Theater in the ground

Local stage productions excelled in 1999 -- but where are the crowds?

Here I sit, polishing this year's Jimmy Awards and etching the names of actors, directors, designers, and productions in calligraphic script on the base plaques. Yet I can summon little enthusiasm for theater at the moment. It's not because of theater itself, but because of the inevitable disruptions and dissipations in an art form that's vulnerable nationwide, but especially endangered in a city such as Dallas. People here spend an inordinate amount of time wishing and pretending they were somewhere else, and thus pursue imported entertainment like the last unattached man at a Sadie Hawkins dance. The hometown partners are left standing at the wall.

Three of Dallas' best and most important small theater companies are in conditions ranging from serious to critical. New Theatre Company has all but folded; co-artistic directors Jim Jorgensen and Charlotte Akin have dissolved its board and are searching for more fertile theatrical pastures. Undermain is being priced out of its basement space, and Teatro Dallas continues to hop from venue to venue, with artistic director Cora Cardona trying to turn up the heat on the city to get that Latino cultural center in Oak Cliff under construction.

Audience neglect isn't the single explanation for the problems facing these companies; after all, New Theatre sold out its last show, Absurd Person Singular. But apathy by the Dallas public does create an overall environment hostile to maintaining a theatrical institution. Let's also mention addiction to technological spectacle and a refusal to meet art halfway, but not claim this city is an exception: Those illnesses are in pandemic proportions among ticketbuyers all across the U.S. The attention span of your average American rivals that of your average squirrel, except squirrels may have two up on us since they must hunt for their own food and dodge cars. Stage shows, especially those with more cerebral concerns, require similar alertness and reaction skills to be appreciated.

David Stroh was the title character in Cameron Cobb's dizzyingly multi-layered Didymus, which examined the links between illusion, materialism, and spirituality.
David Stroh was the title character in Cameron Cobb's dizzyingly multi-layered Didymus, which examined the links between illusion, materialism, and spirituality.

Many of us can boast quite a spread in our recliners and multiplex seats, mutton leg in one hand and mead goblet in the other, demanding that our entertainment dance faster and harder in ever-increasing combinations. In some ways, I believe we're smarter than we used to be -- there's more information and analysis than ever available to us about goings-on all across the globe, and people do partake of it. But I think we're lazier because of that media ubiquity, and the idea of spiritual sustenance from meditative reflection over theater or painting has become almost archaic. Developing the musculature of your soul means you gotta flex it, which means you must work your mind and imagination. Oscar Wilde's dream of art as a perfect secular corollary to the church doesn't make sense to a lot of people these days.

There is a natural discomfort among theater companies in distress about not having their wounds discussed in print, as if the aroma of ink and paper will bring the vultures to circle. But the woes of New Theatre, Undermain, and Teatro Dallas are already well known throughout the community, and it's important, I think, for there to be some record of the ephemeral nature of theater in Dallas. The rewards are few for those who labor and pay out of their own pockets to mount a production, but the spiritual fire is being fed. Hopefully, the Jimmys will be fuel to keep it burning a little brighter and longer. (Warning to winners: Do not actually place your Jimmy near an open fire. I couldn't afford to flame-retard them this year.)

Touring production, Art, Dallas Summer Musicals' Contemporary Broadway Series. I tend to grouse about how people don't want to pay money to be confronted with the less attractive facets of their humanity, but some shortcomings are so universal (and so universally hilarious) that they make catharsis a rousing good time -- and render the barriers of language irrelevant. Dallas Summer Musicals brought a show that's still running in London and other major cities of the world, Christopher Hampton's English translation of Yasmine Reza's scathing French autopsy of the power plays in male friendships, Art. It's hard to imagine any show that premiered with Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay equaling the impact of the debut, but then again, I can't fathom how Reza's hot-blooded, pugnacious roles could be screwed up by even a mediocre actor. Judd Hirsch, Cotter Smith, and Jack Willis were much better than that, of course, and so they made Art worth savoring for days afterward.

Playwright Cameron Cobb and director Kimberlyn Crowe, Didymus, Ground Zero Theatre Company. Undermain associate Cameron Cobb is charming and cocky in equal amounts -- perhaps unsurprising in a guy not yet 25 who wrote a clever, dizzyingly multilayered study of how illusion just might be the link between materialism and spirituality. Didymus, in which the disciples of Christ steal the body from the tomb because they fear he won't rise again and his teachings will be lost, started off as an indictment of shallow faith and then wound its way through a more ambivalent view of the frail human need for reassurance in this material world. Under the direction of Kimberlyn Crowe of Ground Zero, Didymus simultaneously affirmed and denounced the daily struggle to maintain faith at any cost. I can't think of a more soulful way to examine the issue.

