By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
WaterTower Theatre's tenth annual Out of the Loop Fringe Festival is a busy buffet of talent spread among three venues at the sprawling Addison venue. You can gorge yourself on all the offerings over 11 days, or just pick and choose, nibbling among the ones you've heard are good.
With one weekend left of the fest, sponsored in part by Dallas Observer, the hot ticket is The Lesson produced by Second Thought Theatre, the most solidly professional of the first weekend's shows reviewed (and unfortunately shorted on scheduled performance times). The Eugène Ionesco one-act is performed rarely 'round these parts. This staging in WaterTower's intimate studio theater, directed by Mac Lower, clocks in at a crisp 45 minutes of big laughs that pay off in a surprisingly eerie ending.
The Lesson begins as screwball comedy, or as screwball as 1950s French Absurdist theater allowed. A maid (Abigail Herring) answers the door and in pops a wide-eyed pupil (Anastasia Munoz), eager to begin a tutoring session with a professor (David Lugo). The schoolgirl takes charge, telling the distracted instructor that she's completed high school and is jumping straight into a Ph.D. program. Not so fast, says the prof, who wants to run her through some simple arithmetic problems first. One plus one, she gets; subtraction trips her up. "You have a tendency to add," says the professor, growing more frustrated with the girl by the minute.
From there, it's into the swirling eddies of Ionesco's wonderful nonsense language. The way Samuel Beckett used silence between words to carve away the meaning of language, Ionesco did it with logorrhea. His characters spew words in rushing torrents, speaking over and against each other and in phrases that make no sense. It's bizarre and hilarious.
As the professor stuh-stuh-stutters like a berobed Porky Pig, talking streams of gibberish about the linguistic nuances of Spanish and "neo-Spanish," the student drifts from assertive, concrete statements into the dreamlike repetition of one phrase, "I have a toothache." A power shift occurs. The mood goes grim and threatening. And The Lesson spirals into a creepy nightmare that culminates in assault and murder. Not, we are led to believe by the maid, the first the professor has committed that day.
On a small stage edged with stacks of books, the Second Thought Theatre actors maintain tight control over the twists and twizzles of Ionesco's wordplay. Lugo, a nimble comedian, adopts the sardonic leer of Groucho Marx, cocking an eyebrow and walking his fingers over the tabletop as he tries to get his pupil to subtract three from four. Munoz, a willowy actress with geometric features, makes herself weightless as she "floats" above her chair, repeating unheeded complaints about that toothache. Herring, as the bossy maid warning that "philology leads to calamity," swings her derriere with menacing heft.
The Lesson could teach some of the other shows at Out of the Loop a thing or two about how these things are done.
In its first appearance at the Loop fest, Broken Gears Project Theatre presents the area premiere of Valerie Goodwin's fact-based play The Magdalen Whitewash. Today unwed teenage moms become MTV reality show stars and tabloid cover girls. In early 20th century Ireland, thousands of pregnant schoolgirls were locked away in Catholic-run asylums, made to work unpaid in sweatshop laundries and rarely, if ever, allowed to leave.
The play tries to cram too many storylines and too many characters into a 75-minute two-act drama, but two performances stand out in the uneven 18-member cast (directed by Nathan Autry with a haphazard tendency to turn them all upstage when speaking). As 13-year-old Mary, who knows so little about biology she's not even aware she's pregnant, actress Mary Jerome is ethereally sweet and sad. Playing the same character a couple of decades older, actress Lauren Morgan captures the tragic naiveté of a woman-child too afraid of the outside world to risk living on her own when freedom is offered.
The 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters told the same story and better.
The best reason to see Rite of Passage Theatre Company's Loop entry, Technically Related: Two Variations on Love & Family, is the presence of Dallas actor David Jeremiah. He brings thrilling immediacy to what is otherwise a couple of cliché-ridden one-acts about sibling rivalry by local playwrights Clay Wheeler and Christina Cigala. In the first short piece, Wheeler's Unit Cohesion, Jeremiah is a veteran of the current wars, back home for a parent's funeral and reluctant to tell his wife (Cassie Bann, who's also in The Magdalen Whitewash) that he's re-upping for another tour of duty. His blowups with his wife and his sister (Ariana Cook) are powerful; the apologies directly afterward acted better than they're written. In the second, Hard Candy Christmas by Cigala, Jeremiah plays one of three siblings (the other two played by Bann and Adrian Godinez) visiting their mom (Lulu Ward, another Magdalen co-star) in a drug rehab facility. Jeremiah can explode like a firecracker or just bubble on a slow simmer, but there's always some degree of heat when he's onstage. His performances in these minor works hint at major talent itching for better material to play with.
The big grin of the Loop fest has to be Tap This, starring a trio of dancers called Rhythmic Souls. They are the lanky Katelyn Harris, athletic and funny Keira Leverton and legs-up-to-there cutie Courtné Shed.
Doing sophisticated jazz-tapping to selections by Vivaldi, the Beatles and M.C. Luscious, the ladies, wearing short black dresses, maintain a casual attitude that belies the crazy things they do with their feet. As they pull toe-stands and fan the air with the buck and wing, they never stop smiling and kibitzing with each other and the audience. Right now their tapping is stronger than their spoken transitions between numbers in the half-hour showcase. If they work out some clever dialogue, and get comfortable saying it without dissolving into giggles, they'll really have something. But even sans rap, these girls can tap.
Are you ready for some Foote? The 17-show, two-month-long Horton Foote Festival is the next big thang in Dallas/Fort Worth theaters. First up is Dallas Theater Center's production of Dividing the Estate, the last great play by the Texas-born playwright, who died in 2009. Previews start March 11 for that one starring June Squibb, Kurt Rhoads, Nance Williamson, Liz Mikel, Akin Babatunde, Matthew Gray, Gail Cronauer, Michael Connolly and SMU student Emily Habeck. (Through April 10.)
Fort Worth's Stage West opens Foote's gentle comedy Talking Pictures, starring Dana Schultes, on March 12 (playing through April 3). Then on March 25, The Old Beginning and John Turner Davis, two Foote one-acts directed by Jane Ferris and Karen Cogdill, open in the Wortley-Peabody Theatre at Dallas' First United Methodist Church near the downtown Arts District. (Through April 2.)
More Foote works join the festival in April at Kitchen Dog Theater, WaterTower, Uptown Players, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, Echo Theatre, Theatre Three and elsewhere. We'll have our foot in the door at most of them.