On October 7, the dining room table of Martha Heimberg's gorgeous home in Lakewood looked more like a conference table of Wall Street investors and economists--people waving lists, pointing and shouting their proposed investments, their appraised disasters, their trend predictions. We were as boisterous as bulls and bears sipping from the same river, but I think the annual Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum was a helluva lot more fun than any discussion of funds and portfolios.
The 1999-2000 edition of the Theater Critics Forum consisted of the usuals: myself, Lawson Taitte and Tom Sime from The Dallas Morning News, Heimberg from The Weekly, and J.H. Johnson, with an e-publication called Theatermania.com. Joining us were three novitiates--Nancy Churnin, who specializes in children's theater at the Morning News, and Perry Stewart and Mark Lowry from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. With the inclusion of Cowtown pundits, the prairie of artistic possibilities has greatly expanded, and we hope that, at least symbolically, it will make stage artists and theatergoers aware of just how many choices are available when you're willing to drive one hour in any direction. North Texas cities are auto-mandatory for just about everything you want to do, anyway, and with a car at your disposal, we hope you'll be convinced that the breadth, depth, and diversity of styles and content on local stages can compete with almost any scene in the country.
All shows judged were staged between September 1, 1999, and August 31, 2000. One new category in this year's awards is "Acting Ensemble," because there were just too many superior group efforts that we felt would be misrepresented if individuals were singled out. And remember that citations for "Best Direction" essentially mean the same as "Best Production." Here we go:
The Chinese Art of Placement
McKinney Avenue Contemporary, 3120 McKinney Ave.
Direction: Richard Hamburger, The Seagull, Dallas Theater Center; Tim Johnson, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Kitchen Dog Theater; Tina Parker, Road, Kitchen Dog Theater; Joel Ferrell, The King and I, Casa Mañana; Rudy Eastman, The Book of Job and Travelin' Shoes, Jubilee Theatre; Scott Osborne, Gorey Stories, Our Endeavors Theater Company; Bob Devin Jones, From the Mississippi Delta, Soul Rep Theatre Company.
Acting Ensemble: The Seagull; Gorey Stories; Travelin' Shoes; Mrs. Klein, WingSpan Theatre Company; Richard Cory, Lyric Stage; Songs for a New World, Plano Repertory Company.
Actors: Jerry Russell, Visiting Mr. Green, Allied Theatre Group; Bill Jenkins, The Dead Presidents' Club, Circle Theatre, and My Favorite Year, Plano Repertory Theatre; Jim Covault, Man of the Moment, Allied Theatre Group; John Wayne Shafer, The Woman in Black, Circle Theatre; Ashley Wood, The Woman in Black, Circle Theatre, and I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change!, Theatre Three; David Goodwin, Road; Joe Dickinson, Vikings, Pocket Sandwich Theatre; Derik Webb, Bless Cricket, Crest Toothpaste & Tommy Tune, Dallas Children's Theater, and Picasso at the Lapin Agile, WaterTower Theatre.
Actresses: Michele Ragusa, Guys and Dolls, Dallas Theater Center; Beverly May, Grace & Glorie, Wingspan Theatre Company; E. Faye Butler, Dinah Was, Dallas Theater Center; Pam Dougherty, Lemonade, Echo Theatre and the Bath House Cultural Center; Carolyn Hatcher, The Book of Job and The Grandmama Tree, Jubilee Theatre; Brandy McClendon, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Cindy Beall, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Blithe Spirit, Plano Repertory Theatre; Vicki Washington, From the Mississippi Delta; Cynthia Dorn Navarette, The Trojan Women, Soul Rep Theatre Company and Cara Mia Theatre Company.
Design: Design team, Gorey Stories; design team, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; design team, Road; design team, Pericles, Undermain Theatre; design team, Inexpressible Island, Dallas Theater Center; Joe Rogers, musical direction, Travelin' Shoes and The Book of Job; Linda Leonard, movement, Seascape, Circle Theatre; Jarrett Bertoncin, sets, Picasso at the Lapin Agile and Golf with Alan Shepard, WaterTower Theatre.
Touring Productions: Parade, Dallas Summer Musicals; Art, Broadway Contemporary Series.
New Play: Linda Daugherty, Bless Cricket, Crest Toothpaste & Tommy Tune; and Valerie Brogan, Only Me, WingSpan Theatre Company.
Special Awards: To the Dallas Children's Theater for developing new work and literary adaptations, for taking chances with challenging subjects, for creative collaborations with other companies and for bringing wider attention to Dallas through its acclaimed national tours. And:
To the Bath House Cultural Center and Beardsley Living Theatre for coproducing the Festival of Independent Theatres, which achieved variety, success, and the inclusion of area writers.
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The second weekend of The Chinese Art of Placement is the last at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, but by all reports, this debut of Kitchen Dog's later-night Cabaret Series is selling briskly. A one-man show about a comically earnest schizophrenic by a lesser known playwright (although that's changing rapidly) is near to selling out, and from a subscriber base which depends on one Shakespeare revival and one production from a script that's already been made into a movie per season. MAC patrons, take a bow. One of the reasons that stability is so important for individual theaters is the formation of reputation. Audience members who like what they see over two or three seasons are apt to detect a trend going on here, and gamble on productions from the dependable to the obscure. They're more willing to assume the troupe has stuffed a feather bed of reliable talent to soften the landing. The more we realize our city theaters are ready to catch us when we fall, to paraphrase a David Leavitt novel, the farther the height from which we're willing to plunge.
Actually, The Chinese Art of Placement sounds much more audacious than it really is. Stanley Rutherford's monologue, over an hour long, is standard crazy-stranger-on-the-bus theater--i.e., it makes all of us magnets for earnest wackos who mix their worldviews with painful or embarrassing personal confessions while we're trapped in our seats. Kitchen Dog member Tina Parker directs Mark Farr as Sparky Litman, a logorrheic scribbler of embittered poetry who has decided the world is nasty enough without his tortured verse. The conversion to a more hopeful yet ordered outlook--feng sui, the ancient philosophy of generating the chi, or life force, via decorating strategies--occurred just last night. He is preparing for a party, calling people he knows never liked him and inviting them into his ant-ridden but (hopefully) more serene--more "normal," as he puts it--apartment to celebrate.
One assumes that Rutherford intended Sparky to be pathologically delusional; the long passages about his work for the CIA in Vietnam exhibit his gullible nature in allowing the government to use him as a pawn transmitting secrets via train travel. Without that premise, The Chinese Art of Placement is seriously overcrowded with comic conceits. It's a tad piled-up even with it. The playwright undoubtedly wants Litman to be both crazy and sweetly neurotic, sympathetic and hostile, and between these polarities lurk tales of high school woe, wartime sexual escapades, failed artistic ambition, and, of course, tidbits of Asian domestic wisdom.
We take some pretty wide turns through these flavors and reminiscences, and although actor Mark Farr doesn't quite synthesize them as satisfyingly as one might wish (I'm not sure any actor could, although you're itching for someone like Terry Martin or Carl Savering to give it a try), he had no trouble garnering big laughter from the audience on opening night. Farr is in some ways an unlikely performer, at least in terms of technique. He has not completely polished his farm-boy twang, and can have a defiantly unthespian posture when standing on a stage. But he pulls a wagonload of affability behind him, and, when properly advised by a director, can steer it with inerrant comic rhythms to take us for a ride despite our quibbles. I can say, without qualification, that The Chinese Art of Placement should entertain you. It just may not convince you.