Closing weekend for remarkable Jenny Ledel in STT’s Grounded

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.

When she is offered the opportunity to pilot a drone, our hero is not overcome with enthusiasm. The vast blue infinity she navigates with the exhilaration of a Valkyrie will no longer be available, only the second-hand experience of remote control. On the upside, she will be able to spend time every day with her husband and daughter, eat dinner at home, enjoy family life more fully. She sits beside other pilots in a trailer, where she looks at colorless landscape on a screen. The level of detachment almost makes it too easy to assault targets, as if swimming a dream. The hours are long and she drives across long, lonely, empty stretches after leaving home and when returning.

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.

Second Thought Theatre presents Grounded playing January 11th– February 4th, 2017. Bryant Hall (Kalita Humphreys Campus) 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd, Dallas, Texas 75219. 866-811-4111.

Light and saucy Mother Taught Me at Rover

Olivia and Gabe are moving into their first apartment together, after what has been a long engagement. They have yet to take the plunge. As we all know, moving is a nightmare, and act one finds poor Olivia, trying get an easy chair through a doorframe that is far too small. Clearly a metaphor for struggles to come, this particular piece is the first they chose together. Their apartment is pleasant, though in a dodgy neighborhood in Chicago, and simply getting the boxes from the moving van is very slow going. Despite vigilant attempts to divert well-meaning (if meddlesome) parents, they show up anyway. When Wyatt and Lydia must climb over the problematic chair to enter the apartment, they hear groaning from the window, mistaking the sound of heavy lifting for lovemaking. Yes, it’s that kind of comedy. Later Lydia keeps tabs while Olivia squats, making sure she doesn’t make contact with a suspicious toilet seat. Hence the title (Things My Mother Taught me) and our reassurance that these good folks are nothing, if not down-to-earth.

The trials that follow are numerous. Somewhere along the way Gabe’s plans to propose are revealed. The van and its contents are stolen. Olivia’s mother Karen is terrified she will rush into marriage, and repeat her same mistakes. The appearance of all four parents makes for some really awkward moments. The men rush out to salvage the truck, the super brings vodka so the three women can sink some healthy shots and hash out some problems. The guys are also allowed some alone time, to comiserate and share. Karen realizes she raised Olivia so well, that all her worrying was for nothing. Gabe learns from Carter and Wyatt that sometimes practicality must take a backseat to romance.

Most of the surprises in Things My Mother Taught Me come from the revelation that Gabe and Olivia have swapped roles with their parents. Karen encourages Olivia to experiment before she settles down, and the dads must tell Gabe there’s more to connubial bliss than acting responsibly. It goes on and on. The women drink like pros, the fathers return from the bar singing Katy Perry’s “I kissed a girl, and I liked it.” All of this to convince the elders possess 21st Century streetcred. Evolved and still vibrant enough to add something to the conversation. It’s warm, appealing and sweet. Maybe with just a push, playwright Katherine di Savino could have come up with something more like Butterflies Are Free or Barefoot in the Park, which has the loopiness, but more beneath the surface. Things My Mother Taught Me is engaging and amusing entertainment.

Rover Dramawerks presents Things My Mother Taught Me playing January 12th-February 4th, 2017.

Tickets are $22.00 Friday and Saturday nights, $16.00 Thursdays and Matinees. 221West Parker Road, Suite 580, Plano, Texas 75023. 972-849-0358.

Olivia : Shauna Holloway

Karen : Nancy James Lamb

Carter: David Noel,

Ivy Opdyke : Lydia

Joe Porter : Wyatt

Ben Scheer : Gabe

Martin Sinise : Max

Director: Carol M. Rice

Stage Manager: Darcy Koss

Set Designer: Abby Kipp-Roberts

Costume Designer: Erica Remi Lorca

Sound Designer: Jason Rice

Lighting Designer: Maxim Overton

Properties Designer: Christian M. Burgess

Light and Sound Board Operator: Darcy Koss

Program: Carol Rice

Box Office: Kim Wickware

Someone’s in the kitchen with John-Michael Colgin: Meatball Seance

In December I was privileged to attend John-Michael Colgin’s Meatball Seance, a performance piece in which he connects with his deceased mother by cooking her special meatballs while courting a succession of boyfriends. It was a workshop performance, which means he was still in the process of shaping the new show. This was made clear to the audience at the onset. As you entered the theater, two large, butcher paper posters listed ingredients and cooking instructions. There were tables laid out with breadcrumbs, eggs, olive oil, basil, wine, etc…and an electric skillet.

