Opening weekend was a good indicator of quality for this year's Festival of Independent Theatres, which boasts its strongest lineup in years. Of the eight one-act shows featured in repertory during the three-week fest, audiences got to experience a little bit of everything with the first four, all of which opened July 14-16.
For those unfamiliar with how FIT works, the approximately 50-minute shows are paired up in two-show blocks (which change throughout the festival). So it's entirely feasible to take in 50 percent of the festival in one weekend sitting. The smartest option is to buy a pass, but no matter your ticket situation, you'll want to get to the Bath House Cultural Center early. Competition is cutthroat for seats this year, especially to FIT's big-name offerings.
One of those would be The Boxer, a live silent movie-style rom-com written and directed by Matt Lyle. It actually premiered at FIT 10 years ago with the same two leads: Jeff Swearingen as the Depression-era pugilist and Kim Lyle as Velma, a plucky gal masquerading as a man in order to find work. It's a meet-cute with baggy trousers, as Velma accidentally punches out the Boxer's trainer and then steps in to take his place, all the while trying to suppress her growing feelings for the scrappy fighter.
Heightened physical comedy and a few choice lines (mouthed, of course, while dialogue cards appear on the screen behind) lay the groundwork for this show's charming conceit, but it's the music design by pianist B. Wolf and foley work from Johnny Sequenzia that really give it legs. The Boxer has been knocking around fringe festivals and regional theaters ever since its debut in 2007, but it's clear audiences are thrilled to have it back home in Dallas.
Two other FIT participants with major seniority are WingSpan Theatre Co. and Echo Theatre. The former is a founding member of the festival while the latter has performed during 17 of FIT's 19 years. But audiences probably won't be clamoring for Echo to bring back this year's offering, a choppy adaptation of Ali Smith's tedious and little-performed play Trace of Arc. Saints history, crusading eco-warriors, class struggles, and a litany of advertising jingles all congeal in a gummy mess under longtime Echo producer Kateri Cale in her first foray into directing (she also adapted the script).
Meanwhile, Susan Sargeant wrings every bit of dark humor and loaded wordplay from Edward Albee's Finding the Sun, about a tangled web of families and lovers (both current and ex) on a beach seeking vitamin D and connection. The cast moves at a brisk clip, dancing over Albee's sometimes shocking conversations with glee and making an obtuse romp in the sand pleasantly accessible.
But nothing pierces through humanity's hard shell like Sherry Jo Ward's one-woman play Stiff, about her diagnosis and ongoing acceptance of a (literally) one-in-a-million disease called Stiff Person's Syndrome. Ward was an acclaimed and in-demand actor in the DFW area until her body began mysteriously seizing and locking up a few years ago. She briefly continued to act until Echo Theatre's production of Precious Little in 2015, during which she used a cane and relied on cleverly staged opportunities to sit or lean against furniture, and Circle Theatre's Who Am I This Time? (And Other Conundrums of Love) in 2017.
Now back onstage, Ward reminds audiences of her captivating nature with a brutally honest look at how living with this rare disease has changed every aspect of her life. She is equal parts devastating and hilarious, peppering her script with blue humor and raw confessions (plus some well-timed visual aids, designed for the big screen by Jaymes Gregory), and is quietly helped along when necessary by director Marianne Galloway. It's a show — and a performance — that will be talked about for years to come.
The Festival of Independent Theatres continues through August 5, and includes the shows Fiddler's Cave, The Great Dictator, The Caveman Play, and Tommy Cain.