Theatre Britain’s Let It Be Me a poignant, sensitive drama on a delicate subject

Amy Flynt and her brother were raised by her Aunt Sylvia, when they lost their parents. Amy still lives with her Aunt, who’s in her twilight years. She takes care of her, as dementia has begun to set in. In fact, her aunt does not recognize her, routinely asking, “When will Amy be home from school?” Sylvia likes Amy and they have a good connection, but imagine sharing a long-term, caring relationship with someone and watching it gradually evaporate. Amy has a competent, conscientious support system, but for all practical purposes, she is her aunt’s primary caregiver. She must vigilantly watch for triggers, as Sylvia can be fairly high maintenance, and might lash out hysterically from time to time.

Amy meets her love interest, Gregory Roberts, when she finds a book with uncut pages. (Perhaps this is an appropriate metaphor for Sylvia, whose vivid, intriguing contents are rendered inaccessible?) Gregory deals in used books, and a mutual friend sends him Amy’s way, to assess the value of such a rare find. Gregory is almost immediately smitten. Their dating life goes well for awhile, but gradually he gathers that his needs will always take a back seat to Sylvia’s. This is no small incidence. For the first time Amy has someone else looking out for, and cherishing her in that special way.

In Let It Be Me, playwright Carey Jane Hardy has constructed a deeply moving drama on a painful, frustrating, confusing subject. When we realize a loved one is besieged with Alzheimer’s, it can be like watching them stranded on a boat, drifting further and further away. We feel helpless, hurt, angry and yet must learn to cope. Hardy addresses this situation with warmth, intelligence and sensitivity, picking emotional turns with great care. She addresses the question of whether or not those who love the afflicted should roll with their mistaken fantasies or confront them. This question is never really answered, but that being said, Let It Be Me is a triumph of nuanced tone, insight and magnanimous humanity.

I have never had a disappointing experience at Theatre Britain, and Let It Be Me found a good home there. Director Sue Birch always brings a professional, precise and distinctive touch to all the shows produced there. Dizzy comedy, ruminating drama, Murder Mystery or Christmas Panto, Theatre Britain delivers with incomparable quality and exceptionally satisfying entertainment.

Due to health issues I was unable to release my review before Let It Be Me closed.

Theatre Britain: Cox Playhouse: 1517 H Avenue, Plano, Texas 75074. 972-490-4202.

Andrew Aguilar’s visionary Macbeth

The first production I was privileged to see at L.I.P. Service, was David Rabe’s Streamers, a play I don’t think gets staged very often. It’s a difficult show (Rabe can be excruciating) but they grabbed the dragon by the horns and refused to let go. I continue to be impressed by the distinctive work they choose to stage: edgy, eccentric, alienated, profoundly dark shows that drag you to a netherworld of poetic pain and amazement. The Whale, Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and Trainspotting, to name a few. There have been problems, but never was I bored, or disappointed by derivative content. L.I.P. Service always strives to engage, intrigue and challenge the audience.

Without getting into a lot of annoying details, I attended L.I.P. Service’s production of Macbeth (conceived and adapted by Andrew Aguilar) when I was still recovering. It closed awhile ago, and I offer my apologies for getting it out so late. Aguilar’s vision of Macbeth was raw, beguiling, trippy, outlandish, and very entertaining. In keeping with the practice of making Shakespeare more accessible, this Macbeth was more contemporary. Certain aspects were at once familiar and strange to 21st Century eyes. Shakespeare’s language was not tampered with, though I got the impression some excisions were made. Much of the scenery seemed minimalized and/or stylized, though the necessarily salient points were made.

There was much to dazzle in Andrew Aguilar’s version of Macbeth (directed by Jason Leyva) bold choices and a scrumptious chill to Ryan Matthieu’s extraterrestial, flamboyant costumes. Macbeth himself had a roaring, robust gusto, and Lady Macbeth a patrician, seductive demeanor that was surprising and alluring. Death symbols abound, in addition to a prevalence of black attire, to remind us that once Macbeth (and his wife) commit the first murder, more will inevitably follow. The music selections were appropriately disturbing and the profusion of smoke and grim, supernatural trappings enhanced the queasy feeling of kindness eclipsed by compulsive ambition. Not all of the risks hit the mark, but the experience, overall, was rich, surprising, fresh, juicy and quite satisfying.