Colgin did a lot of his preliminary stage exploration here in Dallas a few years ago, under the tutelage and guidance of the late, visionary Matt Tomlanovich, and Nouveau 47, which sponsors much burgeoning and unorthodox talent, as part of their mission and ideology. Colgin’s groundbreaking work work as a monologist and performance artist has been extraordinary, seamlessly blending anecdotal experience with metaphysical and emotional epiphany. His shows always feel spontaneous, and his warm, exuberant energy is almost impossible to resist. He climbs over furniture, talks directly to audience members; his unabashed and genuine lack of shame when discussing his queer sexual exploits is so charismatic, it absolves gay identity of the perverse stigma so many bring to it.

Meatball Seance certainly doesn’t lack for Colgin’s own peculiar brand of charm. Like so many of us do, he still talks to his mother, and acknowledges her presence in his daily life. The three guys he pulled from the audience to play his boyfriends were quite cooperative, considering he had them helping with all kinds of things, in the production of his mother’s recipe. He even got the rest of us to join hands in an attempt to summon his mother’s spirit. During the course of the show, he explained the magical aspects of mom making food for him as a boy (the kind of enchantment we can all relate to) and subsequently bringing each boyfriend home to get acquainted with mother’s spirit. He is quite skilled and intuitive here, he includes us in the nonchalant, yet sincere ritual of invocation.

As he’s demonstrated in previous shows, Coligin isn’t shy with his hands-on, enthusiastic (if sloppy) approach to food and other ways of getting cozy and crazy on the stage. We gather, at the heart of his loopy shenanigans, some ideas about what it means to date and find one’s husband in the world, and boundaries and sacred and beautiful energy our parents can bring to our lives. One of Colgin’s great strengths is his ability to elucidate and make a point without belaboring. That being said, I wish Meatball Seance hadn’t felt quite so amorphous, so off the cuff. It seemed to lack a kind of clarity and purpose, that made the motivating ideas inevitable or unavoidable. It was very pleasurable, but perhaps not quite there yet.

Meatball Seance played at Nouveau 47, The Magolia Lounge, Fair Park, 1121 First Avenue, Dallas, Texas 75210.

Beth Henley’s social satire: Laugh at Theatre 3

Billed as a new play by Beth Henley, Laugh, currently playing at Theatre 3, is a comedy that begins by spoofing Tennessee Williams and then proceeds to undercut the grand mythology of American pop film. Henley always knew how to score humor from the follies of eccentric loners and unrequited love (Crimes of the Heart, The Miss Firecracker Contest) but perhaps it works better when she takes the scenic route. When Mabel’s Uncle Curly is blown up by a premature mining blast, she is left wealthy but without family. She goes to visit her Aunt October Defoliant and Uncle Oscar Defoliant, and Cousin Roscoe, without realizing they want Roscoe to marry her and land her fortune. Uncle Oscar is a drunkard and Aunt October a schemer. Roscoe loves to catch butterflies. They all talk in Williams’ special Southern blend of loftiness, disappointment and tawdriness. Mabel is beautiful, but she could make Ma Kettle look like Coco Chanel. Roscoe finds Mabel’s lack of breeding repugnant, but confesses the plot to grab her fortune. In the meantime, they take refuge in a movie theater, where they absorb the salient delight of cinema stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Theda Bara.

To escape Aunt October’s desire to poison Mabel (now that marriage is off the table) they flee to the wasteland of the American Western Desert. There they fall into the clutches of a fiendish, salacious photographer, who wishes to use Mabel in pornographic Valentines. His crony escorts Roscoe from the premises at gunpoint (“Cowardice,” Roscoe exclaims, “My capacious failing.”) leaving Mabel with the impression he has abandoned her. By now Roscoe has grown quite attached to Mabel, but it’s a few years before he catches up with her in Hollywood. She has become a glamorous screen idol (ala Marlene Dietrich?) with a platinum blonde wig. Even when she recognizes him, it’s awhile before their wayward, tempestuous love is consummated. If ever.

Henley’s point, it seems, is the sham of believing what entertainment culture tells us to do. Instead of experiencing and understanding love, we fall prey to the indoctrination of movies and conventional wisdom. This is certainly a valid point, and well worth considering. That being said, while Laugh is fairly clever, it never feels funny. The pervasive flatulence, the shtick, the goofy send ups of Hollywood depravity, the withering response to Gothic decadence and film’s lame attempt to depict untainted love. You can build a compelling play from mockery, but the tone here is misleading. The narrative’s driven by contempt but we’re given the impression it’s all about amusement. It’s drama in comedy’s clothes.

The cast of Laugh is undoubtedly keen, versatile, poised and very, very smart. They have lots to do, and they bring it off with aplomb. Props to Ashley Elizabeth Bashore, Bradley Campbell, Magdiel Carmona, Debbie Crawford, Steph Garrett, Ashley Wood, and Isaac Leaverton (The Piano Player) for their diligence and forbearance.

Theatre 3 presents Laugh, playing January 5th – 29th, 2017. 2800 Routh Street, Suite 168, Dallas, Texas 75201-1417. 214-871-3300.

