Fort Worth — The Fourth Fort Worth Fringe festival is happening this weekend at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, with all performances in the Sanders Theatre and the underground space called the Vault. We sent a crew to catch as many shows as we can, and while we won't make all of them, here are thoughts on what we've seen. Note: One of the performances originally scheduled, Side Effect by the White Winter Theatre of Nepal, was canceled due to Visa issues.
Look for this blog to be updated throughout the weekend.
By Scott Edward Smith
KeyLight (Los Angeles, California)
- Saturday, September 7 — 7:40 p.m.
- Sunday, September 8 — 3:20 p.m.
“You do not know the half of the story.”
Scott Edward Smith’s That Woman! gives Wallis Warfield Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, her day in the court of public opinion—and actress Melissa Jobe’s vibrant, unabashedly charming performance makes a strong case for re-thinking the reputation of this famous (and tres chic) royal outcast. Who was she, this sleek American woman who pulled an English king from his throne? A cold Cruella DeVille? A clever seductress? That was the story most of us knew…or thought we did.
But this Wallis is another creature altogether—a bright girl from Baltimore who always seemed to stand outside the easy inner circle, battling for a better place in the world. Left fatherless, raised on the charity of rich relatives, Wallis was denied a debutante ball but found her own ways to announce herself. No classic beauty, she had style to spare. And, as she says, she was brought up to be “entertaining.” At a party, no one could out-charm, out-talk, out-flirt Wallis.
Technically, Jobe plays the spirit of Wallis, giving us a tour of the elegant Paris home she and the Duke of Windsor called home for decades (his echoing footsteps haunt the place), with excursions into every part of her past. The young Wallis married a Navy aviator who took her to California and China; he drank, and beat her. She tried again with a sweet-natured but boring shipping tycoon, Ernest Simpson, who gave her a way into English high society. And though she wasn’t on the hunt for a royal love affair—she says—when the Prince of Wales comes calling, what’s a girl to do?
Jobe moves with a dancer’s fluid grace, upright and elegant in pearls and satin brocade sheath—the best she can do with the fashion disaster known as the 1970s. Where were all the great designers then, she asks—“in hiding”? Wallis was one of the century’s most photographed celebrities: a Vogue regular, a fashion icon on the world’s “best dressed” lists for decades.
But to the British royals, Wallis was a pariah—and it’s certainly true they never missed an opportunity to trash-talk or plant “interesting” tidbits in the news. “Let’s talk Hitler,” she says bluntly—explaining that the single picture of Duke and Duchess smiling and shaking Hitler’s hand was taken long before anyone knew who he would become, at a time when other British diplomats did the same. Only later, she says, did the picture give the royal family a way to vilify them as Nazi enablers.
In one of history’s strange confluences, Wallis tells us that after the Duke and Duchess were gone, their Paris home was bought by London merchant Mohamed Al-Fayed—and visited, in the days before her death, by Princess Diana, another woman all too familiar with the consequences of fame, publicity, and royal grudges. It might have become her sanctuary too.
“You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance,” Wallis says, insisting she never wanted “David” to give up the throne, never intended to marry him. But marry they did, and in Wallis’ memories, it was a tender and happy relationship. But the royals’ steady hatred made their lives difficult. “That woman” was the Queen Mum’s epithet for the sister-in-law who called her “Cookie.” (Wallis said she had the face and figure of a Scottish cook.) Elegant she was; perfect, she wasn’t—as Smith’s script makes clear.
Presented by KeyLight of Los Angeles, and directed with flair and humor by Broadway veteran Philip William McKinley, That Woman! premiered at Edinburgh’s Festival Fringe last year, and is making its U.S. debut at the Fort Worth Fringe. Jobe’s vibrant portrayal may not completely overturn the common wisdom on Wallis Simpson. But, at least for the 90 minutes of the play, we believe, held fast in the spell of a remarkable woman.
