All eight shows have opened in the 12th annual Festival of Independent Theatres (FIT) at the Bath House Cultural Center. The first weekend's shows, marked with asterisks below, were originally reviewed on July 20. We've added the other four below them, plus a handy guide to best and worst of the fest.
And if you can only make a few performance blocks (there are two shows in each), we've included your best bets for smart pairings. To see the complete times, see our listing, here.
*One Thirty Productions — The Turquoise Pontiac
Austin playwright Ellsworth Schave has become a big part of One Thirty Productions, and this play is the prequel to his FIT hit last year, Under a Texaco Canopy. In both, it's obvious that what's happening is not real. But where are these characters? Hell? Heaven? In between? A spot in the desert that, like an oasis, will soon disappear?
In The Turquoise Pontiac, the Traveler (Shane Beeson) pulls up in the titular vehicle at a bar in the desert, where Roscoe (Elias Taylorson) serves drinks and, begrudgingly, advice. The Traveler is freaked because while driving, he saw a locomotive on the other side of the road, not on a track, with a Soprano (Morgan Justiss) riding atop, belting out opera and wielding a spear, like Wagner's Brunnhilde. Later, she arrives in the bar, as does the train's engineer, Lee (Dan Tillman).
What starts off as an intriguing fantasy devolves into a confusing conversation about Disneyland. Is it a comment about high art (opera) and popular art (Disney)? Considering the love of opera and the Traveler's adoration of his shiny new car, perhaps it's more about aesthetic passion? Whatever the theme, well, it's unclear. And there isn't even an attempt to explain the questions and mysteries. They don't need to be answered, but a hint would be nice.
The best thing about One Thirty's show is Marty Van Kleeck's costumes. Justiss wears a gown with poofy sleeves that captures both the essence of a Ring Cycle character and a Snow White-esque Disney princess. Even better are the bejeweled breastplates and wrist bands for Soprano, and the breastplate and helmet for Traveler. They make exquisite use of colored bottle caps and corks. They're really fantastic.
Beeson does a believable job with his character's bewilderment, and the others keep a sense of mystery. It's too bad the script doesn't flesh out what began as an interesting concept.
*The Drama Club — The Muse
This is the only show on opening weekend that I saw twice. On opening night, there was a last-minute glitch that prevented a set piece from being used. By Sunday, it was fixed. And while the corrected version was slightly more streamlined, it didn't affect the production that much. By the second time around, as happens with live theater, the show tightened up. That was appreciated.
Directed by Lydia Mackay, with a story by Jeffrey Schmidt (they both designed the production, and Mackay designed the masks and puppets), The Muse began as an idea for the pair 10 years ago. And it's apparently going to be workshopped into a larger piece. What is seen at FIT is just a snippet. Where it fits into the eventual thread is anybody's guess.
What they currently have is a wordless drama about the title character, Muse (Anastasia Munoz), who ends up getting a snazzy new outfit made for her by Cutter (Maryam Baig Lush) and Draper (Lulu Ward), but in return loses something of great value. The other characters are a dog-like creature, Adrastos (John M. Flores), whose costume and mask makes him resemble a cross between a yak and one of the monsters from Where the Wild Things Are. Through all this, the Machinist (Newton Pittman) stands in a triangular cage upstage, making live percussion and electronic sounds, both for Foley effects and as stimuli to which the performers respond. His costume suggests post-apocalyptic, although the Muse could also be a prehistoric character.
Pittman, as the noise-master, is what gives the show its soul. The designs, notably the details of Ward's costume and the puppet for Lush's character, are innovative and engaging.
It would be easy to discount this as interesting experimentation, but there's something more here. The story is clear, and it's told with equal parts artfulness and humor. Ward, whose character has the most to do, is particularly funny and memorable. All of them succeed in acting without words (and in some cases, without the benefit of facial expression), going beyond mere pantomime.
I'll look forward to the future project.
*White Rock Pollution — Alice in Wonderland
Speaking of creative minds, this retelling of the Lewis Carroll classic emerges as the best show from the first half of FIT. Director Tom Parr IV uses the version created in 1970 by Andre Gregory and the Manhattan Project, in which actors play multiple roles and rely more on voice and physicality than on costumes to convey the characters in this famous fantasia.
It begins with Alice (Danielle Pickard) in an urban alley, surrounded by homeless folks who will eventually become the other characters. They are played by Brian Witkowicz (Crab, Frog, Dormouse, White Knight), Randy Pearlman (Dodo, Cheshire Cat, Red King, Humpty Dumpty), Ben Bryant (Mouse, Caterpillar, March Hare), Clay Wheeler (Lewis Carroll, Duck, Hatter) and Whitney Holotik (Lory, Duchess, Red Queen, White Queen).
