The 15th Festival of Independent Theatres opened its second set of shows at the Bath House Cultural Center this past weekend: One Thirty Productions' The 1947 Ford, Audacity Theatre Lab's Dinosaur and Robot Stop a Train, Rite of Passage Theatre Company's Ask Questions Later and Rhythmic Souls' Play It By Ear. Below are the reviews, all by Kris Noteboom except for Play It By Ear, which is by Danielle Georgiou.
Reviews of the first four shows (John Michael's Like Me, WingSpan Theatre Company's Lydie Marland in the Afterlife, Echo Theatre's The Treatment and Churchmouse Productions' Dead Wait) are here.
Audacity Theatre Lab
DINOSAUR AND ROBOT STOP A TRAIN
by Brad McEntire
DINOSAUR AND ROBOT STOP A TRAIN!! How is it even possible to see a play with that title and not excitedly yell it out like a 5-year-old might when asked to come up with the awesomest thing ever?
Let’s face it. FIT has been dominated by serious, heady, existential pieces this year. John Michael gave audiences a delightful respite, but for the most part it’s been pretty heavy.
Leave it to Brad McEntire, via his Audacity Theatre Lab, to lighten the mood a little as his ever-amazingly creative brain has brought forth unto the world Dinosaur and Robot Stop a Train.
It’s a super-simple setup. Dinosaur (Jeff Swearingen) and Robot (McEntire) have somehow been transported through time and space into a field where they subsequently save a stupid little girl from getting hit by a train. The play is the press conference held by Dinosaur and Robot as they attempt to explain their story.
With a combination of some pretty stellar physical humor, aided by the wonderfully creative costumes by Ruth Engel-McEntire, a bit of slapstick, satire, audience participation and vaudeville, DARSAT is a winner for all ages. It’s perfectly paced and when it’s over it feels all too soon.
Sure there isn’t really any deeper focus at play. This is a straightforward frivolity—which is pretty much what makes it so great. Because even though a general rule is that anything that’s good must have some sort of subtext, McEntire so thoroughly subverts that notion and distances himself from any inkling of commentary that he actually ends up creating something that’s more than some subliminal critique of the world. It’s the embrace of the inner child, the latent creativity present in everyone, the sense of wonder that is all too often forgotten. Dinosaur and Robot Stop a Train is the most essential iteration of fun. And that’s, well, fun.
◊ Dinosaur and Robot Stop a Train is performed in the following performance blocks: 8 p.m. Friday, June 14; 2 p.m. Saturday, June 15; 5 p.m. Saturday, June 22.
Rite of Passage Theatre Company
ASK QUESTIONS LATER
by Meggie Spalding
At times, Rite of Passage Theatre Company’s production of Meggie Spalding’s Ask Questions Later doesn’t make sense. But neither do the events the play seeks to explore, so maybe that’s the point.
Easily winning the prize of absolutely most topical play in the festival, Ask Questions Later documents the events leading up to and immediately after a mass shooting at a high school, specifically through three primary characters.
Kendall Logan (Ian Ferguson) is a soon-to-be-divorced high school English teacher who gets into a relationship with his student Haley Winninger (Porcia Bartholomae), who in turn reignites an old friendship with goth-esque loner Isaac Cervantes (Dante Flores).
The most stirring part of the play is the very beginning. Gunshot sound effects are heard, which should prepare the audience for what happens next. But, when a person wearing a mask enters the stage holding an assault weapon, there’s a tinge of fear that sweeps across the people in the room as visions of Aurora become unsettling.
After tragedies, there’s a natural desire to not only find out who did it, but find out why. Often, this leads to connections to certain groups who suddenly, whether they actually deserve it or not, are lumped in with the attackers. Ask any Muslim in America how life has been for them since 9/11.
But before 9/11, there was Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 students and a teacher on April 20, 1999, people were desperate to figure out what could have led two kids to do such a terrible thing. The thinking was that it couldn’t possibly have been their fault. They must have been driven to it by something.
