FITs And Starts

Cindy Beall, Emily Gray and Andrews Cope star in Seagulls, one of eight short plays in the Festival of Independent Theatres.
Lowell Sargeant

The slightly scaled-down Festival of Independent Theatres is the tapas bar of local theater, a chance to spend just a few dollars to sample offerings by new and small companies sharing the stage at the Bath House Cultural Center. It's the 11th year for the month-long "FIT fest," as it is redundantly nicknamed, and with the City of Dallas threatening drastic budget reductions for culture-related programs next year, support for this lively summer showcase of short plays is needed more than ever.

Crowds were small but enthusiastic for opening weekend, which featured half of the eight companies (down from 10 last year) presenting work at FIT. All of the productions are one-acts shorter than an hour apiece, most staged with minimal scenery and costumes. The lack of fancy trappings presents special challenges for directors, who have to count on strong acting and creative staging to make up for the barebones look of their shows.

Writer-director-actor Jeffrey Schmidt and his new troupe, The Drama Club, win the doing-most-with-least prize for creating maximum magic using found objects, plain old trash and scraps of this and that for a fanciful re-imagining of the Grimms' tale The Old Woman in the Wood. Over 40 minutes, the bare stage floor in the Bath House transforms into a haunted forest built from throwaway materials. The evil witch's jewels are aluminum cans. The white dove appears first as a piece of tissue fluttered in the hand of actor John Flores. The half-tree/half-man (John Davenport in his Dallas acting debut) is a coat hanger and burlap marvel so organic it could tempt termites.

The pace of the storytelling grows languid in places, but Schmidt, who wrote, directed and designed the play, hits the audience with enough surprises to propel his 45-minute fantasy to a satisfying end. He loves to play with visual scale. That witch's head is as big as a Mardi Gras mask. But the chorus of narrators is a trio of tiny puppets made of cigarette packs.

Lead actress Maryam Baig Lush, clad in a sleek black bodysuit, moves like a slim marionette herself in her role as a terrified girl lost in the woods after her royal employers are murdered by highwaymen. She is nurtured and protected by the branches of that mysterious tree. After a quest to kill the wicked witch, she finds love with a man whose spirit is released from the witch's curse. It's a lovely and old-fashioned tale about the power of nature, made fresh and fascinating with movement and sound, and through Schmidt's talent for recycling both a timeless story and a bunch of stuff whose beauty has been released, if only temporarily, from the curse of the garbage bin.

British writer Caryl Churchill's odd little reverie, Seagulls, WingSpan Theatre Company's entry to FIT, stars one of Dallas' best actors, Emily Gray. It's a good 10 minutes in before the pieces of this one start to come together. Gray is Valery, a British woman born with telekinetic powers that are being exploited for entertainment, Uri Geller style, by a greedy manager (Cindy Beall). The intrusion of a devoted young fan (Andrews Cope) during a private moment causes Valery to question the value of her talent for moving things with her mind. Is she special or just a freak attracting other freaks?

Gray, able to use her real British accent for a change, brings an otherworldly, Streep-like quality to her character. Beall is appropriately bristly. Baby-faced Cope has a whispery vocal style that always makes him seem vaguely unhinged and slightly menacing, whatever character he's playing. He was good doing this as Billy Bibbit in Contemporary Theatre's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Here he just seems divorced from reality. Director Susan Sargeant's uncluttered production is graced with fine work by Gray. But overall, Seagulls doesn't soar.

Surely Know-No, a half-hour bit of fluff by former Dallas playwright and actor Matt Lyle, is a back-of-the-drawer script that Pegasus Theatre director Kurt Kleinmann hoped would improve on its feet. It's nowhere near as good as Lyle's previous comedies, Hello Human Female, done recently by Audacity Productions at The Ochre House, and The Boxer, the silent homage to Keaton and Chaplin that debuted at FIT two summers ago and will be featured, with its Dallas cast, at the end of August at the New York International Fringe Fest.

Know-No peels away at the romantic tension between a boss (A. Raymond Banda) and his secretary (Lorina Lipscomb). She flirts, he ignores her. He flirts, she rebuffs. He recites an entire e.e. cummings poem from memory. Many cups of coffee are poured, and file folders fly around like Frisbees. The performances by these physically mismatched actors are terribly forced and devoid of any real romantic chemistry. The only funny line is "Everything's funnier with a lateral lisp." So maybe thish play would've been if one of the charactersh had had one.

Out in the Studio Theatre at Addison Theatre Centre, Second Thought Theatre is closing out its fifth season with Neil LaBute's Some Girl(s), the first production by its second team of producers and actors. The Baylor-spawned founders of this bold little company now have scattered to the coasts (including the Great Lakes, with actress Allison Tolman's recent move to Chicago), so it's up to a new bunch to carry on.

They're going to have to do better than Some Girl(s) if they want to keep up Second Thought's well-deserved reputation for un-self-conscious performances and provocative dramas. LaBute's play isn't all that hot to start with. As usual, his central male character is a womanizing shit-heel, and his women are bitchy sluts and whiny doormats. In play after play, he plays the same notes about the male-female dynamic. Yeah, yeah, men like to seduce pretty girls, and they hate to commit. Tell me something I don't know.

The man in this one is named Guy. (LaBute, you're getting lazy.) He's an East Coast fiction writer edging toward 40 and on the verge of marrying a much younger woman he's not sure is "the one." To convince himself, Guy (played by Ashley Wood with a heavy emphasis on hair-swooshing) visits five old flames, starting with high school sweetheart Sam (Diane Worman), whom he dumped just before prom night back in hometown Seattle. Confused by the sudden reunion, Sam, now a wife and mom, works herself into an emotional lather and wallops Guy upside the head.

If only all the women in this play had that much gumption, or the play itself had that much action. The scenes with the next four old girlfriends—Tyler (Catherine DuBord), Lindsay (Lulu Ward), Reggie (Natalie Young), Bobbie (Jessica Wiggers)—are mostly talk-talk-talk. One by one, they visit Guy in his hotel rooms. (The only visual pops are the subtle changes in set pieces as Guy stays in five rooms in the same national chain.)

As usual, LaBute pulls out a trick O. Henry ending, revealing the real reason Guy is getting all these babes to talk about how he was as a boyfriend. He's not out to "right some wrongs," as he keeps saying. He's out to write something about them, for all the wrong reasons. It's writer as psychological cannibal. Same goes for the playwright, who keeps chewing over and spitting out the same ideas in play after play.

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