Uptown’s La Cage sly, intoxicating, enchanting

Albin and Georges have been a couple for a long time, Georges being the emcee and Albin a drag headliner at the gay nightclub: La Cage Aux Folles (The Birdcage?). Jean-Michel was the illegitimate son that resulted from Georges’ fling with a straight woman, and Albin and he have raised and loved him till he was a fine and genuine young man of character. At the outset of La Cage Jean-Michel explains to Georges that he has fallen in love with a beautiful young woman named Anne, and though she has no trouble with Albin (Jean-Michel’s “mom”) her parents are ultra-conservative. Distasteful as it may be, he asks his father if Albin could possibly be elsewhere, while Anne’s parents come for a visit? This premise is but the beginning of their troubles, when they find they must conceal their unorthodox spousal arrangement for the sake of their son and his delightful fiancee’.

Who might have guessed that Broadway would positively go gaga for theatrical adaptations of popular films? Often (unlike cinematic remakes and adaptations) the shows created are better, if not at least as good as the originals. The Producers, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Thoroughly Modern Millie come to mind, the weaknesses and anachronisms omitted, the narrative painted and polished, the content more salient and distilled. Such is the case with La Cage, a story that has undergone numerous incarnations since it premiered as a play by Jean Poiret. The French film got by on a great deal of camp humor, which felt like pandering. As if the world needed yet another condescending depiction of the gay community, encouraging straight people to assume we’re all caricatures of bitchy effeminacy. The stage musical (Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman, Book by Harvey Fierstein) eliminates much of this, while preserving theatrical drag as entertainment, and respecting those of us who evince a bit more towards anima than animus.

Queer or straight, anyone who’s lived long enough (and smart enough) understands that even the most exotic “lifestyles” aren’t all that strange, if you stop and think. You also learn that whatever your predilections, respect and warmth trump everything else. Uptown Players’ production of La Cage Aux Folles captures some of the subversive, shadowy side of drag with the charm of female impersonation as simultaneous send-up and homage. The tender, ironic romance of Albin and Georges is celebrated with humor and sincerity, and the foibles of our insane, ridiculously gender-polarized world is skewered with finesse and absurd precision. Jean-Michel and Anne are adorable ingenues without the ickiness, and Anne’s parents surprise us just perhaps enough. Director Cheryl Denson has taken a familiar comedy with its good points, and transformed it into something extraordinarily moving, memorable and intoxicating.

Uptown Players presents La Cage Aux Folles, playing Bastille Day through July 30th, 2017. Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Boulevard, Dallas, Texas, 75219. 214-219-2718. www.uptownplayers.org

Reckless, raucous, unforgettable Brad Smith as Divine at Margo Jones

From John Waters’ first collection of essays I gather that his band of hostile, disenfranchised, transgressive actors was culled from the delinquent friends he partied with as a teenager. And party they did, breaking into houses and liquor cabinets, committing vandalism and raising hell. In his brilliance at making strychnine from lemonade, Waters engaged these non-actors in a series of beyond low budget, trashy, gleefully disgusting, yet perversely funny films. From the late 60’s to early 70’s he released such debauchery as: Desperate Living, Female Trouble, Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, beginning an oeuvre as strange, demented and curiously distinctive as say, Bunuel, Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, but a different sort of cachet.

From Waters coterie of ridiculously bad and memorable cast members (Edith Massey, Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, David Lochary) emerged Divine (aka Harris Glen Milstead) the notorious, enormous drag queen forever noteworthy for consuming dog feces in the wretchedly classic Pink Flamingos. Over time, the inimitable Divine rose to the station of Counter-cultural Saint, enchanting the hearts and minds of freaks, malcontents, fringe dwellers and shameless sex iconoclasts. God bless her! (And sign me up!)

Local actor Benjamin Lutz has crafted a raucous, raunchy, wistful and hilarious cabaret-style tribute to this dark princess in Divine: Live at the Boom-Boom Room! The small theater at State Fair’s Margo Jones has been transformed into a night club, with a bar and tables with votive candles. The action bounces back between Divine’s volcanic act and her private life, back stage. Interspersed with this thread is the narrative of freelance journalist Michael (Jonathan Barnes) and gender bending numbers by the angry in-house musicians and “Tina Turner.” We see film footage from Pink Flamingos and Divine returns to her shtick throughout, denouncing celebrities and rallying the audience pf the infamous gay disco with greetings like, “Hello Cocksuckers!”

Brad Smith (Divine) Benjamin Lutz (playwright) and Ryan Matthieu Smith (Director and Designer) et al converge to capture the spirit and essence of a performer who was truly phenomenal, creating an improbable yet charismatic persona that soared and delighted, simply because she was fearless and unrepentant. The atmosphere of playful, orgiastic merriment is exponentially boosted by Brad Smith’s channeling of Divine, demonic goddess onstage and jaundiced, frail, petulant actress struggling with disappointment in her dressing room. The supporting cast keeps the atmosphere giddy, lively and just this side of criminal mischief.

It would be a sin and a shame if you missed the remarkable, spectacular Brad Smith as the sinful, shameful, subversive, raunchy Divine in Benjamin Lutz’s Divine: Live at the Boom-Boom Room! Smith’s performance as the legendary queen of depravity, Divine is nothing short of uncanny, doing 200% justice to our Patron Saint of Decadence. Lutz’s script is frantic, juicy, appalling, heart-breaking, anarchistic and abso-fucking-lutely wonderful. Be there or be a Fascist!

