Sister’s Christmas Catechism at WaterTower: wry, fresh and funny

Watching Sister’s Christmas Catechism one is reminded somewhat of Christopher Durang’s satire: Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All For You. But while Catechism is ultimately light-hearted, Durang’s spoof takes more vitriolic aim at some of the dubious aspects of Roman Catholic theology. Both emerge from the same premise: We, the audience, are in Catholic parochial school, and Sister addresses us as her pupils. Comparing Catechism to a cringingly cute comedy such as Nunsense or Sister Act, it is a relief to discover it leans more towards the cranky and stern, in the hilarious mode of Brother Theodore. Hmmmmm. Perhaps a new genre, Monastic Comedy is emerging?

When “class” begins, it is the day of the Christmas party, there is an advent calendar on the wall, some appropriate decorations, and a very kitschy, plastic depiction of Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus that feature the cherubic faces precious children. The incongruity of this is not lost on Sister, whose grim, wry air of resignation manages to be funny without being bitter. Nonie Newton Riley strikes an impressive balance between cynicism and the leavening of mischievous digs. She may single out particular students (audience members) to get a laugh at their expense, but it never feels cruel or petty. We never wonder if “Sister” goes home every night and seethes over politics and gin. In the same way that bilious, curmudgeonly Brother Theodore (or Don Rickles) gets a lather up, she never crosses over into the toxic or vindictive. She points out when someone’s behavior, or dress, might be inconsistent with Catholic Doctrine, but for some reason it seems intuitive and genuinely comical.

Sister just loves the current television trend towards cop dramas by way of Forensic Science, which explains the show’s subtitle: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold. By enlisting our help, she attempts to solve the quandary of what exactly happened to the gold, after it was gifted to sweet little Baby Jesus. It is often the critic’s dilemma, it seems to do justice to a show without spoiling any (or at least too many) surprises. It seems pretty clear that casting in any one-woman performance would be crucial, and Ms. Riley is thoroughly delightful as she shares her annoyance on any number of topics. I think it’s also germane to mention what a revelation it is to discover Sister’s Christmas Catechism, in light of the woeful lack of freshness, intrigue, and gusto when it comes to live entertainment at Christmas time. I have no problem with A Christmas Carol (I understand DTC’s is first-rate) but even Tiny Tim deserves some R & R, don’t you think?

WaterTower Theatre presents: Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold, playing December 2nd-23rd, 2016. 15650 Addison Road, Addison, Texas 75001. (972) 450-6232.

B.J. Cleveland’s masterful touch perfect for Christmas Carol Radio Show

The year is 1947. Bob Bennett, Manager at Radio Station KXMS, happens to catch the phone at an inopportune moment. The cast and orchestra for a Christmas Eve broadcast of A Christmas Carol is snowed in, so it falls to Bob to take on this gargantuan task. Twenty-one characters with sound effects. Even if Bennett has some experience with such performances, he is the only one at the studio, so me must be alert, focused and poised. He barely has time to gather his wits before the show is scheduled.

One hesitates when considering such shows, which tend to lend themselves to the frantic and the cloying. We imagine some overworked, underpaid guy, struggling to make his cues, and strategically, feverishly delivering twenty-one distinct voices, while doing justice to the familiar yarn. Perhaps too familiar. While the premise certainly provides ample opportunity for zany physical comedy and shameless appeals to our most tender feelings of nostalgia and yearning for Christmas redemption, somehow star, B.J. Cleveland and playwright David Alberts find a legitimate path to exploring Dickens’ ultimately sympathetic portrait of hapless, miserable, cantankerous Ebenezer Scrooge.

It’s a given that in a one-man show of this sort casting is crucial. Not just because the actor must be resourceful enough to carry the piece for ninety minutes straight, but the ingenuity to bring just the touch and balance to take us through the story without merely pushing our buttons. Without crossing the line from pathos into maudlin melodrama. Boiled in their own pudding? Die and decrease the surplus population? Egads! What kind of monster is this Scrooge bastard, anyway?

