It's a tad early, not to mention uncouth, to name a Dallas stage award after myself. But since I procrastinate in all other areas of my life, I might as well be early naming, in my honor, a citation for excellence. Flouting Mark Twain's aphorism that good breeding is merely the process of concealing one's high opinion of oneself, I'm going to flaunt my vulgar, blue-collar, talk-too-loud-when-I-get-drunk, I'm-right-no-matter-what-the-facts-are roots and present to you the 1997 Jimmys.
There are no statuettes, no certificates suitable for framing, not even a wallet-sized card. I can't even guarantee that there will be a 1998 Jimmy award. There are two kinds of people in journalism: those who have been fired, and those who are about to be fired. Thrust out of my cubicle, I'd be forced to peddle opinions to drunk middle managers and executive secretaries on a Deep Ellum street corner every weekend night, since having an opinion is about the only marketable skill I possess.
What I can do is talk about 1997 and, in the process, outline some personal beliefs about the nature and purpose of awards. By choice, I don't vote along with The Dallas Morning News' Lawson Taitte and Tom Sime in the Dallas Theater Critics Forum Awards. The reason is simple: I believe criticism should be the loneliest job in the world. A critic should first and foremost be a contrarian to everything and everyone--including not only the theater troupes he covers, but other critics and himself. The best criticism grapples with prevailing opinion and personal bias, simultaneously applying a cantankerous degree of doubt to each, yet validating the wise elements of both.
The ideal metaphor for critics should be a cacophony, not a symphony. There are many possible explanations why critics tend to be herd animals, inevitably (and depressingly) parroting each other in annual awards ceremonies. Perhaps it's because the experience of watching an artist's work and then launching our opinion in print is by definition so solitary; or because so often our personal loves and hates have zero commercial impact; or because we want to think that our opinions are something more than (by H.L. Mencken's definition) "prejudice made plausible." In any case, a critic should be the antithesis of a mob. Indeed, if utilized correctly, the post provides one of the few opportunities for authentic nonconformity in a world where the advertising industry hawks that concept at every roadside stand. In staying true to our own consciences, we honor subjectivity, the inescapable condition and core of both artists and audiences.
And now, the 1997 Jimmys, dedicated to anyone who ever sat in a room full of people agreeing on one work and thought, "You guys are full of shit."
The Holy Inquiry. Teatro Dallas really pumped my 'nads when they staged this florid religious drama about a chillingly sincere, jes'-doin'-m'job Catholic priest who, as part of a larger political campaign, persecutes the family of a young woman who believes that God inhabits her body as well as her soul, her sexuality in addition to her feelings of faith. Emotionally souped up like many Teatro shows, this one affirmed the principle that God speaks through the individual, not the bureaucracy.
The Yellow Boat. Dallas Children's Theatre launched a sneak attack against all audiences and critics who had prepared themselves to sit through a standard "triumph of the human spirit" homily about a child's battle with AIDS. Based on the true story of the playwright's hemophiliac son, The Yellow Boat presented its young hero as a wilful, temperamental, terrified, but imaginative patient--a good description of many of us facing mortality. Death scenes are always a risky bit of stage business, but Derik Webb mounted his character's yellow boat and set sail with eerie aplomb.
Possible Worlds. I have no idea if we'll ever see another production from Dionysus and Apollo, but their maiden voyage, this Stoppard-like Canadian comedy, was a fast-paced, funny, and agreeably lighthearted treatment of some fairly dense philosophical explorations into the nature of time, space, language, and identity. Laurel Hoitsma and Mark Farr overlapped as sort-of different characters in different situations, all spawned by the most fleeting of imaginary notions. Mark Farr's dissertation on the distance between words and their objects, using piles of rocks, was a comic high point.
Once On This Island. Need I mention again how the "one-size-fits-all" emotions and recycled overtures of so many musicals really chap my hide? Theatre Three almost made me a believer with last year's Into the Woods, but then again, Sondheim is the composer of choice for musical-phobics. T3's production of Lynn Ahrens' and Stephen Flaherty's Once On This Island, the story of a penniless girl who sacrifices herself for an ailing prince, used bare-bones theatrical elements to vividly create hurricanes, car accidents, and unexpected twists of fate in the form of divine intervention by a quarrelsome group of island gods.
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My Head Was a Sledgehammer. The big thing missing from avant-garde theater is a sense of humor. If you gussy up a nontraditional, non-narrative theatrical meditation with some well-aimed observations, you can take a whole lot more people with you. So proved Our Endeavors with their debut production of off-Broadway icon Richard Foreman's look at his own creative process that had no characters, no plot, and no unified theme. Dalton James having a religious epiphany in shoes made of bread loaves was a rib-tickling treat of a non sequitur.
Hemlock: A Greek Diner Tragedy. Extra Virgin Performance Cooperative's artistic director, Gretchen Swen, was so accustomed to being dissed by The Dallas Morning News, she used their inevitable pans as press blurbs. Extra Virgin's reach often exceeded its grasp, but their farewell production, Bob Jude Ferrante's Hemlock, was a rudely funny, Kafkaesque horror story about one man targeted by a god who appears to be a cold, cruelly rational Western abstraction. Ancient Greece and contemporary Brooklyn may never seem so close again.
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Dallas Theater Center and director Richard Hamburger revived Michael (The English Patient) Ondaajte's chaotic early-'70s hallucination on the legend of Billy the Kid with a glistening visceral power that put the playwright's remarkable words in the foreground. Sex, death, pain, terror, loyalty, love, and ecstasy were invoked--and sometimes blended--in Ondaajte's monologues, stunningly staged by Hamburger.
Neville's Island. Ensemble shows seem to be the strong suit of Fort Worth's Stage West, and seldom have all their ingredients jelled more memorably than in this bleak, foggy comedy about a group of British businessmen stranded during a company boat race. An exercise in sportsmanship and team spirit predictably deteriorates into a Darwinian contest of survival. All the actors rendered their sweet and sour sides so sharply, you didn't know whom to root for.