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Festival of Originals at Theatre Southwest: A Mixed-Bag of One-Acts W/ Some Playwrights Worth Watching

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The set-up: Cause for joy, Theatre Southwest celebrates its 17th annual Festival of Originals. Produced by Southwest's artistic director Mimi Holloway, this evening of world premiere short plays is always a must-see for theater junkies. Where else in Houston can one watch five new one-acts, each with it own distinct cast and direction?

The idea is a crap shoot for sure, for you never know exactly how these works, all unproduced and unseen before given a showing at Southwest, will play before an audience. A written script is a very different breed than a live performance, and much can change between page and stage.

Kudos to Holloway for her perseverance. She had to plow through 600 submissions. While none of these five plays will set the theater world afire, there are at least three playwrights whose work intrigues and makes me want to see more from them.

Theatre Southwest's intimate stage space has been scrubbed clean for the festival. Stripped of color, it's been turned into a black box, which means no built pieces for the sets, only rudimentary props, just bare bones. This, of course, lets the plays shine without distraction. This, of course, also lays bare their more obvious faults.

The execution: The weakest: Steven Oberman's A Slip From Reality is inconsequential sci-fi about the psychic bifurcation of Ed Koppelson. Science fiction sets its own rules for the plot to make sense, but here the exposition is so heavily clunky that we tune out before the soft twist ending. Somehow, there are two Eds (Lance Stodghill as capitalist Ned; Jonathan Moonen as surfer dude Eduardo) who have sort of merged after a car crash, or maybe they have been separate since birth but living in a parallel universe. I don't really know or care.

They had the same parents, the same girlfriend, but they split when surfer dude did a Good Samaritan act, and evil businessman did nothing. They are being held in a cell while Big Brother T.A.M.A.R.A. (the voice of Jay Menchaca) sorts out the "slippage." Surfer dude wants his girlfriend back, now married to the overworked capitalist, while the capitalist yearns for the carefree life of surfer dude.

It's fairly inexplicable and not very well thought out. Just by changing clothes at their release, they take on the other persona. Hmm, not sure this complicated double stuff works out quite so easily. Moonen has the best time, since his character is such a loopy slacker, but even Olivier couldn't inject much life into this secondhand Twilight Zone episode.

The most intriguing: Steven Alan McGraw's Rougher Stuff has menace to spare. The play is both hot and cold-blooded. Screwup nephew Joe (Jose Luis Rivera), in need of quick cash to run off to California and elude the police, attempts to rob his favorite uncle Jim (Scott Holmes), a rich, powerful, and corrupt attorney. Unbeknownst to hapless Joe, his uncle is on to him, as is Jim's hothead son Alex (Aaron Echegaray).

Stuff has the feeling of Mamet and a lot of clever Hitchcock, for there's an overwhelming chill of dread just under the brittle, well-written surface. You know that universal theater precept: if there's a gun in the first scene, it had better go off in the last scene. Well, there is Joe's gun, but there's also Alex's baseball bat.

One of Houston's best, Holmes is ideal as malevolent Uncle Jim, oily and smart, like an inverse Perry Mason; Rivera has pitiful loser Joe down pat; and Echegaray, so memorable as regal Oberon in Theatre Southwest's recent Shakespeare in Hollywood, steams and sputters with banked fury. Director David Hymel keeps the play bubbling on near-boil; the cast supplies the fire; McGraw fans the flames. We shiver and sweat.

Another Southern diner comedy: Jeffrey Strausser's Peaks and Valleys trods that well-worn country-fried territory that always resounds with audiences, whether it's set in a garage beauty parlor, a high school reunion, or a bridesmaid's bedroom.

Here we're in a diner that's fallen on hard times. We're planted in fertile Inge soil, with wise-crackin' comedy and lots of heartfelt confession. Sentiments are crocheted like a Hallmark sampler and appear at regular intervals to tug the heartstrings or keep us smiling with a tear in our eye. And don't forget the old-timey, crusty cook who always pops out from the kitchen with a sharp retort for the boss. Everybody's got problems - stupid sons, unresponsive husbands, no prospects for boyfriends, money woes, past painful memories - but the show must go on, I mean, lunch must be served.