Lucky for us, director Gene Ray Price and Cleveland refused to take the easy way out, bringing fresh energy and imaginative interpretation to content most of us could repeat in our sleep. Cleveland brings his stirring, emotionally rich texture to this show, earning genuine ticklish hilarity, somber grief, and aching for the man who had no family to share Christmas as a boy and lost his fiancee on a Christmas Eve. Cleveland knows how to invite us into his personal journey, never settling for derivative or easy response. In a season where theatres grope for something different yet true to the spirit of joy and generosity, Cleveland uses his mastery to include us in a lovely, profoundly moving experience.

Theatre Too presents: A Christmas Carol: The Radio Show, playing November 25th-December 11th, 2016. 2800 Routh Street, Suite 168, Dallas, TX 75201-1417. 214-871-3300.

Exhilarating, gory and strangely tender: KDT’s Feathers and Teeth will tickle and chill


Reflecting upon Kitchen Dog’s current black comedy, Charise Castro Smith’s Feathers and Teeth, I was struck by the subtlety of the title. In nature, you never see both in the same creature. If it has teeth it doesn’t have feathers. If it has feathers it doesn’t have teeth. But the villain of Feathers and Teeth does. Like Mack the Knife, she’s very good at hiding her grisly side. Set in 1978, and recalling the trashy sci-fi of the 60’s, Feathers and Teeth mixes a strange and unlikely blend of genres: dark satire, absurdism, horror and drama. And (this is the truly bizarre part) they blend perfectly, like a collage, or a quadriptych. When we see Arthur jumping Carol’s bones on the kitchen table it’s ridiculous, funny and sad, all at once.

Chris, an angry teenage girl, has lost her mother to cancer, and her dad, Arthur (while well-meaning) has not left much time to grieve before taking up with his deceased wife’s nurse caretaker, Carol. Arthur has just hit some small, unidentifiable animal with his car, far beyond a veterinarian’s help. For some inexplicable reason, he drops it in a perfectly good stockpot, and Carol subsequently “euthanizes” it with a butcher knife. She’s not exactly, uh, gentle. Later, when Chris and her German Boy Scout friend Hugo, check in the pot, they discover that not only is the creature not dead, but it’s reproducing And has a thirst for carnage. It’s amazing and amusing, what you can pull off, simply by letting the blood fly.

Here I must give all kinds of mad props to Charise Castro Smith, Director Lee Trull, and cast members: Matt Lyle, Morgan Laure’, Dakota Ratliff and Parker Gray. This is difficult material to pull off. Beyond evincing a successful show, there’s something about this play that transcends narrative on its face. It stays in your memory, though it’s not easy to understand why. Smith has laced this piece with vivid, indirect metaphor. Like other intoxicating shows, it rewards closer inspection. Kitchen Dog has a gift for staging plays that sink into your skin. As it were. Feathers and Teeth is subversive, and tender in odd ways. It takes a deranged sense of irony to stage this during the holidays, but it’s something you shouldn’t miss. If you love visionary, risky theatre.

Kitchen Dog Theater presents: Feathers and Teeth, playing November 18th-December 17th, 2016. Trinity River Arts Center, located at 2600 N. Stemmons Fwy, Ste, 180, Dallas, TX 75207. 214-953-1055.

Undermain’s 10 out of 12 sharp, original ensemble piece


Anne Washburn’s 10 out of 12, an ensemble piece, reveals how cast and crew (stagehands, lights, sound, designers, director, assistant director…) function as a team, during the grueling process of tech rehearsal. All cues and blocking, all light and sound and any hiccups are smoothed over before the show opens. It’s like childbirth. It might be interesting to reflect on, but you’re grateful to be spared the experience. Washburn makes us privy to this universe in small We are actually handed headsets so we can hear backstage chatter between crew members. It’s impressive to consider that we get just enough information from each character, to get a sense of their personality and contribution.

Perhaps few audience members have a grasp of how a show functions before it’s up on its feet, or after opening night. 10 out of 12 is a demonstration of the mishaps, foibles, confrontations, quirky and grotesque exchanges that occur, in the incredibly stressful context of pulling all the components together, while maintaining the sense of playfulness vital to making it work. As with all the artistic disciplines, actors and the creative team must strike a shaky balance between being relaxed and yet alert and focused. They pass through each cycle of rehearsal, preparation, changes as opening night looms ever closer and emotions run hot.

