Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
The music industry can be a notorious boys club, and that may never have been truer than in the case of hip-hop, a most hyper-masculine, misogynistic of genres. What the rap game and greater music world in general needs more of is people like Sam Lao, but for a while there, about two and a half years or so, there was reason to worry that she wouldn't fully capitalize on her considerable talents. That's how long it took for the follow-up to her debut EP, West Pantego, to come together, but from that troubled conception sprang the best album to come out of Dallas this year: SPCTRM. Smart, sassy and dripping with charisma, SPCTRM is Lao incarnate as she switches with ease between siren singer and best-rapper-in-Dallas roles on cuts like the middle-finger-to-the-haters "Fool's Gold" or body empowerment manifesto "Pineapple." But she never needs to make a statement on SPCTRM; all you need to know is that this is Sam Lao, and the boys have to play by her rules.
It comes as no surprise that an exhibit of work by abstract expressionist luminary Jackson Pollock would be a draw for the Dallas Museum of Art. There's a reason his drip paintings are ubiquitous. They're good. Really good. But the exhibition Blind Spots, organized by DMA curator Gavin Delahunty, focused on Pollock's later work, a series of rarely seen black enamel paintings. Curated in low-ceilinged, carpeted rooms, the exhibition gave the viewer a mid-20th century experience. Yet, it felt new and exciting, and ultimately emotional. The turmoil, the chaos of Pollock's work was on full display, and with more than 70 works, the exhibition demanded numerous visits to the museum.
This has been Brandon Potter's year. In just a few months, the unknown MFA student at Southern Methodist University became one of the city's most promising acting talents. The dude's in his early 30s and he played a believable 55-year-old President Lyndon Baines Johnson in All the Way at Dallas Theater Center. In the same year, he played a killer King Richard first at Shakespeare in the Bar and then at Shakespeare Dallas' Shakespeare in the Park. Sure, they're both conniving powermongers, but Potter made them irresistible.
Mary Tyrone is one of the American theater's most iconic characters. The matriarch losing touch with reality in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night is a role rife with complications. It's a challenge for even the most serious actress and one rarely available. So, it's a treat to see an actress as gifted as Joanna Schellenberg step into the character. An actress seen so rarely on Dallas stages it's criminal, Schellenberg gave a bone-rattling performance as the drug-addled, fading woman.
In a year in which theater companies struggled to hold onto — or even find — performance spaces, Ochre House Theater remains the little theater that could. Against all odds, playwright/director Matthew Posey's company continues to produce new works in a small storefront in Exposition Park. Attending a production is an investment in the unexpected. The only thing your ticket promises you is something you've never seen before. And the risk itself is worth the $15 price of admission. From a play about an egg salesman to a bawdy musical about a small town girl named Indigo Sue, there's no end to the creativity at this little company.
Dallas Summer Musicals
There are a number of playwrights whose names you hope to see on an Undermain Theatre season announcement. The company has its go-to living playwrights, like Erik Ehn, Meg Miroshink and Len Jenkin. They work closely to commission or develop work by these writers, often to incredible results. Such was the case with Jenkin's Jonah, which Undermain's artistic director, Katherine Owens, developed alongside him at the Sundance Theatre Lab. Owens directed the world premiere of the work this year to critical acclaim. The frenzied take on the Biblical beach tale featured kaleidoscopic characters and heartwarming stories interwoven in a way that was meaningful, intellectual and fun — an Undermain hat trick. It was also one of the best uses of the basement theater space we've ever seen, thanks to John Arnone's theater-in the-round design, which put the audience inside a circus tent.
This year theater collective The Tribe workshopped and produced the first play written by Dallas actress Janielle Kastner. Ophelia Underwater revisited Shakespeare's Hamlet and told the story from the perspective of a modern-day Ophelia: a feminist statement on how her character in the play is trivialized and dismissed as crazy, as is so often the case with female characters in the literary canon. The one-woman show went up at Margo Jones Theater in Fair Park and actress Zoe Kerr handled the part beautifully, keeping the audience engaged throughout and highlighting Kastner's talent for juxtaposing timeless concerns, in this case how women are expected to behave, in the context of current trends and technology. While Kerr technically carried the show alone, Kastner's script allowed for Ophelia's boyfriend, Hamlet, to occasionally be present via Skype. This and various other ingenious techniques allowed the world of Ophelia Underwater to expand beyond the walls of the small theater for a rich and exciting first play. We look forward to seeing what Kastner does next.
