Sharp Critic: Christopher Soden’s Top 11 for 2017.

 

Dr. Bobaganush (The Ochre House)

Matthew Posey, genius behind The Ochre House, writer and director of most of their shows, has a unique gift for creating absurd, strange, shticky, profane, hilarious pieces with a cynical undercurrent. I say this with great admiration. Cynicism is often a powerful impetus for brilliant satire. Dr. Bobaganush is a bold, funny, fierce indictment of the holocaust and our current regime. As an elderly Jewish friend of mine once pointed out, the parallels are ugly and unsettling, and Posey has used his magnificent craft to stir us to the quick. You don’t know whether to weep or guffaw. It’s not difficult to watch until the very end.

Dr. Bobaganush (and his Carnival of Wonders) travels the European hinterlands with his family in a wagon, a mash-up of slapstick, prophesy and prestidigitation. Ochre House shows have a tendency to blend the comedic, oracular and grotesque and this one is no exception. The characters include Anne Frank and Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan. Anne is dressed to suggest Dorothy Gale of Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz series. When she spends the night in Bobaganush’s wagon, his decrepit dad chases her sporting (what must be) an enormous erection. Ugh! Someone needs to put grandpa on a leash. For all the stuff and nonsense the doctor and his clan offer as entertainment, he undoubtedly has access to genuine psychic powers. While Anne and the Van Daans flee the Nazis, he senses something nefarious in the air. It’s obvious to the audience he’s on the right track, but at that time, no one could believe that such a ridiculous, unbalanced little megalomaniac could win such widespread advocacy, or wield such pervasive, toxic influence.

You never know what to expect when you visit The Ochre House, but it’s all to the good. For some reason, Posey’s bizarre combinations of the traumatic, banal, humorous and vaudevillian works inexplicably well, and no one who loves theatre should miss the opportunity to go.

Adding Machine: A Musical (Theatre 3)

From the outset, we can tell Adding Machine is not a conventional musical. A chorus of four supplies histrionic, operatic urgency and fills in by playing various roles throughout. Their often amusing behavior stands in stark contrast to the content of the lyrics. We begin with Zero and Mrs. Zero, climbing into bed, while the missus natters about gossip, social obligations, disappointments. Sadly, she is an unmitigated harridan, and it’s not long before she digs in: I was a fool to marry you, this sort of thing. There is a cartoony, excessive mien to all this, all the better to tickle you, my dear; a blending of social commentary and absurd humor. In the office we see the daily rhythm of adding numbers, and gradually catch on that despite their bickering, Zero and his assistant, Daisy DeVore, have an unacknowledged yearning for each other.

Rice was probably ahead of his time in writing this dystopian critique of the empty values behind capitalism. The subsequent score and libretto by Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith italicize and heighten the material. The murder of The Boss is merely a triggering event that propels Zero to death row, the afterlife, and subsequent examination of the foibles of humanity and need for purpose. There’s a wry undercurrent to the most serious of events, never letting us forget we are witnessing a marriage between the wretched and the ridiculous. Even when Zero is offered the opportunity to move past drudgery it would seem he is more devoted to his shackles. For all our encouragement to read him as a schlub, he is also an Everyman, finding his value as a person (and a man) in the soothing ritual of a repetitive job.

The Aliens (Stage West: Fort Worth)

Something about Annie Baker’s The Aliens suggests the spartan, arid, washed-out milieus of pieces like Altman’s Three Women, Bergman’s Persona or Rodrigues’ O Fantasma. Or perhaps the dry, taciturn boys of The Last Picture Show. Baker has fixed upon certain aspects of male culture, the sparse verbal exchanges, the intense demand for respect, the absence of extravagant feeling. The setting (N. Ryan McBride) for The Aliens, behind a restaurant where the waiters take their smoke breaks, feels hopeless and crumby: sand, butt buckets, metal chairs, trash, refuse and detritus. As if a haze of resignation has settled over everything. When Evan (a waiter) meets KJ and Jasper, he finds they’re hanging out because a friend (who no longer works there) has told them its OK. When they tell him they’re holding a Fourth of July party in this very same place, it’s a joke to us, but not to them.

Jasper is perhaps the post 21st Century version of the disaffected rebel poet. If anyone’s the alpha, it’s Jasper. KJ is the easy-going, affable stoner, and Evan the nervous nerd, gobsmacked that he’s found favor with the cool kids. When Jasper addresses him as “Little Man,” he’s not being snotty or dominant, he’s just being matter of fact. Like when men nickname the tall guy “Stretch.” Evan may be jittery and famished for belonging, but he has some sense of purpose. He’s intelligent and teaches at Orchestra Camp, even if the jazzy side of life (girls, catching a buzz, breaking laws) has eluded him. Nothing shakes KJ and Jasper, they have no place to be. Their only recourse to act as if they’re goofing and tossing because everything else bores them. What lifts The Aliens from the hungry squalor that engulfs our three buddies is the ease of mutual male affection. Unspoken and barely acknowledged. A man learns pretty early there are two kinds of guys in the world. The ones who want to be your friend and those who want to tear you apart. Or at least piss on you. Whatever their reasons Jasper and KJ have nothing to prove, and have no reason to disparage Evan. So they become his friend.

It may be nearly miraculous that Annie Baker has developed an ear for the way fringe-dwelling teenboys talk, and how they must scratch out an existence in a world that expects men to fall somewhere between troglodyte and rocket scientist. If you feel anything sad, if you’re cerebral or passive, you’re weak. There are times when men wanting to connect might as well be trying to build a bridge to the moon. With toothpicks. And somehow. Somehow. Annie Baker has cut through the aching, pervasive despair of these boys who need to be men, and distilled something startling and radiant from it. The awful pointlessness just keeps piling on, but Baker finds a key as fragile as origami (a guitar, a cigarette, a sparkler) and these lonely souls discover something exquisite. Something remarkable.