There is a key turn in the second act in which one of the actors has a meltdown, loudly proclaiming that the very welfare of his soul is at stake. Up until this outburst he keeps trying to dissuade the director from his interpretation of the script. Usually these issues are resolved before tech rehearsals, and it’s to Washburn’s credit that a single event adds such clarity and complication to the story. When the actor goes off the deep end, we’re incredulous. It’s not that the others don’t care, but if he takes it so much to heart, why did he wait this long? The way the rest of the company responds immediately and in the following days, tells us much about the warmth and care they have for each other. We may not believe his spiritual welfare is in peril, but his colleagues do. Even if they disagree, they respect his devotion to the craft.

Undermain Theater presents the Dallas Premiere of 10 out of 12, playing November 9th-december 3rd, 2016. 3200 Main Street, Dallas, Texas 75226. 214-747-5515.

Noveau 47’s Fourth Annual Holiday Play Festival: An Invitation


In my never humble opinion, you really don’t have to be Scrooge or The Grinch to be weary of the usual Christmas fare, that makes the usual theatrical rounds, every year in December. Even the most tender among us might yearn or even ache for a slant on Christmas that would make it fresh, meaningful, and relevant to lives suffused with skepticism and disappointment. And rightfully so. Of course, I reach for my hanky when Tiny Tim buys the farm or the spindly Christmas tree is resuscitated or George Bailey, haggard and despondent, gazes into the abyss of that cold black river. Who wouldn’t?

But is it so wrong, so cynical, so vile to want some way to appreciate Christmas without crawling through the same wasteland of stories we could recite backwards? Of course not. But what can we, as individuals do? Where the FFF can we look? I’m so glad you asked.

For the past three years, Nouveau 47 (champion of the dodgy, edgy, spooky and poetic) has produced a holiday show that explores Christmas, coming at it from many intriguing angles. By turns irreverent, funny, ridiculous, obtuse, scary, somber and yes, gentle. These are short pieces, some work better than others, some feel fierce, some sketchy, some strange. Past plays have included a woman trying to get her family to accept her lesbian partner, two brothers remembering their deceased mother, a comedy in which Santa defeats the cynicism of two cocky suits, and a drunk father on Christmas Eve. Drama is balanced by humor and the cumulative experience is a mixture of reflection, introspection, warmth and elation. Nouveau 47 never settles for the merely different. They always look for originality, strong writing and quality.

Now in its fourth year, the short-play festival tips more in favor of the satirical and amusing. A displaced snow-globe family, soldiers fighting extraterrestrials on Christmas Eve, wealthy relatives squabbling over gifts and a harried doctor searching for the last robot toy for his 4-year old boy. There is a satisfying blend of the dark, comical, somber and absurd. So if you need a break from the customary confection, dripping thickly with scrumptious honey, chock full of mawkish, manipulative, cringe-worthy suffering. Treat yourself to some grown-up, sophisticated takes on a world filled with chaos, candy canes, redemption and the raw power of dogged love.

Nouveau 47 presents A Very Nouveau Holiday 2016, playing December 9th-23rd, 2016. Playwrights include: Justin Locklear, Jim Kuenzer, Erin Burdette, James Burnside, Bill Otstott, Brad McEntire, Greg Silva, Christopher Soden and Chris-James Cognetta. In the historic Margo Jones Theater in the Magnolia Lounge at Fair Park (1121 1st Ave. Dallas, TX). Performances are at 8:15pm on Fridays, 5:00 on Saturdays, 6:30pm on Sunday with pay-what-you-can performances on Mondays at 8:15pm. Tickets are $20 Fri.-Sat. and $15 on Sundays. More details can be found at

Unlike my previous theatre columns, this is a piece encouraging you to attend A Very Nouveau Holiday 2016. You should bear in mind that one of the eight plays included was written by your very own loopy-yet-articulate lunatic. Me. So I can’t (and shouldn’t) critique the show.

