My Best of Live Theater in DFW 2009

Magic on stage in the Dallas-Ft. Worth region. A wealth of creative theatrical endeavor: satisfying, dignified and quirky, heart-warming and spine-chilling, thought-provoking and side-splitting, high art to lowly farce. Performance ritual reveals truths of the human condition through magical transformation. Or we hope that happens. Here’s what wove that special magic for me this year, of those I had the privilege to review.

My 10 Top Productions of 2009

  • Talk Radio, Upstart Productions: Regan Adair, director
  • The Nibroc Trilogy, Echo Theatre: Ellen Locy and Pam Myers-Morgan, directors
  • The Black Monk, Undermain Theatre: Katherine Owens, director

Any of the above three shows could hold the #1 slot. I loved every one, went back several times. All featured taut, dynamic, evocative scripts. All featured superbly balanced acting ensembles with sophisticated, nuanced direction. All presented fully realized worlds with detailed, seamless technical execution. Their artistry soared. I chose Upstart Productions’ play for #1 after much deliberation. Its bold success amazed me. Talk Radio is only Upstart’s third show; yet their production made as powerful an artistic statement as the larger, longer established companies’ plays did. Very few shows I saw this year are scripted as innately static (cast stuck in sound booths, lead tied to a microphone most of the time) and “talky” (disembodied voices for page after page of phone calls) as Talk Radio. Yet there was nothing sedentary about it. Overwhelmingly and immediately it captured the audience’s full attention with its unique, well-delineated setting and through the nerve-jangling, suspense-filled energy the spontaneous-feeling phone calls created. It never let up; in fact, it continued to build to the final monologue, thanks to director Regan Adair. The “show” started long before any major players stepped on stage. Director Adair, widely respected and versed as a leading actor in the metroplex, understands the full blown sensory importance of mood, timing and setting. He fully embraced the opportunity to create a vivid, detailed late 80’s world in the pre-show as the catalytic motive-defining setting for his cast, in a realistic but fictitious radio station. The station was full on up and running before audience members entered and took their seats. Its dynamic seized focus before even coats could come off and programs get perused, Adair’s directorial intent. National political commercials aired (Bush/Dukakis, Willie Horton), along with weather, news reports and station identification in a loop recorded by some of the area’s leading talent in cameos. Cast members bustled about their “normal” duties as station employees, establishing the gritty realism, the bustle, the impersonal disembodiment of an on air world, the anticipation surrounding the arrival of on-air personalities, long before any word was spoken. I felt like I’d entered a magic time machine. I sat, fly-on-the-wall fashion, fascinated, watching a real live event unfold, not a stage play. Adair’s comprehensive vision created a vibrant, viable world, again, before one word was spoken. I respect the superior work of all three companies; Talk Radio earned the #1 slot for its audacious commitment to excel, with the wise and seasoned guiding the dynamic, fresh and raw, upholding the Upstart mission statement. Elias Taylorson and Lulu Ward received 2010 Dallas ‘Column Awards’ for Best Actor and Best Featured Performer, respectively, in a Non-Equity Play for their performance in Upstart Productions’ Talk Radio.

  • Trinity Shakespeare Festival, Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet: J.T. Walsh and Alexander Burns, directors
  • South Pacific, Lexus Broadway Series at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House: the Lincoln Center Theater’s revival on tour, Bartlett Sher, director, Ted Sperling, musical director
  • Lost in the Stars, Theatre Three: Jac Alder, director, musical direction by Terry Dobson and Vonda Bowling
  • The Road to Qatar, Lyric Stage: Philip George, director, David Caldwell, music director
  • A Raisin in the Sun, African-American Repertory Theater, William “Bill” Earl Ray, director
  • 14 Death Defying Acts: An Autopsy of Hunter S. Thompson, Balanced Almond Productions: Matt Posey, director
  • Oedipus Rex, MBS Productions: Mark-Brian Sonna, director

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Those are ten 2009 shows I might take along (in virtual reality) to a desert island if I retreated from civilization. Some other noteworthy productions I’d happily include: a tiered, multi-faceted, pathos-filled Vigils at Kitchen Dog Theater; the macabre My Sister in the House from Wingspan (imaginatively directed by UNT’s Marjorie Hayes); Lyric Stage’s The King and I, with original score, multi-cultural cast and splendid ballet sequence; Rene Moreno’s lively re-imagining of Merry Wives of Windsor, TX for Shakespeare Dallas and his taut, charismatic direction of This Is Our Youth for Upstart Productions; Circle Theatre’s facile realization of Steve Martin’s intellectual comedy Picasso at the Lapin Agile; Stage West’s bold, brave mounting of Thornton Wilder’s three act baffling experimental opus The Skin of Our Teeth; and Kevin Grammer’s promising emergence as a playwright with Empty Room at The Ochre House. I could go on, but my private desert island isn’t a continent. It’s been a diverse year of theatre, resplendent with creative variety, nevertheless.

And artists to celebrate?

