By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
A vulgarian editor asked if I was going to turn in my "top-10 list" for this, the year's final Dallas Observer edition, as if the Jimmys were just another grocery list of critical whims. Lest anyone confuse this with the other critics' year-end roundups of 10-best picks, I have included only nine shows and/or performances. Each merits the standard of excellence that makes the Jimmy so coveted: namely, they didn't bore me. They pried a genuine emotion out of a flinty heart. I'd like to say to each of the winners: You carried me out of my seat to another place. Thanks.
Joe Dickinson, Vikings, Pocket Sandwich Theatre: Pocket Sandwich co-founder Joe Dickinson apparently had to be hounded into repeating a stage role he'd performed years earlier--an ailing Danish patriarch trying to secure happiness for his alcoholic son and his grandson, who wants to carry on the family construction business against his father's wishes. A line load of this size would be daunting for any actor, and Dickinson has of late faced challenges against his own health. Dallas audiences were reminded that a soul of professionalism and sheer dramatic acuity lurks beneath the Pocket Sandwich's façade of beer-soaked camp. Dickinson's gravelly-velvety Shakespearean monologues of excitement over his family's prospects for college and a new wife had folks crying in their cheese fries.
Ensemble, Crumbs from the Table of Joy, Dallas Theater Center: Director Reggie Montgomery was miscast when he played Scrooge in DTC's Christmas Carol 2000--too young, too athletically long-legged and self-consciously clownish--but he sure knows how to pull together an ensemble cast for a domestic drama where all kinds of odd historical elements converge. Playwright Lynn Nottage took a not altogether novel plot--black family moves from the South to Brooklyn after the mother dies in the early 1950s, and has a head-on culture crash--and suffused it with unexpected little flourishes to soup up the conflict. Poppa (Alex Morris) is a devotee of the real-life separatist Christian leader Father Divine, who forbids sex and alcohol, and took the privilege of naming the daughters of his followers; Aunt (Portia L. Johnson) is a hard-drinking Communist whose leftist Harlem cabal is trying to fold Marxist rhetoric into the civil rights movement; the new wife (Sally Nystuen) is a German immigrant who, such a short time after World War II and the Holocaust, finds herself hated for her skin color and her nationality. With such unusual twists in characterization and dilemma, the constant onstage brawling was super-charged with real urgency and a sense of far corners of the 20th century being brought closer together.
Ensemble Travelin' Shoes, Jubilee Theatre: Over the years, audiences have come to regard any musical revue mounted by director Rudy Eastman, arranger-musical director-bandleader Joe Rogers, and their talented company of actor-singers at Fort Worth's Jubilee Theatre as mandatory weekend entertainment. The shows usually serve as relaxed educational sessions, or at least reminders, of how virtually all popular American music is black music, or can be traced back a very short way. They saunter through gospel, jazz, blues, and R & B, making you realize it's us critics who insist on isolating them. Travelin' Shoes was a loose, droll, five-man ode to the so-called Jubilee Quartets of the late 19th century, ensembles who sang Negro spirituals to folk in white concert halls and black dives barely a generation after slavery. Weepers like "Motherless Child" and "I Heard Zion Moan" alternated with jazzy five-part harmonies and relationship advice like "Let That Liar Alone." All five men were superb, but Jubilee stars Kevin Haliburton and Robert Rouse were the undeniable masters.
Jenny Gravenstein, The Food Chain, Circle Theatre: Like many Nicky Silver plays, The Food Chain is lopsided, has long passages of calcified comic conceits, and doesn't seem to know where it wants to go. But recent SMU grad Jenny Gravenstein gave a rib-crushingly funny, if sometimes exhausting, performance as a New Yorker poet and drama queen who can't separate world injustice from her own neuroses about food, sex, and abandonment. She carries on a long, almost breathless confession to a crisis hotline worker about her errant husband, walking barefoot around her high-rise with a wine glass, gesturing with that purse-lipped, high forehead-wrinkled debutante entitlement that, unbeknownst to her, chafes absurdly with her liberal and artistic pretensions. At one point, she confesses that her last published poems were called "Untitled 13" and "Untitled 14." She has just completed a new piece that uses the wind as a metaphor for God. What's it called? "I don't know. I haven't titled it yet."
Jane MacFarlane, Road, Kitchen Dog Theatre: Some of us who participated in this year's Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum were surprised when Jane MacFarlane's name was omitted from the final actress roster. Perhaps it was an oversight, because we thought there'd be consensus over her sadly funny, lovesick professional in Road, desperately trying to make one night magical in an economically depressed North England small town. In that show, MacFarlane also portrayed an elderly woman recalling her youthful beauty in a mirror held with shaking hands, and a cockney virago shaking down her daughter for a few quid. But we remember her vividly in tight skirt and high heels, returning to her flat with a soldier (Thom Penn) who's too drunk to sit up, much less smooch. MacFarlane carried on her amorous preparations with sweet self-imposed obliviousness--on with the sexy music, off with the shoes, a painted finger to tousle his hair and trace the curve of his ear. Not even when Penn slumps over and vomits in his lap is her quest for romance thwarted.
Charles Sanders, 20,000 Babes Beneath the Sea, Pocket Sandwich: In many of Pocket Sandwich's popcorn-throwing melodramas and sci-fi spoofs, the karaoke number has become a staple. The action pauses, someone throws an actor a mike, the glittery ball descends from the ceiling, and a disco or Sinatra tune is wedged incongruously (and, the director and performers pray, hilariously) into the mayhem. In an otherwise workmanlike Steve Lovett script about the all-female, undersea world of Aquitania, Charles Sanders gave an incongruous and hilarious performance as Bucky Fuller, a horny, mush-mouthed lieutenant for whom bravery and stupidity are synonymous. Sanders moved with a stiff-armed, sideways crab gait like the one-dimensional march of some cartoon Mountie hero, and when all of these elements came together for a swingin' nightclub rendition of "20,000 Babes Beneath the Sea," the audience cheered and stomped their feet at his bizarre energy.
Carrie Slaughter, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change!, Theatre Three: We're thrilled that Theatre Three has been making money for months on end now by moving their hit musical revue about relationships to the basement, but less pleased at the displacement of companies that were tentatively to use Theatre Too. Nonetheless, I enjoyed its lunatic bits more than anybody who reads my columns would have ever guessed. Possibly the best number involved Carrie Slaughter, a tiny, lovely ingénue with a madcap desire to play against type: She portrays a lonely single parent singing her pitch into the camera of a video dating service. Some people can exaggerate or lie about their love lives with gleeful abandon to sell themselves to a partner; there are those of us who feel even more pathetic doing that than if we told the awful truth. Slaughter is crackerjack at fusing these two types; her flirty confidence deteriorates the more ridiculous she feels, and she begins to list her detriments, her baggage, her past disappointments with weary forthrightness.
Pat Watson, Soundbiting, Pegasus Theatre: We don't mean to insult Pat Watson when we say he reminds us of George W. Bush. He doesn't look like Alfred E. Neuman the way Shrub does, and his closely placed, deep-set eyes (probably the biggest source of the resemblance) radiate a kind of bemused intelligence in place of President Gump's frat-boy smugness. But when you're playing a Southern governor in an election year when a Southern governor is running, audiences will look for topical parallels. In this futuristic political satire where the people communicate strictly via the Internet and constantly shifting poll results flash in the middle of TV debates, causing the candidates to shift their positions constantly, Pat Watson was a marvel as the more ruthless of the two opponents. His direct addresses to the TV audience--which became speeches to the theater audience on a pair of monitors aimed at us--were acting textbook examples of subtle facial expressiveness.