2019 in a Teapot: Reflections on Regional Theatre

2020 ushers in my fifteen-year mark of writing theatre critique, advocacy and arts features in the Texas/Oklahoma region. How tempus does fugit. I saw an array of well wrought, engaging productions throughout the year. The endeavors of young, adventuresome artists encourage me to think that the region has enormous growth potential. Small companies with strict budgets strive to do justice to unique work and often attain a degree of pleasing success unmatched by better-funded companies. Stellar work by regional professionals, adept at their art and craft, underpins the year’s span with resounding quality and style. The loss of a national caliber festival in the yearly mix, after a decade of outstanding work, causes me great sorrow.
The Show, in whatever form it morphs into, must go on….
I list the first six shows in order of preference. The remainder bolster diversity of regional creativity and resourcefulness that are hallmarks of a vibrant performing arts culture.
1) ANN by Holland Taylor. Zach Scott Theatre, Austin TX. A major sensation on Broadway, this solo show is part rousing tribute to the Governor, part intimate portrayal of a salty, complex Texas woman, part social/political commentary. Offering as much resonance today as when first presented (maybe more), the play can hold audiences at the edge of their seats through both acts. In addition, I can’t recall the last time I witnessed a first act set reveal that elicited such loud gasps, clapping and rowdy cheers of delight at its emergence. Right on.

Libby Villari stars in ANN by Holland Taylor

With masterful direction by New York City- based professional Benjamin Endsley Klein, who helmed the its original Off Broadway run, the Zach recreated the award-winning tour de force. This production supported everything the clever, fast-paced script demands. A breathtaking, detailed set design of the Texas governor’s office utilized the venue’s technical potential to the max and provided ample opportunity for Fort Worth-based stage, television and film actor Libby Villari to give my Best Female Performance of 2019. The show feels written for her. She “became” Ann in the flesh, right before our eyes. Villari made Texas’ larger than life icon very human, sharing moments of dignity, pathos, indecision, intemperance, smothering manipulation, unmitigated ego and delight in confounding Bill Clinton by phone with an off-color joke. She delivered a kaleidoscopic barrage of energized but dimensional acting, living every beat in synch with Taylor’s punchy, human script. Regional audiences often give shows standing ovations. Libby Villari’s performance in the Zach Theatre production of ANN earned every moment of her O, and how. We so desperately need a leader of moral strength and boundless integrity in our country now. Nobody wanted this “Ann” to recede into history’s annals when ANN ended. Zach Theatre photo. Review: https://criticalrant.com/2019/08/17/spitting-nails-with-governor-ann-triumph-at-zach-theatre/

2) Head back up Interstate 35 to Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre, where this small, American Theatre Wing-lauded professional company presented Simon Stephens’ stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. CityRep’s production bested the national tour I saw in an earlier run in Dallas. Donald Jordan, Founding Artistic Director of CityRep, seems to have a knack for assembling seamless ensemble casts that include national and regional professional artists, talented locals and regional college students. Directed with deft attention to detail and respect for maintaining the autistic teen protagonist’s perspective by W. Jerome Stevenson, CityRep company member and Artistic Director at The Pollard Theatre, the production soared from the depths of human despair to exuberant joy at life’s potential. The Oklahoman’s Brandy McDonnell described it as “empathetic storytelling and innovative staging…a profound, must-see theatrical experience” in her 4/5/2019 review.

Cameron Law in CityRep’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The show featured a spirited, realistic portrayal of the challenging, intense teen by Oklahoma City University’s
Cameron Law, making his professional stage debut. Dallas-based professional Lisa Fairchild blended her integrated role as play’s narrator and the teen’s mentor masterfully, driving the play forward with dignity and non-patronizing compassion. I came away believing I could see this production at any first class venue in the US and know I had seen a flawless realization.
Set design by Ben Hall, lighting and projection design by DFW mainstay Adam Chamberlin and costumes by Lloyd Cracknell. Wendy Mutz photo

3. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s IN THE HEIGHTS by Dallas Theater Center. The “little show” that emerged from Lin-Manuel (with Quiara Alegría Hudes’ book) before he became a world-famous star with HAMILTON…it’s a brassy, enchanting love poem to the righteous melting pot spirit that has always “made America great” and will continue to do so. The Latin/hip hop rhythms sparkled and sizzled as the mostly age 20-30 acting/singing/dancing ensemble inspired the sell-out all-ages audience with enough joie de vivre to light sustainable interplanetary exploration to another galaxy.

