler’s proposal of marriage. My mom—who would have been distinctly uncomfortable up until that point—would have been very happy at that final, unscripted, development. She likes a show with a good ending.
Photo: John T. Zeiler and Lacey Piotter, courtesy Minnesota Fringe Festival