Don’t miss Paul Kalburgi’s profoundly moving In The Tall Grass

Along the spectrum of queer identity (LGBTQ) transgendered women are perhaps the most marginalized, the most persecuted. And among those, African American women. This demographic comprises the premise of In The Tall Grass, currently playing at The Bishop Arts Theatre Center in Oak Cliff. Describing it as a “verbatim play,” playwright Paul Kalburgi conducted inquiries, regarding the murder of Shade Schuler; an MTF whose body was found dumped in Dallas. Using a similar methodology to The Laramie Project, Kalburgi went into the field, interviewing cops, friends, family, neighbors and anybody else impacted by the death of this spirited, radiant lady. All the dialogue from In The Tall Grass was constructed from the testimony of actual persons.

In The Tall Grass reveals many details about what it means to live on the fringes of society. Because women transgenders often find it difficult to find legitimate work, desperation can force them to turn to sex work or drug trade. For some reason, their sex clients seem to be among the most violent and unstable. Many are ostracized by their own families. Blackmailed into trading sexual favors to avoid abuse by the police. All these factors combine to diminish their self-esteem and contribute to their sense of isolation and pain. Consider how profoundly cultural attitudes can influence members of the queer community. How not so very long ago, the message that gays and lesbians got, in a thousand variations, was how unwelcome and contemptible they were. We are gradually moving away from that (though not completely out of the woods) but those who question their birth gender, too often remain at the bottom of the heap. Without means to support themselves, they must put themselves at risk, daily. Sometimes just by stepping outside the front door. That is, if they aren’t homeless.

Kalburgi and his impressive cast (Miecko Hicks, Kyndra Mack, Neil Rogers, LeMar Roheem Staton, Sheila D. Rose, Michael Salimitari, Shannon Walker) navigate this emotional, heart-breaking, infuriating and discouraging material with precision, compassion, courage and humanity. One particular line that emerged from this powerful script was how mysterious and complex gender is. At their core, maleness, femaleness are enigmatic, beyond the trappings, roles and archetypes society imposes on them. This is rarely discussed or even articulated, but it resonates with with every one of us. No matter who we love, or make love to. Perhaps because women transgenders challenge culture in ways not always easy to conceal, they become targets for all our ugly feelings and doubts and disappointments. Whatever the explanation, Paul Kalburgi, his cast and crew, have brought keen insight into this widely misconstrued and sorely neglected issue.

Bishop Arts Theatre Center presents : In The Tall Grass, closing this weekend on September 24th, 2017. 215 South Tyler Street, Dallas, Texas 75208. 214-948-0716.

Lotus springs from the mud in Core Theatre’s Debt That Led….

A journalist interviews Stevie and Lamont, two homeless guys who turn her assumptions inside out. They may not have a roof over their heads, but they are intelligent, resourceful, kind, introspective and more evolved than many with hearth and steady income. As we might expect, they know where to go for food and a bath (soup kitchens, churches, charities) but they have also reliable friends, support networks and families. They are not insane, bitter, or cognitively challenged. (Though you might need a closer look.) Stevie has suffered some traumatic experiences that clearly burden him, yet he soldiers on, focusing on the positive when he can. Lamont, clearly sharp and responsible, is trying to hide from drug dealers he’s indebted to. These two enjoy each other’s company and conversation, whether playing checkers or debating the essential difference between lasagna and spaghetti. They never ask for indulgence or pity.

Playwright James Prince has created a parable of sorts, that submerges us in the realm of those without visible mooring or means. Lamont and Stevie have managed to navigate circumstances that could easily throw most of us into a tailspin. Without going so far as to suggest they have an advantage, perhaps their predicament has fomented a seachange. Perhaps they’ve acquired a shift in values, the ability to grasp what really matters. They don’t seem to be living hand to mouth or motivated by desperation. Their sense of family and home seems to have more to do with genuine concern and attachment than a geographical location. In A Debt That Led To Home Prince has found the angel in the details. The miraculous in the everyday and seemingly mundane.

