The four shows in the first weekend of the 13th Annual Festival of Independent Theatres at the Bath House Cultural Center were pretty low key, leading one to wonder if—with the exception of Second Thought Theatre's entry—this would be one of the more unmemorable years in FIT's history.
But then the second weekend came, and, as they say, "brought it." In the end, the 2011 FIT is better than last year's, and its standouts are among the best in the festival's history.
As is the norm for such arts festivals, not everything is a homerun. But a better-than-usual ratio of them are, or come very close. Most of the others are solid, base hits. Only one strikes out.
Here are my takes on the eight shows in FIT, listed in the order in which I viewed them. Also, don't forget to check out music and comedy performances in "FIT Underground," in the basement at the Bath House (and visible from the lake side of the center); and the visual art show in the galleries, "Fictional 2," in which local artists were commissioned to create work based on the themes in this year's FIT plays.
MaCa Latin Theatrical Group: La Danza de Terpsicore by Frederico Roca
This two-performer show starts with a lovely image: Two women, one in white and other in black, lie in yin-yang formation on the floor. When stage lights come up, they perform a short pas de deux.
Then the character called the Actress (played by one-name actress André) tells her story, as the Dancer (Karina Muñoz) moves behind a white, sheer curtain, her silhouette always hauntingly visible. The Dancer comes out at interludes as they continue their dance until the Actress' inevitable end.
Directed by Christian Muñoz, and with choreography by André, La Danza is visually poetic. One assumes it is in the speech, too. It's hard to tell if you don't speak fluent Spanish, in which it's performed entirely. If you can speak some, like me, you might pick up on a few tidbits, such as when the Actress speaks of classical dance giving way to contemporary forms.
André is a charismatic performer, and her remembrance of her life as a dancer comes through, and compellingly so. It's a worthwhile show if you can pick up all or most of the text, but it might be a chore to sit through if you don't speak any Spanish. (Luckily, all the FIT shows clock in at less than an hour.)
Upstart Productions: WASP by Steve Martin
Steve Martin is a funny actor and comedian, but he's even more apt to put you in stitches as a writer. This 1996 play, a satire on the nuclear family and 1950s Americana and outdated ideals, is in some ways funnier than his better-known Picasso at the Lapin Agile.
Both plays express the author's knack for philosophical musings. Here, it's not as deep, but it's steeped in satire.
A 1950s family, Dad (Ted Wold), Mom (Diane Casey Box), Son (Christopher Eastland) and Sis (Nicole Stewart) start out at that place that used to mean more in our society: the dinner table. Dad is convinced, like some fundamentalists Christians, that the world is only several thousand years old, and that heaven is physically closer than the astronomers put the moon at.
The Mom has an inner Female Voice (played by Elizabeth Van Winkle) that tries to sway her, but not in the right ways, and John M. Flores plays various characters, most hilariously a b-movie robot creation.In subsequent scenes, we see that Mom, Son and Sis are struggling with various traditions, coming-of-age and sexuality. At one point, they comically struggle to remember what the Ten Commandments are.
Directed by Josh Glover, and with costumes (by Samatha Rodriguez) that play with Leave It To Beaver imagery, the comedy isn't consistently captured by the cast, at least not stylistically. Box overdoes the neuroses and the dropped chin, and Wold, who is great at outrageous comedy but doesn't do droll well, goes a little too far over the cartoony line, too. Stewart and Eastland hit their golly-gee marks, though. All-in-all, funny stuff.
Second Thought Theatre: Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self by Eric Steele
Eric Steele is a local actor, writer, filmmaker and co-owner of Oak Cliff's Texas Theatre. With this one-man show, he has crafted a deceptively simple thread about a man who has been asked to tell his story to a group of people, much like a motivational speaker would.
Except that Bob Birdnow (played winningly by Barry Nash) is not a motivational speaker in the sense we think of. There's not an ounce of bullshit in this man's body.
Birdnow enters the stage with a limp and missing an arm. His story starts as a man in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who takes his interest in being an amateur pilot and builds a successful nonprofit organization that flies sick people to treatment centers all over the country. Then, in 1992, there was a trip over Colorado in which the plane crashed in the mountains and Birdnow was the only survivor.
Birdnow details that experience, and just when you think he's going to come back with a moral or explanation of his actions, he doesn't have to. It has all been set up in the details about his life, his passions and, as the title suggests, his selflessness.
Directed by Lee Trull, Nash mostly stands in the same spot, with house lights partially up, his right arm gesturing overtime to make up for missing left one. The genius of this is that it's set up to make us feel as if it's not a play, but a real story told by a real person.
