FIT Happens

Clockwise from top: Lissa Creola, Pat Watson and T.A. Taylor are an extremely dysfunctional Scottish family in Theatre Quorum's remarkable one-act production.
Jennifer Wilson

Saturday night, my ears rang from a boot to the forehead provided by One Good Beating, the dramatic highlight of 2001's Festival of Independent Theatres.

Theatre Quorum's look at a grown-up brother and sister attempting to avenge childhood wounds inflicted by their poisonous father rose a little above the ranks of a solidly compelling FIT. That, and the fact this marks the play's American premiere, charges the production with even more of a sense of discovery. Director Carl Savering found this one-act in a collection of Scottish scripts; playwright Linda McLean is one of Scotland's foremost developers of new material, thanks to her work with Paines Plough Theatre and Traverse Theatre. Savering has conducted his thrilling trio of actors to generate spiky laughter that's slowly pulled into an undertow of sadness and self-loathing.

The quick-tempered Elaine (Lissa Creola) has pressured her meek brother Stephen (Pat Watson) into ambushing and locking their cruel father, Robert (T.A. Taylor), inside the coal shed, where he will receive the eponymous punishment for his most recent injurious insult: He has buried their mother in a cardboard coffin. "She was an environmentalist," a scowling Robert flippantly explains as he gnaws on an apple; Taylor, an actor who never has to sweat or fret while reaching for the right emotion, here uses that coolness to raise the hair on our arms. His Robert is an accomplished sadist who makes us believe he doled out the family beatings sparingly to maintain that tight leash of mere threat. And it still works. Elaine has inherited her father's fury, and her genuine rage makes her sample that power and collapse under memories of the equally rare affections Robert showed her. Meanwhile, Stephen is the one who's "thick" like his mother; he's a librarian, a mouse, and by Robert's contemptuous hints, effeminate to boot.


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As the play progresses, it's almost unbearable to watch these three repeat old family patterns on the Bath House stage; Watson shakes and stammers without the least bit of affectation, while the hypnotic Creola cries tears as the stage lights go down that continued well into the curtain call. There's a universe of hurtful authenticity, of what Sylvia Plath called "the love of the rack and the screw," in One Good Beating. Theatre Quorum unleashes it with great discipline (even the Scottish brogues are killer) and without mercy.

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The comic luminary of FIT is, oddly, a similar beast in a nasty mood if different in shape--Cara Mia Theatre uses a loose, audience-interactive collection of sketches that take some corrosive loads of bigotry and sprays them at the audience like seltzer bottles.

Latinologues, written by Californian Rick Najera and directed by Marisela Barrera, stars Marco Rodriguez and Otis Gray (who both acts and plays keyboards throughout) as a series of characters who are ultimately united by the playwright's desire to show that Hispanics are as diverse and quarrelsome as...well, Anglos, who are rarely saddled with the pressures that the word "community" brings. Rodriguez plays, among others, a blond performance artist with a banana in his body suit and pointed opinions of the dispensability of a murdered gang tagger; a closeted, fair-skinned Latino actor at an audition listing his credits ("Titanico. It was about 20 Cubans on a raft with a slow leak."); and a shallow cable-access hostess with a love/hate attraction to Latin machismo. Gray remains mostly a sidekick, except for his role as the Mexican Moses, expounding the 10 Latino commandments ("Though shalt get insurance...only, you know, if you need it") while he discovers that his people--Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, Mexicans--can't agree on a promised land. Latinologues boasts a quick succession of bona fide howlers, if you give yourself permission to drop your own racial uneasiness--are you willing to laugh at Martin Luther King Jr. being inspired to write "I Have a Dream" by a bucket of KFC?--and appreciate the crack timing of Rodriguez and Gray's heavy-artillery exchanges. One thing's for certain: Cara Mia has brought the most dangerous entry to this year's FIT.

