There are no prizes given to the best shows in the Festival of Independent Theatres, now in its 17th year at the Bath House Cultural Center at White Rock Lake. But there clearly were winners and losers among the first four of the eight productions that compose this year’s fest.
FIT features short pieces — most are 50 minutes or under — produced and performed by small Dallas troupes that don’t have permanent theater spaces or enough money to rent one for a full season. The shows are presented in pairs, an efficient format but one that can force comparisons. That’s what happens with the smart and energy-packed mini-musical The Show about Men from the Danielle Georgiou Dance Group, performed in tandem with the dreary, cringe-y teen drama Dangerous Things on Dark Nights by Crossover Arts.
The Show about Men has everything you want in a festival production: a strong and attractive cast, witty script (written by Georgiou and lead actor Justin Locklear, with input by the ensemble) and an original score (by Locklear and pianist Trey Pendergrass) that falls pleasantly on the ear. “Do you ever think about fear?” asks a line of men — Locklear, William Acker, Colby Calhoun, Matt Clark, Curtis Green, Gabriel King — standing in front of chairs and a piano as the lights come up. They’re barefoot in boxer shorts and undershirts, as vulnerable as they can be on a stage and still be considered clothed. As they pull on layers of shirts, pants and jackets, they break off into solos and pairs to share personal stories on the theme of how masculinity is defined by parents, peers and pop culture from birth to adulthood.
Songs include a doo-wop number about “the gender-neutral bathroom in the sky” and a ribald ode to male genitalia that’s so bouncy the audience joins in. Choreography by Georgiou blends Twyla Tharp-y bursts of loose spins and gymnastic lifts (the men partner each other). While someone speaks, others dance. Sometimes they all dance and sometimes they speak in unison. The surprises and quick shifts in focus from one actor to another, with constant movement around them, make it interesting.
All the men get their moments to shine but most memorable are a monologue delivered by King about being a gay soldier in the days of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and a haunting tune sung by man-bun-wearing Calhoun. The script takes a few awkward detours into dry statistics, but the tone is otherwise light and sincerely entertaining.
Then comes Dangerous Things on Dark Nights, a three-girl skit (can’t call it a play) by Naomi Cohen, written when she was a high school student and directed at FIT by Dennis Raveneau. In dull, disconnected speeches, young actors Alexandria Lofton, Isabella Montague and Maya Pearson wander the stage and whinge about unhappy things in the lives of teenage girls. Somebody’s not speaking to somebody else. Somebody’s mom is messed up. Somebody else got drunk and crashed the car but nobody died. It’s badly written and poorly acted. Imagine scenes from Gossip Girl done by amateurs at a UIL competition.
Too bad The Show about Men isn’t coupled with WingSpan Theatre Company’s Shoe Confessions, a stylish revue that looks at how shoes make the woman (or at least make her feel better). Written by Dallas documentary filmmaker Cynthia Salzman Mondell, directed at FIT by Susan Sargeant, this is part spoken-word comedy, part musical, with a cast of six women shod in dozens of different pairs they’re constantly changing into and out of.
The “sole sisters,” as they call themselves — Whitney Holotik, Lorna Woodford, Laura Yancey, Candy Williams, Lulu Ward, Sheila Rose — take turns talking and singing about the special relationship women have with footwear. From four-figure Louboutins to combat boots to stilettos that help un-stab a broken heart, shoes are often beloved souvenirs in women’s lives. Faced with divorce, “part with men but never with boots,” they say in the show. (In legal terms, is this Manolo contendere?)
Mondell, like Georgiou, feels obligated to slow the fun down a time or two to have someone spout stats and scientific info about how finding the perfect pair triggers the pleasurable release of dopamine in the brain. The mood also grows maudlin with monologues relating shoe-shopping to cancer and death. Director Sargeant keeps the cast in motion in these sections, which helps. And things quickly pick back up again in this “Free to be shoe and me” hour, with everyone all smiles to end on a high note.
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SC Dallas’ Renaissance Fighters, written by, directed by and starring Jeff Colangelo, is another take on the quirky behavior of men. It’s sort of a spoof of overly serious actors in Renaissance fairs, but it’s mostly a showcase for Colangelo’s fight choreography and swordplay. (He’s done both with Cara Mia Theatre and Shakespeare Dallas.) If only Colangelo’s writing and acting were as sharp as his blade. The script lacks rapier wit, and he buckles under the swashier swash of a much stronger actor, Dean Wray. (Lauren Mishoe makes a brief and unnecessary appearance, otherwise it’s a two-man show.)
Swaggerers Pierce (Colangelo) and Parry (Wray) meet at dawn in puffy shirts to carry out a duel to see who’ll win the heart of fair Rosalind. They argue, they insult each other. And eventually they get to the clang-clang of fake fencing. Scenes 2 and 3 offer more of the same, with an abrupt breaking of the fourth wall to get all meta with the audience. Parry keeps winning the duels, which makes Pierce even more insecure.
Too much talking, not enough fighting in Renaissance Fighters, a fizzle among FIT’s four opening weekend shows. Colangelo is good at faux fisticuffs and fencing moves, but his high voice and smug self-awareness as an actor are a turn-off. One lengthy extra scene, following what feels like the touché that should end things, sends this show into overtime. You’d think a writer who spends that much time with a sword in his hand would know how to make some cuts.
Festival of Independent Theatres continues through August 1 at the Bath House Cultural Center, 521 E. Lawther Drive (at Northcliff). Tickets $18 (or $60 for a two-week festival pass) at the door or 800-617-6904.