DTC’s In the Heights From left: Christopher Llewyn Ramirez Xavier Cano, and Devin L. Roberts. Karen Almond photo

Directed by James Vasquez, choreographed by Rickey Tripp, musical direction by Gary Adler, set design by Dahlia Al-Habieli. If only “real” life could take a cue to be more loving and accepting from this show’s compassionate, exuberant theme.
From left: Christopher Llewyn Ramirez Xavier Cano, and Devin L. Roberts. Karen Almond photo

4. Back up to Oklahoma City! This time to see URTA theatre Lyric Stage’s FROST/NIXON, directed by Lyric’s Producing Artistic Director Michael Baron with a powerful, innovative concept. I wasn’t that fond of the 2006 Tony awarded stage play or Ron Howard’s 2008 Academy Award nominated film (too predictably linear for my taste). But when I heard that Oklahoma City University theatre professor and CityRep company member D. Lance Marsh would play Nixon, I made early plans for the drive. No regrets. A political thriller set in the 70’s about lightweight David Frost’s interviews with Machiavellian Richard Nixon after he resigned…how to make that stage-worthy and not didactic? Politics today plays out harsh in your face on Facebook, Twitter and cable TV. Not so much a 70’s vibe. Baron took a strikingly innovative approach that made the play spring to life with total resonance for today in its examination of the blurred lines between entertainment/infotainment and serious news.

Lyric Theatre’s FrostNixon. D.Lance Marsh and Matthew Alvin Brown

Using a 28-foot-long LED screen as the show’s backdrop with four television cameras mounted downstage pointed at the “combatants”, the production merged live video with projection and live stage action to create intense drama and the sense of a pressing, contemporary reality. Flawless integration of these intricate technical effects by sound and projection designer Sam Kusnetz lifted the play into a fresh, engaging dimension. This allowed both Marsh as Nixon and Matthew Alvin Brown as Frost to inhabit both larger than life and intimate moments with equal veracity. Brown, also a CityRep company member, created a David Frost as interesting to watch as Marsh’s Nixon, instead of simply playing an outgunned, pretty boy foil to the master obfuscator. No small achievement. Marsh took Nixon on a triumphant Shakespearean roller coaster ride. When he delivered the ex-President’s late night drunken phone monologue to a stunned Frost, hints of Lear, Richard III and Macbeth haunted the venue shadows. His Nixon’s rambling pseudo-confessional of a monologue elicited voyeuristic horror spiced with jolts of compassion as the audience witnessed full meltdown. Me, feel sorry for Nixon? Congratulations, Professor Marsh. You gave my Male Acting Performance of 2019.

5. Back down to Dallas’ Wyly Theatre and up the snug, metallic elevator to the Dallas Theater Center’s production of Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer Prize finalist drama THE WOLVES, a collaboration with the Theatre Division of the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, A season‘s worth of killer soccer unfolds in 90 minutes, told through the life experiences of nine teen-aged girls. A stunner of a play if performed by all adult actors,

The Wolves at Dallas Theater Center

DTC’s production utilized the talent of six SMU college students plus three regional professionals, offering audiences a sterling glimpse into what makes competitive teen-aged women tick. Gritty and ferocious, naïve and tender: the ensemble created honest personae without a trace of cringe-worthy stereotype or girlie folderol. Wendy Dann directed this trophy of a production with Steve TenEyck’s soccer field set design a simple, effective playing space upon which the bonded team, the Wolves, learn tough life lessons. Focused exclusively on women’s experience in a male-dominated niche, THE WOLVES rates high in my estimation as a production DTC and the region should be very proud of.

