Closing weekend for LCT’s raucous, juicy, lurid Lion in Winter. Don’t miss it!

The Lion in Winter is set in the castle of of Henry II of England, in Chinon, France. It is the Christmas of 1183 and Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine has been paroled for the holidays. Henry locked her up when she tried to raise a coupe against him. Also in attendance are their sons Geoffrey, John and Richard (the Lionhearted) Alais, Henry’s mistress, and her half-brother Phillip II, of France. Throughout their stay there is much subterfuge, feinting, manipulation, verbal gouging and tantrum throwing. To playwright James Goldman’s credit, we get a crisp, vivid picture of the significance of issues such as lineage, geographical access, sex versus matrimony and the leverage that comes with sovereignty.

Mostly Goldman strives to strip these historical figures of any regal mien or mythic cache. The juicy repartee and cruel jabs are so self-conscious, he barely gets away with it. How easy is it really, to sell a line like: “I could peel you like a pear, and God himself would call it justice.” ? It’s so utterly over the top, you must cultivate a tone that is high octane and just this side of volcanic. Desperate, yet subdued, ironic but funny, self-indulgent but not self-conscious, enraged but contained. Lion has a comedic layer that makes the vitriol tolerable. But after awhile the excessive abuse and bellicose undercurrent begins to wear us down. We start to get inured to it. Understand this piece can be raucous and exhilarating, but requires pitch perfect acting and chemistry. Ellen Bell (Eleanor) and Dale Moon (Henry) especially, bring zeal and authenticity to this production.

The Lion in Winter is not a complex play, but a strange mixture of elements. The dialogue is mostly glib, cynical, toxic jibes laced with irony and narcissistic, introspective revelation. Like going to a party where everyone is clever and snotty and drunk and spilling out their anger without being completely vicious. They want to wound each other, even at the cost of advantages they intensely want. Eleanor (the queen) wants the throne for Richard (one of the three princes) but not as badly as she needs to see Henry (her husband, the king) suffer. It works because (underneath it all) this family of compulsive warriors actually cares for one another. They feign disaffection, but no one sustains this kind of animus without being deeply invested in the outcome. Goldman (that maniac in a three-piece suit) knows how to throw royalty into trashy behavior, and still draw us into the fray.

Lakeside Community Theatre presents The Lion in Winter, playing February 10th -25th (PM) 2017. 6303 Main St, The Colony, Texas 75056. (214) 801-4869 [Calling ahead for directions is highly recommended.]

Bishop Arts Down for the Count features poignant, original women’s voices

Down for the Count, a festival of one-acts written by women, is refreshing, intriguing, entertaining. Produced now for the second year by Bishop Arts Theatre Center, and directed by Gail Cronhauer, it features five short plays. Each is one different, not only from the others, but from the mainstream theatre we so often see. Strangely enough, none of them are really comedies (though some have amusing moments) which is unusual for this kind of anthology. None of them is conventional, and even if we anticipate the ending, each one confounds our expectations.

Cecelia Copeland’s Smashing the Patriarchy depicts a typical day of political maneuvering and navigation by Constance, a Senator. She fights for the right for women to choose, and spars with those who consider such issues to be nothing more than bargaining chips and/or leverage. Usually when we see a politician who is (if I may be so bold) fighting on the side of the angels, they are naive, or thin-skinned, or both. They are often overwhelmed by the chicanery of the opposition, and too quick to consider capitulating. Not Constance, nor Martina, her assistant. They are very comfortable dealing in the blue language so often used in these grueling battles, and cut through duplicity and disingenuousness without a quiver. When they suspect another woman is shilling for the opponent, they call her on it. Copeland never panders to the idea that women make better nurturers than warriors. Smashing the Patriarchy is very satisfying from an ethical standpoint, though a more toxic adversary might have made for better friction.

Camika Spencer’s Things That Go Bump is easily the strongest piece out of this impressive cluster of plays. We find Daniel, a recovering alcoholic with anger issues, trying to remember the words to The Serenity Prayer. He has recently reconciled with Natalie, his estranged wife, and they are trying to talk things out. It is truly surprising (especially in a genre that uses such brevity) to see how Spencer expresses the profound pain and isolation of a character who is not particularly likable. It would have been easy to convince us that Daniel was solely responsible for his catastrophic situation (and perhaps he is) but we mostly feel just very, very sad. And chilled.

