Absorbing, trenchant Occupant at WingSpan

Albee’s premise for Occupant is deceptively simple. A character known simply as “The Man” posthumously interviews the ghost of ground-breaking sculptor Louise Nevelson. You would think such an exchange would be straightforward, and in some ways it is. Using a set (by Nick Brethauer) that features some of Nevelson’s sculptures and music reminiscent of PBS talk shows from the 70’s, Occupant asks the sort of questions we might expect, before delving into what might be construed as intrusive. In the world we currently inhabit, it’s hard to imagine any inquiry that exceeds the lines of propriety. Celebrities discuss deeply personal issues without batting an eye, and interviewers are allowed latitude past polite evasion. The difference in Occupant is Nevelson’s interrogator, while certainly not aggressive, has an annoying habit of responding with passive disdain. If you say so, or Whatever you say. This sort of thing. Sometimes Nevelson takes the bait, and sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she’s appalled by his sheer audacity.

Nevelson’s first response is surprise the host needs to tell the audience who she is, as if nobody has heard of her phenomenal career. I think the allure of this piece is that Edward Albee wants to tap the core of what made Nevelson unique. Occupant was published in 2001 and we can only speculate if the trend away from deferentially laudatory biographies (though respectful) had begun at that time. Albee doesn’t use any of the predictable hocus-pocus you might expect from a drama that includes a deceased character. There seems to be a very wide discrepancy between how Nevelson wants to be remembered and the sometimes tawdry, often painful details that The Man persistently seeks. Nevelson repeatedly struggles to maintain her composure when he catches her off guard, and is certainly not above lambasting him with an impassioned Fuck off.

Behind the interviewer’s desire to avoid strewing garlands at Nevelson’s feet, and her refusal to be degraded in front of strangers, lies the question of how much does a famous success owe their public, and how does anyone (even a genius) forgive themselves, with all their ghastly flaws? A female celebrity was probably a better choice. Notorious examples, such as Hitchcock, Einstein and Picasso probably had little problem granting atonement to themselves. Being men. Nevelson discusses her failures as a mother, and her infidelities. But grudgingly. Albee seems to be aiming to show the woman, the brilliant, quirky, defiantly unique artist, with her strange worldview and regrettable mistakes. Nevelson comes off as achingly human. But then, we also begin to grasp the chutzpah it took her to break out and shock the world, as any significant sculptor must.

Occupant plays October 5th-21st, 2017. WingSpan Theatre Company. The Bath House Cultural Center. 521 East Lawther Drive, Dallas, Texas 75218. 214-675-6573. www.wingspantheatre.com

See Outcry’s Bat Boy and take a dip in the darkside

It takes a special kind of dementia, to take a creepy, somewhat cynical, depraved yet heartfelt piece like Bat Boy the Musical, and do justice to it on the stage. Outcry Theatre has that marvelous, intelligent, yet rare dementia. You can’t let the audience know you’re in on the joke. The performers must be utterly convincing and convinced, yet we, in the audience, are never quite sure when it’s OK to laugh. Ironically, I can think of few times (if any) when laughter is inappropriate. You see, the creators of Bat Boy (Keyth Farley and Brian Flemming (Book) Laurence O’Keefe (Music and Lyrics) don’t deny that Edgar, the Bat Boy is a freak of nature, who deserves our sympathy. They just also happen to find the situation hilariously funny.

The Bat Boy has struck fear into the hearts of the townsfolk, though he truly means no harm. He is taken into the home of Dr. Thomas and Meredith Parker, and their teenage daughter Shelley. The Parkers feed, clothe, and educate Edgar in the social graces, which he absorbs with facility and gratitude. Against the veterinarian’s better judgment, Meredith and Shelley take Edgar to a revival. While the Bat Boy has a brief taste of acceptance, the social experiment soon turns into a debacle and the congregation, a lynch mob. Before it’s all over, the depth of the Parker family’s dysfunction will be explored, as well as the limitations of Christian tolerance and Edgar’s dubious conception.