6.Avoided the highway overpass loops and tooled over to Fair Park. Wended my way past the Music Hall to a nondescript building at the Midway’s edge that houses the Margo Jones Theater. There, in 1947, age 30-something Margo Jones premiered her age 30-something friend Tennessee Williams’ latest stage epistle to tortured love, SUMMER AND SMOKE. In 2019 The Classics Theatre Project produced it again in the space. Directed with elegance and economy by Emily Scott Banks, this provocative and sometimes confusing play sprang alive in the intimate theater space, a production that would surely have pleased the playwright’s ghost. Natalie McBride’s arena configured stage set transcended the space’s lecture hall ambience and allowed the mystery of higher love to intertwine evocatively with lurid degeneracy like swirling swamp fog. The play unfolded like a prizefight between the forces of good and evil.

Evan Michael Woods and Gretchen Hahn in TCTP’s Summer and Smoke

Evan Michael Woods and Gretchen Hahn played the enamored pair, John and Alma, doomed to never find mutual solace in each other, only inspiration. They were cast in apt contrast to explore their excesses in expectation and self-delusion. As Alma’s parents and John’s father, regional top actors Mary-Margaret Pyeatt, Stan Graner and Van Quattro brought earthbound desperation to the play’s ephemeral sensibility. Director Banks never abandoned realism to elevate the doomed romance, just as she never diminished the purity of love in aspiration to heighten the focus on tawdriness. So glad a company is mounting classic theater without falling into the trap of “re-imagining” to “improve” older shows. Just do the good work…. https://criticalrant.com/2019/06/02/sizzle-and-soul-tctps-righteous-summer-and-smoke/

7. Next on my list, also mounted at the Margo Jones space, I include George Brant’s unique one-woman show GROUNDED. Named a Top 10 London Play of 2013 by both the Guardian and the London Evening Standard, GROUNDED was first produced as a rolling world premiere from NNPN (SF Playhouse, Borderlands Theater, and Unicorn Theatre) and by London’s Gate Theatre. Translated into 12 languages for more than 140 productions in 19 countries, this intense solo drama follows the real and imagined experiences of a female ace fighter pilot who finds herself “demoted” to drone operator….

Robin Clayton in George Brant’s Grounded

In Dallas, new transplant director Maigan McPherson mounted a tense, gutsy, believable version starring regional actor Robin Clayton as the conflicted pilot. Clayton always gives 200% to her roles, and GROUNDED was no exception. Honest and riveting, she balanced the diverse worlds the character inhabits that ultimately tear her apart with authority and charisma. I bought the whole package, not just one aspect of it. The script is taut and clean, but the right actor makes this show come alive, with strong direction. It was a winner in every way. https://criticalrant.com/2019/04/17/7285/

8. Out in the Farmers Branch burbs Amy’s Studio of Performing Arts occasionally transforms into a makeshift black box performance space for an enterprising thespian troupe, Resolute Theatre Project. They mount thought-provoking, edgier works with varying degrees of success. It’s one of few regional companies that take risks with plays of genuine literary merit (as opposed to some latest trend). In 2019 the company mounted Samuel D. Hunter’s THE FEW. Described as “eccentric” by respected critics, Hunter (recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant) writes fascinating, nuanced characters that stride, meander and catapult across wildly imaginative plots. THE FEW premiered at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater in 2013 and ran in New York in 2014. Set in 1999, the play concerns the lives and motivations of estranged lovers/former publishers of a newspaper for lonely truckers set in remote N. Idaho. It’s a tidy humdinger of a play with crisp arcs, lyrical moments and weighty reflection on aspects of fidelity. Seth Johnston directed Resolute’s production with pristine sensibility (this work could crater into overblown torchy in less wise hands) and found a compelling, evenly matched cast in Danny Macchietto, Lindsay Mayward and Jake Pierce Blakeman. The dance studio ambience never fully disappears, but this is gutsy theatre, y’all. In 2020 drive to the burbs if you admire intelligent drama and support authentic artistic aspiration. http://www.resolutetheatreproject.com

