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

Last weekend for T3’s intoxicating, brilliant Little Night Music

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is a nonchalant, funny, somewhat biting romantic spoof that actually feels quite modern for a period piece. Sondheim always injects a tone of cynicism into his work, and Night Music is no exception. Most of the characters belong to the privileged class, but it soon becomes clear their socializing and connecting is burdened by pretension and lame attempts at civility. Fredrik is married to the much younger Anne, though he is clearly smitten with famous actress Desiree, and she with him. She is having an affair with Carl Magnus, a military man who is married to Charlotte. Charlotte is well aware of her husband’s dalliances, and has become very bitter in the process. Henrik, Fredrik’s son, is a minister, and actually a better match for Anne than his dad. He worries at length about the welfare of his and everybody else’s soul.

A Little Night Music is a curious mix of gentleness, regret, skepticism and warmth, reflecting on the foibles of love, vanity, selfishness, and subterfuge. At the outset Madame Armfeldt tells her grand daughter Fredrika the summer smiles three times. Once at children who know nothing. Once at grown-ups who don’t know enough. And once at the elderly, who know too much. The narrative fulfills this lovely, somber bit of wisdom without ever getting corny or quaint. I think one of the reasons “Send in the Clowns” (splendidly realized by Jennifer Kuenzer and John Kuether) is such a cunning fit for this story is that each character, in their turn, plays that role. If you fall in love, sooner or later, you will look ridiculous. But then, if you’re in love, you don’t care. Theatre at its best reveals the characters in all their flawed glory, but does so without judgment. At least by the time the curtain drops.

The sophistication of a A Little Night Music lies in its layers of meaning. It’s very entertaining, and amusing. But most everything in the script cuts both ways. Seemingly careless remarks includes a wiser subtext. Carl Magnus is a pompous buffoon. But he’s lonely in his marriage. His wife Charlotte has the verbal skills of a cobra. but she’s also angry and hurt. All of these points are made with nuance and a kind of gracious detachment, as opposed to so much of the jackhammer tactics we see in comedy today. No one is sloshed with a barrel of drek, or forced to run naked through a crowd, or engaged in a screaming match at the top of their lungs. I say this not as some kind of witness for taste and propriety (sometimes excess is fine) but suggest it can be enlightening how well a different approach can actually work.

Theatre 3’s production of A Little Night Music is blissful, smart, sublime, filled with rage, somber admission, playfulness and delight. It is an adult musical in the best sense of that word: mature, understanding, poised, experienced and just enough moonlight and wistfulness to lift our miserable, damaged hearts.

Theatre 3 presents A Little Night Music (composed by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler) playing June 8th-July 2nd, 2017. 2800 Routh Street, Suite 168, Dallas, Texas 75201. 214 -871-3300. theatre3dallas.com

Last chance to see Kitchen’s Dog’s beguiling premiere: Br’er Cotton

 

Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s Br’er Cotton is compelling, odd, intriguing and a bit chilling. Not so much a call to revolution as a thoughtful, intelligent demonstration of the racial pressure cooker that seems to be escalating in these United States. Current debacles such as the melee at Ferguson and Trayvon Martin are evoked. As we might infer from the title, Chisholm begins with the imagery of Br’er Rabbit, a series of folktales from the Deep South, often considered an affront to our contemporary, more enlightened sensibilities. We might remember here that that these stories can be tracked all the way back to African stories of the trickster hare, who might use his wits (or even extreme measures) to prevail against slavery. Br’er Cotton begins with what we take to be a slave woman, who describes Br’er Cotton, who (instead of counting his blessings) resents living so close to heaven, when it’s still unreachable. Locked away from bliss, but able to watch others enjoy it.

Nadine (Stormi Demerson) is a middle-aged African American lady who works for a house cleaning franchise like Merry Maids. One of her clients is Officer (Clay Yocum) a friendly cop who gives her moral support. In her private time she studies to improve her lot, while caring for her teenage son Ruffrino, and father-in-law, Matthew. Ruffrino (Kyle Fox Douglas) contentious, unwieldy, and sometimes bearing a resemblance to Huey Newton, is enraged by the growing oppression he sees, all over the United States. He spends a great deal of time caught up in violent video games he plays with Caged Bird (Katie Tye) a teenage girl who writes poetry. Since they are friends in cyberspace, he doesn’t know she is white, and manages multiple sclerosis. Matthew (Dennis Raveneau) is wily and secretive. Like many elderly folks he seems to love poking at Nadine, giving her grief, and acting vaguely superior. None of these characters feel outlandish or implausible, though this family is sometimes visited by a small “chorus” dressed in rags, and planting cotton in the living room. Does the family not see the cotton, or are they too resigned to notice it?