Cast and Creators: Brad Smith, Benjamin Lutz, Ryan Matthieu Smith, Kennedy Brooke Styron, Caleb Pieterse, Joey Casoria, Jonathan Barnes and Morgana Shaw.

Divine: Live at the Boom-Boom Room! Playing at The Margo Jones (Magnolia Lounge) at Fair Park, 8 PM, Thursdays-Sundays through July 30th. 1121 First Avenue, Dallas, Texas 75210. www.giantentertainment.org.

STT’s Necessities somber, effulgent, sublime.

I daresay “Diggle’s” set design for Blake Hackler’s The Necessities is a tip-off to the unconventional nature of this rich, deeply affecting exploration of isolation, catastrophe, and the accidental nature of grace. We are in the middle of a forest, with a picnic table center stage. Whether the scenes take place in that spot, or Walmart or a massage studio, we are never out of the woods. In the opening scene Ward, a young man, is looking for pulses of light, at a spot where men usually look for sexual connection. To all appearances, he is timing lightning flashes. So many seconds between crash and burst. An older, nervous man, Peter appears, who may or not be there to quell his libido. Their encounter is awkward and unpleasant.

It is safe to say that all four characters in The Necessities have been damaged in some way, through no fault of their own. Debbie works in a Walmart (her daughter is notorious for her involvement in a suicide pact) she is acerbic and downtrodden. Carly (Ward’s mother) is a massage therapist overwhelmed by a sense of abandonment and her bright, but delinquent son. Peter, Debbie, Ward and Carly are very different, but in one way or another, they are staving off despair. They cross paths (perhaps reminiscent of Insignificance?) and offer redemption. The kind of redemption the broken grant to someone who is also. Somehow Hackler has made this clearing in the midst of a foreboding forest much larger and much smaller than it appears.

Like some of the best plays, The Necessities is easier to process in retrospect, though our immediate experience is enigmatic, compelling, unorthodox and quite raw. The deeper we go into the details of these four, the more excruciating and oddly spiritual it becomes. These four are in pain, though they don’t express it in obvious ways. They almost seem to be stuck at the cusp of some dilemma. The flashes in the forest, these metaphysical glimpses into the healing and possible, weave their way into this narrative quilt, at once familiar and inexplicable. Cozy and odd. Blake Hackler has created a memorable, poignant drama with a subtle, surprising, distinctive voice and the performers: Tex Patrello (Ward) Matthew Gray (Peter) Christie Vela (Debbie) and Allison Pistorius (Carly) put themselves through the wringer for us. Hackler makes hay of the glorious human predicament of suffering, striving, hoping.

Second Thought Theatre presents Blake Hackler’s The Necessities, playing July 5th-29th, 2017. Bryant Hall at Kalita Humphreys Campus, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd., Dallas, Texas 75219. 1-866-811-4111.                                www. secondthoughtheatre.com

Linda Leonard rocks the house as Ann Richards in Irving Arts’ Ann

It takes a special kind of courage to be a Liberal Progressive Democrat and Governor of Texas, a state known for its preponderance of Bible-Belt, Conservative Republicans, and Ann Richards more than rose to the challenge. Most likely she pole-vaulted. Written by preeminent character actress Holland Taylor, Ann is a one-woman show, depicting the life of the formidable Ann Richards, before and after her election. Similar performances based on historic figures (Truman Capote, Gertrude Stein, Clarence Darrow) run the risk of being primarily anecdotal, which can amount to a one-trick pony and a very long evening. Holland Taylor is savvy enough to treat us to a typical day in Richards’ life as the governor of the Lone Star State. We see Richards at her worst and best, playing referee in a family squabble, laying the groundwork for a stay of execution, buying cowboy boots (on sale) for her staff, and launching into a tirade – all of this over a telephone.

One of the hazards (I would imagine) of writing this piece would be to make Mrs. Richards sympathetic while still making her human enough to feel authentic. Remember we live in a country where it is much easier for a space cadet like Sarah Palin to get traction, than intelligent, tough ladies, like Nancy Pelosi and Hilary Clinton. Being a Texas native it’s easy for me to understand that Richards had to be tough and full of gumption to fight the Texas patriarchy but for Holland Taylor, it couldn’t have been easy. She achieves a very delicate balance of making Richards very strong, but also humble enough to discuss your alcoholism without blinking. She fends off her adversaries with fierce aplomb, but still has time to reassure her granddaughter. All of this without ever stooping to the precious, adorable or icky.

I was bowled over by Linda Kay Leonard’s phenomenal performance last night. Where she found the stamina to deliver Holland Taylor’s brilliant script, filled with moxie, warmth, frankness, rage, hilarity and somber, sobering calls to fight for what’s just, I will never know. But it was a spectacular, delightful, powerful ride. Do not miss this remarkable show.

Stage West Theatre (in cooperation with IAC) presents Ann, playing June 9th-July8th, 2017. Irving Arts Center : 3333 N MacArthur Blvd., Irving, Texas, TX 75062. (972) 252-2787