Start laughing now at Dinosaur and Robot Stop a Train at FIT

The audience just would not leave. Rhythmic Souls, a Dallas tap-dancing troupe, had already taken their bows after a 40-minute performance called Play It by Ear, one of four shows premiering the second weekend of the four-week Festival of Independent Theatres at the Bath House Cultural Center. But the crowd kept clapping and yelling, "More! More!"

It's the first time any dance company has been part of FIT, and Rhythmic Souls' co-director/choreographers Katelyn Harris (who's in the show) and Keira Leverton had been a little concerned about how their act would go over. The other seven entries in the festival are scripted plays. Play It by Ear offers half a dozen dances that demonstrate different styles of tap, from traditional buck-and-wing to a more modern deep-floor tapping. It's a mini-lesson in a great American art form, with Harris explaining what they're doing (sometimes a little breathlessly) as her five dancers bring in da noise around her. (Pianist Thiago X. Nascimento accompanies them on electric keyboard, adding some Chico Marx flair to his playing, which is adorable.)

The call for an encore was such a surprise on opening night, dancers Harris, Cody Berkeley, Nick Gomez, Chloe Nix, Maddie Owens and 10-year-old Ashton Carter had to improvise another short number. It was the only way to get the audience out the door for intermission. Yes, they're that good. These young dancers do that thing of making the difficult look easy and they have a fine time showing off their skills. They move to classical music, jazz, pop and, in a gorgeous number Harris performs solo on a shallow box of white sand, to no other music than the sounds made by shoes making contact with the floor. It's 40 minutes (plus encore if asked) of happiness on tap.

Dinosaur and Robot Stop a Train, also a FIT highlight, is total silliness from local playwright/actor/director Brad McEntire and his partner in comedy, Jeff Swearingen of Audacity Theatre Lab. But it's artful silliness, with moments of inspired improv between actors and with anyone brave enough to sit in the front row and agree to be dragged onstage.

McEntire, wearing a shiny silver fireproof suit and a silver-painted box on his head, is the emotionless robot. Swearingen is the dim-witted dinosaur, decked out in a lime-green ensemble with funny flat paws and waggly tail. They're holding a press conference to explain how the robot traveled back from the future and the dino from the distant past to end up rescuing "a stupid, stupid girl" (plucked from the audience) who'd wandered in front of a speeding locomotive. After considerable (and funny) physical shtick, the guys transition their dialogue into their version of the classic Abbot and Costello bit, "Who's on first?" With a robot Abbot and stego-Costello.

Like most of the FIT shows, this one uses minimal set dressing and few props. When one of those props was shattered by the "stupid girl" on opening night, Swearingen used it like a gift from the comedy gods. Sometimes the funniest moments are those they didn't plan.

47 Ford, by Austin playwright Ellsworth Schave, sets a dreamy mood in the enjoyable staging by Gene Raye Price for One Thirty Productions' FIT piece. As the lights come up on a golden-hued desert campsite, the sound of a human heartbeat gets louder, then softer, drowned out by the howls of coyotes. A lonesome cowboy (Cameron McElyea) gets his campfire going, then starts a conversation with a bossy crow (a puppet designed by Doug Burks, worked by Stuart Milkkelson and voiced by Chris Guerrero). In flits a pretty hummingbird (Mary-Margaret Pyeatt), who seduces the cowboy and gives him an assignment. He can find God either with a fishing pole, a compass or a locked valise.

Bud, the cowboy, seems to be stuck somewhere between life and death, maybe in a coma, maybe under anesthetic. A barefoot Old Man (Larry Randolph) wanders in. He's using the fishing pole method to find his Higher Power, while Bud is carrying the suitcase. Ah, life's baggage.

"I'm pretty sure I'm having a dream right now," Bud says. His visit to "the country club for souls" lasts about an hour. Neither profound nor pedantic, 47 Ford takes its sweet time, but it's a pleasant enough journey into that mystery-laden zone between twilight and eternal darkness.

Ask Questions Later, Rite of Passage Theatre Company's FIT show, has a weak script by Meggie Spalding and features a couple of fledgling actors, Dante Flores and Porcia Bartholomae, still new enough to stage work to be unsure what to do with their voices and hands. That Bartholomae, playing a teenage temptress, has to strip to her skivvies and undulate like a pole dancer — well, no wonder she's nervous.

Directed by Kelsey Ervi, this talky one-act play wants to be too many things — thriller, romance, social commentary — and too quickly loses its focus. Flores portrays Isaac, a smart but emotionally screwed-up high school kid who skips school to play violent video games and buy and sell things, including assault rifles, online. He's attracted to Lolita-esque neighbor Haley (Bartholomae), who likes his attention but is more interested in sleeping with her sleazy teacher, Mr. Logan (Ian Ferguson). On a day when all of them blow off classes, a gunman shoots up their school.

Bookended by monologues that have characters speaking to an invisible therapist after the tragedy, Ask Questions Later has that over-serious, semi-cringe-inducing tone of an after-school special. With lots of yelling and simulated masturbation. Yeah. Don't ask.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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