The recession hit big in 2008, and was at its worst in 2009. But oddly, local theater was terrific in 2009, as if artists were out to prove that they're most resilient when times are tough. Brave, young companies sprang up, and artistic risks paid off.
Supposedly, the economy has been on its way to bouncing back in the past 12 months. Perhaps that news made theater producers complacent, or maybe the economic crisis was just now hitting them, funding-wise. Whatever the reason, 2010 was not exactly a banner year for local theater. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't amazing, even if a handful of companies—Circle Theatre, WaterTower Theatre, Kitchen Dog Theater—had stellar seasons.
The area that seems to have hit been hardest: musicals. 2010 was unusually weak when it came to shows with showtunes. You know it's bad when our most reliable musical theater company, Lyric Stage, has one so-so production (Bye, Bye Birdie) and a bona fide dud (The Night of the Hunter). At least Lyric still managed its best full-orchestra warhorse revival yet, My Fair Lady, which is the only musical on my best-of list this year.
Another problematic trend was with wildly uneven productions of masterpieces of drama and modern classics. We saw alternately fascinating and frustrating productions of these shows from Dallas Theater Center (Death of a Salesman), Kitchen Dog (The Seagull), Artes de la Rosa (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Uptown Players (Equus), African American Repertory Theater (Jitney) and Broken Gears Project Theatre (American Buffalo), to name a few. That wasn't always the case, though (see No. 5 in my best-of list below).
Perhaps the biggest sign that 2010 was a year for scaling back was that some of the best productions were bare-bones, relying on excellent acting, direction and scripts as selling points. Innovative storytelling and tight ensembles, without all the spectacle, were what propelled certain shows by Audacity Theatre Lab, Echo Theatre, Sundown Collaborative Theatre, Amphibian Stage Productions and even WaterTower into my "favorites" column. Even at Dallas Theater Center, which spent close to $1 million on one show alone, the best work came in a four-actor play in its studio space.
And with that, let's get to the list, which is followed by honorable mentions, noteworthy performances, miscellaneous shout-outs and yes, even my least favorites (it's only fair, right?). Out of 175 plays, musicals and solo shows that I saw in 2010, these were the ones that made an impression.
For more of my thoughts on the year in theater, check out the current episode of Art Matters on WRR/101.1 FM. It re-airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 30, or you can listen to it online. (And pardon that in the interview I say it was a pretty great year for theater. When it was recorded in November, I hadn't fully digested everything yet. Again, it wasn't great, but not bad either.) Also, here is my Top 10 list of productions in Tarrant County in the Star-Telegram. And if you haven't seen it, the current issue (December/January) of Arts+Culture Magazine is on stands around town. In it, I round up the strong year for performances by women.
THE TOP 20
Listed in ascending order, and yes, it's a Top 20—because I can. Hey, I saw 175 shows! That's 10 more than I saw last year. And yes, I'm bragging about that fact. When you're committed to doing this as a career, you see as much theater as you can. (That said, there were at least another 25 shows I should have seen, but that's the way it goes.)
20. Milarepa, Fred Curchack and Laura Jorgensen at Bath House Cultural Center (January)
Who can take the life of an 11th-century Tibetan monk, PVC pipe, Christmas lights and original music and create one of the most memorable storytelling experiences of the year? Curchack and Jorgensen, that's who (they'll appear again on this list).
19. Umlauf’s Bicycle, Balanced Almond/Ochre House (December)
Director: Matthew Posey
Posey and his friends have started to build a following at the "it" alternative space in town, but Posey hadn't managed anything this moving before. The script, an original work, had problems, but there was no denying the madcap charm in this retelling of the Icarus myth, which threw in the Marx Brothers and flying bicycles. And yes, in the tiny Ochre House, and with disbelief barely suspended, they flew. It was magical.
18. Bach at Leipzig, Circle Theatre (August)
Director: Robin Armstrong
It was a year for theatrical explorations of classical music. Circle had this and Opus (see No. 4 below), while Theatre Three did the Beethoven-inspired 33 Variations. In this Itamar Moses comedy, the character of Johann Sebastian Bach never appears, but his contemporaries do. Several organists compete for a recently vacated post, which leads to trickery, cross-dressing and a hysterical play-within-a-play. Terrific ensemble, and gorgeous costumes (by Armstrong).