The Red Zone by Ashley Edwards is a strange, kind of giddy, frantic exploration of an extremely unorthodox couple: Gretchen and Isaac. Back in their halcyon days, Isaac and Gretchen first connected on Halloween. Something about their eccentric (but innocuous) worldviews made this bizarre, romantic context feel like kismet. Both of these people are congenial, funny and genuine, even if they have poor impulse control. The Red Zone’s hook is its appeal for hanging on to the spontaneous, unpredictable aspects of life. Rather than settling for a marriage that is tepid and mundane, Gretchen and Isaac try to preserve the loopy behavior that keeps them young and energized.

How to Iron a Shirt, by Carmela Lamberti opens on a “Woman” with an ironing board, carefully pressing her husband’s dress blue shirt, for a special occasion. This piece is something of a soliloquy. She describes her technique for getting the sleeves, collar, edges, just right, while discussing her relationship with her dad and her spouse. The pace is pretty much what you’d expect from the casual conversation you might have while taking your time with a chore. Lamberti is pretty sly. Gradually we get the bits and pieces in the mosaic of a lady who expresses devotion by taking such meticulous care of her loved ones. We share in her warmth, her loneliness, her frustration. Lamberti composes the narrative subtly, seamlessly and memorably.

Josefina Lopez’s Hypsteria is a morality tale about Lucha and her son, Freddie. Lucha is an activist, who has vigilantly defeated drug dealers, thieves, and other predators that have made life unsafe for decent families. All of this (she says) in the name of motherhood and justice. When a greedy landlord has their tenement condemned for the sake of turning a profit, Lucha and Freddie pitch a tent on the property to prevent new owners from subjecting the neighborhood to gentrification. Lucha uses the expression, “hipsters”, which (in this case) means edgy millennials. These millennials appropriate properties with quirky, bohemian charm, marginalizing the working class in the process. While Lucha is undoubtedly admirable, and a stalwart crusader, she can also be a pain. In the process of demanding a fair shake, Lucha discovers that one of the owners actually has a conscience and a heart. Lopez gives us a heroine who gets the job done, even if she bears more resemblance to Mother Teresa than Saint Bernadette.

Bishop Arts Theatre Center (TeCo Theatrical Productions) presents Down for the Count, a One Act Festival playing February 16th-26th, 2017. 215 South Tyler Street, Dallas, Texas 75208. 214-948-0716.

Don’t miss closing weekend of Stefany Cambra’s witty, poignant: Big Enough


In her first collection of essays, Joan Didion wrote “Anything worth having has its price.” She didn’t resort to cliches like: “Life isn’t fair,” or “You can have it all.” In her simple, non-judgmental way she summed up a truth that we may have suspected, but carefully avoided confronting. In Big Enough (her one-woman show) Stefany Cambra reveals tough but realistic insights into human endeavors, by sharing crucial aspects of her life thus far.

Cambra begins by entering in brightly colored gym clothes, huffing as she works out for a short spell, then plops herself down to confide in us, and indulge in some “nutritious” work-out treats. Including wine. Her wry sense of humor is definitely one of her strong points. She describes internal debates with self-esteem and body issues. Fair to say this piece comes from the viewpoint of an American woman who will not predicate personal value on her ability to land a man. She does however, listen far too often to that deprecating voice we all entertain: “Is this because I don’t need a spouse, or couldn’t find one if I tried?” Her friends’ attempts to reassure her feel somewhat like consolation platitudes, so she resolves to reshape her body, without making others feel inadequate. This is part of Cambra’s charm. Even when she takes digs, she earnestly respects others feelings.

We follow Stefany as she takes on the ordeals of the Senior Prom, dating while maintaining a palpable, exhilarating commitment to the theatre, dieting and yoga. Like other prolonged, contemporary soliloquies, she strikes a casual tone, connecting with individuals in the audience. We exercise along with her (if we so choose) we listen to her mantras, we are privy to her love/hate affair with The Hallmark Channel. She is genuine and engaging and congenial, without getting perky. Her quirky asides sneak in as she takes us through the ragged, jagged hoops that grown-ups must endure. She plods along in the face of merciless disappointment.

