Something bugging you? Hop over to Dallas Children's Theater to catch the regional premiere of the delightful Diary of a Worm, a Spider & a Fly. The 20-song "feeler"-good musical by Joan Cushing, directed by Bob Hess, adapts three eco-conscious children's books by Doreen Cronin.
In 105 minutes of creepy-crawly comedy aimed at small, squirmy humans (with plenty of good jokes grown-ups will chuckle at too), a shy earthworm (Clinton Greenspan), the only kid in school with no legs, earns self-esteem by learning how his species benefits Mother Earth. A young arachnid (Adam Garst) grows up, gets his own web page and sheds his exoskeleton. A fly girl (Lindsay Gee) performs a daring window screen rescue, which helps her overcome anxiety about being the only one in her class who eats regurgitated food. A bilingual butterfly (Alexandra Valle) dreams of migrating to Mexico. And an ant (Akron Watson) revels in his ability to haul heavy things on his head.
Their teacher, Mrs. McBee (Amber Nicole Guest), leads her critters through show-and-tell exercises that teach simple facts about earth science and entomology. Various ant aunts, mama flies and papa worms are played by B.J. Cleveland, an actor drawn to this show's broad comedy like a moth to flame.
Diary of a Worm, a Spider s Theater. Call 214-740-0051. The Birthday Party continues through June 2 at Undermain Theatre. Call 214-747-5515.
It's an enormous production, done with DCT's usual big-budget splashes. Scenic designer Randel Wright has created a 20-foot-high ecosystem on the stage of the Paul Baker Theater that includes gnarled tree roots, a metal spiderweb and underground tunnels for the worm. Laugh-In style windows pop open all over the stage. Video segments include a spoof of the "survey says" part of Family Feud. Costumes by Lyle Huchton make layers of ordinary street fashion suggest insect-wear. Love Mrs. McBee's Vivienne Westwood-inspired couture dress with exaggerated hips and beehive hairdo.
Choreographer Jeremy Dumont gives it the old razzle dazzle on numbers like "Legs," which features Spider and his pals doing a Chorus Line top-hat-and-cane routine, and "Bye-Bye, Baby," in which Spider strips off his outer skin like Gypsy Rose Lee, with the other bugs performing a fan dance behind him with oversized leaves.
The adult actors in this ethnically diverse cast are all top-of-the-food-chain talent-wise, with Gee and Garst (recently the star of WaterTower Theatre's Spring Awakening) standouts for their singing and hoofing in the "Jitterbug Ball" number.
Diary of a Worm, a Spider & a Fly spins a sweet story about acceptance, tolerance and understanding of differences, with additional messages about being kind to our planet and caring for all its creatures great and small. These themes are subtle, maybe just mild enough under all the noise of the music and comedy not to bug any confirmed right-wing WASPs in the audience determined to raise their larvae to think otherwise.
This is not a review of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party at Undermain Theatre. Excised from the company's opening night press list several seasons back, I purchased my own ticket for the final preview of this show, but was informed by management that if I attended with the intention of reviewing, they'd refund my money and refuse me at the door. Very well then, I'll play by their silly rules.
Harold Pinter's plays are rarely done in our theaters, and I couldn't miss The Birthday Party, an early Pinter gem full of pregnant pauses and snatches of hilariously inane dialogue, building to something mysterious and terrifying. It begins with seaside boarding-house owners Meg (played at Undermain by Mary Lang) and Petey (T.A. Taylor) chitchatting over breakfast about cornflakes and fried bread. When Petey leaves for work, Meg is joined at the table by the house's only paying resident, 30-ish pianist Stanley Webber (Gregory Lush). With an air of louche insolence that borders on flirtation, Stanley twits plain, middle-aged Meg about her tea tasting like gravy and how his room needs a good scrubbing.
Meg mentions two men she's run into in town, news that makes Stanley twitch. She's invited them to join the birthday party she's throwing for Stanley. Her gift to him: a child's toy drum.
That evening, before Meg and another guest, sexy young Lulu (Katherine Bourne), appear for the festivities, the visitors, McCann and Goldberg (Marcus D. Stimac and Bruce DuBose), enter and subject Stanley to a feverish interrogation. They take turns asking nonsensical, ambiguous questions that hint at Stanley's murky past. Did he strangle his wife or merely ditch her at the altar? Is his mother in a sanatorium? Is his real name "Joe Soap"? Goldberg repeatedly asks Stanley "Is the number possible or necessary?" As in other Pinter plays, these questions go unanswered. We're never sure who the men are or why they're badgering Stanley.
When the non sequiturs subside, the party goes on, with Meg decked out in a gaudy red gown. The atmosphere reeks of menace, of violence about to erupt, which it finally does. By the third act, Stanley is reduced to a catatonic shell. As he's led away by McCann and Goldberg, Petey calls out, "Stan, don't let them tell you what to do!" He and Meg turn back to their tea and cornflakes. And we're left to wonder what sort of horror awaits poor Stanley on the outside.
Writing during the paranoia of the Cold War, Pinter worked elements of Kafka and Orwell into The Birthday Party. There are political allusions and religious ones (McCann is Irish Catholic, Goldberg is Jewish). But 50 years on, this play is no quaint relic. It's a masterpiece that still resonates in our "see something, say something" times. The surprise now isn't so much the idea of two scary men showing up at one's door with the power to question and arrest without evidence, but that it isn't happening more often and to ordinary citizens just like Stanley every day. (Pinter, growing more politically outspoken in his later years — he was named a Nobel Laureate in 2005 and died in 2008 — predicted just that.)
Looking at The Birthday Party now, McCann and Goldberg are precursors to John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, right down to their sharp suits and briefcases. They have their charms. They have some style. For all we know, Stanley deserves what they have in store for him. Or does he?
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Undermain's production, directed by Patrick Kelly, features scenery by Tony Award winner John Arnone and 1950s period costumes by Giva Taylor. Fight choreography is by Sara Romersberger.
Every aspect of this Party — the acting (particularly Bette Davis-like Lang as Meg, and Lush as Stanley), design (crazy-scary red poppies on the palm-frond wallpaper), direction (tight and fast), even the spot-on dialects (Stimac's dark Irish brogue is perfection) — is worth celebrating. It's too bad I can't review it. I'd give it a rave.
Diary of a Worm, a Spider & a Fly
The Birthday Party