Decline of Ballooning Is Hit of Festival of Independent Theatre's Second Weekend

Janielle Kastner, Michael Federico and Chris Sykes fly high in Decline of Ballooning at FIT.EXPAND
Janielle Kastner, Michael Federico and Chris Sykes fly high in Decline of Ballooning at FIT.
Courtesy FIT

At last, some performances to get goose pimply about at the Festival of Independent Theatres, going on two more weekends at the Bath House Cultural Center. The first weekend brought forth Danielle Georgiou’s lively demi-dance-musical The Show About Men, which is exactly that and a lot of fun, and the sunny and well-shod Shoe Confessions from WingSpan Theatre Company. The second weekend’s debuts topped those with a complementary double bill of the well-acted drama And the Stones Will Cry Out, from a new company called Gorilla Theatre, and a sophisticated hour of musical geomancy called Decline of Ballooning from another first-time FIT producer, The In-Laws.

Two others, Upstart’s one-man Sick Fuck and Circus Freaks’ Playthings, also joined FIT’s lineup in its second week. It’s the 17th year for this summertime round-up of short, low-budget shows. (They’re scheduled in two-hour blocks. Each show is less than one hour.)
The real find among the entries this year is The In-Laws’ Decline of Ballooning by the late playwright Brian Torrey Scott. Every detail has been considered and polished in this lyrical one-act, from felt prop cameras made by Jill Adamson to placement of a wooden table that serves as a second stage for actors Chris Sykes, Janielle Kastner and Michael Federico. Attention to gestures, lighting, sound, what the actors wear and the colors of the clothes, what they’re saying and the pauses between words, even how they arrange themselves in silhouette — the effects of their choices make it art. The art makes it a pleasurable hour of escape into an adventure shared by three marvelous actors in one absurd and lovely piece of writing.

“Step into the balloon,” says Federico’s voice in the dark at the top of the play. The script glides over a history of aerial photography, but also over the bumpy terrain of unrequited romance between co-workers Ben (Sykes) and Amelia (Kastner). He loves her and struggles to express it. She’s more interested in getting a better look at undersea formations from high above the Marianas Trench.
Federico is the pilot of this flight of fancy, switching in and out of characters and donning wigs and caps over his chalky white face. He’s so at home on a stage. All three actors work easily into the oddness of Scott’s dialogue, which contains long lists of captions from old photos taken during balloon rides above pyramids and other landmarks.

When Sykes steps out of character to sing the ’70s Stephen Bishop tune “On and On” (Johnny Sequenzia provides dandy mandolin and guitar accompaniment from stage left), while Federico performs pantomimed surgery on a supine Kastner, the magic of Decline of Ballooning ascends above the usual festival fare. Director Spencer Driggers, who actually is Federico’s brother-in-law, and his cast craft this piece into a gift to theatergoers willing to fly along. (Showtimes: 9 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. Saturday; 5 p.m. Sunday; 6 p.m. Saturday, August 1.)

And the Stones Will Cry Out by David M. Graham, directed at FIT by Angela Wilson, is based on the true story of an 18th-century hoax perpetrated on a sanctimonious German scientist. Beringer (Bradley Campbell, terrific, as always) is a devout Catholic who dismisses research by his University of Wurzburg colleagues, looking instead to Biblical explanations for natural phenomena. A fossil of a prehistoric crab, he declares, isn’t proof of evolution, but “a message from God.”

To humiliate Beringer, and to puncture his belief in God’s infallibility, algebra teacher Roderick (Bert Pigg) plants hand-hewn “fossils.” A third teacher, Eckhart (Ted Wold), joins in. Eckhart also narrates the play and, as played by Wold, offers much-needed comic relief amid discussions of heavy concepts of religion, science and fate. The men have a three-way face-off when the hoax is exposed, giving these veteran actors a chance to play off each other like fine musicians engaged in a furious fugue. (Showtimes: 9 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 8 p.m. Thursday; 3 p.m. Saturday, August 1.)

Playthings is a painful and art-free 45 minutes of minor circus tricks and awkward acrobatics by Russ Sharek’s Circus Freaks ensemble. Cast members Alan Blakely, Rachel Hullett, Marie Martin, Rachael Williams, Scott Renkes and Courtney Vanous speak a few lines in hesitant voices, something about a doll maker (Blakely) transferring memories to his creations. The goal is to show off circus skills — juggling (but just three balls and Blakely kept dropping them), sword-swallowing (Williams) and body balancing (Vanous and Renkes). There is no energy, pacing, showmanship, no reason for “ta da!” when tricks end. Martin, occupying a giant jack-in-the-box, tinky-tinks keys of a toy piano throughout, a sound that’ll make your molars grind. (Showtimes: 5 p.m. Saturday; 9 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. Saturday, August 1.)

A slight whiff of vanity project hangs over Sick Fuck, the profane monologue by Paul Shoulberg done at FIT by actor Joey Folsom, directed by David Denson. Folsom plays an unnamed comic doing one final set. “I have ball cancer. Late discovery. Not a good thing,” he growls, working the microphone in and out of its stand. He’s angry and eager to spew about his ex-girlfriend, his childhood and the cancer. “Motherfucking shit fuck dick ass bitch!” he yells. There’s poetry.

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Slat-thin, wide forehead painted with the pointy “M” of his slicked-back hairline, Folsom dares the audience to hate his character. We do. Mostly because he’s not funny. Real stand-ups are hilarious in pain. Marc Maron. Louis CK. The late Robert Schimmel, who beat cancer then died in a car wreck. Tig Notaro had the funniest, most authentically angry “I have cancer” monologue of all. It made us love her. The guy in Sick Fuck is just a jerk. Toward the end, he blows a hard razzberry at the audience. Back atcha, kid.

Festival of Independent Theatres
continues through August 1 at the Bath House Cultural Center, 521 E. Lawther Drive (at Northcliff). Tickets $18 (or $60 for eight-show festival pass) at the door or 800-617-6904.


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