Running through November 15 at the Studio Theatre at the Wyly Theatre, Katori Hall’s Broadway hit and 2010 Olivier Award winner The Mountaintop demonstrates how a properly mounted, carefully-crafted work of fantasy based loosely on real life events can manifest as some of the finest dramatic entertainment on a local stage. Dallas Theater Center came a bit late to the “Mountaintop” party (Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth and CityRep in Oklahoma City have already mounted triumphant, professional productions of Hall’s lyrical work). But the production excels. Directed with analytical fervor and sharp as coffin nails timing for Dallas Theater Center by Akin Babatunde, this production integrates the play’s fantasy aspects into its dominant reality so unobtrusively they almost escape notice until they begin to fall as fast as unexpected snowflakes outside the Memphis motel room set. The transformation engages the audience with the same startling disbelief as it does the play’s initially terrified main character, Martin Luther King, Jr. Everyone gets put off their game.
“Love is the most radical weapon there is.” Alone in the Lorraine Motel bedroom, working on a speech he never gets to deliver as he gets assassinated the following day, Martin Luther King, Jr. becomes a real human, not a saint, not a demi-god. Hassan El-Amin brings his wealth of acting chops to bear in full force, creating an unforgettable portrait of the actual man the slain leader was: cranky, ill, philandering, smoking, egotistical, frightened, obsessive and committed 200% to the cause of civil rights. On one level, the play reveals what might have been part of King’s inner dialogue with his God the night before death almost as a fascinating debate with one imaginary friend and a few phone calls to people who matter. El-Amin shoulders the burden of humanizing King while maintaining enough of the leader’s vocal tone and charisma to more than convince the audience of his reality; they live his last night’s edge of seat experience arm in arm with him.
As rough-tongued, bossy maid Camae who brings King coffee and cigarettes and sticks around to harangue him and flirt, SMU graduate student Tiana Johnson possesses a fine-tuned balance of working class earthiness and ethereal elegance to match El-Amin’s deft command of the stage and hold Dr. King and the audience breathless in suspense. The surprises and revelations in Hall’s play are striking, dramatically potent and transformative. To say any more would spoil the experience. Set designer Bob Lavallee, lighting designer Alan Edwards, sound designer David Lanza and projection designer Chase York create a surreal mind-blowing reality out of a simple, stark motel room. The Mountaintop is a great play. Dallas Theater Center brings its audience a terrific production, best I have seen yet.
Downstairs in the Wyly Theater proper, Dallas Theater Center presents MOONSHINE: That Hee Haw Musical, running through October 11. It’s full of cheap, raunchy, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, inane “humor” (“teeth so white they could join a country club”). Its paper-thin romantic plot, set in fictitious “Kornfield Kounty”, meanders throughout two acts of maudlin put-downs of anybody who isn’t 100% Caucasian and generally male. The program says the popular “HeeHaw” television show inspired the musical. “HeeHaw” was rustic and simple, but not full of hate. Many people in the audience laughed during the matinee I attended. Mostly older, generally white folks. Don’t know exactly how “not being Jewish” is funny. Created by people with major national careers not based here, the show mocks the stupidity and backwardness of “simple, country folk” without cease. I found it offensive and disappointing. Dallas Theater Center is capable of so much more (see The Mountaintop, above). Acting and singing were acceptable. Dancing was rudimentary, repetitive and linear. Only two regional actors perform in this production out of a cast of seventeen: Julie Johnson and John Campione. I saw no role that presented too great a challenge for any of our fine regional performers. To lead the region, support the region. Directed by Gary Griffin. Choreographed by Denis Jones.
It’s a lively Fall for Dallas Theater Center, ranging from mountaintop to gutter. Go see their outstanding production of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop.
Photos by Karen Almond