17. Charm, Kitchen Dog Theater (November)
Director: Christopher Carlos
This Kathleen Cahill charmer went back to the 19th century, with Tina Parker playing journalist, writer and activist Margaret Fuller, trying to find love from her male transcendentalist pals. In a series of short scenes, Parker found a role that might as well have been written for her. Great supporting work from Brian Witkowicz, Michael Federico, Jeffrey Schmidt and John Flores. The show wasn't perfect, but who needs perfection?
16. From the Mississippi Delta, Jubilee Theatre (February)
Director: Phyllis Cicero
I must really adore this play, because it was on my best-of list a decade ago when Dallas' Soul Rep Theatre Company did it. This time, Jubilee spun it into theatrical gold, as three actresses played multiple characters in Endesha Ida Mae Holland's recounting of growing up in the segregated South.
15. (il)logical: a play on love, Sundown Collaborative Theatre (August)
Created and directed by the SCT ensemble, this collection of original stories about love, relationships and loss was imaginatively performed and choreographed by a crew of young actors, with nothing but a few props in a dance studio space. When the storytelling is tight and the message is cleanly laid out, you don't need much else.
14. Well, Echo Theatre
Director: Pam Myers-Morgan
Lisa Kron's meta-memoir-monologue (interrupted by other actors and her mom!) could have gone so wrong, but Myers-Morgan's cast only winked at us when it was absolutely necessary. It also featured one of the year's best performances, by Kristin McCollum.
13. The Dog Problem, Undermain Theatre (November)
Director: Katherine Owens
David Rabe's metaphysical who's-on-first gangster comedy was wacky, weird and funny, and featured a wondrous ensemble of actors who handled the tricky wordplay deftly.
12. Laughter on the 23rd Floor, WaterTower Theatre (January)
Director: Terry Martin
WaterTower's strong year began with this beautiful production of Neil Simon's comedy about TV comedy writers at NBC, in the McCarthy era. It hit about the same time as the real-life Jay Leno/Conan O'Brien dust-up. Even without that relevant tie-in, the jokes landed and the cast nailed it, proving that when Simon is done well, it's bliss.
11. Volume of Smoke, Audacity Theatre Lab (March)
Director: Ruth Engel
Probably the biggest surprise of the year was this ensemble piece from Clay McLeod Chapman, about the famous Richmond Theater fire of 1811. Told from the viewpoint of patrons, artists, actors, stagehands, the director and the playwright (of the play that was going on when the fire broke out), it was a moving portrait of crisis management—and panic. Who knew that a group of theater-types could represent such a cross-section of humanity?
10. Long Way Go Down, Kitchen Dog Theater (May)
Director: Christopher Carlos
Playwright Zayd Dohrn had a hit with the premiere of Sick at Kitchen Dog in 2008, and his return with Long Way Go Down turned into another KDT success. The timely work, about a Mexican couple delayed at a way station on the Arizona border, featured suspenseful plot twists, and terrific performances.
9. Circus Salome, Hip Pocket Theatre (September)
Director: David Yeakle
What a concept: Oscar Wilde's scandalous play Salome, conceived as a circus performance, with Herod as the Ringmaster and the seductive princess as an aerialist. Yeakle wrote the adaptation and directed. Eroticism and betrayal merged with intrigue for an unforgettable evening.
8. The Shape of Things, Dallas Theater Center (March)
Director: Matthew Gray
Dallas Theater Center's presentation of Neil LaBute's "The Beauty Plays," brought together for the first time as a trilogy, was one of the year's highlights, and introduced us to the Wyly Theatre's studio space, which needs to be used more often. This play, one of his cruelest, is still his best, and this production was the finest of the three (Fat Pig and reasons to be pretty being the others).
7. SubUrbia, Uptstart Productions (March)
Director: Josh Glover
Eric Bogosian's story of misguided youths on the road to nowhere was riveting, thanks to beautiful acting and a knock-'em-dead set, which featured part of a 7-Eleven on the stage. Great ensemble.
6. Much Ado About Nothing, Trinity Shakespeare Festival (June)
Director: Stephen Fried
In only its second year, Trinity Shakes has proven itself a contender on the local scene. The previous year's Twelfth Night was masterful, but this year's comedy, Much Ado, took it up another notch. It's the production that set a new standard for local Shakespeare stagings. In a good year for Shakespeare, it was tops.
5. Our Town, WaterTower Theatre (October)
Director: Terry Martin
There are certain challenging masterpieces of American drama, such as Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire, for which even cynical critics get excited. We're always looking for the perfect production of these works. Thornton Wilder's Our Town, on the other hand, is one that we don't always look forward to. Not because it's a lesser play (it's not), but because we see it all the time, done without the heart it deserves. But then comes along a production like this, which brings new clarity and meaning to an old standby. It's like a reunion with a long-lost friend, and you don't want it to end.