Outcry Theatre has staged Bat Boy the Musical, with its layers of satire, deliciously distasteful content, humanity, and (so repugnant it’s ridiculous) transgression, and transmogrified it into an insanely improbable evening of comic delight. An innocent lab assistant is molested by bats, woodland creatures sing and engage in sexual congress, drag costuming consists of glasses and a wig. You find yourself thinking you shouldn’t laugh, but it happens anyway. What could be better? This kind of (so awful it’s great) humor is in vogue lately, you can find it nearly everywhere. But few have the chops, savvy, and pitch perfect gift for tone that Outcry does. They carry it off with fluid, intuitive finesse. Needless to say, October is the perfect time of year to enjoy this brilliant, juicy lunacy. It will tickle you to the bone.

Outcry Theatre presents Bat Boy the Musical, playing through October 6th- 15th, 2017. Black box at WaterTower Theatre. 15650 Addison Road, Addison, Texas 75001. (972) 836-7206. www.outcrytheatre.com

Touching, bittersweet Bus Stop at Rover

A preeminent playwright of the American theatre canon, William Inge produced some of our most enduring dramas. Picnic, Come Back Little Sheba, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and of course, Bus Stop. His characters are not especially noble or immoral, usually ordinary (if often disillusioned) folks. Grace’s Diner is the layover for bus passengers, who, for one reason or another, need to wait before moving on. A blizzard has forced Cherie (a young lounge singer) Bo and Virgil, a couple of cowboys, and Dr. Lyman, an erudite, alcoholic English professor to kill some time. There is also Carl the bus driver, Will the sheriff, and Elma, the bright high school student, who helps Grace at the diner. In one way or another (with the possible exception of Will) they are all broken. Cherie’s romantic experience exceeds her life experience, Grace needs lovemaking but isn’t ready to live with a man, Bo wants a wife but has no charm, and so on. One by one, we learn the details of each one’s story, as they pass the time till the road clears.

My buddy Michael pointed out that, underneath it all, Bus Stop is really about sex (or the lack thereof) and he’s probably onto something. It might be closer to say that each is trying to deal with their own, personal challenges. And how that works out (or doesn’t) in the bedroom. You could also apply that theme to Inge’s other plays, including his screenplay, Splendor in the Grass. There is a tenderness in how the characters in Bus Stop, stuck with each other’s company, are summarily revealed, but never treated judgmentally. Bo may be obnoxious and full of himself, but nobody says anything hurtful or unkind to him. Inge is careful to show each one’s strengths and weaknesses, their transgressions and humanity.

Rover’s production of Bus Stop is light-hearted and poignant. It’s very clear all the actors are dedicated and giving 100%. One of the hazards of staging a familiar classic, is the possibility of missing subtext and nuance. Often plays that seem plainspoken and straightforward on the surface, have much more happening by way of subtext. Like the best playwrights Inge doesn’t tell us what to think, he just lays it out there and let’s us reach our own conclusions. The more we engage, the deeper we might go. Director Matt Stepan brings a gentleness and warmth to this production.

Rover Dramawerks presents Bus Stop, playing September 14th-October 7th, 2017. 221 West Parker Road, Suite 580, Plano, Texas 75023. 972-849-0358.

Theatre Britain’s Winston’s Birthday delightful, acrid, intelligent

Dr. Stephen Jenkins, an historian, is invited to Sir Winston Churchill’s birthday by Churchill’s son, Randolph. Jenkins assumes he will have direct access, only to discover, as a kind of intern, he’s expected to serve and tend bar. Randolph himself is insufferable, a harbinger of things to come.Sir Winston himself is gruff, petulant, loathe to engage in conversation. His wife and daughter are pleasant, but all are at a loss to get past long-standing feuds and unhealed wounds. Daughter Sarah is the buoyant, chipper, “black sheep”; nothing criminal really, perhaps just unseemly. Randolph still (understandably) nurses a grudge because his father knew his wife was having an affair. Just getting through the traditional steps of a birthday supper (drinks, small-talk, dining, gifts, cake) feel like dragging the anchor of the Queen Mary up a mountain. In the best possible sense. The dysfunction of this patrician family is quite entertaining.

