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Marie and Bruce is the must-see second act of Our Endeavors' duo

To oversimplify matters, you could say that the pair of one-acts that make up Our Endeavors' latest evening, Loved It/Hated It: Two Distinct Plays, are separated as sharply as the mind-heart dichotomy: The first act makes you think, the second act makes you feel. But we know from real life--and theater should always be about real life, whether it's a moon-eyed musical or a stern avant-garde opus--that people track mud back and forth between the head and the heart, so it's never a clean split. If you remember that emotion often seizes the wheel from intellect, the show's first play, Howard Barker's Wounds to the Face, is at an immediate disadvantage to the second, Wallace Shawn's Marie and Bruce, because the personalities of the two playwrights are significantly different. Barker stands over theater, imperious and rubber-gloved, as if it were a hygienic operating table, while Shawn is the weird but funny student hunched over the dissection pan in class, pulling out the guts of the pinned, wriggling animal specimen with glee. The latter is automatically going to get more attention than the former.

It's best not to take co-producer Scott Osborne's Loved It/Hated It program ballot--audiences are encouraged to vote on which show they preferred--any more seriously than a theatrical version of William Castle's '50s moviehouse gimmickry. His producing (and domestic) partner Patti Kirkpatrick made pains before last Friday night's performance to clarify that the shows were not in competition with each other. But whether or not you choose to vote, the ballot does have some symbolic significance in assessing the audience's expectations of theater. Do you want the stage to be a stimulator of thought or a kick in the ass? It can be both, of course, but Loved It/Hated It: Two Distinct Plays is a thoughtful reminder of how playwrights and directors often make these approaches a fork in the road, going down one to the other's exclusion.

The path we are led down by Wounds to the Face is cold and not overgrown with foliage. Director Donna Sherritt mostly collaborates with the sensibility of Barker, alternately to the benefit and detriment of audience members. Barker is not a ticklish guy--he's suspicious of laughter in the theater because he believes that most comic material treats ticket-buyers as a group, not as individuals. Tragedy, he insists, does the opposite: It separates the house and then addresses that separateness one-on-one. But Barker's version of tragedy ain't exactly emotion-wracked, either; his stuff can be sharp-edged and metallic, more a carefully composed, legalistic protest letter than a cry from an outraged victim.

Wounds to the Face is a series of interlocked vignettes about the human face in different times and circumstances. The center story is an unnamed revolution in which a dictator (Mark Odell) has adapted himself to fit the logo-like image of his face that graces posters across the land. Meanwhile, a soldier (Tom Eppler) in the revolution has had his face scarred beyond recognition by a grenade, a disability approved of by his smothering mother (Hazel Beasley) because "women cannot love a man with no face." However, his condition is about to be relieved by a plastic surgeon (Jeffrey Farrell), who declares that "to restore the face is to restore the character." Like most left-wing revolutions, religion is suspect, and the God-like power of the surgeon will bring upon him a terrible punishment.

Wounds to the Face is thought-provoking, but director Sherritt has mostly encouraged her actors to deliver their lines with self-conscious gravity. Occasionally, someone breaks through--Jeffrey Farrell spins a marvelous monologue as a hooded executioner, or so we think, speaking into the mirror about "a killing today." But a lot of this stuff feels like a packet of theater concentrate: some water, preferably a gush of either laughter or tears, needs to be added. The most successful piece is, not surprisingly, the funniest (nobody tell Barker!): a pompous emperor (Tom Eppler) condemns a snotty painter (Cristela Carrizales) for a portrait he doesn't like.

Just as you're ready to label this evening "interesting" and move on, Marie and Bruce stampedes in after intermission, grabs you by the lapels, sits you down hard on your butt, and tells a sadly funny, very familiar tale. Wallace Shawn's foul-mouthed reverie is essentially a series of duets and interior monologues spoken by virago Marie (Christina Vela) and castrato Bruce (David Goodwin). She's ready to leave this unsatisfying relationship and is more than eager to tell Bruce as the play opens one morning in their claustrophobic urban apartment. "You fucking pig! You disgusting, cocksucking shit!" Marie shrieks at Bruce for quite a while, and we get tense, fearing that this strident profanity will be the tee-hee dirty-joke sum of both Vela's performance and the play.

