Review: LITTLE MOSCOW wins 23rd Annual Short Story Contest in Palo Alto


Write up in Palo Alto Weekly about Little Moscow, winner of the 23rd Annual Short Story Contest.

"At 17, Aleks Merilo submitted an entry to a short story contest and won. It was the same story for which he'd received a B minus in his creative writing class at Gunn High School. He went back to the teacher and asked for a higher grade but the teacher wouldn't budge.

Now, 11 years later, Merilo has achieved some professional success, having had his plays produced in theaters around the country. He credits his teachers at El Carmelo, JLS and Gunn as well as the Palo Alto community in general for supporting institutions like the Children's Theatre and TheatreWorks, where artistic spirits, including his own, are respected and nurtured.

In "Little Moscow," set in the 1950s Soviet Union, Merilo explores the idea of patriotism, profiling a father who "tears his family apart because of his love for his country." He also delves into the Russian practice of forced tattooing, where a person's "crimes" are literally worn on the body.

"I'd been thinking a lot these past eight years about what it means to be patriotic," Merilo said. "It was easier to set the story in Russia, outside the United States, because it gives us some perspective on what it is to love a country even if it doesn't treat you that well."

Born and raised in Palo Alto, Merilo visited Russia for some weeks on a school exchange when he was 14. "We took a long train ride across Siberia and there was a gentleman who worked on the train whose job was to serve us tea. He was terrifying. Every time he would serve tea his sleeve would pull up and we'd see these tattoos. One day he caught me staring at them and he flew into a rage. I didn't understand why he would be so mad about a tattoo. Later it occurred to me that it was a prisoner's number."

Merilo said he's often found inspiration from the children he teaches in school theater programs. "Their imagination is so constant. The part adults dedicate to logic the kids dedicate to imagination and they come up with the most fascinating stuff."

With undergraduate and MFA degrees in theater and playwriting from UCLA, Merilo calls himself a "professional vagabond," having done a bit of everything to support his writing habit. He was an assistant on the television show "Smallville," and spent two years teaching poetry and theater in elementary schools through TheatreWorks. He produced and directed a one-act play festival at Eastside Prep in East Palo Alto, and has traveled to work on plays in Alaska, Utah, Nebraska and Oregon.

He's currently working on a play about the "lost boys of Utah," based on his encounters with teen-aged boys who were expelled from a polygamist compound, ostensibly to create a surplus of girls for the older men to marry. "There's a place called Exit 27, a highway sign in the middle of the desert close to a town" Merilo said. "About 1,000 of them have been exiled since 2000 and I met some of them when I was working in Utah. They say 'my dad left me by the road and told me never to come back.' It struck me as an incredible story."

At the same time, Merilo is working on obtaining his California teaching credential so that he might find employment with benefits and follow in the footsteps of two of his treasured mentors at Gunn, drama teacher Jim Shelby and Paul Dunlap, the guy who gave him the B minus."

-- Chris Kenric

Aleks Merilo