Reminiscent of The Lion in Winter, with less tawdriness and more grandiosity, the guests snipe and poke at each other. Playwright Paul Baker has a scintillating gift for acrid, withering dialogue that keeps the first act moving with intelligent banter. In the second act, the nature of the discussions turns rather more serious. Using wit and jibe as a dodge carries Winston’s Birthday pretty far, but when the time comes (as the Walrus said) the Prime Minister takes responsibility for the hurts, insults and regrettable decisions he’s imposed upon others. Baker takes the opportunity to explore certain questions from Churchill’s life in the context of culture and history. Like so many of us he explains the particular circumstances, then grudgingly concedes.

Winston’s Birthday is a splendid balance between accuracy, history, precision and comedy. We see the human side of those who belong to the aristocracy, revealed in all their fallible glory. They are not reduced to objects of scorn or derision, but rather, retain their charm and foibles. We are able to see each character fully, without robbing them of their dignity. This nimble, sharp, adept cast (Brian Hoffman, Jackie L. Kemp, Allyn Carrell, Mary Margaret Pyeatt, Michael Speck) is more than equal to the task, setting tone, timing and temperament perfectly. Treat yourself to an evening or afternoon at Winston’s Birthday, and bask in the delight of well-wrought, engaging theatre.

Theatre Britain presents Winston’s Birthday, playing September 8th – October 1st, 2017. Cox Playhouse: 1517 H Avenue, Plano, Texas 75074. 972-490-4202. www.theatre-britain.com

Smart, hilarious, heartfelt Cedar Springs at Theatre Too

Donald and his wife Rhonda buy a home in Cedar Springs (an LGBT district of Dallas) without realizing the implications. Marcus and Clark, making the neighborly gesture, invite them over for supper. Donald is originally from East Texas, and to put it kindly, he and Rhonda are very sweet, but not exactly cosmopolitan. When Cedar Springs (or Big Scary Animals) opens, the four are having pleasant, if strained, post dinner conversation. Donald doesn’t understand the difference between pudding and mousse and asks which one of them is “the wife.” Rhonda and Donald are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Clark and Marcus are unapologetic, but don’t want to be brazen or offensive. Enter their teenage daughter, Sophia. The idea of two gay men having a daughter confuses the older couple. As if they aren’t having enough trouble keeping up, Sophia launches into a barely concealed crusade to mess with them, for their ignorant (if unintentional) homophobia. She casually mentions sexual exploits and political references she knows will send them into a tailspin, then proceeds to go next door and seduce their teenage son, Ronnie. When Donald and Rhonda go home, they find Sophia on top of him.

I think it’s fair to say that much of Cedar Springs turns on two unfortunate truths. Few people understand how truly narrow-minded they are, and, tempting as it may be, no one can be reduced to a caricature. For all the pleasantries Marcus and Clark probably see the hetero spouses as crackers, and Rhonda and Donald see them as degenerates. We go from civilized warmth to chaos, name-calling and rage. From bliss to meltdown. While the gay couple is sophisticated and urbane, they still fall into numerous stereotypes. While the straight couple come off as provincial bible-pounding Christians, you can’t exactly laugh at the obvious pain their son suffers from. The plays gradually goes from farce to dark-night-of-the-soul drama, after much liquor and verbal vitriol has ensued. It seems that Donald despises persecution and hate crimes at least as much as Clark and Marcus. When the poses and affectations are stripped away, all four have their moments of terror and regret.

It’s surprising when you consider the huge gap between the cerebral and actual when it comes to comedy. What ought to be funny often deflates like a leaky balloon. I was leery of Cedar Springs, because, considering the premise, how many unexpected places could it go? Sophia felt like a device, included for the sake of stirring the pot. Much to my delight, Cedar Springs was genuinely, undeniably, wonderfully funny. So many comedies never make the transition from script to performance, but Matt Lyle (God Bless Him) creates a narrative instead of just doing and saying anything for a laugh. There are no heroes and no villains. Lots of character-based, infinitely empathetic comedy, thanks to the dedicated, versatile, masterful cast (Charlotte Akin, Jaxon Beeson, Chad Cline, John S. Davies, Alle Mims and Wilbur Penn) . Ultimately the two couples are revealed in all their raw, broken, lovable humanity, while avoiding backpedaling or cloying.

