This may be the week of big-budget musicals in Dallas theaters, but a 45-minute play with a $900 budget might be the hottest show on any stage right now. The Hand, which opened at the tiny Broken Gears Project Theatre last weekend, stars just two actors, Jeff Swearingen and Broken Gears' founder Joey Folsom. They play Rich Man and Poor Man, or as they call them, "Green" and "Red." When the lights come up, Rich Man drops the towel around his waist and steps naked into a shower. Poor Man, wearing a black robe open to the waist, is at the sink, lathering up to shave. That's a pretty hot way to grab attention in live theater, especially in a performance space so small you can count the freckles on the actors' backs.
What happens when Rich Man gets out of that shower is the start of a fascinating tumble of words and action in The Hand. For most of the first half hour of the play by Spanish playwright German Madrid, translated for this production by Dallas actress and writer Loren Roark, it's not clear whether the two men know each other or not. In the cryptic, flirtatious way they talk as Rich Man dries off and casually slips into a pair of black boxer briefs, they could be lovers, or perhaps a one-night-stand coming to an awkward end the morning after.
But that's not what's going on at all. Oh, no. This really is about a hand. A left hand. Which one of the men doesn't have. Why he's one-handed and what he demands from the two-handed man is where the conflict lies. It gets intense. There's poison and a meat cleaver and a lot of thick red blood spilled onto the tiles of that shower. The hand changes owners and then it changes its mind.
Watching two handsome young men showering onstage, wearing black undies, smoking like sexy French film stars and acting the hell out of a good little play is not a bad way to spend 45 minutes of live theater. But it gets better. Every night, Swearingen, 32, and Folsom, 27, switch roles. On opening night last week, Folsom played Rich Man to Swearingen's Poor Man. Wednesday night, they reversed the casting.
There usually isn't time for a return visit to any show, especially in a week with five musicals going up, but I went back to Broken Gears, located in a converted Oak Lawn house in the shadow of the Observer mother ship, to see how the role-switching went. With Swearingen as the Rich Man and Folsom as the one-handed revenge seeker, it was a very different experience from the play I reviewed last Friday.
I had liked Folsom, with his broody looks and languid vocal rhythms, as the Rich Man who is stripped of dignity and reduced to a heap of bloody hysteria by the end of things. But Swearingen, known for his talent with broad physical comedy, which he uses playing Poor Man, projects a quiet, seething strength in the role of the Rich Man. Playing the Poor Man brings out a loose clownish-ness I hadn't seen in Folsom before.
It's exciting to see these actors work like this, physically and emotionally naked. It's what small, fringe theater is for. And in a 40-seat house, it's like watching the play under a magnifying glass. Swearingen and Folsom should keep this thing running all summer.
After last night's performance, I sat down for a few minutes with the actors and with Andy Baldwin, director of The Hand, to find out what they're getting out of this exercise.
Why are you doing the role-switching? Just to get patrons to pay twice for the same play? Andy Baldwin: Yes, it's a gimmick, but the script merits it. When I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly do True West in New York with the role-switching, it did seem like a gimmick to get people to pay twice. But in this show, the hand is actually the star. The role reversal of the other two characters is sort of built in. It seemed like a natural thing to do and these guys were up for it. Jeff Swearingen: I assumed, because of my comedy background, that I would like playing Red (the Poor Man character). But I like playing Rich Man and the intimidation he projects during the preachy parts of the script. I also like the hard challenge of switching roles every night. Joey Folsom: Both roles are really appealing in a lot of ways. And by doing this, I'm not bored with the play by the second weekend. So often you go stagnant as an actor after eight or 10 performances. The challenge is always to keep it fresh. This way, it's always fresh.
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The Hand is the last play in Broken Gears' season. How would you describe this company to theatergoers who haven't discovered you yet? Folsom: We're a counterculture company that gives artists opportunities to do stuff they can't do other places. We don't limit ourselves. We're not controlled by a board of directors. We work on a limited budget. Broken Gears is where actors get to play.
OK, here's an idea. Why not do The Hand back-to-back in one evening, switching roles after intermission? Baldwin: We'd have to clean the blood off the set pretty fast, but why not? Folsom: Sure. After all, we're already here.
Update: As I left the theater that night, the director and his cast had agreed to knuckle down for the twofer for all of the final week's shows, June 22 to 25. Calling it Broken Gears "Back Hand," the double-down performance will allow patrons to see The Hand and return after a brief intermission to see it again with the actors in the opposite roles (the whole play runs just 45 minutes). Returning patrons pay just $10 to see this special night. First-timers pay $20 for both or $15 for one show. Refreshments are complimentary with ticket.
The Hand continues at 8 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays, through June 25 at Broken Gears Project Theatre, 3819 Fairmount (one block off Oak Lawn). Tickets $12-$15. Call the box office at 214-443-0000 or visit brokengearsprojecttheatre.com.