A FIT Huzzah: the whole dang shebang

Bible Women by Echo Theatre

The Festival of Independent Theatres continues its commitment to exploring new theatrical work and encouraging diverse voices within the independent theatre scene. FIT was created as an outlet for smaller companies without a permanent performance space to give them an opportunity to produce seldom seen, new or avant-garde works. FIT exists to promote awareness and growth of Dallas area theatre through collaboration, participation and cultivation.”

Seldom seen, new or avant-garde works…

Week two of the 12th Annual Festival of Independent Theatres buzzed along at a rapid pace with adult-geared productions, many shows playing to nearly full houses, even on Saturday and Sunday matinees. It was hard to find a quiet corner at the Bath House Cultural Center to continue my on-going net-cast interviews for This Week in the Arts. Speaking of TWITA, there are five or six more true confessions posted, so tune in to http://thisweekinthearts.flowercast.net/ for more in depth perspectives and insights. It’s been an honor to have them share their FIT experiences with candor, humor and grace.

From my perspective—

Echo Theatre’s Bible Women

Directed by Pam Myers-Morgan

“The angel said to me, why are you laughing?” Elizabeth Swados’ contemporary fourteen-song cycle, an homage to the downtrodden women of the Bible’s Old Testament, ushers in an exotic, dignified, timelessly female essence to the festival. Minus any trace of sugar-coated gloss, the five women singers, accompanied by three onstage male musicians, reveal the tough circumstances, raw sorrows and harsh lives endured by powerful womyn — thriving, loving, sacrificing and triumphing amidst the violent repression of relentless, unabashed patriarchy. Esther, Deborah, Ruth, Sarah, Miriam, Lilith and Eve – all familiar names but almost forgotten for their societal impact. Playwright Vicki Caroline Cheatwood wrote spoken bits to insert between the songs; sometimes the dialogue seems flippant in contrast to the seriousness or beauty of the music. Each singer gives such lucid, tuneful interpretations there is no need for extra bridging. An exquisite, simply revealed performance, it blends gospel, folk, oratorio, modern atonal, and traditional love song styles in a rich tapestry of sound. The ensemble, attired in elegant black with colorful draped sashes, includes regional acclaimed folk-singer Annie Benjamin, Echo Theatre director and founding partner Terri Ferguson, Amy Fisher Hughes, Jodi Wright and regional celebrated performer/song stylist Denise Lee. Musical direction by Scott A. Eckert on keyboards, with George Gagliardi on guitar and multi-instrumentalist / jazz artist Neeki Bey on percussion round out this polished, entrancing performance by a company that has participated proudly in every FIT since inception.

Churchmouse Productions’ Georgie Gets A Facelift & Thank You Berry Much

Directed by Chad Cline

“What do you get if you cross a Mexican with an octopus?” Kurt Kleinmann is known well and loved in this region for his fanciful, stylized “Living Black & White” plays on a grand proscenium scale. With Churchmouse at FIT he takes the monochrome filtered gloves off and strides securely into the arena of intimate thrust reality. This black comedy duet is a tidy, tiny enterprise in delayed gratification, kind of like a Thurber short story compared to a Faulkner novel.

Churchmouse Productions: Georgie Gets a Facelift

All the language and character and thematic depth exist in both, just on a different scale. Impeccable timing by a tight, focused cast ensemble with plenty of textural gravitas and dry comic delivery makes these two ‘incidental’ pieces zing with imagination and welcome release once their connected performances unravel — as much as if they were the result of a full two act production. This is exactly the sort of creative endeavor that matches FIT’s mission and maintains a high level of artistic integrity. Joey Folsom, in a surprising, clean-shaven, buttoned-down turn, helms the two plays with signature crisp stage presence and distinctive voice. His lengthy, surreal, tender conversation with a dead body is an acting high point for the entire Festival. LisaAnne Haram creates a bizarre reality, as horrifying as she is delicious to watch. Stephanie Hall masters the transitional arc from one play to the other with outstanding physical acting; the gratification conceit of the play duet relies almost entirely on her convincing portrayal. And it works famously. Plan on being horrified, then amazed, then relieved; and imagine James Thurber. It’s a strong start for novice director Chad Cline, a mystery man with no bio in the FIT program.

