Undermain’s somber, beguiling Really

A middle-aged woman visits a studio where a pretty, taciturn young lady has invited her to sit for a portrait. Tension is palpable. The older woman does most of the talking, but that’s not surprising. She’s uncomfortable, and the photographer is not doing much to put her at ease. Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury (author of Really) doles out information gradually. The more we gather, the less obvious the motives of these two women. The more complicated the nature of their connection. The younger woman climbs up on crates, chairs, wielding her camera. She poses her subject, asking her to turn, move her feet. You might not imagine that moving to accommodate your photographer could be so exacting. So difficult. Drury exploits the meticulous demands of this situation to heighten the extreme discomfort between the two. Like Pinter or Albee, much of what we ascertain comes from inference.

The lives of these two women intersect at their relationship with another photographer named Calvin. Until I checked the program (afterwards) I supposed it was a mother and daughter-in-law. The beautiful young Asian woman is Calvin’s girlfriend, the other is his mother. Calvin is dead. Far too soon. Drury’s approach to this cunning, subdued, bleak drama asks us to search for clues. The animosity and frustration and despair leaks out before we get explanations. When Calvin appears, it takes a bit to realize we are sharing in the women’s memories, and not consortium with his ghost. We see the mother fidgeting and digging for pills. We see the young woman bringing her water, sometimes barely concealing impatience and anger. There’s a kind of dry, raw, palpable quality to Really. We don’t feel especially compassionate towards these women, but neither does their behavior seem inexplicable or off-putting. We’re caught in this awkward conjunction, too, but we understand.

As we witness past episodes between Calvin and his lover (apprentice?) and his mother, his less appealing traits become salient. The first time he shares a drink with this younger photographer, he’s coy, manipulative, predatory. The episodes of photographing his mother feel like retribution or tantrums. Even for a brilliant photographer his behavior is harsh, controlling, temperamental. Drury

gives us enough to understand that when Calvin gets the leverage to work through childhood sleights, he uses it. It’s not unusual to find creative prodigies indulged (consider Hitchcock, Picasso, Berryman) and Drury demonstrates this in the way Calvin treads upon those we’d imagine dearest to him. Even if he’s offering the gift of authenticity, he seem degrades others. Calvin finds ways of diminishing without seeming aggressive.

Really orchestrates a cluster of elements within the context of photography, and how conflicting perceptions shape our lives. How love can be impure and off-kilter. These two women could easily provide solace, but are submerged in their unresolved issues with Calvin. There’s a pervasive realm of crisp, understated contemplation, but underneath there’s pain and isolation and resentment. A less confident play might have attempted to reconcile these two lost, alienated, overwhelmed protagonists. But even when the younger woman begins to spill deeper ruminations, it ends before anything’s decided. You might find yourself returning to this somber, enervating collision of souls long after the lights have finally been extinguished.

Undermain Theatre presents Really, playing April 12th-May 6th, 2017. 3200 Main street, Dallas, Texas 75226. 214-747-5515. www.undermain.org.

Tribute to Bedford’s rambunctious Starcatcher

Onstage in Bedford was gracious enough to let me attend their marvelous production of Peter and the Starcatcher closing weekend. I regret I was unable to write my review until now.

Two days after Christmas 1904, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan premiered in London, starring Nina Boucicault. Barrie had something more than a penchant for casting petite women in the title role. Since then, thousands of audiences have been captivated by the story of an orphaned boysprite, eternally submerged in serious play, fighting pirates and Indians, leading The Lost Boys into avid battle. Accompanied by Tinkerbell, his fairy companion, he appears at the nursery window of Wendy, Michael and John Darling. Peter is all undone because he’s lost his shadow. Wendy sews it back on for him (a not altogether painless procedure) and he sprinkles them with fairydust, so they can fly away with him to Neverland.

It doesn’t take much examination of Barrie’s Peter Pan before we start bumping into all kinds of symbolism. The tradition of casting women in the role, that continues to the present day, results in a kind of androgyny. His shadow is often a boy’s only companion and it also signifies darker urges. Pan also suggests the faun god. The Lost Boys and Peter crave Wendy as a mother, and really no other reason. Tiger Lily is essentially a tomboy. Captain Hook has a distinctively flamboyant, effete demeanor and the audience is invited to resuscitate Tinkerbell by clapping if they “believe in fairies.” None of this is to suggest anything sinister or deprecating. Any exhilarating work of timeless literature has layers, and Barrie’s Peter Pan is an exploration of maleness, whether in boyhood or adulthood, what it means to be exuberant, and to forfeit this for possibly more rewarding relationships. Possibly it’s apples and oranges.