A Debt That Led To Home is a quirky, intriguing, deeply touching play about the homeless and struggles for grace we all share. Prince plays Stevie, a gentle, congenial guy who perseveres despite trauma and adversity. A show brimming with authenticity and warmth. Special props to Jim Finger, whose marvelous, vivid, graffiti scrawled set evokes the rough, distorted, chaotic world we humans are flung into.

The Core Theatre features A Debt That Led To Home playing August 18th-September 17th, 2017. 518 West Arapaho Road, Suite 115, Richardson, Texas 75080. 214-930-5338.

Don’t miss Carla Parker’s brilliant, unsettling Kaptain Kockadoo at Ochre House

Kaptain Kockadoo takes place on the set of a children’s show, with more than a passing resemblance to the popular Kaptain Kangaroo. Like so many others, the Captain was an integral part of my childhood, with Mr. Green Jeans, Bunny Rabbit, Mr. Moose, et al. Leave it to Ochre House and playwright Carla Parker to turn this milieu to their own dark, satirical purposes. If we think of early children’s programming (Sesame Street, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, Mr. Peppermint) as friendly, gentle indoctrination intended to convey the value of kind and responsible behavior, then perhaps it doesn’t seem like a reach. If we add that Kaptain Kockadoo is Mormon (or some other polygamous religion) and that his and Uncle Willie’s wives are characters and musicians for the production, it then becomes a metaphor for oppression, misogyny and the pervasive arrogance of numerous organized religions.

As we might expect, Kaptain Kockadoo is chock full of spirited songs, puppetry, life lessons, homilies and enigmatic elements. Uncle Cat seems to be a shadow entity with some hold on Kaptain Kockadoo and a mysterious sequence featuring luminous fingers suggest unseen forces at work. At first it all feels fairly harmless. Charitable, goofy and filled with those playful touches like a milkman offering crazy flavors and a talking tree with children’s letters hanging from it’s boughs. As the show continues though, the Captain grows more and more petulant. Like an infantile tyrant. He weaves bizarre theological imagery into the proceedings and progressively exerts dominance and pathological contempt towards his wives: Annabelle Anne, Farah Sue and “Peanuts.” As the women break ranks and assert insubordination Kaptain K gets increasingly testy.

Parker is sly and assured in the way she depicts the subversive nature of male leverage and the subtle manipulation of imperialist religious doctrine. That these ideas and attitudes are hidden in the context of a show for kids, of course, just makes it all the more queasy. When we’re submerged in particular beliefs for weeks, months, years, they no longer appear on our radar. The effect can be poisonous and insidious. We participate without understanding because we don’t grasp the underpinnings. The assumptions. Carla Parker’s Kaptain Kockadoo is disturbing, cynical, scary, as if someone slipped psychotropics into our Ovaltine. It’s a powerful piece. Brilliant and enervating. Sharp and courageous.

Ochre House Theater presents Kaptain Kockadoo, playing August 19th-September 9th, 2017. 825 Exposition Avenue, Dallas, Texas 75226. 214-826-6273.

Last chance to see saucy, savvy, sublime Coy Covington in Tribute Artist

Jimmy rents a space in a four-story townhouse from Adriana, a crusty, outrageously funny dowager reminiscent of Diana Vreeland. Back in the day, Jimmy and his best friend Rita, played the nightclub circuit, where he impersonated screen legends like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and other glamorous sirens of the silver screen. “I am not a drag queen”, he insists, “I am a tribute artist.” Not long after she discloses that she has no heirs or will, and doesn’t care who gets the estate, Adriana fortuitously kicks the bucket. Under the circumstances, Rita and Jimmy concoct a scheme to pass Jimmy off as Adriana. They are strapped for cash and Jimmy has mad transgender performance skills. What could conceivably go wrong?

