Nine innings of baseball can go three hours easy, so it's remarkable that Most Valuable Player, a play about Jackie Robinson's first three seasons in the majors, manages to work in spring training, a couple of World Series and an All-Star game in 70 minutes flat. The production at Dallas Children's Theater's studio space is an efficient, smartly acted and pointedly political look at the problems Robinson faced as the player who integrated Major League Baseball in the 1940s.
The first image projected on the upstage screen on Randel Wright's set is the face of Barack Obama. Accompanied by the strains of an heroic trumpet fanfare, photos of Condoleezza Rice, Malcolm X (yeah, that's some interesting juxtaposition), Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks fade in and out. The chronological rollback of African-Americans of historic importance ends in 1948, in Jackie Robinson's second season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Though still in his 20s, Robinson (played by Ricky Spivey) seems burned out, overweight and off his swing. Team general manager Branch Rickey (Charles Ryan Roach), under the guise of giving an interview about his star hitter to a BBC reporter (Billie Bryant), then cues the flashback that tells the rest of Robinson's story.
After a quick look at his progression from sandlot ball in Pasadena, California, to a UCLA scholarship (he lettered in four sports), the play hits its stride outlining the highlights of Robinson's career as he jumps from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League to the Dodgers in 1947. As part of Rickey's "noble experiment" to integrate pro ball, Robinson was the first black player in what had been "the white man's game." The play depicts the tension created by Robinson's presence. Told by Rickey to keep his quick temper in check, Robinson isn't allowed to react to racial taunts by opposing players. Under death threats when the Dodgers play in the Deep South, Robinson still takes the field. From the play (a script that originated at the California Theatre Center), we also learn that teams canceled games to keep Robinson out of their stadiums. On the road, he was barred from whites-only hotels and restaurants.
Directed by Andy Long, this DCT production has toured the country since last fall, appearing in 50 cities and at venues of all sizes. One of the most compact is the studio at DCT's Rosewood Center for Family Arts. Here it's up to the actors and the audience's imaginations to make Ebbets Field out of a few square yards of stage floor and some hanging panels of chain-link fencing. Somehow it works, with the sounds of ball hitting bat punctuating an imitation Mel Allen play-by-play as the actors mime the motions of the game. Opposite Spivey, who gives a tightly controlled performance as the title character, actors Cody Hinson and Joe Aholt portray all the other players on both sides of the plate, managing some impressive changes of posture and accent (along with a few costume switch-ups).
This is a good piece of biographical drama aimed at young people, and there were lots of them in the audience, including sons with dads—a rare sight at any play. Grown-ups might wince a little at the show's "educational theater" tone, including an earnest pre-show warning by Spivey that the performance makes liberal use of the N-word. But even with its squeaky-clean script (except for that word), it offers a moving, well-researched look at the struggles and triumphs of one of professional sports' first black superstars. Most Valuable Player may be a small play in a small theater, but it's a big-league tribute to a man who had immense talent with a bat and a glove, plus the courage and character to make a lasting impact on American culture<\hr>
Shows about making shows are on two Dallas stages this month. First, Theatre Three has its version of [title of show], which debuted off-Broadway five summers ago and enjoyed a brief run on Broadway thereafter. A pair of gay composers, Hunter (played by Chad Peterson) and Jeff (Alexander Ross), struggle to come up with ideas for their entry into an important musical theater festival. So they write a show about writing the show that they're writing for the festival. Cute.
With the help of two actress friends, sour-funny Susan (Marianne Galloway) and bouncy ingénue Heidi (Tricia Ponsford), the guys go about their daily biz, then make up songs about the flotsam and jetsam of their lives as nobodies in New York. Stuck for lyrics? They string together titles of other musicals as they flip through a box of old Playbills.The only other human sharing the stage with this foursome is their pianist (Terry Dobson), who whiles away his time during non-singing sections by reading a newspaper and looking thoroughly bored.
[title of show], with zippy singing and some daffy comic folderol by its cast, is the best production of Theatre Three's season (which started last July), so it's good for them to go out on a positive note. But as usual at this theater-in-the-round, even working on a piece about where inspiration for ideas comes from, director-designer Bruce R. Coleman hasn't been inspired to do anything fresh with his staging or design elements. Not content to let the show be what its creators intended—one pianist, four singers on a bare stage, building something from nothing—Coleman has crowded the space with garish colors. The floor's painted in a harlequin pattern and Broadway show posters are tacked up hither and thither. There's a fuzzy lampshade, stuffed animals and who knows what else. Coleman's insistent over-designs have turned lots of productions into visual mosh pits (the worst recently was Uptown Players' Equus, with its Styrofoam Stonehenge sprouting craft-store cattails). With a design aesthetic that says "more is more," [title of show] looks like [insert expletive here].<\hr>
Over at the Bath House Cultural Center, the matinee-only One-Thirty Productions has taken a shine to Austin playwright Ellsworth Schave. The company has done well by his gentle comedies A Texas Romance and Under a Texaco Canopy and now they're debuting his latest, a comedy called Well-Traveled, But Not Well-Known.
It's a play about the writing of a play. Thurman Bulverde (played by Ted Wold), who runs a small Texas town's summer theater, wants to put on a dramatic tribute to the mother he never knew. But the director (John Venable) thinks there's more juice in the real story of why the old gal hit the road 50 years earlier. With the help of the hired-in star (Morgana Shaw), her blowsy ex-circus sharpshooter mother (Gene Raye Price), the fledgling playwright (Jason Kennedy) and Thurman's crazy-coot dad (Larry Randolph, who also directed), they get to the truth.
The play meanders like the Pedernales, but One-Thirty's cast pulls it off nicely, particularly Shaw as she transforms from flirty actress into 90-year-old Harmony Bulverde, the runaway mother. Rather like an old-timey radio serial about a band of theater folk solving a mystery, Well-Traveled offers a behind-the-scenes peek at eccentrics and their family secrets. Where it's not well-written, it's certainly well-played.