One size fits all DCT's Emperor's New Clothes smartly aims its satire at both kids and adults
Harried parents don't have time to wade through a review that yammers on about the sociopolitical ramifications of a children's theater production. Yet being childless myself and, as a critic, inordinately fond of my own opinions, I can't help but rhapsodize about the wonderful Wildean darts to the establishment heart that a fable like Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New Clothes delivers. The Dallas Children's Theater's typically handsome, slick staging, this one helmed by DCT veteran Artie Olaisen, serves up slapstick laughs to the kids, but retains the moral in Andersen's mordant morality play about the sacred conscience of the individual.
So for time-strapped parents, I'll dispense early on the recommendation you need. By all means, bring the kids...providing they have the attention span to enjoy a live performance, albeit one that lasts only a bit over an hour without intermission. Parents get smacked around a lot for allowing their children to dissolve like sunken, docile bones in the Coke can of popular culture. But there's no point torturing yourself, your child, and the ticket-buyers around you who might otherwise enjoy the show in the name of exposing your offspring to theater, as happened with a few of the more restless, chattery, oblivious young audience members around me.
For variety's sake, do make an experimental visit to the DCT with your kids. But if they're bored, and you keep dragging them back, you risk generating a slew of bad memories about live theater that they'll carry with them into adulthood. Having been raised on a diet of horror movies, comic books, '70s network tit-coms, and Stephen King, I don't know that the 9-year-old me would've begged for a return to the theater after seeing The Emperor's New Clothes. Change "pig" to "piglet" in that bromide about the futility of teaching the beleaguered porcine beast how to sing, and you have an age-appropriate lesson in trying to force culture on the kiddos.
Now that I've told you how to raise your children, let me tell you how to interpret Dallas Children's Theater's sumptuously costumed, energetically delivered Hans Christian Andersen saga. The company has imported Timothy Mason's tart, manic dramatization from its commissioned premiere at The Children's Theatre of Minneapolis. It's also mixed in the dance stylings of internationally noted period expert Catherine Turocy, co-founder and artistic director of The New York Baroque Dance Company and now a Dallas resident. Are Turocy's credentials eye-popping? Well, considering that the French government knighted her for her ballet choreography, yes. Is her "advisory" role to choreographer Nancy Schaeffer's rather brief court-dance movements vital to the success of this show? Nope. Her resume is there to set the adults' hearts aflutter. Far more crucial to the play's storybook-illustration look are the costumes of Mary Therese D'Avignon, who's designed everything from ox garb to an elephant's wardrobe during her 14-year association with the theater.
At the center of DCT's cartoon-paced 18th-century farce is a vain, sartorially profligate emperor (a hilarious Douglass Burks, who's sort of like Mr. Blackwell with the authority to behead fashion offenders) whose flamboyant taste in clothes would blind the Sun King. He's in the habit of giving medals to his cowardly, stuttering Minister of War (Bo Barron) for pointing out lint on the emperor's lapel, while ignoring the common sense dealt by his long-suffering Minister of State (Thomas Walker, who speaks every line as if he's breathing helium instead of oxygen).
Needless to say, this fattened ego just begs for slaughter by some enterprising bladesman. The duties go to a team of con artists, Flo (Cecelia Flores) and Roscoe (Karl Schaeffer), who haven't even mastered their craft: They come upon the emperor's kingdom tarred and feathered from their last botched grift. But they needn't be master criminals to fool a ruler who's already done such a royal job on himself. Flo and Roscoe present themselves as expert weavers who, for the right price, will create a garment out of magic cloth that has a most helpful property: Only the wise can see its beauty. The material is invisible to fools. And so Flo and Roscoe spend their time drinking wine and weaving nothing, while The Emperor and his courtesans stumble all over themselves to recognize the splendor of the work-in-progress...until the fateful day the ruler models his new suit for the masses.
The very title of Hans Christian Andersen's revelatory fable on the importance of individual insight in the face of mass stupidity has been brandished against political follies from the right, middle, and left. But The Emperor's New Clothes has been overused as a parable of the dangers of political vanity. Andersen's timeless story does something more pointed than speak truth to power; it speaks truth to the powerless in a democracy frequently intimidated by a credentialed few. Have you ever heard something that was undecorated nonsense from a partisan spokesperson? Of course, but less recognized is the way religious leaders, lawyers, media pundits, and doctors intimidate us with their badges and demand that we not only call their bull wisdom, but that we pay handsomely for it. The death of common sense has been mourned at essay- and book-length, but we're unwilling to confront its killer--our fear of expert weavers whose magic cloth has the power to reveal our foolishness.
