Dallas — Even though the pandemic has now dragged on for seven interminable months, we are still — as audiences, as theater presenters — struggling to figure out the acceptable contours in translating live in-person performances for “virtual” theatrical experiences. Some companies have done live shows via streaming platforms (or socially distanced in parking lots); some have released previously-recorded performances for current consumption; some have created Zoom readings. The actual post-COVID productions recording a traditional performance have been few (notably, WaterTower Theatre’s full-on version of the solo show I Am My Own Wife). The Festival of Independent Theaters’ crop of shows seem to eschew theatricality for more exploratory visual language, and, well, it’s not always a good fit.
Daylan Hillis in Space (Audacity Theatre Lab) by Brad McEntire and Jeff Hernandez has a one-man show tailormade for its single cast member, Jeff Swearingen. He’s the title character, a mid-level security guard in a top-secret government facility. He’s angry with Susan, who started the job the same time as he but has been promoted faster (most of the play is a series of monologues to her) and who give him the crappy shifts. But when Daylan investigates a disturbance in a secure room … well, it’s right there in the title.
Swearingen is the natural go-to for the role of a tightly wound, disappointed, middle-aged white guy with self-esteem issues. He modulates the monologue’s pacing and levels well enough to keep us amused. And that’s not always an easy thing. McEntire (who also directs) doesn’t seem to know what to do with a camera. The first half of the play is the same medium-closeup of Daylan in front of a nondescript wall. The setting moves twice, but the single-shot concept never does, making it feel static and confining (Swearingen’s performance often exceeds the borders of the frame). Without varying the image much across 35 minutes, we grow restless and bored. And without an audience to play off of, the jokes land on silence and don’t live in the moment as much. It’s cute, and fun, but it overstays its welcome.
Some of the shows are more cinematic than others, with mixed results. The visuals in Strike! (Vena Cava Productions) are more technically proficient and engaging than Daylon Hillis, but theaterfolk aren’t filmmakers, and it’s apparent here.
This single-set, more-or-less real-time, more-or-less solo show is set in a tech booth during the preview of a musical adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart. The Stage Manager (Jeff Colangelo) hits his cues while grousing about the pushy director, worrying about his dad in Hospice care and fretting over past career and personal decisions that may derail him in the present. The show is terrible, but Poe’s plot seems to have gotten under his skin: The door to the booth keeps opening and closing on its own; the director appears out of nowhere; he seems to blackout for patches and isn’t sure if he’s missed a mark. Why is he so off his game?
This is a showcase for Colangelo’s performance. And while well-edited, the production is underlit and uses music in a slightly intrusive way that gives it more of a feel as melodrama than psychological horror. Still, you can really sense its edgy-theater roots; I’d love to see what they do with it on a stage.
Then there’s Redeemer Mine (Lily & Joan Theatre Company), which aims for a full-on filmic experience. One of the upshots of the new FIT format is that productions can, in theory, be any length — the usual format limits shows to one hour, and I’ve never seen one shorter than about 20 minutes. clocks in at barely eight minutes, and it is presented definitively as an experimental short film more than a play: Lots of edits, lots of closeups, different film stock (it even notes its “screenplay” was adapted from a play). Like Strike, it’s a kind of horror story about a cult leader. There’s not much “there” there, but once again, the inventiveness of the North Texas theater community is what shines through. As a movie, it’s eh; as an exercise in making theater vibrant in our lives… well, they all deserve a big hand.
— Arnold Wayne Jones
Of this year’s six shows, Vena Cava’s Strike was by far my favorite, but a strong runner up is the Laughter League’s Up the Down Ladder, conceived and performed by North Texas’ best-known clowns, Tiffany Riley and Dick Monday. In this piece, these two goofs play with the idea of low-brow vs. high-brow comedy. Using virtual backgrounds (via a green screen, I’d guess), they are a couple in a large house who are visited by pairs of guests — all played by Riley and Monday, wearing clever costumes (my favorite is them as Neptune and a mermaid in an undersea scene). In various scenes, including of them as themselves at their home table, they alternate between comedy of manners and raunchy farce, in which snooty laughs and fart jokes intermingle. I laughed frequently and would love to see this fleshed even more for a proper — or improper — stage work as an examination of comedy.
Very Good Dance Theatre’s Plant Mom is the most avant-garde work of the six shows, and is clearly influenced by VGDT founder Colby Calhoun’s mentor Danielle Georgiou, who is in turn influenced by the dance-theatre of Pina Bausch and others. In this work, created by the ensemble (including Georgiou), performer Lagniappe is matriarch to an assortment of potted flora, and her brood keeps expanding. Scenes at a static table are mixed with video footage shot outdoors and while the dialogue borders on nonsensical, the dance sequences — snaking chains, weight balancing, extended limbs, all with an improvisational feel — hold interest.
Leos Ensemble gets the award for most ambitious project with 3x3: Three Short Scenes by Pre-Modern Playwrights. Georgiou is billed as associate artist (along with Jeff Casper) on this one, which makes her one of the busiest artists right now, as her Danielle Georgiou Dance Group reviving the Bippy Bobby Boo Show for a call-in special (with Theatre Three), and has work in Aurora Dallas’ drive-in art installation Area 3. The group’s namesake, Nick Leos, directed this trio of shows by writers you probably haven’t heard of. 3x3 makes the case that we all should have.
My favorite is the first one, An Introduction by Margaret Cavendish (c.1662), which has three characters in modern dress (played by Carissa Aguila, Taylor Mercado Owen, and Blake Seabourn) and sitting outside at the tables by Theatre Three, debating a new play opening soon that was written by — gasp! — a woman. One of the men doubts that it could be as good as the work by men; eventually the woman announces, “Good or bad, I will go see this play.” There are some sound issues in this filming, but the text is witty enough to overcome that. To the Lady Anne by Æmilia Bassano Lanier (1611) features Kelli J. Howard delivering a speech on an empty stage (the Latino Cultural Center) and walking through the empty audience, with interstitial visuals of red lights and her under a bridge, on lighted stairs and other locations. Votes for Women! by Elizabeth Robins (1907) is another period piece played by actors in modern dress (Caitlin Chapa and Jon Garrard) filmed at the former S.T.A.G.E. building. Given the title, it’s no surprise this play was an influence on suffragist theater. Performances in 3x3 are strong, with a command of the language and themes.
— Mark Lowry