Unburied treasure

Over the last few months, it seems as though every major small theater company in Dallas--and a couple of debuting ones--has offered us a world-premiere show. The results have been mixed, but the ambitions behind them have been unassailable. It's an exciting time to be a theater critic in this city, and hopefully that excitement of poring over freshly minted ideas and effects in these pages has prompted you to dig into your beer money and visit some of these visions.

Dallas' past is the foundation of the previously reviewed Blind Lemon Jefferson: The Prince of Country Blues. It also underlies the Teatro Dallas world premiere of Little Mexico, an equally episodic but much more successful look at a wedge of this city's history once located in what is now roughly called Uptown, or the place near the Arts District and McKinney Avenue. Teatro and in-house playwright Valerie Brogan harvested this series of stories from a KERA-TV Channel 13 documentary about this immigrant settlement. They took these tales to the cast of young, serious-minded actors and developed the scenes in a series of improvisational workshops.

Little Mexico feels more organic and complete than you might expect from this process. There is still the general sensation of anthology. This can sometimes give these disconnected stories, which go back to the beginning of the century, weightlessness. But they are united and reinforced by strong, smart characterizations from a cast of youthful actors and by the sweeping, symbolic, occasionally grotesque vision of director Cora Cardona. She handily fills whatever gaps Brogan's script may have when it skips between times and tales.

Lighting designers Cardona and Pat Smith should be congratulated for the eerie ingenuity with which they attack the little moments in Little Mexico, whose turn-of-the-century tales of poverty, partying, prostitution, disease, and prosperity in Frogtown (the first name of Little Mexico) are offered in counterpoint to the lives of Pedro and Luz Roca (John Flores and Karla Gonzalez). They are an aging couple with grown children whose comfortable lives are shattered when a family archaeologist (Michael Garcia) suggests that some writing on a stone near their house means that a stolen Aztec treasure is buried there. Pedro becomes obsessed with discovering it, literally digging up the house, while his children (Frank Mendez and Elena Harvey Hurst) watch with horror. Simultaneously, we get scenes and situations from previous decades, from the hilarious (two Anglo FBI agents raid a tortilla factory suspected of being a bootlegger's operation during Prohibition) to the horrifying (scenes from Cement City, a cement plant in West Dallas where injury and disease were the rewards to poor Mexican-Americans toiling in wretched conditions).

Cora Cardona could perhaps be accused of emotional overstatement, but never emotional dishonesty. Her imagination is grandiose but adaptable to every moment, whether it be the horrifying domestic minimalism of a father weeping as his baby dies in his arms and pours away into dust at his feet, or a tall white screen projecting giant shadows of twisted and misshapen figures who carry limbs and multiple crutches, staggering through the hellhole that was Cement City. She uses every available theatrical technique, but this show feels mythic and finessed, not crammed, for her fervent efforts. Once again, she has consistently succeeded at a trick that few other directors in town can proclaim--casting actors who are often much younger than their characters but making you believe these roles anyway. Script-wise, Little Mexico isn't the strongest premiere Teatro has produced. A more modest and earnest production would likely reveal the obvious symbolism of the Roca family's hunger for the gold of the past even as they are oblivious to their community's sooty, priceless memories unfolding in scenes around them. Yet this kind of irony is no less truthful even if it appears self-apparent to us on a large stage, and Cardona and her cast know how to make it simultaneously fresh and ancient again. In its best moments, Little Mexico isn't just a play unfolding in real time. It's a genuine haunting.

Little Mexico runs through June 19. Call (214) 741-1135.

Good grief
A couple of representatives from Dallas Children's Theater may have wondered why the cynical, child-hating Dallas Observer theater critic was crying as he departed their latest production, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Isn't that the dude who slammed our holiday show and criticized a couple of the kids' performances? Isn't that the homosexual whose gay gene lacks the chromosome that instills a love of musicals, of which Charlie Brown is an especially notorious contemporary example because of that current Broadway revival? I could sense a whole staff getting ready to receive a fresh catbox liner via my review in this week's issue.