Out of the blue, Christina, Adriana’s niece appears, then Rodney, her estranged rough trade lover. Even though the real Adriana is still (ostensibly) alive, her tenuous hold on health has raised questions of probate and division of assets. Numerous complications arise. Playwright Charles Busch deserves props for unfurling one surprise after another. Jimmy has fallen hard and fast for the unmistakably despicable, thuggy Rodney, and Rita for the neurotic Christina. Without revealing anything more, very little that happens after the premise, is what we might expect from this kind of comedy.

Charles Busch has certainly spent much of his career exploring drag comedy and mocking the camp excesses of melodrama by casting queens in lieu of actual female performers. Many of his plays (Die! Mommie! Die!, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom) feel like John Waters with dazzle and cachet. The Tribute Artist would seem to mark his gradual transition to humor that still considers the connection between gender and personality, but in less extreme terms. Jimmy ultimately doesn’t treat his female personae as fulfillment of identity, and Christina’s daughter is an FTM young man.

A kind of riff on the Bette Davis classic, Dead Ringer, The Tribute Artist has the amusing aspects of drawing room comedy, without Busch’s early predilection for cartoony satire. The undeniable double-edged sword of art and entertainment is that you can be outrageous and over-the-top if you know how to make it work. Expertise and technique eclipse content every time. The Tribute Artist is more cerebral and less frantic than many of Busch’s previous endeavors. It’s pleasurable without necessarily aiming for the same kind of punch.

At the center of Uptown’s production is the saucy, savvy, intuitive Coy Covington, who always takes drag to the realms of the sublime. Like the best of his craft, his female performances are a combined comment on the constraints of femininity and his flawless gift for hilarity. “Jimmy” is a demanding role, requiring imitative allusions from classic films, fluid emotional shifts, and meticulous deadpan delivery. Covington rises to the occasion, creating a character that has a life of their own, beyond the acquisition of a role and the boundaries of the script.

Uptown Players presents The Tribute Artist, playing August 25th-September 10th, 2017, Kalita Humphrey’s Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd, Dallas, Texas 75219. 214-219-2718.

Boy Gets Girl stunning, disturbing exploration of dark side

Indoctrination and culture often go hand in glove. We pick up (often subtle) clues from the behavior of others, regarding attitudes towards men and women, boys and girls. Here in the 21st Century, we like to think we’ve evolved past ignorant, outdated assumptions, but sadly many persist. Ideas like male privilege, female helplessness, predatory dynamics, still manage to sift into our consciousness, so taken for granted they go undetected. Such is the case with Rebecca Gilman’s brilliant drama: Boy Gets Girl. Though the title might suggest a number of lighthearted romantic comedies, it also implies the woman has little choice in the matter. Her role is to be pursued and resist as long as she can. It leaves no room for refusal. At the outset, Teresa goes on a blind date with Tony. Their first beer together goes well enough, but the second time (when they meet for dinner) it’s clear to Teresa they’re not a good fit. Tony mistakes her tact for ambivalence, and what might have been played for laughs, gradually becomes more and more disturbing. Before Boy Gets Girl finishes, Tony will subject Teresa to increasingly poisonous behavior, diminishing her life without even being in the same room.

I’m not sure Gilman’s aim is to point the finger towards men, as it might be to explore, and bring attention to our oversights and mistaken ideas. When men get together and compare notes on women their reasoning can lack enlightenment (to be kind) and to be fair, such conversations on the part of either gender can result in an us versus them mentality. It’s to Gilman’s credit that she drops intelligent, if indirect, hints throughout the script. Teresa must interview a cheesy movie maker (based on Russ Meyers?) who’s made a career of films that objectify women. Her male colleagues are unsettled to discover the code on her calendar for keeping track of her period. This polarization, this conflation of the mysterious “other gender” with adversarial chemistry or dehumanization, goes to the core of Boy Gets Girl and cultural permission to take liberties. What happens on the stage, Gilman suggests, only begins to explain the hazardous complications of sexual attachment between men and women.