Uptown Players’ Angels a quirky, poignant, deeply affecting experience


Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, a two-part series (both parts standing as independent pieces) is puzzling yet satisfying, epic yet personal, enigmatic, yet funny and cogent. Key characters are Mormon, yet it’s not immediately apparent why the Mormon church is vital to content. When Angels premiered they weren’t the only church condemning same-gender sexuality, but somehow the (shall we say?) more fanciful details of their theology seems consistent with the deadpan strangeness of the tone. The characters are not heroic but they seem swept up in the forces of history or zeitgeist or perhaps something greater? The one character who seems aware of his place in the politics and cultural evolution of America is Roy Cohn, a powerful, intelligent, reprehensible attorney who believes in contextual morality.

Louis and Prior are lovers. They are not apparently activists but neither are they in the closet. Prior has just discovered he has sarcoma lesions: the first stages of full blown AIDS. As we all know, such was a terminal diagnosis in the early 1990’s. Joe and Harper are a married Mormon couple. Harper suffers from Clinical Depression (if not other emotional diseases) and has vivid, interactive hallucinations. Joe is a rising attorney and protege to Cohn. Cohn is and Joe is in denial. The two couples (perhaps three?) are shown in parallel to one another, often using a split stage. There are serious problems between Prior and Louis, Harper and Joe, and Roy and Joe, bubbling beneath the surface. As Fate would have it, in each case, AIDS precipitates issues that already exist. And the Angels. There are voices, literal angels, drug-induced apparitions, prophesies and revelations. And Kushner mixes them all in the same cauldron, distinct and yet somehow, similar.

When Angels opened transgender cast doubling was an original way to add depth and complexity to a story. The idea that the inexplicable, mysterious gender we are is the one we just happened to wind up with. In 2016, maybe not so much. Kushner’s cunning is in his ability to personalize the impact of AIDS, as a barometer of an ethically pathological America. Not in the sense that some men were making love to each other, or frantically copulating, but that our hysterically heterocenterist society forced them into hiding. Villified them. Instead of addressing AIDS solely as metaphor or politics, he pulls us into attachments that emotionally involve us too, and walks us through the consequences. By weaving in gobs of often wry humor, he avoids pity, maybe even tragedy. Absurd, comical scenes have somber subtext. Poor Prior isn’t thrilled when a glorious angel appears. He’s terrified. His wrenching pain is treated as a stepping stone to his role in some kind of profound watershed for America’s future. But we won’t find out till part two.

Cheryl Denson has directed a sublime, crisp, infinitely intriguing and enjoyable show. The cast is skillful, agile and resonant with genuine emotion. They have captured a very difficult tone, flippant and grave. Sorrowful and resigned but nonchalant. The stony, monolothic, minimal sets by H. Bart McGeehon are appropriate and powerfully nuanced. Special kudos to Emily Scott Banks who handles her descent with poise and (forgive me) grace.

Uptown Players presents: Angels in America: Part One: Millenium Approaches, playing November 4th-20th, 2016. Kalita Humpreys Theater 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd, Dallas, Texas 75219.214-214-2718.

MainStage’s Chicago razor-sharp, sardonic musical comedy


John Kander and Fred Ebb have a penchant for humor based on the deterioration of character and morality. Otherwise well-meaning folks gradually complied with Nazi occupation in Cabaret and women who kill unfaithful husbands become the hot celebrity commodity in Chicago. Like Cabaret, Chicago reflects certain cultural truths and captures the allure of transgression almost effectively as an opium den. Roxie Hart murders a paramour before he can leave her, and immediately Velma Kelly launches into “All That Jazz” a celebration of booze, broads and brawling. The ensemble boys and girls, dressed in provocative black, are not at all shy about teasing, touching, caressing and striking tawdry poses for our delectation. Kander and Ebb have a knack for striking a balance between coy naughtiness (ugh!) and full-on degeneracy.

Of course, the sting and punch of any effective satire comes from the touchstones it establishes with the actual, recognizable world. Perhaps real life is an overrated paradigm, but it doesn’t hurt to see the parallels between Velma and Roxie, and say, Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson. Whether or not Simpson and Jackson were innocent, public sympathy helped them enormously. The difference in Chicago being, that Roxie and Velma are popular because of their crimes, not in spite of. You can’t accuse Kander and Ebb of stacking the deck. Roxie’s cuckolded husband may be a schlub, and justice an abstraction eclipsed by corruption and arbitrary fate, but nobody comes off well in this grim immorality tale.