Without using much for costume, aside from occasional additions to grimy street clothes (costumes are by Kristin Parr), the production uses physical theater techniques and everyday props to recreate scenes from the Carroll story, using his text. When Alice falls through the hole (which happens as she's reading a book), the other performers hold her upside down as she plunges into Wonderland. Sawhorses, cardboard, crates and other props become an assortment of set pieces. Most creatively, umbrellas transform into the mushroom on which the Caterpillar sits.
Pickard captures Alice's youthful curiosity, and Pearlman and Witkowicz have standout moments as Humpty Dumpty and the White Knight, respectively. Both mix whimsy and heartbreak captivatingly. There are a number of characters from Carroll's books (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass) who aren't here, and some of the major roles (notably the Red Queen) don't figure as prominently into this version, which was probably cut to make FIT's one-hour length requirement.
But this production is about telling a story, creatively. It doesn't matter how familiar you are with the original, because this show tips its hat—and in the case of the Mad Hatter, several hats—to the idea that propels Carroll's stories. It's a treat for the imagination.
This is one to see multiple times.
*WingSpan Theatre Company — Feeding the Moonfish
Like the other three shows, this Barbara Weichmann play incorporates an element of fantasy, although the basic story is more rooted in realism. It's a good thing it doesn't go on any longer than it does, because the realistic part is the least interesting.
Lonely hearts Martin (Josh Glover) and Eden (Barrett Nash) meet on a Florida dock, where he frequently talks to the creatures he calls moonfish. And they talk back, in a bizarre, robotic voice. Both characters have domestic drama in their past, and it eventually bonds the two. Or, it attempts to.
Weichmann's script isn't exciting. Not one bit. Glover, with a Southern-boy accent, and Nash, doing some voice that indicates she's from parts north, never connect. Director Susan Sargeant can't do much with moving them on the rickety platforms that form the dock, and what movement is there is loud, especially when Glover stomps across them in his boots.
The glass beads that serve as light hitting the water is a nice touch and, sadly, the most reflective aspect of this relationship drama.
Echo Theatre — Bible Women
This song cycle by Elizabeth Swados, about exactly what the title suggests, has been in development with Echo for a while, and it feels like it’s still in the workshopping process. Additional text by Vicki Caroline Cheatwood is included, introducing and/or bridging the stories of Old Testament women, both well-known (Esther, Ruth, Sarah, Eve, Miriam) and not as much (the warrior Deborah, and Lilith, Adam’s first wife).
It’s directed by Pam Myers-Morgan, with music direction by keyboardist Scott A. Eckert, leading the band of percussionist Neeki Bey, guitarist George Gagliardi and occasional fourth member Annie Benjamin (guitar and flute), who also sings in the ensemble. Joining her as the voices are Terri Ferguson, Amy Fisher Hughes, Denise Lee and Jodi Wright, doing 14 songs that range from folk to gospel to more somber religious music.
Lee has been billed as the star here, and for good reason. As Sarah, she gets the show’s two best songs (the exquisite “The Angel Said to Me” and “Sarah Talks to God”), and imbues them with strength and passion. Benjamin has a standout with “You Who Know Everything,” and the ensemble accomplishes beautiful harmony on the a cappella “Be Not Afraid.”
The songs celebrate these women, some of whom, this show posits, are misunderstood or rarely considered. In some cases, they were the rocks behind the more famous men of biblical lore. Cheatwood’s text inserts a “you go, girl” 'tude, a smart way of presenting this material to modern audiences. A few times, the text is an afterthought.
Despite being about women of faith, the show never panders to a religious creed. It’s about women who inspire, which is what Echo has always been about. Once this show is fleshed out more, it will indeed make a joyful noise. As is, it’s still one of this year’s FIT highlights.
Churchmouse Productions — Georgie Gets a Facelift and Thank You Berry Much
Can suicide, serial murder and a potty-mouthed girl scout be funny? Hell yeah, as proven by Daniel Guyton's tarpit-dark comedy Georgie Gets a Facelift and its equally twisted companion piece, Thank You Berry Much, by Kurt Kleinmann.
In Georgie, Joey Folsom is a serial killer whose final victim will be himself. His plans are foiled by his ever-intrusive mom (LisaAnne Haram) and another event that's too good to spoil here (it involves a character played by Stephanie Hall). Thank You is Georgie's prequel, and the three actors play similar characters in each. Kleinmann has created a brilliant setup for the hilarious shocker of the first play, and placing the prequel second in the lineup was the absolute right choice for this bundle.
