Greg Kotis' The Unhappiness Plays Bring Hysterical Misery to Space 55

"Shredding. Bathroom. Office. Doctor. Fart."

Those are some of the notes I made after seeing The Unhappiness Plays, a perfectly unique evening of short and short-short plays by Tony-winner Greg Kotis, author of Eat the Taste (which he claims has been produced only in Phoenix and Australia -- so, you know, uh, we rock!), co-author of Urinetown: The Musical, experienced improviser, and super-nice guy who thinks about food a lot, or so he says.

I make such notes to help me remember who played what, an issue that arises more often the less mainstream the theatrical experience I've having on your behalf. But I bet they've proved more useful, this time around, to lure you into going to see this brand-new show, an experience that is like being in a public or semi-public place and watching a stranger take his or her petty frustration to a ridiculous yet logical extreme, over and over, in a completely different and surprising way each time.

Sure, it already sounds terrific -- but that's not all!

Kotis is an old buddy of Space 55's founders, Bob Fisher (who directed this production, fabulously) and Shawna Franks (who is in it, fabulously). In a brief Q&A/talkback after the performance on Saturday, January 29, he explained that he's had a handful of ten-minute plays on the burner while he works on larger projects, and Franks and Fisher prodded him to fill out another 45 minutes or so of lunacy to première at one of Phoenix's finest venues.

All the mini-scenarios of The Unhappiness Plays are about disappointments, thwarted revenge, shattered illusions, betrayal, heedless cruelty, nasty surprises, and other great stuff like that -- hence the title. You or I would probably scream, drool, and pee with amusement while merely reading the script, but Fisher and his team chose to pump it up to an ironic level of comic satisfaction. And Space 55 accepts donations of paper towels.

So just go ahead and put a roll by your front door now.

As Kotis pointed out after the show, this level of over-the-topness really only works in live performance -- TV or film would suck the genuine humanity out of it and leave only outsize gestures and weird faces.

Space 55 hosts workshops for a small but fierce group of writing and performance students who are part of what makes it a vital and groundbreaking theater, and several improv geeks from that incubator and other Valley groups (I'm sorry, y'all -- and I disclose here that several of you are friends of mine and/or occasional New Times contributors -- but I don't know what else to call you) were rampantly eager to further discuss the creative process.

The cool part is that their mysteries, whether you're initiated or not, are based in human behavior: what we do, what we contemplate doing, what we wish to hell we'd done.

If you've had bad experiences watching Comedy (not plays that are comedies, but comedy itself, performed by people referred to as comedians) -- and who hasn't? -- it may be hard to accept that improvisation is a powerful, precise tool in the creation of performances you'll have good experiences watching. I want to help you. My name is Julie P., and I have had huge problems with Comedy.

People who live in or near Phoenix have tried to perform standup and improv comedy for decades, and, until recently (when the subculture became more skilled and serious), there was good reason to stay far away from most of them. But improv is actually, it turns out, grueling, focused work that makes actors and writers better.

Hey, I'm still not saying you're necessarily going to want to watch them do it, in front of you, for money or entertainment value -- it's a cup-of-tea situation. Studying and practicing improv, though, results in razor-sharp writing and performers who can enrapture you by staring, breathing, pausing, or, for all I can tell, quietly ovulating. This is the excellence of the script and ensemble of The Unhappiness Plays.

The production's design is another damn impressive example of what happens when the little things are done with respect and affection. As a way to carry the "unhappiness" through the disparate playlets, the stage is devoid of color (other than those inherent to human bodies). Gray costumes (with the contrast of the finale creating an eye-popping exception), white set pieces, and spare, gorgeous, tissuey-looking backdrops in black, white, and gray challenged the cast to make the setting communicate in an unadorned, universal, essential manner.

Scenic artists Kara Roschi and Nina Miller went so far as to show us what gray ice cream, gray money, and a gray paper bag would look like.

The Unhappiness Plays continues through Saturday, February 5, at Space 55, 636 East Pierce Street. The venue has a nice lounge again, with comfy seats, some art, and beverages, and that's going to come in especially handy if this weather doesn't break soon. Call 602-663-4032 to reserve tickets, $15, or check here for possible discounted seats.

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Julie has written for the Night & Day events calendar section since 2005. As a student at Arizona State, she received the Glendon and Kathryn Swarthout Creative Writing Award and the Theatre Medallion of Merit.
Contact: Julie Peterson