A collaboration between Resolute Theatre Project, L.I.P. Service and Proper Hijinx Productions, and directed by Jason Leyva, Boy Gets Girl is a skillful, moving, deeply troubling piece. The cast and crew converge to share a narrative with no easy answers, and many traps waiting, even when our motives feel innocuous. They preserve the comic relief without undercutting the gravity. It is a cautionary tale, to be sure, but beyond that, an invitation to reflect on the emotions and frustrations that lurk behind familiar scenarios that we re-enact daily, without a second thought. Don’t miss this quietly stunning, sharp, revealing drama.

Boy Gets Girl plays August 25th-27th, 2017. Amy’s Studio of Performing Arts, 11888 Marsh Lane, Suite 600, Dallas, Texas 75234. 972-484-7900.

Morgana Shaw frank, fierce, intoxicating in All About Bette

Camilla Carr’s All About Bette is a one-woman show that turns on the meticulous, focused, inspired performance of Morgana Shaw. Beginning with Bette Davis in her twilight years, she arrives with silver-white hair, moving a bit slowly, but still as fierce as ever. She starts by mentioning that Edward Albee only granted permission to Warner Brothers for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because he was promised that she and James Mason would play Martha and George. Had this come through, her famous “What a dump.” line would have featured Bette Davis doing Bette Davis. This delicious irony launches Ms. Davis into an avid, detailed, beguiling succession of anecdotes, punched up with juicy gossip and grand moments, such as a few bars from her famous song, “A Letter to Daddy” from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Roughly halfway through the show, there’s a riveting sequence of transformation. She removes the wig to reveal a damp mop of brunette hair, which she brushes out to reverse time by about 30 years.

Ms. Davis shares personal struggles such as the painful ordeal with two of her daughters, one angry and alienated, the other emotionally and cognitively impaired. She discusses sexual and romantic connections with William Wyler, Howard Hughes, Gary Merrill and George Brent among others. She was married five times and was notorious for her frankness and lack of pretension, which makes All About Bette so warm, appealing and infinitely pleasurable. How can we help but admire an actress who’s willing to play the cold, cynical villains from such landmark films as, Of Human Bondage, Jezebel, The Letter and The Little Foxes? She was beautiful, if not glamorous, but she made the most of her talent, and history by fighting a studio system that reduced its stars to commodities. Throughout this intoxicating monologue, we are charmed by her lack of vanity and refusal to to wrap herself in adulation.

When a playwright sets out to forge a bio-drama, it’s hard to avoid ending up with a prolonged valentine and/or tribute that capitalizes exclusively on fan favorites. When Holland Taylor wrote her drama of Ann Richards, the portrait we got was varied and thorough, probably because her personal history was not common knowledge. While All About Bette may not include as many revelations as we might like, we get a strong sense of who Ms. Davis was. Her strengths and tragedies and moments of genuine kindness. It’s easy to embrace her refusal to be mistaken for a saint, and put simply, the desire to be recognized exclusively for her astonishing craft and talent. Morgana Shaw pulls off the daunting, Herculean task of fleshing out a legendary, Titanic star (who brought such depth and delight to us) with confidence and poise. She invites us into a realm of intense joie de vivre and the company of a lady who brought electricity to a world that’s diminished by her passing.

Straight Entertainment presents All About Bette: An Interlude with Bette Davis, playing August 18th-26, 2017. Stone Cottage Theatre, 15650 Addison Road, Addison, Texas 75001. 972-450-6232.

Theatre Britain’s Let It Be Me a poignant, sensitive drama on a delicate subject

Amy Flynt and her brother were raised by her Aunt Sylvia, when they lost their parents. Amy still lives with her Aunt, who’s in her twilight years. She takes care of her, as dementia has begun to set in. In fact, her aunt does not recognize her, routinely asking, “When will Amy be home from school?” Sylvia likes Amy and they have a good connection, but imagine sharing a long-term, caring relationship with someone and watching it gradually evaporate. Amy has a competent, conscientious support system, but for all practical purposes, she is her aunt’s primary caregiver. She must vigilantly watch for triggers, as Sylvia can be fairly high maintenance, and might lash out hysterically from time to time.

