Festival of Nomads

Many is the promising playwright who cuts his teeth on a one-act play or at least attempts one during those fondly remembered starvation years. Likely, some have three or four one-acts or short plays sitting around in some dusty trunk waiting to be brushed off after the author gets discovered. The one-acter is the genre of the uninitiated, taught by playwriting professors to obliging students because it is shorthand theater. It generally lends itself to small casts, minimal sets and a plot composed of a single, significant incident that resolves itself within 60 minutes or less. The key is to get in, get on with it and get out.

They are also favorite vehicles for fledgling theater troupes, a way to stretch actors with sometimes risky material on the cheap. Which is likely why the Festival of Independent Theatres (FIT), in its sixth year at the Bath House Cultural Center, has chosen the short-play format to showcase the considerable talents of the city's nomadic acting companies--them that's got no homes.

For 20 days of summer, 10 theater companies are presenting their wares in this abbreviated play structure, alternating with one another as well as other groups doing sketch comedy, cabaret and something billed as "a variety show for metaphysicians." As with any festival, there are certain to be a few uneven performances, but that wasn't apparent during either of the productions staged on July 17. Perhaps WingSpan Theatre Company ameliorated its risk by selecting Wildwood Park, a one-act by former Dallasite Doug Wright, who recently won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for I Am My Own Wife.

In Wildwood Park, two actors enter a bare stage. Ms. Haviland (Beverly Jacob Daniel), a real estate agent, appears reluctant to show one of her listed properties to a prospective purchaser, Dr. Simian (Scott Latham). The audience can only imagine the house, since its every amenity, from balcony to bathroom, is merely described by the actors. It becomes vividly clear, however, that this is no ordinary house. This is a home with a history. A highly sensational unsolved murder has been committed within its walls, and the listing has made the agent hyper-suspicious of all comers. After all, there is a killer on the loose.

Daniel plays suspicion with the right amount of fragility, unnerved by the media attention, the public's prurient interest and a beware-of-buyer skepticism that seems uncharacteristic of most real estate agents.

Latham plays the good (or possibly bad) doctor with intriguing self-containment. He is well-dressed and has a ready answer to allay all suspicion, yet he still manages to register high on the unctuous scale. His all-too-probing questions about the house not only unmask its history but unmask the emotionally brittle Ms. Haviland, who wins our sympathy because, after all, she's only doing her job. Latham skillfully alternates between eerie and consoling, giving quick peeks at his true self with an unwarranted smile or an unjustifiable pique of anger.

Veteran director Cynthia Hestand does a terrific job sustaining the play's uneasy tension, from which much humor, craftiness and candor arise. Although Ms. Haviland is stripped emotionally bare for the audience, Dr. Simian reveals just enough of himself to let us speculate about his motives--dark or otherwise. Is he who he says he is? Yes. No. You don't want to know. Doubt is resolved in favor of doubt.

It seemed as though nothing could top the writing chops of Doug Wright, but after a few minutes into the second play of the evening, it became obvious that wasn't the case. Bedbound, a play presented by Theatre Quorum and written by exceptional Irish playwright Edna Walsh, forces us to watch the recurring nightmare of a twisted and tragic father-daughter relationship.

Carl Savering plays Dad, a homicidal furniture dealer with such awesome ferocity the audience almost feels threatened by his intensity. Although his Irish brogue and maniacal ranting initially make it difficult to hook into the story, you're quickly seduced by the raw power of his emotions. No way, you think, can his daughter, a bed-bound polio victim played by Christie Beckham, come close to the emotional gutsiness of Savering's performance--that is, until Beckham opens her mouth. She, too, spews and spits and spills her song of woe, playing all the parts opposite her father as he retells his life story, with all its attendant gruesomeness and savage jealousy.

You imagine that this is their life, repeating to the point of internalizing the same tragic and homicidal tales over and over. What choice do they have? They're confined within the narrowed walls of a bedroom that Dad used to keep Mom, now deceased, and daughter, unable to walk, in a prison of his own making. Years later, after a homicidal rage, Dad returned to the bedroom to find his wife dead and his daughter uncertain of who he really was. As if implanting her memory, he repeatedly re-creates his life story in flashback, and their ruinous lives get fully rendered. Bedbound is cathartic in one sense: If art imitates life, you leave the play relieved it's not your life.

It was probably too much to expect this kind of quality to continue the next week when watching Boaz Unlocked Productions' Ties by Rebecca Finley. Billed as a world premiere, this production lacks the sophistication of the two previous works. There are, however, flashes of style and spirit in the writing, which is heightened by an interesting mix of music and media.

We are asked to follow the life journey of Meg and Ben, who've been in love since early adolescence. Rebecca Pense, who plays Meg, works hard to give dimension to the material, which concerns Meg's habitual need to infuse her reality with an uncertain amount of fantasy. Incidents that seem to chronicle their life together are flashed on a screen in what appears to be a home movie. Boyfriend Ben (Stephen Tucker) plays her reality check and helps us understand that some of the incidents depicted on film are either exaggerations or alterations of reality.

Too often the movie is more intriguing than what is occurring onstage. The reality-fantasy theme gets overworked, and the playwright's hand is too obvious in the reason finally proffered for Meg's self-destructive flights of fantasy. The play is inventive, but its episodic nature works against its short form. In the end, fantasy (film) and reality (stage) appear to merge, but sadly not in time to keep the audience overly interested in either one.

Leonard's Car by Isabella Russell-Ides is far more successful. Presented by Ground Zero Theater Company, we are introduced to Molly--artist, bohemian, aging mother--played richly by Cindy Beall. Molly has two polar-opposite married daughters: attractive, high-maintenance Audrey (Catherine Holmes) and unadorned, uncelebrated Zoey (Elizabeth Ware). A writer and artist who can't finish what she's started, Molly is at once in love with life and fixated on death--stuck in the grieving process for her deceased boyfriend Leonard.

Daughter Zoey, who traditionally gets dumped on by Mom, feels obliged to get Mom unstuck and is willing to use every weapon at her disposal--including her own children--to see this come to pass. Audrey, who is at first preoccupied with her anger toward her mother, joins in the confrontation, doing her part to save Mom from herself. The dialogue is crisp, clever and fresh, the emotions big, brazen and ballsy.

By the play's end, the characters are nicely fleshed out, but the audience is left wanting something more--another act, perhaps. Truth is, the one-act play is a great discipline for playwrights to test the waters of their invention, letting them learn if their characters and plots are compelling enough to sustain a full-length play. Without doubt, Leonard's Car passes the test.

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald

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