By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
When I first saw Dalton James, he was eating the entrails of a dead baby.
It was July 1996. The Magnolia Lounge in Fair Park played host to the Open Stage production of New York playwright Nicky Silver's Fat Men in Skirts, the first and possibly best of three Silver comedies produced last year by Dallas theater companies.
P.B. Miller, my predecessor as Dallas Observer stage critic, wasn't taken by the script, a typically bleak, emotionally savage family comedy from noted neurotic Silver, who tends to capture precious little human truths inside great brooding nets of vindictive dialogue and hateful behavior. But Miller declared James' work in a lead role "one of the more impressive performances you'll see on a Dallas stage this year." Lawson Taitte, the Dallas Morning News stage critic who's shown little patience with local theater performed for shock's sake, was similarly able to transcend Silver's killing-floor humor and locate the white-hot ember of James' performance. Taitte wrote a small but glowing profile of the actor for the Morning News--a rare honor bestowed by the Belo giant on a performer most in the Dallas theater community had never even heard of.
In Fat Men in Skirts, Dalton James played the shy, sheltered son of a rich couple on the brink of divorce. The plane that carries him, his mother, and a baby sibling crashes and strands them on an island for years, where the son deteriorates from a "sensitive" adolescent with a fetish for Katharine Hepburn movies into a cannibal rapist with a fetish for Katharine Hepburn movies. His mother is his first victim.
The sheer feral artlessness of James' acting was what hooked me. The way he mixed depravity and innocence, rage and fecklessness was remarkable because it was so unremarkable, a tender evocation of inhuman urges. When he stooped to eat the insides of the infant who died in the plane crash, James stuffed the red licorice dangling out of a baby doll into his mouth and moved it around cautiously, like a kid would sample a suspicious new vegetable thrust in front of him. That little touch made it horrifying and wickedly funny. It was a kind of alchemy of which only a talented, intuitive actor is capable--an observance about human nature turned into a creative choice both canny and instinctive.
The performance may have been more than the mannered playwright Silver deserved, but it attained the high standard I've come to expect from Dalton James the actor--a standard that has been surpassed by Dalton James the performance artist.
Showcased during two weekends last December at the Swiss Avenue Theater, James' one-man show Wet Willie Loves Pyro remains the most intimate work I've seen mounted on a Dallas stage during the last five years--and, for all the blind alleys it occasionally wanders into, the most ambitious. Clocking in at almost two hours with intermission, Wet Willie Loves Pyro--with several original songs; a smattering of choreography, lighting, and sound effects; and a wading pool, a baby doll, and a rubber fish--was an epic love story about a firefighter and the barfly lover who slays a dragon in his honor. Intertwined with myth was a stream-of-consciousness Rubik's Cube of confession whose face changed constantly as James told stories about his grandmother, whose husband had just passed away; the fundamentalist brother who bunked on his couch for a few days yet steadfastly ignored all evidence that Dalton was gay; a leaky air-conditioner unit; and a lonely roadside rest stop in a town called Fate, Texas.
The entire show, from music to stage design to the mammoth text, was conceived and performed by James, a 31-year-old man who has never worked with either of the city's Equity theaters--Dallas Theater Center and Theatre Three--or any of the triumvirate of Dallas' Little Theaters with Big Talent--The Undermain, Kitchen Dog, and New Theatre Company. The $2,000 budget for production and publicity was financed by James, producer Michael Starcher, and investors.
James has divided his time among poetry readings at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary and Club Clearview, performing his poetic monologues with evangelical fervor; smaller but equally impressive one-man shows with Extra Virgin Performance Cooperative and DecaForms, the annual multimedia showcase organized by area choreographers; and roles in area productions of (mostly) jet-black comedies by America's fringier playwrights. Dog, a locally produced short film written by playwright Molly Louise Shepard, directed by Mary Hestand, and co-starring James, recently screened at the 27th Annual USA Film Festival.
James has the sly face of a 15-year-old up to no good and a physical presence that's at once gangly and pantherlike. His work reflects the gentle, sweetly frustrated impasse where extremes cross--he's a gay man whose romantic yearnings are shocking for their universality, their childlike expression, and their reckless hunger. By his own admission, James is conflicted, caught between two worlds he's experienced some frustration trying to reconcile--the hetero, blue-collar "normalcy" of a childhood in Port Arthur and the thrills and spills of Dallas' urban gay ghetto. But what's the connection between the fat, "sensitive" kid who grew up the youngest of three brothers in a chaotic Texas family and the slim, supremely confident (onstage, anyway) raconteur who's looking for love among the denizens of Dallas' gay nightlife?