Rick Elice’s recent musical, Peter and the Starcatcher (based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson) purports to be a prequel to Peter Pan. Before Peter was transformed into an otherworldly entity, he was a nameless orphan, chilling with his buddies, Prentiss and Ted. Fairly early in Starcatcher, the three are tricked into slavery and set aboard a ship, where they cross paths with Molly.

Molly is a prodigious, precocious schoolgirl and apprentice Starcatcher. Her dad (Lord Leonard) is also a Starcatcher, that is to say, someone who gathers magical, powerful stardust. Stardust can bring great delight or tragedy to the world. Lord Leonard is on a mission to destroy a great cache of Stardust lest it be put to evil purpose. [Comparisons to Tolkien’s notorious ring are noteworthy.] Peter and the Starcatcher takes us on numerous adventures, involving pirates, Island savages, mermaids and brawny sailors. I should also mention Black Stache, a stand in for Captain Hook.

Elice’s Starcatcher is an intriguing melange of good-natured cynicism, goofy humor, flagrant gender-bending, and a need to make Peter more butch. It’s very clear that Peter’s feelings for Molly are more romantic. Starcatcher doesn’t take itself anywhere near as seriously (it must be 80% comedy) yet it considers the same issues as Peter Pan. Like many other instances of contemporary theatre, it seems to be part mockery and part homage. It fudges some of the details, yet it ultimately feels fairly respectful. You might find yourself wishing manly Peter had a bit more panache.

Director Ashley White tames this robust, boisterous, frantic content with mastery and eclat. The enormous cast, the digressions, the witty dance numbers and unexpectedly emotional turns, the demanding costume changes. White brings them off joyously and with the assurance to make them seamless. The cast is nimble, frothy, funny and at the top of their game. Ashley White has concocted a giddy, moving, memorable show, that would have daunted many other directors.

Onstage in Bedford’s Peter and the Starcatcher closed April 9th. 2819 Forest Ridge Drive, Bedford, Texas 76012. (817) 354-6444. info@onstageinbedford.com

Tenderness and raw anger in PrismCo’s Medea Myth

How many know the details behind the story of Jason, Medea and The Golden Fleece? Medea was a sorceress, but she was also a Princess (daughter to Aeetes, King of Colchis) High Priestess of Hecate (Goddess of witchcraft) and grand daughter of Apollo. On his way to Colchis Jason confronted numerous perils, including The Symplegades (clashing rocks) and The Harpies. When Jason and the Argonauts landed on the Island of Colchis, in search of The Golden Fleece, it was Medea who helped Jason survive the dragon, and other dangers to secure it. She used her skills to help Jason flee, but not without betraying her father, murdering her brother (Absyrtus) and dissolving all ties to home. It was only after all this, that Medea married Jason (who swore an oath to Medea’s Gods) bore him two children. They made a home in Corinth, where Jason would marry another princess, and Medea would would exact ghastly retribution. It is this “backstory” that suggests the content for PrismCo’s Medea Myth: Love’s Beginnings.

Not once when attending PrismCo’s dance spectacles have I been disappointed. They always combine elements of the fanciful and exquisite with the primal and unsettling. The dancers never speak, but their preverbal communication is comprehensible. They avoid traditional dance costume, though like other dance and opera companies, they seem to appreciate Greek and Roman mythology. At least from time to time. They bring a lovely, ingenuous quality to Terpsichorean narratives, as if we are discovering water, or stars, along with them. As if the strange and enigmatic is being revealed to them, and we share in that revelation. PrismCo has an ingenious gift for using devices like shadowplay and bare light bulbs, two-dimensional puppets and voluminous scarves, every piece meticulously pondered and placed. They create enchantment from the elemental and familiar.

The lithe, diaphanous Katy Tye plays Medea, wearing a simple black dress and unaffected as a sparrow. Jason is just brawny enough to look fetching, wearing the practical white of sailors. Two of the female dancers might be sprites or nymphs, weaving and wielding magic whether shape-shifting or invisible. The other sailors also wore white, while Medea’s father and brother wore deep blue peacoats.

