For their first theatrical production, an update of Rick Najera's comic collection of sketches about Latino life, this group of young theater tyros had to hold opening night in a cramped conference room at the Ice House Cultural Center off Swiss Avenue. With only a tiny platform, minimal lighting and a sweaty audience sitting an arm's length away, actors Otis Gray and Marco Rodriguez turned in firecracker performances, playing dozens of characters in a wild array of wigs and costumes. For the level of energy and skill they exhibited, they could just as well have been onstage at Carnegie Hall. It was the kind of show that left theatergoers looking at their programs going, "Who are these guys?" They are that good. Under executive producer Miranda Martinez, by day a worker bee in the corporate world, this company of talented Hispanic actors, designers and writers is looking ahead to ambitious theatrical events. Early next year they'll mount the world premiere of a new Najera play, Buford Gomez: Tales of a Rightwing Border Patrol Officer. Watch for this creative bunch to make their mark on the Dallas theater scene in years to come.

It is hard to miss the eye-catching work of famed sculptor Hans Van de Bovenkamp as you make the walk through the pedestrian tunnel connecting the transit center and the light-rail station. The 8-foot red aluminum free-form structure in the shape of an "O" appears to be alive, undulating, seeming to change shapes as the sun hits it from different angles during the day. The sculpture is a variation on a theme called "Gateway" that was erected in Oklahoma City's Myriad Gardens in 1993. Just because it is in the hellhole that is Oklahoma City, don't hold that against ol' Hans.

Much to the joy of most Dallas-area media, the former Dallas city councilman took off the electronic shackles 27 months into his 41-month sentence of house arrest (watching television). Just about everybody seemed downright giddy at the announcement that an appeals court overturned his sentence, not because Lipscomb was wrongly convicted but because of a legal technicality. Dallas Morning News columnist James Ragland gleefully fawned over Lipscomb and defended him, actually going so far as to say, "He was charming and charismatic. He was circumspect. More important, he was contrite, acknowledging that he erred by not reporting he was taking money from a cab company owner doing business with the city." Guess Ragland could overlook the fact that Lipscomb started pushing the cab company's agenda after monthly cash payments started. Maybe the voters could forget it, too. Welcome back, Al!

TV news is suddenly crowded with 20-something models who stumble on words with more than three syllables and are never quite sure if famine in Bangladesh is happy news or sad. Tracy Rowlett reassures precisely because the years have bequested him with the opposite set of traits--some wrinkles, some schnozz, a bit of jowl and a dead-on news sense. When Rowlett relates a major story, we can tell that he himself knows what the story is about. We trust him never to announce with an engaging smile that Washington is under attack.

Kitchen Dog Theater

With most theaters jobbing in actors (Dallas Theater Center gets 'em from New Yawk City, no less), a good old-fashioned repertory company is getting hard to find 'round these parts. Now in its second decade, the Kitchen Dog Theater's resident acting company still is composed mostly of SMU acting and directing grads (and professors) who created this theater for themselves 12 years ago (and named it after a reference in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot). In two acting spaces at McKinney Avenue Contemporary, artistic director Dan Day and his small band of gifted thespians--Tina Parker, Christopher Carlos, Tim Johnson, Bill Lengfelder--continue to create remarkably edgy and ambitious work in a nearly year-round schedule of full-length plays and cabaret shows. Always looking to shake up theatergoers' expectations, KDT has lined up a bold new season that includes Beckett's Happy Days (now playing), King Lear, George F. Walker's Heaven, the controversial prison play In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Henry Abbott and the Fifth Annual New Works Festival, including one main-stage production and seven staged readings.

Landmark Magnolia

If you're a fan of independent cinema--movies that don't suck, usually--here's the best deal in town, in the country...OK, in the world, whatever. Pay a small fee, and every other Sunday or so you can wake up a little early and be greeted by a sneak preview of a would-be art-house hit. Now, you won't know the name of the movie until you arrive at the theater, but the odds are good in this game of Reel Russian Roulette: Among the movies that have been part of Harlan Jacobson's Talk Cinema series are Gods and Monsters, Gosford Park, Sunshine State, No Man's Land, Pulp Fiction, L.A. Confidential and Breaking the Waves. The only downside is after the screening you have to listen to some local film critic, including on occasion some schmuck from the Dallas Observer, pontificate on the movie's meaning and the filmmaker's intentions before opening up the room for discussion. But, hey, that's the small price of being so danged special. For more information about Talk Cinema, which begins its new series September 29, go to www.talkcinema.com.