4. Opus, Circle Theatre (February)
Director: Alan Shorter
Another ensemble piece about competition among classical musicians, this time spurred when a violinist leaves a renowned string quartet. Tight acting, a strong sense of oneupmanship and a crashing finale made this Michael Hollinger drama stand out, even nearly a year later.
3. My Fair Lady, Lyric Stage (September)
Director: Len Pfluger
Without a doubt, Lyric's finest revival to date, featuring a 34-piece orchestra, amazing lead performances by J. Brent Alford and Kimberly Whalen, and outstanding dancing. If Lyric manages anything this close to perfection again, world, watch out.
2. Endgame, Undermain Theatre (April)
Director: Stan Wojewodski, Jr.
A difficult Samuel Beckett work to pull off, but the director and magnificent ensemble (Bruce DuBose, Jonathan Brooks, Fred Curchack and Laura Jorgensen) worked it out. If you love Beckett, it was one for the record books. If you didn't love him, then this production changed your mind.
1. No Child..., Amphibian Stage Productions (November)
Director: René Moreno
Actress Rhianna Mack has done good work in the past, but she blew it out of the water in this hourlong Nilaja Sun play, in which one actress plays 16 characters in a New York school. Mack went beyond mimicry, and transformed (sometimes with lightening transitions) into these roles without the help of costumes. It was accents, vocal tone and posture doing the work. Moreno expertly guided her along, and it didn't hurt that Sun's script was well structured, delivering knockout blows of pain, tears and laughter, often all at once.
(10 more that I quite liked, in no particular order, other than alphabetical)
Alice in Wonderland, White Rock Pollution; Black Pearl Sings!, WaterTower Theatre; Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits, Uptown Players; 4.48 Psychosis, Sundown Collaborative Theatre; The Gospel at Colonus, African American Repertory Theater; Henry IV, Dallas Theater Center; Home, Jubilee Theatre; The Lonesome West, Stage West; Show Boat in Concert, Lyric Stage; The Snow Queen, Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts/Dallas Children's Theater
THE YEAR IN TOURS
Man, it was a pretty crappy year for national touring productions, filled with incredibly dumb shows (Shrek the Musical, Dr. Seuss' The Grinch Who Stole Christmas) or mediocre productions of entertaining musicals (Dreamgirls). We did get to see a range of works at the Winspear Opera House, though, and Dallas Summer Musicals had one great, silly-fun show. The three best major tours were:
- Spring Awakening, Broadway Lexus Series at Winspear Opera House (and later at Bass Hall)
- Xanadu, Dallas Summer Musicals
- August: Osage County, Broadway Lexus Series at Winspear Opera House. This would have ranked higher, but then I saw Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre's production (directed by René Moreno and featuring Pam Dougherty as Violet Weston), which eclipsed the tour.
However, some of the most memorable tours were one-man undertakings, playing in smaller theaters across North Texas. The best were:
- The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac at Undermain Theatre, a wildly inventive standup/cabaret/monologue performance from an avante-garde, ukulele-playing drag queen. Whuh?
- Mike Daisey's Great Men of Genius and How Theatre Failed America at WaterTower Theatre’s Out of the Loop Fringe Festival. In the tradition of Spalding Gray, Daisey is a compelling and viciously funny monologuist.
- Former NFL star Bo Eason’s autobiographical Runt of the Litter, at McKinney Performing Arts Center and later at Grand Prairie’s Uptown Theater, featuring the athlete in a physical, raw and funny performance.
- Tommy Tune: Steps in Time at Lyric Stage. He actually had some help in this show about his much-awarded career, but it was all about Tune. The man is over 70 and still has amazing tap skills. You'll have more chances to catch this show when it opens Dallas Summer Musicals' 2011 season at the Fair Park Music Hall (March 15-20).