A salient quality that struck me about Chisholm’s fantastical, ominous drama is balance. He carefully lays out the strategy of his narrative. Nadine makes good money cleaning houses, it’s not like her employer or clients degrade her, but its debatable whether she’s caving to a system that makes upward mobility so difficult for her to attain. Many teen boys are full of piss and vinegar, and we can hardly blame Ruffrino for the agitation he feels in the midst of America’s racial upheaval. We cannot ignore however, that he keeps partaking of provocative material, with no good way to process or resolve it. Chisholm adds to this the elements of the metaphoric, poetic and surreal, leading to a very sad and seemingly inevitable conclusion. He mixes a number of volatile and unnerving ingredients to create a cautionary allegory. A philosophical/political quandary. How long will it take before we can finally leave the cotton fields? The plantation?

Kitchen Dog Theater Presents Br’er Cotton, playing June 9th-July 1st, 2017. 2600 North Stemmons Fwy #180, Dallas, Texas 75207. (214) 953-1055. www.kitchendogtheater.org

 

Brick Road’s Cabaret scintillating, astonishing, powerful

 

When Cabaret premiered on Broadway in 1966, audiences didn’t quite know what to make of Kander and Ebb’s deceptive condemnation of the genocide, antisemitism and depravity Christopher Isherwood witnessed in 1931 Berlin. The Nazi party was just beginning to gain traction, but the rise of such a vicious, imperialist, ridiculously stolid ideology remains inexplicable to many of us. Isherwood was kicked out of college and moved to Berlin to pursue his vocation as a writer, moving into a squalid flat, and making the acquaintance of the notoriously hedonistic and cavalier chanteuse, Sally Bowles. Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, explore the collapse of erudition, culture and humanity, and provided the inspiration for Kander and Ebb’s skewed, sparse, yet complex musical of solipsism and profound loss of innocence.

Clifford Bradshaw (Isherwood’s stand-in) arrives in Germany, renting a cheap room from the sweet (if cynical) Fraulein Schneider. Not long afterword he visits the notorious Kit Kat Klub, hosted by the leering, campy, somewhat diabolical Emcee, where the songs celebrate debauchery and materialism. He meets the waifish, dolled-up Sally Bowles, who performs at the Kit Kat. She’s all about the glamorous, shameless party life, and she takes Clifford along for the ride. Meanwhile, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz fall in love, Sally gets pregnant, and Nazism begins to take hold. Clifford starts smuggling money to help pay the bills.

You could write volumes about the Sally Bowles, one of the theatre’s most enduring and endearing characters. She’s charming, even when she’s being irresponsible or disingenuous. She’s spivvy, and reckless, utterly devoted to pleasure and joie de vivre, and considering how bleak the world can be, quite sympathetic. Cabaret is virtually soaked in irony, and when she sings the famous title song, it nearly becomes a tirade: “Start by admitting from cradle to tomb, it isn’t that long a stay…” Sally belts it out, declaring that when she dies, she’ll be blissed out on pills, liquor and sex. This is what makes Fred Ebb and John Kander so intoxicating. They mix biting, sardonic wit with a viable version of the truth. They’re bleak but brilliant. It makes complete sense that people would submerge themselves in distraction, especially when civilization is crashing, but the results are horrific. Sally is all of us, just craving a break from the pervasive ugliness of life. We love her because life hasn’t made her ugly, but wonder if her cocoon has ruined her.

Lately productions of Cabaret have run to the heavy-handed, and it’s a shame, considering that the original text handles this volatile, disturbing subject matter with meticulous grace. I’ve seen several versions that don’t seem to trust the script, as if we don’t grasp the insidious, devastating threat of the Nazi Regime and it’s disciples. Cabaret works because it doesn’t amplify the volcanic. It gives us just enough to reach us, and let the overwhelming take over, without pushing.

The Brick Road Theatre production of Cabaret (directed by Jeremy Dumont) is rich, vivid, and exquisite. Dumonts choreography is fresh and poised, sparkling with humor and precision. Amy Poe’s costumes are understated, evocative and effective. Cabaret’s tone of menace and mirth, despondency and optimism comes through beautifully in the performances of this diligent, dedicated cast. This is one of the best productions of Cabaret I’ve seen. Stand outs include Janelle Lutz (Sally Bowles) who beguiles without gobbling the scenery, Sara Shelby-Martin (Fraulein Schneider) whose world-weariness (“So What?”) will leave you inconsolable and heartbroken, and Billy Betsill (Cliff Bradshaw) who undergoes a sea-change as the show’s narrator.

