‘Cat Scratch Theatre’ proves both wild and tame

The Grim Reaper is shamed, graves are being filled back in, and everyone gets one question before they’re sent to heaven or hell. Such are some of the realities presented in EMU’s “Cat Scratch Theatre,” the purported 10-play (actually 11-play) series of shorts designed to entertain, excite, trick and tease. The two-and-a-half hour festival has its moments of poignancy and hilarity. But much of the time, the production can be awkward and dull, even painful. At one point, a character vents his frustration at a life full of confusion and non-sequiturs: “Life was just a parade of ‘what the hell?'”

So too, at times, with “Cat Scratch Theatre.”

Showing again this Friday and Saturday at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H., “Cat Scratch Theatre” is put on by EMU Theatre, a collective devoted to getting the community involved in the dramaturgical arts. For community involvement — an important job — the collective does a fine job. But in regard to putting on plays that tickle or torment the audience, there is work to be done.

“Grim Reaper” is the flagship of the festival — written by Dean Bevan and directed by David Butterfield, the play presents an elderly couple (John Mosher and Carol Holstead) who receive the Grim Reaper (Brent McCall) as a guest. Fortunately for them, they’re too blind and hard of hearing to know what he’s about, and so proceed to fancy him as a mere mortal. Eventually guessing that he’s a shepherd, they set his shepherd’s crook (scythe) aside and take him in as a guest. Exasperated with one humiliating misunderstanding after another, Death exclaims, “I’m used to having people fear me — you don’t even respect me!”

“What’d he say?” asks the old woman.

“Says we don’t respect him ’cause he’s queer,'” misinterprets the old man.

“Aww, sir, we’ll respect you no matter what you do with them sheep!”

Other worthwhile sections include EMU’s skits, “You Are Not Watching TV” among them, and the 10th play, “Flying Ninja.” EMU’s skits about its mission of community involvement include commentary on esoteric theatre and the difference between passively watching TV and actively watching or doing theatre. “Flying Ninja” is a sobering one-woman show directed by Larry Mitchell. Starring Elizabeth Sullivan as “Fro,” the play’s mood goes against the tide of the festival, lending a brain to the otherwise comedy-oriented grouping.

Most of the other productions, however, don’t add up to much more than a few witty lines and the occasional surprise ending. “Hiccup,” “Bee Actor” and “Dinner Party” aren’t quite funny, yet also don’t get the mind working on an interesting idea. Despite good performances by Ashley Pool and Bonnie Cherry, the plays lack vital energy or nuance needed from the script. “All the Answers” and “Mickey Rourke Should Play Bukowski Again, Now that He Really is Old and Ugly” seem well-written with some good acting, but don’t pull off (perhaps because the plays are so short) much of a vested interest from the audience.

Most painful is the seventh play, “The Exquisite Corpse in the Apocalypse.” Between a confusing script and unhelpful directing, the play loses the audience after about 20 lines, never to get them back. Other annoyances of the festival include forgotten lines and an egregious click-clacking of high heels on the floor above the performance hall. Nothing kills the mood quite as much as the sound of 4-inch heels tromping across the ceiling.