Ensemble, Serenading Louie, Theatre Quorum. Chances are, Theatre Quorum won't revive Lanford Wilson's play about the adulterous disintegration of two prosperous middle-aged married couples as its annual cash cow. Material this depressingly recognizable about the slow death of romance and the even slower, perhaps more excruciating realization of your life's mistakes as you're kicking 40 in the ass wasn't intended to amuse and delight the entire family. Actually, under the direction of veteran Dallas stage artist Cynthia Hestand, Carl Savering, Angela Wilson, Cindee Mayfield, and Dennis Millegan did captivate me with the quietly relentless truthfulness of the discontented professionals they played. Not an altogether pleasant evening, but an enriching one.

Director-designer Scott Osborne and his design team and puppeteer David Goodwin, Gorey Stories, Our Endeavors. Scott Osborne and his partner, Patti Kirkpatrick, just might have spoiled the Deep Ellum Center for the Arts for other theater troupes who perform there, so completely did they transform the cavernous space into a faux-opulent Edwardian drawing room where Edward Gorey's homicidal high jinks transpired with dark comic beauty and musical panache. Special nod should go, of course, to the donations of Too Blue Scenic owner George Miller. And the more I thought about Gorey Stories afterward, the more I realized David Goodwin's shadow puppetry -- a sublime approximation of Gorey's own emaciated, pointy illustrations -- underscored the evening with rambunctious eeriness.

Director Joe Black and actress Dixie Lee Sedgwick, Inside Bonnie Parker, various theaters. Arthur Penn's film Bonnie and Clyde has always bugged me, and it took watching Dixie Lee Sedgwick's one-woman show about Bonnie Parker to crystallize the reason why: Penn may have prophesied celebrity-crime obsession, but Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were so self-conscious about our obsession with their celebrity names, the superficiality flattened two tragic real-life criminals. Sedgwick formulated letters, poems, and interviews with Parker -- who not only had no criminal record prior to her romance with Clyde, but was actually being groomed as a college-bound writer-performer -- into a lucid explanation of how some people fear loneliness so much, they can rationalize away all kinds of outrageous behavior. Almost all of the unseen people Sedgwick, as Parker, spoke to were women, which means the justifications for her romantic fever were fast and furious, which in turn means we glimpsed the terror usurping the intelligent mind of a young woman.

Director Lisa Cotie and actors Erik Knapp, Tom Eppler, and Hazel Beasley, Bartleby: A True Story, 11th Street Theatre Project. Lisa Cotie, growing ever more mature and subtle as a stage director, helmed one of the best shows I've seen at 11th Street, all the more impressive because it featured almost zero production values and a Dallas playwright. Bartleby: A True Story is Tim Hatcher's retelling of one tortured 19th-century New York law clerk who's finally undone by his own high standards for literature and human behavior. Kevin Keating played Bartleby, but the astute script was carried away by three supporting actors -- Erik Knapp, Tom Eppler, and Hazel Beasley -- who played old mailroom veterans and distrustful prostitutes and beleaguered mothers and ruthless literary agents and brutal asylum guards. The sharply cut details of their multiple characterizations threw Bartleby's plight into poignant relief.

Actress Cecilia Flores, As Bees in Honey Drown, Theatre Three. This comedy annoyed me in many ways, because, frankly, people who are obsessed with being famous really annoy me, no matter how quickly they may be bred in our age of rapid digital imagery transmission. But the gorgeously versatile Cecilia Flores made the insanity tasty and even nutritious as Alexa Vere de Vere, a con artist who preys on star-dazzled gay men with one foolproof weapon -- an extravagant personality composed of the great female movie icons of the 20th century. Cecilia Flores is not a classically beautiful woman, which makes her accomplishment that much more impressive -- she conveyed classical beauty (and the manipulation beneath it) through sheer force of personality.

Ensemble, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Dallas Children's Theatre. With the recent colon cancer diagnosis and subsequent retirement of one of my childhood heroes, Charles M. Schulz, I was reminded of the tears I shed (not a frequent occurrence for me, even at the saddest play) throughout Dallas Children's Theater's stellar version of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. If I could figure out why the song "Happiness" has made me bawl ever since I was a kid, maybe I'd have the key to unlock the peculiar workings of my mind. But it's just one great song in a show that spills over with adult joys, sorrows, and frustrations, and Dallas Children's Theater's cast did them all justice. You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown offers proof positive that adults idealize the shit out of childhood. Charles M. Schulz never did, which may be why he felt like such a close friend to me.

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