This little light

A small flame glows in Youth Could Know's Tundra

I've long ago gotten over people's surprised (and sometimes disdainful) reaction when I argue at parties and dinner conversations that Dallas maintains a fertile theater scene despite neglect from the city at large. I've come to understand that there are two kinds of people who ignore plays in this city--those who feel inferior to them, and those who feel superior.

Folks who don't attend theater because it's an unfamiliar, daunting medium are far less contemptible than those who skip local shows because "Dallas has no culture"--a judgment usually supported by little personal experience and a profound misunderstanding of how a major city's cultural needs are met.

If, indeed, a city's theater scene sucks (and I don't believe Dallas' does, or I couldn't bring myself to spew columns every week), it's as much the fault of the finicky philistines who claim to care about this most delicate of disciplines as it is the people who put their asses on the line so original work can be staged.

But talent must be rewarded by attention, and those potential ticket-buyers who sneer--most of whom are far more interested in the intellectual pose that occasional theatergoing affords than its raw, imperfect rewards--are callously contributing to the situation they claim to deplore.

People who want to create live theater in a relatively inhospitable environment like Dallas are a damned sight braver and, arguably, even more dedicated to their craft than people who escape into the nurturing ghettos of New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. Unfortunately, Dallas theater companies are also more likely to implode from burnout as audience apathy pushes them deeper into debt and cynicism. The actor's ego is a timeless satirical target, as it should be; but when ego is accompanied by genuine talent and nuanced perception, everyone wins if that narcissism is properly indulged--so long as it continues to bear fruit under the spotlight.

Even more remarkable than the actors are the number of Dallas-based playwrights who've waded against the current to stage work here--Fred Curchack, Dalton James, Angela Wilson, Natalie Gaupp, Gretchen Swen, Valerie Brogan, and Les Branson are just a few of the talented scribes who've debuted their words to favorable critical reaction and empty houses. If a city produces culture but there's no one around to see it, does culture exist in that city? Lao-tzu rarely expressed a head-scratcher as troubling as that one.

Add to the above list a stalwart pair of theatrical whippersnappers named Joseph Fisher and Matthew Zrebski, graduate students enrolled in the drama division of Southern Methodist University. Along with the University of Texas at Dallas, SMU has earned a national reputation for its purportedly rigorous, selective theater program. That litter collectively known as Kitchen Dog Theatre was birthed almost whole from the University Park school. One of the new members of the Kitchen Dog ensemble, writer-director David Irving (whose original script The Still Beating Heart of Crank the Clown was recently staged in a Los Angeles theatrical competition), was a founder of Youth Could Know, the company for which Fisher and Zrebski currently serve as artistic directors.

For three seasons, Youth Could Know has alternately staged obscure works and original scripts by Fisher and Zrebski. These modest productions are presented during the summer, when many houses are dark and when the SMU students are freed up to immerse themselves in every phase of the staging. The typical run for a Youth Could Know show is less than a week, which means they normally fall between the cracks of a weekly's review schedule.

Indeed, by the time you read this, the troupe's first production of summer 1997, Joseph Fisher's Tundra, will already have closed. But at least one more show is scheduled before the fall, and based on the uneven but eerie mood that simmered throughout Tundra, you should make a point to check out whatever Fisher and Zrebski cook up next.

The title of the show concerns the barren, unforgiving arctic that has brought a mud-slinging journalist (Erica Sutton, who nicely conveys professionalism as emotional repression) to locate a young composer (Matthew Zrebski, alternately hesitant and aggressive) who's been driven into isolation by the jeers of the academic establishment. The reporter has been tipped that the final work by this embittered artist, the one that has earned him his sizable cult, was basically stolen. What begins as an interview ends with a test of the writer's sense of personal responsibility.

Tundra is mostly derailed by a subplot that the playwright never fully weaves into the urgent composer-journalist thread--the story of an obsessive young man (Russell Jones) and his doomed relationship with the young woman (Loree Beth Morris) who tries to understand him as well as the composer who may have exploited him. And yet, I couldn't ignore this blurry image, thanks to Jones' haunted performance and the intermittent piano playing of Zrebski, who actually composed his character's controversial, melodious score.

So, yes, Tundra bore the plot contrivances and undeveloped themes you'd expect from a beginning playwright. But the mostly on-target cast patched up a surprising number of these potholes. Whole scenes and scattered exchanges fused actor and dialogue with such confidence, you can see that Fisher draws from a deep well of talent; he just needs to be more selective of the buckets from which he asks us to drink.

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