The 1998 Jimmys

Undaunted by last year's tepid reception, our theater critic presents his awards to local theater artists again

The biggest disappointment in Dallas theater in 1998 was the conspicuous omission of the 1997 Jimmys by the winners in their artist bios on play programs. Granted, last year was the first year they were presented, so the adjective "august" doesn't come to mind when describing their status, and granted also, journalism has a higher turnover rate than fast-food restaurants, so artists might have been expecting to receive a "Frank" or a "Meredith" this year instead from the Observer. But survive I did, with only one new mortal enemy (The Dallas Children's Theater joins the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas and 500, Inc. in the roster of institutions whose Christmas parties I won't be invited to). So on artist bios throughout 1998, I'm certain, the Jimmys will join the Leon Rabins, Dallas Theater Critic Forum awards, and even Dallas Observer's "Best of Dallas" citations, which, although they're chosen by me, have inherently less worth because they don't bear my name. Right?

This lapse was, truthfully, a minor disappointment in a stage year that brought swarming, darting, luminous firefly memories to my brain. Theater truly is more precious than film because you will never get the chance to see your favorite actor deliver that line again in a way that makes the world stop and all of humanity, past and present, unite around the one emotion that performer has invoked. Like a choir director, theater arranges the voices of actor, audience, and the outside world so you understand that we are all adding to one great collective cry of joy and sorrow. Sound a little dramatic? Let me grab my purple brush and coat the subject further: Theater is an echo of everyone who has ever felt loved, betrayed, powerful, and powerless. And like all echoes, it departs from its source, hangs ghost-like in the air, and then evaporates. As Joseph Campbell explained during his prolific lifetime, people misunderstand the concept of eternity. Eternity is the present, because it's the point where the past and future truly do unite. Theater is a cozy little truck stop with strong brew and a great jukebox located at the intersection of these lonely, thrilling crossroads.

Whew. Let me light up a cigarette and remind you that there are no trophies or certificates to mark The Jimmys. Also no money. But note that with The Jimmys, I try to highlight strong work that was missed in the Dallas Theater Critics Forum, the Leon Rabins, or the Observer's "Best of Dallas" issue. There is, perhaps inevitably, some overlap.

Rhonda Boutte and Walter Hardts, Homework, The Undermain: The Undermain declared this two-weekend run of an adaptation of Franz Xaver Kroetz's poverty play a "workshop production," but with the exception of their masterful Therese Raquin, it was the most potent thing I saw on their stage all year. In a show so pared-down it bled from the quick, Rhonda Boutte and Walter Hardts imparted with breathtaking simplicity one truism often overlooked in Gothic depictions of urban poverty: The worst part of being poor might be the boredom. The grinding monotony of this married couple's lives infested acts both physically satisfying (masturbation) and physically extreme (an abortion Boutte's character performs on herself with a knitting needle) with a listless ennui.

Nye Cooper, Reefer Madness, Pegasus Theatre: Cooper seems to be a one-man comic ensemble, at least from his work in Pegasus Theatre's poker-faced adaptation of this drug-war propaganda classic. Assuming supporting assignments, Cooper became the unctuous boyfriend who gets his gal hooked, a pest of a kid brother, and a beer-bellied Southern prosecutor. They were all anchored in impressive character detail, but ultimately allowed to sail on Cooper's falcon-like, swoop-in-for-the-kill comic timing.

Aaron Ginsburg, The Taming of the Shrew, Kitchen Dog Theater: Director Ginsburg orchestrated some dizzying physical comedy and, along with sound designer Scott Shaddock, created aural spotlights that illuminated Shakespeare's sometimes murky comic wordplay. In the process, they accomplished a rare thing--rounds of contemporary laughter from a notoriously dense, 400-year-old playwright. This was the most delightful, accessible Shakespearean comedy I've ever seen--and that's a good thing.

Susanna Guzman, Latin American Evening, Teatro Dallas: Guzman has the fragile beauty to play eyelash-batting ingenue roles for the next 15 years, so it's all the more satisfying to realize how Guzman and Teatro director Cora Cardona have worked against that expectation. Guzman played two marvelous roles in this evening of one-acts: a grim, husky-voiced nurse with a body-parts checklist in "I Die, Therefore I Am" and a lonely single woman in "The Repetition." The latter was especially moving, because Guzman, wearing a mask in the Cuban bufo style, did almost all her acting with her body. Watching her tilt her head, tense up her narrow shoulders, and clasp her hands in a position of yearning raised goosebumps.