There's not much action, just vivid, inspirational storytelling, well told. Remember when theater used to do that?
Triple J Productions: One Phone Call by Jon Christie
Perhaps the less said about this original play from a relatively new group on the scene, the better. In a jail cell, we meet several characters, some repeat offenders and others new to trouble.
Jessie (Lauren Carrico) is a prostitute, Lewis (Jonathan Winsor) an average schmo with good intentions, Mason (Mark Crotzer) a teen who wanted to be noticed and got caught, and T (Lynn Andrews) is a young man who knows the criminal system all too well, and enjoys his threatening image a little too much. There's also a Jailer (Kevin Fuld) and a trenchcoat-wearing, harmonica-playing Loner (Kenneth Fulenwider).
At the performance I saw, which was Triple J's second, there were many problems that could have been avoided with better direction (also by Christie), including basic Acting 101 stuff, such as projection. Winsor was the biggest offender. He couldn't be heard at all from the fifth row in a small theater.
A bigger crime: The dialogue is cliché and on the level of an After School Special. There's nothing wrong with an uplifting message about getting your life on track, as long as it's done well. Bad acting and writing does no one any favors.
FIT usually has better standards than this, although to be fair, the Triple J inclusion was a last-minute entry after FIT stalwart Echo Theatre pulled out of this year's festival. That makes WingSpan Theatre Company the only group to have appeared in every FIT, which leads us to...
WingSpan Theatre Company: A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot by Tennessee Williams and The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year by John Guare
WingSpan fits two short plays by noted American playwrights into its one-hour slot. In Williams' 1958 shorty, Bessie (Nancy Sherrard) and Flora (Cindee Mayfield Dobbs) are single, middle-aged gal-pals who like to party, and find themselves at a St. Louis dive bar.
Williams, who excelled at writing women characters, goes purposefully cartoony with these two, who might have been the protoypes for Ab Fab's Edina and Patsy. They're friends who tell each other the truth, even if that turns into harsh criticism of physical traits.
Directed by Susan Sargeant and with deliciously eccentric costumes by Barbara C. Cox, this is one of those shows that's enjoyable mainly because anything from one of the world's great playwrights is of interest. He wasn't always great (who is?), but even when not, his language is bright and his characters sharp. Sherrard and Mayfield are perfectly cast, and perfectly hysterical.
That play would have been mid-career for Williams, coming after many of his most important works. Guare's Loveliest Afternoon was 10 years later, and falls very early in the career of the man who would pen his masterpiece, The House of Blue Leaves, a few years later.
Set in a park, She (Cara Reid) and He (Ben Bryant) meet one afternoon, and have walks and talks every Sunday, going through all those motions in the cycle of a couple: falling love, learning each others' quirks, fighting, breaking up, etc. It's cute enough, and given engaging performances by Reid and Bryant, looking like Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent in a suit and glasses.
This year, WingSpan's FIT entry is a fun diversion. In this heat, that'll do.
One Thirty Productions: The Madness of Lady Bright by Lanford Wilson
If all you know of One Thirty productions are cutesy comedies that the social security set comes out in droves for, then take another look.
This show, which is one of the early plays from the late, great Wilson, and considered an important work in the beginnings of both the gay theater and off-off Broadway movements, is a departure for One Thirty.
One Thirty staple Larry Randolph gives what is sure to be one of (if not the) performance of the year as Leslie Bright, an aging drag queen remembering his past.
The language is vivid and the imagery striking, as Leslie, in his dressing room in makeup and draped in a kimono, conjures up episodes and characters from his life. The other actors on stage, Girl (Cassie Bann) and Boy (Justin Locklear), exist in Leslie's memory, play some of those characters and, in effect, pieces of Leslie himself.
This show is all-around beautiful, from Marty Van Kleeck's costumes to the thoughtful direction by Morgana Shaw, who has established herself as a local stage fave for the gay crowd.
But it wouldn't have worked without a performance like the one Randolph gives. If you've seen him play senile elderly men at Dallas Children's Theater or character types back in the day at Granbury Opera House, then this performance will come as a surprise.
He's talented, but his portrayal of Leslie Bright, a man who chose a path that seemed destined for loneliness, is jaw-dropping. There's a potent mix of sensitivity, bitterness, anger and joy in this performance, and it permeates the room. It's devastatingly powerful, one of those moments that reminds us why we love the theater.
And who would have thought that one of the best productions of gay-themed theater we've seen in years would come from a group that normally plays to the senior citizen crowd?
