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Short takes

Who'da thunk Dallas was ready for a revival of the revue, the late-19th-century live entertainment that might best be called "short attention span theater"? Hell, in a city where stealth police cars are employed to curtail tailgating, speeding, and other restless by-products of road rage, the question should be more accurately posed--Why isn't a revue waiting for Dallasites around every street corner?

The words "revue," "vaudeville," and "variety" are used interchangeably by critics today; all of them feature a grab-bag of contrasting entertainment. Two current Dallas shows--one an almost entirely original exposition of warped musical and theatrical sensibilities, the other a startling reappraisal of a musical-theater giant--prove to be utterly, insatiably "revue": a series of sketches composed to take audiences through a litany of emotions, but grounded in the comfort of watching the same actors recur scene after scene to charm you with sheer versatility.

A critic couldn't summarize Our Endeavors' new revue any better than its title--The Ultra-Happy, Super-Sad, Mega-Variety Revue. Viewed this past Halloween weekend, it made me feel the way I did as a kid during our candy excavations on cool autumn nights--rummaging through my (mental) bag after the journey, I discovered some cheap hard stuff, some pleasantly but forgettably fruity diversions, and a lot fewer chocolate delicacies that went down all the better because, in the context of the whole binge, they were truly the most precious. But it's the memory of the endorphin-inducing chocolate--and the hosts who provided it--that lingered upon recall of the Halloween experience, and Our Endeavors gave me four or five incomparably scrumptious treats to savor.

Producer-writer-director Scott Osborne, who founded Our Endeavors along with his wife, Patti Kirkpatrick, has truly reorganized the internal organs of the recently opened Deep Ellum Center for the Arts. Longtime Dallasites will remember this space as Theatre Gallery, a spot where Karen Finley and Sandra Bernhard and plays like Women in Chains (skinheads stole the toilet during that run, or so goes the legend) were exhibited in the early to mid-'80s. It's suitable that design wizard Osborne should be showcasing his twisted vision here. Acoustically, you'd have trouble staging an intimate drama--the tall ceilings bounce voices not channeled through a soundboard. Still, Osborne and crew have managed a very informal, one-on-one musical experience, with voices and piano cushioned by a gigantic red curtain that encircles and defines half the Deep Ellum Center. With tables featuring one flickering candle arranged around the stage and constant bar service provided from an arrangement with the nearby Jet Lounge, Osborne and company have aggressively pursued an environment not unlike the current slutted-up sensation of Broadway, Kander and Ebbs' Cabaret.

The Ultra-Happy, Super-Sad, Mega-Variety Revue is nothing if not slutty--in the best and worst senses of that adjective. The 31 vignettes in this two-hour-plus, two-intermission show presume a lot--they walk right up to you, finger your hair, and expect your indulgence for a ticket price. They also disappear in a short time, whether or not you (or they) have consummated the act(s). The only truly excruciating sketch in this revue is Anna Brownsted's "Nil Desperandum," in which a "womanchild" (Donna M. Sherritt), "The Knave of Hearts" (Jeffry Farrell), and silent "Blue Bird" (Laurie McNair) kvetch around a man with an arm tied to a chair (Mark Farr). The beauty of the sketch format is that this pretentious, scattered investigation of despair was allowed to torment me only for 10 minutes.

You can thank Osborne and Patti Kirkpatrick's quality control that there aren't more self-indulgences in what could've been an assault by talented but self-infatuated theater artists. It helps that the show is diluted, sullied by pure variety elements--Little Jack Melody does a stint as a balladeer with "Ballad of the Ladies' Man" and snatches your breath away with his modest evocation of a wasted, disillusioned life. Laurie McNair sings a Billie Holiday favorite, "The Masquerade Is Over," and justifies the elaborate heartbreak in the lyrics with the gorgeous aerobics her voice can perform.

And what about theater? The shorter pieces like "Blue" and "101 Variations on a Chair" are interesting if disposable, and ultimately worth sitting through to get to the superior stuff. John Flores' "Cocks" is the first eye-opening piece of the evening, a cockfight staged between white rooster Auricus (Jeffry Farrell) and black rooster El Negro Loco (David Goodwin) for amorous privileges with a chorus of feathery, fan-fluttering hens (Laurel Hoitsma, Anna Brownsted, Donna M. Sherritt). The victor prevails through dirty tricks, but encounters a very nasty surprise when he goes to collect booty. Mark Farr and John Flores' "The Soil in Which It Grows" offered a stylistically harmonious reading from the sterling cast for what truly is "comic-book theater"--the saga of a Y2K disaster precipitated by Copy Boy (David Goodwin), who designs a virtual love technology to replace romance but is usurped by his literally monstrous boss (John Flores). A climactic office party with drag-queen entertainment (Mark Farr, looking and sounding for all the world like a platinum version of Scott Thompson's Francesca Fiora) invites a most unwelcome visitor to disrupt all the technological self-congratulations. Dalton James' extravagant "Need" is a circus parable reminiscent of Freaks or The Blue Angel, where a showgirl-vampire named Lulu Luscious (a hilarious Laurel Hoitsma) echoes the blood-lusting between a tough-guy clown (David Goodwin) and his drug-addict lady friend (Anna Brownsted). You can't separate the dependencies here; they're rampant but poignantly comical in every case.

