By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Going to the annual Festival of Independent Theatres is a bit like tumbling down Alice's rabbit hole. You jump in and hope for amusing diversions on the way to a soft landing.
For four weeks, eight small theater companies, so small they don't have their own home spaces in which to perform, rotate onto the black box stage at the Bath House Cultural Center. There's no theme to the plays they do, nothing in common among them except for meager production budgets, ranging from a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars a show. It's a mixed-bag program of one-acts (most run under an hour), meaning you never really know what you're going to get.
That's part of the charm but also the curse of the FIT fest, as it's redundantly known. Depending on which performance you attend (the shows are paired in two-hour blocks), you could see back-to-back brilliance, a couple of duds or one of each. Of the four shows reviewed on the festival's opening weekend, only one was a really great piece of work, another was so-so and two were stinkers. (The other four plays in this year's FIT, the 12th year of the summer event, join the revolving repertory schedule this week.)
The great one is Alice in Wonderland, a breathless, sometimes breathtaking mashup of the best scenes and characters from both of Lewis Carroll's Alice books. In a fast-moving 55 minutes, the group called White Rock Pollution zips through the books' funniest speeches, poems, caucus races and tea parties. The show is based on an avant-garde 1970 production by Andre Gregory and the Manhattan Project Company, and makes inspired use of found objects and everyday items such as plastic milk crates, cardboard boxes, Christmas lights and umbrellas. The casting is inspired, too, with six of the area's liveliest young actors playing a total of 19 roles. Directed by Tom Parr IV, Alice stretches all of its performers' physicality and vocal dexterity in exciting new ways.
Actress Danielle Pickard is the luminous Alice. When she drinks the shrinking potion, she seems visibly to downsize, then she shoots up to giant proportions, her filmy blue skirt magically unfurling for yards and yards below her waist as she rises above the floor (a lovely effect that tickles the audience to pieces). Pickard's Alice is a child who can be a willful little brat one moment and a hungry, frightened girl the next. She's delightful to watch.
Brian Witkowicz, an actor who's grown up in Dallas theaters large and small, is as limber as a dancer when scuttling across the stage as Crab, and he jumps like he's on springs as Frog. As the White Knight, he lets his voice do the gymnastics in a long speech that begins whimsically and ends so poignantly he's almost tearful.
As Dodo, Cheshire Cat, the Red King and an elegantly bloated Humpty Dumpty, Randy Pearlman finds something in each character to let us know who they are without our having to check the program to figure it out. Ben Bryant, in three roles, gives us a hookah-smoking Caterpillar, who looks and sounds a lot like Hunter S. Thompson (more the Johnny Depp version than the Bill Murray one). As the Mad Hatter, Clay Wheeler conducts a madly funny gathering of creatures around a table made of old louvered doors. Whitney Holotik pulls her hoodie over her head to play the Lory (a bird), then brings a powerful lunacy to the Red and White Queens, bellowing "Off with their heads!" with a Leona Helmsley sneer.
Every minute of this Alice in Wonderland is bright, joyous, inventive—all the things you hope for in a fringe festival production. But frabjous day, callooh, callay, there are other shows on the FIT fest bill. And so a few words about the less brillig entries.
The acting is plenty smooth in One Thirty Productions' The Turquoise Pontiac, a one-act by Austin playwright Ellsworth Schave, who wrote last year's FIT favorite, Under a Texaco Canopy. It's the script that gets knotted up in a metaphysical fairy tale about four denizens of a saloon on Route 66 circa 1955. First we meet bartender Roscoe (Elias Taylorson, underplaying the part with such brittle dryness he's practically a human tumbleweed). Roscoe's mildly annoyed by the presence of the Traveler (Shane Beeson), an out-of-towner who's pulled up in a flashy new car. Traveler claims to have seen a diesel train engine roaring down the middle of the highway, topped by a pretty woman dressed as Brunhilde and singing Wagnerian opera.
Oh, sure, mutters Roscoe. But 'fore too long, the red-haired Soprano (Morgan Justiss) sweeps into the bar decked out in armor made of wine corks, bottle caps and cardboard coasters. (The outfit, designed and constructed by Bath House manager Marty Van Kleeck, is a marvel of repurposed materials donated by the Elbow Room tavern.) Turns out this train-riding singer is Roscoe's lonely daughter. They're joined by Lee, the train engineer (Dan Tillman), who says cryptic things to Traveler such as "You'll never see the train that hits you."
Maybe this is a folksy allegory about life, death and pop culture. There's a lot of imagery in the play from Disney movies and 1955 is the year Disneyland opened. Who knows? It's a well-acted piece that unfortunately veers off into Never-Neverland.
WingSpan Productions' Feeding the Moonfish, written by Barbara Wiechmann and directed by Susan Sargeant, stars two attractive young actors, Josh Glover and Barrett Nash, as unhappy restaurant workers sharing a weird moment in the moonlight on a Florida dock. They flirt, they fight, they kiss. The ending suggests he kills her, but you won't care. It's a bad play. You'll just be glad it's over.
Same goes for The Drama Club's unamusing The Muse, an all-movement, no-dialogue piece conceived by Jeffrey Schmidt and performed by four actors who work up a lather flinging themselves around the stage for 55 minutes. Is there a story? Not so much. There is a nearly naked girl (Anastasia Munoz) and a furry goat-dog (John M. Flores), a crone (Lulu Ward) and a look-alike crone puppet (Maryam Baig Lush). Continuous sound effects, from tinkling bells to deafening drumbeats, come from an upstage cage manned by Newton Pittman.
From notes scribbled during this show: "Crone puppet smokes a joint, hands it to goat-dog." That sounds more entertaining than it is.
After opening night, critics received an e-mail explaining that because of a last-minute equipment problem, the crone had done that first performance without her wheels. We were invited to see the show again to witness its full artistic intent. Good lord, the only thing worse than 55 minutes of sweaty, meaningless pantomime would be 55 more minutes of it on wheels.