Down in Front

Oh, many '04 stage productions were mighty fine-- but sometimes the audience stole the show

The audience is 50 percent of the performance,'' said the great old actress Shirley Booth. At least that much, I'd say. Maybe more. A good audience can inspire and ignite actors into giving the best performances of their lives. And a bad crowd can do just the opposite. Every actor knows too well the focus-busting power of live theater's two greatest enemies: cell phones and cellophane.

In 2004, Dallas audiences made themselves known as never before. As local theater companies dared to stage more nudity, more violence, more out and out weirdness compared with years past, showgoers sometimes leapt to their feet in approval and sometimes hotfooted it out in a huff. Dallas Theater Center's production of Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog provoked mid-performance walkouts by dozens of ticket-holders offended by the rough language and brazen sexuality of the play's two black male leads. Some longtime subscribers abandoned Theatre Three over the squirming orgy scene and brief glimpses of nudity in the musical The Wild Party. At Plano Repertory Theatre, Shakespeare's R&J, with its full-on boy-boy smooches, emptied the house at intermission.

At other venues, the theater crowd didn't mind hot content. Quad C Theatre's student production of Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things was a sexed-up stunner that earned standing O's. Uptown Players did brisk business with the singing whores and dancing pimps of The Life. Everyone seemed thrilled and mesmerized by dancers in the road company of Fosse and acrobats in Cirque du Soleil's Varekai going through homoerotic contortions wearing little more than scant strips of spandex and thin layers of sweat. The gay crowd buying tickets to Uptown's Love! Valour! Compassion! and to the touring comedy Making Porn expected unobstructed views of the naked male cast members and would have demanded refunds for anything less.

Dallas Theater Center's Topdog/Underdog provoked mid-performance walkouts by dozens of offended ticket-holders.
Michael Brosilow
Dallas Theater Center's Topdog/Underdog provoked mid-performance walkouts by dozens of offended ticket-holders.

In a year that found broadcast media in a tongue-tied tizzy over a split-second peek at Miss Jackson's aureola, local theaters brazenly went for the full monty. Show after show stripped actors to their birthday suits in a parade of bouncing penises. But even amid bare bodkins, a few errant audience folk managed to upstage the thespians they'd paid to see. Leave it to the little people out there in the dark to outdo actors when it comes to acting like dicks.

I sat through about 100 plays last year. And along with scribbling the usual notes to myself about actors mispronouncing words and stage lighting so dim the dancers stumble into each other, I started keeping a log of audience incidents, some amusing, many simply appalling.

Take the opening night last January of the musical Spitfire Grill at Addison's WaterTower Theatre. Act 2 of this sensitive pastiche of small-town characters built to an emotional moment when a mute Vietnam vet slowly emerged from the woods to embrace his mother. The actors, Ted Wold and Pam Dougherty, took their time and the audience was with them all the way. Until, that is, a loud snort, a sort of treble snooooorrrrrrufff, erupted from a woman a few seats to my right. I thought she was weeping at the drama. But no, she unleashed nasal blasts for another half-hour. These were powerful, squealing, rhythmic inhalations, layered with the moist rumbles of inflamed sinuses. It could have registered on the Richter scale. Snort-woman trumpeted like a wounded elephant, ruining the climax of the play. The poor performers must have wondered why the brass section of the orchestra had suddenly begun blowing from the second row.

Are actors aware of such things? Of course. They tell me they hear coughs, sneezes, chit-chat, phones trilling in coat pockets, the unwrapping of hard candies from industrial Mylar coverings. They know who arrives late and who bolts early. They see the nappers and hear the snorters and somehow manage to keep it together onstage, never missing a beat or blowing a cue even as that family in the cheap seats starts chowing on a picnic lunch.

Which brings me to March and the opening night of Theatre Britain's No Sex Please, We're British. Seated in front of a row populated by theater reviewers, a couple settled in for the first act and soon were entwined in a major makeout session. With more tongue than a supermercado, they kept up the action, ignoring the show while putting on quite a PDA. Back from intermission, they turned their oral fixation to crunching fistfuls of chips gobbled from bags wedged between them. As they grazed like wild boars through all of Act 2, all I could think was, "No snacks, please! We're critics!"

