Festival of Originals Falls a Bit Flat

The set-up:

Some thoughts you may have while watching Theatre Southwest's 18th Annual Festival of Originals. (1) Some year's submissions are better than others. (2) The selection committee should be a bit more selective. (3) Contemporary playwrights who write short plays are sadly unoriginal. (4) Perceptive acting can disguise a multitude of sins.

The execution:
Over 600 submissions for this year's festival, which is impressive all by itself, but these five finalist plays were surprisingly short on imagination, and none of them truly impressed.

Quick, call the PTA and Child Protective Services, for there's a psychotic grade school teacher on the loose, and he's teaching your children in Stephen Kaplan's In Mrs. Baker's Room, the best of the lot on display. Jacob Ritter, in cardigan and red bow tie (Sam Martinez, perfectly creepy yet sympathetic), is the best elementary teacher at school, but he's got issues. One is his gigantic inferiority complex, the other is that he sees dead people: specifically, his own fifth grade teacher Miss Baker (Elizabeth Barry, also perfectly school-marmy). He's decorated his classroom just as she did so many years before, and her profound influence has him teaching her syllabus and appropriating her mannerisms. Jacob is in her shadow, and it's a long and deeply dark one. When she unexpectedly shows up, Jacob locks the door and refuses to let her leave. “You can never leave,” he explains with childish petulance. It takes all her teacherly professionalism and psychological manipulation, with help from deus ex machina pupil Lyle (Andrew Nurre, also perfectly believable as a fifth-grader), to break down his formidable mental walls and free himself.

While the play treads nowhere, it's fascinating to watch Martinez and, especially, Barry flesh out their predicaments and elevate the play. Martinez slips back into a ten-year-old with lubricant's ease, but it's Barry who carries the show. A real life teacher at Katy's Saint John's College Preparatory, she's the picture perfect embodiment of everyone's fifth grade teacher. With a crown of blue hair, her own sweater combo with pearls, and sensible shoes, she exudes patience and understanding, if not firmness and wile when she needs to. Getting out of a locked room with a psycho is any teacher's nightmare. Ms. Barry is new to me, and I urge her to move to Houston so we can see more of her.

Dead people are also seen – heard on their cellphones, but we see them – by Joe (Brian Heaton) and Terri (Kelsey Peltier), two mismatched passengers waiting for a flight to Chicago in Chris Shaw Swanson's forgettable Family Baggage. In this sit-com retread, the couple get calls from their respective parents, who berate, urge, and cajole their children to hook up. In swift exposition, we learn Joe's divorced and Kelsey's been jilted; she wants children, but he's had a vasectomy. They're perfect for each other in this predictable dating game. Heaton does wonders with Joe's exasperation and discomfort, throwing away small gestures and infinitesimal pauses, which makes Swanson's script sound like something. Scott Holmes, Crys Hymel, Tanya Terry, and Carl Masterson, veterans all, give the overbearing parental ghosts enough oomph to be almost corporeal, not so the wan play.

While playwright Kyle John Schmidt has had previous works showcased in the anthology Best American Short Plays, The Miracle will not be among them. This sad-sack comedy of religious manners, has Sister Calliope (Sonia Kronberg, winking and canoodling as if auditioning for The Bells of St. Mary's) praying for a miracle, three miracles in fact in one day, so she can be elevated to sainthood and beat out her rival, the smug Sister Ruth (Beverly Hutchison, nicely ditsy). She also battles Ruth over novice Angelica (fresh and sassy Tausheli McClure). In no particular dramatic sense, a mute (John Stevens, always interesting to watch no matter what he's required to do), a low-life (John Mitsakis, making the most out of curmudgeon Lawrence), and a news reporter suffering from writer's block (Austin Heps) are brought on in succession, and Calliope gets her comeuppance when Ruth inadvertently cures each of them. The premise is cute, but it drowns in hackneyed action and character. Pray for Schmidt.

George Hickenlooper's Civil War drama The Woman Order has the best role in the festival: the experienced prostitute Desiree, wonderfully limned by Pam Pankratz, who has world-weariness to spare. Sizing up rivals and prospective clients with the stinging quickness of a sazerak, this New Orleans madam swirls her red silk Victorian hoop skirt and eyes them like a sleek, hungry heron. She's been put in jail under occupying Union forces for breaking Order #28, whereby a woman must show respect for all soldiers. Desiree could do that with her eyes closed. Virginal Adele (Samantha Walker) shares the cell after flinging her chamber pot upon hayseed officer Winkelmeyer (Jimmy Vollman). Here's another intriguing premise done in by a ton of exposition and very little character development. This should be Desiree's play, but Hickenlooper pushes weak Adele forward, and endless amount of precious stage time is taken up with memories of her dead lover. Desiree owns this play and is forced to become her own deus ex machina, getting them out of prison through a former client who just happens to be...Why am I telling you any of this? Order #29: Go, watch cool and calm Pankratz rule the stage.

The festival closes with Joe Gulla's Knock Off!, giving it pride of place, but little else. This art world expose might be fun if it weren't ruled by crass know-nothing Geraldine (Brit Garcia, flaunting her bounteous poitrine), whose uncle owns the gallery where she temps. Her boyfriend (!) is gay young turk Shep (Ricky Rojas), a rising painter, who's also carrying on with gay patron Quinn (Bob Maddox). I may have gotten the details wrong, for I tuned out after the second pedestrian joke about her tits. I guess this is crowd pleaser if you don't think about what's really going on underneath. There's a neat twist at the end, but it falls flat, unlike Geraldine's exterior, since it's unprepared. And what's up with Ralphie (David Hymel)? Why are we watching his TV commercials? I'll give Gulla some credit, I learned not to put cheese on clam sauce.

The verdict:
The performances this year do mighty service in putting across these five short plays. The fine actors make them watchable. It's the plays that let all of us down.

Festival of Originals. Through August 8. Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. Purchase tickets online at theatresouthwest.org or call 713-661-9505. $15.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover