FronteraFest Short Fringe, Week Two

For an evening that included a mutilated cat, a self-loathing writer, and selling one's soul, the second Thursday at the 2006 FronteraFest Short Fringe proved surprisingly upbeat

Robert Berry and Cris Edwards
Robert Berry and Cris Edwards

FronteraFest Short Fringe, Week Two

Hyde Park Theatre, Jan. 19

For an evening that included a mutilated cat, a self-loathing writer, and the selling of one's soul, the second Thursday in the 2006 FronteraFest Short Fringe proved surprisingly upbeat.

The unfortunate feline appeared in "Terminals," a tag-team effort by Robert Berry and Cris Edwards, who alternated sharing a story that began with a guy trying to start his car after work only to find a cat caught in the engine. Though badly injured, the animal survives, and its rescue leads to a daisy chain of other narratives involving another cat that defied the odds and lived, a journalist who gave up his life in New York to report on the war in Iraq and died, and an eBay auction to name the rescued cat that was won by the wife of the journalist. The simplicity of the storytelling and its unlikely intersection of lives, animal and human, across the globe, made this an intriguing and wistful work that echoed in my head long after its own termination.

The writer was the protagonist of Guillermo De Leon's short drama "SPIC," who is forced by a case of writer's block to confront his feelings about his Latino heritage. An alter ego taunts him with racial slurs and prods him to admit that he's ashamed of his brown skin, a fact that he denies until he's made to recall episodes from his youth and to speak candidly to his lighter-skinned wife about his attraction to her. It was clear from the outset where the piece was going, and it ultimately delivered no surprises, but the conviction with which it was written and acted kept it engaging.

Two of the slots were taken over by improv groups, both dabbling in long-form, in which a single suggestion is solicited from the audience and used as a springboard for a free-form series of scenes. Up first was ColdTowne Heroes, a troupe from New Orleans that's taken up residence in Austin since Katrina. They took the word "quaffle" (no doubt from some eager Harry Potter fan), but the word's origins in the J.K. Rowling series – it's a ball used in the game Quidditch – must have eluded them, as the young wizard never appeared or was referred to in their scenes. Instead, they meandered through bits with fathers and sons arguing over farms, kids searching for a lost pet, and the like, the highlight being when Tami Nelson became a cosmopolitan lush with a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other observing a barn raising.

The sheer comic incongruity of urbane socialite in rural setting – Dorothy Parker slumming among the Amish – was choice, but her slurred dialogue with the unseen rubes was hilarious, coming from an effortlessly complete character. Alas, while every troupe member showed talent and got their share of laughs, their scenelets frequently stalled out when the improvisers couldn't seem to get on the same page in creating a scene. Rather than build on an idea or moment that was already established, these performers seemed in a hurry to introduce a new idea or take the scene in a zanier direction. The same was true for Austin troupe Wooden Nickel when it took the suggestion "egg beater." Clear talent, clever ideas, more than a few laughs, but many moments reminiscent of a couple dancing when both partners are trying to lead.

The prize of the evening belonged to Hank Schwemmer's "Alternate Routes to the Crossroads." One of the unsung heroes of FronteraFest, Schwemmer always takes his 25 minutes of theatrical possibility and runs with it, playing with performance forms and expectations in sly, smart, witty, but ultimately personal ways, and this year was no exception. His solo white boy's treatise on the blues took us from a list of what the blues is not to a comparison of the careers of Robert Johnson and B.B. King (prompting a new consideration of the question of who sold whose soul to the devil) to a thorough accounting of all the basses and guitars that Schwemmer has owned and their names – all feminine – and their, ahem, attributes to a contemplation in unearthly blue light of what possession of one's soul truly means. With intelligence and rich humor, this piece found blessed intersections of music and love, of history and hearts, of myth and the things that we hold close. When it was over, we were all standing at the crossroads.

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Terminals, Robert Berry, Cris Edwards, ColdTowne Heroes, SPIC, Guillermo De Leon, Alternate Routes to the Crossroads, Hank Schwemmer, Wooden Nickel

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