- The Beauty Plays and The Trinity River Plays, Dallas Theater Center
- Endgame and The Dog Problem; Undermain Theatre
- (il)logical: a play on love, Sundown Collaborative Theatre
- Opus and Bach at Leipzig, Circle Theatre
- SubUrbia, Upstart Productions
- Volume of Smoke, Audacity Theatre Lab
- Regan Adair: Laughter on the 23rd Floor, WaterTower Theatre; Something Intangible, Circle Theatre
- J. Brent Alford: My Fair Lady, Lyric Stage
- Steven Blanchard: The Sound of Music, Casa Mañana
- Kayla Carlyle: Circle Mirror Transformation, WaterTower Theatre
- Catherine Carpenter Cox: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Uptown Players and Bye Bye Birdie, Lyric Stage
- Pam Dougherty: The Full Monty, WaterTower Theatre and August: Osage County, Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre
- Jeremy Dumont: The Drowsy Chaperone, Theatre Three
- Olivia Emile: 4.48 Psychosis, Sundown Collaborative Theatre
- Joey Folsom: SubUrbia, Upstart Productions; Our Town, WaterTower Theatre; Georgie Gets a Facelift and Thank You Berry Much, Churchmouse Productions
- Sonny Franks: My Fair Lady, Lyric Stage
- Brian Gonzales: Laughter on the 23rd Floor, WaterTower Theatre
- Rhianna Mack: No Child..., Amphibian Stage Productions
- Marcus Mauldin: Home, Jubilee Theatre
- Kristin McCollum: Well, Echo Theatre
- Liz Mikel: Black Pearl Sings, WaterTower Theatre
- Trisha Miller: Much Ado About Nothing, Trinity Shakespeare Festival
- Tina Parker: Charm, Kitchen Dog Theater
- Danielle Pickard: Alice in Wonderland, White Rock Pollution
- Chris Piper: Jitney, African American Repertory Theatre
- Jo Schellenberg: Cymbeline, Shakespeare Dallas
- Cara Statham Serber: It’s a Bird...It’s a Plane...It’s Superman, Dallas Theater Center
- Shane Strawbridge: Poseidon: An Upside Down Musical, Level Ground Arts
- Sally Nystuen Vahle: Death of a Salesman, Dallas Theater Center
- Lee Jamison Wadley: Equus, Uptown Players
- Kimberly Whalen: My Fair Lady, Lyric Stage
- Maxey Whitehead: Our Town, WaterTower Theatre
- Ashley Wilkerson: Jitney, African American Repertory Theatre
- Best orchestrations: Eugene Gwozdz did wonders with Charles Strouse's score for the Dallas Theater Center's revisal of It’s a Bird...It’s a Plane...It’s Superman, turning poppy, '60s showtunes into stunning Big Band-era works.
- Best properties feat: There was much destruction happening on area stages this year, such as those poor violins in Opus at Circle Theatre. But the winner in this category goes to Lynn Lovett, who painted something like 45 religious figurines for each performance of Stage West's The Lonesome West, only to have them smashed to pieces at each of the 16 performances. She started making 700+ of these props about three months before the show opened.
- Best fascination with Asian performance techniques: You might think Fred Curchack, but it's really mad-genius Matthew Posey, who used his fascination with butoh and bunraku for the oddly captivating piece about Jean Genet, St. Genet of the Flowery Teeth.
- Best stage entrance: Hands down, Joey Folsom in The Pitchfork Disney at Broken Gears Project Theatre, who came onstage from the attic of the group's new space, an old house. He opened the attic door, let down the ladder and popped in.
- Best puppetry: Well, it's a tie. Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts' featured gorgeous Black Theatre work and shadow puppetry in The Snow Queen; but Hip Pocket Theatre's Lowdown Wax took large-scale puppetry and the art of manipulation to new heights.
Shows I wish I had seen: Bill, Ochre House; Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Broken Gears Project Theatre; The 39 Steps and The Miser, Stage West; Bright Ideas, Circle Theatre; 33 Variations, Theatre Three; Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare Dallas; Barefoot in the Park and Brighton Beach Memoirs, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas; Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, Theatre Arlington; Miss Nelson is Missing! and more shows at Dallas Children’s Theater.
LEAST FAVORITE SHOWS
Although some of these had redeemable qualities, they all still leave a bad taste in my mouth. There were others that fall in the same category, but I'm limiting this list to the big-budget groups. When small companies do bad scripts/productions, it's easy to shrug off. But when there's money behind a stinker, it's worth ragging on. Again.