My final two notables of 2019 are workshop stagings of works that demonstrate much promise. Workshop/readings in progress, not the eternal search for readily accessible “perfection”. A semi-staged version of a new rock musical, working title OSWALD, drew me in for two viewings at The Firehouse Theatre, where it played to sold-out houses for four lightly promoted performances. Conceived of and written by seasoned New York professionals Tony LePage and Josh Sassanella (also its composer), the show featured eleven actors and twenty-three rock songs in the Dallas workshop Lee Harvey Oswald is portrayed as two characters (The Lone Gunman and The Patsy), often as a duo. Wife Marina also appears as two characters – the young wife and mature woman – and drives the show’s arc, enough to question its working title. A dynamic thriller that explores the essence of truth and memory without “taking sides”, its fresh approach as a valid piece of theatre warrants its inclusion here. I hear it may be back in 2020 as it morphs into a fully realized production. Cast in Dallas in 2019 with a fine mix of regional talent and New York professionals, the show has genuine promise as it moves forward in search of investor funding.
Here’s a Dallas News article about the show:
https://www.dallasnews.com/arts-entertainment/performing-arts/2019/08/23/in-searching-for-the-next-hamilton-the-makers-of-the-musical-oswald-traverse-the-jfk-minefield/

Back into the solo actor realm, regional playwright and author, professional stage director and TCU theatre professor Thomas J. Walsh brought his spooky yet poignant PLEADING INFINITY to Richardson’s Core Theatre, as part of The Dramatist Guild Reading Series. The quirky, engaging show featured veteran actor and Texas Weslayan professor Richard Haratine. Negotiating plot twists reminiscent of The Twilight Zone, the solo actor plays a screenwriter revealing conversationally his life experiences relating to Hollywood, near death moments, birth, ghostly haunting, UFO visitation, the nature of art and the universe’s emergence.

Richard Haratine in T.J. Walsh’s Pleading Infinity

Beautifully crafted as a literary work and acted equally well, the show provides intrigue and charm as it glides towards completion as a work. It’s had two other readings, in Fort Worth and New York City. Superior script by Walsh meets sterling performance by Haratine. Look for a full regional mounting in 2020. The Core Theatre, Richardson TX http://www.thecoretheatre.org

Je ne regretted rien: 2019 unfolded as the first year in a decade without Trinity Shakespeare Festival at TCU in Fort Worth. The brainchild of TCU professors and nationally respected theatre artists, Dr. Harry Parker (managing director) and Dr. T.J.Walsh (founding artistic director), it operated with TCU funding as an AEA Small Professional Theatre. Not only did it provide superb performance opportunities with decent pay to regional and national professional actors, directors and designers, it incorporated TCU students. The opportunity to work beside national caliber artists provided them with a unique, educational experience to take forward into professional lives as artists. I never missed a production, often returned for a second divine pass. I interviewed an array of committed TSF actors, directors and designers. All described the level of national respect TSF earned for the caliber of artistry demonstrated… how they believed that elevated the national perception of performance art in the region as well as supported them in their chosen careers. With the exception of the Tony Award-winning Dallas Theater Center, no other North Texas company has achieved comparable status. To lose it through administrative dictum, no recourse, and to deny its eager audiences the yearly delight of professional Shakespeare performance TSF provided breaks my heart. My critical year revolved around anticipation of the Festival and the absolute joy I felt attending and writing about it. It was always the high point of the season. There’s an emptiness I feel now, echoing the unforgivable loss to the region’s art. Thank you to all who made it possible for ten wonderful years.


“…But this
rough magic
I here abjure, and when I have
required
Some heavenly music, which
even now I do.
To work mine end upon their
senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break
my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the
earth.
And deeper than did ever
plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.”
Act 5, Scene1: THE TEMPEST

Have a glorious year of live theatre, y’all.
Let’s send Peace and Compassion throughout the world.

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