Theatre Too presents Cedar Springs (or Big Scary Animals) playing through October 1st, 2017. 2800 Routh Street, Suite 168, Dallas, Texas 75201. 214-871-300. theatre3dallas.com

Dark, fierce, remarkable Miller, Mississippi at Dallas Theater Center

Miller, Mississippi opens in Jackson, Mississippi in 1960 around the time of The Freedom Riders and the civil rights movement in the Deep South. Siblings Thomas, John and Becky are listening to their African American housekeeper, Doris (Liz Mikel) tell about a decrepit, haunted house that wouldn’t burn down. They are interrupted by the sound of a gunshot, and mother Mildred appears, with blood on her evening gown. Their father has just shot himself. This sets the pattern: a decent, intelligent, quaint family from the deep South is gradually stripped of their pretensions.

As time passes in the Miller household, we get a feel for the family dynamics. Eldest son Thomas (Alan Organ) is the alpha. Something of a bully, mischievous, but fairly innocuous. Becky (Leah Karpel) is a budding artist, who holds fast to the day she can leave and move to a more cosmopolitan city, like New York or San Francisco. John (Dylan Godwin) is passive, introspective and sweet-natured. Mildred (Sally Nystuen Vahle) is proper, but also warm and congenial. She wants the best for her children but can be domineering; blind to what they really need. Doris is respected and loved, but careful not to overstep.

Just like the rotting house in the ghost story, there is something vile going on in the Miller home. Becky, John and Doris, in their own way (often in secret) try to rise above the complicity and depravity that thrives in their family and the world outside. Thus the Millers become a metaphor for the systemic, pervasive racism of the South. Terrible things are happening and most turn a blind eye. John, the most naive and tender (even more so than his mother) believes that truth and goodness will prevail, while the phrase he hears repeatedly is: That’s just how things are. When Thomas is wailing on John and things escalate, John gets the upper hand by jabbing him in the shoulder with a fork. Instead of asking what would drive such a gentle soul to such extremes, they immediately ship him off to an asylum. This is indicative of the level of tacit collusion and sad resignation that infects the Millers and the culture they inhabit.

This theme of subordination to revered despots, and decadence beneath the veneer of civility can also be found in Dexter’s Paris Trout and McCuller’s Reflections in a Golden Eye. This is difficult material, but playwright Boo Killebrew swings her trapeze over the volcano with precision and grace. (So does this remarkable cast.) The ugly is interwoven with the everyday, the unconscionable tolerated as the price of avoiding the terrifying march of progress. In the skillful hands of Killebrew, what might have been a cliché of Southern Gothic treachery is a measured, fierce, quietly devastating story of the poisoned spirit and sick of heart.

Dallas Theater Center presents Miller, Mississippi, playing through October 1st, 2017. ATTPAC: Wyly Studio Center. AT&T Performing Arts Center: Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre. 214-880-0202. 2400 Flora Street, Dallas, TX 75201. www.DallasTheaterCenter.org

Undermain’s ghosts of mexico surreal, disturbing, lyrical

Men, as a gender, are a strange lot. Misogyny and the recognition of its pervasive presence seems to be growing.  Let me hazard a theory. For many of us there is a quality we perceive in women of enigmatic, nearly other-worldly beauty. When we are enchanted and overwhelmed by the presence of another, that seems to inhabit a realm that tantalizes and exhilarates, when we’ve been afforded a glimpse of the goddess, we feel unworthy and frustrated and helpless. Perhaps the roots misogyny can be found in sour grapes, what we ache for and cannot have. And perhaps I’m full of shit.

Playwright Matthew Paul Olmos has intertwined machismo and its contempt for “feminine” qualities (weakness, humility, kindness) into so go the ghosts the ghosts of mexico, reflecting upon the impact of women in Latino culture. How violence erupts in response. If women are passive and nurturing (when genders are polarized) men must be aggressive and deadly. They must terrify the opposition; avoid anything remotely suggesting warmth. In part two of this trilogy, all the characters are male and all the actors are female. The milieu is the drug trade in Mexico and the characters are players in that tumultuous situation: cartel czars and runners and transporters. El Azul, El Chango, El Jefe, Narco Otro and La Burra swagger and brag of their prowess and bravery in lyrical terms. Their derision of women, whether deprecating by accusations of effeminacy, or discussing heterocentrism in degrading terms (You like titty-fucking?) is a consistent thread throughout. By casting these roles with women, the male culture of rage and objectification is made even more glaring and egregious. And it’s more than a little unsettling when this culture (such as it is) is expressed by women.