The splendid sleight of hand that Fred Ebb and John Kander achieve (despite pervasive, dark undercurrents) is composing a genuinely entertaining, sardonic, witty piece of theatre that rewards our attention with audacious spectacle and sharp comedy. The musical numbers are imaginative, intelligent, grown-up and snappy. Director B.J. Cleveland has met the considerable challenges of the script with confidence, extravagance, and flawless timing. In every stage production I have been privileged to critique, Mr. Cleveland has overwhelmed me with his style, precision and peerless eclat, whether he was performing or orchestrating a demanding show. His seasoned experience and brimming pleasure is manifest in every gesture, cue, inflection, aside and grimace. He can tickle you senseless or bring implacable grief without missing a beat. Don’t miss this remarkable theatrical triumph. Succumb to the siren song of Chicago.

MainStage Irving – Las Colinas presents Chicago, playing November 4th-19th, 2016. Irving Arts Center (Dupree Theatre) 3333 N MacArthur Blvd, Irving, TX 75062. (972) 594-6104.

CTD’s As We Lie Still chilling, enchanting, deeply affecting


Ruth (Monique Abry) visits a séance held at a bookstore by the once-renowned magician, Avi Leiter. She is able to see past the illusions that fool the general public. She has reason for seeking Avi’s attention. Her husband Michael (Kyle Montgomery) injured in a train wreck, has been in a prolonged coma. On the strength of his past reputation, she hopes he might have the skills to reach her husband. Ruth’s earnest and heart-breaking plea triggers many painful memories for Avi (Michael A. Robinson). Soon Ruth (along with Billy) becomes an assistant in Avi’s ongoing “performance” as he weighs this precipitous decision. We cut to Avi when he was a young man (Wyn Delano) struggling for recognition. A young, beautiful, resourceful woman named Josephine applies to help Avi and Billy and add some glamor to the act. It seems Avi has managed to secure a rare book of sorcery that includes a spell to raise the dead. Then one evening after the show, the three of them are robbed. Written by Patrick Emile and Olivia de Guzman Emile, As We Lie Still is a deceptively simple musical.

It doesn’t use an orchestra or band. Upon reflection, the plot isn’t complicated. And yet, it’s enigmatic and haunting. The music strikes a deep nerve, blending a sense of the miraculous with pervasive yearning. We hear the songs and an undeniable sense of loss overcomes us. But also, a flickering chill of hope. As We Lie Still begs the comparison between the stage illusionist and those who can really tap the supernatural. Like any neophyte, Avi hungers for recognition. But his dabbling in cosmic forces for the sake of vanity, can’t lead him anywhere good. What begins as devotion to Josephine (Olivia de Guzman Emile) turns into something nearly perverse. And devastating.

As We Lie Still reflects upon fine distinctions: between spiritualism and enchantment, dedication and obsession, resignation and acceptance. And certainly, the nature of genuine love in the midst of deeply flawed humanity. A master stroke, I think, is the presence of Billy (Jovane Camaano) a somewhat “slow” and utterly loyal helper to Avi, whose unabashed sense of awe mirrors our own, as Avi reveals wonders to the audience. There is something about this show’s strange mixture of chicanery and the metaphysical, the guileless and the cunning, that seems to strike a nearly perfect balance. Like a chart of the planets in their concentric orbits. It sneaks up and gets under your skin, until you feel that little catch in your throat, and that rush of buried feelings.

Contemporary Theatre of Dallas presents As We Lie Still, playing October 28th-November 20th, 2016. 5601 Sears Street, Dallas, Texas 75206. 214-828-0094.

Bishop Arts Theatre’s Ruined masterful, brilliant theatre


Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, is a poignant, intelligent, drama that explores the diminishment and degradation of women in the midst of a patriarchy. Set in a Mama Nadi’s brothel, in a small mining town in the Republic of Congo, Ruined opens when Christian (the Poet) sells a couple of girls to Mama Nadi, one of them his niece, Sophie. The other girl, Salima, has run away from her husband. Sophie is “ruined” which (as you might have guessed) means she has lost her virginity. So she is spared the indignity of selling her body, and Mama Nadi finds other things for her to do. Mama Nadi is not without her kindnesses, but she is a business woman, and a survivor. As the story is revealed we see how she and her girls are forced to subsist in the midst of political upheaval and civil war. But mostly they are subject to the whims of the men. Miners and soldiers.