T3’s Minotaur quirky, engaging, poignant

Anna Ziegler’s The Minotaur basks in quirkiness, its sense of the whimsical. Director and Scenic Designer Jeffrey Schmidt has laid out an oversized sandbox and sluices for the river that leads to the Minotaur’s cave. The chorus consists of a lady Rabbi, a Priest and a Lawyer. Much of the story is told with “props” strewn like jetsam on a beach. When the three are not wearing imposing bronze masks to command our attention, they sit around a patio table, drinking wine, playing board games, reading. Anyone who wishes to stage Greek or Roman mythology, and make the content accessible and familiar, has their work cut out for them. Ancient zeitgeist and other cultural assumptions normally unavailable are revealed in Ziegler’s script, along with most of the subtext. The dialogue uses gobs of pop contemporary references (the internet, texting, Craig’s List) presumably to make the speech less rhetorical and story more salient. It’s by turns amusing, poetic, frank, expository, wrenching.

Pasiphae falls in love with a beautiful white bull (and with the help of Daedalus) disguises herself as a cow. She’s impregnated by the sublime beast and subsequently gives birth to the Minotaur, a monster half-bull and half-man. He lives in a pitch black labyrinth, devouring men and impossible to kill. After that Pasiphae gives birth to Ariadne, the Minotaur’s sister. When Theseus arrives to vanquish the monster, Ariadne falls in love with him. She’s torn between her need to help Theseus (who could die) and spare her brother. Theseus is the archetypal hero, Ariadne the incomparable beauty and Minotaur, a metaphor for fierce desire, though no less sympathetic for that.

The Minotaur is a pleasurable, entertaining, surprisingly effective balance of explication, intent and yearning. Ziegler isn’t timid about exposing the scaffolding, or questioning the wisdom of a conqueror who lives for nothing else, however altruistic he may be. She dissects, undercuts, and sometimes debunks what we’d assume to be the overarching values of the original allegory. She does, however, recreate the story with wit, sincerity and panache. The Minotaur is not overly impressed with its own cleverness or reverential to its detriment. It stays true to the spirit of the piece, ruminating on the nature of love, attachment, longing and the value of humanity.

Theatre 3 presents The Minotaur, playing August 3rd-27th, 2014. 2800 Routh Street, Suite 168, Dallas, Txas

WTT’s Hit the Wall an exhilarating, intriguing take on LGBTQ History

Hit the Wall would seem to be a show whose time has come, depicting a monumental milestone in the history of LGBTQ Rights. Precipitated by the death of Judy Garland, The Stonewall Riots marked a watershed, rallying point for various factions of the queer community (closet cases, twinks, drag queens, dykes, lipsticks, and so forth) who were tired of being rousted, abused and humiliated. Cosmopolitan as The Big Apple might be, The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village was not immune to regular raids where customers were degraded, arrested, outed in the newspapers at a time when exposure ruined lives. Until that night when they decided they’d had enough. By some accounts the queens were first to take up the gauntlet, setting in motion a three-day melee that galvanized the Gay Rights Movement on an exponentially larger scale.

Written by Ike Holter, Hit the Wall takes a cross section of gay characters (male, female, trans, younger, older, out and passing) and tells their stories as witnesses to those notorious riots that took place in the sweltering June of 1969. Added to the mix are a couple of straight characters, a homophobic cop and estranged sister who may have softer sides. We assume Holter wants to go beneath the stereotypes to explore complications of identity. He takes great pains to emphasize that the truth is unknowable (as Rashomon taught us) except by processing anecdotal testimony. We get individual incidents in which a world that fosters paranoia and distrust gives way to solidarity and defiance.

The aggregate result of a society that systematically diminishes you cannot be exaggerated, and this phenomenal chain of events that led to groundbreaking anarchy is rich in history and inspiration. And so is Holter’s decision to capture it in theatrical event. Like Brokeback Mountain, it fills a need by giving us the nuts and bolts of same-gender sexuality without disparagement or condescension. The script is peppered with queer lingo. There may have been some struggle in deciding how to do the content justice, beyond a gloss that explains the how, why and cultural implications. Or choreographing a brawl in which queer folk (like us) kick some breeder ass. Hit the Wall may feel a bit unfocused, but it’s a scintillating, exhilarating show, filled with humanity, anger and enlightenment.

WaterTower Theatre presents Hit the Wall, playing July 28th-August 20th, 2017. 15650 Addison Road, Addison, Texas 75001. 972-450-6232.,

19th Annual FIT Includes Topical Political Allegory

The 6 one-acts I attended at this year’s Festival of Independent Theatres  were lively and inventive, though some felt more solid than others. Presumably due to our current governmental debacle three of these (Finding the Sun, The Great Dictator, Tommy Cain, Trace of Arc, The Caveman Play and Fiddler’s Cave) were obviously political allegories, presumably aimed at # 45. The Great Dictator (adapted from Charlie Chaplin’s popular film) showed Der Furhrer groping for women’s genitals, The Caveman Play supplied the asinine, egotistical leader of the tribe with Trumpish dialogue and logic, and Trace of Arc featured an interloping audience member begging two shopgirls to wake up to the necessity of activism in troubled times. If I were to surmise a structural thread, all the pieces I saw seemed to begin humorously, gradually turning a 180 towards the grim and/or despairing.