Amy meets her love interest, Gregory Roberts, when she finds a book with uncut pages. (Perhaps this is an appropriate metaphor for Sylvia, whose vivid, intriguing contents are rendered inaccessible?) Gregory deals in used books, and a mutual friend sends him Amy’s way, to assess the value of such a rare find. Gregory is almost immediately smitten. Their dating life goes well for awhile, but gradually he gathers that his needs will always take a back seat to Sylvia’s. This is no small incidence. For the first time Amy has someone else looking out for, and cherishing her in that special way.

In Let It Be Me, playwright Carey Jane Hardy has constructed a deeply moving drama on a painful, frustrating, confusing subject. When we realize a loved one is besieged with Alzheimer’s, it can be like watching them stranded on a boat, drifting further and further away. We feel helpless, hurt, angry and yet must learn to cope. Hardy addresses this situation with warmth, intelligence and sensitivity, picking emotional turns with great care. She addresses the question of whether or not those who love the afflicted should roll with their mistaken fantasies or confront them. This question is never really answered, but that being said, Let It Be Me is a triumph of nuanced tone, insight and magnanimous humanity.

I have never had a disappointing experience at Theatre Britain, and Let It Be Me found a good home there. Director Sue Birch always brings a professional, precise and distinctive touch to all the shows produced there. Dizzy comedy, ruminating drama, Murder Mystery or Christmas Panto, Theatre Britain delivers with incomparable quality and exceptionally satisfying entertainment.

Due to health issues I was unable to release my review before Let It Be Me closed.

Theatre Britain: Cox Playhouse: 1517 H Avenue, Plano, Texas 75074. 972-490-4202.

Andrew Aguilar’s visionary Macbeth

The first production I was privileged to see at L.I.P. Service, was David Rabe’s Streamers, a play I don’t think gets staged very often. It’s a difficult show (Rabe can be excruciating) but they grabbed the dragon by the horns and refused to let go. I continue to be impressed by the distinctive work they choose to stage: edgy, eccentric, alienated, profoundly dark shows that drag you to a netherworld of poetic pain and amazement. The Whale, Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and Trainspotting, to name a few. There have been problems, but never was I bored, or disappointed by derivative content. L.I.P. Service always strives to engage, intrigue and challenge the audience.

Without getting into a lot of annoying details, I attended L.I.P. Service’s production of Macbeth (conceived and adapted by Andrew Aguilar) when I was still recovering. It closed awhile ago, and I offer my apologies for getting it out so late. Aguilar’s vision of Macbeth was raw, beguiling, trippy, outlandish, and very entertaining. In keeping with the practice of making Shakespeare more accessible, this Macbeth was more contemporary. Certain aspects were at once familiar and strange to 21st Century eyes. Shakespeare’s language was not tampered with, though I got the impression some excisions were made. Much of the scenery seemed minimalized and/or stylized, though the necessarily salient points were made.

There was much to dazzle in Andrew Aguilar’s version of Macbeth (directed by Jason Leyva) bold choices and a scrumptious chill to Ryan Matthieu’s extraterrestial, flamboyant costumes. Macbeth himself had a roaring, robust gusto, and Lady Macbeth a patrician, seductive demeanor that was surprising and alluring. Death symbols abound, in addition to a prevalence of black attire, to remind us that once Macbeth (and his wife) commit the first murder, more will inevitably follow. The music selections were appropriately disturbing and the profusion of smoke and grim, supernatural trappings enhanced the queasy feeling of kindness eclipsed by compulsive ambition. Not all of the risks hit the mark, but the experience, overall, was rich, surprising, fresh, juicy and quite satisfying.