 

The Ultra-Happy, Super-Sad, Mega-Variety Revue climaxes with John Flores' rousing Latin karaoke excursion "Maldita Lingua"--its politically charged Spanish lyrics translated on an overhead screen ("Lady Hillary is quite unique / You know she wants to kill Monica"). By the time you've finished the third act, you realize the best entries were piled up toward the second half of this ambitious but scattershot program. This is an intriguing sampler tray of young Dallas theater talent; every selection beckons you, but not all of them will please your palate.

There's nary an original song to be found in New Theatre Company's first-ever musical, Bruce Coleman's Cole Porter revue Night & Day. But you may feel like you're hearing Porter standards such as "You're the Top" and "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" for the first time. It's common knowledge that the wickedly erudite songwriter from Peru, Indiana, was a homosexual whose marriage to wife Linda was an official recognition of their friendship and a concession to society. People have undertaken subtextual analyses of those arch Porter lyrics for decades now, of course. But it seems remarkable that, as far as I know, no theater artist has explored Porter's work in the context of his dual life before now. The way director-writer Coleman and his arranger, Steve Ekhardt, have structured these songs to provide a seamless narrative of Porter's charmed and charming life is testament to either their musical talents or the songwriter's near-relentless need to disclose all his secrets sotto voce to audiences of his day.

If Porter didn't invent the double entendre, he surely proved how inexhaustibly it could be employed in the name of social commentary. The very title of one of Porter's most famous songs and New Theatre Company's show pretty much sums up the man's life: He became very different creatures depending on whether the moon or the sun was hitting his skin. Coleman's Night & Day finds Mr. Porter (Steve Lovett) slipping out of a party where, according to him, a homicide was in progress (they were boring him to death). He comes to an all-night establishment called the Chateau Signe Noir that specializes in, shall we say, horizontal refreshment (or for that matter, vertical or perpendicular or any way you want it). Chantal (Susan Read) is the madame who presides over a coterie of young hustlers of different ages and education. What they have in common is the Porter sensibility, the idea that not being able to change something can be a source of comfort and strength because, hey, the something that won't change is one less thing you have to worry about. The life of Cole Porter in four parts, divided by the four great loves of his life, ensues with Porter as a witness while Madame, the boys, and salty maid Josette (Mary Margaret Pyeatt) re-create the summits and trenches of his experience.

You have to wonder if Theatre Too, the underground Theatre Three space that New Theatre Company inhabits, is really the most appropriate place for a show like Night & Day. Coleman would probably argue that he didn't have a choice, but the subterranean quality that makes this space so ideal for intimate and edgy drama inhibits the soaring spirit of Porter's wit and pathos. I felt this reflected in some of the actors' performances, which at the matinee I attended, were a mixed bag. Susan Read projects old-whore weariness with great dignity, and Mary Margaret Pyeatt is simply smashing; their duet on "That's Why I Love You" is a highlight. But the hustlers don't all seem to be on the same music sheet. I didn't realize how somnambulant Rick Starkweather was until he snapped awake with an ingratiating "I Like Pretty Things" late in the second act, and I was disappointed with what had preceded and what followed. Stan Graner as Luis was a consistent standout in his suit and tails, but most of the rest of the guys were either too hesitant in their roles or too "Baby, I'm Gonna Be a Star" with their expressions and body movements.

As far as the gay text, I would have liked to see Coleman climb even closer to the top. For a revue about a man who loved other men, there's a disappointing lack of demonstrated affection, or at least lust, in this show. Watching two guys play tonsil hockey may be a box-office risk outside the gay community, but I felt my interests were aroused, so to speak, but never quite fulfilled. Straight people might think it's a minor point, but for a show about one genius' hidden life to lift its skirt just mid-calf reminded me that a lot of things still haven't changed from Porter's day.

 

The Ultra-Happy, Super-Sad, Mega-Variety Revue runs through November 14. Call (972) 355-2879. Night & Day runs through November 14. Call (214) 871-3300.


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