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Rock Out

8 1/2 x 11: Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll

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This year's installment of Dad's Garage Theatre's short-play festival 8 1/2 x 11 has the subtitle "Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll," which the program bills as "the three classic sins." It's a revealing description. "Sex, drugs and rock & roll!" usually serves as a youthful battle cry of defiance and hedonism, but 8 1/2 x 11 suggests that in the long run, feeling good may not be a good thing.

When the short plays, most of them world premieres, name-check rock songs or bands, it's usually in a dark context. In Kyle Jarrow's "Total Fucking Blackness," probably the evening's funniest and most satisfying play, two young people (Tim Stoltenberg and Lauren Gunderson) plan to go out in a blaze of glory "like Sid and Nancy." Effective throughout the show, Gunderson also plays a prostitute in Steve Yockey's "Sucker Punch," who wistfully recalls a Heart concert and cocaine with her sister as a pleasant memory before a life of degradation.

A hilariously annoying song by Ratt reoccurs throughout "It's More Metal If It's a Double T" by Alice Tuan, in which two heavy-metal headbangers (Gunderson and John Benzinger) play out sadomasochistic games. The play's exact meaning isn't quite clear, but suggests that both the relationship and the "lifestyle" will continue endlessly and pointlessly.

Festival curator Kate Warner mixes up its usual premise to inject more rock 'n' roll. The opening-night performance featured a kickin' tune by Jim Hodgson, which nevertheless felt brief and like the odd one out among the short plays. The finale's improvised scenes inspired and separated by tracks from a Ween album got the evening's biggest laughs, but also felt like an anticlimax. At times, 8 1/2 x 11 is undermined by the whiplash tonal changes between the pieces, with the grim violence of "Sucker Punch" feeling particularly out of sync.

The pairing of two dramatized short stories brings home the notion of the rock 'n' roll hangover. Jan Dykes' nostalgic autobiographical piece "The Summer of 1987" fittingly unfolds like a boozy bull session about youthful passion (specifically the formative years of the Atlanta band the Ellen James Society). That show's I-regret-nothing vibe finds a rejoinder in "E Strings, Bricks and Gravel," as John Pierson, formerly of the punk band Screeching Weasel, describes a friend's descent into an alcoholic, self-destructive dead end. Stoltenberg's gravity and barely contained grief as the narrator proves surprisingly affecting, and turns 8 1/2 x 11 into an unexpected warning about the dangers of excess. Maybe it's better to live life in the slow lane.

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