Pitching another FIT
Here's my final report from the Second Annual Festival of Independent Theatres. Taken with last week's review, I hope it will give an accurate account of the scope and ambition of a city event that has risen to eminence in a very short time:
Echo Theatre revives a one-act by Susan Glaspell, an early Pulitzer Prize winner who's rarely cited in mainstream literature today but who has become a mainstay in feminist studies. Her Trifles (1916) reminded me disarmingly of a 1940s radio play or a short story by Shirley Jackson or even of an early episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents..., albeit with a clean but not clumsy swipe at smug patriarchal assumptions. The setting is a turn-of-the-century Nebraska farmhouse where the farmer's neck has been broken in bed from a bizarre noose rig-up. His wife has been hauled in by authorities, but did she do it? A county investigator (Dennis Millegan) scours the house but leaves the kitchen virtually untouched because it is so full of "trifles"--insignificant flotsam of a woman's daily domestic labor. Meanwhile, the sheriff's wife (Mary-Margaret Pyeatt) and a neighbor's spouse (Sarah Einerson) slowly, unwillingly piece together the story of an antagonistic marriage from an unraveled quilt project, a broken birdcage, and some unclean jelly jars. This leads to a tiny but very nasty discovery that provides the murder's key and the show's Hitchcockian plunge into the macabre.
Director Ellen Locy paces the bits of evidence well as they are overturned, but she might have edged Sarah Einerson to ease up on the bug-eyed, purse-lipped humorlessness she works too hard as a farm wife.
While it's true that the previously reviewed Only Me from Wingspan Theatre proved to be the most affecting entry, even if it's among the least ambitious, one offering from Ground Zero Theater Company and director Kimberlyn Crowe is a close second: Austin playwright John Walch's The Rebirth of Beautiful. The ingratiatingly insecure Matthew Halteman co-stars as Joseph, an unemployed chef who's obviously been leaning hard on his therapist during these stressful days. His wife, Mary (Terri Ferguson), is politely trying to wriggle out of John's increasing pressure to have a child and is frustrated that he hasn't found a job yet. "Have people stopped eating?" she wonders acidly to him, but not as herself--as the sock-puppet alter ego (Joseph has one too) that her husband's counselor has suggested the pair adopt to speak honestly of their feelings. The sock puppet becomes an independent, sadistic, and tender mediator in this surprisingly moving look at a husband and wife willing to try anything to reconnect.
Araby, Ground Zero's presentation from Dallas playwright Vicki Caroline Cheatwood, should really be advertised as a staged reading. Although there are no scripts in hand, the long-distance phone communication between married partners Blanche (Marie Del Marco) and Otto (Wm. Paul Williams) keeps the actors pretty much planted in place. Still, Cheatwood has found a subject with palpable dramatic urgency--the wife's cervical cancer biopsy results awaited while they are separated by his constant work travels--and then suddenly turns up the heat with two questions dangling like a double-edged blade overhead. Was her condition caused by a venereal disease, and if so, did Otto infect Blanche, or did she stray with someone like the imaginary desert lover (Matthew Halteman) who woos her between phone calls? Despite the show's static conception, director Crowe and her cast ultimately reward us with these queasy intrusions into domestic order.
There's a lot of political huffing and puffing in los de abajo have nowhere left to fall, a world premiere from Cara Mia Theatre, but unfortunately few houses of oppression manage to be blown down. With as much valor but less accomplishment, writer-director-actor Marisela Barrera attempts to conquer the same scary, multiheaded hydra that Octavio Solis did in Dallas Theater Center's recent debut of his Dreamlandia. Solis understood how to compare and contrast the effects of ethnicity, nationality, education, economic class, and gender, and so could dazzle us with illusions fashioned from their arbitrary combinations. Barrera's 40-minute script is more a potluck stew than a multicourse feast, with themes thrown together haphazardly and generally overcooked. Thanks to the wicked, inspired performance I saw, however, the ideas stuck to my ribs, if only in that down-home way where palate matters less than appetite. Laughter is the key to making converts to the revolution, and the audience guffawed plenty at the four performers who mixed TV pop culture, satirical newspaper headlines, and sexual shock tactics as if they were an improv comedy troupe (albeit with unusually poetic concerns).
A lobby card declared this show to be a "dreamy overview of revolution," and such a mist-shrouded description might be the most charitable. Polarities are set up between Barrerra as La Pintada, a sexual revolutionary who enjoys the taste of her own menstrual blood a la Germaine Greer, and Marinca Calo-Oy as Camilla, an assimilationist who crows victory now that "Edward James Olmos has his own network TV show." It was David Lozano as a lecherous general and Raul Trevino as a transvestite troubadour, however, who tickled audiences into processing the more confrontational stuff with their brainy comic bravado. Despite the wide swings of focus in Barrera's script, they endow departing ticketbuyers with the sensation of having witnessed another stage in the rowdy formation of an increasingly articulate and impatient American identity.
There's enough new and engrossing theater between Dallas and Fort Worth that I don't usually get the chance to review the same play twice when one area company opts to produce a script that another has recently staged. When I do see the same author's work interpreted by two very different teams of artists, there is almost invariably an unequal impact, and I am forced to stop being a passive, complacent receiver of designs and performances and must consider (more precisely, speculate and untangle) why one show reached me and the other stopped short.
Something similar happens when I see repeat performances during the same company's run--the second viewing can either overwhelm or underwhelm me based on the first. But then I wonder as much about my own frame of mind as about the actors' and audiences' moods on different nights. When an entirely different set of translators sets out to enliven (or not) the playwright's words on another stage, I can pontificate on the mysterious biology of theater, the way artistic organisms with similar genetic makeups will nonetheless evolve into creatures divergently successful behind the footlights.
You simply can't ignore a combination of two of the city's best actors--casually controlled veteran Terry Martin, artistic director of Addison's WaterTower Theatre, and Nye Cooper, a risk-taking young pup with a precocious ingenuity for multiple characterizations in the same show--when the occasion gets in your face. You also can't forget when the two-man play they're starring in, The Woman in Black, received a vastly superior area premiere about eight months ago in Fort Worth.
Circle Theatre outfitted Stephen Mallatratt's stage adaptation of English novelist Susan Hill's Gothic chiller about a family curse with two also fine performers--Ashley Wood (currently excelling in Theatre Three's I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change!) and John Wayne Shafer (right now toiling in small New York theaters). Their basement space is more cramped and inflexible, not well suited to the technical demands that this haunted memory play requires. Yet gasps were pulled regularly from the throats of ticketbuyers as the story of a paranoid lawyer and a skeptical actor rehearsing the lawyer's autobiographical script unfolded--and, it should be noted, I had to clear permission with the actors to review a preview performance, as they were sensitive about their timing with light, smoke, and sound effects. Both triumphed under adverse conditions.
Unfortunately, the opening night of Plano Repertory Theatre's version was conspicuously less tuned in to the material's cumulative creepiness. Different in age but compatible in their dark hair and deep-set eyes, Martin and Cooper are visually harmonious in a production that has two simultaneous story lines: the tale of the lawyer attempting to hone his amateur acting skills under the tutelage of the actor, and the performance the characters deliver as the lawyer recounts how he unraveled the violent mystery behind the estate of a recently deceased old recluse. It's not that Martin and Cooper have trouble traveling between these theatrical landscapes. It's that they barely seem to be on the same planet when sharing a scene. Terry Martin might have been manufactured from a petri dish for this sort of brooding, fearful-eyed role, and he indeed suits it fine, but seems oddly to have hunkered down in the character's quiet despair and resisted connecting to Cooper. His young co-star, meanwhile, gallops fiercely but at times unthinkingly through the dialogue. The actor is supposed to be callow, and Nye Cooper has the stage chops to successfully convey the emotional color of a passage even at this clip, but in speeding along so he sacrifices a good deal of the production's impact, which relies on allowing the audience to savor the setup, the slowly gathering detail, of every new scene. When ticketbuyers have been successfully apprised of the rainy graveyard or the locked room full of children's toys, the unexpected appearances that follow constitute ghostly manifestations in their imaginations.
Even the grab-your-lapels effect that had audiences yelling in Fort Worth has been blunted here, so I'll lay a good deal of the blame at the feet of director Mark Fleischer. Confident of his two performers' talents, he seems to have allowed them to shine in whatever direction they wanted and neglected channeling them to places that would illuminate the play's black heart. If a director is one kind of medium in the theater, guiding the actors to access the different personalities in their own souls, then Plano Repertory Theatre's latest séance is full of a lot of chain-rattling but not many compelling messages from the beyond.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.