I'm still wary of musicals, though I don't hate kids--I just think they're smarter and more complex than indulgent procreative adults and the purveyors of so-called "children's entertainment" give them credit for. And that's precisely why I cried at the end of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Clark Gesner's 1967 assemblage of live musical comic strips starring Charles Schulz's Peanuts gang. The show's lovely closer, "Happiness," was one of the first songs I learned to sing in grade school. I loved it all the more because I was a rabid "Peanuts" fan, with posters on my wall and pictures I'd drawn myself and all the pocket and trade paperback collections on my bookshelf. I even had Snoopy's Super Book of Questions and Answers, about everything from botany to meteorology to rocket science. The lyrics of "Happiness" seem to ring with the sentimentalization of childhood that bugs the shit out of me ("Happiness is sharing a sandwich / Finding your skate key / Telling the time"), but if you're at all familiar with Schulz's vision at its prime, you'll know this simple wisdom is hard-earned by a cast of kids who have felt fear, disappointment, yearning, sadness, and fragile hope with all the force that adults do. Er, excuse me--with all the force that real children do.  

Some part of my kid-self recognized that Schulz respected my mind and heart a helluva lot more than Disney ever did, and I'm glad to see that Dallas Children's Theater and its debuting director Peppy Biddy have reinvigorated that gleeful, gloomy intelligence in their production. The Sunday-afternoon performance I attended received a hooting, hollering standing ovation from the nearly sold-out crowd, and it was much deserved (although, it's interesting to note, the adults seemed to be reacting more loudly than the kids). Granted, this show skips along with a lot more frothy pep than the idle, melancholy jazz grooves that characterized the pacing of the strips and TV specials. But director Biddy didn't shortchange the sophistication of the Peanuts gang's fractious personal relationships and their desire for something larger than themselves. The proceedings are on fast-forward, but Biddy and his able actors linger just long enough over the edgier stuff to let us know this material speaks as much to adults as it does to kids. The only difference between childhood and adulthood is that the former experience lacks hindsight to process the exact same set of emotions as the latter. But the slightly surreal element of Snoopy and the gang is that they have acquired a certain cynicism that kids aren't supposed to have about the way life works. DCT's You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown maintains that. The walls between childhood and adulthood aren't so much sledgehammered as rendered obsolete.

Set designer Zak Herring has devised simple, primary-color flat backgrounds that employ Schulz's style. They rotate, recede, and emerge behind the actors as if we were flipping the pages of the comics section or a "Peanuts" anthology. And the non-narrative vignettes are taken directly from Schulz's internationally syndicated newspaper strip. The contrast between Herring's design literalism and Gesner's Schulzian book and lyrics heighten the weird shenanigans onstage, the way the characters seem to be pre-enacting the adult traumas they will, of course, never encounter. Charlie Brown (Todd Hart) obsesses over the unseen Little Red-Haired Girl of his dreams, putting a paper bag over his head during lunch from sheer embarrassment that she might be looking at him, then feeling hurt at the thought that she might not be looking at him. Gripey, aggressive Lucy (Amy Mills) hungrily pursues Schroeder (Sam Presley), the moody piano player who's passionate of mind but not body, but is finally derailed when he confronts her with her biggest blind spot--her crabbiness. She goes about doing a survey asking people to rate the degree of her crabbiness and her beauty--a strategy of diluting the hard truth not unfamiliar to anyone who's been confronted by a brutally honest assessment. When she attempts to snatch the beloved security blanket of baby brother Linus (a knockout Matthew Hawkins, perhaps the best of a great cast), the diminutive philosopher woos it back by spinning an elaborate (and not inaccurate) comparison between a boy's blanket and an adult's obsession with historical research--both are crutches to get through the present. All this strangely recognizable wheel-spinning is offset by a great score performed vigorously and the scene-stealing of Snoopy (Scott Robinson Baker), who may be the most centered of them all but is happy to be manipulative and do cliched "dog" stuff to soothe their pain.

"I was jump-roping, and suddenly it all seemed so futile," sighs one depressed character, dragging the rope behind her from one end of the stage to the other. That hilarious, heart-chilling declaration is at the heart of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, which is all the sweeter for its sadness and vice versa. Dallas Children's Theater has assembled a marvelous team to succeed at that most difficult of feats--translate the passion from one medium to a wholly different one. People often use the term "cartoonish" to insult a particular performance, but in this case, I employ it as a compliment: The actors effectively supplied these illustrations with all the poignancy I did when I was a kid.  

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown runs through June 20. Call (214) 978-0110.

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