Directed by Chad Cline, the ensemble is outstanding on all counts. Hall delivers a painfully funny turn, without saying anything, in Georgie. Folsom evokes the put-upon son in both shows with Jimmy Stewart-like melancholy.
The beauty of both plays lies in the writing, which is snappy, succinct and original. The opening scene in Georgie is comic gold, and the closing lines in both could not be more perfect.
Churchmouse is an offshoot of Pegasus Theatre, known for its Living Black and White plays. Pegasus co-founder and artistic director Kleinmann has always had an affinity for outrageous comedy, and this spin-off group allows him to return to those roots.
Long may Churchmouse roar.
Second Thought Theatre — Once More With Feeling (A Power Play)
This play by Christina Cigala, who went to Baylor University with Second Thought’s founders, will be either hated or loved. I fall into the latter camp.
At its core, it’s about a playwright, a character simply called “A” (Cara L. Reid), who’s writing a play about her relationship with “B” (Matthew Clark). The ensemble (Jason Robert Villarreal, Tiffany Lonsdale-Hands and Sachin Patel, in drag) narrate and creatively map out the stage directions, dialogue, tone and artifice of the play—as it’s being written and revised.
Director Mac Lower and the cast transform what could be tedious into a lively show that’s expertly performed, with crucial, nanosecond timing. If this gang wasn't so well-rehearsed, the play could go horribly wrong.
Once More comments on relationships, the artistic process, pretend-listening and other random threads, all while creating imaginative theater. Keeping the audience in on the joke brings home the universal themes. And the double meaning in the subtitle is genius.
Cigala takes the "write what you know" concept and turns it on its head. It’s what [title of show] would be as a deconstructed non-musical, and without the unbearable smugness. Subplots with characters played by Patel and Villarreal are bizarre, but work in the wonky context.
Sly pop culture references abound (the Showtime series Weeds, '80s music group Berlin), with one being conspicuously overt: A recreation of the INXS video for "Mediate," which was a recycled idea stolen from Bob Dylan. That’s what Once More does well: Reinvents well-worn themes and concepts. In doing so, it emerges with something original and interesting. That said, perhaps about 10 minutes could be trimmed, as it does start to grow tiresome. Still, Cigala is an original voice worth keeping tabs on.
Special kudos go to costume designer and dramaturge Lacy Lynch, props designer Drew Wall (props are integral to the visual gags) and sound designer Duane Deering, who effortlessly coordinates the sometimes split-second sounds with the performances.
McClarey Players — Purgatory, A Bedroom Farce
If every theater festival has to have one stinker, this is it. In fact, the odor from this unfunny and badly crafted "farce" might linger with FIT for years to come.
Written and directed by Richardson High School teacher Cliff McClelland, and presented by a newcomer group, Purgatory takes place in the titular holding area between heaven and hell. In this particular cell (apparently only mfugly garage-sale furniture is allowed here), glutton Phil (Dustin Sautter), nympho Vanessa (Amanda Doskicil) and chronic masturbator Morty (Sean Murphy) share a suite. They're all waiting to be released by their assigned stats-taker, Roundtree (Aaron McDavis). When a new roomie, Angela (Amber Nicole Guest), joins their group, they all tell their stories. None of them are interesting.
Crude and juvenile can be fun, if handled smartly. That’s not the case here. The dialogue is cliché, and doesn't even aspire to be groan-inducing. It’s just bad. The performances from the men are even worse. Doskicil tries her best, and in doing so, is way out of the boys' league.
Poor Guest looks embarrassed to be stuck in this heaping pile of foulness. That she manages a fine performance and sticks it out through this torture should earn her an instant spot in heaven.
- Alice in Wonderland
- George Gets a Facelift/Thank You Berry Much
DEFINITELY WORTH CATCHING
- Bible Women
- The Muse
- Once More With Feeling (A Power Play)
GO AHEAD, IF PAIRED WITH ONE OF THE ABOVE
- Feeding the Moonfish
- The Turquoise Pontiac
AVOID AT ALL COSTS
- Purgatory, a Bedroom Farce
- Bible Women and The Muse (8 p.m. July 29 and 8 p.m. July 31)
- Alice in Wonderland and Georgie Gets a Facelift/Thank You Berry Much (8 p.m. July 30)
- Once More With Feeling (A Power Play) and Alice and Wonderland (5 p.m. Aug. 7)