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Festival of Originals: Not a Bad Way to Spend Two Hours of Your Life

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The set-up: Theater mavens love Festival of Originals, Theatre Southwest's three-weekend program of new, short plays. The works are fresh, as in recently written, and each usually runs under 20 minutes. The length can be a god-send, because if you can't stand the one you're watching, your irritation or boredom will soon be over. There's no need to suffer through two acts. Even with the time limit, some playwrights are flummoxed to create a satisfying short story, which, I'm happy to report, is not the case with this 16th annual festival.

Each play, solidly crafted, has a different director and cast, which gives the audience a chance to see some favorite actors, or better, to discover some new face that whets our appetite to see them again. There's no dearth of talent in Houston's acting pool. When festival producer and TSW's artistic director Mimi Holloway introduced the evening, she laid out the rules - unpublished works only - and was proud indeed that three of the plays were written by Houstonians. Apparently, there's no dearth of talent in that pool either.

The execution: None was an outright stinker. But none was particularly memorable either, although at least two of them will probably find life outside of the Clarkcrest venue. What you may find is a sense of theatrical deja vu. "Original" is not on the menu, as each play - in theme or resonance -- reminds you of some former one. Now this is not necessarily a bad thing, as we all know imitation is some sort of flattery. But none of these plays stands tall with innovation, clarity, or even felicity of writing. They're middle-of-the-road works, pleasing and pleasurable in their entertainment. There's plenty of room for those qualities in the world of theater, so if we can't find more than traces of a future Albee, Miller, Mamet, or Simon at this year's festival, it's hardly the end of the world. I have to admit, two hours passed pretty quickly. That's a big plus.

RE: Kill the Messenger, by Bryan Maynard, is a visceral, mano a mano slice of Mamet via Quentin Tarantino. The Recipient (Wade Gonsoulin), a killer employed by an anonymous corporation, anxiously awaits the Messenger (Andrew G. Barrett), who apparently bears bad tidings about his future at the company. Gonsoulin, world-weary around the edges, knows he's out of there and feels guilty about his murderous career. Barrett, sucking on a toothpick, arrives wearing black leather gloves and creepy top-dog attitude. There's impressive physicality, and two, if not three, fight scenes neatly staged by director John Mitsakis as male dominance gets a sweaty workout when this cat-and-mouse game intensifies. Maynard's overly symbolic passages about quantum physics and a dead cat (?!) flew completely over my head and muddied the elemental theatrics, but the amoral Mr. Barrett stayed stunningly alive, mean as a junkyard dog. He deserved his promotion.

Games We Play, by Michael Weems, is the slightest among the five, a sitcom with an O. Henry ending. Schlub Bobby (Howard Block) is hot to trot and sits at a bar waiting to pounce on the next available female. The solicitous bartender (Jason Tull, who I wish had more to do in this play) tells him the ropes, as he's shot down by Julia (Elyse Rachal Freeman), then Luisa (Stefani Patch), who's reading Jane Austen. The girls are swept off their feet by sly interruptions from a musician (Joshua Riley, who has an easy-going stage presence) and pro golfer (Lance Stodghill). The whole premise seems dated, if not prehistoric. Are modern guys this clueless and without charm? There was a segment like this, I'm sure, from The Love Boat. Where's Julie McCoy?

Closing Time, by Carl L. Williams, wafts by trailing a little Inge, maybe a bit of Foote. It's small town Americana, as Rick (shaggy dog Matt Elliott) returns home to discover that people he thought dead (Bryan Reilly) are very much alive. Adding to the nostalgic glow, there's a bereaved sister of his former love (Samantha Walker) and a thoughtful waitress (Barbara Dell) to supply a hard-boiled shoulder. Dell radiates such complete light from her character, you wish there'd be more for her to do in this play of sweet revelations. It's beer and sympathy time at the old diner.

Identity, by Dale Griffiths Stamos, deals with revelations, too. The effects upon the characters are just as shocking, and none too subtle. Mom (Tonya Terry) suffers from dementia. Spurred by hearing about the death of a musician on the radio, she goes in and out of lucidity - so many times you'd think no one would ever leave her unattended. As she loses herself in revery, she blurts out forbidden family secrets. We see these red flags way before her uptight son Paul (Scott McWhirter) does. He is appalled after being lied to for years. Dad (Robert Lowe) tries to assuage his angry son, but it's Mom who eventually soothes the waters, bringing everyone together for a symbolic final family portrait on the couch. Lowe, an actor so stable and grounded that he can make such hoary aphorisms about love and commitment sound freshly minted, supplies bedrock and paternal warmth to the play.

Many Miles, by Rose-Mary Harrington, is absolute catnip for aelurophiliacs. This "life and times" adventure of Miles the cat (Taylor Biltoff, a scruffy bon vivant) is an absolute audience-pleaser. If you're partial to dogs, you're on your own. Actors playing animals isn't exactly my bowl of meow mix, but this picaresque tale is larded with charm, although that's about all it has going for it. (The costume and hair design deserve a note of praise - those ear top-knots are inspired.) Like most short adventures, salient events are quickly outlined while others glossed over. A choppy narrative is the order of the day.

Harrington, while covering most pertinent cat points, has two really good ideas: Uncle Winston (Scott Holmes) and Racoon (Jose Luis Rivera). Sax-playin' Winston is one cool cat, and Holmes plays him like he's the coolest white dude in the 'hood. A consummate actor, Holmes always surprises, and he bats this character around as if it were the tastiest little rodent. Later, when Miles arrives in Hollywood, he ventures outside at night, only to be confronted by the gang-bangin' mammal in a mask. Mr. Rivera gives him feverish comic attitude. Their culture clash around the garbage cans is delicious fun. The play has no ending, it just runs down, out of steam and ideas, leaving Miles and friends purring on the sofa. Not a bad place to be - actor or audience.

The verdict: Purring is optional at the 16th annual Festival of Originals, but there's way more contentment than disappointment. Go see for yourself.

The theatrical smorgasbord runs through August 3 at Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. Purchase tickets online at theatresouthwest.org or call 713-661-9505. $15.

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