Small Budgets, Big Performances at 13th Festival of Indie Theatres
Fireworks keep going off every night of the Festival of Independent Theatres at the Bath House Cultural Center. Not outside over White Rock Lake; inside, on the little stage under a wheezy air-conditioner that doesn't quite keep up with the crush of bodies crowding in to see the best written, directed and acted short plays of this or any recent summer.
This FIT fest, as it's redundantly nicknamed, delivered surprise after delicious surprise on its first two weekends (it runs through August 6). Eight small companies, spending an average of $1,000 each on their shows, are performing in rotating rep. Each is a one-act running about 50 minutes.
Wasn't expecting anything to top Dallas playwright Eric Steele's premiere of his one-man play Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self, produced for FIT by Second Thought Theatre (a capper on their terrific season) and acted with searing emotional subtlety by Barry Nash. Then came One Thirty Productions' The Madness of Lady Bright, a rarely done early piece by Lanford Wilson that features a stunning performance by veteran actor Larry Randolph.
Usually cast as the twinkly grandpa in plays at the Bath House or Dallas Children's Theater, Randolph here is Leslie, aka Lady Bright, a shut-in old drag queen so lonely for human contact that "she" calls Dial-a-Prayer to hear a friendly voice. At a dressing table, talking to the mirror, the character descends into delusions about past lovers, handsome boys required to autograph the walls the morning after a tryst. Death is the gentleman caller now as Leslie bitches about wanting to be "lowered into the LaBrea tar pits ... along with an Olivetti typewriter and some cream of celery soup" — symbols of other things in the 20th century that didn't quite hit the heights of popularity.
Wearing Baby Jane Hudson makeup and a purple silk brocade kimono, Randolph swirls, collapses, cracks wise using the voices of Bette Davis and Marlene Dee-twick, and cracks up as his character realizes he/she is utterly alone with a lifetime of fuzzy memories to sort through. Onstage with Randolph, actors Justin Locklear and Cassie Bann are the physical manifestations of the voices in Leslie's head; director Morgana Shaw uses them sparingly, and they disappear at just the right moment. "I'm losing my faggot mind!" cries Leslie, wafting between reality and fantasy. As the lights fade, her rhinestone tiara is the last thing you see.
Another must-see at FIT is the world premiere of playwright Robert Askins' charming romantic comedy Love Song of the Albanian Sous Chef (if there's an unofficial theme at this year's festival, it's plays with long titles). Adrian Churchill plays Eddie, the chef impossibly in love with a pretty waitress (Whitney Holotik) working her final night in his restaurant. Too shy to reveal his feelings, Eddie lets his food do the talking, cooking a goodbye six-course meal. Any more description would spoil the tasty delights in this show, produced by Rite of Passage Theatre Company and directed by Cassie Bann. Co-stars are Chris Ramirez, Elizabeth Evans and Adam Garst. The live soft jazz music is performed by Deanna Valone and Justin Locklear (as actor and musician in two shows, he's FIT's most valuable utility player).
Two men, a cleaning lady, a yellow legal pad and an obsession with a certain woodland critter create comedy amid the nonsensical language of David Mamet's 1974 one-act Squirrels, produced by Churchmouse Productions (part of Pegasus Theatre, the folks who do the black-and-white mysteries each January). As a commentary on the hazards of writing as a team, or just as a journey into the frustrating stasis of writer's block, Squirrels has a touch of Samuel Beckett by way of Rocky and Bullwinkle. The actors — Ben Schroth, Jim Kuenzer, Mollie Milligan — are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. In a nutshell: hilarious.
Two of Dallas' favorite comic leading ladies, Nancy Sherrard and Cindee Mayfield, go to town in one of WingSpan Theatre Company's two short festival entries, A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot, a thin, giggle-worthy piece from 1958 by Tennessee Williams. The town is St. Louis. The gals are club women playing hooky from a convention and looking to get some colored lights going with whatever men they can find. Trouble is, the ladies are middle-aged, a bit dowdy and aren't generating much action in the deserted bar they've wandered into. "It isn't a crime to give a good time and a pleasant memory ... even to a stranger," says Sherrard's character, Bessie.
If only she had Lady Bright's phone number.
Seems like every big touring musical is a crapshoot these days. You can roll a natural with a winner like Billy Elliot or crap out with another Mamma Mia!, Spamalot or 9 to 5. With the current road production of Guys and Dolls, winding up its two-week run at Dallas Summer Musicals at Fair Park, you win the hard way. No stars, weak choreography, anemic pit band, microphone problems. And yet, long about the time Miss Adelaide, "the well-known fiancée" played here by the splendidly sassy Megan Sikora, goes into her striptease with the Hot Box Girls to "Bushel and a Peck," you're ready to go all in.
Because even a so-so production of Guys and Dolls — and this one is so, so full of problems — beats craptastic junk like 9 to 5 and Spamalot. With Guys and Dolls, based on Damon Runyon's 1930s stories of mooks and molls on the streets of Manhattan, you get three hours of great tunes and snappy lyrics by Frank Loesser and plenty of roundhouse punch lines in the book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows.
The close-harmony "Fugue for Tinhorns," the one that has the fat guy singing "I got horse right here / His name is Paul Revere," sets the tone for the show and its characters, gambling-addicted thugs and lowlifes, though lovable ones. "If I Were a Bell," "My Time of Day" (an ode to how New York City looks and feels just before dawn), "Luck Be a Lady," "Sue Me" — American musical theater classics, as sophisticated and witty as ever.
If only this cast didn't come across as a bunch of semi-exhausted understudies. In the leads are actors with Broadway credits but low-watt star quality (except for Sikora). Slick hustler Sky Masterson is played by Ben Crawford, a B-list Craig Bierko with a dash of Mr. Big. As his lady-love, the virginal Salvation Army crusader Sarah Brown, Erin Davie is a loud but lackluster soprano. There's not a whiff of sex appeal between her and Crawford; more like actors tired of the sight of each other after a long, hot summer on tour. Sky's sidekick, Nathan Detroit, is given baggy-pants Catskills comic shtick by the Lovitz-like Steve Rosen. Not hilarious. Just funny-ish. (Direction by Gordon Greenberg has a tiresome predictability throughout.)
Still, it's Guys and Dolls, a show so goof-proof even high school productions are usually pretty good. The road company never hits the jackpot, but it's pretty good, too.
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