With the pitch-perfect, visionary direction of Dana Schultes, Joey Folsom, Parker Gray and Jake Buchanan give us performances that are strong, deeply touching and crisp. Folsom has just the right balance of insouciance and gravitas, Buchanan brings an introspective lightness, and Parker the insecurity and fear of exclusion all guys have felt. This script could have crumbled in the wrong hands, but Schultes and this astonishing cast have taken us deep into the thick of Baker’s Dystopian drama. The Aliens is a valentine for guys with no tools to care for anybody, much less one other, or themselves.

Boy Gets Girl (Resolute Theatre Project, L.I.P. Service and Proper Hijinx Productions)

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 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, Mercer and Howard, are unsettled to discover the code on her calendar is 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.

 

Five Women Wearing the Same Dress (MainStage Irving-Las Colinas )

Alan Ball’s Five Women Wearing the Same Dress (playing at The Dupree Theatre in The Irving Arts Center) is a splendid, engaging, intriguing comedy. Like the best comedies, it emerges from an actual narrative, as opposed to hanging gags on a tenuous skeleton. You might recognize the writer’s name from his association with American Beauty and Six Feet Under. Mr. Ball is an iconoclast, cheerfully mixing cynicism with a soft spot for frailty, and a lack of tolerance for pretentiousness. Five Women is set in the Knoxville, Tennessee, in the early 1990’s. The occasion is a wedding. The poster of Malcolm X hanging over Meredith’s bed (sister of the bride) sets the tone. The conversation takes place between five bridesmaids (Frances, Meredith, Tricia, Georgeann, and Mindy) none of whom, it seems, are especially close to the bride. Frances: frail, mousy, sweet, functions as defender of traditional morals (“I don’t drink, I’m a Christian.”) while Meredith leads the charge of transgression.

You wonder if Five Women was chosen for its timely consideration of paradigm shifts in America’s salient values. The women smoke pot, imbibe, discuss their sexual escapades, while Frances is definitely a buzzkill. Mindy is a lesbian. Meredith disparages the phoniness of the posh wedding, her sister, the ceremony, while Tricia questions the validity of marriage as an institution, and long term romantic relationships of any kind. The name of Johnny Valentine is brought up repeatedly, as the Pan-like dreamboat who’s bedded three of the women and flirted with all of them. What makes Five Women so enjoyable and effective is Alan Ball’s refusal to stoop to didacticism or pontificating. He avoids stereotypes and clichés. For all the “sinful”, indulgent behavior, none of the women seems particularly evil or noble, just normal and free to find their own path. Ball confides the underpinnings of their attitudes, and laces the story with enough pathos to make it genuine and resonant. His dialogue is so crisp and skillful that laughter is nearly a reflex.

Five Women Wearing the Same Dress is a refreshing, engaging show. Under the direction of Dennis Canright, the ensemble (Tammy Partanen, Nicole Neely, Liz J. Millea, Mandy Rausch, Laura Saladino and Hayden Evans) is nimble, sharp-witted and energetic. It closes this weekend, so don’t miss your opportunity to catch this great production.

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (L.I. P. Service Productions)

Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune has (the more you think about it) a bizarre premise. Johnny and Frankie work in the same diner. Frankie is a waitress and Johnny is a cook. When Act One opens the two are “consummating” at the end of a date. Frankie sees this as casual (but not indiscriminate) sex. Johnny has decided that Frankie’s the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with. Johnny believes in love at first sight. This, by itself, is not so awful, but Johnny comes on like a hurricane at a funeral. Like the old joke about the amorous Lesbian couple, Johnny doesn’t believe in second dates. He seems ready to move in. He’s charming and absolutely genuine, but his better qualities are soon engulfed by his utter lack of finesse. He does nothing by halves, but seems determined to tell Frankie how to behave as well. As any of us might imagine, this is a dubious approach to a new relationship.

McNally seems to be exploring role-reversal, too. Johnny is the romantic, emotional one, crazy to commit. Frankie is happy to take it slow, and see how things go, before jumping into an intense, lifelong attachment. It’s curious how Johnny seems to embody the downside of heartfelt passion. He seems to forget that Romeo and Juliet shared a mutual intensity. Johnny is so cocky and bossy (in addition to being tender and moonstruck) Frankie doesn’t know whether to appreciate his warmth or kick him out. He’s not just loopy, he seems to verge on being certifiable. As for Frankie, her sensible attitude is undercut by a pervasive sense of melancholy and spiritual damage. When she confides she sometimes pulls up a chair to watch an abusive couple across the courtyard, we wonder if she figures toxic attention is better than none at all.

So, then, this is where Terrence McNally takes us. Frankie isn’t just cautious, she’s swimming dark waters. Johnny believes in living for the moment, and that Frankie and he share a destiny. The plot does much to encourage this. Like most excellent playwrights McNally leaves us at the watering trough and lets us reach our own conclusions There’s something vaguely twisted (and strangely satisfying) about the painful, somber thread that winds through this entire piece. We all know that successful relationships are not about finding the perfect mate, but the perfect match. Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune teases us by sparking our longing for this pair of slapdash, tattered souls. We wind up feeling some odd mix of the frightening and sublime. We’re afraid they’ll stay together and afraid they won’t.