Adapted by Jaymes Gregory, The Great Dictator gathers most of its spark from our turbulent political climate and the intriguing success of Chaplain’s comic masterpiece as stage event. Steph Garrett is impressive in the dual role as a Jewish Barber and ridiculous despot who are apparently dopplelgangers. Though eminently pleasurable, it might or might not hold up solely on its own merits. The Caveman Play works a lot of traditional gags into a non-traditional context. Who knew that cavemen, thousands of years ago, struggled with temperamental, neurotic spouses, just like we do today? Who would have guessed the hoi polloi of prehistoric times were so gullible? The romantic twist between Ugh and Gorga was sweet and the dig at our “Commander-in-Chief” was most satisfying. Trace of Arc showed some promise as Jackie and Tracy, two young women clerking for a small British store in America, examine the underpinnings of monopolized industry. A character identified as CONSCIENCE in the program subversively ignores the 4th Wall, disambiguating the pretend paradise of subservience from the reality of civil disobedience. Though we might agree with the ideology, the self-righteous interloper who abandons Tracy after converting her, might make this piece hard to swallow.

Fiddler’s Cave was a delightful (mostly comedic) pantomime story, with enchanting illusion, and inspired, clownish antics. Dustin Curry is sublime as the guy who awakens in a cave, and must get his bearings. Curry created this wordless narrative that includes a haunting (if a bit hazy) romance between himself and a waifish lass with a simple chapeau. Susan Sargeant directed Finding the Sun, a short play by Edward Albee with a large cast. Albee’s crisp, droll, ironic humor is intact, as we follow (quite effectively) the impact and reverberations of Benjamin and Daniel, two lovers who go on to marry Abigail and Cordelia, who or less beard for them. Though Albee sometimes takes much longer to make his point, the brevity, gravity and efficacy of Finding the Sun was powerful and touching. Written by Van Quattro and performed by Zachary Leyva, Tommy Cain is an extended monologue by a young man who is waiting to be released from Juvenile Detention, on his last day there. Quattro has set this story in the 60’s, and it’s a poetic blend of warmth, anger, despondency and guilt. Where Zachary Leyva, at his age, has found the chops to bring this level of authenticity to such a wrenching, disturbing, profoundly moving performance, I cannot imagine. Leyva’s delivery is stunning and inconsolably sad.

The Festival of Independent Theatres plays July 13th through August 5th, 2017, at The Bath House Cultural Center. 521 East Lawther Drive, Dallas, Texas 75218. (800) 617-6904.

Firehouse’s Pippin scintillating, saucy, splendiferous fun

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

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

The finale is something of a quandary, as the show culminates in Pippin’s choice, but doesn’t really seem to affect our enjoyment. Seems Pippin must choose between a vibrant, breathtaking existence, chock full of daring and celebrity, or a dull life on the farm with Catherine and her young son, Otto. Pippin makes the “right” decision, though you might suggest that even Einstein probably wrestled with ennui and a farmer might find beauty in birthing a foal. That being said, it seems to hold up better upon post-show reflection.

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

The Firehouse Theatre presents Pippin, directed by Derek Whitener (Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, Book by Roger O. Hirson) playing July 19th-August 20th, 2017. 2535 Valley View Lane, Farmers Branch, Texas, TX 75234. (972) 620-3747.

Joanie Schultz interview – WaterTower Theatre

Joanie Schultz came to WaterTower Theatre in December of 2016. Before WaterTower, Joanie served as Associate Artistic Producer at Victory Gardens Theater, as part of the Leadership U One-on-One Fellowship funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation administered through TCG, the national non-profit regional theatre service organization. She is also a freelance director, with recent productions at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, Studio Theatre, The Cleveland Play House, Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, and Victory Gardens Theater.  She was a Drama League Fellow, The Goodman Theatre Michael Maggio Director Fellow; the SDSF Denham Fellow; and Lincoln Center Theatre Directors Lab participant.  She is an ensemble member at Steep Theatre, Artistic Associate at Victory Gardens Theater, and artistic cabinet member at Studio Theatre in Washington, DC.  She is currently on adjunct faculty in directing at Columbia College and University of Chicago.  She received her B.A. in Theatre/Directing at Columbia College and her M.F.A. in Theatre Directing from Northwestern University.

For more information, please visit WaterTower Theatre

WaterTower Theatre also has an excellent Facebook page.

This interview was recorded by Mark David Noble, July 25, 2017 in the offices of WaterTower Theatre.

Intro and exit music was provided by James Vernon, from the James Vernon Trio recording, House of Jazz.

Photo of Joanie Schultz by Joe Mazza

Cast photo by Karen Almond

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.

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.

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.