Be careful where you stand in the lobby of the Bath House Cultural Center during the month of July. Caravans of actors, directors, and designers, toting costumes and furniture, march into and out of the theater every hour. The nine companies that participate in the Second Annual Festival of Independent Theatres each have 10 minutes to set up and 10 to disassemble and make way for the next troupe. With so many artists cross-pollinating in such a relatively small space, you wonder about the backstage drama--infidelities, broken friendships, second-guessed creative decisions.
But any resentment has been set aside for what has evolved, in only two years, into a jaw-droppingly disciplined arrangement of quality fare. I saw four shows in five consecutive hours on my first go-round at the festival, and my butt didn't ache once. The frequent breaks helped, of course--never underestimate the rejuvenating power of a lengthy intermission--but more than that, the rampant theatrical ability all duded up in flattering professionalism kept me perpetually diverted. The tones and moods and styles changed with every new play, and I trotted behind, eager to catch whatever they threw at me.
My afternoon started with Beyond the Gates, a world-premiere musical from Wickerplane Productions. A large, hearty-voiced ensemble cast threatens to spill over the small stage while compressing the entire arc of a musical into just over one hour. Ostensibly a funereal slam against corporate exploitation, but also pretty damning of communist collectives or any hierarchical system of human production, Hunter Nolan and Timothy Smith's show follows an immigrant named Sara (Carrie McClure) as she is separated from her parents to toil in the industrial basement of a monolithic business. She gives birth to the CEO's child, then is thrown back among the grimy workers; the kid grows up to be Matthew (Michael Gott), a man who returns to lead a revolt of the laborers. Not nearly as cloyingly idealistic as it sounds on paper, Beyond the Gates makes a solid case for musical minimalism in an era of extravagant marathons. The dimly lit moment when the CEO is finally revealed had me suck in my breath from the spookiness.
Core Performance Manufactory dishes up The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, a linguistically spry indictment of American slavery. Avant-garde honcho Mac Wellman took a real incident--a bizarre pre-Civil War episode in which several witnesses swear to have seen an Alabama planter disappear into nothing as he crossed a field--and uses it to twist and shape nouns and adjectives as surely as Uri Geller perverts cutlery. Director Elizabeth Ware makes sure Martin Holden is authentically, masterfully arrogant as the planter, and he turns in equally compelling work as an aghast neighbor who saw him vanish. Witchy, unnerving, and impossible to forget is Audrey McClure as an old slave woman who speaks of the devil as "the Boss Man's Man."
What turned out to be the day's highlight was, in theme and presentation, its simplest. Wingspan Theatre presented the world premiere of Valerie Brogan's Only Me, a one-act that contains not a wasted line or unnecessary sentiment. Cindee Mayfield and Cindy Beall sparkle without sweat as, respectively, a forlorn contemporary woman packing her daughter's college trunk and Mary Kingsley, the British African explorer from the 1890s who is herself preparing for another Congo adventure. The two begin a conversation about change, loneliness, separation, and how some of the simplest efforts in life require an explorer's constitution. Thanks to director Cynthia Hestand's gentle hand, the sight of Kingsley trekking through African wilds with fake tiara and English tea set is indelible.
Finally, Our Endeavors has crammed the cheerfully cluttered production values of a full-length show into 30 minutes of Kurt Vonnegut's Fortitude. Vonnegut the moralist is on touching display here, and director Mark Farr makes sure he doesn't get lost in the goofiness--the plight of Mrs. Lovejoy (the always accomplished Christina Vela), a 100-year-old decapitated head kept alive by a lonely scientist (John Flores) so she can answer fan mail and just pointlessly hang around in a jar, became more poignant the longer I thought of it. Though we might not like to admit it, there are worse things than death; mortality, in fact, gives life its meaning. Vonnegut and Our Endeavors whisper this to us without platitudes.
I simply can't think of a better use of Dallas city money and facilities than the Festival of Independent Theatres, if the cultural coffers are indeed designed for the enrichment of the city's intellectual climate (not to mention reputation, something officials in this town seem monomaniacally obsessed with). This much creative heat percolating in one building threatens to warp the gorgeous art deco roof of the Bath House, if not send it like a flaming Frisbee straight into White Rock Lake. With so much cash earmarked for reflexive children's programming and well-meaning if often tepid exercises in multiculturalism, it's nice to see some dollars pumped in the direction of thinking adults who are hungry for something fresh. After FIT, you're guaranteed to leave the Bath House stuffed like a tick with ideas and images and feelings.
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