“Shelterskelter,” the Shelterbelt Theatre's annual collection of short plays with a Halloween theme, is always a mixed bag of tone, quality and subject matter.
Sometimes the authors go for sexual or gross-out comedy, sometimes just gore, and sometimes they want to genuinely scare the audience. The O. Henry twist at the end of a short story has been popular, too.
This year, Shelterskelter's 18th, sex and humor are in short supply, and the plays by local authors get a common subtitle: “The Haunted Asylum.” Indeed, most of the skits are set in mental hospitals and involve somebody with a screw loose.
Eerie quiet can be creepy, but it's not necessarily what you hope for from an opening-night audience. Thursday night about 30 people found some moments to chuckle at and a few to be creeped out by. But there was also a lot of quiet through the 90-minute, intermissionless evening.
That may not be entirely a bad thing, since three of the seven pieces require a certain amount of focus to follow rapid-patter soliloquies. But soliloquys also limit action, and having the actor involve the audience didn't feel as effective as perhaps hoped.
Matthew Karasek launches the evening with “Fanboy” by Jeremy Johnson. His long speech about flesh-eating drugs and parasites in the bloodstream is creepy, and Karasek is engaging. But the program telegraphs (and I saw coming) what I'm guessing was supposed to be an O. Henry ending.
Tara O'Dell nervously talks to her psychiatrist (Jesse Hapke) while watching her ghoulish alter-ego (Katie Kasher, invisible to the doctor) threaten with a straight razor in “Meet Sally,” by Rhea Dowhower. The story feeds a running gag during set changes all night.
Adam Sempek's “Mirror, Mirror” focuses on a psych patient (Eric Bruce) arguing with his mirror image (Matt Cornue) about the proper course of action after a family tragedy. Sempek's fondness for raw language triggered some laughs, but the unsettling story worked against humor as it unfolded.
A woman (Mary Slater) and her boyfriend (Bruce) root through the old psych hospital where his grandfather performed lobotomies in “Dark Mind,” by Julia Hinson. The creepy conundrum here is sorting out what's real and what's imagined.
Jackson Cottrell addresses the audience in “Chekhov's Gun.” Writer Ben Beck riffs on the Russian playwright's rule that if a gun is placed onstage, it must be used. Naturally, Cottrell produces a gun, and the intriguing premise turns to spooking us into a state of unease, leading to fear. For me, it was like a haunted house. I couldn't get past the ruse to that intended good scare.
Timothy Siragusa's “A Short Course in the Creation of Live Arts Actions” presents a performance-art practitioner (Travis Good) explaining his unique ideas about what art is and isn't. Good was good for several laughs.
I liked “The House of All Nations,” in which writer Max Sparber uses gender role reversal, Omaha history and amusing props (dioramas housed in suitcases, stick puppets) to entertaining effect. Slater plays a female slaughter-house worker, while Karasek relives the era of Plantation House, whose prostitutes would parade down 24th Street to the packing plants. Each storyteller finds freakiness in the other's world.
* * * *
Shelterskelter 18: The Haunted Asylum
What: Staged original short plays
Where: Shelterbelt Theatre at SNAP/Shelterbelt, 3225 California St.
When: Tonight through Nov. 2. Showtimes: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 6 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $15 adults, $12 students and senior citizens. Exception: $10 all seats, Thursdays and Sundays.
Information: 402-341-2757 or shelterbelt.org