Shakespeare's R&J at Plano Rep cast four men to act out every role in Romeo and Juliet. When the boy-on-boy kissing began in earnest, the audience stiffened--and not in the good way. "Oh, no! It's THAT kind of play!" shrieked a woman on the back row as she scrambled toward the aisle. Yes, dear, it was that kind of play, if by "that kind of play" you meant an ass-numbing exercise in bad writing, lousy acting and the sort of tepid gay-for-pay pawing that went out with Dynasty. Some 200 people made it through Act 1. After the break, there were 174 empty seats. Unfortunately, I had to stay in mine for the three-hour slog. "Drink that poison," said my date as boy-Juliet finally sipped her deadly potion, "and pass it around."

Another opening, another show of bad manners out front. At the Dallas Summer Musicals' Yankee Doodle Dandy, a woman behind me dug into a grocery sack, pulled out a family-sized package of cookies, noisily ripped into it and passed the treats to her seat-kicking kids. During the show. Again and again she dove into the bag as the kids demanded more. I couldn't give my regards to George M. Cohan's Broadway for all the rustling and chomping from the all-they-could-eat snarf-a-thon. When I heard the fweep-fizz of soda cans opening, I lost it. "You have to stop that!" I hissed over my shoulder. She didn't.

Trinity River Arts Center is a small theater where just a few rows of chairs embrace the stage. Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! was a major production last August for the up-and-coming Uptown Players. It's about the early days of the AIDS crisis. A group of gay friends spend weekends in a beach house, a setting that found the all-male cast in the altogether for a couple of scenes. Did I mention that this is a very small theater? When the clothes came off, it quickly became obvious that among the eight men onstage, one of those things was not like the others. Staring at the unedited frontispiece of the actor in question, a cheeky fellow seated nearby stage-whispered to his friend: "Look at that one. Tiny window, heavy drapes."

At Kitchen Dog Theater's opening of Jesus Hopped the "A" Train, I had a close encounter of a different kind. In this drama, prisoners screamed the F-word nonstop, profanities echoing off walls in a deafening eardrum assault. But the curses were lullabyes to the stranger next to me. He fell into heavy slumber and started to snore. He sawed logs until the lights came up for intermission. When he came back to his seat, I expressed surprise that he was sticking around for the second act. "Did you know you were snoring?" I asked. He took offense. "I certainly was NOT!" he protested. "I've never fallen asleep in the theater in my life!" Then the lights went down and the lifers started turning the air blue again. Not 30 seconds later, Sleepy was using my shoulder as a snuggle pillow, snoring again like a hibernating grizzly.

No surprise, Making Porn, a daffy thing starring actual gay-porn actors, attracted an SRO throng of middle-aged gay men to Teatro Dallas, all happy to spend $35 to see beefy, spray-tanned mumblers reveal an astonishing lack of acting talent while laying bare certain other attributes. Watching porn on video and watching porn actors attempt live theater are two totally different games of balls. There was a fake-jacking scene and a graphic lesson in money shots. But it only got really gross at intermission, when the long line for the men's room forced a large chunk of the audience to pee in the parking lot.

The year ended with one of Dallas' funniest actors, Nye Cooper, giving a rowdy audience member a dose of Christmas comeuppance. In the one-man Santaland Diaries, Cooper spends 70 minutes talking directly to the 50 people who turn up to hear author David Sedaris' hilarious musings on working as a Macy's elf. This was Cooper's fourth year of sold-out, two-a-day shows, and by the second week, he wasn't about to take any guff from groundlings. Santalandattracts a lot of corporate holiday parties, and at the performance I went to, such a group was led by a woman named Diane (I know this because she shouted it like a cheerleader trying out for the A-squad). She had arrived in a well-tippled state and downed three plastic cups of wine before Cooper's first entrance. With "Crumpet the elf" in full monologue, Diane suddenly rose from her seat and clip-clopped like a high-heeled reindeer across the stage to the only exit door, slamming it behind her. At last, she's gone, I thought. Then ker-FLAM, the jangled belle returned with all the subtle grace of Bad Santa. As she staggered in, Cooper got to the line, "Get OUT! Get OUT of Santa's house right NOW!" He delivered it at an angry pitch, pointing directly at the dipsy dame sharing his spotlight. The audience laughed, which built to applause, which became an accusatory roar that might have led to a lynch mob had Cooper not diverted attention with a bit of stage business. It was a perfect moment. And with that, the curtain rang down on another year at the theater.

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