Don’t miss ATTPAC’s stunning, scintillating Curious Incident

A teenager, Christopher Boone, discovers Wellington, a large white dog he is very fond of, lying dead with a garden fork sticking out of him. Mrs. Shears, the owner of the dog, finds Christopher there and assumes the worst. When a policeman shows up, Christopher is urgently embracing the dog. When he tries to touch the young man, in a perfunctory way, Christopher pops him one. He takes the young man to jail and calls his dad. The boy’s dad is conciliatory, explaining to the cop and apologizing, and takes Christopher home. Even though Dad tells him to drop it, Christopher resolves to unravel the mystery of Wellington’s murder.

Christopher is autistic. I don’t believe this is explained in so many words, but rather, by the way others accommodate, or fail to, Christopher’s differences. Naturally his parents are better equipped, and his teacher, but many adults don’t get it, and don’t try. Not surprisingly, it often has more to do with individual and their personal struggles, rather than anything to do with Christopher himself. Who is just trying to get on best as he can. In this way The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time addresses “otherness” and lack of tolerance for the idiosyncrasies we encounter of those not like us. It’s not that Christopher’s difference makes him unreasonable, quite the contrary, his reasoning is just unconventional. Certain kinds of abstractions, like metaphors, throw him because he takes verbal communication at face value. He deals in the literal.

Adapted by Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon’s novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a wonder of contemporary stage creation, coalescing scenic, lighting, video, choreographic, musical, and sound design to evoke Christopher’s magnificently quirky perception of the world. (Thanks to the brilliance of: Bunny Christie, Paule Constable, Finn Ross, Scott Graham & Steven Hoggett, Adrian Sutton and Ian Dickinson.) The mathematical and cosmological context Christopher applies to the practical aspects of living are so exquisite, they’re chilling. Haddon and Stephens never condescend to us or Christopher in depicting his autistic lens on the substance of surviving. His struggles are never depicted as quaint. We see his suffering and misery, how his Mum and Dad ache to connect with a son too overwhelmed by a simple, nurturing hug. His grasp on the world is never romanticized. Sometimes it’s terrifying. Sometimes astonishing. Yet they also celebrate Christopher’s unique vision. When he decides to find his mother, we are genuinely scared for him, and moved by his bravery.

I feel sort of ridiculous comparing this show to say, Children of a Lesser God, or The Miracle Worker, even though it treats its protagonist with the same respect, the same refusal to pity. It feels like a quantum leap in literature that addresses our inability to manage a modicum of patience, compassion or open-mindness. I left The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time feeling elated, exhilarated, genuinely glad to be alive. (No small feat in these dark times.) And just maybe you will, too.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time plays January 11th – 22nd, 2017 at the AT&T Performing Arts Center -Winspear Opera House. 2403 Flora Street, Dallas, Texas, 75201. 214-880-0202.


The hospital morgue fills quickly in Death on Delivery!

That lovable buffoon, Harry Hunsacker and his sharp sidekick Nigel Grouse, are back in Pegasus Theatre’s annual homage to Film Noir in Death on Delivery! Pegasus has made quite a reputation by staging these plays that recreate the sensation of watching a black and white film. Using special gray makeup, costumes and sets, we are drawn into the world of detective films, back in the day when dialogue was pointed, snappy and cynical. Written by Kurt Kleinmann and directed by Michael Serrecchia the “Black and Whites” (17 to date) are described as “affectionate spoofs” of the murder mysteries filmed in the 1930’s and 40’s.

In Death on Delivery! Harry finds himself in the hospital, lending moral support to Lieutenant Foster, whose baby daughter has just been born. Poor Lieutenant Foster finds himself on the losing end of a battle with his wife, Beverly “Bubbles” Foster, who insists on naming their child after Harry, and her mother, who’s constantly mocking her son-in-law. As “luck” would have it, a murder occurs when Beverly’s roommate, Nora Rogers, dies suddenly, from poisoning. Other murders follow (naturally)and it’s up to Lieutenant Foster, Grouse and Hunsacker to find the culprit, before this killing spree gets out of hand. Meanwhile, we’re treated to Harry’s tender side as he waves at the Foster’s baby daughter through the nursery window, in his own awkward, adorable way.

This time around, Scott Nixon has taken on the role of Harry Hunsacker, once performed by Kleinmann himself. The formula is intact. Hunsacker, who couldn’t fill his own gas tank, appropriates a murder case from Foster, by virtue of being in the near vicinity. He bumbles his way through the mystery, while Grouse protects his fragile ego, and Foster grumbles over Harry’s interference. Like Miss Marple, Hunsacker seems something of a meddler, but not as smart. We love Harry, because he just wants to be a detective so badly, that (goshdarnit!) he should be.