Prophetic as he's now recognized to be concerning Russia's Soviet revolution, Anton Chekhov has been performed so often that he's now less a Cassandra of Communism than a character-driven chronicler of ennui. If you catch the staging of his 1893 one-act The Proposal by Bucket Productions, and that's all the Chekhov you've ever seen, you might assume he led a happy career as a wacky farceur. Sometimes translated as The Marriage Proposal, it also has a subtitle--A Joke in One-Act--in which Chekhov lets you know he's loosened up, so you should, too. Appealing and light as a drop cloth, the piece concerns the attempts of Lomov (Eric Levy), an anxiety-ridden landowner who believes he has a heart condition, to propose to Natasha (Jennifer Biddall), daughter of his neighbor Chubukov (J.M. Williams). The traditional parental obstacle isn't the problem; Chubukov is thrilled at the imminent betrothal. It's just that Natasha and Lomov can't contain their childish stubbornness long enough to get around to the asking and the accepting. Does a piece of land belong to her father or her future husband? Is his dog Rover a finer, nobler specimen than her beloved Tracker? Chubukov must constantly come between playground spats--and Lomov's worsening panic attacks--to see the two together.

The Proposal might better be subtitled "A One-Joke One-Act," but thanks to director Kelly Scott, it sustains its duration with spryness. Biddall is as wonderful in her mercurial mood changes as Levy is in his constant near-death pleas--although I must contest the enormous curled mustache worn by Levy, presumably to accentuate the farcical mood. It distracts from these lovers' serial spats and detracts from the hilarious twitchy dignity Lomov struggles to maintain.

There's little dignity intended from the spills and silly costume changes that occur throughout Tripping the Light Fantastic, an undeniable crowd-pleaser commissioned by Echo Theatre from Dallas playwright Gretchen Elizabeth Smith. Using dance as a metaphor for romantic love, as Smith does here, is entirely appropriate, but it's also more than a tad obvious. "The History of the Tango" features a chain-smoking Man (John Athas) explaining to Woman (Mary Margaret-Pyatt) the journey of this erotic Latin-American step from the slums to the ballroom. The stylized poses during pauses in the music reflect the false faces lovers present to heal or hurt, and Pyatt and Athas are winning. "Waltz for Four Feet" takes on a more involved topic--which partner is the lead in a same-sex romance?--and features Pyatt as Woman and a somewhat more aggressive Anna Brownsted as Womyn in hoop skirts. Womyn is always struggling to take the lead, to be "the man" because she feels she's supposed to. But by the close, as Woman exuberantly shouts, "Anyone can lead!", fallacious gender roles and assumptions about lesbianism are sweetly dispatched. For biased reasons, I was hoping for more from "Fox Trot," in which a tight-assed, dandyish Gent (Athas) attempts to teach a dorky Un Homme (Paul Womack) in bowling shoes the title dance steps. Whether by personal chemistry or discomfort, Athas and Womack never click, to the point where you're not sure there's supposed to be a gay flirtation going on; even when Athas dips Womack back and coos the word "lover" with raised eyebrow, he looks at the audience, not his partner. Who's the guy trying to seduce?

Prolific Dallas playwright Vicki Caroline Cheatwood gambles with alienating FIT ticketbuyers--she assumes the lead role in her latest short play Breathing Room--and triumphs from the risk. Ground Zero Theater Company and director Kimberlyn Crowe do perhaps better by Cheatwood's script than it deserves at this moment in development--another staged reading, perhaps another tweaking by the author would focus and clarify the poignant fears of individuals trying to connect through various pathological states. Cheatwood plays Deb, a woman not yet allowed to grieve over a terrible accident that's happened to a loved one; to cope, this compulsive organizer has decided to invade the garage of her caring layabout husband, Brody (Wm. Paul William). Deb doesn't understand that even discarded engines are sacred here, and she can't shake the criticisms she receives as a caretaker from mother-in-law Myna (Cindee Mayfield), a woman with a cocktail permanently attached to one hand. There's a slow unfolding of mysterious crises in Breathing Room that generates some of its power--the tragedy that weighs on this fractured family is ominously suggested through the first half of the play--but also much of its flabbiness. Director Crowe skirts brooding and coaches three fine actors to pine tenderly and with humor through the muddled spots.

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