For those who remember the subsequent news coverage, the resulting witch hunt was truly something to behold. And in that hunt, a small group of “outsider” type kids who dubbed themselves the “trenchcoat mafia” drew ire when it was briefly believed that Klebold had been a member. He hadn’t. But the damage was done. Suddenly, every little group of outsiders who dressed in black and listened to hard rock across the nation were being banned from schools and ridiculed. The irony of bullying kids who were the way they were, in many cases, as the result of bullying, was lost on everyone. Despite the oddly placed student/teacher relationship, and some rather abstract interstitial dance scenes, the play gives a decent snapshot of what one experience of one of these outsider types might be like. However, if it’s meant to draw attention to unfair profiling, ultimately it does a pretty bad job considering the arc of the story. So then, what is the point of the telling this particular story? Aside from setting up Haley as kind of a manipulative vixen.
That said, the performances, directed by Kelsey Ervi, are exceptional. Ferguson specifically is powerful in his turn as a man whose life is crumbling so badly around him that getting into a relationship with a clearly unstable teenage girl seems like a good idea. And Bartholomae pulls off that unstable teenage girl pretty convincingly.
There are powerful moments and there are good scenes in this play. It’s engaging and thought-provoking. Not all of those thoughts are about what Spalding would like them to be about, but still it it provokes some. Actually, a lot can be gleaned from the title of the piece: Ask Questions Later. Maybe that’s the whole point after all.
◊ Ask Questions Later is performed in the following performance blocks: 5 p.m. Saturday, June 15; 5 p.m. Sunday, June 16; and 8 p.m. Saturday, June 22.
One Thirty Productions
THE 1947 FORD
by Ellsworth Schave
One Thirty Productions’ The 1947 Ford is not unlike its protagonist. Both embark on an all too brief journey in search of coherency and meaning but are ultimately cut off without getting any real answers.
Not that every journey must be tied up in a pretty bow with a clear beginning, middle and end. After all, real life is rarely so tidy. However, that doesn’t grant carte blanche to a trippy-dippy tale like this one to dawdle on for an hour before essentially saying life is like this, just because.
Bud (Cameron McElyea) is a columnist for the Star-Telegram posing as a semi-famous nature book writer which somehow grants him access to a mysterious place in the desert where he converses with a smart-ass Crow (voiced by David Meglino), and a Hummingbird (Mary-Margaret Pyeatt) acts as some sort of spiritual intermediary...before having sex with him.
From there, Bud sets about an odd trip in some sort of purgatory where he encounters an Old Man (Larry Rudolph) on a similar mission. Later he is joined again by his feathered friends as they attempt to help clarify the plot a little more, without much success.
What’s clear is that the play is an existential journey of sorts. What exactly the journey is, why this particular guy needs to go on it and why he had to lie about who he was to do it remains annoyingly unclear.
Look, abstract is fine. This is a postmodern era and 47 Ford reads like some combination of Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, and Thomas Pynchon. But while those are guys who mastered the non-linear, metafictional, postmodern take on writing, there’s an underlying glue in their works that ties the crazy worlds they describe together. Ellsworth Schave’s play doesn’t do this. Why Bud is on this journey is never clear and what he gets out of it is even less so.
Not that it’s unlikeable. Directed by Gene Raye Price, the cast is competent if not particularly wonderful. The strongest performance is actually turned in by Rudolph. He imbues his Old Man character with just a hint of snark that indicates a wink-wink to the audience, as if there is some subversive, satirical element to all this that he’s apparently figured out.
Unfortunately though, he never gets a chance to let the audience in on that secret. Also, he too had sex with the Hummingbird. And Pyeatt is definitely intriguing as the apparently sex-obsessed spiritual gatekeeper. She has the playfulness of a trickster and embraces the odd role she’s been given with great gusto.
The Hummingbird’s costume, by Mary Van Kleeck, is wonderful, by the way. The Crow however, a simple puppet whose mouth practically never syncs up to the words he supposedly reciting, leaves a lot to be desired. Why is he a puppet and the Hummingbird a person in a cool costume? It can’t be that she’s anthropomorphized.
The dialogue specifically mentions her having the actual measurements of a hummingbird, not a human woman. So, why? Is it simply to simulate the inter-species sex?