The three eternal friends, all quite distinct as is the rule for this kind of play, are harried owner Myrna (Cheryl Tanner), downtrodden Charlene (Malinda Beckham), and floozy Leanne (Autumn Woods). David Cleveland is the tart-tongued old codger. An efficiency expert arrives (Daniel Ewetuya), and before you can say fairy godfather, all problems are sweetly resolved. Directed with a sure hand by Tyrrell Woolbert that brings out the women's strong camaraderie, Peaks is sweet but unadventurous. It's not that we've been in this diner before, we've been in this diner too many times - the menu's always the same. This story continues on the next page.

The twee train: Raymond Fast's The Train to Tranquility portrays a young girl with Asperger's Syndrome. With a theatrical flourish, she is portrayed by two young actors: one is her outward self (Sydney Dunlap), the other, her thoughts (Helen Rios). This feat is carried off with great facility by the young thespians, who bring grace and truth to the double role. They pace in tandem, breath together, wear the same outfit.

She waits for a train whose destination is Tranquility. The stops along the way are Pleasure, Satisfaction, Accomplishment, Affirmation, etc. (We see the girl's emotional problems, there's no need for the author's symbolic semaphores.) Whenever the train approaches, she finds some excuse for not boarding: someone smells of ripe perfume, someone has laughed at her, someone is humming, someone will touch her, there are too many passengers. While the girl anxiously waits on the platform, a kindly woman (Patti White) appears in each impressionistic vignette and attempts to befriend her. Eventually, one small step at a time, she breaks through the hard shell. You want to know me, the girl asks incredulously, Me?

Like the happy endings in the other plays, this transformation occurs pretty fast. Can there be an emotional breakthrough for an Asperger's sufferer just because someone offers to talk? I guess it could happen. In a short work you can move from A to B, but the leap from A to M requires dexterity and a lot more time. But the young actors are a marvel, allowing us to see and feel a bit clearer what it's like to be so fragile it hurts.

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The audience favorite: Steve Stewart's Last Ride of the Iron Angels is hellbent on pleasing us. It has four tough old broads at its core, drinking like sailors and acting like 'em too. That these four women of a certain age are biker mamas, dressed in skintight black leather, adds to the fun. Friends since high school, they obviously haven't seen each other in years, because once the beer and tequila is swilled, secrets pour out of them.

Soap actress Alex (Sonia Kronberg) - her chopper jacket accessorized with pounds of bling - has been axed from her show and has lost all her money due to her shady business manager. Flight attendant Winnie (Suzanne King) is divorcing her wayward husband who's drained the bank account and fled to Russia with his young mistress. Lesbian Wall Street wizard Liz (Jada August) is about to be prosecuted for massive bank fraud. Clueless Janie (Anne Boyd), the Republican of the group, treads water with her constant grieving over her dead husband.

Todd the bartender (Sam Martinez) oversees the rowdy group. His is the hardest role, for he has to react to the confessions but say nothing. When he's paid to perform a lap dance for the girls, another set of secrets is revealed. From behind the bar, Martinez is this side of brilliant -and his lap dancing isn't bad, either. Janie's munificence settles all their problems, and they, like a younger Thelma and Louise quartet, vow to keep riding across country. The heck with it, swears Janie, let's live! The gals are a lively group, no question about it. Wouldn't it be fun if the next place they stop is the diner in Peaks and Valleys?

The verdict: This year's Festival of Originals isn't the best hand Theatre Southwest has ever presented, but nobody can draw five aces. A full house is quite respectable, and ofttimes a winner. Festival of Originals continues through August 2 at Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. Purchase tickets online at theatresouthwest.org or call 713-661-9505. $15.

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