When we consider PrismCo’s aim to tell a story with no verbiage, whether written or spoken, Medea Myth: Love’s Beginnings, is virtually successful. The choreography seemed to blend the delicate, whimsical and acrobatic. It comes down (I believe) to how pleasurable the experience, whether or not we can track the plot as it has been interpreted. When we attend The Nutcracker, most usually know enough of the folktale to appreciate the young girl, The Rat King, the soldier, and the marvels of Christmas to appreciate what we see. Even if we don’t get the particulars. PrismCo casts their beguiling, intuitive spell, when we are sorting out the snares that have befallen Jason’s crew, or witnessing Medea’s tumultuous struggle with family devotion and desire for Jason. We are submerged in a conundrum that makes it possible for us to see this familiar, devastating story of tenderness and raw anger in a completely fresh way.

Katy Tye (Medea) Josh Porter (Jason) Brandon Whitlock (Aeetes) Mitchell Stephen (Absrytos) Gretchen Hahn (Argonaut) Jeremiah Johnson (Argonaut) Kia Nicole Boyer (Elemental) Amy Barnes- (Elemental) Written and Directed by Brandon Sterrett. Fight Choreography by Jeff Colangelo. Dance Choreography by Katy Tye. Lighting Design by Jonah Gutierrez. Sound Design by Tre Pendergrass

AT&T Performing Arts Center & PrismCo presents Medea Myth: Love’s Beginnings playing April 13th– 23rd, 2017. Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora Street, Dallas, Texas 75201. 214-880-0202. www.attpac.org

Don’t miss Theatre Arlington’s touching To Kill A Mockingbird

In 1960 Harper Lee published To Kill A Mockingbird, which won the Pulitzer that year, and has never since been out of print. Apart from belonging to the canon of contemporary American literature it is a phenomenal example of poignant, nuanced, brilliant narrative that has an intuitive feel for language and character. What might have ended up as a didactic homily, became a profoundly moving novel. Lee explored the impact of an incident. Tom Robinson (a black man) is tried for allegedly raping a white woman, through the eyes of Scout, a Southern tomboy no older than 10. Like Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Harper Lee’s Mockingbird achieved depth and freshness by creating a narrator who avoided the cynical racist indoctrination of the older characters. Raised by Atticus Finch (an attorney who despises bigotry) Scout and her older brother Jem, are more or less impervious to the narrow attitudes that shape the inhabitants of Maycomb, Alabama, in 1933. In Atticus Finch, Lee created a remarkable, yet credible hero, that while lacking some traditional aspects of heroism, strived to treat others with care and consideration. Without a trace of self-righteousness.

Playing at Theatre Arlington, the stage adaptation (by Christopher Sergel) of To Kill A Mockingbird is true to the plot of Lee’s book, if not exactly the experience. Sergel introduces the character of Scout as an adult. Now called Jean Louise Finch, she leads us through the high points of the story. Atticus Finch has been assigned the task of defending Tom Robinson against Myella Ewell’s charges of rape. This has drawn down the wrath of many of his neighbors, but Atticus holds his head high, and refuses to judge even those who hold him in contempt. Scout, Jem and their Cousin Dill follow the trial, when they’re not up to mischief, or learning the hard life lessons we all must. Scout catches a lot of grief for her boyish affect, and is subsequently marginalized just like Tom Robinson, the conscientious (though humble) Atticus, and the eccentric Boo Radley.

The trial of Tom Robinson, and its outcome, serve as a litmus test for the moral substance of the small, tired town of Maycomb. Sergel’s drama includes details we all remember, and omits others. There’s the long-suffering housekeeper Calpurnia, Mrs. Dubose, the ill-tempered, verbally abusive neighbor, and the chilling moment when Boo saves Jem and Scout. It’s to Sergel’s credit that he avoids simply transferring Mulligan’s film to the stage. It’s a dubious and daunting challenge, to distill (rather than synopsize) an astonishing work such as Mockingbird. Lee reaches us by choosing diction carefully, and never telling us what to think. We share in the lives of key characters (Mayella Ewell, Calpurnia, Dill Harris, Helen Robinson, etc…) and how this calamity affects them, but Lee never resorts to aphorism or summation. Mr. Sergel makes a valiant effort to do justice to this overwhelming story, but it couldn’t have been easy.