Don't miss this one, no matter if you're gay or straight, young or old—or anything in-between.
Rite of Passage Theatre Company: Love Song of the Albanian Sous Chef by Robert Askins
There is not much of a story here. Basically, said chef, Eddie, played by Adrian Churchill, is in love with a waitress, Billy (Whitney Holotik). Knowing that she's out of his league, he woos her in the only way he knows how: through his food.
Womanizing busboy Nico (Chris Ramirez) informs Billy that she'll be visited by seven courses. What she soon finds out is that not only are the courses worthy of foodgasm, they also talk.
The Amuse-Bouche, a soup in a martini glass, is the first one. It informs her that Eddie is in love with her, and she slurps it up. The Soufflé also talks, as does the pasta course. And while the main course doesn't, Eddie is there to help her understand why it's so good. The funniest bit comes with the Oysters, singing hand puppets (manipulated by Ramirez, Elizabeth Evans and Adam Garst) with a penchant for Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. (One point of contention: The design of the shells on these frutti di mare would make them scallops or clams rather than oysters—but of course oysters, considered aphrodisiacs, are the right choice.)
Directed by Cassie Bann, Albanian Sous Chef is bound to be an audience favorite. It's entertaining with fantastic performances (acting, singing and puppeteering) and features an engaging, live score composed and played by Justin Locklear and Deanna Valone. (Given their participation in Lady Bright, this makes Bann and Locklear two stars of this year's FIT.)
It's missing some nutritional value, but definitely one of the tastiest diversions FIT has ever produced.
Churchmouse Productions: Squirrels by David Mamet
When it comes to straight-up laughter, you can't beat this early absurdist comedy from one of our most important writers. His love for language and words (including those kind) is on display in this 1974 one-act about a hack head writer, Arthur (Ben Schroth), who hires a writer who leans more melodramatic, Edmond (Jim Kuenzer).
Their efforts to write a story, hilariously involving the furry rodent of the title, is frequently interrupted by the Cleaning Lady (Mollie Milligan), an actress wannabe who has her own ideas about the story. Of course, hers comes from the hammy actor's POV.
Directed by Chad Cline, the trio of actors nails the comic timing and delivery (Schroth proves himself the comedy star of FIT 2011), and we get a bust-a-gut satire about the ways folks on various sides of the art interpret it.
Also, kudos to costumer Samantha Rodriguez for Arthur's sleeveless cardigan, which has an acorn embroidered on it.
This show is nuts, in the best possible way. Churchmouse, which is the non-black-and-white producing arm of Pegasus Theatre, had one of the best entries in the 2010 FIT, too. With this, it makes us wish they were doing more shows throughout the year. We need more from these comedy connoisseurs.
To wrap up, here are final thoughts on the 2011 Festival of Independent Theatres:
Best of the Fest:
- The Madness of Lady Bright, One Thirty Productions
- Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self, Second Thought Theatre
- Love Song of the Albanian Sous Chef, Rite of Passage Theatre
- Squirrels, Churchmouse Productions
Worth checking out, especially if paired with one of the above:
- La Danza de Terpsicore, MaCa Latin Theatrical Group
- WASP, Upstart Producitons
- A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot/The Loveliest Day of the Afternoon, WingSpan Theatre Company
- One Phone Call, Triple J Productions
Great pairings remaining in the festival:
- Friday, July 29, 8pm: Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self and Squirrels
- Saturday, July 30, 8pm: A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot/The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year and The Madness of Lady Bright
- Sunday, July 31, 2pm: The Madness of Lady Bright and Love Song of the Albanian Sous Chef
- Thursday, Aug. 4, 8pm: Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self and Love Song of the Albanian Sous Chef
- Saturday, Aug. 6, 2pm: A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot/The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year and Love Song of the Albanian Sous Chef
- Saturday, Aug. 6, 8pm: The Madness of Lady Bright and WASP
A side note: While this doesn't happen, given their themes, a fantastic pairing of shows would be Lady Bright and La Danza de Terpsicore
Best performance of FIT 2011: Larry Randolph, The Madness of Lady Bright
- Barry Nash, Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self
- Ben Schroth, Squirrels
- André, La Danza de Terpsicore
- The Oysters, Love Song of the Albanian Sous Chef
Best Direction: Morgana Shaw, The Madness of Lady Bright
- Runner-up: Lee Trull, Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self
Best Design: Barbara C. Cox, costumes, A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot/The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year
- Runner-up: Puppet design (by "Rite of Passage Executive Ensemble"), Love Song of the Albanian Sous Chef