Since opening in 2012, Circuit 12 Contemporary in the Design District has brought in exciting up-and-coming or mid-career artists working in new media, and no exhibit better showed the appeal of what owners Dustin and Gina Orlando are doing than Mathew Zefeldt's Marble Head From a Herm, which was on view May through July. California-based Zefeldt took inspiration from a Roman copy of a Greek statue that he'd seen at the Met in New York, which he replicated across various paintings, including one giant mural that cast a pixelated shadow on Circuit 12's floor. The exhibit juxtaposed clip art and emojis with famous classical images of ambiguous origin to show how the meaning of an image can be lost or altered when it becomes a commodity that is endlessly repeated; it was fun, evocative and just the kind of work we've come to love Circuit 12 for bringing to Dallas.
Kettle Art Gallery
Since developers such as Westdale have bought up land in Deep Ellum, there have been jokes about the imminent arrival of Baby Gap stores and juice bars. Before we get all doom and gloom, let's take a moment to appreciate that it has been revitalized at all. The new Deep Ellum bears little resemblance to the old one, it's true. It has lost some of its cool, grunge factor. But it's also a lot safer than it was in the '90s and on weekends the streets are teeming with people, compared with just five years ago. And it's still home to the best music venues in the city such as The Bomb Factory, Club Dada, Three Links and Trees; galleries that support underdog artists such as Kettle Art; and upstart business like the thriving Dallas Comedy House. It still has its artist's soul, not to mention that the neighborhood has quickly gone from a restaurant desert to a mecca with some of the most interesting options in the city, representing a variety of cuisines, from barbecue at Pecan Lodge to dressed-up Southern at new Matt McCallister outpost Filament to falafel at D.C. import Amsterdam Falafel House. You rock, Deep Ellum, and it's OK to change.
This summer, WaterTower Theatre in Addison underwent a major sea change when producing artist director Terry Martin vacated the position he's held for 17 years to head up the fine arts department at Greenhill School. Martin deserves to be commended for all he accomplished during his tenure at WaterTower. He turned a small theater in a Dallas suburb into one of the very best in the area, leaving it with an operating budget of $1.8 million, nearly five times the budget he started out with. His last year on the job was also one of the theater's strongest, culminating with the regional premiere of Tony-winning musical comedy One Man, Two Guvnors, directed by Martin himself. The superb and fun show served as an excellent note for Martin's departure. (That show was also special because it starred Dallas native Brian Gonzales in the lead, and Gonzales had been the lead understudy in the original Broadway production.) WaterTower is a gem that Martin polished, and it will be exciting to see how the new leadership carries what he built forward in WaterTower's 20th season, which begins Oct. 7 with the Johnny Cash musical Ring of Fire.
Matthew Posey, Ochre House Theatre
Normally, it takes a very generous person to willingly watch high school students perform in a production of anything. If it's your child, sure. But nieces, cousins, children of friends? Unless you're a saint you're probably not going to sit through The Crucible for them. But you would if Jeff Swearingen were directing it. Along with Bren Rapp, he heads up Fun House Theatre and Film in Plano where young kids act in roles normally reserved for people much older. Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman came together beautifully in November, with Swearingen acting in the lead role and 14-year-old Kennedy Waterman giving a moving performance as his wife, Linda. The age disparities, though they sound awkward, are handled with grace, and the quality of the performances matches or exceeds that of many of the serious small theaters in town.
The Dallas Museum of Art has had a phenomenal year for special exhibits, the most impressive being the Jackson Pollock exhibit Blind Spots, only the third major exhibit in the U.S. to focus solely on the artist and the largest survey to date of Pollock's lesser-known black paintings. A retrospective of photographer Irving Penn's work, Beyond Beauty, was not far behind. While these exhibits required a fee to view, one of the most exciting moves the DMA has made in the last few years was the decision to return to free admission to the general collection by director Max Anderson, who recently left the position. This effort has seen a swell in attendance at the monthly Late Night events, and the crowds are proof that the museum has earned its designation as not just the largest, but also the city's most important museum.
Perot Museum of Nature and Science