Under the direction of Michael Serrecchia, Theatre Arlington’s To Kill A Mockingbird is filled with earnest, warm, involved performances that are charming and memorable. It has so many lovely, tender moments, and evidence of the audience’s sympathy could be heard throughout the show. Noteworthy performers include: Jared Culpepper (Bob Ewell) Sara Ragsdale (Jean Louise Finch) Dorothy Lynn Brooks (Mrs. Dubose) Delmar H. Dolbier (Judge Taylor) DR Hanson (Walter Cunningham) Patricia E. Hill (Calpurnia) Tye Janae (Tom Robinson) and Todd Hart (Atticus Finch).

Theatre Arlington presents To Kill a Mockingbird, playing April 7th-23rd, 2017. 305 West Main Street, Arlington, Texas 76010. (817) 275-7661 www.TheatreArlington.org

Firehouse Theatre’s beguiling, vibrant Peter and the Starcatcher

Rick Elice’s Peter and the Starcatcher (based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson) accomplishes much. It’s an elucidation, a spoof, an homage, a riff and a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s play, Peter Pan. In some ways, perhaps it’s also reductive. Peter Pan, hybrid sprite and quintessential orphan, has captured the imagination of generations, a metaphor for grown men who can’t relinquish the exhilaration of boyhood. There’s so much going on beneath the surface of of Barrie’s subversive story: gender-bending, male identity, shadow self, the fey sparkle of immortality, the ugly side of adulthood.

Elice’s Starcatcher enjoys a strange attachment to its source material. The more it would seem to mock Peter Pan, the stronger the bond. Barrie absolutely insisted that Peter Pan would always be played by a female actor, while Peter the orphan in Starcatcher is the only character who never dabbles in transgender merriment. He is also more devoted to Molly (a stand in for Wendy) with no desire to be “adopted”. In many ways Starcatcher presents as comic fancy but the paradigm shift is clear. Barrie’s otherworldly scamp is forfeited for a tragic waif who loves his buddies, but finds the brilliant girl Molly utterly beguiling.

Molly and her dad, Lord Aster, are Starcatchers, they deal in starstuff, enchanted dust that transforms those it touches into the essence of their dearest wish. On a sea voyage, their paths cross with Ted, Prentiss and The Nameless Boy (Peter) three orphans who, abused though they may be, have no clue just how bleak their future is. Lord Aster must destroy a chest filled with starstuff, lest it transform the wicked into far more destructive monsters. Amidst a throng of pirates, sailors and dastardly malcontents, our heroes wind up on Mollusk Island, where their lives will be forever changed, and the inception of Peter Pan explained in its entirety.

Directed by Tyler Jeffrey Adams, Peter and the Starcatcher has been orchestrated with precision and panache. Starcatcher is a melange of raucous, wonderfully preposterous humor, with an undercurrent of folklore and issues that go to the core of our humanity. An adventurous farce undercut by serious themes. A precarious marriage of the giddy and somber. Adams takes on this tough task and makes it soar. Starcatcher seems to emerge from a dubious need to ground Peter Pan in the plausible, but Adams and this purposeful, versatile cast (and crew, et al) make it work, pulling us into the narrative, engaging us with warmth, silliness and the spillover between famished mortality and the supernatural. Don’t miss it.

[I was privileged to attend two different productions of Peter and the Starcatcher on the same weekend. One at Onstage in Bedford and the other at The Firehouse Theatre. Both had qualities to recommend them. Though the Bedford production closed before I had a chance to write my article, I urge you to read both pieces.]

The Firehouse Theatre presents Peter and the Starcatcher, playing April 6th-23th, 2017. 2535 Valley View Lane, Farmers Branch, Texas, 75234. 972-620-3747. www.thefirehousetheatre.com

Don’t miss Core Theatre’s engaging, thoughtful “Medgar Evers”

The Core Theatre in Richardson consistently promotes social justice and encourages us to examine our lives in the larger context of our humanity. Their productions of Fire at the Cocoanut Grove 1942, and Our Town are just two examples. Considering that racism has once again become a topic of discussion, it’s encouraging to see they’re currently staging Behind the Cotton Curtain: Remembering Medgar Evers, a documentary play conceived, written and directed by James Hansen Prince. Set during the civil rights conflicts that shook the town of Jackson, Mississippi, Cotton Curtain begins with a number of vivid, disturbing slides depicting the history of slavery and organized racial violence, including Ku Klux Klan rallies and lynchings. These provide a context for the explosive circumstances to come. The vast majority of white folks in Jackson were not merely opposed to integration, but profoundly threatened by the idea.

