I haven't been too keen on Dallas Theater Center artistic director Richard Hamburger's leviathan takes on musicals (although anything performed in that aircraft hangar known as the Arts District Theater has got to be stretched to fit), but I've adored his similar outsized approach to classical works. Memories of Hamburger's marvelously goofy Tartuffe and his somberly glittering As You Like It echoed in my cranium as I watched his current interpretation of Twelfth Night. A lot of people have justifiable complaints about the Arts District Theater, but it's a killer place to hear William Shakespeare's loop-de-loop puns, double entendres, and metaphors. I've watched the Elizabethan playwright in places so cramped--Macbeth disintegrated and The Comedy of Errors twins disassembled in the Undermain's basement--that my mind felt like it was going to explode from the pressure of such verbal complexity swirling so tightly around me. In the Arts District Theater, an actor's voice soars into so much overhead space, you can relax and visualize the antics as at a flight show or acrobatics performance.
Similarly, Hamburger and one of his favorite designers, Michael Yeargan, have a playroom sizable enough to spread their toys around. For a couple of centuries, stage artists made literal with sets and props the culmination of the English Christmas celebration that gives the play its title, but there are no gigantic lit trees or tablefuls of plum pudding at DTC. Director and designer have gone for a sunny Mediterranean idyll that befits the Isle of Illyria, where Viola (Mary Bacon) washes up from a shipwreck. She fears that her twin brother Sebastian (T.J Kenneally) has drowned, but he's rescued by an extremely affectionate sea captain named Antonio (James Crawford, who's been directed by Hamburger to amplify the homoeroticism that Shakespearean scholars insist was implied). Sister and brother wind up as interlopers in the tortured courtship of Olivia (Krista Hoeppner) and her constantly rejected suitor Orsino (Jeremiah Wiggins); Viola chooses to disguise herself as a male servant named Cesario and is, in the process, constantly mistaken for Sebastian, who grows to feel great amor for Olivia.
I could fill this page with a further plot synopsis, but suffice it to say that Twelfth Night serves as the prototype for Shakespearean romantic hijinks. Genders are confused, love is unrequited, class systems are thwarted, and a fool named Feste (Jesse Lenat, strumming ballads like a young Bob Dylan but with identifiable emotions in his voice) turns out to be--shock of shocks!--the wisest of the bunch. Notable in DTC's version are what director Hamburger has chosen to emphasize and what falls in the background. The orchestrated humiliation of Olivia's brown-nosing manservant Malvolio (Robin Chadwick, in the production's most crowd-pleasing performance) has often been played with crueler zeal to make the quartet of young lovers at the show's center seem more sincerely sweet. Here, Malvolio courts Olivia with long-legged, clownish desperation (his absurd beachwear even resembles a clown's tights); Chadwick's prancing performance makes him an enthusiastic insider to his own character's downfall. Meanwhile, the original would-be lovers on the island, dark-humored Olivia and pining Orsino, are almost lost in a crowd of stellar supporting performers making the most of their subordinate roles. Granted, Olivia is supposed to be in mourning for her father and brother, and Hoeppner does get to flee in shock from Malvolio. But Wiggins barely registers as Orsino, a part written to be filled with callow narcissism.
Shakespeare's works seem to be revived in cycles, and DTC's Twelfth Night may be the apex of a three-year popularity for the comedy in Texas, probably spurred by a much-publicized New York version starring Helen Hunt. Although my opinions on this matter are disdained by some, I continue to insist that the ubiquity of Shakespeare in the relatively small, rarefied world of American theater is driving the Elizabethan master past cliché and into self-parody. With its warm citrus colors, generous and benevolent performances, and Hamburger's willingness to do anything for a laugh in delicious contrast with all the beautiful poetry being spoken, this Twelfth Night captivated me--despite the fact I've been overindulged with mistaken identities, gender deceptions, wise fools, cheeky servants, and blind lovers. When you've begun to enjoy a genius such as Shakespeare despite himself, it's time to take a breather.
