Talent Reigns at Theatre Southwest's 15th Annual Festival of Originals

The set-up:

For the 15th year, Theatre Southwest presents its annual array of one-act plays, giving playwrights, directors and actors an opportunity to prove their mettle.

The execution:

Instant Harmony by Joe Starzyk tackles the subject of computer dating services. Starzyk knows how to set up a joke and make it pay off, with an unexpected and hilarious ending. Bob Maddox plays Chris, and his buddy Joe (Howard Block) persuades him to try the service; both Maddox and Block have great timing. Chris meets his date at a restaurant, where we encounter Jean (Todd Thigpen) in a subtle and intelligent performance, an unnamed woman (Terry Smith), attractive and persuasive, and the waitress (Tausheli McClure), beautiful but overacting her bi-polar attitude toward customers. The show is deftly directed by Jay Menchaca, but he might want to rethink here, as the joke itself is so lucid it needs no selling. Theatre Southwest wisely closes the evening with this comedic triumph.

Moving from comedy, we have a two-hander, Sweet Jesus, involving a man and woman who are homeless, settling in for the night in a park. It is written by George J. Bryjak, who finds the melody in loneliness and the dramatic strength in desperation, and is expressively directed by Lisa Schofield. Pam Pankratz plays the woman and is authentic and interesting; Rhett Martinez portrays the man and is wonderfully compelling. What could have been a slice-of-life vignette gains interest as these two face decisions as heartbreaking as any human should have to make. Writer Bryjak has created memorable individuals and a brilliantly conceived dilemma with the power of a knock-out punch.

Scott Holmes plays Vernon, a hypochondriac, in I Can Feel It Coming On, by Carl L. Williams, directed by David Hymel. Holmes is masterful in reflecting anxiety, as well an anticipatory joy -- his long-suffering wife, Millie (Crys Hymel) brings in a sultry psychologist (Sammi Sicinski) to work with him on his problem. Playwright Williams has created a plausible, entertaining couple, but the psychologist seems more of a one-note character; different direction might have helped here.

Murder most foul enlivens the other plays. In On, by David Vazdauskas, Lisabeth (Molly Wills Carnes) creates on camera words of farewell to loved ones. The camera-operator is Alana (Chelsea Curto), and all is not quite what it seems - a chess-game is at work. Charles (William Sharp) enters, and then Frank (Rich Taylor), and macabre humor ensues. Carnes is excellent, as is Taylor in his minor part, but Sharp doesn't create a vivid Charles, and the role of Alana is clearly beyond Curto. Directed by John Mitsakis, the play is in here somewhere, like a cat in a bag, struggling to get out.

Downtime is written by George Rapier and directed by Justin Holloway, and the audience is kept in the dark as to just why an attractive young woman, Beth (Amanda L. Baird), has invited Les (Wade Gonsoulin) to her hotel room. Les starts to leave several times as Beth unconvincingly persuades him to stay, and Les polishes off almost a bottle of scotch - inexplicably, as the true situation calls for Les to keep his wits about him. Baird might find a more varied, subtle portrayal, and Gonsoulin might avoid whispering so many lines. In the minor role of Donald, Rich Taylor is excellent.

The verdict:

Theatre Southwest is to be commended for bringing this theatrical feast to Houston's shores. Talent reigns supreme at this festival, the variety is splendid, and moments of both pure joy and emancipating insights spice the program.

The 15th Annual Festival of Originals runs through August 4 at Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. For tickets call 713-661-9505 or visit the company website.

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Jim Tommaney