Best Architecture Critic 2014 | Mark Lamster | Best of Dallas® 2020 | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Dallas | Dallas Observer

OK, so Mark Lamster wins this by default since he's the only professional architecture critic in Dallas, but don't let that take away from his importance. Imported from New York City through a partnership between the University of Texas at Arlington and The Dallas Morning News, he is a public intellectual, which is rare around these parts. He not only critiques Dallas' fancy new buildings — though there's plenty of that — he casts a critical eye on how the city is built. He's not the only one doing this, but he's the most visible, and he's too intelligent and too good a writer to be ignored.

It may not technically be in Dallas, although a new location is expected to open in The Cedars sometime in 2015, but this Austin transplant stands out for what it has, and what it doesn't. For a movie theater, the food and beer selections are fantastic, as is the chain's special programming, like sing- and quote-alongs and screenings you can't catch anywhere else. What you won't see is anyone texting or peeking at Twitter after a movie has started — that merits an ejection from the theater after one warning, seriously — or any unaccompanied kids, as every person at every showing must be accompanied by someone 18-plus.

A good actor doesn't just act when he or she is speaking. Acting is reacting, and Stormi Demerson, a veteran of DFW theaters and star of recent productions at Amphibian Stage and Theatre Three, is expert at listening and reacting to the actors around her. Always enhancing the roles she plays with just the right touches of humor and vulnerability, Demerson is a strong, sure presence in any show. In Death Tax at Amphibian, she was a nurse crushed by the pressure of a Faustian bargain with a dying patient. In T3's By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, she played an aspiring actor in 1930s Hollywood, tired of being cast as mammies and maids, commanding the scene where her character railed against the racism of showbiz. Good acting, says Demerson, is good storytelling that goes beyond the relationship between the viewer and the viewed. "Our energies are dependent on one another," she says. "But I have a responsibility to help tell a story that will make the audience feel something when they leave."

Over the past decade on Dallas stages including Undermain, Kitchen Dog, Shakespeare Dallas and Second Thought Theatre, Drew Wall has matured past roles as the goofy kid and silly sidekick. Now in his early 30s, the Baylor drama grad, part of Second Thought's regular acting company, is a confident, handsome leading man. This season he gave his best performances yet. In Second Thought's Nocturne, a one-man show by Adam Rapp, Wall delivered a wrenching 90-minute monologue about the lasting effects of childhood traumas — a stunning tour de force that left audiences weeping. In the debut of Steven Walters' Booth, Wall was comic relief as part of John Wilkes Booth's band of conspirators. Wall's acting résumé lists his extra skills: ice skating, juggling and welding. We'd happily watch him do any of those.

Many theater directors have wrestled with the most difficult works of Shakespeare, Albee and Stoppard. Only one we know of has done them to critical acclaim with actors under the age of 16. Jeff Swearingen is director and resident playwright at Fun House Theatre and Film, the all-youth company he founded three years ago with partner Bren Rapp. He takes the craft and art of acting seriously and is passing along all he knows to budding actors, some as young as 6, who clamor to be in his Fun House shows. This summer he wrote and directed two new comedies, Game of Thrones Jr. and Stiff, which both sold out their two-week runs. Strict about behavior when he's working, Swearingen allows no flip-flops, food or texting at rehearsals. Now if only he could direct the audiences.

A solid season of comedies, dramas and musicals has boosted Uptown Players, the gay-centric company that gets bigger and better by the year. Its regional premiere of Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a send-up of Chekhovian themes, featured a tight, comically fine-tuned ensemble (Bob Hess, Wendy Welch, Diana Sheehan, Nadine Marissa, Evan Fentriss, Julia Golder) and astute direction by B.J. Cleveland. Then came another dark comedy, The Lyons, starring roaringly funny Terry Vandivort. The boffo season-ender was The Boy from Oz, a glitzy musical bio of gay Aussie composer-singer Peter Allen that no theater anywhere had staged since it closed on Broadway 10 years ago. Director Cheryl Denson gave Dallas' own Alex Ross the starring role — he was spectacular — proving that there's no place like home for talent at Uptown Players. This season brings Uptown favorite Cleveland back to star in The Nance, followed by musicals Catch Me if You Can and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Uptown just keeps upping their ante.

If playwright Matt Lyle hadn't already decided to return to Dallas from Chicago (where he did some time at Second City), we'd have sent out a posse to get him back here. With Barbecue Apocalypse, given its world premiere this summer directed by Lee Trull as the centerpiece of Kitchen Dog's New Works Fest, Lyle established himself as an explosively good writer for the stage. Set in bland suburbia, the two-act comedy of modern manners shredded keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, selfie-obsessed culture by dropping a bomb on three couples and seeing which one learned to adapt and survive post-Armageddon. Guess what? It was not the pair of Tweeting experts.


The tiny Ochre House theater, a 40-seat storefront space near Fair Park, is founder Matthew Posey's artistic playground and his home (he lives in the back). With no formal season and no subscriptions, this company works on a schedule set only by Posey's prodigious output as playwright, director and star of his own work. Over the past year he's presented a string of provocative shows, including the new musical Christhelmet, set in a murky L.A. bar full of characters Elmore Leonard would love. Posey also dreamed up El Conde Dracula, a sexy vampire tale starring Dallas flamenco dancers Delilah Buitrón and Antonio Arrebola. These two also star in Perro y Sangre, Posey's imagined tale of Ernest Hemingway's trip to a haunted Spanish village. That one's going to New York this fall. As always at Ochre House, Posey's ideas are in step with audiences looking for something fresh and offbeat.

Dallas Theater Center's artistic director Kevin Moriarty loves to surprise theatergoers by shaking up expectations, especially with popular pieces like Les Miz. For this summer's DTC production of the beloved musical, Moriarty brought in director Liesl Tommy, who'd never seen Les Miz (or so she says). She changed the show's context, making it more Occupy Wall Street than 1800s French uprising. That meant modern costumes, anti-corporation slogans on protest signs held by the "peasants" and dreadlocks on the "master of the house" (played with delicious evil by Steven Walters) as he picked the pockets of the wealthy. Bold and inventive, full of big performances and bare emotions, this production framed the Victor Hugo story as a contemporary battle between haves and have-nots. And the cast, led by Nehal Joshi as Valjean and Edward Watts as Javert, sang their hearts out.

For too long, the Margo Jones Theatre in the middle of Fair Park went unused by theater artists. As the Magnolia Lounge, it was a visitors' center for the State Fair. But Dallas theater director Matt Tomlanovich had ideas for how to turn one of America's landmark small theaters back into a place to see new plays. He became the Margo Jones' re-inventor, welcoming local performing companies including Soul Rep, Audacity Productions, Nouveau 47 and others. Now, except for the fall months of the fair, the little Art Deco building buzzes with shows. This year brought in the first Dallas Solo Fest, produced by Brad McEntire, and on the 2015 calendar are premieres of new plays by Dallas actor-writers Van Quattro and Danny O'Connor. Theater pioneer Margo Jones, who started the legendary Theatre 47 in this space in 1947, believed in giving a showcase to new work outside of New York City. Her namesake playhouse is back in the business of doing just that.

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