Grounded (Second Thought Theatre)

Written by George Brandt, Grounded, is a drama with one character, a female fighter pilot who is never named. She speaks to us directly, chipper and affable, combining the traits of warrior moxie and the simple determination of someone with a job to do. She has earned her place among other cracker- jack fliers, bonding at the local watering hole and enjoying the camaraderie. When a guy approaches who is neither intimidated nor alienated by her prowess, they connect and have sex that very night. Apart from being kindred spirits, they clearly have no use for traditional paradigms. After they marry, he’s happy to stay home and take care of their daughter, cook for her, and stoke the hearth fire for the long stretches when she must be away. Their sex life is spirited and nurturing.

By taking us along on her enigmatic odyssey, we begin to identify with the pilot. There is a categorical difference between wielding her gleaming, silver vessel and the enormous robot bird of prey. She begins to undergo a shift in attitude. A sea change. Her job and the psychology that make it possible begins to spill into her civilian time. She forgets to remove her uniform, the richness of familial love begins to dissipate. Her professional focus and unconditional purpose begin to waver.

Despite the possibility that Grounded is based on a true story, the significance of a woman pilot seems undeniable. The warm, lovely photograph of her (belly exposed) during pregnancy, her fear that her daughter’s obsession with “Pretty Pony” means that she’s a “hair-tosser,” the wife she sees running to the car of a target. As she gradually acquires destructive power, we cannot ignore the irony that she also brings life into the world. When this ordeal finally overtakes her, it’s difficult to know how it will resolve itself.

As “The Pilot”, Jenny Ledel handles the task of occupying the stage for 90 minutes with authority and finesse. Ledel is beguiling, convivial, subtle. Fierce and stoic when she needs to be. She accommodates this challenging, enervating role with such skill and implacable dedication. She will get under your skin and sneak into your dreams.

Miller, Mississippi (Dallas Theatre Center)

Miller, Mississippi opens in Jackson, Mississippi in 1960 around the time of The Freedom Riders and the civil rights movement in the Deep South. Siblings Thomas, John and Becky are listening to their African American housekeeper, Doris (Liz Mikel) tell about a decrepit, haunted house that wouldn’t burn down. They are interrupted by the sound of a gunshot, and mother Mildred appears, with blood on her evening gown. Their father has just shot himself. This sets the pattern: a decent, intelligent, quaint family from the deep South is gradually stripped of their pretensions.

Just like the rotting house in the ghost story, there is something vile going on in the Miller home.

Becky, John and Doris, in their own way (often in secret) try to rise above the complicity and depravity that thrives in their family and the world outside. Thus the Millers become a metaphor for the systemic, pervasive racism of the South. Terrible things are happening and most turn a blind eye. John, the most

naive and tender (even more so than his mother) believes that truth and goodness will prevail, while the phrase he hears repeatedly is: That’s just how things are. When Thomas is wailing on John and things escalate, John gets the upper hand by jabbing him in the shoulder with a fork. Instead of asking what would drive such a gentle soul to such extremes, they immediately ship him off to an asylum. This is indicative of the level of tacit collusion and sad resignation that infects the Millers and the culture they inhabit.

This theme of subordination to revered despots, and decadence beneath the veneer of civility can also be found in Dexter’s Paris Trout and McCuller’s Reflections in a Golden Eye. This is well-trod material, but playwright Boo Killebrew swings her trapeze over the volcano with precision and grace. (So does this remarkable cast.) The ugly is interwoven with the everyday, the unconscionable tolerated as the price of avoiding the terrifying march of progress. In the skillful hands of Killebrew, what might have become a cliché of Southern Gothic treachery is a measured, fierce, quietly devastating story of the poisoned spirit and sick of heart.

Paper Flowers (Kitchen Dog Theater)

I have often despaired of trying to express my unequivocal enthusiasm for theatre that is disturbing, harrowing, violating, and yet ferocious, powerful and brave. Theatre must often grapple with and articulate a world that (beneath the surface) is terrifying and grotesque. So when Kitchen Dog Theater (God bless them) engages with the contradictory needs between our raw humanity and what culture demands of us, I find the experience exhilarating, overwhelming, flamboyant and everything that fierce, defiant, contemporary theatre should and must be. There will (of course) always be room and need for pleasure-driven, blissfully ridiculous comedy, but certainly there is enjoyment to be found in even the bleakest of theatrical narratives. Theatre has an intuitive feel for turning emotion and struggle into extravagant, spectacular, though precise imagery and sacrament. Sometimes it helps to explore the frantic and abysmal, it makes the unknown less daunting. Excuse my indulgent use of adjectives as I seek to nail my experience with Egon Wolff’s Paper Flowers.

Eva, a sad, lonely, middle aged (but never pathetic) merchant who loves to paint helps a homeless, destitute guy by letting him carry her groceries. When he refuses remuneration she hastily tries to get rid of him, even when he pleads that there are men waiting to kill him. “Not my problem,” she replies, without seeming especially unkind. Perhaps I was not listening carefully, but somehow the guy turns it around, rather quickly, and she offers him food and temporary refuge. His actual name is Roberto, but he prefers the nickname his cronies gave him: “The Hake”. (A hake is a vicious reptile that is something like a cross between a piranha and a cottonmouth.) While he is eating his soup, he sets a He’s charismatic and subdued, but even before we see his behavior in her absence, something is unmistakably off about him.

Days after I watched Paper Flowers I found how utterly it had gotten under my skin. It is enormous in the sense that it drags us into a cluster of ideas in such a flagrant, chaotic, thorough and implacable way. The connection between Eva and Hake. Is it about romance, libido, genuine empathy, alms-giving, rage, pride? The bread of shame? Hake seems to keep mistaking sympathy for pity. But if Eva (in Hake’s view) couldn’t possibly appreciate his situation, than I suppose the borgeoise are incapable of anything but pity. Subsequently, Hake cannot accept anything offered out of love (genuine or not) he must take it by force. He makes a speech that amounts to this. We become so lost in what the other needs us to be, that we lose our identity. There is probably something to that.