— Jan Farrington
By Andrew Hollingworth
Buckle Up Theatre (Essex, United Kingdom)
- Saturday, September 7 — 9:50 p.m.
- Sunday, September 8 — 4:50 p.m.
This import from England is meet-cute story that wouldn't be of much interest except for the way in which it's told: through fast and precise movement by the two performers, often mirroring each other as they pull out and put away props in a central set piece with drawers and other compartments.
Directed by Michael Woodwood, Bump! featrures playwright Andrew Hollingworth as Ian and Oriana Charles as Eliana, who meet when her car bumps into his. And that's not the only "bump" ... they're soon bumping at a dance club and then in bed at her apartment. The next day, one of them texts and calls; the other ignores those. But they keep bumping into each other, and their brief relationship is, well, bumpy.
What makes it clever is the movement, physical comedy, and dialogue that sometimes overlaps. Like the board game Operation, it takes a steady hand to deliver this one, and both actors showcase exquisite timing in choreography, words, and comedy. The physical aspect is what takes this piece from a sort-of interesting improv sketch to a witty commentary on the bumpy ride of dating and relationships, no matter how short-lived.
— Mark Lowry
I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow
By Tennessee Williams
DragStrip Courage (Fort Worth)
Fort Worth, Texas
- Saturday, September 9 — 6:30 p.m.
- Sunday, September 8 — 3:50 p.m.
The great playwrights keep surprising us. In his short play I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow, presented by DragStrip Courage of Fort Worth, Tennessee Williams peels away the elaborate backstories of works such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to give us something utterly simple and basic.
Here’s what we know: that a man and a woman — old friends, and perhaps more — meet in the evening to play cards and watch TV news. She (Natalie Gaupp) moves in a way that we suddenly understand reveals terrible pain. He (Seth Johnston) hesitates outside, then knocks and knocks until she lets him in.
“Oh, it’s you,” she says. “Yes, it’s me,” he says. It’s the simplest of recognition rituals—to speak words that say “I see you”—but in the lonely lives they begin to show us, the space between having one friend and no friend is a yawning emptiness.
Williams, who wrote Imagine for television in 1970, is playing with unfinished thoughts and fragmented, overlapping language. The man is having trouble finding words; the woman is quick to complete his sentences, in the way of an old friend. She admires his creamy summertime “ice cream suit.” He tells her of seeing a flock of cranes on a lawn, and she picks up the story, imagining they’ve stopped to change their flight plan, to pick a new leader…or just to “feel the cool grass under their feet.”
We don’t think, at first, that we’re listening to poetry—but it’s there.
Both actors, directed by Lark Wallis Johnston, touch our hearts. Johnston gives his character a small, sweet smile and a sideways glance. He is a teacher (we find he’s been AWOL from his classroom for a few days) who lives in a shabby hotel. Gaupp’s “she” is strong and decisive, imaginative and literary, though her body is clearly failing. “Write the first thing that comes to your head,” she urges him, grown a bit impatient with his fumbling speech. “I love you, and I’m afraid.” She doesn’t look a bit surprised…which is surprising to us, at least.
She is going into a place she calls “Dragon Country” — it’s where her pain and illness will take her — and she will go there alone. Is this why she’s on a quirky crusade to get him to have dinner at the soda fountain, hoping he’ll find a new friend?
“I can’t imagine tomorrow,” each of them say at different points in the play. Are they imagining the loss, the alone-ness? But time, she says, is like a big broom, “sweeping us out of the way” whether we like it or not.
A happy ending? We know that’s not in Williams’ DNA. But this isn’t a tragedy, either — just a small story (though not small to his characters!) with a tender humanity that keeps us watching.
— Jan Farrington
Made of Honor
By Stefany Cambra
Theatre of North Texas (Southlake)
- Sunday, September 8 — 2:20 p.m.
