Against All Odds

2003's theater winners gambled on edgy themes, took risks on new talent, new material

Producing live theater isn't a crapshoot. It's a poker game. You have to bet big to win big. But a big payoff in regional and community theater usually means just breaking even. Few companies end up in the chips during a season. More often, they lose their puffy shirts.

Even small local productions are hideously expensive to produce. The simplest shows can cost thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars to mount, and that doesn't count paying wages to actors or tech crew members who barely earn their mileage back. The artistic experience of doing live theater often must serve as its own reward. For many actors trying to rack up good roles for their résumés, that's enough. So they keep doing it. Boy, do they keep doing it.

At a time when Broadway was a neon-lit loserville of bloated musicals and big-budget flops, Dallas in 2003 seemed to bubble over with young theater professionals eager to stay put and perform wherever and whenever they could. Among the new companies debuting hereabouts last year were Cargo Theatre Company, Classical Acting Company, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, Hellgrammite Productions and Second Thought Theater. They joined more than 60 other local theater companies all vying for stages for more than 300 productions in 2003. There weren't enough venues to accommodate everyone. Performances were held in art galleries, hotel conference rooms, church fellowship halls, dance studios and other nontheatrical spaces. The next new company, the appropriately named Risk Theatre Initiative, debuts January 8 in the best spot it could find for its slate of absurdist plays, Deep Ellum's Sons of Hermann Hall, which will house a production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, followed in February by Edward Albee's Zoo Story.

Fresh players do keep the theater game interesting. Enough with Our Townand Odd Couple. Much of last year's best work on Dallas stages came from upstarts willing to blow off preconceived ideas of what audiences should see or would see. They gambled that theatergoers, particularly younger ones, wouldn't mind being dealt plays with edgy, R-rated themes, nontraditional casting and full frontal nudity.

Take Hellgrammite Productions, which staged the trashy and thoroughly wonderful Killer Joe at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary in November. Set in a trailer park, Tracy Letts' murderous comedy featured naked actors, a woman simulating oral sex with a chicken drumstick and a guy getting his head smashed repeatedly in the door of a Frigidaire. The usually clean-cut Regan Adair was cast against type as a beer-swilling, coke-snorting redneck and gave one of the best performances of his young career. The production also served to introduce young actress Amanda Wright. Having seen her naked, audiences should now see her in more good roles.

There were lots of bare bodkins on Dallas stages last year, come to think of it. In Teatro Dallas' Day of the Dead drama, WomaNightFear, a couple bared all and engaged in some pretty humpy tummy thumping. The first scene of Dallas Theater Center's Big Love back in March featured lead actress Miriam Laube stepping out of a wedding gown and into a downstage bathtub, Brazilian wax job clearly visible. T and A doesn't guarantee SRO success, however. Both of these productions were otherwise disappointing.

Sex and single girls fared better early last summer at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, Sue Loncar's burgeoning company on Lower Greenville. The comedy A Girl's Guide to Chaos, a collection of adult-themed essays by humorist Cynthia Heimel, was an unexpected hit that attracted girls-night-out groups and bachelorette parties--demographics not usually represented at live theater--primed to giggle at nonpolitical vagina monologues. This one could have run all summer, but CTD had already scheduled the drama Close Ties for mid-July. As a moneymaker Chaos might be worth reviving as an annual laughfest along the lines of WaterTower Theatre's Christmastime Santaland Diaries.

The sexiest play of the year, 10:10, by Dallas playwright Vicki Cheatwood, kept its actors in their skivvies and its viewers on edge. It was the lead characters' naked passion that made the surreal drama hot and bothersome. Lulu Ward and Halim Jabbour steamed up the Bath House Cultural Center in Ground Zero Theater Company's excellent production of the play about a bride who leaves her groom at the altar to run off with his brother. With this work, Cheatwood explored new ways to depict the tragedy of love's dark side. She's an important playwright on the verge of big things.

A two-person play about a long-distance affair between writers Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren brought some much-needed oomph to the stage at the usually staid Theatre Threelast year. Transatlantic Liaison, by French playwright Fabrice Rozie, starred Elizabeth Rothan in her best role of the past few seasons and Matthew Stephen Tompkins, who is, for the record, the actor we would most like to see again in a skimpy undershirt (or less) onstage in 2004. His best muscles aren't just in his larynx.

Dallas theaters gave us too much Shakespeare in 2003, but Lesson 2: Hamlet starring Tim Demsky at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre offered a memorable twist on the Bard with a witty, provocative script by Dallas writer-composer Scott A. Eckert. "To die, to sleep, when we have shuffled off to Buffalo," says Eckert's neo-Hamlet. This was the second in his series of Shakespearean adaptations. Can't wait to see the next one. Andi Allen, another Dallas writer and director, let the Pocket snag its funniest show of the year with her High School Hellcats in Heels, a spoof of '50s B-movies.

Two theaters did the stalker drama Boy Gets Girl in '03, but Quad C Theatre at Collin County Community College had the better production starring the waifish but intense Sarah Saunders. Quad C also accomplished something this fall that Broadway has yet to, that is stage a full-fledged, nearly flawless Assassins, Stephen Sondheim's controversial and politically charged musical.

Seems like actress-singer Denise Lee never stopped working in 2003, turning in her first major dramatic performance in WaterTower's fine black drama The Old Settlerand returning to that theater to wail her lungs out for the holiday musical Rockin' Christmas Party. See her next in Uptown Players' Broadway Our Wayshow-tune extravaganza January 8 through January 11, then she stars in Uptown's production of the gritty musical The Life, opening at the Trinity River Arts Center on February 6 (with musical direction by the aforementioned Scott Eckert).

Other highlights worth a nod from last year: Kitchen Dog's bold and beautiful Hedwig and the Angry Inch; the phenomenal Elaine Stritch at Liberty at the Majestic, as close as Dallas will ever get to something like Judy at Carnegie Hall; the lovely and tuneful Flower Drum Song at the Dallas Summer Musicals; Lyric Stage's spectacular Titanic, a musical with 45 singing roles and an invisible iceberg; the impressive star turn by the vocally gifted Robert Brewer in the title role in Theatre Three's Bat Boy: The Musical; Coy Covington swanning hilariously all over the Uptown Players' stage in a series of figure-hugging evening gowns as the drag-lead in Ruthless!; designer Randel Wright's magical, painterly sets for CTD's A Girl's Guide to Chaos and Life and Times of Tulsa Lovechild and Plano Rep's Forever Plaid; Douglass Burkes breaking hearts as the monster in Frankenstein at Dallas Children's Theater; four actors in four chairs spewing a fugue of dialogue in WingSpan's Crave; Jack Birdwell's Petruchio in Shakespeare Festival of Dallas' Taming of the Shrew; N. Brian Normoyle in SMU's A Doll's House and Our Country's Good; the regal Beverly May in Theatre Three's Copenhagen.

Aces, all.

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