Michael Serrecchia bring his resourceful comic chops to the affair, though it’s a shame they lost the big band crooner, which provided warmth and context before the actual show. Comparing the Harry Hunsacker series to other more familiar sleuths: Jane Marple, Nick and Nora Charles and Hercule Poirot, it’s interesting to note that while these yarns maintained a consistent comedic thread, the murders themselves were treated seriously. That is to say: the deaths were never mere plot points. Imagine if the content were as sophisticated as phenomenal stagecraft? Comedy could still be part of the mix without diminishing the result.

Pegasus Theatre presents a Living Black & White production of Death on Delivery! Playing December 31st, 2016- January 22nd, 2017. Charles W. Eisemann Center, 2351 Performance Drive, Richardson, Texas 75082. 972-744-4650.

Nothing says Christmas like Andi Allen’s Santa Claus vs The Martians

Beginning with its inception at Level Ground Arts, Santa Claus versus The Martians (an homage to the cult film) has delighted audiences with its ghastly, yet hilariously awful: acting, production values, film cliches, mind-bending double entendres (“What have you done with my Winky?”) and inspired bits of mischief and lunacy. Written and directed by Andi Allen (DFW’s Renaissance Woman of the Theatre) SCVTM is tweaked annually to keep it fresh and current. Andi and Producer Kevin Fuld were kind enough to invite me this year, understanding I could not write my review before it closed that night. It was staged by Camp Death at the Margo Jones/Nouveau 47 venue at Fair Park. Apart from the relief of finding a Christmas show that never references Scrooge, Tiny Tim or The Nutcracker or Sugarplum Fairies, it’s so pleasurable to find a show that has something for parents and offspring, without requiring an extra dose of insulin. If you know what I mean.

The Martian parents are concerned because their children seem overcome with ennui and weltschmertz. And who could blame them? No toys. No games. No jokes. They decide the only solution is to kidnap Santa Claus and bring him to Mars, where he can spread some serious Christmas cheer! In the process of said mission, they accidentally scoop up Billy and Betty Foster, two Earth kids who must have more on the ball than appearances suggest. Betty just loves to show off those Hello Kitty! underpants. Once on Planet Mars they do their best to keep the visitors comfortable and happy, but it’s just not the same. Needless to say, there’s also some treachery lurking.

Amongst the whistles and bells that await you at SCVTM, is the shameless, scene-gobbling use of cross-gender casting. And no one is more shameless or scene-gobbling than the brilliant Michael Moore as the boozy, flirtatious, neurotic Mrs. Santa as she swills a huge martini and comes on to anything in pants. Then there’s the twirking polar bear. And the faux-yoda oracle. And Trog the enormous killer robot. I cannot tell you if Camp Death will bring Santa Claus versus The Martians back for Christmas 2017, but in my experience it actually does get better every year, and it’s a welcome change from the same tired old nags they flog every year. Keep your antenna humming and your feelers poised.

Christopher Soden’s Top 10 for 2016

I am thrilled and exhilarated to confirm the profuse choices of compelling, intriguing, visionary theatre in the DFW Metroplex. The following shows, in no particular order, represent the plays that stirred me to my very bones. In parentheses you will find noteworthy plays that also appeared at that company. Many Thanks to John Garcia, and The Column for running this first.

1. Dallas Theatre Centre: Gloria

Gloria, written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, is a drama concerning the death of compassion in American culture, and how we talk each other out of caring. It is actually quite subtle, considering the shocking act of violence that ends the first act. Afterwards, my friend suggested that there will always be schmucks, which is certainly true. But I believe that Jacobs-Jenkins has hit upon a current, pervasive attitude (perhaps the seeds were planted during the “Me-Decade”) that it’s easier to dismiss the deeply troubled than reach out to them. In the second act Kendra remarks that all the attention being heaped on Gloria is perversely rewarding her for terrible behavior. This may be so, but just as in the case of Columbine and the catastrophes that followed, red flags were ignored before the tipping point. Why not take refuge in cliques and label those in pain as “freaks”?

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is rather sly and Dallas Theater Centers production of Gloria laden with thematic rhyming. Several characters swoon over her intensely emotional songs when a young, intoxicating siren dies, but have no use for the messy side of their own humanity. What we might normally ascribe to double or triple-casting, gradually reveals the suggestion that our fate is wished upon us, rather than due to lack of character. Sound Designer John Flores and Scenic Designer Dahlia Al-Habieli have erected pristine, secular temples of civilization, complete with disembodied choral fanfare, and persistent, salient red accents. In my numerous years of theatre-going I have to say, Gloria is one of the most powerful plays I have ever seen. We’re already 17 years into the 21st Century, but still believe the affectation of spiritual enlightenment is good enough. (Constellations)

2. Kitchen Dog Theater: Feathers and Teeth

Reflecting upon Kitchen Dog’s current black comedy, Charise Castro Smith’s Feathers and Teeth, I was struck by the subtlety of the title. In nature, you never see both in the same creature. If it has teeth it doesn’t have feathers. If it has feathers it doesn’t have teeth. But the villain of Feathers and Teeth does. Like Mack the Knife, she’s very good at hiding her grisly side. Set in 1978, and recalling the trashy sci-fi of the 60’s, Feathers and Teeth mixes a strange and unlikely blend of genres: dark satire, absurdism, horror and drama. And (this is the truly bizarre part) they blend perfectly, like a collage, or a quadriptych. When we see Arthur jumping Carol’s bones on the kitchen table it’s ridiculous, funny and sad, all at once.