It is sadly no surprise that in unenlightened cultures (maybe not so different from America) that a woman’s value turns on her physical beauty, virginity and ability to use her “market value” to her advantage. The idea that a girl who still has her hymen intact is somehow a special prize is, of course, repugnant but this is the world they inhabit. Women are reduced to what they bring to sexual transactions. The stories the girls share are deeply troubling, horrific. It’s not only that they see themselves as commodities or assets. But Salima has lost the ability to respond to a husband who only wants her back, despite the damage she’s endured. Mama Nadi raises the question, like Bertolt Brecht or the character of Constance in McCabe and Mrs. Miller of whether there is more dignity in being a sex worker (where there is at least some control) rather than the servitude of marriage. Before the final curtain, though, it is Sophie who will have the most profound epiphany.

Lynn Nottage has crafted a subtle, original, savvy exploration of what it means to get by when you are immersed in a sense of perpetual danger. For all the serious rhetoric of soldiers and commanders, we get the distinct impression that their pursuits are vapid and amount to one pissing contest after another. That they subjugate women because it gives them the opportunity play despot. [How appropriate in light of the current presidential race.] Women must take these idiots seriously because they have no choice. There is nothing more dangerous in this world than a fool with power. When Sophie spits on one of their boots, you want to cheer, but you can’t because you’re terrified for her. Like the best playwrights Nottage doesn’t tell us what to believe, she demonstrates the ugly disgraces prevailing in the world, and lets us decide for ourselves. Ruined is splendid, life-changing theatre.

Bishop Arts Theatre Center presents Ruined, playing October 20th-30th, 2016. 215 South Tyler, Dallas, Texas 75208. 214-948-0716.

WaterTower’s Ring of Fire lively, engaging, deeply moving


I guess I should start by saying: 1. I’m not a huge fan of Country Music but I’m not so perverse that I’ll fight a good time at the theatre. 2. I may be bit spoiled by current phenomena like Lost Highway (Hank Williams) and Jersey Boys (Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons) that take more trouble to create a contextual narrative for the songs we’re hearing. Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, is quite enjoyable, with some anecdotes along the way, though it doesn’t dramatize any events from Cash’s life. The stories we do hear are key, the destitution of of Cash’s family as they manage a farm, the early death of one of Cash’s brothers, the first meeting between Johnny and his “future bride.” To be fair, it works pretty well, the explanations of why he feels for the guys in prison, his struggles with drug abuse, his cockiness while courting, because the actor/musicians have a gift for animation, and we realize the stories come from Cash himself.

I was frankly surprised that I liked Ring of Fire as much as I did, and it gave me a chance to consider the strength of country songs. For some reason, the singers can be very earnest and direct when they talk about God or loneliness or misery or deep wanting. They’re not afraid or ashamed to own their weakness or need or despair, very openly. When Cash sang, “I Walk the Line,” he concedes he’s behaving himself because he can’t lose his honey. Because you’re mine, I walk the line. Iggy Pop might sing, “I Want to be Your Dog.” [Sometimes I know just how he feels.] Country Music can discuss raw pain in ways that we might otherwise think is corny, or just excessive, but the genre seems to make it work. They can talk about being carried to the far bank of the River Jordan, or meeting those they lost to death when they make that last trip themselves. And it’s genuinely moving. You feel ridiculous, but the tears roll and it’s just fine.

The cast/music makers: Spencer Baker (Eddie) Ian Ferguson (Mark) Sonny Franks (David) Katrina Kratzer (Trenna) Brian Mathis (Jason) are jovial and spontaneous. They break up interpretation from song to song and know how to bring that shine, luster and presence to the stage. When the mood becomes somber or regretful they accommodate this with skill and respect. Director B. J. Cleveland Music Director (Sonny Franks) have brought out the most from this material with poise and freshness. The performers instinctively connect with audience, they are lively, relaxed and happy to share their gusto.

WaterTower Theatre presents Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, playing October 7th-30th, 2016. 15650 Addison Road, Addison, Texas 75001. (972) 450-6232.