Pippin (Firehouse Theatre)

Based on the life of Charlamagne’s oldest son, the musical Pippin hit the ground running, opening on Broadway in the 1970’s, directed by Bob Fosse and featuring Ben Vereen as the Ringmaster. Using a circus motif, the players converge to tell the story of Pippin, a prince who is hungry to taste everything the world has to offer, after getting high marks and a degree from the university. He explores war, religion, politics, monarchy, agrarian life; he assassinates his father and supplants him on the throne. His conniving step-mother plots to overthrow him for the sake of her son and the younger prince, Lewis. From the beginning the avid, jovial, acrobatic troupe promise a phenomenal, exciting finale that will knock us on our collective tuchas.

Pippin’s structure is odd, if intriguing, advancing the narrative with lots of gags and digressions, using ingenuity and vaudevillian nonsense (as well as juggling and other dazzling hi-jinks) to keep the story bouncing. Pippin is skinny and young, charming, deferential, the least glamorous of the cast. War teaches him how cheaply life can be forfeited, the church about corruption, the monarchy about the difficulties of responsibility. There’s a thread of merriment and whimsy informing this spectacle. Pippin has a conversation with decapitated soldier. His grandmother instructs him in the ways of hedonism, and leads us in a singalong. We are privy to the courtship between Catherine and Pippin, in which she wins him over at least as much by craft as charisma.

Derek Whitener, has a brilliant, intuitive feel for staging joyful, memorable shows. He makes these enterprises seem effortless and electrifying. Pippin is a warm, charming, saucy, experience, with gobs of dash and convivial energy. It’s touching and hilarious, wise and giddy. It sparks a spontaneous joie de vivre that puts any momentary cynicism to shame.

Silent Sky (WaterTower Theatre)

Written by Lauren Gunderson, Silent Sky was inspired by the life of American astronomer, Henrietta Leavitt. Born in the late 19th century, Henrietta Swan Leavitt graduated from Radcliffe, going on to take a position at The Harvard College Observatory. She joined “Pickering’s Harem” mischievously (if insensitively) named because it was all women. Considering the meticulous and precise nature of their work, their wages bordered on the criminal, even for the early 1900’s. Struggles with illness left Leavitt partially deaf, yet dedication and vision facilitated her genius, and discoveries that would forever change the science of ascertaining earth’s place in the heavens.

Gunderson opens Silent Sky contrasting Henrietta with her sister Mira, who finds more fulfillment in music and nurturing a family than pursuing astronomy and mathematics. This dialectic between the religious and secular, the spiritual and cerebral, continues throughout the narrative. The sisters sustain their strong attachment long after Henrietta has started her work at Harvard (menial at first). But the submersion necessary for intense research makes it difficult to maintain correspondence with Mira, or a blossoming romance with colleague Peter Shaw. Much of Silent Sky considers what Leavitt must have sacrificed to pursue and realize the implications and moment of what began as an inkling. An intuitive spark of insight.

I’ve never cared for words like “feminist,” because they seem reductive. The unjust attribution of Leavitt’s legacy (only alleviated posthumously) is without question. And her achievements were diminished because she happened to be female. This is a flaw in the transactions of humanity, the insecurity of a patriarchy already tilted to male advantage. “Henrietta Leavitt discovered the relation between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars.” Put another way, she realized we could gauge the distance between the earth and a particular star, by measuring its brightness. This turned astronomy on its head, but it would be a long time before she would receive the credit due her. This is not a question of politics but ethics.

What makes Silent Sky so effulgent and delightful is Gunderson’s masterful blend of the scientific with a dazzling grasp of the cosmos. We are immersed in Henrietta’s exquisite sense of wonder as she loses herself in the brilliance of endless galaxies. When she explains to Mira that the beauty of elegant theory and pattern of spheres and suns in motion amounts to her religion, we do believe her, but we also share in her ecstatic reverie.

Resolute Theatre’s Ordinary People was poignant, unforgettable

The film of Judith Guest’s novel, Ordinary People, was Robert Redford’s directorial debut, and quite impressive. Considering how many actors decide that they can also direct, it’s noteworthy that Redford handled the material with such skill and grace. Ordinary People was very, very popular, and the Oscars it earned by far more appropriate than say Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves, which felt very nice, but showed no grasp of the medium. All of this is to say that many, many people saw Ordinary People, so when Resolute Theatre Project recently staged Nancy Pahl Gisenan’s adaptation they were taking on a giant. Stage adaptations can be terribly lame, and if Resolute’s production did not pan out, a lot of folks would have been sorely disappointed.

Directed by Jason Leyva, Resolute’s staging was strong, understated, poignant. The melancholy journey Conrad Jarrett must take in finding some peace with his older brother’s death is depicted with eloquence and humanity. Conrad is in considerable pain, which he keeps to himself. Those who care want to help, but don’t really know how. Judith Guest took considerable risk in making Conrad’s father, Cal, the nurturer, and Beth, his mother, cold and detached. While father and son deepen their bond Beth seems to become progressively estranged. Conrad has already suffered the exigencies of a mental hospital and electroshock therapy, but cannot seem to move on.

Leyva and his cast capture the mood and tone of Ordinary People with precision and mastery. This is emotionally loaded material so (to quote the old adage) less is more, but the tension, the ache, the frustration, still comes through, resonates like a Holliday torch song or snow on a Sunday evening. Considering the pervasive presence of the film, Resolute has made this story completely their own. It’s a fresh angle on a story so many of us know. Gisenan’s take involves us in Conrad’s story, without feeling rehashed or derivative. The cast of Ordinary People was very strong and dedicated with kudos to Zachary Leyva, Dayna Fries, Danny Macchietto and Taylor Donnelson for especially lucid performances.