Stefany Cambra’s great strength is her ability to find these hideous aches that go unnoticed or at least without articulation. She recognizes this great, conspiratorial myth that if we’re very, very, careful to live our lives deliberately, and without error, the cosmos will reward us with bliss. That we will never be forced to make painful choices. Cambra could have easily coasted on her warmth, her affability, her intuitive charisma. But instead she chooses into pull us into the raw core of her self-doubt, her confusion, her despair. She doesn’t tell us these things, she enters that realm and includes us, without vanity or shame. She trusts us. And if we trust her, we will be overwhelmed. And stunned.

Proper Hijinx presents Big Enough: the Musings and Misadventures of a Bumblefuck, playing (February 9th-19th, 2017.) The WaterTower Theatre (Studio space). 16560 Addison Road, 75001. 972-450-6241.

ATTPAC’s Hedwig will blow your gender fuses and tickle your fancy

Under the guise of being a jaundiced, seductive, German rock chanteuse (by way of Marlene Dietrich) Hedwig and her band: The Angry Inch, is a singer/songwriter and her life story is a contemporary fairy tale on the finer (and stranger) aspects of gender polarization and how love gone wrong can turn into a train-wreck. Hedwig and The Angry Inch is a trashy, surreal, gender mash-up on the uglier and perhaps also sublime odyssey that compels one to find a soulmate. Hedwig does her shtick, laced with withering, ironic insight, while swinging wide between fierce songs and melancholy ballads. She regales us with autobiographical anecdotes, leading us up to the moment that brought her here, to this stage.

In his younger (pre-chop) days, Hedwig shared a trailer with his mother in Berlin, and slept with his head in the oven. (I know, I know). His pathological mother treats him with indifference and contempt. One day, while sunbathing naked, he catches the attention of a charming, butch Military officer named Luther, who plies him with various candies, including Gummy Bears and Sugar Daddies. It’s not long before Luther proposes, and expresses his desire to take Hedwig to America. To fool the authorities, Luther insists mere drag won’t work, and that Hedwig get a transgender operation. His mother explains that to move ahead, you must leave something behind (Hedwig is nothing if not wildly implausible). Then a clandestine, third-rate surgeon botches the job, forever mutilating him. Luther abandons Hedwig in America; from there she forms a deep connection with a guy name Tommy Speck, writing songs for and tutoring him in the school of the immeasurably cool.

Hedwig gets astonishing trajectory from outlandish spectacle, thanks to Julian Crouch (Scenic Designer) Kevin Adams (Lighting Designer) and Benjamin Percy (Projection Designer). The set is post-apocalyptic, neo-garbage heap, tricked out with dazzling lights and hallucinogenic animation. All the better to boost our crass, egocentric, counter-cultural superstar my dear. Hedwig is a flamboyant pastiche that somehow manages to celebrate and ridicule the eternal, fractured battle between masculine and feminine identities in the cause of romance. Everything in this bizarre cyclone of degeneracy screams it shouldn’t work, and yet it does. It’s a pyrotechnical, confounding, inexplicably moving rush. As if Fassbinder and Baz Luhrman had collaborated on a circus. Go, you fools.

ATT Performing Arts Center presents Hedwig and the Angry Inch, playing February 7th-12th, Winspear Opera House. 2403 Flora St, Dallas, Texas 75201. 214-880-0202.

Core Theatre’s Our Town is deeply, unforgettably moving

Thornton Wilder’s Our Town premiered in 1938. Using minimal set pieces and somewhat sparse dialogue, he told the story of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire in three acts. It won the Pulitzer for Best Drama. Grover’s Corners is a fictional town, which almost certainly means it’s supposed be the quintessential American town. Every town. With its plainspoken Stage Manager, setting up planks to create a soda fountain and talking directly to the audience, it makes no pretensions of being anything but rural. Curiously, Wilder makes a point of letting us know there’s no culture to speak of, museums or concert halls, but even this humble hamlet has its town drunks and tawdry secrets. Somehow, though the people we see in Grover’s Corners, don’t seem to take pleasure in gossip or the transgressions of others.

