By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Art happens. And against all predictions of doom and gloom for the arts in 2009, theaters in and around Dallas and Fort Worth kept making it happen.
The opening of the Wyly Theatre and the Winspear Opera House, and the emergence of small, daring companies such as Level Ground Arts, Upstart Productions and Project X created the busiest, brightest, best theater year of the decade. Just the number of productions was staggering. Most weeks there were four or five opening nights at area playhouses. On the first weekend in December, 19 new shows opened. And not all of them were A Christmas Carol.
With this much competition for audiences, theater artists have had to up their game to get attention. The acting is getting stronger on almost every stage in town because more work for actors guarantees that the good ones stick around and have a chance to grow. Design work is getting more interesting, even on the lowest of budgets. Directors are playing it less safe. And playwrights are looking to Dallas theaters to launch new scripts.
Among the most entertaining of the premieres here in 2009 was the musical The Road to Qatar by Stephen Cole and David Krane. Irving's Lyric Stage, producers of big American musicals (their Funny Girl was another highlight this year), took a chance on launching Qatar, based on the true story of a composing team—one gay, both Jewish—commissioned to write a lavish Disney-esque musical for an Arab emirate. Layering the "how we wrote that show" concept with a madcap Hope-and-Crosby "road picture" tone, plus some really bouncy songs, made for terrific fun. Bringing back former Lyric Stage star Brian Gonzalez (now living in NYC) to play one of the leads was another great idea. This one's now prepping for a New York production. And we saw it first.
Just before decamping to Chicago to study comedy writing at Second City, Dallas playwright Matt Lyle staged his new play Hello Human Female at The Ochre House, the tiny home of experimental works over by Fair Park. Audiences lapped up this offbeat, heartfelt piece that was part Young Frankenstein, part Princess Bride. Produced for literally tens of nickels, Hello Human Female did a lot on very little, with a wildly funny, physical turn by Jeff Swearingen as lovestruck "Blork," the "monster" made of a dozen people's body parts. Good news for those who missed it the first time: Hello Human Female is being revived with its original cast at Teatro Dallas, January 13-23.
The Ochre House incubated lots of new plays in 2009. Kevin Grammer wrote, directed and co-starred in his own provocative drama The Empty Room, which explored themes of government-sanctioned torture and domestic terrorism. Ochre House producer Matthew Posey, with his Balanced Almond troupe, used the 40-seat space to present a series of X-rated puppet shows about Coppertone, a demented, lecherous soul (puppeteered by Posey) who somehow teaches lessons in tolerance, all while spewing filthy, misogynistic jokes so vile even the other puppets look ashamed. Posey also wrote, directed and starred in 14 Death-Defying Acts, a new play about Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, which was unpolished, but in retrospect was notable for not being afraid to be rough-edged, weird and obscure.
Kitchen Dog Theater gave Dallas audiences the world premiere of Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes, Yussef El Guindi's dark comedy about Hollywood's clichéd attitude toward Arabs. Undermain Theatre produced the premiere of Len Jenkin's Port Twilight, or a History of Science. One-Thirty Productions provided the Festival of Independent Theaters its best new work with Austin playwright Ellsworth Schave's one-act Under a Texaco Canopy, about a time traveler's visit to a West Texas dot on the highway. FIT was also blessed with The Drama Club's inspired production of The Old Woman in the Wood, adapted, directed and designed by Jeffrey Schmidt, who used only recycled materials for costumes, sets and props. Loved the dryer-sheet doves and cigarette-pack puppets.
Dallas Children's Theater offered tween theatergoers a serious look at obsessive, abusive teen relationships with the world premiere of don't u luv me? by in-house playwright Linda Daugherty. Theatre Britain presented one of its best Christmas "panto" plays yet with the cheeky new version of Puss in Boots by Jackie Mellor-Guin.
Billy Fountain, founder of the new company Level Ground Arts, made a big splash (of fake blood!) in his first season at Dallas Hub Theater with sellout crowds for Evil Dead: The Musical. He followed with the world premiere of his own new play about Lee Harvey Oswald, Crushing Grain. Fountain goes back to the "splatter zone" in 2010, directing the regional premiere of Cannibal! The Musical, a tuneful comedy about the Donner Party by South Park co-creator Trey Parker (February 26-March 20).
New faces also lit up Dallas stages this year. Morgan Justiss and Ian Sinclair melted hearts as newlyweds struggling with life and in-laws in Echo Theatre's superb production of Arlene Hutton's The Nibroc Trilogy, first at the Bath House, then in a successful transfer to Theatre Too. Alex Ross, just out of college, was a standout as a British prep schooler in Uptown Players' excellent run of The History Boys, then he rocked the lead in Uptown's boy-band musical Altar Boyz and sang and played piano in Theatre Too's production of Woody Guthrie's American Song. Ross also played the "Ziegfeld tenor" in Lyric's Funny Girl (featuring another homegrown newcomer worth watching, Jeremy Dumont, as Fanny Brice's best friend). And Ross stepped in at the last minute to complete the cast of Forever Plaid at Denton Community Theatre. See Ross next in Lyric's concert staging of Showboat in January, then as one of the horses in Uptown's much-anticipated production of Peter Shaffer's Equus in February at Kalita Humphreys Theater.
With a lanky, Buscemi-like demeanor, young Drew Wall became an actor worth watching this year, first in Second Thought Theatre's staging of Martin McDonagh's A Skull in Connemara, then as a rich, disaffected teenager in Upstart's production of Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth. If he's in the cast, go see the show.
SMU theater student Abbey Siegworth made a lovely Eve in Dallas Theater Center's Old Testament drama In the Beginning... and let loose as a gawky-hilarious love-crazed Helena in director Kevin Moriarty's kicky, pop-music-infused A Midsummer Night's Dream, the first show at the Wyly. Chamblee Ferguson, Cedric Neal, Liz Mikel, Marcus Mauldin, Matthew Tompkins, Joe Nemmers, Robyn Flatt, Sally Nystuen Vahle, Bryan Pitts—that Midsummer cast was all stars.
Dallas theater newcomer Diana Sheehan was part of Lyric's revival of Moss Hart and Irving Berlin's As Thousands Cheer, then scored the female lead of the year in WaterTower Theatre's spectacular local premiere of the Tony-winning musical Grey Gardens. But Sheehan's "Little Edie" would have been considerably smaller had it not been for the magnificence of Pam Dougherty as her bed-bound mother, "Big Edie" Beale.
African-American Repertory Theater in DeSoto had an impressive second season. Company founder Irma P. Hall returned to a favorite role as the matriarch in A Raisin in the Sun, and she was stunning. Regina Washington, Vince McGill, Chris Piper, Eleanor Threatt, Elliot Gilbert II and Shundra Grubb did the best ensemble work of the year in August Wilson's Seven Guitars.
And if there's one performance that critics and audiences won't forget for years to come, it was Elias Taylorson as Barry Champlain in Upstart and Project X's incendiary production of Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio this fall. As the Stern-like shock jock suffering an on-air breakdown, Taylorson was a ranting, quivering, raw nerve ending—the art of acting at its most intense.