Due to time constraints, I was unable to post my review before Resolute’s production of Ordinary People ended. My apologies.

Identity, loyalty and expediency in DTC’s Fade

Lucia, a sweet-natured ingenue, first novel under her belt, has been hired on a team of writers for a television show. It’s a high-action (fairly unsophisticated) detective show, and the hero is Latina. Lucia definitely feels out of her depth. She knows nothing about scripts or working in television. She suspects she’s there for affirmative action. She doesn’t like the people she works with, and feels frightened, isolated and vulnerable. Then she makes friends with Abel, the only other Latinx she knows at the firm. Abel is a janitor, but while Lucia is frantic, impulsive and lacks confidence, he is older, savvy and takes everything in stride. At the outset their connection is a bit dubious, as they try to find common ground. Lucia is eager to make friends with Abel as she feels lost among so many Anglos. Is it narrow to assume they share a culture, simply because of descent? However we answer that question, Lucia’s relief in finding someone who cares and understands the same things, and (of course) speaks the same language, is palpable and considerable.

Much of Fade considers the contrast between Abel and Lucia. She is congenial and accessible, but clearly Abel perceives her upper middle class station as wealth. Easy to understand when more doors open for her. Lucia is genuine when she takes Abel into her confidence, comes to him when life gets overwhelming. They create a refuge in her office where they can nosh, drink beer and enjoy each other’s company, without worrying about breaking character in a world predominated by white people. Fade seems to beg a question, though, a crucial distinction. Does Lucia belong more to Anglos who have formal education and a level of prosperity closer to her own? Or Abel, who is very intelligent, with no discrepancy between who he actually is and how he behaves.

Several key events emerge that create turning points in Fade. [I guess this is where I may lapse into indiscreet revelations]. When Abel tells Lucia a secret, it’s nearly guaranteed that she will break her promise. When she kisses him impulsively (even though he graciously dismisses it) we can tell it upsets her more. When Gary, an office enemy, is taken down, she’s profoundly shaken, despite the fact that she’s done nothing unethical or aggressive. She’s upset with herself. When an event doesn’t add up, this is playwright Tanya Saracho’s cue to look beneath the surface. In each instance, it would be so much easier and better to let things go, and yet they seem to get under Lucia’s skin. To nudge her.

Saracho’s fable concerning assimilation, loyalty, and what is truly necessary to succeed, is nothing short of sublime. It’s a very touching narrative, and Lucia’s demeanor is so disarming and sincere, it’s easy to believe these two would become friends. Which is why the resolution is so much worse. Because we care for them both. Fade is different from numerous current shows: it gives us more than the bare bones required to fulfill a linear equation. It feels thorough (not minimal) but neither does any of it feel like scaffolding. And the betrayal, when it comes, does not play out as an explosion, but nearly invisibly. Questions are raised, but the catastrophic never acknowledged. Saracho has broken our hearts, with merciless, guileless finesse.

The Dallas Theater Center presents Fade, playing December 6th, 2017 – January 7th, 2018. ATTPAC: Wyly Studio Theatre, 2400 Flora Street, Dallas 75201. 214-526-8210. www.dallastheatercenter.org

Alpha males amok in Camp Death’s Sleigh Hard

Camp Death Productions specializes in spoofing movie genres: film noir, psycho-killer at the summer camp, dangerous dames do double duty as spies and supermodels. This kind of thing. As you might infer, Kevin Fuld’s Sleigh Hard With A Vengeance is a gleeful, absurd homage to the Die Hard franchise, built upon the Bruce Willis Ultracool Alpha paradigm. The first Die Hard (and perhaps the others) is set over the Christmas Holidays, and therefore ideal for holiday mirth.

Los Angeles Cop Mac Kane is visiting his estranged wife at the North Pole, where she holds a very prestigious position at Santa’s Toy “Shop”, in Human Resources. [I think.] Much to his dismay, he discovers a diabolical (yet erudite) villain, with a team of dedicated henchman, all set to break into Santa’s vault, regardless of the cost to human life. The local police captain is aggravated by his hot-dogging antics. His wife still loves him, despite her inability to ignore his insufferable personal flaws. There’s the international gathering of ne’er-do-wells and criminal gearheads (their vivid clothing doesn’t match their cartoony accents). Russian triplet assassins who wear kilts. One of the elves wears sunglasses and takes sexual harassment to a new low. Mrs. Santa Claus, kind and gentle, speaks very casually about sex, which is pretty icky.

Some of you may be acquainted with Andi Allen’s tribute to Santa Claus Vs. the Martians, often hailed as one of the worst films ever made. Allen’s comedy has played Dallas, during the Christmas season, with new dialogue added to keep it fresh. Over time it has become something of a cult favorite, and a big success. This hybrid genre (I often refer to as Garage Comedy) is marked by extremely humble production values, such as a car indicated by two chairs and sound effects. Like other genres it may seem like a formula, but that’s only because talented people make everything look easy. Consider the brilliance of Andy Kaufman’s Mighty Mouse number. Who else could have pulled that off? As for Garage Comedy, the deadpan delivery and celebrity imitation, ridiculous inconsistencies, the genre devices that seem inane outside of context; they don’t work if the chemistry’s off. And even the fairly good ones can be hit or miss. Comedy, through the ages, still continues to be more skill than science.

Kevin Fuld’s script is clever, it goes beyond a cursory grasp of the essential Die Hard structure. Some of the best routines are: the pointless way Kane rolls across the floor, the guy who shows just to clean up when there’s a corpse, the revelation the arch-villain loves My Little Pony. It’s hilarious when Kane directly addresses audience members, encouraging them to laugh, or the response when various characters are horrified to discover they’re actually handling sex beads. While all the gags, slapstick, mugging, hamming and madcap panic don’t necessarily connect, the instincts of Fuld, resourceful director Nathan D. Willard, and this playful, ingenious, versatile cast often save the moment, engaging their loopy, comic sensibilities. Fuld has a gift for whimsical, impulsive details that carry us to the sublime realm of Tickleville.

