By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
If Dallas theater gets much better than it was in 2012, Chicago's going to be jealous. Dallas' theatrical community used to lose a lot of homegrown talent to that city with the wind. (And to New York and L.A.) Not so much anymore, as the number of theater companies, performance spaces and local playwrights turning out solid work in this town continues to grow.
Opportunities breed success, and Dallas theaters, starting with Margo Jones' first important regional theater here in the 1940s, have traditionally offered breaks to up-and-comers who have talent and some moxie. It also helps that theaters here are creatively incestuous. Actors can be members of more than one resident company (there's lots of crossover between Kitchen Dog Theater and Dallas Theater Center, for example). Directors can work everywhere and be paid for their efforts. Good designers stay as busy as they want to be. There are even steady full-time gigs for choreographers, stage combat experts and puppeteers. Playwrights with a hot script can land a staged reading or even a fully produced premiere among the three major new play festivals held in the Dallas area every year.
The longer these creative professionals stick around, making Dallas a true home for theater artists and not just a jumping-off point, the better live theater is for everyone — those who make it, see it and review it. This year was so full of great work on local stages, Theatre Three founder Jac Alder has called it "a golden era," maybe the best he's experienced in his 51 years producing, directing, acting in and watching shows in Dallas.
Three of the top productions of 2012 were at Theatre Three and its underground space, Theatre Too. On the main stage, Aaron Sorkin's fast-talking play The Farnsworth Invention, about the battle to patent TV, featured highly defined performances by Alex Organ, as inventor Philo T. Farnsworth, and Jakie Cabe, as broadcast pioneer David Sarnoff. Director Jeffrey Schmidt surrounded them with a crazy-talented group of versatile supporting players.
Theatre Too staged the local premiere of Tracy Letts' thoughtful 2008 comedy Superior Donuts, about an emotionally numb doughnut shop owner and the ambitious young man who tries to save the business. Actors Van Quattro and Chris Piper reacted off of each other with natural chemistry. Their performances, directed by Bruce Coleman, were punctuated with tiny moves so right for little T2.
In July the Tony-winning, Sesame Street-inspired send-up Avenue Q opened in Theatre Too, directed by Michael Serrecchia, and refused to leave. Puppet-friendly singer-actors played to sold-out houses almost every night. The monster hit was extended to mid-December. It will return to T2 with the same cast in March 2013.
If you caught Mean, Matthew Posey's disturbingly sexy new musical about the imagined first encounter of Charlie Manson, Tex Watson and Squeaky Fromme, you might still be having emotional flashbacks. Posey's 45-seat Ochre House by Fair Park had a hot streak of original work this year, particularly this show, an eerie, dreamlike immersion into one night in the 1960s in a California desert dive. As a friendly cowboy singer (Justin Locklear) emceed open-mic night, members of what would become the "Manson family" met for the first time and took the stage to sing solos. Charlie was played with all the right twitches by a rail-thin Mitchell Parrack. Posey, who also wrote and directed, played Watson; Anastasia Muñoz was Fromme. Helter skelter never felt so close.
Posey, in fact, explored obsessions with a wide range of esoteric subjects throughout 2012, writing and producing new plays about Andy Warhol, Henry Miller and flamenco. The play-with-music Perro y Sangre (Dog and Blood) wove a story about Ernest Hemingway (played by Christian Taylor) into a 60-minute rush of intense dialogue interrupted by flamenco danced by Spaniard Antonio Arrabola and Dallas flamenco artist and actress Delilah Buitrón. As the couple curled around each other in sensuous choreography, the pounding of their heels on the tiny wooden stage could be felt in your bones. With only a four-performance run, this one felt like a wonderful, too-brief visit by a gypsy muse.