This is one of two FW Fringe performances written by and featuring Stefany Cambra, and both have a confessional aspect (the other is Faith, Trust, and Allergy Dust). Made of Honor is the better of the two. Cambra plays her sister's maid of honor who has stepped into a closet, armed with wine, to take refuge from the matrimonial mayhem.
In her tipsy address to the audience, there are jokes about weddings and marriage, some of them cliché — what jokes haven't been made about those topics? — but others are genuinely funny. She's thrilled for her sister, who by the way is marrying a woman (making the closet setting funnier), but it also brings out hopes and concerns. What hits the strongest is her fear that as an LGBT ally, she hasn't done enough. Don't all of us wish we had done more for the people we love and the causes we care about?
Cambra isn't always comfortable with the punchlines, which makes her performance even more charming. She's the cool wedding party member we all want to have at the party. Branson White's direction gives Cambra stuff to do despite being in a confined space. Fifty minutes feels a bit long for this work, but it fits into a fringe fest format nicely.
— Mark Lowry
By James E. Nicholson
East Texas Heritage Theatre (Henderson, Texas)
- Saturday, September 7 — 8:50 p.m.
- Sunday, September 8 — 12:30 p.m.
So much work went into East Texas Heritage Theatre’s Royal Spares — and I wish I’d liked it better. There’s plenty to see: funny and colorful costumes, a wandering Evil Witch (Hope Higgins), and a trio of twirl-able two-seater pods that look like hairdresser’s stations…but aren’t.
Instead, they’re the set of the annual “Sherwood Forest Speed Dating and Fish Fry” event, hosted by glitzy godmother Optimistica (Linda Forbus) — who has to live up to her name as she tries, year after year, to find guys for three aging princesses still on the prowl.
All are second daughters, less interesting to storybooks and the fairyland media than their older sisters — though doesn’t that first-born thing just work for princes? Princess Apnea’s big sister Beauty is surrounded by woodland creatures — and like her, Apnea seems inclined to fall asleep, sometimes in mid-sentence. Mermaid Princess Conch’s sister Ariel has a thing for boats (and sailors, maybe?), while she’s just hoping for a fellow who can hold his breath. And Princess Ringer’s sister Belle is a compulsive bookworm married to an absolute Beast. Played by Charlene Ham, J. Nicholson, and Lindsay Love, these spare royals grumble their way through the yearly ordeal (trash-talking their sisters all the way), but don’t find any of these dummies (really, the suitors are plaster dummies dressed as two princes…and a stag) at all appealing.
Playwright James Nicholson begins with a fairly amusing premise, and doubles as the throaty-voiced mer-person Conch (stubble and aquamarine curls, a look you won’t forget). One wants, though, a quirkier vein of humor, something a bit sweeter than this — more Shrek than Shrek 3. Everyone calling everyone “bitches” two or three times may get a laugh if you’ve had a few…but Spares could use a lot more magic in its mix.
— Jan Farrington
Faith, Trust, and Allergy Dust
By Stefany Cambra
Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre and Proper Hijinx Productions (Fort Worth and Dallas)
- Saturday, September 7 — 7:50 p.m.
- Sunday, September 8 — 6:00 p.m.
The second work by Stefany Cambra in the festival takes up a lot more physical space than Made of Honor, and has some smile-inducing moments — but ultimately isn't very interesting as a play. Cambra and her co-star Karen Matheny co-direct the work, in which Meagan (Matheny) is helping her friend Cass (Cambra) move into a new home.
Meagan and Cass have been friends for many years, and details of their friendship — and some inside jokes — emerge as they unpack the boxes. A lot of time is spent on "remember when" sequences, such as unboxing a CD player and boy-band and Spice Girls CDs. There's a fun scene in which they find two Skip-It toys and proceed to compete with them while keeping their quickfire sitcom banter going.
The conflict comes from Cass, and it's with herself, really, as she delivers a monologue outlining her past, which, like everyone's, has some regret and pain. She's about to turn 30, so these things are on her mind. It's well-delivered. Thoughout the play, the actresses find the chemistry you expect in longtime friends. Their conversations are so natural it almost seems as if they come directly from the performers' actual girls-night-out sessions.
