Theater Critic Picks
This year in theater had its ups (Dallas Theater Center finally won our city a regional Tony Award, and Dallas Summer Musicals set a date for the smash hit Hamilton) and downs (local director Derek Whitener was brutally attacked outside a Target store, while DTC's director of new play development was recently dismissed for inappropriate behavior), but plenty of the good kind of drama happened on stages all over DFW.
Earlier in the year, the Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum (of which I am a member) announced its top picks for the September-August season, but this list tackles my own favorite onstage moments of 2017.
The chaotic finale of Paper Flowers at Kitchen Dog Theater
Chances are, few audience members were previously familiar with Chilean playwright Égon Wolff's master work, about a vagrant who infiltrates the home and life of a lonely, middle-aged, single woman. Stars Christie Vela and Christopher Carlos co-directed the play, which spans only three days but hurtles toward its shocking and grotesque finale with supreme suspense. In its wheels-off finale scene, Jeffrey Schmidt's set and Aaron Johansen's lighting design also transform into a horror show of sorts, giving the audience no escape from the terrifying ending. The image of Vela, frozen in a wedding dress, still gives me the shivers.
Dallas Theater Center's Public Works debut with The Tempest
DTC had the honor of being the first professional theater outside of New York City to produce a Public Works show, which was a pretty big deal. The massive undertaking involved 200 performers — most all of them local, only five of them professional — and a slew of special guests throughout the play. How special? Think rising-star musician Sam Lao, the Townview High School Big D Drumline, Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico, Northlake Children’s Chorus, and Mitotiliztli Yaoyollohtli Aztec Dancers, along with cameos from Mayor Mike Rawlings, Councilman Adam McGough, Councilman Adam Medrano, and "voice of the Dallas Cowboys" Brad Sham. The entire point of the production was to strengthen ties with the Dallas community, and you could see that reflected in the diverse and enthusiastic audience. DTC artistic director Kevin Moriarty plans to continue with a Public Works show in each upcoming season, for the foreseeable future.
Amphibian Stage Productions' mysterious White Rabbit Red Rabbit
There was a frisson of excitement at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth as the crowd filed into the auditorium, and not just because Hollywood actor Xander Berkley was about to take the stage. It was because the room was about to be united in a unique and peculiar experience: Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour's White Rabbit Red Rabbit. The play is cloaked in secrecy, with the actor receiving the script for the first time onstage. "Do not see or read the play beforehand. Learn nothing about it," directs Soleimanpour. The same is best for the audience as well, because discovery is one of the show's themes. A different actor is to perform the play each night, and Amphibian adhered to that rule with a mix of local and imported talent. To say any more might ruin it for you (and Dallas Theater Center is mounting its own production in June 2018).
Upstart Productions gets immersive with Waiting for Lefty
This edgy theater company's return after hiatus was well timed, well thought-out — just maybe not well scouted, location-wise. Permit issues plagued the production, which was originally staged in an East Dallas art studio and ended its run outside the studio, to appease the fire marshal. Regardless of whether there were walls or not, director David Meglino plunked his audience right into the middle of Clifford Odet's 1935 agitprop play, scattering actors throughout and staging scenes practically in our laps. The immediacy matched the work's urgency, which mirrored today's economic uncertainty and financial upheaval with frightening accuracy. I still believe it was the right show, done by the right company, at the right time.
Dallas Theater Center goes on tour — sort of — with Electra
Kevin Moriarty continued his penchant for staging Greek tragedies in unusual places with this spring production, which supplied audiences with headphones and led them around the AT&T Performing Arts Center campus for an immersive, on-the-move experience. Not every stop on the open-air tour was a winner, but some locations, such as Agamemnon's tomb atop the Annette Strauss Square amphitheater stage, proved especially effective. The ease with which the cast traversed their natural surroundings and the atmospheric music piped into our headsets from Broken Chord lulled the audience into a false sense of security, making the murderous finale even more striking. But what really sticks with me is the closing tableau, of a candle-bearing crowd surrounding the reflecting pool in front of the Winspear Opera House, watching the actors glide away into the night.
Second Thought Theatre questions the status quo with Straight White Men
The provocative title of Young Jean Lee's play isn't a tease: it really is about four straight white men. But its purpose — to confront 21st century privilege — is achieved through a seemingly banal story of a widowed man and his three adult sons. It's what happens around them that drives home the commentary, as racially diverse and gender non-conforming performers pose the four actors at the start of each scene like they are mannequins in an anthropological diorama. The deafening, rap-heavy pre-show music, too, is meant to unsettle the audience and break them out of their comfort zones, and judging by all the slightly alarmed and somewhat disgruntled looks I spotted before the show began, it worked.
Matt Lyle gifts us A Brief, Endless Love
Back in Dallas after a Chicago sojourn, playwright Matt Lyle stitched together a new play that was part sketch show, part revue, and completely hilarious. Lyle worked with his wife, Kim, and fellow Bootstraps Comedy Theater founder Jeremy Whiteker, along with do-it-all performer Steph Garrett and longtime collaborator Jeff Swearingen, to create this comedic reflection on the terror that is loving and being loved. It was staged at Dallas Comedy House, which proved a fresh and fun new venue for a theatrical venture, and furthered the feeling that you were attending a true sketch show. Besides being laugh-out-loud funny, the show also had several surprisingly deep, heartfelt moments — I'll certainly think of Garrett and Swearingen, playing suicidal misfits who meet on a ledge, this New Year's Eve.
FIT gets Stiff
Sherry Jo Ward has enjoyed a long and illustrious career on the stages of DFW, but she took to the page for her most poignant role yet. Diagnosed a few years ago with the literally one-in-a-million disease called Stiff Person's Syndrome, Ward had to reshape her life to accommodate her new abilities. She put her experiences into a one-woman play that was a sold-out hit at the Festival of Independent Theatres this summer, and, with the help of director Marianne Galloway and assistant director Jessica Cavanagh, is continuing to give the script life. It's a blunt, funny, and frank look at what living with SPS is like, from navigating her acting career to changes in her sex life to realizing she can no longer drive. Oh, and there are many, many marijuana jokes.
Hair creates a happening at Dallas Theater Center
Theaters often encourage their audiences to arrive early so they can leisurely park, enjoy a drink, and settle into their seats well before the lights go down. Dallas Theater Center urged its open-minded crowds to come early so they could play hopscotch with an actor, get their faces painted, and dance a conga line around the Wyly Theatre. This "be-in" was the first step in the immersive staging of the rock musical Hair, which transformed the Wyly into a groovy crash pad that overflowed with free love and interactive opportunities. Sometimes all the extras overwhelmed the show, but when it came time to bat a volleyball back into the crowd or dance a little with the enviably tressed cast, it was easy to chalk it all up to an experience.
Adding Machine: A Musical sums up Theatre Three's new direction
With an incredibly complex (and not always conventionally pleasant) score and a nihilistic plot, this musicalization of Elmer Rice's 1923 play was a bold programming choice by new artistic director Jeffrey Schmidt. And you know what? It was fascinating. The story of a downtrodden man who murders his boss and seeks happiness after his execution challenged its audience and upended our expectations about musical theater, and built a world (and afterlife) that prompted self-examination long after the show had ended. But in the midst of all its Technicolor gloom (Jocelyn Girigorie's expressionistic set was a real highlight), there were flashes of sentimentality and even hope. And we could all use a little bit more of that.