Is it Time to Bring the Curtain Down on Festival of Indie Theatres?
Jared Culpepper and Chad Cline in Churchmouse Productions' The Watch at FIT 2014
Photo courtesy Churchmouse Production
Like an old actor no longer able to remember his lines, maybe the Festival of Independent Theatres needs to be led gently out of the spotlight for good. The annual FIT fest, as it's redundantly known, was conceived 16 years ago to give small companies a chance to produce new work. FIT is a low-risk, locals-only festival, requiring bare budgets of as little as a thousand dollars or so to share the Bath House Cultural Center stage with other troupes doing short one-act plays.
In the past, FIT has hosted some extraordinary shows. In 2005 Second Thought Theatre, then a fledgling group of young actors just out of Baylor University, put on a rousing King Ubu using $50 worth of pool noodles and beach balls as props and scenery. The stars were Steven Walters, now a lead company member at Dallas Theater Center and still a busy writer-director for STT (his play Booth recently had a sold-out run), and Allison Tolman, now famous as the Emmy-nominated star of cable TV's Fargo miniseries. Walters and Tolman co-wrote their adaptation of Alfred Jarry's 1896 absurdist comedy Ubu Roi, about a pompous king who leads his country into senseless war.
That production was memorable for its innovative use of cheap materials and for the crazy-hilarious performances of its cast, but also for its timely commentary on the war in Iraq. It was brilliant and it was relevant. Critics and audiences heaped huzzahs on it. Nine years later, I wish I could see it again.
Other standouts from a past FIT were two plays in the 2011 lineup. Roberts Askins' romantic comedy Love Song of the Albanian Sous Chef, produced by Rite of Passage Theatre Company and directed by Cassie Bann, starred Adrian Churchill as a shy cook in love with a waitress played by Whitney Holotik. On her final shift, the chef proclaims his feelings not with words, but food, sending out lavish dishes that — and here's where the surprises happened — sang love songs. Puppet clams on the half shell, warbling in harmony. Desserts that crooned. A charming, lovely show.
That same summer marked the debut of Eric Steele's one-man play Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self, produced for FIT by Second Thought Theatre and starring longtime Dallas actor Barry Nash. Steele has since taken his play about a one-armed plane crash survivor to the Hollywood Fringe and adapted it into a feature film, also starring Nash, which has won awards at festivals around the country.
These past gems are examples of what FIT was and should be: A carefully chosen collection of plays showcasing the best writing, acting, directing and design by local theater companies working on minuscule budgets. But that was then. What's on now in the 16th annual fest are shows nowhere near the quality of Ubu, Albanian Sous Chef or Bob Birdnow. This summer's theme seems to be "plays designed to make you hate theater."
The two productions reviewed the first weekend of FIT — Jim Kuenzer's Metamorphosis II and Jeffrey Colangelo's Playtime — were patience-testing exercises. In Kuenzer's sequel to Kafka's story, Gregor Samsa wakes up as a man (no longer a cockroach) stuck in a reality TV show and then in a confusing conversation with a "genius" at an Apple store. Playtime featured 45 dialogue-free minutes of violent clowns hitting each other with pillows and balloons, plus intermittent screaming (and not just by the voice in my own head).
The Watch, reviewed on FIT's second weekend, is so awful it makes Playtime seem precious by comparison. Trace Crawford's script, directed by Jordan Willis for Churchmouse Productions, places two men in a room with a bed and a table. Paley (Jared Culpepper) wears grunge, his pot belly spilling over his pants. Dawkins (Chad Cline) is buttoned into a too-small business suit. They carry on with dialogue that sounds like this:
Is that your watch?
Yes, your watch.
Is it a watch?
Is it what?
It's like "Who's on First?" turned into a nightmare from which you don't awake for nearly an hour. Of this. This? Yes, this. And then more of this. As you dig your fingernails into your kneecaps.
Echo Theatre's mania/gift, written and directed by Shelby-Allison Hibbs, is a mental health sketch that benefits from earnest acting by Whitney Holotik and Cara L. Reid. A college girl (Reid) manically types a sci-fi story as her psychosis spins out of control, landing her in the hospital. Holotik plays her doctor, her inner dialogue and other characters. Hibbs has her characters explain bipolar illness and its symptoms. This is the stuff of Dr. Phil episodes and daytime dramas. Not really all that compelling on a stage.
At least WingSpan Theatre Company's The Diaries of Adam and Eve has actors Austin Tindle and Catherine D. DuBord speaking the witty words of Mark Twain, adapted from his separately published "diaries." Two new humans approach each other warily in Eden. "'We,'" says Adam. "Where did I get that word?"
DuBord and Tindle, both exceedingly sleek and limber in their flesh-colored bodysuits (by designer Barbara C. Cox), have cute chemistry. Director Susan Sargeant has let them mug too much, but they are funny and pretty, so they get away with it. This piece isn't a big wow; it's just better than the others.
Maybe FIT should consider this year its last bite of the apple. There's nothing tempting here anymore.
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