The Brick Road Theatre presents Cabaret (composed by Fred Ebb and Kander, book by Joe Masteroff) playing June 23rd-July 2nd, 2017. Courtyard Theatre, 1509 H Avenue, Plano, Texas 75074. 972-467-7519. www.brickroadtheatre.org

 

 

 

Matthew Posey interview

Ochre House Theater & The 2017 Dallas Flamenco Festival Present:

PICASSO: MATADOR DE MÁLAGA

June 21 – July 1

Written and Directed by Matthew Posey, in collaboration with The 2017 Dallas Flamenco Festival

This interview was recorded at the Ochre House Theater, June 13, 2017. Intro and exit music from “Elemental,” by Calvin Hazen.

For tickets, show times or other information, please visit HTTP://WWW.OCHREHOUSETHEATER.ORG

This interview and more arts features are also available at MarkDavidNoble.com

Rhonda Boutte’ interview

Rhonda Boutté is an actor and director, well known in the Dallas theater community. In June 2017, Rhonda will direct the world premiere of Br’er Cotton by Tearrance Arville Chisholm at Kitchen Dog Theater. Rhonda’s Independent spirit drives her to seek out unusual roles produced by small independent theaters as well, such as The Shine Plays – The Woman Who Was Tampered with in Youth by Ted Shine (Soul Rep Theatre), Diamond Dick: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (Project X, performed in Dallas as well as at LaMama in New York). Rhonda’s performances at these theaters garnered numerous D-FW Critics Forum Awards over the years.

For more information, please visit Kitchen Dog Theater

This interview and more are also available MarkDavidNoble.com

Sublime, introspective Talking Pictures at Mainstage Irving

Myra rents a room for herself and her son Pete from Mr. and Mrs. Jackson in Harrison, Texas. She plays the piano for the movie house, as talking pictures have not yet been introduced. Myra’s ex-husband Gerard likes to point out that once the “talkies” come to Texas, she will be out of a job. She is trying to make a life for Pete and herself, since Gerard’s drinking forced her to move on. This was quite the progressive step in 1929 (and certainly for a Texas woman) when she might be more inclined to endure the joys of co-habitating with a drunken lout. The Jacksons have two teenage daughters, Katie Bell and Vesta, who find Myra’s job romantic and vaguely scandalous. And perhaps for early 20th Century Texas, it was. Willis is a warm, responsible young gentleman (estranged from his wife, Gladys) and he’s obviously sweet on Myra. Katie Bell has made friends with a Latino Preacher’s son named Estaquio, which is a source of some consternation for the obnoxious Vesta, and her parents.

In Talking Pictures, Texas playwright Horton Foote considers the polarization between the sophisticated, and provincial. Texas has always confused piety with Christian imperialism, not understanding why the civilized world has trouble taking them seriously. The pop culture of a medium that finds entertainment in tragedy, that dresses Al Jolson in blackface for the sake of authenticity, eludes them. Foote is meticulous in writing dialogue that is neither amplified nor especially nuanced. His characters are recognizable to any native Texan (and probably others) as he avoids camp and cliché. His tone is crucial, and understated, but not obtuse. The Jacksons are a bit thrown by the prospect of Mexicans in their midst, but Foote is careful to avoid making them virulent racists.

Though it might appear so at the outset, Talking Pictures has no heroes or villains. Gladys may be overbearing and Gerard a bit crass, but the closer we look, the easier to see they are suffering like the rest of us. Talking Pictures isn’t somber like The Young Man From Atlanta or The Traveling Lady, where the culminating pain is nearly unbearable. The characters of Talking Pictures are thrust into a world they no longer recognize, but gradually grasp that sea-change has more to do with accommodation than choice. Director Amber Devlin clearly has a light, intuitive feel for this content, and her focused, experienced cast rises to the occasion.

MainStage Irving presents Talking Pictures, playing May 19th-June 3rd, 2017. Irving Arts Center (Dupree Theatre) 3333 N MacArthur Blvd,  Irving, Texas 75062. (972) 594-6104. www.irvingtheatre.org

Still time to catch Rover’s rambunctious Move Over, Mrs. Markham

Joanna and Phillip Markham are a happily married, devoted couple. They have been together 14 years, and while passion may have flagged, they still care for one another. Phillip works with his best friend, Henry Lodge, for a children’s book publisher, and Henry’s wife Linda, is Joanna’s best friend. When Move Over, Mrs. Markham, opens, Alistair Spenlow, a posh, trendy, effete interior designer is decorating the Markham’s flat, working hand-in-glove with Joanna. Linda reveals to Joanna she’s ready to have her first affair, after enduring years of Henry’s tomcatting around. Since Phillip and Joanna are attending a charity dinner that night, she wants to know if she (and boyfriend Walter) can borrow their digs for a quick boinkfest. Elsewhere, Henry is also asking Phillip if he and his new bird can do the same, little realizing the “love nest” is already booked. When Joanna and Phillip express disapproval, Linda and Henry scoff at their prudish naivete. Hilarity ensues.

