The Silent Treatment: Or, Notes from the Festival of Independent Theatres

A solid hit: Bootstraps Comedy Theater's The Boxer lands some good ones at the Festival of Independent Theatres. Great poster too.

The less said, the better The Boxer is. The new play by Dallas writer and Bootstraps Comedy Theater founder Matt Lyles, who also directs this production, is a clear audience favorite at the current Festival of Independent Theatres at the Bath House Cultural Center. Its brilliance lies in how it manages to say things worth saying about the delicate use of low comedy to make high art and how to graft pathos onto humor --and it says it all without any actor uttering a word.

Inspired by the silent film comedies of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Lyles spent two weeks writing 13 pages of detailed stage directions for a story about a pretty girl named Velma (played by Kim Lyle, Matt’s wife) who must masquerade as a man to earn Depression-era wages. After a chance meeting with an up-and-coming lightweight (Jeff Swearingen), Velma, still in man-drag, turns fight trainer for his big bout with the fearsome Bavarian Beast (Ben Bryant).

Velma falls in love with her skinny palooka with the glass jaw, and the two survive some run-ins with goons (Bryant again and Joel McDonald) who want him to take a dive. The boxer is tempted -- he needs the dough for his sick ma’s operation -- but Velma refuses to let him compromise his integrity. In the end, the wordless play is a romantic knockout complete with dream ballet and fluttery dancing fairies (Kineta Massey, Jennifer Youle, Tara Christensen, Laurie Williamson), just like in a Bugs Bunny or Mighty Mouse cartoon.

This set-up sounds deceptively simple. The beauty of The Boxer is in the actors’ execution of scores of visual gags, each choreographed with split-second timing and leading to surprising pay-offs. Lyles pays homage to the inventive mechanical gags Keaton was known for -- Velma getting tangled in a seatless chair; the sad-eyed boxer interacting with a film clip of his ailing mother. And he uses Chaplin’s naturally arising gag style in Velma’s awkward dance sequence -- forgetting to pretend to be a boy, she puts her hands in all the wrong places on her female waltz partner. In another scene, Velma and the boxer turn their feet out sideways to scoot laterally into his tiny crackerbox of an apartment.

Watching each carefully worked out bit build into and on top of the next one, the audience reaction grows from snickers to guffaws to full-out belly-hugging laughs. We instantly accept Kim Lyle as a shoulder-shrugging, bowler-wearing Little Tramp character, and we root for her to win both her man and the championship fight. And stone-faced Swearingen, hopping around like Looney Tunes’ Banty Rooster in his baggy red satin shorts, is her perfectly Keatonesque comic foil.

None of this would be half so funny without the onstage keyboard accompaniment of B. Wolf, who created the silent film score, jam-packed with jokey musical references to movies about prizefighters, spunky gals and other cartoon heroes. Next to her stage right is Johnny Sequenzia, playing stringed instruments and hitting funny sound effects right on cue. Karl Schaeffer made the film bits projected, along with old-timey “title cards,” on an upstage screen.

This one’s such a charmer it’s almost a shame Lyle wrote it as a one-act. Unlike most new plays, The Boxer feels too brief.

One of the annoying quirks of the annual Festival of Independent Theatres is its schedule’s tendency to hold audiences hostage. At the performance of The Boxer, the crowd first had to sit through 30 minutes of Ylla, a stultifying oddity employing shadow puppets voiced in growly monotones by Lainie Simonton and Mark Farr, a human astronaut played by Jeffrey Schmidt and a half-century-old sci-fi story by Ray Bradbury.

Adapted and directed by David Goodwin, a veteran member of Kitchen Dog Theater, Ylla has something to do with a bad marriage on Mars and the NASA man who comes between Martian and wife. But the thing’s such a drag, it never lifts off. FIT features nine productions in rotating repertory through August 4. Ylla is a waste of space.

The Sugar Bean Sisters, winding up the season at Addison’s WaterTower Theatre, is Beverly Hillbillies on a Hot Tin Roof. The Nathan Sanders play, a bomb in its New York debut in 1995, takes everything people hate about the South -- hyper-religiosity, bad grammar, Disney World -- and piles on the hokum-joke’em hee-haws till you want to puke. Every line of dialogue sounds like the writer was being force-fed boiled peanuts, MoonPies and Big Red.

The first 10 minutes find Miss Videllia Sparks (Cindy Beall) breaking into the Nettles sisters’ junk-cluttered log cabin home in a south Florida swamp. She pokes around the furniture and kitchen cabinets like she’s looking for something, then hides under the tablecloth. When the aging sisters, Faye Clementine (Pam Dougherty) and Willie Mae (Kerry Cole), return from a day at Disney World, Videllia tells them she’s visiting from N’awlins, where she’s a topless “cage dancer” at a nightclub. She’s read about the sisters in a tabloid rag. Faye has seen aliens landing in the Everglades and is prepping for their return by making pimento cheese “sammiches.” Videllia says she’s a believer in “space people” too and wants to be there for Faye when the mother ship lands.

It takes playwright Sanders an eternity to get around to any semblance of storytelling in this Dixie disaster. There’s 20 grand of Willie Mae’s “grapefruit fortune” hidden somewhere in the cabin, or maybe in the sugar cane growing outside the door (on designer Clare Floyd DeVries’ over-detailed set, there’s enough cane on the stage to sweeten all the iced tea in North Texas). That’s the real reason Videllia is on the premises. She needs money to pay off some Crescent City mobsters. She’s also got a family connection she’s hiding from the gals.

Every character is imbued with a dumb gimmick in Sugar Bean Sisters. Fat, angry Faye eats cookies by the fistful and quietly plots to murder her sis, not for money but for freedom from their sucky life in snake-ville. Willie Mae is a dumb cluck who clings to her Book of Mormon, hangs Christmas lights in August and yammers about “Eva Gay-bore wigs” and drinking “Dr. Pecker.” Videllia clatters around on high heels, shaking her booty and puffing out her ample assets. Funny thing though, when the sisters finally figure out who she really is, Videllia’s age works out to about 46, which seems pretty old to be a topless anything.

Two other characters, the spooky Reptile Woman (Tippi Hunter) and angelic Bishop Crumley (Joe Bissex), stop by the swamp to interrupt the idiotic idioms now and then. One sister worries she’ll be “up a crick without a paddle in a chicken wire boat.” Somebody’s always saying they’re about to “have me a spell” or they’ve “seen me a snake.”

We’ve seen us some funnier plays about Southern eccentrics from the Greater Tuna guys. Tennessee Williams gave us better crazy old ladies. Yee doggies, The Sugar Bean Sisters ain’t nuthin’ but stale corn.

The Boxer plays July 27 through 29 and August 1 at the Festival of Independent Theatres at the Bath House Cultural Center, 214-528-5576.

The Sugar Bean Sisters continues through August 12 at WaterTower Theatre, Addison, 972-450-6232. --Elaine Liner

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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