But director Mark Farr is shrewdly forcing us to put up our guard. Vela's opening tirade will merely be one of many colorful, subtler variations on a repeating theme--the relationship of anger and need. Classical composers have often used this device--repeating the same movement a little differently each time so you'll feel its depth--and Farr and his fantastic lead actors prove you can transfer this to theater if you have the chops. Every rant in this show unfolds a little differently, with more mixed emotion, because of the crime that transpired before, and the characters themselves show entirely new sides. Suddenly, Marie is transformed into a soft-voiced, amazed innocent as she cavorts, hilariously and touchingly, through gardens and shops, preparing for a party she will attend that night. Meanwhile, Bruce metamorphoses too, from put-upon whiner into heartless predator, glaring at women in restaurants and through apartment windows--or, more specifically, glaring at their breasts.

Director Farr and his actors turn Shawn's obsession with pathological dependence into a lyrical look at how the imbalance of power in a relationship constantly shifts. When they're alone in the apartment, Marie is the undisputed glowering queen; when they go to the party, she is knocked off her throne by Bruce's knowledge of her insecurity. She knows he looks at other women, and he knows she knows, and exploits it viciously.

Vela and Goodwin are expert at tossing the emotional ball back and forth at each other, sometimes playfully and sometimes hard, with the intention to hurt. Their contrasting physical types are perfect for the first impressions we receive; their talent lets them wriggle out of these shells as new seriocomic forms. The last time Goodwin registered this strongly on stage was in Theatre Three's Racing Demon a couple of seasons ago; here his sex-craving, beady-eyed skinny wiener dude rises to match Ms. Vela, who rivets with silly but utterly sincere comic vulnerability, rolling in flowers and rifling through another woman's frilly toiletries.

Maybe that Loved It/Hated It ballot isn't so crazy after all. I didn't hate Wounds to the Face, but watching that very detached dissection next to the wooly sexual beast that is Marie and Bruce, I'm aware that all the talking I do about how theater should discuss real life was somewhat compromised by my preference for a piece that took on a wild life of its own.

Loved It/Hated It: Two Distinct Plays runs through May 1. Call (972) 355-2879.

Banter
One problem with operating a small theater company in Dallas is, of course, that it's very difficult to secure a venue for yourself, so any audiences that you build have to follow you around a city. A related issue is that so many of these theater companies have vastly different audiences that don't mix much, which is a shame. Why wouldn't someone who enjoyed Wingspan's work at least be interested in Wickerplane or Beardsley Living Theatre? It's not only nice to share, but it could mean the continued survival of theater companies that tend to flare up and then burn out.

These are troubles that have been bugging David Fisher, a former staffer at Dallas Children's Theater and a director and techie at theaters all over town. When he was named director of the Bath House Cultural Center, he seized the chance to address the issue. The Festival of Independent Theatres is the result, a three-week performance of one-acts in which eight small companies--including Echo Theatre, Cara Mia, Bucket Productions, and Core Performance Manufactory--stage in repertory a head-spinning variety of original work and unusual adaptations. They range from experimental pieces (Core Performance's Revolution, about the Biblical Creation and Fall) to spare, eloquently perverse sci-fi from Ray Bradbury (Beardsley's Kaleidoscope) to a combination of centuries-old and brand-new work excerpted from scripts by women playwrights (Echo's Voice Box). They are all individual zygotes that form what Fisher calls a "wicked brainchild"--referring to his idea for the unjuried festival.

"A couple [of the participating theaters] had been involved in the New York Fringe Festival and the San Francisco Fringe Festival," says Fisher, "so they were familiar with how this kind of thing operates. And when we got these groups together, we realized that everyone was good in an area that someone else was weak in. Steve Mahone [of Wickerplane, which is reprising Hamletmachine from the Dallas Video Festival] had never done a mass mailing; Echo always does a mass-market mailing, and they sell out 90 seats a night at the Bath House. Normally, when a theater company came in to do a show here, they had to be a jack of all trades--publicity, box office, all the producing side. With the Bath House as a collaborating producer, they can do some of the more intimate, experimental stuff without having to sink $3,000-$5,000 in it."

In the end, Fisher is concerned that people become aware of not only what their friends are doing (a Dallas theater deficiency, for sure), but what the committed theater artists across town are dabbling in.

"Small Dallas theater really is very fragmented," Fisher says. "Bucket has a straighter, upper-class audience; Beardsley has an older, more traditionally 'theater-type' audience. One thing we wanted to do was have people come for one show and hang around for the show afterward. Our goal was to cross-pollinate these productions."

The Festival of Independent Theatres opens April 15 and runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays through May 1 at the Bath House Cultural Center. Call (214) 670-8749.

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