Theater Critic Picks
This year in theater might not have been quite as dramatic as 2017, but it did have its spotlight moments.
There were departures (Joanie Schultz resigned as artistic director of WaterTower Theatre after two years, while AT&T Performing Arts Center's CEO Doug Curtis resigned after six) and introductions (Teatro Dallas celebrated its 34th season with new artistic director Sorany Gutiérrez, Jubilee Theatre its 37th by hiring new artistic director Wambui Richardson, and Circle Theatre its 37th by changing up its leadership).
New partnerships came about (ATTPAC and Dallas Summer Musicals struck a deal to share the Winspear Opera House, while ATTPAC also collaborated for the first time with Dallas Theater Center, presenting the musical Hairspray) and old ones fell apart (TCU decided not to renew funding for its critically acclaimed Trinity Shakespeare Festival).
Patrons rushed to be in the room where it happens, snapping up single tickets to the national tour of Hamilton that will land at the Music Hall at Fair Park in spring 2019. Speaking of tickets, Dallas-Fort Worth joined major national and international theater markets by getting TodayTix, an online outlet and mobile app that offers discount and rush tickets to performing arts events.
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 2018.
The act one finale of Glengarry Glen Ross
Imprint Theatreworks was strong right out of the gate, opening its inaugural season with an intense production of David Mamet's profanity-laced play about cutthroat real estate salesmen, directed by Ashley H. White. At the end of act one, the four Chicago salesmen are in a high-stakes race to rake in the most cash — the top earner will win a Cadillac, while the two who come in last will be fired. Uptight office manager Williamson (played by Shane Beeson) slowly, painstakingly updates the white board with the latest tallies, ratcheting up the tension as the audience discovers who's likely on their way out. Framed by a slightly menacing violet light (courtesy of lighting designer Hudson Davis), that white board — part of Ellen Mizener's sleek, all-white set — takes on the weight of life or death. You could hear an audible intake of breath from the audience when Beeson drew the finals numbers.
I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change's final goodbye
Theatre Three has been producing this musical about dating, love, and marriage for the last 18 years, making it a Dallas staple. But as the Uptown-based theater moves in a more local direction, it was time for this audience favorite to take its last bow. A quartet of performers sings through a dizzying number of vignettes, playing everything from a nervous couple on their first date to exhausted parents reigniting their spark to an elderly pair who meets at a funeral. This final year also offered a special Valentine's Day show on T3's main stage (it's normally produced down in the basement Theatre Too space), featuring cast members from previous years. A portion of those ticket sales is going toward purchasing a new piano and plaque for Theatre Three's late music director, Terry Dobson.
The moment of realization in Empathitrax
In Second Thought Theatre's production of Ana Nogueria's sci fi-tinged play, a couple experiencing problems invests in a wonder drug that lets them experience what their partner is feeling. As you'd expect, opening those floodgates leads to a lot of emotional and mental anguish (especially when one stops taking her mood stabilizers), but in the beginning, Drew Wall and Jenny Ledel beautifully captured the elation at finally being able to truly understand their significant others. "You really, really like me," Ledel says with wonder as their hands touch. "I really, really do," Wall answers, his voice hoarse with emotion. Though the journey ahead contained some very rough seas, this initial spark of pure happiness lit the show's flame.
The universe's funniest switchboard operators in Pompeii!!
I've given this world premiere musical from a local trio a lot of love, and eight months later still think all those accolades are much deserved. Written by Cameron Cobb, Max Hartman, and Michael Federico, the vaudeville-esque show combined silly stagework with some seriously catchy songs, all set right before the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius. One of the vignettes centered around two otherworldly employees, a pair of brassy broads who run God's switchboard and get their kicks from telling the soon-to-be-extinguished humans they're outta luck. Played by Steph Garrett and Marti Etheridge, two of Dallas' funniest actors, these characters made the scenes more nuanced and clever than even the best SNL skit.
Have some vodka with your rock musical
Using more atmospheric magic, Imprint Theatreworks transformed the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park into the Kings Club, an East Village bar where infidelity, rage, and violence come to hang out in Murder Ballad. Scattering the audience at cocktail tables, the bar, and in seats ringing the performance space, the immersive production made it impossible to escape the furiously sexy rock musical, performed by Brett Warner, Laura Lites, Kyle Igneczi, and Aaron C. White. Each member of the cast got TABC-certified for the show, and they were happy to share real shots with the other "bar patrons" (you) before and during the show. It was a tiny touch, but one of hundreds that added up to a completely immersive experience.
A raw moment of motherhood in Self Injurious Behavior
Local playwright and actor Jessica Cavanagh drew on her own experience as the mother of a severely autistic child to write this semi-autobiographical play, which Theatre Three presented in its basement space. Right from the start, Cavanagh let her audience know exactly how trying and exhausting her past had been by starting the play with an intense scene where her son (played by sixth-grader Jude Segrest) has a screaming meltdown. The real kicker is that this is one of dozens of episodes that the mother has endured while her musician husband is away on tour, and after Segrest exits to his room, Cavanagh is left alone onstage to break down herself, her son's cries still pulsating from offstage. Though I thought this play still needed some work, scenes like that more than succeeded.
Stomping Ground Comedy Theater's opening night
Dallas welcomed its first nonprofit theater dedicated to improv and comedy this summer, when Stomping Ground moved into its home in the Design District. It's quickly become a force not only in performance, but also with therapy and community outreach, and the team has worked hard to make itself part of the DFW theater community. That first night was buzzing with excitement as the in-house troupe did a set based on its Tall Texas Tales series, where local "celebrities" tell a story and inspire the resulting scenes. There was also stand-up from three different comics and an interactive game show, but what was most overwhelmingly noticeable was how ready the city seemed for a group like this.
When a puppet took over the play
WaterTower Theatre's outgoing artistic director Joanie Schultz received a lot of push-back from audience members who weren't ready for the theater to go in a bold, new direction. This production of Hand to God, which she had previously staged in Chicago to much acclaim, plunked its audience down in a church basement setting and fully immersed them in the story of a demonic hand puppet that starts controlling the teenager it resides upon (it was a comedy). As Tyrone the puppet began to take charge of Jason (Parker Gray), his host, he decided to do a little redecorating. Watching the patrons shriek, gasp, giggle, and flat-out cheer when glow-in-the-dark profanity and disembowled stuffed animals appeared suddenly around the theater was a treat, and a moment that wouldn't soon be replicated.