Like numerous other farces based on misunderstanding, deception and adultery, Move Over, Mrs. Markham begins with a simple premise, often like the one described. Several philandering couples show up at the same spot for some extracurricular recreation, foolishly assuming they’ll have the place to themselves. Like a domino train or house of cards, the tiniest nudge can foment a chain reaction. To the credit of playwrights Ray Cooney and John Chapman, the resulting chaos comes from a well established culmination of events. Lately comic writers it seems, have gotten rather sloppy. Logic collapses. Credibility is strained, cows are milked dry. Gags are stacked and pasta flung against the wall. No one can be bothered to anchor humor with a fair bit of actuality, instead they assume we all want to laugh so badly we’ll ignore inane, absurd, utterly preposterous events. Of course I am not referring to Absurdism, or other genres that might engage devices say, like, non-linear logic, or associative wordplay, but scripts with no infrastructure. No core foundation to generate consistent dialogue and believable consequence. Not so with Cooney and Chapman, who bring considerable expertise and patient skill to this splendid, pleasurable comedy.

For some reason, audiences never seem to tire of straight male friends being caught in activity mistaken for gay coupling, but thankfully Move Over, Mrs. Markham doesn’t make too much of this. Under the direction of Paul McKenzie, the players blossom to this narrative, delivering deliciously silly lines with conviction and intuitive wit. You wouldn’t think that comedy, which feels so spontaneous and haphazard requires such delicate chemistry. Such balance and hair-trigger timing and off-kilter pitch. Rover Dramawerk’s production here is sublime. Move Over, Mrs. Markham is a rollicking, raucous, ridiculously funny romp. Smart, clever, loopy merriment for grownups, with a brash and nimble cast. Don’t miss closing weekend.

Rover Dramawerks presents Move Over, Mrs. Markham,playing May 4th-27th, 2017. 221 West Parker Road, Suite 580, Plano, Texas 75023. 972-849-0358.

Chipper, ingenious, comforting Into the Woods at ATTPAC’S Winspear

Into the Woods
Stephanie Umoh
Patrick Mulryan

Into the Woods, the Sondheim and Lapine musical inspired by Bruno Bettelheim’s (eminent child psychologist) The Uses of Enchantment, examines, intertwines, revels in and topples numerous popular fairy tales. Arguably not for kids, it goes to the subtext of favorites such as Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, using the story of a childless Baker and his wife to tie them together. Lapine and Sondheim dig into recurring themes like absent fathers, shrewish mothers, sexual experience versus innocence, and so on, with intelligence and sensitivity. They celebrate risking the dangers of rushing into the woods, where illusions are smashed but life skills are acquired.

The touring Fiasco Theatre version of Into the Woods, playing at ATTPAC’s Winspear Opera House, and is bright and lively. They have borrowed from productions like Peter and the Starcatcher and (going back a long time) Godspell in what I call “theatre attic” shows. There’s ostensibly no set, or minimal set, resembling an attic, where various props are pressed into service. A bell to suggest a cow, a stuffed head for The Big Bad Wolf, big ladies hats for drag. In this instance characters are also musicians, taking up the bassoon, piano, cello, tuba. Perhaps it’s the enormous attic of the mind we share, as if we’re all participating in constructing the narrative together. They do a lot with it. And in some ways it feels sublime. The audience seemed to be enjoying it, and song passages given over to the journeys of particular characters (The Witch, Little Red, Cinderella, Jack, The Baker) are complex and poignant.

When you’ve seen a particular piece a number of times you begin to ridiculously feel that it belongs to you. Part of Into the Wood’s charm and miraculous appeal is that it feels like it shouldn’t work. It couldn’t work. But it does. It’s big and busy and digresses and contradicts itself and goes off on tangents, but like a masterful collage by Rauschenberg or Schwitters it coalesces. It’s powerful nearly to the point of intrusion. When done full on, we can only imagine it’s a logistical nightmare. The pragmatic advantages to Fiasco’s concept with its ladders and rope wigs and squirt bottle and megaphone are obvious.

I’m not interested in being cantankerous or surly here, it worked better than reasonably well. But it felt a bit diminished, and there were excisions of content that were hard to ignore. I got the feeling it was supposed to be more kid-friendly, they certainly cheered when The Giant’s Wife bit the dust. How do you explain to them it was necessary to kill her, but certainly nothing to applaud? Which I believe is the point. What Lapine and Sondheim examined when they wrote Into the Woods was the dark, unseemly, adult ideas lurking behind folklore. The motives that might be unclear to children are exposed because some musicals are for grown-ups. You certainly can’t say that a “family version” is nefarious (can you?) but it feels like a shame.

AT&T Performing Arts Center presents Into the Woods, playing May 16th– 28h, 2017 at The Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora Street, Dallas, Texas 75201. 214-880-0202. www.attpac.org