Animal instinct: Comedic plays turns to natural world for laughs

Imagine walking out on your front porch one morning, only to discover a black widow spider waiting for you — and that spider had plenty to say about your skills as a parent.

Consider the ultimate high-pressure speed dating between two mayflies with a one-day lifespan. What if three hyper-intelligent chimpanzees actually sat down and tried to type out the works of Shakespeare, or a toothy dinosaur refused to leave your dentist’s office?

The cast and crew of Franklin College’s latest theater production are about to explore these out-there scenarios. “Comedy Shorts” will feature four short comic plays packed with personified animals, absurd situations and, on occasion, adult language.

The show is entirely different than most of the college’s theater offerings, and co-directors Nicolas Crisafulli and senior theater major Cameron McAbee are hopeful that it has allowed the cast to flex their acting skills in a brand new way.

“It’s a lot of fun to use non-human characters to kind of amplify some of our human emotions and human feelings. It’s kind of a way to do that that seems a little less vulnerable and a little less threatening sometimes than really diving deep into some of those human questions,” Crisafulli said. “And I hope people laugh, walking away fully entertained.”

“Comedy Shorts” coalesced around McAbee’s interest in doing an independent study in directing. Crisafulli, a professor of theater and fine arts at the college, wanted to work that independent study into part of the college’s main-stage production schedule.

That gives the project the full production element attached to it, Crisafulli said.

They discussed how to best do that, and each decided to direct two short plays as part of a festival of short performances.

“Cameron suggested three titles at the beginning of the semester, and two of them had personified animals in them,” Crisafulli said. “I had one title in mind that had flies in it, so I figured if I could come up with one more play that had animals in it, we could use that as a unifying element to this production.”

McAbee, a Shelbyville native, is majoring in theater as well as biology with the hopes of going into veterinary medicine. Those two subjects may seem far apart in academic terms, but they have helped make for a well-rounded, liberal arts education during his time at Franklin College.

His studies have been a continuation of what he enjoyed as a student at Warren Central High School, which put an emphasis on not only science, technology and mathematics, but on art as well.

“When I was going to high school, I was already exposed to a lot of artwork and different ways to express myself, whether through pottery or theater,” he said. “I kind of wanted that in college, because I wanted that outlet, to be able to express myself.”

With a framework in place, Crisafulli and McAbee have been working with the cast individually to get their individual plays just right. Though the casts all rehearsed and developed their plays individually, the two directors still collaborated and discussed what would work best for their plays.

The four one-acts feature small casts, no more than two or three actors in each one. Plots are varied, but all are populated by animals that talk.

“Often times, these festivals of short plays turn out to just be four plays we’re interested in, so I liked the idea of linking them all together,” Crisafulli said.

“The Kingdom of the Spiders” is a one-act play written by Nick Zagone, and directed by McAbee. The story revolves around a father going to retrieve his morning paper, where he encounters a very critical black widow spider. As chaos begins to mount, the pair are encouraged to be more open minded, compassionate and challenge their beliefs.

Another work directed by McAbee is “Teeth,” a one-act play written by Max Reuben. A receptionist at a dentist’s office, played by Edinburgh native Katy Poff, is torn between answering to her abusive boss and a large, carnivorous dinosaur that shows up in the waiting room for his appointment and refuses to leave.

Crisafulli directed the other two plays. “Time Flies” is written by David Ives, as two young mayflies on a first date realize they only have a lifespan of one day, putting new emphasis on the idea of “carpe diem.”

“Words Words Words” is written by David Ives, and revolves around the idea that three monkeys, typing into infinity, will eventually reproduce “Hamlet.” Three intelligent chimpanzees, Milton, Swift and Kafka — played by Greenwood native Nate Irskens — put that idea to the test.

As people come to the productions and see the individual plays, the hope is that each one connects with the audience in a meaningful way.

“I want people to take away what I feel theater is to me. which is a very personal experience. There are going to be some things that are funny for some people, and some things that aren’t funny for some people,” McAbee said. “That’s really important to hone in on — to hone in on your interpretation on what’s being said.”