The play plods on and when it ends, it feels like it’s really only just begun. But it’s still a relief because if it was played out much more it’d make a Terrence Malick film look punchy and fluid. It’s really almost like a fever dream. It’s incoherent, abstract and ends almost as quickly as it begins. In fact, maybe that’s all it ever was, for Bud and the audience.
◊ The 1947 Ford is performed in the following performance blocks: 8 p.m. Saturday, June 15; 2 p.m. Sunday, June 16; 8 p.m. Thursday, June 20; 2 p.m. Saturday, June 22.
PLAY IT BY EAR
In its 15 years of existence, the Festival of Independent Theatres has never staged a full-scale dance production. Sure it has dabbled in it, with many of its hour-long pieces using dance, or dancers, but only as additions to the play’s actions. For the first year, FIT is getting fit in an eight-count, thanks to local tap company Rhythmic Souls.
It makes complete sense that FIT would host tap for its first foray into dance: tap is instantly associated with the theater from its roots in minstrel shows, vaudeville acts and its prevalence in musical theater from the 1930s and beyond. Tap is the only indigenous American dance form, and Rhythmic Souls is one of the few pure tap dance companies in DFW.
Founded by friends and hoofers Katelyn Harris and Keira Leverton, Rhythmic Souls sets out to promote, preserve and explore tap through performances, educational workshops, collaborations and partnerships with various artists and organizations. With their FIT offering, Play It by Ear, they do just that: using young dancers from area high schools and dance studios, collaborating with local actors (Natalie Young is their Managing Director) and musicians (pianist Thiago Nascimento plays live throughout the show), and providing a recap of the history of tap.
But the educational aspect weighs a bit heavy. At times it feels like a lecture on the forefathers of tap, a point of contention that is a catch-22: while it is important to know where tap originated from, and is a part of Rhythmic Souls’ mission to educate, is the stage the most appropriate arena? Is one hour enough time to teach, dance and entertain?
Will the facts that Artistic Director Katelyn Harris state be remembered? Maybe yes, maybe no. But what will be remembered is the histrionics of the show. And on that note, Harris is successful in her staging. She begins with teaching the audience a basic step that ends almost all tap performances: a shave and a haircut…two bits (you know, that silly little knock on a door we all do when we are tired of waiting for someone to open up). The audience claps along as she switches up rhythms on us, testing out our attention span; she has us hooked.
The corps of four young dancers have standout moments in their performances of the popular “Shim Sham Shimmy” and “Taking a Chance on Love.” Pioneered by Leonard Reed and Willie Bryant, the “Shim Sham Shimmy” is a dance routine that all tappers know, and most audience members too. The stomp-brush-step, stomp-brush-step, stomp-brush-ball-change, stomp-brush-step is contagious. “Taking a Chance on Love” is a classic soft-shoe piece to music by the same name. Made famous by innovative tappers Coles & Atkins (Charles “Honi” Coles and Charles "Cholly" Atkins), it is danced at an extremely slow tempo, and is a nonchalant tossing off of smooth slides and gliding turns in crystal-cut precision.
Harris leads the group in an entertaining display of improvised movement that displays each of the five dancers’ exacting technique, but it is her solo that will be remembered most of all. On an empty stage, Harris stands in the center of a small box, pouring fine grains of white sand into the box, filling the room in a fog. She slowly moves her feet back and forth, gliding through the sand, hitting the sides of the box in a percussive pattern that makes a sound score that is all her own. This constructed soft-shoe brings the show back to the roots of tap—and the roots of dance: just one person, on the floor, commanding her feet to do what they were meant to do: dance.
The inclusion of Rhythmic Souls is an excellent start for FIT. Many of the local dance companies of Dallas do not have a home theater and are always looking for a space to perform. If the response to this show is any indication, there is a need and want for dance. Hopefully, we’ll see more of it in FIT’s future.
◊ Play It by Ear is performed in the following performance blocks: 2 p.m. Sunday, June 16; 8 p.m. Friday, June 21; 2 p.m. Saturday, June 22.
◊ Danielle M. Georgiou is the Artistic Director of DGDG (the Danielle Georgiou Dance Group). She is also the Visiting Scholar in Dance at Eastfield College and directs the UT Arlington Dance Ensemble.