I must give all kinds of mad props to Charise Castro Smith, Director Lee Trull, and cast members: Matt Lyle, Morgan Laure’, Dakota Ratliff and Parker Gray. This is difficult material to pull off. Beyond evincing a successful show, there’s something about this play that transcends narrative on its face. It stays in your memory, though it’s not easy to understand why. Smith has laced this piece with vivid, indirect metaphor. Like other intoxicating shows, it rewards closer inspection. Kitchen Dog has a gift for staging plays that sink into your skin. As it were. Feathers and Teeth is subversive, and tender in odd ways. It takes a deranged sense of irony to stage this during the holidays, but it’s something you shouldn’t miss. If you love visionary, risky theatre. (I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard, Thrush and Woodpecker, A Stain Upon the Silence)

3. Bishop Arts Theater: Ruined

Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, is a poignant, intelligent, drama that explores the diminishment and degradation of women in the midst of a patriarchy. Set in a Mama Nadi’s brothel, in a small mining town in the Republic of Congo, Ruined opens when Christian (the Poet) sells a couple of girls to Mama Nadi, one of them his niece, Sophie. The other girl, Salima, has run away from her husband. Sophie is “ruined” which (as you might have guessed) means she has lost her virginity. So she is spared the indignity of selling her body, and Mama Nadi finds other things for her to do. Mama Nadi is not without her kindnesses, but she is a business woman, and a survivor. As the story is revealed we see how she and her girls are forced to subsist in the midst of political upheaval and civil war. But mostly they are subject to the whims of the men. Miners and soldiers.

Lynn Nottage has crafted a subtle, original, savvy exploration of what it means to get by when you are immersed in a sense of perpetual danger. For all the serious rhetoric of soldiers and commanders, we get the distinct impression that their pursuits are vapid and amount to one pissing contest after another. That they subjugate women because it gives them the opportunity play despot. [How appropriate in light of the current presidential race.] Women must take these idiots seriously because they have no choice. There is nothing more dangerous in this world than a fool with power. When Sophie spits on one of their boots, you want to cheer, but you can’t because you’re terrified for her. Like the best playwrights Nottage doesn’t tell us what to believe, she demonstrates the ugly disgraces prevailing in the world, and lets us decide for ourselves. Ruined is splendid, life-changing theatre.

4. Contemporary Theatre of Dallas: Dancing at Lughnasa

I’ve never cared for terms like “bittersweet” or “dramedy” as they obsess with labels, when literature resists such facile categories. Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa is a quietly electrifying, intensely moving memory piece (in some ways like The Glass Menagerie) in which Michael, illegitimate son of Christie Mundy, remembers when his family was in the usual upheaval, just before everything went completely sideways. Michael is the narrator, and in retrospect realizes that for all the brouhaha, the five Mundy sisters had each other, Michael, and the daft Uncle Jack, a missionary priest back from Africa.

So much genius in Friel’s play. Dancing at Lughnasa mocks easy answers to the quandaries that plague the Mundy Sisters, while making us ache for them. Because we hate to see these vigorous, vibrant women hurting. Friel never leads us by the nose, he’s too subtle for that. But the celebratory nature beneath the travails and mischief, that we see so gloriously expressed in the title event (if only in the Mundy kitchen) leaks and brims and gets beneath our skin. The friction between sober devotion and pagan life-affirmation fuels this exquisitely realized, truly miraculous story of familial grace. Please understand. After years of seeing theatre, I know how difficult it is to capture authentic, overwhelming emotion in a way that actually reaches the audience. And stays with them. Directors Miki Bone and Frank Latson, and this inspired, precise, utterly involved cast have managed to do just that. Tears and mirth and implacable humanity.( As We Lie Still)

5. Stage West: Bootycandy

Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy, currently playing at Stage West in Fort Worth, is fierce, dark, satire. Like David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago, it has very grim undercurrents, disguised as comedy of manners. Making the trek to cowtown exhausts me, but I wince to think I might have missed one of the most powerful, chilling, sardonic shows I have ever experienced, period. It lulls you with the quaint humor of queer sexuality as it’s perceived in Afro-American culture. Yes (just as in white culture) much of the contempt our hero, Sutter, is exposed to, comes from ignorance. And on its face it’s funny. But the longer and harder and closer you look, the more poisonous it feels. As if Sutter, cool, genuine, sophisticated, is gradually being slipped strychnine. O’Hara satiates us with the candy of hilarity, while delivering his rabbit punches with stealth.