— Mark Lowry
By Tyler Cochran and Abel Flores, Jr.
Abel Flores, Jr. (Euless)
- Sunday, September 8 — 5:00 p.m.
Performer Abel Flores, Jr. and co-writer Tyler Cochran, taking advantage of Flores’ collection of Kennedy-esque consonants for their title, have put together a gentle satire on today’s politician, for whom the old saying rings extremely true: it’s 10 percent what you say and 90 percent how you say it. Flores is handsome, charismatic, and content-free, with a firm handshake and personal questions for each audience member upon his entrance, accompanied by unwavering eye contact, before he embarks on his stump speech. The topic? His quest to turn gumption, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Sports Nutrition, into a road to the White House. Flores kept the audience chuckling throughout his increasingly loopy speech, or rather his collection of buzzwords paired with his patented non-threatening “pointed fist,” concluding with answering the audience’s questions (which he provided, naturally). I’ll be honest: these days, I’d say AFJ’s got as good a shot as anyone of going the distance.
— Jill Sweeney
How I Became the Love of Your Life
By Charles Jackson
Poetic Thespian Productions (Fort Worth)
- Sunday, September 8 — 1:10 p.m.
Charles Jackson Jr., who both wrote and directed this piece, charms in his one-man love letter to women in his life, past and present. As he dresses for his wedding and struggles with writing his vows, he details his romantic trials and tribulations growing up. (Disclaimer: this reviewer was briefly one of Jackson’s loves, as I was pulled from the audience to portray his wife for the ceremony before being usurped by Jackson’s real wife. No hard feelings.) Jackson, with the help of pre-selected audience members, describes his failed attempts to serenade his first-grade crush with Michael Jackson ballads, to his doomed crush on his sixth grade math teacher, to whom he wrote daily love letters, to rediscovering his first crush in high school, but only as a friend. Jackson weaves the past and the present deftly, breaking off from his reminiscences to deal with wedding day minutiae, then continuing to describe his search for real love, fueled in part by the rejection of his biological mother as a young boy. The piece is well-paced and well-balanced, and if not the most exciting material, is both funny and deeply felt. Jackson created the space for several improvisational scenes with audience members (myself included) that showcased his quick thinking and comedic skills, and his final vows were poignant and beautifully delivered (and my opinion on that is in no way affected by having them delivered to me, directly, onstage, while staring into Mr. Jackson’s limpid brown eyes. Ahem. I appear to be getting off track.) All in all, a minor, but promising piece from a rising playwright.
— Jill Sweeney
My Suicide Note
Written and performed by Collin Williams
Salt Lake City, Utah
- Sunday, September 8 — 7:40 p.m.
Stand-up comedian Collin Williams lets the audience know what they’re in for with My Suicide Note right out of the gate: trying to recall exactly how many times he’s attempted suicide, he pulls up his sleeve and starts counting scars, joking that his OCD just made him cross-hatch that last one. Williams, a 10-year veteran of stand-up comedy, brings all his skills to bear to make jokes about impossibly sensitive topics (child molestation, mental illness, suicide, and beyond), and it’s a testament to those skills that he manages to produce more laughs than groans of discomfort from the audience. Williams developed the show after a stint in a psych ward where he produced the titular suicide note, and, after publishing it online with all the gory details, felt unburdened by his own, and other’s, secrets. Williams then developed this show, which has toured Europe and North America since 2017, even leading Williams to create a TED Talk based on the topic in an effort to raise awareness on how dealing with sensitive topics with humor can help save lives. Naturally, the material won’t be to everyone’s taste, and not every joke lands the way Williams intends, but above and beyond the catharsis it offers Williams personally and what it may offer to other survivors of similar abuse or mental illness, it’s a hell of a funny ride. Even when the jokes don’t land, Williams is supremely confident onstage, and in moments where he visibly chokes up, as when discussing a close friend’s own suicide attempt and subsequent coma, he retains an iron control on the stage. Content aside, it’s a treat to watch a craftsman at work.