Terrific dancers, exciting singers and 40-piece orchestras made for a superb season of major American musicals at Irving's Lyric Stage. Producer Steven Jones sets a high standard for regional musical theater, using original orchestrations, impressive choreography, lavish sets and well-cast talent. Lyric's brilliant concert presentation of Kismet starred New York baritone Christopher Carl, who will return for the rarely staged Frank Loesser musical Pleasures and Palaces, opening January 24. Also back for the Loesser show is Bryant Martin, who made a soaring debut as Curly in a meticulously restored Oklahoma! at Lyric, for which director Cheryl Denson and musical director Jay Dias reclaimed original songs cut from recent London and Broadway revivals. Martin and Kyle Cotton (Jud Fry in Oklahoma!) were together at Lyric this fall in a grand 1776, which starred Brian J. Gonzales as John Adams. Gonzales is working on a couple of Dallas stages this winter after appearing in two Broadway shows (One Man, Two Guvnors and Shrek). He closed the year as a fearsome Ghost of Jacob Marley in Dallas Theater Center's annual A Christmas Carol.
Director-writer-actor Steven Walters, who's a member of the Brierley Acting Company at DTC and is co-founder of Second Thought Theatre, had a full year of high quality work. For Second Thought's excellent revival of his own play Pluck the Day, he hired former DTC actor Matthew Gray to direct the sharp comedy about a group of young men friends about to cross into the difficulties of adulthood.
At DTC Walters was cast against type, but he rose to the challenge as half of a gay couple torn apart by tragedy in the drama Next Fall, which also featured deeply moving acting by Terry Martin, artistic director of WaterTower Theater. (See how it is? Everybody works everywhere.)
Another busy crossover is the aforementioned Alex Organ, who came out victorious in the title role in Shakespeare Dallas' summer Coriolanus — the man can swing a sword and yell some Shakespeare. Organ then yukked it up adorably in Lyric Stage's Most Happy Fella.
Contemporary Theatre of Dallas does well by Southern gothic dramas and Tennessee Williams' Night of the Iguana is one, though it's set on a Mexican beach. Director René Moreno pulled the audience in by keeping acting subdued and mood dripping with atmosphere.
Among the many new plays that debuted here in 2012 were three standouts. Ruth, by Kitchen Dog company member Vicki Caroline Cheatwood, was directed by Tim Johnson when it premiered at KDT in May as the center of the New Works Festival.
Thomas Ward starred opposite his real-life wife, Sherry Jo, in his revelatory two-person play International Falls, about a Louis C.K.-like stand-up comic (which Ward briefly was) sharing a one-night stand with a Holiday Inn clerk. (Sherry Jo Ward also gave a galvanic performance in Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, directed by René Moreno at WaterTower this year.)
Playwright Erik Ehn's fact-based new drama Diamond Dick: The Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, directed by Shakespeare Dallas' Raphael Parry, was a big draw in the spring and again this fall in its Project X premiere. It then joined a cycle of Ehn plays from around the world in a marathon in Manhattan, where The New York Times lauded it as the best of all the productions.
Two solo performances are worth noting. Barrett Nash held the audience in the palm of her tiny hand in the one-woman true tragedy My Name Is Rachel Corrie, directed by Clay Wheeler for the Festival of Independent Theatres. She will star in a reprise at Second Thought in 2013.
Bruce DuBose played every part in the astonishingly good An Iliad at Undermain Theatre in September. There was a moment in the condensed retelling of the Trojan War when DuBose let out a mournful wail that echoed all over the basement theater. Chilling. Unforgettable.
It feels as if Dallas theater is on the cusp of a new era of greatness, and what better evidence than the last show of the year, the time-travel musical On the Eve? Written by Kitchen Dog actor Michael Federico and Home by Hovercraft band members Shawn and Seth Magill (who also played time-challenged hero "Chase Spacegrove"), the show directed and designed by Jeffrey Schmidt filled tiny Magnolia Lounge with really good rock music, Irish step-dancing, eye-popping bits of stage magic and stirring performances by Gregory Lush, Martha Harms, Ian Ferguson, Maryam Baig, Jenny Ledel, Brian Witkowicz, Tara Magill and others. The too-short 10-performance run left standing-room-only audiences begging for encores. If any show needs a repeat in 2013, it's this one.