The McClarey Players’ Purgatory, A Bedroom Farce

Written and directed by Cliff McClelland

McClarey Players: Purgatory, A Bedroom Farce

“You’ve turned my tunnel of love into the Great Wall of vagina.” This production company is new at FIT. The program says McClelland’s play is meant to be the “middle piece in The Divine Comedy, a re-imagining of Dante’s masterwork into modern themes. The other two pieces are The Inferno and The Paradise Grill.” His bio says that McClelland has directed over sixty productions for high school theatre and developed c. twenty-eight plays and thirteen screenplays, which indicates solid playwright and director chops. I’m not sure where his FIT endeavor meant to go. The play, itself, lacks imagination and focuses entirely on repetitive, juvenile, scatological humor. If it’s meant to be a Benny Hill-type satire, it doesn’t arrive. The ensemble’s acting is average community theatre level at best, with the exception of Amber Nicole Guest. Ms. Guest — earthy, relaxed, and expressive — conveys a convincing reality in her character’s development. In leaving the theater, I heard negative remarks for the first time at this FIT: “in such poor taste, repulsive, idiotic, dreadful acting, how did they choose this one?” I interviewed McClelland for TWITA and had a delightful conversation with him; he came across as experienced and practical, a well-rounded theatre artist and high school drama teacher. His production caught me by total surprise. It is definitely not appropriate for anyone who is not an adult and may offend many adults. Puzzling.

Second Thought Theatre: Once More, With Feeling (A Power Play)

Directed by Mac Lower

“I’d rather have a good play than a bad boyfriend.” LA based Christina Cigala crafted her warp-speed one-act for five characters in search of connection to satisfy a college assignment and to explore and interweave intersections between two seemingly divergent storylines.

Once More, With Feeling: Second Thought Theatre

Plot A, a romantic break-up with an unresponsive lover, gets pushed along by an elegant female narrator (Tiffany Lonsdale-Hands) standing in for the playwright, with the rest of the ensemble “filling in” as chorus and/or puppet-like imaginative mental constructs that bustle through the disintegrating scenarios in often hilarious, sometimes cacophonous, cartoon-like succession. Plot B concerns a sad woman, portrayed in woeful, droll drag by Sachin Patel, who gets eaten by an invisible pet snake. Cigala says in the depths of her despair during her relationship break-up she “decided all relationships were about who was going to eat whom first. If I was Alanis Morrissette, this would be my “You Oughta Know,” which she wrote about Dave Coulier from Full House.” Hence the genesis for the interactive plots in this startlingly energized, bleak yet fanciful, one-act that crackles with hyper-hip sensibility and a more than a hint of ‘emo’ lamentation. Irritating for some watching it, with its loud, relentless, random repetition of chorus-generated sound effects interspersed between the jibs and jabs of fractured storyline, it reveals a blossoming playwright with a unique voice and the potent ability to create a context with follow-though and fleshed out characters with minimal exposition. Straining to emerge, it feels more like an exorcism than a birth. Second Thought’s creative ensemble invests 200% of its diverse, expressive talents into bringing every crumb of Cigala’s script to vibrant life. Director Mac Lower deftly knits it all together into one polished, tightly wired organic whole, roiling with electric charge. The performance left me exhausted but intrigued with its rapid-fire roller-coaster ride. It seemed I had just spied through a magic window into the brain of a playwright in bloom. Sex toys waved about and sexually explicit content make this definitely a play for adults, but it hasn’t any hint of gratuitous grotesquerie. Ensemble includes: Cara L. Reid, Matthew Clark, Jason Robert Villarreal as well as the above mentioned Sachin Patel and Tiffany Lonsdale-Hands. Asked about her thoughts on the role of emerging playwrights in advancing American theatre, Christina Cigala comments, “I did theater in New York for 3 years. Then I moved to LA. I think if we made more money we’d write more plays, better plays. The fact that some of the best playwrights I know are in the worst financial situations in the most expensive city in the world is a problem. I think if the public and the government were more invested in theater there’d be better theater out there.”

Dynamic, successful enterprises like the 12th Annual Festival of Independent Theatres at the Bath House Cultural Center give promising playwrights like Cigala the opportunity to see their works aired in a nurturing, creative environment with talented, skilled actors, directors and designers enlivening the scripts. Quality performance art can have a brighter future thanks to the collaborations fostered at FIT. I give the whole dang shebang a hearty huzzah.

For the whole shebang line-up, go here:

http://www.dallaspublicart.info/fitpress.cfm

The Festival of Independent Theatres, managed by David Meglino with technical direction by Graeme Bice, runs through August 7 at the Bath House Cultural Center on White Rock Lake.

Visit www.bathhousecultural.com for info and directions

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