At first Sutter’s calm, even temperament feels natural, almost a relief in the context of hysteria that engulfs him. Then you begin to wonder if he’s shut down. At the center of Bootycandy is an atrocity that’s hinted at, then only revealed in subplot involving a group of black playwrights. The result is ambiguity: has Sutter actually done these things, or deep in the midst of his shadows, only reflect on them? In the narrative we are given, can we infer that Sutter was molested as a boy, degraded by other white men he’s slept with? We can only speculate. Though it’s safe to conclude that we are carefully given certain details for a reason, and Sutter’s “pathology” did not grow in a vacuum. Also safe, I think, to wonder if the adults responsible for him (with the exception of Grandma) have ultimately failed him. O’Hara could have titled this play: Elegy for Sutter’s Soul.

6. L.I.P. Service: Trainspotting

Rarely have I seen a show with such bonejolting, abyss swimming, heart shredding velocity as Trainspotting at the The Rudy Seppy Studio in Irving. Adapted from Irvine Welsh’s novel by Harry Gibson, it reveals the lives of Mark Renton, et al: disaffected Scottish heroin addicts who kill the pain of despair and seething anger with mindless promiscuity and drug abuse. If not teenagers, they are not much older. This is thwarted eruption and anarchy with maybe the slightest whisper of irony or relief. Sex undercut by the shame of dirty bedsheets is metaphor for Trainspotting: kids who fuck with fierce indifference but worry about ass stains. Mark lives by impulse, but still seems to be the only one amongst his friends (Tommy, Simon, Lizzie, Allison, Franco, and “Mother Superior” a drag nun) not completely numb to their dwindling conscience. When Tommy begs Mark to help him try smack, he really tries to stop him, but Tommy, it seems, is bent on urgent ruin.

Trainspotting has the power of the undiluted, the unbuffered, the authentic. The characters are so defiant in their grubby, sardonic soullessness, we can’t help but respect them. They never ask for our pity, or even sympathy, that ship sailed long before the lights went down. This astonishing cast (Dustin Simington, Jason Robert Villareal, Conner Wedgeworth, Caleb J. Pieterse, Lauren Mishoe, Jad Brennon Saxton, Erica Larsen, R. Andrew Aguilar, JL Sunshine, Leslie Boren, Steve Cave) is utterly fearless and submerged in this anatomy of a clusterfuck/trainwreck. They wield dialogue like rusty scalpels. They french kiss you with strychnine. They shoot horse like they are making love to seraphim. Trainspotting is a profoundly unsettling mix of contempt, damage and aching, disconsolate loss. When they deliver a snarling, ferocious finale of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, you can just feel the waves of blind rage throbbing. Trainspotting is glorious, uncompromising, remarkable theatre. (The Goat Play or Who is Sylvia?)

7. Second Thought Theater: A Kid Like Jake

Alex and Greg have a four-year-old son named Jake. Alex wants to get Jake into an erudite school, so we find her nervously preparing his resume: writing an essay, answering questionnaires, consulting books to improve his chances. Judy is the principal of the kindergarten that Jake currently attends. She and Alex are close friends and this has several advantages. Judy knows and loves Jake, Alex and Greg, so she can coach Alex as she applies Jake to prestigious schools. During a strategy session she essentially recommends that Alex mention Jake’s (for lack of a better term) gender-fluid worldview. This sets a series of incidents in motion.

Alex and Greg are well beyond progressive. They do not mind when Jake likes to dress as a princess, say, like Cinderella. They don’t have meltdowns when Jake identifies with female characters. Alex is a bit leery about following Judy’s advice, but she’s been assured that the current trend towards diversity will work in her favor. It’s only when Jakes wishes to go trick-or-treating in female persona that the situation begins to deteriorate. Greg and Alex do not shame him, but it’s a challenging ordeal. Suddenly Jake is acting out, defiant to authority figures, showing signs of personal crisis.

Playwright Daniel Pearle has created a subtle, sharp, even fanciful at times, exploration of the intense and pervasive impact of gender, and how best to love those dearest to us. Pearle strips away layers from Alex and Greg and their marriage, and the buried, tumultuous issues left unacknowledged. A Kid Like Jake considers how certain events are shaped by the attitudes brought to them. It examines the crucible of wrestling with the expectations and constraints of those around us. Pearle takes a loaded topic (laden with pain) and handles it with grace and precision. (The Great God Pan)

8. Theatre Three: The Novelist

Theresa Rebeck’s The Novelist is a beguiling and (not unexpectedly?) fairly literary drama. Metaphor overlaps with metaphor, delicate butterflies in shadow boxes, Frank, one son who cannot finish sentences, yet brings statues pregnant with implication, Ethan, the other, cannot tell he is turning into his father. If anything Rebeck spells the subtext out a bit too clearly, but The Novelist is certainly absorbing and wise without ever turning cynical. At least not towards anyone who doesn’t warrant it.