The gritty, vibrant scenic design by John Arnone drags us into the nightmare with brazen and intriguing imagination. Papier mache’ figures tied to the columns suggest execution and torture. Wilting red flowers adorning the figures might also be vaginas. Moving fence sections create changing boundaries and cages. Olmos has created a montage of sorts, a mashup of folk songs, dancing, camp melodrama and grim, grisly resignation. Are their values ridiculous, sacred, or both?

One by one, the characters pass quickly to ghostland, but still interact freely with erstwhile confederates. Messing with their minds. The living don’t go to pieces when confronted by their ghosts. Consistent with El Dia de los Muertos, spirits are acknowledged for their intersection with those still mortal. Olmos provides a thoroughly strange and engaging context for the Draconian tragedy of these thugs. Like David Rabe he explores the allure and rhythms and layers of fringe dwellers who still see The American dream of prosperity as paradise.

Undermain Theatre presents a world premiere: so go the ghosts of mexico (part two of a trilogy) playing September 6th-October 1st, 2017. 3200 Main Street, Dallas, Texas 75226. [Free parking at 3300 Commerce.] 214-747-5515. www.undermain.org

Don’t miss Paul Kalburgi’s profoundly moving In The Tall Grass

Along the spectrum of queer identity (LGBTQ) transgendered women are perhaps the most marginalized, the most persecuted. And among those, African American women. This demographic comprises the premise of In The Tall Grass, currently playing at The Bishop Arts Theatre Center in Oak Cliff. Describing it as a “verbatim play,” playwright Paul Kalburgi conducted inquiries, regarding the murder of Shade Schuler; an MTF whose body was found dumped in Dallas. Using a similar methodology to The Laramie Project, Kalburgi went into the field, interviewing cops, friends, family, neighbors and anybody else impacted by the death of this spirited, radiant lady. All the dialogue from In The Tall Grass was constructed from the testimony of actual persons.

In The Tall Grass reveals many details about what it means to live on the fringes of society. Because women transgenders often find it difficult to find legitimate work, desperation can force them to turn to sex work or drug trade. For some reason, their sex clients seem to be among the most violent and unstable. Many are ostracized by their own families. Blackmailed into trading sexual favors to avoid abuse by the police. All these factors combine to diminish their self-esteem and contribute to their sense of isolation and pain. Consider how profoundly cultural attitudes can influence members of the queer community. How not so very long ago, the message that gays and lesbians got, in a thousand variations, was how unwelcome and contemptible they were. We are gradually moving away from that (though not completely out of the woods) but those who question their birth gender, too often remain at the bottom of the heap. Without means to support themselves, they must put themselves at risk, daily. Sometimes just by stepping outside the front door. That is, if they aren’t homeless.

Kalburgi and his impressive cast (Miecko Hicks, Kyndra Mack, Neil Rogers, LeMar Roheem Staton, Sheila D. Rose, Michael Salimitari, Shannon Walker) navigate this emotional, heart-breaking, infuriating and discouraging material with precision, compassion, courage and humanity. One particular line that emerged from this powerful script was how mysterious and complex gender is. At their core, maleness, femaleness are enigmatic, beyond the trappings, roles and archetypes society imposes on them. This is rarely discussed or even articulated, but it resonates with with every one of us. No matter who we love, or make love to. Perhaps because women transgenders challenge culture in ways not always easy to conceal, they become targets for all our ugly feelings and doubts and disappointments. Whatever the explanation, Paul Kalburgi, his cast and crew, have brought keen insight into this widely misconstrued and sorely neglected issue.

Bishop Arts Theatre Center presents : In The Tall Grass, closing this weekend on September 24th, 2017. 215 South Tyler Street, Dallas, Texas 75208. 214-948-0716. BishopArtsTheatre.org

Lotus springs from the mud in Core Theatre’s Debt That Led….

