Sketchbook Festival More Reined in

Nina Metz, tribune.jpg

"Location is everything. For years, Collaboraction's annual Sketchbook Festival was based out of Wicker Park, where it occupied the Chopin Theatre with a frisky, we're-artists-and-we-dare-you-to-be-bored spirit that made this short play series one of brightest spots on the calendar.

In 2007, the fest moved to a fancier address at the Steppenwolf Garage, currently the home of Sketchbook's eighth installment, as well. The Collaboraction event has always been about environment as much as the plays, and to say the cacophonous energy has been toned down is an understatement. It's not so much tame as well-behaved. Domesticated. Stay-in-your-seat protocol. And that's sure to appeal to the kind of traditional-minded audiences who frequent the Steppenwolf.

Something vital, though, is missing. Namely, that palpable, inclusive-feeling anarchy that gave the festival its specificity and sense of purpose. These days, Sketchbook wears its vibrant sense of hustle lightly. It might be the natural evolution of things, but if this is maturity, I'll take a little juvenilia please. Two distinct programs are performed on a rotating basis (seven brief plays in each) and you can catch both in a double-whammy on Saturdays.

Much of what Collaboraction does with Sketchbook relies on the curatorial skills of fest director Anthony Moseley. (This year, the company says it received 5,000 submissions.)

By far, Program B offers the best mix of the unusual (the ticked-off Irish lads in "R UNHO ME TE DDY"); the challenging (Jose Rivera's "Yellow," deconstructing what it means to support the troops); the unpredictable ("Cowboy Birthday Party"); the whimsical ("Chicago Summer," about love and bicycles); the post-millennial (Ira Gamerman's self-explanatory "Dated: A Cautionary Tale for Facebook Users"); and the straight-up hilarious (Greg Allen's "Hackneyed").

With the audience surrounded by an octagon of scrims—a backdrop for video of cloudy skies and refracted light—the setup feels cozy and intimate, and the focus is exactly where it should be: on the plays and on the actors.