Perhaps it’s no different in other parts of the world, but many Americans heap adulation upon anyone who is very, very successful. Paul, the title character, while not exactly the vox populi, has been vetted by the critics. Like Picasso, Hitchcock and Faulkner he is indulged in his despicable behavior, perhaps because the rest believe he inhabits the realm of immortals. Like Mount Olympus? Paul is not just a cranky, insufferable curmudgeon, he’s a schmuck that enjoys being a schmuck. When Sophie, his new assistant, confronts him on his toxic behavior, the rest of the family rushes to his defense. Though, thankfully, without admonishing Sophie.

If this weren’t bad enough, the evidence that he’s plagiarizing the work of female consorts (including his wife) steadily mounts. (Remember the Jerzy Konsinski controversy?) He comes on to Sophie without being a complete oaf, but it’s obvious he’s so used to getting what he wants from the awestruck and self-effacing, that chutzpah just comes to him naturally. When Sophie breaks the spell at the same time Laurie returns to New York without Ethan, Rebeck’s thematic rhyming becomes even clearer, and the irony that Ethan has unwittingly accepted the torch from his father.

The most salient epiphany of The Novelist is the sad revelation that artists who create the most spiritually compelling work are often not remotely admirable. The risk of this content is lapsing into familial melodrama. Rebeck mostly carries this off, though it’s a perilous endeavor, dancing all around an issue without reaching the audience’s conclusions for them. I would be remiss however, if I didn’t say that The Novelist has much beauty, incision and humanity to recommend it, not the least of which comes from the meticulous cast. (Light Up the Sky)

9. Uptown Players: Angels in America (Part One)

Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, a two-part series (both parts standing as independent pieces) is puzzling yet satisfying, epic yet personal, enigmatic, yet funny and cogent. Key characters are Mormon, yet it’s not immediately apparent why the Mormon church is vital to content. When Angels premiered they weren’t the only church condemning same-gender sexuality, but somehow the (shall we say?) more fanciful details of their theology seems consistent with the deadpan strangeness of the tone. The characters are not heroic but they seem swept up in the forces of history or zeitgeist or perhaps something greater? The one character who seems aware of his place in the politics and cultural evolution of America is Roy Cohn, a powerful, intelligent, reprehensible attorney who believes in contextual morality.

When Angels opened transgender cast doubling was an original way to add depth and complexity to a story. The idea that the inexplicable, mysterious gender we are is the one we just happened to wind up with. In 2016, maybe not so much. Kushner’s cunning is in his ability to personalize the impact of AIDS, as a barometer of an ethically pathological America. Not in the sense that some men were making love to each other, or frantically copulating, but that our hysterically heterocenterist society forced them into hiding. Villified them. Instead of addressing AIDS solely as metaphor or politics, he pulls us into attachments that emotionally involve us too, and walks us through the consequences. By weaving in gobs of often wry humor, he avoids pity, maybe even tragedy. Absurd, comical scenes have somber subtext. Poor Prior isn’t thrilled when a glorious angel appears. He’s terrified. His wrenching pain is treated as a stepping stone to his role in some kind of profound watershed for America’s future. But we won’t find out till part two.

Cheryl Denson has directed a sublime, crisp, infinitely intriguing and enjoyable show. The cast is skillful, agile and resonant with genuine emotion. They have captured a very difficult tone, flippant and grave. Sorrowful and resigned but nonchalant. The stony, monolothic, minimal sets by H. Bart McGeehon are appropriate and powerfully nuanced. Special kudos to Emily Scott Banks who handles her descent with poise and (forgive me) grace. (Toxic Avenger the Musical)

10. Cara Mia Theatre: Crystal City 1969

Inspiring. Enraging. Heartbreaking. Exhilarating. Cara Mia’s current show: Crystal City 1969 will catch you off-guard. I confess that I was unfamiliar with this incident in Crystal City, Texas (unlike Stonewall, Ferguson, Little Rock) where high school students protested blatant, brazen, unconscionable discrimination from teachers and administrators alike. Not that Texas has ever led the way when it came to issues like civil rights, but even for a school operating in the Bible Belt, in 1969, the transgressions of those in authority were particularly egregious. Students were paddled for speaking Spanish, refused equal participation in school activities (though they outnumbered Anglos) shamed, humiliated and verbally abused in the classroom by teachers, punished for protesting or even signing petitions. Some young men were even sent to the front lines of the Vietnam War, made cannon fodder for the sheer audacity of objecting to unfair treatment.

