The Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum (of which I'm a member) already honored its favorites from the August 2015-September 2016 season, but there are a few onstage moments from this calendar year that I personally can't shake.
Rather than declare an overall best shows list, here are seven of those moments within the play or musical that made it especially clear that we were experiencing live, raw, human theater.
The stagnant cigarette smoke, 'Night, Mother at Echo Theatre
When Jessie tells her mother that before the night is over she will kill herself, she's sitting at the kitchen table calmly folding tea towels and smoking a cigarette. After Jessie drops her bombshell, she forbids her housebound mother, Thelma, to call friends or family to stop her and then heads off to find her father's old gun.
Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning play is a struggle of power and emotion between these two women, who were embodied fiercely by Jessica Cavanagh and Amber Devlin in Echo Theatre's production. As we watched Devlin cycle through panic, fear, desperation, and sadness, a cloud of Cavanagh's cigarette smoke hung, in a barely moving cloud, above the table as a reminder of Jessie's presence.
I can't say for certain if this happened at every show, or if the one I attended just happened to avoid the air conditioner at just the right moment, but it was a haunting, almost menacing, addition to the scene.
Mary Tyrone's morphine haze, Long Day's Journey Into Night at Undermain Theatre
Joanna Schellenberg's fragile performance was only one part of Undermain's excellent production, but anyone who's familiar with Eugene O'Neill's intense family drama knows that there's a difficult scene that can make or break an actor's portrayal of Mary Tyrone. Near the end of the three-hour play, the Tyrone matriarch finally succumbs fully to her morphine addiction and appears in her wedding gown, disoriented and glassy eyed and finally beyond the reach of her family.
It's easy to go heavy handed here, making Mary into a cartoonish ghost, but Schellenberg and director Katherine Owens made sure to retain recognizable bits of the Mary we saw earlier. With the eerie fog rolling at her feet, Schellenberg dipped in and out of reality with just the right touch of otherworldliness.
The twist in The Nether at Stage West
I'm still not going to ruin this techno-thriller's surprise, because it was so satisfying to hear all the gasps and exhales when the audience figured out the truth. In a mere 70 minutes, director Garret Storms and his cast created an immensely detailed and superbly creepy dystopian world wherein people could assume an online identity, enter a "realm," and commit gruesome acts that have no real consequences (think Westworld but with avatars instead of robots).
You could feel the audience shifting uncomfortably in their seats each time a character leapt into this online world, and hear a murmur of concern for each dreadful emotional and physical act, but when playwright Jennifer Haley's big reveal happened the reaction was priceless.
Audience participation at Ghost Quartet presented by Flora Off Broadway
AT&T Performing Arts Center's experimental season of smaller, quirkier shows expanded all the way into Deep Ellum for the tour of Ghost Quartet, which was unlike anything DFW audiences had seen or heard before. Composer Dave Malloy currently has a hit on Broadway with his Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, but he was here in the spring with two Natasha cast members and a fourth musician to perform this circuitous meditation on death.
It was a weird show for sure, with music that wasn't always pleasant to the ear, but it also defied audiences' preconceived notions about theater. The performers would interact with the spectators, some of whom were seated on cushions right beside them, by passing off instruments for them to play and at one point doling out a few bottles of whiskey. Watching the confusion, then disbelief, and finally delight on people's faces as they poured themselves a stiff drink was a fitting reaction for this show.
Familial generations in The Big Meal at WaterTower Theatre
Dan LeFranc's 90-minute play had a complicated structure that flowed effortlessly thanks to Emily Scott Banks' precise direction. In short bursts we saw Nikki and Sam meet, fall in love, break up, get back together, marry, reproduce, receive grandchildren, and live out their lives together. Not a particularly unusual story, but the emotions — and there were a lot of them — came from the unique way it was told through the eight-person cast.
The six adult actors each took a turn at playing the couple at different points in their lives, but when Lois Sonnier Hart as the elderly Nikki glanced around at the family she had created, something about the wonder in her realization softened this mean critic's heart and brought on the waterworks.
Preacher with a secret, Bootycandy at Stage West
Each of the vignettes in Robert O'Hara's scathingly funny play about race, sexuality, and class had at least one laugh-out-loud moment and several truth bombs. But Djoré Nance truly grabbed the audience early on as an impassioned preacher delivering a sermon about the "questionable" behavior of some of the choir boys. He says that he received a letter signed "by the folks who pay your salary" that expresses concern that these boys may be homosexual or engaging in improper behavior.
You think you know where this speech is going, but director Akín Babatundé conceals the preacher's true message until the last possible moment. Nance steps out from behind the pulpit to reveal he's wearing high heels (and a fabulous gown, when he sheds his robes), then basically tells the congregation they can shove their judgmental concerns where the sun don't shine. Commitment doesn't even begin to describe Nance's performance in that scene.
Mother Holly in Wild, Wicked, Wyrd: Fairytale Time by The Drama Club
The latest original work from this collective of DFW theater artists was uneven, with three of the four short plays failing to gather much steam. But Mother Holly, penned by Michael Federico, wove a dark tale about a kind-hearted girl who's desperate to save her family and the forest witch who grants her wish. Jeffrey Schmidt's simple set — three large W's that could illuminate when needed — and Amanda West's lighting started the creep factor before Korey Kent's costume for the witch, played with terrifying physicality by Nicole Berastequi, truly began to inspire nightmares.
When Berastequi finally revealed her face, a twisted mask with glowing red eyes, and climbed onto the middle W like a creature stalking its prey, it was a chilling visual that lasted long past Halloween.