The Freaks Come Out

Life on a Dallas stage in 2002 was cruel, freaky and mostly cruel

Dallas theater turned out some cruel and freaky work in 2002. In A Clockwork Orange at Quad C Theatre, gangs of cranked-up teens executed beautifully choreographed "ultra-violence.'' In Barbette at Kitchen Dog Theater, a Texas-born transvestite committed suicide hanging from a trapeze. In Side Show at Theatre Three, pretty conjoined twins sang, danced and died miserable and alone. Alone being a relative concept for them.

Those were the good shows.

Cruel and freaky in the way that makes you shut your eyes tight and wish yourself into a cornfield was Some Like It Hot at the Dallas Summer Musicals, the star attraction being Hollywood waxwork Tony Curtis. Puffed out like a toupeed armadillo, Curtis mugged, broke character and read his lines off prompt screens. Behind him, flimsy scenery flapped and fluttered like cheap prom decorations. How appalling was this tap-dancing turkey of a show? To borrow Curtis' own description of doing love scenes with Marilyn Monroe in the very fine film this Hot was based on, sitting through the gruesome three-hour stage version was "like kissing Hitler."

The freakily talented Brian J. Smith lit up Quad C Theatre's A Clockwork Orange.
Peter Calvin
The freakily talented Brian J. Smith lit up Quad C Theatre's A Clockwork Orange.

Still, the ovine herds stampeded into the frigid, acoustically abysmal Fair Park Music Hall, paying 50 bucks a pop to watch Curtis end his career on a succession of sour notes. They blew kisses at the old pouter pigeon and leapt to their feet for the inevitable unearned standing ovation.

If only the gullible mooks who flocked to Some Like It Hot or the gimmicky Wizard of Oz or the roaringly boring road company of The Lion King, which played a sold-out six-week run at Fair Park, had ventured into the smaller theater venues in Dallas, Fort Worth and the suburbs around and between. That's where they would have discovered the best acting, directing and new playwriting in 2002, too often happening before rows of empty seats.

Ergo the inequity of the mostly non-Equity Dallas theater biz. Schlocky commercial twaddle like The Lion King packs 'em in by the thousands while a gorgeous little drama like Barbette, with startlingly good acting and breathtaking aerial work by newcomer Joey Steakley and 70-something Jere Stevens Tulk, premieres at Kitchen Dog, earns scads of critical huzzahs and plays to minuscule audiences. The Dallas Theater Center loosens up and gets a hit with the slick and tuneful Blues in the Night (featuring the phenomenal Bernardine Mitchell), but the well-heeled theatergoers who love this one never make it over to the sweet and genuinely moving little musical drama The Last Session, produced by Uptown Players at the Trinity River Arts Center.

Small theaters struggled mightily to sell tickets in '02. Many offered "pay what you can" nights to help students and others afford to get in. But artistically even the tiniest companies kept shooting high, with two or three new shows opening almost every week of the year.

That's good for Dallas' large community of actors, whose numbers always are in flux as young ones dreamily seek stardom on the coasts and older ones pragmatically move back. A typical open audition for even barely paying productions in Dallas can draw hundreds of hopefuls. So it's a tribute to their talent that many of the best local thesps managed to stay steadily employed last year.

Among the top-tier performers, versatile Lulu Ward showed her range as twin divas in Pegasus Theatre's goofy black-and-white comedy Cross Stage Right: Die!, then played a speed-addicted, blowsy white trash mama in Ground Zero's premiere of the late Stuart Litchfield's dramedy The Abandoned Reservoir. Ward shone again this fall in dual roles in Echo Theatre's sparkling Cloud Nine.

Actress Cindee Mayfield madly scrubbing her armpits over a sink in Abandoned Reservoir provided one of the funniest moments in Dallas theater in the past 12 months. She also drew big laughs as a society doyenne in WaterTower Theatre's effervescent revival of the Kaufman and Hart comedy You Can't Take It With You.

Lawyer-turned-actor Ted Wold found himself in demand after a showstopping turn as a cross-dressing Southerner in Uptown Players' hilarious Sordid Lives. After that, Wold worked in Uptown's The Last Session, WaterTower's You Can't Take It With You and Plano Rep's Inspecting Carol. Good performances all.

Character actress Tina Parker, a founding member of the Kitchen Dog company, showed up as a man in the summer Shakespeare Festival of Dallas' Henry IV and this fall gave everyone the mal occhio as Goneril in the sleek SMU-Kitchen Dog co-production of King Lear. Next, Parker directs the Southwest premiere of George F. Walker's comedy Heaven, opening at Kitchen Dog on February 22.

Kitchen Dog was home to arguably the finest and most formidable performance by any woman on a local stage in '02: Shelley Tharp-Payton as Winnie in Samuel Beckett's notoriously difficult Happy Days. Buried up to her waist and then to her chin in a dirt mound, the vocally gifted Tharp-Payton found humor and resonance in a play famous for its obscure, repetitive dialogue.

Best performance by an actor in '02 came from college student Brian J. Smith as 15-year-old Alex the Droog in A Clockwork Orange at Collin County Community College's Quad C Theatre. This was without a doubt last year's most stunningly original and gut-twisting two hours of drama. Smith's performance was riveting. Adapted from the Anthony Burgess novella by Quad C's theater department director Brad Baker, who also directed the play, Orange sent a jolt to the cerebellum with its stylized story of angry kids and government mind control. This play was so good I saw it three times, my only repeat visits to any show in 2002. Admission price? Free with the donation of a stuffed toy for a local charity.

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