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Island Fantasy

Funny, colorful and even a little scary: Skog's mice attempt to escape the jaws and paws of cats.
Robin Sachs

At a recent performance of Hamlet at the Dallas Theater Center, the temperature inside the Kalita Humphreys Theater was so cold the ushers were doubling as Sherpas. They handed out small fuzzy wraps to ticket-holders who hadn't anticipated subzero chill. At intermission, they short-roped half-frozen audience members back up the aisle to lobby base camp for mugs of hot coffee. It was so cold, the lighting and sound techies who operate from consoles just behind the last row had to wrap themselves in thick army blankets to endure the three-hour show. "Why is it freezing in here?" I asked one of the tech guys on the way out. "It's to make you believe you're in Denmark," he answered through chattering teeth. "Denmark in February."

He was kidding. Surely DTC director Richard Hamburger isn't trying for atmospheric authenticity with the overactive air conditioning. His Hamlet sizzles. It's his theater that's a freezer. And DTC isn't the only bone-chilling space 'round these parts. Theatre Three, another icebox. Fair Park Music Hall, a cavern so frosty there should be stalactites dripping from the ceiling. Trinity River Arts Center, WaterTower Theatre, Plano Repertory, Quad C's Black Box--all just a step up from tundra. People joke about women sporting fur coats in Dallas theaters in the summer. It's not ostentation, sweetie. The pelts are prettier than Gore-Tex.

Given the advanced years of so many regular theatergoers, you'd think theater house managers would be concerned about aggravating their rheumatism or causing hypothermia with such frigid temps. Theatre Three, particularly popular with the Welk-and-walker crowd, cranks its a/c down so low on opening nights, Ted Williams would feel right at home.

Every year, theaters scramble to attract new customers to their ailing subscriber rolls. They spend thousands on direct-mail marketing campaigns and phone solicitation. They want and need a new generation of ticket-buyers to start filling the seats, and it's just not happening. No, the aggressive air conditioning isn't to blame for that. But the institutional chill at many of Dallas' leading theaters might be. Many local theaters seem to be frozen in time. They ignore hot new plays and pick creaky old works to fill out their seasons. They play it safe and middlebrow. Then they wonder why the audience looks like a Diagnosis: Murder fan club.

Trying to please the youngest and oldest theater fans is murder. But to draw a younger audience to live theater, it's going to take bigger, bolder efforts than three-hour Shakespearean epics and revivals of 1950s musicals. And that's where Dallas Children's Theater, now playing The Island of the Skog in its gorgeous new performance space, and shows like Kitchen Dog's nasty, noisy production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch are doing everything right.

Dallas Children's Theater now occupies the 54,000-square-foot, $8.6 million Rosewood Center for Family Arts on Skillman Street at Northwest Highway. The building houses two performance spaces, the 390-seat Paul and Kitty Baker Theater, where Skog is now onstage, and the more intimate, 110-seat Studio Theater. There are also enormous rehearsal rooms, a mirrored dance studio, an enormous costume and prop shop and classrooms where more than 300 kids now are enrolled in theater-related programs. It's a dream fulfilled for DCT director Robyn Flatt, who's been operating her theater out of a hodgepodge of rented spaces for 20 years.

A good children's theater is vital to a theater community with as many professional companies as Dallas. With public schools slashing arts programs out of their budgets, a place such as DCT offers many kids their first contacts with live theater (DCT gives away 15,000 free tickets a year just for that purpose). It's where the next generations of actors, directors, playwrights and theatergoers develop. The grown-up theaters now realize that having a professional children's theater in town helps them, too. Get hooked on live theater early in life and you're likely to keep buying tickets as an adult.

DCT's new Baker Theater is one of the warmest, most audience-friendly spaces in town. There's not a bad seat in the house, and the plush purple chairs are comfy enough. The wraparound stage brings actors close to the audience. The 60 feet of fly space above the stage allows for ambitious set designs. Zak Herring's Skog set faithfully enlarges and replicates illustrations from Stephen Kellogg's popular book, including a whimsical sailing vessel that's 27 feet tall, 32 feet long and 16 feet wide. The boat "floats" above the stage, opens to reveal inner cabins and then turns a full circle to "sail" in the opposite direction. Very impressive.

In its revival of The Island of the Skog, Dallas Children's Theater has a production of the highest quality. The cast of mostly Equity actors (including Linda Daugherty, who adapted Kellogg's book for the stage) performs with great energy, slick comic timing and a clarity about the material that helps even the youngest members of the audience follow along.

The play is about seven mice escaping the jaws and paws of cats (brilliantly portrayed by gigantic puppets designed by Kathy Burks and Rosemarie Powell). The mice set sail for happier, cat-free climes only to discover midjourney that they're headed in the wrong direction. On an island paradise, they encounter the hulking Skog, who teaches them all a lesson about trust and the fear of the unknown.

Directed and choreographed by Nancy Schaeffer (whose husband, Karl, plays the leader of the mice), with original music by Randolph Tallman, The Island of the Skog is everything professional children's theater should be. It's funny, colorful and even a little scary ("Mommy, next time the Skog comes out, cover my eyes for me," said a little girl near me).

Funny, colorful and scary-beautiful describes Hedwig and the Angry Inch, such a hit at Kitchen Dog Theater that it's getting two weeks added to its run. A second visit to the musical finds that it's louder and better than on opening night. Actor Joey Steakley has relaxed into the title role of the lonely transgender East German rocker playing her last concert. His singing voice has taken on a dark Joplin-esque growl, and he's playing off the crowd boldly and directly (if your cell phone dares to ring during the show, get your mommy to cover your eyes). His way with the jokes is sharper, too, and there are several good new jokes added since opening night. Laurie McNair, playing Yitzhak, Hedwig's "husband," also has grown into her role, tearing up the song "The Long Grift" with goose-bumpy intensity.

Best of all, the audience for Hedwig is filled with young faces, some of them pierced like pincushions and several of them made up in sparkly Hedwig drag under towering white wigs. This show is drawing sell-out crowds of kids who wouldn't dream of wasting a night out on a Hamlet or Pajama Game. They scream at Steakley like he's a rock star, and they loiter nervously around the stage door afterward to get his autograph on their programs. Now that's something you never see at local theaters.

Other theater companies should heed what's happening over at Kitchen Dog. Heat up those stages with more shows like Hedwig and put some of that Shakespeare on ice.


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