Featuring the talents of Joe Cucinotti, Lindi Wade, Jeny Siddall, Bill Otsott, Robert Shores, Daniel White, Robin Daffinee Coulonge, Ginger Goldman, Dylan Mobley, Israel Varela, Moises Abran Zamora, Sunny Bundy and Hallie Kathryn Davidson.

Camp Death Productions presents Sleigh Hard With A Vengeance. Show runs December 2-23, 2017.Margo Jones Theatre, 1121 1st Avenue, Dallas, TX 75210. 214-646-3114. http://sleighhard.brownpapertickets.com

T3’s Solstice an intriguing, merry celebration of Winter enchantment

My understanding is that Christmas, the actual birthdate of Jesus of Nazareth, was changed to December, all the better to eclipse pagan solstice celebrations. It should come as no surprise that there are numerous feasts, rituals, narratives and sacraments attached to the Winter Solstice. The longest night of the year, when the harvest is safely stored, and the earth itself hibernates under a blanket of snow. In the spirit of inclusiveness, Theatre 3 has constructed Solstice, a kind of revue, in which an ensemble invites our participation in the wonder of the supernatural, the pantheistic, the giddy world of sprites and sorcery, a kind of pastiche of various traditions intersecting in the strange magic that comes with the first frissons of winter. Rather than succumbing to the Western preoccupation with Judeo-Christian culture, Solstice suggests other kinds of worship. A different angle on the curious and endlessly enigmatic world around us.

Aunt Brighid is babysitting her niece when the electricity goes out, and they must light a candle to ward off the darkness. Conversation turns to the beguiling and intoxicating charms available to humanfolk only under the cover of darkness. The Girl asks her Auntie if they can explore this forbidden, irresistible realm, and Brighid concedes. But with the proviso that when stories are shared, lives intertwine, whether we want them to or not. They enter the forest where they encounter various non-human entities, all with their role to play in the balance between nature and cosmological imperatives. Since this journey is treated as enlightenment for the girl, Solstice is childlike, which may or may explain the use of puppetry. Puppets are certainly not exclusive to children’s theatre, but here it may have set the wrong tone.

Several anecdotes had the panache of the unexpected. An elderly couple still vibrant enough to make a picnic in the woods, where they could kiss and enjoy a buzz from hydrocodone. An Italian witch who must atone for snubbing her invitation to join The Three Magi. A frantic narrative from the protagonist of Poe’s The Telltale Heart, woven (rather perversely) with traditional Christmas Carols. Some of these endeavors manage better than others. Paulette and Stuart (perhaps in their winter years?) fall under the spell of stars and deep night, steeped in transgression and giddy, celebratory playtime.

Le Befana gets a lot of punch from Italian peasant shtick: “The gravy’s not going to stir itself.” A Poe Man’s Christmas Carol was something of a reach. The impulse to undercut the quaint and customary with the irreverent and mischievous is a sound one, but as a whole, Solstice didn’t altogether coalesce. Ironically, the epilogue in which the niece, left on her own, casts a spell from the serendipitous altar of her bed, was marvelously effective.

The idea behind T3’S Solstice was deliciously subversive, an attempt to recover ancient cultures and adoration tread upon by Christian imperialism. Perhaps to err on the side of caution, the spectacle feels deferential, considering we come to the theatre to partake of the unrevealed, the otherworldly, the less presentable. Hints at the realms beyond were pervasive, but perhaps too understated. That being said, there was lots of merriment and warmth. The gleeful and the bizarre. Wassail was served at the end of the first act, and it was clear the ensemble was there to give us a splendid, entertaining journey.

Theatre 3 presents: Solstice: Stories and Songs for the Holidays, November 24th-December 17th, 2017. 2800 Routh Street, Suite 168, Dallas, Texas 75201-1417. 214-871-3300. theatre3dallas.com.

Uptown’s Georgia McBride glamorous gigglefest

Casey is an Elvis impersonator who performs at a divey nightclub in Panama City, Florida. He is married to a very warm and devoted woman named Jo, and between the two of them, they barely have enough to pay the bills. Just ordering a pizza sends their finances into a tailspin. Nightclub owner Eddie is teetering on the verge of destitution himself. When his cousin Tracy shows up, revealing herself as a drag performer, he gives this new direction a whirl. When Miss Rexy (the other queen) passes out drunk, desperation drives Eddie to give Casey an ultimatum. Either do the Piaf number in a dress, or he’s fired. So begins Casey’s education as a drag performer, under the tutelage of Miss Tracy.

As we might guess, not only does Casey have a flare for drag, he actually warms up to it. Much as he enjoys playing Elvis, something about creating a female identity resonates with him. Tracy helps him with technique, finding his own persona, choosing the best numbers for his skill set. The pay is better than he ever imagined, but he doesn’t have the nerve to explain to his wife. When she shows up one evening unexpectedly, their recently carefree marriage is suddenly on the rails. When Jo leaves abruptly and Casey runs after her, Eddie, Tracy and Rexy all seem to feel betrayed, though they understand his urgent need to do damage control.

