Theater was alive in '95

Is the theater really dead?
Not in Big D.
In fact, a quickie look at area productions in the past year shows that theater in the Metroplex is a surprisingly lively, diverse, and resilient form of entertainment.
Consider the options a curious (but not impecunious) boulevardier had to choose from in the last annum, theatrically speaking. He or she could have sampled some or all of the following:

Big, Broadway-type shows. When the uninitiated think of Dallas theater, they think of the various Andrew Lloyd Webber productions that eventually make their way to the Music Hall at Fair Park. Dallas had its share of those in 1995, including Herr Webber's Phantom of the Opera, which careened through the city for about the sixth time last year.

But there is more to an elephant than its trunk, as the parable of the six blind men points out, and there is more to Dallas theater than Broadway whistle-stop productions. There is also:

Highly professional, top quality, homegrown theater. When you're talking big-impact, didn't-think-they-did-that-in-Dallas, worth-the-money theater, you're talking the Dallas Theater Center. Take a look at what DTC artistic director Richard Hamburger and managing director Robert Yesselman cooked up for us in '95.

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There was A Family Affair, a brilliantly caustic 19th-century comedy by Alexander Ostrovsky that Hamburger, with his keen eye for hidden classics, rediscovered. There was the souffle-light, but still very tasty, American comedy Room Service. There was the critically acclaimed premiere of Santos y Santos. There was the Big D Festival of the Unexpected. And, speaking of unexpected, anyone who was lucky enough to see the Hamburger-imported The Invisible Circus, saw the quirkiest, mind-messingest piece of theater to hit Dallas all year. DTC ended 1995 with a bang, staging a knock-the-stockings-off-the-fireplace production of A Christmas Carol.

The Theater's only misstep was Ohio Tip-Off, an underwritten play that tried to milk some pathos from the dried teat of minor-league basketball. But, hey, show me a regional theater that did any better than the DTC in 1995, and the cognac is on me.

Theatre Three also belongs in the category of professional theaters that maintain uniformly high standards. Artistic director Jac Adler whipped up a delightful dessert of a comedy with his staging of the old Marx Brothers' vehicle Cocoanuts. He also directed a moody and absorbing version of Arthur Miller's seldom-seen gem The Price as part of the theater's season of all-American plays.

Theatre Three stumbled at the end of the year with Our Town and The Fantasticks, two chestnuts that are dead in their tracks to audiences overly familiar with the plays.

Nevertheless, a Theatre Three production of just about any work can be relied on for clear, competent staging.

If all that sounds a bit too mainstream for you, there is always:
Avant-garde, experimental theater. The Undermain carries the banner in this category. The Undermain was the only Dallas theater in 1995 (or perhaps ever) to make a splash internationally. Its production of Goran Stefanovski's play Sarajevo at the Ohrid Summer Festival in Macedonia put the Undermain on the world stage and created an unusual artistic connection between a political backwater like Dallas and a political hotbed like Bosnia.

Typically, however, the company's productions are a lot less high-profile, though they are closely followed by fans of challenging (e.g., incomprehensible), cutting-edge theater. Tiny Dimes was a textbook example of a play in which so many edges were cut that nothing of sense remained. The Hyacinth MaCaw, on the other hand, though also inscrutable, achieved the lyric and mystic quality of a dream. Hit or miss, the Undermain is always eclectic and always interesting.

Of course, "interesting" is a pejorative for those ramshackle souls who seek nothing more from theater than a cheap laugh. This group, which, of course, includes most of us from time to time, can always partake of:

Comedy theater. Kurt Kleinman, impresario of the Pegasus Theater in Deep Ellum, deserves a hearty backslap for establishing a reliable, innovative comedy theater to complement the other entertainment venues in Dallas' alternative playground. Pegasus ran a little low on comedic gas in 1995, unfortunately, as illustrated by its production of Louda, Fasta, Funnya, a Kleinman-penned original that had the tired, uninspired quality of much of sketch comedy these days. However, the theater's signature black-and-white murder-mysteries are still a highlight of the theatrical season.

The true comedy of the people, though, happened at the Pocket Sandwich Theater, which stages pelt-the-cast-with-popcorn burlesques that are funnier and a lot more fun than many Dallas Theater Center season-ticket holders would like to admit. Its production of Murders in the Rue Morgue was typical of the genre--alternately lame and hilarious, but ultimately cathartic for the popcorn- and abuse-hurling groundlings in attendance.

Though the category deserves a less-limiting name, there is also established ethnic theater in Dallas-Fort Worth.

Teatro Dallas enjoys an enthusiastic following for its Latino-oriented productions, particularly its staging of plays commemorating the Day of the Dead. It excelled last year with The Lady of the Dawn, a spooker that also was surprisingly thoughtful in its treatment of the "undiscovered country."

Jubilee Theater in Fort Worth, with Rudy Eastman at the artistic helm, produces consistently entertaining and illuminating productions relating to the African-American experience. Black Orpheus, an original show created for Jubilee, showcased the considerable writing, acting, and singing talent typical of this vibrant theatrical company.

For the kiddies, as Ed Sullivan used to say, there is:
First-rate children's theater. Dallas is fortunate to have one of the best kids' theaters in the country with the Dallas Children's Theater. The DCT pulls together the resources to mount productions that are more than just some goofball in a bunny suit playing all the parts in Alice in Wonderland. Both Winnie the Pooh and The Christmas Witch brought elaborate stages, competent actors, and the excitement of live drama to the stage, much to the delight of the "Romper Room" crowd and their doting parents.

No theatrical scene is complete without an awards ceremony, and in 1995 Dallas got a new one--the "Leons." With any luck, these awards will bring additional attention to the variety and excellence to be found in Dallas theater.

In summation, there was as much good stuff on the boards to choose from in 1995 as anyone had a right to expect. What's lacking in Dallas more often than not is a good audience, not a good play. So here's to more warm buttocks in the seats in 1996.

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