Rest assured that not a whit of such pontificating burdens Dallas Children's Theater's frolicsome The Emperor's New Clothes. But I'd like to think that the few kids who are captivated by live theater at such an early age will have witnessed a performance of this profound fable so fast-paced and ornately produced, they'll carry a tiny insurrectionist kernel with them into adulthood.
The Emperor's New Clothes runs through June 25. Call (214) 978-0110.
These days, victims' rights groups, poll-slavish politicians, and throw-the-book-at-'em elected judges want us to believe that criminals and "law-abiding citizens" are utterly different species. Dallas actress and writer Dixie Lee Sedgwick is using testimonial theater to take an unpopular stand. Little Blue-Eyed Girl, a one-woman show she co-wrote and co-produced with former D/FW Regional Film Commission assistant director Joe Black, tells the story of Bonnie Parker, Texas' infamous female bank-robber of The Depression. Sedgwick doesn't know if the show is sympathetic, but, she says, "It's human.
"Every one of us is capable of a wide variety of behaviors," insists Sedgwick, a graduate of American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena. "And if I was in Bonnie's shoes at the time she was living, I can't say I wouldn't do the same thing."
Arthur Penn's wildly popular, ultra-glamorous '60s film about Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker made only passing reference to the strange metamorphosis that overtook Parker in her teens. She went from high school honor-roll student who excelled in poetry and public speaking to 16-year-old bride of an alcoholic abuser (Roy Thornton, whom she never divorced) to sprightly, gun-toting member of the Barrow gang, headed by her charismatic ex-con lover Clyde Barrow. She hung with killers, but she never killed anyone herself; the police killed Parker at the age of 23.
"Think about the crash of 1929," Sedgwick says. "The government was taking land away, people didn't have food, scandal and corruption were everywhere. And here you have people who gave away most of the money they stole."
Sedgwick spent 18 months researching the life of Parker, with invaluable help from the downtown library's seventh-floor archives and living relatives. She and Joe Black even went backstage and got Faye Dunaway's blessing when the Bonnie and Clyde star came to Dallas as part of the tour for Terrence McNally's Master Class. Far more crucial were the legendary felon's real diaries, which form a significant part of Little Blue-Eyed Girl. Sedgwick insists her performance doesn't give Bonnie Parker a free ride. It simply follows the arc of her short life, with copious information about the young Texan before she picked up a gun. Sedgwick sees the story of Bonnie's relationship with Clyde as an extreme but instructive example of too many romances.
"Bonnie's diary said one thing over and over: 'Clyde says he's going to change.' How many times have we heard that line? Bonnie hoped that each crime was going to be the last. She followed Clyde believing him when he told her that, and it killed her."
Attendees at last week's special preview performance of Little Blue-Eyed Girl included Carrie Parker and Marie Barrow, relatives who remember the felonious lovers, and Boots Hinton, the son of one of the cops who killed them. Sedgwick claims all gave a thumbs up.
"Carrie Parker told me that every once in a while, she still gets a death threat when people hear she's related to Bonnie," Sedgwick says. "And Marie Barrow said, 'Clyde went into prison a schoolboy [he was first jailed for petty thievery] and came out a rattlesnake.' Conditions in Texas prisons in the '20s and '30s were wretched. The experiences Clyde had there--one in particular was terribly brutal--filled him with hate toward guards and policemen. They were the ones he killed when he got out and became a bank-robber."
Little Blue-Eyed Girl occasionally veers into some harrowing material. It's being performed as the first theatrical offering of The Door, the former Deep Ellum Opera Theatre Space now operated by legendary Ellum entrepreneur and born-again Christian Russell Hobbs. Hobbs has been quoted saying he wants all theater, music, and visual art there to have, if not a Christian inspiration, at least a spiritual one. This is news to Sedgwick. "He hasn't seen the play or even read it," she says. "But he wanted it there. From what I know, Russell wants that to be a place for everyone."
Little Blue-Eyed Girl runs June 17, 23, and 24 at The Door, 3202 Elm. Call (972) 572-5278.
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