Dallas Theater in 2011: Give it a Standing O

What a year it has been. What a fine theater town we're in.

The real world beyond their stage doors may have been spinning from disaster to disaster, but somehow in the land of make-believe inside Dallas theaters, 2011 turned out to be an absolute annus mirabilis.

There were great shows and memorable performances in grand halls and bijou playhouses all around us. Ticket sales were up while ticket prices were down (more pay-what-you-can nights and "dynamic pricing" schemes helped). Two of Dallas theater's best-loved players, Cedric Neal and Liz Mikel, made it to Broadway. He's in The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess with Audra McDonald. Mikel's front and center in the musical Lysistrata Jones, which started out a couple of seasons back at Dallas Theater Center as Give It Up!

Opportunities like those are why Dallas is getting a better rep as an arts-friendly community where young artists can get a foothold and be part of creating bold, original work that gets noticed on a national level.

Drew Wall, Natalie Young and Alex Organ in Second Thought's Red Light Winter.
Drew Wall, Natalie Young and Alex Organ in Second Thought's Red Light Winter.

That hothouse of fresh talent and ideas, Matthew Posey's Ochre House, had its best season yet in 2011, premiering comedies, dramas and musicals, all written and directed by Posey, who also starred in most of them. The creative ensemble that calls itself the "Ochre House Boys," which includes actress Elizabeth Evans, put on four of the year's best productions.

The Butcher was a biting rock musical about an Irish meat seller (played by Posey) and his life-altering encounter with a talking pig carcass (a marvelously creepy puppet created by Posey, Justin Locklear and Mitchell Parrack, and operated by Kevin Grammer). In Sweeney Todd fashion, there was much singing and bloodletting, with Posey appropriately hogging the spotlight. Design work was particularly impressive, with some of the sleek leather costumes created by Locklear patched together from pieces of a chair he found on the side of the road. Such is the low-budget, make-it-work philosophy Ochre House lives by.

Posey also wrote and starred in Memphos!, a poignant drama about a touring magician giving his last, worst show in the waning days of vaudeville. There was a Keaton-esque sadness to it (meaning Buster, not Diane), with Posey giving a delicately unhinged performance in the title role.

Locklear, Dallas theater's top utility player, starred in Morphing, Posey's mixed-media comedy based on Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night. As the morphine-addicted mother, Locklear became an ethereal creature, floating across the tiny stage in a tattered wedding dress. Sending up O'Neill's grim Tyrones isn't easy, but Ochre House players Parrack, Evans, Grammer, Trenton Stephenson and newcomer Cyndee Rivera, along with Locklear and Posey, managed to do that just about perfectly, while also touching on the painful clichés of other famous troubled-family dramas from stage and screen.

Ochre House closed out the year with an extended run of Posey's beautiful bio-play with music, Ex Voto: The Immaculate Conceptions of Frida Kahlo. Elizabeth Evans was Kahlo, moustache, bare breasts and all. Dante Martinez made a strong and sexy Diego Rivera. And Kahlo's best-known paintings were re-created, life-size, in three dimensions and with vivid detail, for Evans to step into and out of. Gorgeous.

Second Thought Theatre had a comeback year in 2011, scaling back to small plays, starting with the one-man Thom Pain (based on nothing), with actor Steven Walters going 90 to nothing in writer Will Eno's intense 90-minute monologue. Even better was this company's hot staging by Regan Adair of Adam Rapp's erotically charged Red Light Winter, which afforded close-up views of two attractive young thesps (Natalie Young, Drew Wall) in the buff, engaging in lovemaking so intense you could feel the collective blushing of the audience.

Second Thought moves from Addison back to Dallas and the Bryant Hall space next to Kalita Humphreys Theater in 2012, where it will produce Dallas playwright Eric Steele's Midwest Trilogy. At the Festival of Independent Theatres this past summer, the company premiered Steele's one-man play Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self, starring Barry Nash. Script and actor were ideally matched, with Nash spellbinding as a plainspoken man recounting the saga of the plane crash that claimed his arm and the lives of his closest friends.

On the subject of missing limbs, there was The Hand, a taut two-man script about one man's severed hand, which he tries to reclaim from its new owner. Actors Joey Folsom and Jeff Swearingen opened the play for the now-defunct Broken Gears Project Theatre, switching parts on alternate nights. The show and the company were short-lived, but their acting was spectacular.

The role-swapping stunt also was done in Frankenstein, performed by London's National Theatre in high-def satellite broadcasts through the National Theatre Live series shown at the Angelika theaters. Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch took turns playing Dr. Frankenstein and The Monster under the direction of Danny Boyle. It may not have been technically live, but watching these actors sweat and strain through the physical demands of their extraordinary performances felt like living, breathing theater. (The next National Theatre Live offering is Nicholas Wright's Travelling Light in early February.)

We got a tour of the musical Young Frankenstein, and a good one, in the Winspear's Lexus Broadway Series. Dallas Theater Center transformed the Wyly Theatre into the Kit Kat Club for director Joel Ferrell's steamy version of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret. Lyric Stage rounded up a passel of adorable moppets for Oliver!, which also had some scorching singing by Catherine Carpenter Cox as Nancy. Lyric's revival of Rags brought composer Charles Strouse to town to see his and lyricist Stephen Schwartz's musical about early 20th century Jewish immigrants come back to life with full orchestra and vibrant cast led by Amanda Passanante, Brian Hathaway, Kristin Dausch and Stephen Bates.

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