Playwright Matthew Lopez explores the world of drag performance and female impersonation with all the attitude, lingo, humor, and complex, exhilarating culture. We know that Casey is at least somewhat open-minded or he wouldn’t have married a woman of color. The Legend of Georgia McBride is a comedy in which our hero learns by happenstance that there’s something fulfilling about giving himself permission to express his most extravagant, “feminine” impulses. It actually makes him a better person. The fact that he enjoys drag doesn’t mean he wants other men, though that discovery here seems almost beside the point. It’s admirable that Lopez uses humor to reveal that drag isn’t really so foreign to male heterocentrist nature, and reimagines the straight nuclear family in the bargain. There were times when comprehension and gender anarchy didn’t seem to quite intersect, but we certainly gain a better understanding of the art, if the not the science.

The second salient aspect of Georgia McBride is the scintillating glitz and finery of transgender entertainment. Thanks to mad skills and fantabulous imaginations of Suzi Cranford (Costumes) and Coy Covington (Wigs and Makeup). What a rush to see so much glamour, bells and whistles, and what felt like an endless number of costume changes. The Legend of Georgia McBride is certainly a paean to the raucous, raunchy, genuine world of drag entertainment, and we’re given ample opportunity to revel in the brash, pulsing tunes and life-loving celebration.

Uptown Players presents The Legend of Georgia McBride. Playing December 1st-17th, 2017. Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd, Dallas, Texas 75219. 214-219-2718. uptownplayers.org

Uptown’s glamorous giggle-fest: Georgia McBride

Casey is an Elvis impersonator who performs at a divey nightclub in Panama City, Florida. He is married to a very warm and devoted woman named Jo, and between the two of them, they barely have enough to pay the bills. Just ordering a pizza sends their finances into a tailspin. Nightclub owner Eddie is teetering on the verge of destitution himself. When his cousin Tracy shows up, revealing herself as a drag performer, he gives this new direction a whirl. When Miss Rexy (the other queen) passes out drunk, desperation drives Eddie to give Casey an ultimatum. Either do the Piaf number in a dress, or he’s fired. So begins Casey’s education as a drag performer, under the tutelage of Miss Tracy.

As we might guess, not only does Casey have a flare for drag, he actually warms up to it. Much as he enjoys playing Elvis, something about creating a female identity resonates with him. Tracy helps him with technique, finding his own persona, choosing the best numbers for his skill set. The pay is better than he ever imagined, but he doesn’t have the nerve to explain to his wife. When she shows up one evening unexpectedly, their recently carefree marriage is suddenly on the rails. When Jo leaves abruptly and Casey runs after her, Eddie, Tracy and Rexy all seem to feel betrayed, though they understand his urgent need to do damage control.

Playwright Matthew Lopez explores the world of drag performance and female impersonation with all the attitude, lingo, humor, and complex, exhilarating culture. We know that Casey is at least somewhat open-minded or he wouldn’t have married a woman of color. The Legend of Georgia McBride is a comedy in which our hero learns by happenstance that there’s something fulfilling about giving himself permission to express his most extravagant, “feminine” impulses. It actually makes him a better person. The fact that he enjoys drag doesn’t mean he wants other men, though that discovery here seems almost beside the point. It’s admirable that Lopez uses humor to reveal that drag isn’t really so foreign to male heterocentrist nature, and reimagines the straight nuclear family in the bargain. There were times when comprehension and gender anarchy didn’t seem to quite intersect, but we certainly gain a better understanding of the art, if the not the science.

The second salient aspect of Georgia McBride is the scintillating glitz and finery of transgender entertainment. Thanks to mad skills and fantabulous imaginations of Suzi Cranford (Costumes) and Coy Covington (Wigs and Makeup). What a rush to see so much glamour, bells and whistles, and what felt like an endless number of costume changes. The Legend of Georgia McBride is certainly a paean to the raucous, raunchy, genuine world of drag entertainment, and we’re given ample opportunity to revel in the brash, pulsing tunes and life-loving celebration.

Uptown Players presents The Legend of Georgia McBride. Playing December 1st-17th, 2017. Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd, Dallas, Texas 75219. 214-219-2718. uptownplayers.org

WTT’s astonishing, intoxicating Great Distance Home

If we try to break down The Great Distance Home to its components: movement, music, dance, pantomime, few actual spoken words, it really does no justice; though a hybrid, a kind of performance art might begin to explain. Conceived and directed by Kelsey Leigh Ervi, The Great Distance Home establishes the Christmas milieu of urgency, the frantic rush to complete cooking, shopping, traveling and so on. Emerging from this whirlwind a birth is taking place. The mother goes into labor, the husband faints. Perhaps this intersects with another arrival and the celebration of Christmas, or more simply, the powerful association of Christmas and family. When the boy is born and the politics of connection arise, we grasp we’re participating in his travails and joys as time turns his essential clock. We see his low points and triumphs, his grief and gladness. We get a substantive feel for his attachments and how he moves through the world.

There is a brilliance, an ingeniousness to Distance Home. Currently there seems to be a trend towards creating a narrative from the bare bones of few props and objects, but here (lamps, chairs, ladder, ropes, hats…) the elements coalesce. It doesn’t feel gimmicky. There’s a lyricism, a sparse selection of detail that evokes like haiku. It’s an odd mix of the whimsical and wistful, the agonizing and droll. We see the young man strutting to impress a young lady, locking horns with his dad, aching to embrace his parents as he strikes out in this icy world. Distance Home creates its own, preverbal language of experience. It imbues particular moments with such implacable humanity, it overtakes before we realize we’ve been hooked. The sophistication is hidden, but its there.

Ervi and her nimble, intuitive ensemble have stirred up a powerful, exhilarating, fresh way of considering the Christmas Holidays, filled with emotion and trepidation. It’s truly a marvel to see how meticulously, lightly, they define the space and moment. It’s like an ongoing whirligig sequence by Rube Goldberg or a toy train that turns itself into a submarine, then a plane, then a bicycle. Sometimes these moving tableaux are witty, sometimes grim, sometimes sublime. It takes a special kind of bravery, a jazzy sense of confidence, a naked sense of savoring the kinetic, to summon an experience like The Great Distance Home. You just may leave intoxicated.