— Jill Sweeney
Douglas: The Play
By Douglas Jones
SceneShop (Fort Worth)
- Sunday, September 8 — 6:30 p.m.
Poor beleaguered Douglas Jones-Jones (Francisco Grifaldo) (his parents, both Joneses, decided to hyphenate, based on his mother’s radical feminist principles; her “Jones” is first, of course). He can’t seem to catch a break. All the good titles for his life story are taken (“Hamlet”, referring of course to Douglas’ childhood nickname of “Little Piggy,” has been stolen by some English hack), his co-star, and ex-girlfriend Maud (Bethany Doolin) is late, and his newly acquired stage manager Kirby (James Kazen, possibly portraying “auteur” director Tommy Wiseau, if the curly black wig, sunglasses, and unidentifiable European accent are any clues) hasn’t really picked up how to run the show in the forty-five minutes since they met at the bus stop. Expanding on the classic “pretentious young writer’s new play goes very, very wrong”, local playwright Straton Rushing, who also directs the piece, makes hay of Doug’s pretentions as he details his youthful, and surprisingly erudite, bully-trouncing, his theatrical triumphs in high school, and his struggles as a starving artist. Nothing earth-shattering here, but Grifaldo is game and fully-committed, grounding the character’s excesses with just enough pathos to keep him from tipping over into insufferableness. Doolin’s Maud is exasperated, but fond, and clearly too good for Doug, though you can’t help but hope these crazy kids work it out. (Note: TheaterJones Editor-in-Chief Mark Lowry is name-checked, noting his theoretical disdain for Doug’s piece, to which I say: your move, Mark.) Overall, a funny, if not hilarious, take on a familiar theme.
— Jill Sweeney
Mayhem and Other Delights
By Hope Lafferty
Dresden Collective (Marfa, Texas)
- Sunday, September 8 — 7:00 p.m.
This show was one that I was most excited about because of the intriguing elements. First, they’re from Marfa. Cool town. Boom. They’re called Dresden Collective. Great name. Another cool town. Double boom. It’s described as a “variety show of short plays.” Love the concept. Triple boom. The title suggests humanity among the chaos. More booms. The onstage band is pitched as White Stripes-esque. All the booms.
No doubt, the rock band element is badass. Derek Salazar is on a small drum kit while bandleader Andy Schneider plays a variety of electric string instruments, mostly electric guitar, but also cello, a Mexican guitarrón, and a banjo that, when plugged in, makes sounds you’ve never heard from this instrument. (Schneider teaches guitar, and it’s clear he loves experimenting with string instruments with necks.) They begin the show with two numbers, end with one, and underscore the action throughout.
The music is great, but the rest of it — not so much. Schneider has more charisma than any of the actors. The plays — sketches, really — are mostly big shrugs. Hope Lafferty wrote them, and she’s in the ensemble along with Jonathan Fields, Rachel Valenzuela, Michael B. Amerson, and Stetson Smith. The works are all short. Some go nowhere, such as the one about the aftermath of a tornado; and others are hackneyed, like the mom trying to meditate despite constant interruptions. There are tender moments in the one about infertility, and the ongoing bit about a self-driving Prius that picks up bad human traits, like bigotry, has promise.
Mayhem is billed as a variety show so the scattered nature of the performance is fitting. But it’s dragged down by unnecessary props and set pieces, and scene changes that feel longer than the actual scenes. Tightening that up and fleshing out the writing in these slices of life would go a long way toward something special. No matter what, keep the band.
— Mark Lowry
The final performances of the shows we didn't see are: The Red Thread (12 p.m. Sunday), Mask Magic (1:30 p.m. Sunday), and The Epistle of Her (5:30 p.m. Sunday).