- Bill W. and Dr. Bob, Theatre Three
- The Blue Moon Dancing, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas
- Closer to Heaven, Uptown Players
- Give It Up!, Dallas Theater Center
- The Night of the Hunter, Lyric Stage
BEST-OF PICKS FROM OTHER TJ WRITERS
- Best Fringe Production: (il)logical: a play on love, Sundown Collaborative Theatre. Working the “fringe” beat can be a trying experience, for amongst the risk-takers there are many failures. That said, finding those rare gems becomes an enlightening experience by comparison. My first assignment for TJ was an evening of short plays produced by a tiny upstart in Denton called Sundown Collaborative Theatre. And though that first evening had its ups and downs, I was struck by the maturity of this comparatively young group. The second performance I saw, (il)logical: a play on love, was transcendent. It was brilliant collaborative performance that deftly tackled a subject so often leaned upon for sure fire audience entertainment. Sundown showed the brutally honest manifestations of love through innovative and creative techniques. And a precedent was established. I've now reviewed Sundown's last four productions, and though not every one was a home run, they've more than proven themselves to be a force to be reckoned with.
- Best Pro Production: The 39 Steps, Stage West. My wheelhouse is satire. And this production was a pitch-perfect representation of satire and parody, exquisitely produced and highlighted by hilariously solid performances.
- Best Amateur Production: Machinal, University of Dallas. Putting a college group in this spot is for two reasons. First, UD should be recognized for taking on a difficult piece and performing it admirably. Second, it serves as a bit of a callout for other theaters. This was a difficult decision because nothing truly separated itself in this category. The stage design was visionary and impressive for a college group. The performances, too, were more mature than what you find at some noncollege theaters. Kudos to a solid program at UD!
- Honorable mentions: The Beauty Queen of Leenane, ICT Mainstage (Theatre on the Edge series); On the Origin of the Specifics, Hip Pocket Theatre; Home, Jubilee Theatre
- Endgame at Undermain ranks as the best show of 2010. From design to direction this has to be the best considered and executed piece of theater Big D has seen in a while, which is truly impressive considering it was Beckett in a basement.
- But for taut entertaining twists, you can't beat Long Way Go Down at Kitchen Dog Theater. Christopher Carlos created a nuvo noir thrillride worthy of the Coen Brothers. But it was Brian Wofford's set with as many secrets as the plot that sold the show as one of the year's best.
- Favorite local production: Dallas Theater Center’s Fat Pig. Neil LaBute’s plays aren’t for everyone. He tends to write bluntly about deeply personal subjects. In the case of "The Beauty Plays," performed at DTC, the topics revolved around physical beauty. With Fat Pig, the subject was size, fraught with an array of emotions and self-esteem-killing words and actions. A top-notch cast of Christina Vela, Regan Adair, Steven Walters and Aleisha Force delivered a piece worthy of hours of post-show conversation without relying on tired stereotypes and myths about those who are a different size than what the media, and our society, deem acceptable.
- Favorite touring production: Spring Awakening at Bass Hall. So many musicals these days come disguised as dance or music revues, or are adaptations of movies, that it’s rare to get excited about a new musical. The national tour of Spring Awakening was a breath of fresh air. A powerful, relevant story with a meaningful score; and best of all, a whole new generation of young theatergoers were excited about and moved by what they saw onstage.
- Favorite tie-in idea: QLive’s staged reading of Frank Wedekind’s controversial 1891 play, Spring Awakening: A Children’s Tragedy, the night before the national tour of the musical was performed in Bass Hall. Hearing the source material gave insight, weight and context to the musical.
- Favorite theater news: Founding member Steven Walters coming back to Second Thought Theatre as its co-artistic director.
The bold, the brash and the traditional coexisted comfortably last year on the North Texas theater scene.
- In the former category, Broken Glass Project Theatre's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, by John Patrick Shanley (Doubt), lingers hauntingly in the memory. Joey Folsom and Whitney Holotik ignited a small, cluttered set with four-letter rage, brutality, hyperventilation and leap-in-the-sack sex. Smokin'!
- On the comfy side, Rover Dramawerks revisited Edward Albee's Everything in the Garden and the always-rewarding Contemporary Theatre of Dallas served a tasty revival of the Neil Simon gilded oldie, Barefoot in the Park. (Belated bravos to that production's Marcia Carroll as Mrs. Banks.)
Also, here is the Top 10 list from TheaterJones Editor Emeritus and co-founder Elaine Liner, in the Dallas Observer.
Happy New Year, everyone.
Editor's Note: In the week between Christmas and New Year's, we'll run our looks back at the year in the performing arts. Coming up, look for the biggest theater and arts stories of the year; and the year in local performing arts photos. Margaret Putnam's year in dance is here; M. Lance Lusk's year in Shakespeare is here; and Gregory Sullivan Isaacs' best of classical music and opera is here. Also, here's a look at the year in theater from local critic Alexandra Bonifield, whose blogsite Critical Rant is a new TheaterJones media partner.