Martin Holden, The Ladies Room, Theatre Quorum: Dallas playwright Angela Wilson either has been spying extensively on conversations between blue-collar heterosexual male buddies or is really in touch with her masculine side. Or maybe she just has a great ear for dialogue. In any case, it couldn't have sounded better coming from the mouth of anyone but Martin Holden--hair slicked back and eyebrows arched--as the fair-weather friend of Carl Savering's rapidly deteriorating ex-football player. Holden made the first act of The Ladies Room a marvel to watch as the karaoke singer with an inflated sense of his own romantic skills. His pre-show version of Celine Dion's Titanic theme was a hilarious knockout too.

Dalton James, Mark Farr, and John Flores, The Ultra-Happy, Super-Sad, Megavariety Revue, Our Endeavors: I always like to review a show as late in its run as possible, because invariably the performers only get better, more focused, more attuned to the emotions running through themselves, each other, and the playwright. Catching Scott Osborne and Patti Kirkpatrick's ultra-ambitious, super-ballsy, mega-original musical revue at Deep Ellum Center for the Arts a second time, with a big and very enthusiastic crowd, made me wish I could rewrite a lukewarm review. Dalton James wrote and performed what may have been the night's showstopper, his rap-fueled take on the old Latin saw vini, vidi, vici--"I came, I saw, I conquered." His "Big Black Boots" brought the house to cheers as easily as the imaginary gay bar into which James stomped (flashing the title footwear) was brought to its knees--or so he thinks. Meanwhile, Mark Farr and John Flores wrote a quieter but equally sensational comic ensemble piece, "The Soil in Which It Grows," where a lowly copyboy (David Goodwin) brings down the wrath of Y2K and Godzilla through his virtual love technology. They called it "comic-book theater," and the original music, lighting design, and stylized performances practically had me seeing the actors' dialogue in giant word balloons.

Cindee Mayfield, Death Defying Acts, Theatre Three: I could watch Cindee Mayfield put on or take off a glove all day long--meticulous yet seemingly unconscious of it, working it finger by finger, concentrating just enough on the process to let you know her character isn't quite comfortable with the deception she's perpetrating. Such were the subtleties I noticed in Mayfield's sparkling comic performance in Woody Allen's Central Park West, the last one-act of Theatre Three's Death Defying Acts. I didn't even like Allen's rattletrap, misanthropic farce, but Mayfield, who's proven she does that aging New York debutante thing so well, was delicious as she came apart at the seams.

Tina Parker, The Glass Menagerie, Kitchen Dog: After my effusive review of this production and the Dallas Theater Critics' and Leon Rabin awards it snagged, some in the theater community who'd seen it thought director Tina Parker's three-ring version of the Wingfield family overrated. Let me continue my unqualified endorsement and say this: Kitchen Dog's Glass Menagerie hooked me more for what it did with the circus myth than for what it did to Williams' script. Theater for theater's sake is a straitjacket I refuse to wear, and Parker and her cast clarified for me my own lingering unease and neurotic fascination with the P.T. Barnum milieu by imposing on it the dysfunctional framework of one of American theater's two or three most famous families. Circus performers have always seemed the quintessential existentialist freaks--humans trapped by an identity they've adopted strictly for show--and this perception fused smoothly with both Tom Wingfield's sad struggle to emerge from family chains and Tennessee Williams' own fascination with magic, illusion, and deception.

Guin Powell, Ontological Proof of My Existence, 11th Street Theatre Project: I hope the reason that Guin Powell doesn't perform on Dallas stages more often is that he has a busy, fulfilling personal life, and not that it's difficult for a black actor in this town to get roles. Powell is a tall guy with penetrating eyes who doesn't have to get all riled up to give audiences the sense that his character contains dark storm clouds of feeling. He did get downright scary when he exploded in Black, Theatre Quorum's production of the Joyce Carol Oates script, but eventually everyone in that show became overextended by Oates' preoccupation with violence. He was an ominous hovercraft of threat in 11th Street's production of a better Oates script, Ontological Proof of My Existence. A daddy figure filtered through a sex abuser's id, he was both nurturer and exploiter of Laurel Whitsett, prostrate in an abandoned building with only the eerie echo of a dripping sink to accompany their twisted harmony. Which leads me to:

Laurel Whitsett, In the Jungle of the Cities, Kitchen Dog: Whitsett made a fine foil for Powell in the 11th Street show, but I wanted to cite her much smaller role in Kitchen Dog's strong production of this overwritten Brecht script. To bastardize Stanislavski's commie acting-company pronouncement: There are no small parts, only actors with talent too small to grab your attention. As the girlfriend of the beleaguered, fatally principled librarian hero, Whitsett was to die for in a small, stock part you forget is difficult to play well--the sloppy drunk. Whitsett slurred and slouched her way into the pantheon of sad-funny, dipsomaniacal greats.

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