Medgar Evers was an intelligent, articulate, degreed, field secretary of the NAACP and civil rights activist, involved in numerous causes, including the exoneration of Emmett Till, the integration of the University of Mississippi, boycotting gas stations, and civil protests. Evers had a gift for powerful oratory and standing up to institutions determined to enforce the status quo. It was no wonder he caught the attention of The White Citizens’ Council, an organization determined to stop African Americans in their march towards equality. The Council’s vicious methods were unconscionable (to put it kindly). Opposition culminated in the assassination of Medgar Evers on June 12th, 1963 by member Byron de la Beckwith.

Like Lee Blessing, James Prince walks the tenuous line of dealing with charged issues like terrorism and political upheaval with calm reason and keen empathy. The heroes are not saints, but their anger, in the face of horrendous violence is understandable. Prince does not soft-pedal America’s history

of abuse towards African Americans, nor does he tip the scales when we hear the pompous rhetoric of white imperialism in response to those struggling for simple equality and respect. Prince gives us enough background to understand the familial underpinnings that fueled Medgar Evers’ vigilant desire to stand up and fearlessly pursue the cause of constitutional equanimity. Cotton Curtain never comes off as didactic or incendiary, but strives to provide a balanced, reflective understanding of the tumultuous circumstances that led to death of one of America’s heroes. I urge to go to this stirring, engaging drama. And by all means, stay for the “Talk Back.”

The Core Theatre presents: Behind the Cotton Curtain: Remembering Medgar Evers, playing March 24th-April 16th, 2017 (Sunday matinees 3PM). 518 West Arapaho Road, Suite 115, Richardson, Texas 75080. 214-930-5338. www.thecoretheatre.org

Stage West’s Deer a brilliant, bizarre, inspired ride

Some playwrights will brazenly drag you down the rabbit hole (Albee, Beckett, Shepard) while others (Williams, Pinter, Mamet) will be more stealthy. After seeing Deer I’m not sure where to place the demented, playful, inspired Aaron Mark on the continuum. When we first meet Ken and Cynthia they are en route to an idyllic cabin in the woods. Ken (John S. Davies) is yammering while Cynthia rolls her eyes. No response is necessary. They mistakenly hit a deer and while Cynthia wants to resuscitate, Ken (naturally) wants to put it out of its misery. She insists they take it to the cabin with them, and nurse it back to health. The outcome of this dubious mission (and what the deer will become for each of them) is the premise of Deer.

I’m often dazzled by the simple impetus that propels many successful plays. A teenage boy blinds horses. Why? A middle-aged couple invites a younger couple over for nightcap. Why? The wife of narcissistic buffoon adopts a dead, or nearly dead deer carcass. Why? When Cynthia (Lisa Fairchild) places the deer on the sofa and wraps it in a blanket, warms up a bottle for it, talks to it incessantly, we gradually move from the inexplicable to the inescapable. I have no desire to write a critique laden with spoilers, but I don’t know if I can avoid it. Like Nietzsche’s notorious reference to the abyss, the deer begins to speak back. Mark is careful here (it seems to me) to leave the question of Cynthia’s pathology to us. Is the deer really talking? And why does it assume Ken’s voice when conversing with Cynthia? Why Cynthia’s when talking to Ken?

It would be unfair and reductive to say “The Deer” is a metaphor for Ken and Cynthia’s famished, somewhat toxic marriage. Mark takes us down a number of bizarre and grotesque paths, finding humor in possibilities that are alarming and marvelously distasteful. Strangely enough, the more we play along with this creepy joyride, the more resonant and valid it feels. We laugh at Cynthia and Ken, acting out primal sacraments and petty retributions, and we feel the sting of loss as one watches while the other thrashes through lonely black waters. It feels like a jeremiad masquerading as shtick. Rage wrapped in velvety milk-chocolate. The gift of theatre as literature, of the complexity and ridiculousness of our humanity realized as spectacle, is permission to articulate through spontaneity and impulse. Deer channels sinister wisdom, the kind of frustration that fuels giddy, mind-bending humor.

Lisa Fairchild, John S. Davies, Garret Storms (director) et al deserve considerable recognition for navigating this harrowing, tumultuous descent. We wonder sometimes if audiences have any inkling of the moxie and reckless adventurousness it takes to step out on a stage and bear witness.

Stage West Theatre presents Aaron Mark’s Deer (A World Premier) playing March 9th-April 9th, 2017. 821 West Vickery Blvd, Ft. Worth, Texas 76104. (817) 784-9378. www.stagewest.org