Somewhat similar to The Laramie Project, Crystal City 1969, shows a myriad of characters and situations. The toxic effect of diminishing and degrading ethnicities and races perceived as “the other,” by those in power. We are privy to the home lives of the students, parents, Latinos, Anglos, no one is demonized or canonized. If anything the commonplace occurrence of unchallenged racism and imperialism is made palpable. None of the white people are made to look like The Grand Dragon or Simon Legree, but the gratuitous hostility, the remarks like, “I thought you were one of the good ones,” illustrate the disgusting way a culture indoctrinates its members to seek comfort and validation by subjugating others. Again and again we see individuals ignored, knocked down or eliminated lest they begin to act on their self-esteem. Even the most reasonable requests for decent humanity is met with arrogance and abuse.

Whenever a play seeks to examine the nature of prejudice, civil rights, the countless ways human beings find to justify beating and lynching and exterminating one another (In White America, Bent, The Diary of Anne Frank) the risk is stacking the deck, on one side or the other. Jason might have treated Medea like drek, but he still gets to tell his side of the story. Playwrights David Lozano and Raul Trevino have avoided this entirely. Crystal City 1969 is not distorted or amplified. It tells the story of Latinos in a small, provincial Texas town, where bigotry is so ingrained in Anglo behavior, that it must be fought, without stooping to their level. Cara Mia Theatre and this wonderful cast (and adroit director David Lozano) have crafted a deeply moving, powerful, stirring narrative of the triumph of humanity and spiritual abundance when we genuinely care for and look out for one another. I think Jesus said something like that, didn’t He?








Brilliant, unsettling Gloria at Dallas Theater Center.

Gloria, written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, is a drama concerning the death of compassion in American culture, and how we talk each other out of caring. It is actually quite subtle, considering the shocking act of violence that ends the first act. Afterwards, my friend suggested that there will always be schmucks, which is certainly true. But I believe that Jacobs-Jenkins has hit upon a current, pervasive attitude (perhaps the seeds were planted during the “Me-Decade”) that it’s easier to dismiss the deeply troubled than reach out to them. In the second act Kendra remarks that all the attention being heaped on Gloria is perversely rewarding her for terrible behavior. This may be so, but just as in the case of Columbine and the catastrophes that followed, red flags were ignored before the tipping point. Why not take refuge in cliques and label those in pain as “freaks”?

Set in the editorial office of an erudite, very literate magazine, Gloria focuses on the behavior of certain key characters: Ani, Miles, Dean, Lorin, Kendra and Gloria. Miles is the pleasant intern assigned to Dean, who works with Ani and Kendra. Lorin is a fact checker and Gloria an editor. Ani is very sweet and friendly, but most of the action focuses of the feud between Dean and Kendra. Dean tries to be savvy in playing the game of office politics, but Kendra has mastered it. Dean gets drunk and lost in life’s disappointments, and Kendra takes gleeful pleasure in heaping abuse and misery on him. The problem isn’t so much the back and forth between Dean and Kendra, but Kendra’s flouncy, arrogant attitude. Rather than owning her bad behavior, she completely justifies it, essentially declaring that “losers” bring adversity on themselves. We can imagine her spitting on Job. It’s not that Dean is without flaw, but when he retaliates and gets the better of her, Kendra isn’t just miffed. She’s furious. And there are so many Kendras in the world.

What makes Gloria a profoundly poignant and relevant play is not the overwhelming violence, but how Jacobs-Jenkins uses it. How those involved react long after the tragic incident has occurred. How much have they changed, after a presumably life-altering event? When Dean and Kendra meet again (at a Starbucks) you’d think they could reconcile. At the outset, that appears to be what’s happening. When Dean crosses paths with another editor from the office (a pregnant woman) you would certainly guess that she’d respond graciously to his staggering sense of despair. She does however, ask her friend if maybe she’d been harsh, after Dean is thrown out.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is rather sly and Dallas Theater Center’s production of Gloria laden with thematic rhyming. Several characters swoon over her intensely emotional songs when a young, intoxicating siren dies, but have no use for the messy side of their own humanity. What we might normally ascribe to double or triple-casting, gradually reveals the suggestion that our fate is wished upon us, rather than due to lack of character. Sound Designer John Flores and Scenic Designer Dahlia Al-Habieli have erected pristine, secular temples of civilization, complete with disembodied choral fanfare, and persistent, salient red accents. In my numerous years of theatre-going I have to say, Gloria is one of the most powerful plays I have ever seen. We’re already 17 years into the 21st Century, but still believe the affectation of spiritual enlightenment is good enough.

The Dallas Theater Center Presents Gloria, playing December 7th-January 22nd, 2017. Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre (Studio Theatre) AT&T Performing Arts Center. 2400 Flora Street, Dallas, Texas 75201. 214-880-0202.