For contemporary "issue"-driven audiences in the age of public confession, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire still contains much to chew on: rape, wife-beating, the vilification of sexually adventurous women, gay self-hatred escalating to suicide. Since most of us consider ourselves to be qualified psychologists (albeit unlicensed and nondegreed), a certain provincialism sets in if we're lucky enough not to have experienced such tragedies personally--they befall others who've yet to be sufficiently self-actualized, who don't listen to Dr. Phil. That's why Streetcar seems a little shocking in its quaintness: Suicide, spousal abuse, and sex addiction take place entirely outside the antiseptic chat rooms of TV newsmagazines. They are facts of life, albeit shamefully hidden ones, rather than stains to be scrubbed away by the motto, "If you don't get help here, get help somewhere." And so Allied Theatre Group's new production of Williams' theatrical standard feels at once immediate and a little foreign, disturbing and archaic at the same time.
You have to experience the show to remember its origin's past fodder for satire. Even folks who've never read the script or seen a live production or watched Elia Kazan's movie know who Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski are; they can mimic the Southern faded flowers and undershirt-clad galoots screaming "Stella!" without understanding how Williams had furthered a stage innovation he pioneered--the combination of raw naturalism and the fragile, stylized poetry of dreams. It's a tribute to Williams that stage experiments since have had that quality of fractured nocturnal narrative: He was always interested in how dreamers are corrupted by the brutal facts upon which their fantasies are built. But Williams' early hit represented an emphatic shift in the balance he'd established as an upstart. In his first success, The Glass Menagerie, Williams showed mama Amanda and daughter Laura feathering their nests with asbestos fantasies of an impossibly perfect suitor and snuggling deeper for protection when the potential husband didn't work out. In comparison, Streetcar makes the shrill sound of glass breaking, when a Southern woman who clings to pathetic post-Civil War ideas of gentility and modesty collides with a volcanic blue-collar ethnic who's managed to make something of himself in New Orleans. Fantasy does not prevail.
Allied Theatre's veteran director Jim Covault professes never to have seen a live or filmed version of Streetcar, which might explain why each of the conflicts--education vs. instinct, laborer vs. bon vivant, sexually fulfilled vs. promiscuously unsatisfied--emerges so clearly and cleanly upon Allied's simply divided stage. Rowdy action happens between the living room, where Stanley (Matthew Tompkins) and his buddies play drunken, violent poker, and the bedroom, where Stella (Dana Schultes) lovingly, obediently tends to her older runaway sister Blanche (Julienne Greer). The biggest triumph of Covault's production may be redeeming us from the hazy scrim of Blanche's intense, self-defensive Southern "manners" and stinging us with the junkyard-dog temperament of Stanley. Tompkins betrays little vanity as Stanley, a character traditionally portrayed as being a pugilist more by immaturity than nature but a definite knockout in that undershirt; with Tompkins, there's the rancid scent of sadism in the way he pounds on tables and strikes out at those who belittle him. It's a perfectly repulsive embodiment of a bully--kudos to Tompkins for soft-pedaling any erotic currents in favor of class-conscious insecurity expressed as pure meanness. Schultes as Stella fills out the show's most underwritten role as a kitten caught between a volatile husband and an unstable sister. She never wants to recognize guilt on either side even as she's soiled by it from consoling both. A passive and convincing Schultes ultimately provides us, the audience, an uneasy entry into all this domestic mayhem. Meanwhile, Williams has preordained that Blanche's own compulsive "intimacies with strangers" will doom her, and her punishment feels dragged out to contemporary ticketbuyers despite all the intelligence with which Greer fights it. Any actress who steps into Blanche must beware that, over time and imitation, she has become an exercise in tiresome passive aggression. Even Blanche's insanity seems calculated to punish her sister. Luckily, Greer recognizes this. Rather than succumb to soft-voiced, sleeve-fluttering soliloquies of madness, she accompanies her escort to the asylum with a snotty dignity that sucks the sugary center out of her character's too-familiar fate.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.