FITs And Starts

The slightly scaled-down Festival of Independent Theatres is the tapas bar of local theater, a chance to spend just a few dollars to sample offerings by new and small companies sharing the stage at the Bath House Cultural Center. It's the 11th year for the month-long "FIT fest," as it is redundantly nicknamed, and with the City of Dallas threatening drastic budget reductions for culture-related programs next year, support for this lively summer showcase of short plays is needed more than ever.

Crowds were small but enthusiastic for opening weekend, which featured half of the eight companies (down from 10 last year) presenting work at FIT. All of the productions are one-acts shorter than an hour apiece, most staged with minimal scenery and costumes. The lack of fancy trappings presents special challenges for directors, who have to count on strong acting and creative staging to make up for the barebones look of their shows.

Writer-director-actor Jeffrey Schmidt and his new troupe, The Drama Club, win the doing-most-with-least prize for creating maximum magic using found objects, plain old trash and scraps of this and that for a fanciful re-imagining of the Grimms' tale The Old Woman in the Wood. Over 40 minutes, the bare stage floor in the Bath House transforms into a haunted forest built from throwaway materials. The evil witch's jewels are aluminum cans. The white dove appears first as a piece of tissue fluttered in the hand of actor John Flores. The half-tree/half-man (John Davenport in his Dallas acting debut) is a coat hanger and burlap marvel so organic it could tempt termites.

Cindy Beall, Emily Gray and Andrews Cope star in Seagulls, one of eight short plays in the Festival of Independent Theatres.
Lowell Sargeant
Cindy Beall, Emily Gray and Andrews Cope star in Seagulls, one of eight short plays in the Festival of Independent Theatres.

Details

The Old Woman in the Wood, Know-No and Seagulls continue through August 8 at the Festival of Independent Theatres, Bath House Cultural Center. Call 214-670-8749.

Some Girl(s) continues through August 1 at Second Thought Theatre, Addison. Call 972-450-6232.

The pace of the storytelling grows languid in places, but Schmidt, who wrote, directed and designed the play, hits the audience with enough surprises to propel his 45-minute fantasy to a satisfying end. He loves to play with visual scale. That witch's head is as big as a Mardi Gras mask. But the chorus of narrators is a trio of tiny puppets made of cigarette packs.

Lead actress Maryam Baig Lush, clad in a sleek black bodysuit, moves like a slim marionette herself in her role as a terrified girl lost in the woods after her royal employers are murdered by highwaymen. She is nurtured and protected by the branches of that mysterious tree. After a quest to kill the wicked witch, she finds love with a man whose spirit is released from the witch's curse. It's a lovely and old-fashioned tale about the power of nature, made fresh and fascinating with movement and sound, and through Schmidt's talent for recycling both a timeless story and a bunch of stuff whose beauty has been released, if only temporarily, from the curse of the garbage bin.

British writer Caryl Churchill's odd little reverie, Seagulls, WingSpan Theatre Company's entry to FIT, stars one of Dallas' best actors, Emily Gray. It's a good 10 minutes in before the pieces of this one start to come together. Gray is Valery, a British woman born with telekinetic powers that are being exploited for entertainment, Uri Geller style, by a greedy manager (Cindy Beall). The intrusion of a devoted young fan (Andrews Cope) during a private moment causes Valery to question the value of her talent for moving things with her mind. Is she special or just a freak attracting other freaks?

Gray, able to use her real British accent for a change, brings an otherworldly, Streep-like quality to her character. Beall is appropriately bristly. Baby-faced Cope has a whispery vocal style that always makes him seem vaguely unhinged and slightly menacing, whatever character he's playing. He was good doing this as Billy Bibbit in Contemporary Theatre's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Here he just seems divorced from reality. Director Susan Sargeant's uncluttered production is graced with fine work by Gray. But overall, Seagulls doesn't soar.

Surely Know-No, a half-hour bit of fluff by former Dallas playwright and actor Matt Lyle, is a back-of-the-drawer script that Pegasus Theatre director Kurt Kleinmann hoped would improve on its feet. It's nowhere near as good as Lyle's previous comedies, Hello Human Female, done recently by Audacity Productions at The Ochre House, and The Boxer, the silent homage to Keaton and Chaplin that debuted at FIT two summers ago and will be featured, with its Dallas cast, at the end of August at the New York International Fringe Fest.

Know-No peels away at the romantic tension between a boss (A. Raymond Banda) and his secretary (Lorina Lipscomb). She flirts, he ignores her. He flirts, she rebuffs. He recites an entire e.e. cummings poem from memory. Many cups of coffee are poured, and file folders fly around like Frisbees. The performances by these physically mismatched actors are terribly forced and devoid of any real romantic chemistry. The only funny line is "Everything's funnier with a lateral lisp." So maybe thish play would've been if one of the charactersh had had one.

Out in the Studio Theatre at Addison Theatre Centre, Second Thought Theatre is closing out its fifth season with Neil LaBute's Some Girl(s), the first production by its second team of producers and actors. The Baylor-spawned founders of this bold little company now have scattered to the coasts (including the Great Lakes, with actress Allison Tolman's recent move to Chicago), so it's up to a new bunch to carry on.

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