Published this year by the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, quite pricey at $89.95, this book is it, the authority, the comprehensive catalog of anything and everything that grows in this part of Texas. Years in the making, one of a series of books that will one day cover the entire state, this book is written so that lay people can understand it. But it is also a serious scientific resource, replete with beautiful illustrations. If you own this book, you are the ultimate authority, until somebody else you know gets it. The editors are George M. Diggs Jr., Barney L. Lipscomb and Robert J. O'Kennon. You can order it from Yonie Hudson, Publications Assistant, Botanical Research Institute of Texas, 509 Pecan St., [email protected].

WaterTower Theatre

This theater space, like a good actor, never does it the same way twice. For every play, the 32,000-square-foot interior of this glass and concrete space is reconfigured. Sometimes it's arena-style, sometimes thrust. For Book of Days, the Lanford Wilson drama performed this summer, actors trod a long runway that ran nearly the full length of the theater. For Always...Patsy Cline, the 200 seats and stage were shifted into an intimate, clublike setting. But aside from the aesthetic aspects of the space itself, what WaterTower offers is a remarkably high-quality approach to its productions. Artistic director Terry L. Martin mixes it up with the choices of plays each season, with even the tried-and-true titles getting a fresh twist. This year offered theatergoers the classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but with a new emphasis on the men in the play instead of the bitchy gal in the slip. Wilson's serious Book of Days was a modern, dour take on Our Town, followed by the unapologetically sentimental twang of Always... Patsy Cline. Their 2002-'03 season begins in October with the old standard You Can't Take It With You, followed in January by the area premiere of The Laramie Project, Moises Kaufman's portrait of America inspired by the murder of Matthew Shepard. And forget the Dickens-style Christmas show. Out in Addison, you'll get David Sedaris' bitterly funny account of life in Macy's elf hell in The Santaland Diaries again this year. With other local theaters struggling to stay afloat, WaterTower has seen attendance increase more than 50 percent over the 2001 season. Good actors, good directing, good plays, good time. Simple as that. Oh, and let's not forget the cushy new theater seats they've recently installed. Audience appreciation is always appreciated.

Best Local Singer Who's So Good She May Have to Move

N'Dambi

We're going to take credit for her success, so deal; we've been singing this gal's praises for years and years...a couple, at least. We'll just say this: Erykah Badu's longtime backup singer should never have to stand in the shadows again. N'Dambi's second album, last year's Tunin Up & Cosignin, contains two dozen of the groovinest and moovinest tracks ever cut by someone from the 214; she's Nina by way of Dinah, Aretha by way of Dusty, whoever by way of whatever. That she ain't yet a star may have less to do with ambition and talent, however, than our town's nasty habit of letting its best and brightest burn out or move out; hell, it took a Florida station to make stars of the Toadies, and look what happened there. Word is she's contemplating a move up north, where they appreciate ladies of soul. So, Dallas, have a heart: Make yours N'Dambi. Damb it.

Arthur Eisenberg took a lot of crap, literally, from some of his neighbors when he built this house in 2000, but it is an excellent example of tasteful contemporary design. The home, built on a stout but eloquent stucco and steel frame, consists of two "cottages" that are separate and accessible by their own stairwells. On the outside, the house steps back onto the lot so it doesn't overpower its neighbors. On the inside, the design has the opposite effect: The main living area, built around a massive exposed fireplace, offers 30 feet of head room and is overlooked by two indoor balconies--one for each of the cottages. In order to bring warmth to the home's otherwise steel feel, Eisenberg and local artist Otis Jones collaborated on a soothing color scheme of muted greens and a blue accent. "This is the house I'll probably die in," Eisenberg says. "So I didn't do a lot of compromising."

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