Big D Festival of the Unexpected producer Melissa Cooper, who calls the official inclusion of small Dallas theaters this year "an experiment" (a successful one, let's hope), has asked a pair of the city's director-performers to do it, we mean Kitchen Dog Theater-style. The Dog is again trotting out The Chinese Art of Placement by Stanley Rutherford, a reportedly sad and funny one-man piece that happened as a staged reading at last year's New Works Festival. The same pair--director Tina Parker and actor Mark Farr--are shaping up the piece sans onstage script. The ingredients? A chair, a feng shui grid, and Farr, who will flesh out the role of Sparky Litman, a possibly schizophrenic, definitely loquacious Vietnam War vet who has a middle-aged crisis over whether he's normal. A complicating factor is that Litman isn't sure what "normal" means, although he's determined that it's a goal worth achieving, if only because it suggests to him an absence of all the anxiety and loneliness with which he lives. The method he chooses is that recently popular Chinese philosophy of composing your physical surroundings to achieve maximum chi flow--after reading one book on the subject, Litman becomes a devout proselytizer.

"Since [Kitchen Dog] staged it [at last year's New Works Festival], it's been published," notes Parker, who is guiding Farr through the chattering jungle of Litman's mind. "This guy who used to be a poet has this long, tortured night of the soul in which he sits in different areas of the feng shui grid and tells these outlandish stories about his life--the war, a failed romance in junior high, everything. Stanley Rutherford has this idiosyncratic rhythm to his language that's hilarious and very unique."

Parker notes that after their one-shot at the Big D Festival of the Unexpected, Kitchen Dog will again reprise The Chinese Art of Placement in October to kick off a new cabaret series at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary. It will be the first of three low-budget productions.

For his part, Mark Farr says he's looking forward to "having the piece in my head" for the months between the Festival of the Unexpected and Kitchen Dog's autumn cabaret. He's right now committing 28 dense pages to memory--he describes the language as "heightened naturalism"--for the May 27 performance in Frank's Place at the Kalita Humphreys.

"Sparky is searching for a way to connect to other people, since he's been separated from others for years," Farr notes. "At first, I questioned whether the stories he tells [about his life] are true. Then I decided just to believe everything that he tells the audience, and if they believe everything, then they'll realize that he's needed all those barriers he's built up."

He says that the playwright is flying into Dallas to catch The Chinese Art of Placement at the Festival of the Unexpected, but Farr's already made a head start toward a face-to-face meeting with Stanley Rutherford.

"I have a picture of Stanley scanned into my computer at work. I'm a very visual person, and it helps me put a face on the piece. I have no idea how autobiographical the show is, but I imagine Stanley is Sparky, or at least, that Sparky looks like Stanley. Tina says she can see a resemblance between Stanley and me. And I thought, well, that's fine. That sort of unites all three of us."

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Jimmy Fowler