T3’s Minotaur quirky, engaging, poignant

Anna Ziegler’s The Minotaur basks in quirkiness, its sense of the whimsical. Director and Scenic Designer Jeffrey Schmidt has laid out an oversized sandbox and sluices for the river that leads to the Minotaur’s cave. The chorus consists of a lady Rabbi, a Priest and a Lawyer. Much of the story is told with “props” strewn like jetsam on a beach. When the three are not wearing imposing bronze masks to command our attention, they sit around a patio table, drinking wine, playing board games, reading. Anyone who wishes to stage Greek or Roman mythology, and make the content accessible and familiar, has their work cut out for them. Ancient zeitgeist and other cultural assumptions normally unavailable are revealed in Ziegler’s script, along with most of the subtext. The dialogue uses gobs of pop contemporary references (the internet, texting, Craig’s List) presumably to make the speech less rhetorical and story more salient. It’s by turns amusing, poetic, frank, expository, wrenching.

Pasiphae falls in love with a beautiful white bull (and with the help of Daedalus) disguises herself as a cow. She’s impregnated by the sublime beast and subsequently gives birth to the Minotaur, a monster half-bull and half-man. He lives in a pitch black labyrinth, devouring men and impossible to kill. After that Pasiphae gives birth to Ariadne, the Minotaur’s sister. When Theseus arrives to vanquish the monster, Ariadne falls in love with him. She’s torn between her need to help Theseus (who could die) and spare her brother. Theseus is the archetypal hero, Ariadne the incomparable beauty and Minotaur, a metaphor for fierce desire, though no less sympathetic for that.

The Minotaur is a pleasurable, entertaining, surprisingly effective balance of explication, intent and yearning. Ziegler isn’t timid about exposing the scaffolding, or questioning the wisdom of a conqueror who lives for nothing else, however altruistic he may be. She dissects, undercuts, and sometimes debunks what we’d assume to be the overarching values of the original allegory. She does, however, recreate the story with wit, sincerity and panache. The Minotaur is not overly impressed with its own cleverness or reverential to its detriment. It stays true to the spirit of the piece, ruminating on the nature of love, attachment, longing and the value of humanity.

Theatre 3 presents The Minotaur, playing August 3rd-27th, 2014. 2800 Routh Street, Suite 168, Dallas, Txas

WTT’s Hit the Wall an exhilarating, intriguing take on LGBTQ History

Hit the Wall would seem to be a show whose time has come, depicting a monumental milestone in the history of LGBTQ Rights. Precipitated by the death of Judy Garland, The Stonewall Riots marked a watershed, rallying point for various factions of the queer community (closet cases, twinks, drag queens, dykes, lipsticks, and so forth) who were tired of being rousted, abused and humiliated. Cosmopolitan as The Big Apple might be, The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village was not immune to regular raids where customers were degraded, arrested, outed in the newspapers at a time when exposure ruined lives. Until that night when they decided they’d had enough. By some accounts the queens were first to take up the gauntlet, setting in motion a three-day melee that galvanized the Gay Rights Movement on an exponentially larger scale.

Written by Ike Holter, Hit the Wall takes a cross section of gay characters (male, female, trans, younger, older, out and passing) and tells their stories as witnesses to those notorious riots that took place in the sweltering June of 1969. Added to the mix are a couple of straight characters, a homophobic cop and estranged sister who may have softer sides. We assume Holter wants to go beneath the stereotypes to explore complications of identity. He takes great pains to emphasize that the truth is unknowable (as Rashomon taught us) except by processing anecdotal testimony. We get individual incidents in which a world that fosters paranoia and distrust gives way to solidarity and defiance.

The aggregate result of a society that systematically diminishes you cannot be exaggerated, and this phenomenal chain of events that led to groundbreaking anarchy is rich in history and inspiration. And so is Holter’s decision to capture it in theatrical event. Like Brokeback Mountain, it fills a need by giving us the nuts and bolts of same-gender sexuality without disparagement or condescension. The script is peppered with queer lingo. There may have been some struggle in deciding how to do the content justice, beyond a gloss that explains the how, why and cultural implications. Or choreographing a brawl in which queer folk (like us) kick some breeder ass. Hit the Wall may feel a bit unfocused, but it’s a scintillating, exhilarating show, filled with humanity, anger and enlightenment.

WaterTower Theatre presents Hit the Wall, playing July 28th-August 20th, 2017. 15650 Addison Road, Addison, Texas 75001. 972-450-6232.,