Performances by Male Actors: David Coffee (Trinity Shakespeare Festival and Picasso at the Lapin Agile); Akin Babatunde in Theatre Three’s Lost in the Stars; Bradley Campbell in Merry Wives of Windsor; William “Bill” Earl Ray in African-American Rep’s Master Harold…and the Boys; Shane Beeson in Under a Texaco Canopy (One Thirty Productions) and Talk Radio (Upstart Productions); Jonathan Brooks in Undermain’s The Black Monk; Ian Sinclair in The NIBROC Trilogy (Echo Theatre); Daniel Frederick, Trinity Shakespeare Festival and Picasso at the Lapin Agile (Circle Theatre)

Memorable Performers--"The Nibroc Trilogy": Ian Sinclair, Morgan Justiss

Women Performers of Note: Susan McMath Platt and Morgan Justiss, The Nibroc Trilogy (Echo Theatre); Tina Parker, Vigils and Psychos Never Dream (Kitchen Dog Theater); Catherine Dubord, My Sister in This House (Wingspan); Marianne Galloway, Rabbit Hole (Contemporary Theatre of Dallas);   Anastasia Munoz, A Lie of the Mind (Second Thought Theatre); Nancy Sherrard, A Lie of the Mind (Second Thought Theatre) and The Receptionist (Water Tower Theatre); Diana Sheehan, As Thousands Cheer (Lyric Stage) and Grey Gardens (Water Tower Theatre): Lauren Rosen, don’t u luv me (Dallas Childrens Theatre) and Othello (Sundown Collaborative)

Directors: Rene Moreno, This Is Our Youth (Upstart Productions) and Merry Wives of Windsor, TX (Shakespeare Dallas); Mac Lower, A Lie of the Mind (Second Thought Theatre); Jerry Russell The Skin of Our Teeth, Stage West; Marjorie Hayes, My Sister in This House (Wingspan); Katherine Owens, The Black Monk and Port Twilight (Undermain): Regan Adair, Talk Radio (Upstart Productions)

Poulets de Printemps: Some of the most creative work I saw this year was presented by “spring chickens”, daring young lads and lasses still in college or recently exited and blazing forth with energy, commitment and passion. I’m talking about Cody Lucas’ Sundown Collaborative in Denton and Broken Gears Project  Theatre that debuted at Dallas’ The Hub Theater. The former opened its season with Shepard’s gritty, demanding True West, followed shortly after by Shakespeare’s ominous tragedy Othello—ambitious undertakings, to say the least. Uneven at times and light in technical merit, both productions still gave highly effective interpretations of complex, demanding stage works and exhibited breathtaking moments of true artistry. Such promise thrills me.

Sundown Collaborative's "True West"

Demonstrating his budding talent as a producer and artistic director with Sundown and as an actor equally at ease in period or modern plays, Lucas also excelled in his portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh in UNT’s Vincent at Brixton, A talent to reckon with, in present and future.

Then there is Broken Gears Project Theatre, which closed its inaugural offering December 19 at The Hub Theater. Undaunted by the scope and demands of a major work, like Sundown,  Joey Folsom and  Andrew Aguilar’s company presented an inventive, gripping production of Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist drama with political overtones, The Hairy Ape. Main character Yank, a demanding role for a mature actor, was portrayed with gravitas and potent believability by Brad Smeaton, still in his twenties. Director Joey Folsom, fresh off a memorable cameo acting role in Upstart Productions’ Talk Radio, created memory-burning moment after striking moment across the convoluted arc of this sophisticated, demanding work, incorporating stunning sound and movement effects an experienced director might never dream of. Next to no set, lousy acoustics and primitive lighting, spare costumes, some odd casting choices. Still, it was palpably mesmerizing theatre. Andrew Aguilar’s portrayal of a real caged ape in the play’s final scene brings a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes every time I recall it. Now. That’s Memorable. Theatre.

Best Performance of 2009

UPDATE: Elias Taylorson has just been awarded Best Actor in Non-Equity Play for 2009 by the 2010 Dallas regional Column Awards, for his role as Barry Champlain in Talk Radio ( tied with comic master wizard Jeff Swearingen for his role in Audacity Theatre Lab’s Hello Human Female).

In October, Elias Taylorson created a riveting virtuoso portrayal of Eric Bogosian’s signature character, shock jock Barry Champlain, in the stage version of Talk Radio, co-produced by Upstart Productions and Project X: Theatre.

“It’s all Barry on the mike, never a hint of Taylorson acting as Barry.” (Critical Rant & Rave Oct 2009).

Seething with a desperate ferocity, Taylorson’s portrayal demonstrated such visceral realism and integrity it was hard to remember he was acting. On stage for almost the entire play and held captive on mike, assaulted non-stop with random rapid-fire talk show callers, he held his audience at seat’s edge, even as Barry’s vulnerability emerged and he sank into disillusionment and alcohol-induced resignation in the final moments. It was a masterful feat to keep the energy coming strong while allowing the character’s intimate unraveling to permeate his performance. In addition, Taylorson’s research for the role led him to Denver where he created and filmed a compelling short documentary (now undergoing review for screening at film festivals) about murdered real-life talk radio host Alan Berg, the inspiration for Bogosian’s Barry Champlain. In future, this chameleon-like actor deserves serious consideration for other powerful leading roles. Put simply, he can electrify the stage.

A word to patrons at decade’s end: What a real difference cash can make to the success of a fledgling arts group. The next generation of theatre artists in the metroplex, the passion-filled edgy ones, the visionaries burning the midnight oil, all need your support. Want to see the arts thrive in Dallas/Ft. Worth’s future?  Fund the little guys, the bold upstart ventures, the youthful collaboratives peopled with dedicated talent balancing Starbucks jobs with college final exams while producing Shepard and Shakespeare and O’Neill in their ‘free time.’ For your entertainment. They need your tax deductible donation; it’s time to do your part in these tough economic times. Plant the seeds that can establish a glorious Eden. That’s how you can truly make a difference. It’s not just about big, shiny, new buildings.

PHOTOS:

Train to NIBROC, Echo Theatre: Ian Sinclair, Morgan Justiss

Sundown Collaborative’s True West:  Alex Worthington, Cody Lucas

Talk Radio shot by Marc Rouse: Elias Taylorson

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