The Long and Short of FIT

Women who talk to God, to a coyote, to a therapist and to the world at large speak their minds in four plays, three of them world premieres, that hit the stage over the second weekend of the month-long Festival of Independent Theatres at the Bath House Cultural Center. There are eight under-an-hour productions being performed by small companies in the 14th-annual festival. They perform in rotating repertory, including double matinees (2 and 5 p.m.) on Saturdays and Sundays through August 4.

Conversations with God and Other Women I've Known, by Dallas actor, director and playwright Beverly Daniel, is a lighthearted, not terribly original 55-minute sketch about three Texas gals and their on-and-off relationships with a Higher Power. Mary (played by Daniel) is a twangy, God-fearing old coot in a flowered-y muumuu. She sings in the Methodist choir, quotes chapter and verse of the New Testament and endlessly badmouths her daughter-in-law, Novalene (Angela Wilson), using the same venomous adjectives she applies to Mormons and Catholics. "Novalene's idea of a spiritual journey is a trip to the liquor store," Mary snarls.

Cancer survivor Connie (Constance Gold Parry) rolls hair for a living and accompanies Mary to the movie Eat Pray Love, which gets them thinking about taking their own spiritual quest. A winning raffle prize sends them on a life-altering trek to Manhattan, where the ladies visit two beloved temples of excess, St. Patrick's Cathedral and Macy's, before encountering some oddballs on the subway (all played by Lisa Hassler).

Back home, Novalene has heard a message from God telling her to mend her wicked ways and start her own church. She does, welcoming worshipers into her living room singing a mash-up of hymns: "On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, where the deer and the antelope play."

The play is Mama's Family meets Greater Tuna (minus the quick changes), but the script, directed for FIT by Carl Savering for the New Horizons Theatre Company, affords plenty of laughs at the small-minded attitudes of well-meaning but hypocritical religious types. Wilson gives a sunny performance as self-described "whore of Babylon" Novalene, enjoying her newly discovered direct line to the deity. Just below her surface bubbles a cauldron of crazy.

Daniel's best lines as cranky old Mary sound like asides you might overhear at a Sunday social amid the village busybodies: "She's some kind of Wheel of Fortune savant"; "He hates to travel — he'd rather sit on the porch and shell peas."

This short play isn't high art, but you'll get plenty tickled listening to these likable women jabberjaw about Jesus for an hour.

Echo Theatre's premiere of NYC Coyote Existential aspires to be high art and wants its audience to think it is, too. That's just one of its flaws. Written by and starring Melissa Cooper (wife of former Dallas Theater Center artistic director Richard Hamburger), the play finds a re-transplanted New Yorker, called simply "The Woman" (Cooper), conversing with a coyote (played by Rhonda Blair) in Central Park. (Rogue coyotes in the park are a favorite topic of The New York Times and The New Yorker.)

"Have you seen my island?" the creature asks The Woman.

That line is repeated a thousand times, as is The Woman's mantra, "I met a coyote in Central Park."

Both characters feel lost. The Woman misses the Manhattan she grew up in, but also fondly recalls the flora and fauna she knew in her Dallas neighborhood. The coyote, having wandered into the City That Never Sleeps, needs The Woman's help getting back to wide open spaces.

Padding out the talking-critter conceit is about a half-hour's worth of Wikipedia facts detailing the history of the coyote in North America. Did you know some coyotes are called "dispersers" because they break out of the band (the collective noun for a bunch of coyotes) and go off to find new territory? Do you care?

Alexander Ferguson lopes on in the last five minutes as a young coyote also displaced in the Big Apple. He's quick and funny, everything Blair's coyote isn't.

Annie Benjamin plays guitar and flute throughout the interminable single act. Composer Thomas Cabaniss' score is a series of simple blues melodies that might be better performed by an actual coyote than they are by Blair. She's so tone-deaf she couldn't find a tune with a sute of bloodhounds.

At last summer's Festival of Indie Theatres, Dallas actor Barry Nash held audiences spellbound with a one-man show called Bob Birdnow, about a man who comes face to face with death and survives. This summer it's Barry's daughter, Barrett Nash, giving a riveting performance in the one-woman, based-on-fact play My Name Is Rachel Corrie, directed by Clay Wheeler for the Rite of Passage Theatre Company. Corrie, a 23-year-old American peace activist, walked straight into her own death, with only the words of her journals and emails surviving her.

Corrie was killed in March 2003 by an Israeli Army bulldozer while protesting the destruction of homes in the Gaza Strip. In 2005 actor Alan Rickman and journalist Katharine Viner constructed the play from Corrie's writings and produced it at London's Royal Court Theater amid controversy about its pro-Palestinian message.

Barrett Nash, who bears an eerie resemblance to Corrie, drives this short piece with tremendous energy that always feels natural, unforced. She makes Corrie strong but vulnerable, girlish but determined. The young woman's intense passion for life, for activism, for the welfare of the people she met in Gaza, comes across. Whatever you think of the politics around her actions, you will come to love and admire Rachel Corrie. And the actress playing her.

Actor, musician, painter and now playwright Justin Locklear has a lot of talent and a lot of ideas. Unfortunately, he's tried to cram too many of them into his one-act I Met You and I Screamed, another of FIT's premieres. The title is the most intriguing thing about this choppy tale of a lesbian romance between a dancer (Danielle Georgiou) and a kook (Cassie Bann). Dancer suffers abuse from her gay-hating Chik-Fil-A of moms (Cindee Mayfield in yet another handwringing role). Kook unloads on her therapist (Ochre House actor Mitchell Parrack, the only bright spot in this murky melodrama). Therapist admits to being bored by his patients. We're on his side.

Directing his own play under the auspices of Upstart Productions, Locklear throws everything at the wall to see what sticks: live music played by Stefan Gonzalez, modern dance, filmed sequences that are nothing more than Warholian close-ups of the girls' faces, a nude painting and showers of confetti. The blah-blah about Sapphic love and "dee-yance," as dancer Georgiou pronounces the word, drones into a dull hum.

Halfway through the play (though it felt like hours), Gonzalez suddenly hits the bass drum and cymbals with a deafening crash. The sound is meant to symbolize the destruction of the lesbians' affair. But it's a terrible way to be awakened from a nice short nap.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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