By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Here's my final report from the Second Annual Festival of Independent Theatres. Taken with last week's review, I hope it will give an accurate account of the scope and ambition of a city event that has risen to eminence in a very short time:
Echo Theatre revives a one-act by Susan Glaspell, an early Pulitzer Prize winner who's rarely cited in mainstream literature today but who has become a mainstay in feminist studies. Her Trifles (1916) reminded me disarmingly of a 1940s radio play or a short story by Shirley Jackson or even of an early episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents..., albeit with a clean but not clumsy swipe at smug patriarchal assumptions. The setting is a turn-of-the-century Nebraska farmhouse where the farmer's neck has been broken in bed from a bizarre noose rig-up. His wife has been hauled in by authorities, but did she do it? A county investigator (Dennis Millegan) scours the house but leaves the kitchen virtually untouched because it is so full of "trifles"--insignificant flotsam of a woman's daily domestic labor. Meanwhile, the sheriff's wife (Mary-Margaret Pyeatt) and a neighbor's spouse (Sarah Einerson) slowly, unwillingly piece together the story of an antagonistic marriage from an unraveled quilt project, a broken birdcage, and some unclean jelly jars. This leads to a tiny but very nasty discovery that provides the murder's key and the show's Hitchcockian plunge into the macabre.
Director Ellen Locy paces the bits of evidence well as they are overturned, but she might have edged Sarah Einerson to ease up on the bug-eyed, purse-lipped humorlessness she works too hard as a farm wife.
A lobby card declared this show to be a "dreamy overview of revolution," and such a mist-shrouded description might be the most charitable. Polarities are set up between Barrerra as La Pintada, a sexual revolutionary who enjoys the taste of her own menstrual blood a la Germaine Greer, and Marinca Calo-Oy as Camilla, an assimilationist who crows victory now that "Edward James Olmos has his own network TV show." It was David Lozano as a lecherous general and Raul Trevino as a transvestite troubadour, however, who tickled audiences into processing the more confrontational stuff with their brainy comic bravado. Despite the wide swings of focus in Barrera's script, they endow departing ticketbuyers with the sensation of having witnessed another stage in the rowdy formation of an increasingly articulate and impatient American identity.
There's enough new and engrossing theater between Dallas and Fort Worth that I don't usually get the chance to review the same play twice when one area company opts to produce a script that another has recently staged. When I do see the same author's work interpreted by two very different teams of artists, there is almost invariably an unequal impact, and I am forced to stop being a passive, complacent receiver of designs and performances and must consider (more precisely, speculate and untangle) why one show reached me and the other stopped short.
Something similar happens when I see repeat performances during the same company's run--the second viewing can either overwhelm or underwhelm me based on the first. But then I wonder as much about my own frame of mind as about the actors' and audiences' moods on different nights. When an entirely different set of translators sets out to enliven (or not) the playwright's words on another stage, I can pontificate on the mysterious biology of theater, the way artistic organisms with similar genetic makeups will nonetheless evolve into creatures divergently successful behind the footlights.
You simply can't ignore a combination of two of the city's best actors--casually controlled veteran Terry Martin, artistic director of Addison's WaterTower Theatre, and Nye Cooper, a risk-taking young pup with a precocious ingenuity for multiple characterizations in the same show--when the occasion gets in your face. You also can't forget when the two-man play they're starring in, The Woman in Black, received a vastly superior area premiere about eight months ago in Fort Worth.
Circle Theatre outfitted Stephen Mallatratt's stage adaptation of English novelist Susan Hill's Gothic chiller about a family curse with two also fine performers--Ashley Wood (currently excelling in Theatre Three's I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change!) and John Wayne Shafer (right now toiling in small New York theaters). Their basement space is more cramped and inflexible, not well suited to the technical demands that this haunted memory play requires. Yet gasps were pulled regularly from the throats of ticketbuyers as the story of a paranoid lawyer and a skeptical actor rehearsing the lawyer's autobiographical script unfolded--and, it should be noted, I had to clear permission with the actors to review a preview performance, as they were sensitive about their timing with light, smoke, and sound effects. Both triumphed under adverse conditions.
Unfortunately, the opening night of Plano Repertory Theatre's version was conspicuously less tuned in to the material's cumulative creepiness. Different in age but compatible in their dark hair and deep-set eyes, Martin and Cooper are visually harmonious in a production that has two simultaneous story lines: the tale of the lawyer attempting to hone his amateur acting skills under the tutelage of the actor, and the performance the characters deliver as the lawyer recounts how he unraveled the violent mystery behind the estate of a recently deceased old recluse. It's not that Martin and Cooper have trouble traveling between these theatrical landscapes. It's that they barely seem to be on the same planet when sharing a scene. Terry Martin might have been manufactured from a petri dish for this sort of brooding, fearful-eyed role, and he indeed suits it fine, but seems oddly to have hunkered down in the character's quiet despair and resisted connecting to Cooper. His young co-star, meanwhile, gallops fiercely but at times unthinkingly through the dialogue. The actor is supposed to be callow, and Nye Cooper has the stage chops to successfully convey the emotional color of a passage even at this clip, but in speeding along so he sacrifices a good deal of the production's impact, which relies on allowing the audience to savor the setup, the slowly gathering detail, of every new scene. When ticketbuyers have been successfully apprised of the rainy graveyard or the locked room full of children's toys, the unexpected appearances that follow constitute ghostly manifestations in their imaginations.
Even the grab-your-lapels effect that had audiences yelling in Fort Worth has been blunted here, so I'll lay a good deal of the blame at the feet of director Mark Fleischer. Confident of his two performers' talents, he seems to have allowed them to shine in whatever direction they wanted and neglected channeling them to places that would illuminate the play's black heart. If a director is one kind of medium in the theater, guiding the actors to access the different personalities in their own souls, then Plano Repertory Theatre's latest séance is full of a lot of chain-rattling but not many compelling messages from the beyond.