A journalist interviews Stevie and Lamont, two homeless guys who turn her assumptions inside out. They may not have a roof over their heads, but they are intelligent, resourceful, kind, introspective and more evolved than many with hearth and steady income. As we might expect, they know where to go for food and a bath (soup kitchens, churches, charities) but they have also reliable friends, support networks and families. They are not insane, bitter, or cognitively challenged. (Though you might need a closer look.) Stevie has suffered some traumatic experiences that clearly burden him, yet he soldiers on, focusing on the positive when he can. Lamont, clearly sharp and responsible, is trying to hide from drug dealers he’s indebted to. These two enjoy each other’s company and conversation, whether playing checkers or debating the essential difference between lasagna and spaghetti. They never ask for indulgence or pity.

Playwright James Prince has created a parable of sorts, that submerges us in the realm of those without visible mooring or means. Lamont and Stevie have managed to navigate circumstances that could easily throw most of us into a tailspin. Without going so far as to suggest they have an advantage, perhaps their predicament has fomented a seachange. Perhaps they’ve acquired a shift in values, the ability to grasp what really matters. They don’t seem to be living hand to mouth or motivated by desperation. Their sense of family and home seems to have more to do with genuine concern and attachment than a geographical location. In A Debt That Led To Home Prince has found the angel in the details. The miraculous in the everyday and seemingly mundane.

A Debt That Led To Home is a quirky, intriguing, deeply touching play about the homeless and struggles for grace we all share. Prince plays Stevie, a gentle, congenial guy who perseveres despite trauma and adversity. A show brimming with authenticity and warmth. Special props to Jim Finger, whose marvelous, vivid, graffiti scrawled set evokes the rough, distorted, chaotic world we humans are flung into.

The Core Theatre features A Debt That Led To Home playing August 18th-September 17th, 2017. 518 West Arapaho Road, Suite 115, Richardson, Texas 75080. 214-930-5338. www.thecoretheatre.org

Don’t miss Carla Parker’s brilliant, unsettling Kaptain Kockadoo at Ochre House

Kaptain Kockadoo takes place on the set of a children’s show, with more than a passing resemblance to the popular Kaptain Kangaroo. Like so many others, the Captain was an integral part of my childhood, with Mr. Green Jeans, Bunny Rabbit, Mr. Moose, et al. Leave it to Ochre House and playwright Carla Parker to turn this milieu to their own dark, satirical purposes. If we think of early children’s programming (Sesame Street, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, Mr. Peppermint) as friendly, gentle indoctrination intended to convey the value of kind and responsible behavior, then perhaps it doesn’t seem like a reach. If we add that Kaptain Kockadoo is Mormon (or some other polygamous religion) and that his and Uncle Willie’s wives are characters and musicians for the production, it then becomes a metaphor for oppression, misogyny and the pervasive arrogance of numerous organized religions.

As we might expect, Kaptain Kockadoo is chock full of spirited songs, puppetry, life lessons, homilies and enigmatic elements. Uncle Cat seems to be a shadow entity with some hold on Kaptain Kockadoo and a mysterious sequence featuring luminous fingers suggest unseen forces at work. At first it all feels fairly harmless. Charitable, goofy and filled with those playful touches like a milkman offering crazy flavors and a talking tree with children’s letters hanging from it’s boughs. As the show continues though, the Captain grows more and more petulant. Like an infantile tyrant. He weaves bizarre theological imagery into the proceedings and progressively exerts dominance and pathological contempt towards his wives: Annabelle Anne, Farah Sue and “Peanuts.” As the women break ranks and assert insubordination Kaptain K gets increasingly testy.

Parker is sly and assured in the way she depicts the subversive nature of male leverage and the subtle manipulation of imperialist religious doctrine. That these ideas and attitudes are hidden in the context of a show for kids, of course, just makes it all the more queasy. When we’re submerged in particular beliefs for weeks, months, years, they no longer appear on our radar. The effect can be poisonous and insidious. We participate without understanding because we don’t grasp the underpinnings. The assumptions. Carla Parker’s Kaptain Kockadoo is disturbing, cynical, scary, as if someone slipped psychotropics into our Ovaltine. It’s a powerful piece. Brilliant and enervating. Sharp and courageous.

Ochre House Theater presents Kaptain Kockadoo, playing August 19th-September 9th, 2017. 825 Exposition Avenue, Dallas, Texas 75226. 214-826-6273. www.ochrehousetheater.org