WaterTower Theatre presents The Great Distance Home. Playing December 1st-17th, 2017. 15650 Addison Road, Addison, Texas 75001972-450-6262. www.watertowertheatre.org.

Rock your holidays with Nouveau 47

It’s the fifth time around for A Very Nouveau Holiday, and what a glorious evening it will be. Pathos, absurdity, not-so-cuddly forest creatures, squabbling, romance and emotional dependency on modern technology. And that’s just in the lobby. Devoted to the idea that Christmas Shows needn’t be dull, derivative, repetitive, uninspired and sappy, A Very Nouveau Holiday was created to bring hilarious, beguiling, quirky, unorthodox and fresh viewpoints to the holidays and how we strive to honor caring and kindness in our hearts. At this point I should mention that I am one of the Eight Playwrights being featured, and while the following will certainly not be a puff piece neither will it be a review.

As we have come to expect from Nouveau 47 (at the Margo Jones Black Box at Fair Park) nothing is sacred, off-limits, traditional or precious. Plots explored include Say Cheese (family portrait takes contentious turn) PSA (Public Service Announcement with Abraham Lincoln, the Blessed Virgin and Santa) Langdon, The Seasonal Barista (grizzly bear hired at Starbucks) Gift of the Maggies (two inmates exchange gifts) Mr. Crispy (man who can’t stop re-living the worst decision of his life) Downeaster Alexa (our reliance on technology for emotional comfort) and Radio Flyer (despondent writer moonlights as Santa).

Playwrights from all over (some as far as Neptune) submitted their short plays, and for the modest price of a ticket, you can partake of these excursions into the unknown realm of Christmas contemplation. A splendid, nimble, outrageously talented gang of actors has been cast and recast and cross-cast in eight different shows, thoroughly testing their wicked-mad skills as performers. Fret not, as a carefully chosen regimen of calisthenics, fierce indoctrination and controlled substances has been applied to guarantee a flawless (if somewhat frantic) result. In all seriousness, each piece brings its own unique angle on the holiday season, surely a time that is fraught with stress, expectations, delight, dread, chaos and sorrow. We sincerely believe you will be amused, engaged, overwhelmed, challenged and comforted. “Oh, the places you’ll go.”

The Actors: Monalisa Amidar, JR Bradford, Cameron Casey, Emily Faith, Robert Long, Chris Messersmith, Charles Themayor Ratcliff, and Jerome Stein.

The Directors: Andra Hunter, Becki McDonald, Brad McEntire, David Meglino.

The Playwrights: Franky Gonzalez, Allison Hibbs, Jonathan Kravetz, Jim Kuenzer, Brad McEntire, Ben Schroth, Greg Silva, and Christopher Stephen Soden.

Nouveau 47 (at the Margo Jones Black Box at Fair Park) presents: A Very Nouveau Holiday 2017, playing December 8th-23rd, 2017. Mondays, Fridays, and Sundays: 8:15. Saturdays 2-6PM. 1121 1st Ave, Dallas, Texas 75210. www.margojonestheatre.org. https://nouveauholiday.brownpapertickets.com/

After the fact: L.I.P. Service’s melancholy Graceland

Sara and Sam are brother and sister, and we first find them in a cemetery, not long after their Dad’s funeral. They are detached from the emotion of the occasion, though not above self-medicating. They go to one of Dad’s favorite watering holes and Sara winds up going home with Joe (a regular at the bar) and spending the night. The next morning she encounters Joe’s teenage son, Miles, who is quite smitten with her. Later she returns to Joe’s apartment to look for a lost watch, where Miles uses the excuse to make a pass. On her third visit to the cemetery, Sara finds Anna, who left brother Sam to started dating the father.

As you might guess, playwright Ellen Fairey uses the title Graceland metaphorically, perhaps because the father is popular but nobody really knows him (like Elvis?) or maybe it has something to do with the quirky nature of grace. Each of the characters is broken, or a fringe dweller, in one way or another. Sara sells kitchen knives in a shopping mall. Joe is not exactly dashing, but he’s got game when it comes to the ladies. Miles seems hopelessly strange, at an age when assimilating is crucial to kids. An interesting detail of Fairey’s narrative is the advantage of being unsuccessful. If Joe were crushing it as an alpha, he might lack the empathy to help Miles figure out dating. If Sara were pulling a six-figure salary, she might not be so understanding when Miles impulsively kisses her. The characters are kinder than society’s idea of winning would permit them to be. They are not too proud to admit they’re groping for answers and more than a little lost. They have been spared the insufferable quality of arrogance.

It seems in the recent past, a kind of hybrid genre has emerged in contemporary theatre. Perhaps it’s an offshoot of Rabe or Mamet, with barely white collar folks who are drifting, without much sense of purpose. On the whole, the content is too funny (or at least ironic) to be drama and too sad to be comedy. The characters in Graceland are trying their best. But the triggering event of death nudges them to wonder how well anybody knows anybody, and what are they doing, other than treading water. Beneath the bleak yet comical surface, malaise seeps through. We don’t get the tango between despair and hilarity we might find in say, Broadway Bound or House of Blue Leaves. That being said, Graceland has a supple, magnanimous quality to it, understated thought it may be. By the final curtain, they may not have left behind the gutter of inertia, but they are still looking at the stars.

L.I.P. Service presented Graceland from November 2nd-18th, 2017. 2535 Valley View Lane, Farmers Branch, Texas 75234. www.lipserviceproductions.info. 817-689-6461.7 68817 689 6461 9 6461