Our Town seems to concern itself mostly with the lives of The Webbs and The Gibbs. George Gibbs and Emily Webb are the oldest children and pretty much grow up together. Their dads are the town doctor and editor of the newspaper. We learn things about other characters, but mostly it seems to revolve around their growing attachment and fondness for each other. Eventually the two will get married, and the show skips around the timeline, beginning Act Two with the wedding before we see the intriguing incident that galvanizes George’s resolve to propose. A proposal, incidentally, we never actually hear. In Act Three Emily dies in childbirth, and the Stage Manager explains how humans are gradually “weaned away from the earth.”

Our Town is an elusive, deceptively non-rhetorical play. Obtuse and off-the-cuff, it sneaks up on you. It would be remiss to discuss Our Town without recognizing Wilder’s breakthrough of technique and result. The tone is somber, but never cynical or grim. Characters discuss topics like suicide and a man nearly freezing to death in the same way you might explain a recipe. But not out of bitterness or insensitivity. When Frank Gibbs explains to George he’s been taking his mother for granted, we are surprised when he offers his son a handkerchief. George’s sudden regret almost goes unnoticed. It’s easy to mistake Our Town’s nonchalance for quaintness, until a moment like Myrtle Gibb’s troubling epiphany, that there’s something “so wrong with the world.” Like a fact we always knew, but never said aloud.

Wilder finds a way in Our Town to disclose very sobering truths about what it means to be human, while explaining through the Stage Manager, that he doesn’t want to be hurtful. This is fairly revolutionary stuff for 1938. Especially when you consider how powerful these ideas are, in comparison to other playwrights take more time to reach their own particular versions of the truth. (With all due respect to Williams, O’Neill and Inge) He balances the disaffection of the dead with what must be one of the most famous scenes in the American Theatre. Emily relives a birthday from her adolescence and realizes (to her chagrin) that we’re too busy filling time to grasp how truly miraculous the world is. Oh, Mama,” she says, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me”. I cannot speak for others, but when Emily (Madyson Greewood) spokes these words, I got chills before my eyes filled with tears.

The Core Theatre has done an impeccable, pitch-perfect job with Our Town. The entire ensemble (eighteen actors!) is dedicated, authentic, canny and personable. At first I was leery of using contemporary costume for a play set in the early 20th Century, but it really seemed to work well. Director James Prince has brought out the nuances and profound poignancy of this quietly overwhelming script. If you love theatre, make time to see this.

Don’t miss final weekend of WTT’s poignant, poetic Silent Sky

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, so 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.

WaterTower Theatre presents Silent Sky playing January 20th-February 12th, 2017. 15650 Addison Road, Addison, Texas 75001. 972-450-6232.

L.I.P. service’s Frankie & Johnny filled with sublime heartache and mirth

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, emotion 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.

Under the meticulous direction of Stefany Cambra, Jason Leyva and Jenny Tucker manage these ragged, demanding roles. McNally drags these characters through all sorts of trials, travails and wrenching personal moments. Leyva and Tucker are up on that stage for a very long stretch, in a drama that takes place in real time. The characters involve us in their prolonged, tumultuous connection, but we never sense the actors themselves are running out of steam. We are under their spell.

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.

L.I. P. Service Productions presents Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, playing January 27th-February 12, 2017. Amy’s Studio of Performing Arts, 11888 Marsh Lane, Suite 600, Dallas, Texas 75234. 817-689-6461

MainStage Irving-Las Colinas’ Five Women snappy, savvy fun

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 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.

The one male character, Tripp, is (more or less) brought in at the 11th Hour. He and Tricia debate the merits of strictly recreational sex. He explains his feelings run deeper than that, while she studiously avoids the hazard of playing along with what he needs her to be.  The banter is bright, and impressively unexpected, though it feels like Tripp has been sent in to rescue Tricia from her (admittedly reasonable) skepticism with men.  It feels a bit extraneous. That being said, 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.

MainStage Irving-Las Colinas :presents: Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, playing January 20th-February 4th, 2017. Irving Arts Center, 3333 North MacArthur Blvd, Irving, Texas 75062. 972-252-2787. www.irvingtheatreorg.