Back in June, at a round table discussion on local theater hosted by D Magazine and with a panel of local critics, including myself, there was lively discussion on how to make our arts scene stronger and more noticeable. I remember talking about how the community has bonded more since the arrival of Kevin Moriarty at the Dallas Theater Center in 2007, but wanted to see more collaboration, especially between our two major cities, Dallas and Fort Worth.
Of course, the partnerships had already begun by then. It was just a few months after spring's landmark Horton Foote Festival, in which a dozen or so theaters in several cities participated; and there had already been the announcement of a co-production of To Kill a Mockingbird between DTC and Fort Worth's Casa Mañana.
Looking back at 2011, I realize that I was late in expressing my concern over everyone working together. Because in fact, what made this year so strong was an overwhelming sense of cooperation.
DTC and Moriarty deserve a big part of the credit, as the Foote festival was headed up by them. In addition to that and the Casa co-pro, there was a signficant joining of forces between them and Dallas Black Dance Theatre for the whirligig production of The Wiz. And by year's end, the city's biggest regional theater would announce another major collaboration for 2012: A production of the chamber opera The Lighthouse, from Dallas Opera and Dallas Theater Center.
And speaking of cross-discipline collabos, the year ended with another major event, A Gathering: The Dallas Arts Community Reflects on 30 Years of AIDS, in which DTC and Dallas Opera joined forces with Turtle Creek Chorale and a number of dance outfits, such as Texas Ballet Theater, Dallas Black Dance Theatre and Bruce Wood Dance Project. The event was put together by Charles Santos of TITAS and the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Chris Heinbaugh, and directed by DTC's Joel Ferrell.
It's like everyone is taking the relatively recent game-changing technological innovation of social networking and applying that concept to real life—and by extension, our art. Has North Texas been blanketed with an invisible, massive "share" button?
In 2011 we also saw a joint concert between the Fort Worth Symphony and the Turtle Creek Chorale; not to mention a collaboration between Dallas Opera, Dallas Children's Theater and the opera departments at Southern Methodist University and the University of North Texas for Doctor Miracle. And Cara Mía Theatre Co. crossed an actual border to create art with Mexico City's Laboratorio de la Máscara.
In addition to the established performance festivals like WaterTower's Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, the Barefoot Brigade Dance Festival and the Festival of Independent Theatres, Uptown Players offered its first Pride Performing Arts Festival and the new Nouveau 47 Theatre gave us an exciting new works festival that brought together actors, playwrights, critics and theatergoers for robust conversation. Additionally, there seemed to be a lot of cross-pollination between the artists of young theaters like N47 and Upstart Productions with Second Thought Theatre and the more established Kitchen Dog and DTC.
And to top it off, Theatre Three marked its 50th anniversary, an achievement you don't earn without having made lots of friends in the community. Jac Alder's organization has long been known for freely sharing resources like props and set pieces.
We all seem to be stronger for it. In turn, it was an especially good year for artistic endeavors on local stages. In writing for TheaterJones, the Star-Telegram and Arts+Culture Magazine, I saw 195 productions; probably 85 percent of that theater, with a healthy dose of dance and opera sprinkled in. I'm proud of that fact, because you can't be serious about being an arts writer if you're not devoting major time to getting out there and experiencing it. (My top five Tarrant-centric dance events are in this year-end story in the Star-Telegram.)
So, here's the list of my favorite 10 theater productions of 2011, with notes about other shows, performances and events that won't be forgotten anytime soon.
The Top 10
To see the list as a slideshow presentation, click the slideshow icon under the photos at the top of this story
1. Red Light Winter, Second Thought Theatre at the Studio Theatre, Addison Theatre Centre, Addison (April)
One of the bigger theater stories of 2011 was how Second Thought Theatre, under new leadership from Chris LaBove and co-founder Steven Walters, bounced back in a big way. All five of their productions this year (two of them at festivals) were excellent, but this staging of Adam Rapp's 2006 Pulitzer Prize finalist, directed by Regan Adair, still resonates the most. A look at friendship, manipulation and the desire for love and human contact, two of the three actors (Natalie Young and Drew Wall) went completely nude, but all three (the other being Alex Organ) bared it all emotionally.
2. Cabaret, Dallas Theater Center at the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, Dallas (April)
This is how you do a revival of an iconic musical, folks. Director Joel Ferrell, who back in the late '90s and early 2000s was directing the best productions in North Texas at Casa Mañana, showed Dallas audience his insight with musicals. It was a thrilling, sexy and emotionally raw production, with genius concept and powerful performances.
3. Topdog/Underdog, Jubilee Theatre, Fort Worth (September)
This marked the fourth time I've seen this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Suzan-Lori Parks, and second time with David Jeremiah playing one of the brothers. It was also the second production directed at Jubilee Theatre by its new artistic director, Tre Garrett, and he lived up to the promise. Two dynamic performances (by Jeremiah and Gregory "Rico" Parker), insightful direction and an excellent design concept (set by Michael Pettigrew, sound by David Lanza, lighting by Nikki Deshea Smith) made it the best production of this play I've seen, and the best production of a play at Jubilee I've seen since I started attending there in the late '90s. In going back to the theme of collaboration, Garrett will assistant direct the Dallas Theater Center's Next Fall in 2012, working under Moriarty.
4. Dividing the Estate, Dallas Theater Center at the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, Dallas (March)
Right before Joel Ferrell directed Cabaret, he took on the centerpiece production of the Horton Foote Festival, casting it beautifully and infusing it with a darker humor and pathos than we don't always see in Foote's plays. John Arnone designed the set and it was the first show of 2011 that used the Wyly space as well as we knew it could be used. The concept of successfully experimenting with the Wyly was followed through in Cabaret, The Wiz and The Tempest (and really started with the fall 2010 production of Henry IV).
5. The Shipment, Undermain Theatre, Dallas (June)
Undermain had a diverse line-up this year, with a beautifully designed production of Strindberg's Easter and the fantastic performances in Sam Shepard's Ages of the Moon, but I can't stop thinking about The Shipment. In fact, no production of 2011 has had me coming back and analyzing it more than Young Jean Lee's bold look at black stereotypes in entertainment. The fact that it was written by a Korean-American woman, directed by a man of European descent (Stan Wojewodski, Jr.) and attended by a mostly white audience added to the intrigue. It wasn't perfect, and I found myself concerned with the reactions by African-American audience members almost as much as anything on the stage. I was especially taken with Akron Watson's performance as a contemporary, Richard Pryor/Eddie Murphy/Chris Rock-styled comic. I saw it on the final weekend and the performances had probably gelled by then (judging from earlier reviews of it). It reportedly angered some, but if art isn't stirring a strong reaction, then how can it last?
6. As You Like It, Trinity Shakespeare Festival at Texas Christian University, Buschmann Theatre, Fort Worth (June)
I'm embarrassed that I missed several major Shakespeare productions this year, including Kitchen Dog's Macbeth and all of the Dallas Shakes season (I'm gonna blame the summer heat for part of that). And while Kevin Moriarty's The Tempest at DTC was his finest Shakespeare yet in Dallas, I was most enraptured with Trinity's As You Like It, directed by T.J. Walsh. Interestingly, in all three years of TSF's existence, its productions of the comedies have outshone the tragedies, although there was less consensus about this year, in which some preferred their Macbeth to AYLI. But not me. The comedy and romance was pitch-perfect. What has made TSF rise to the top of the local Shakespeare heap is that they don't overthink concept or waste time with gimmickry. It's about the language, performed by outstanding ensembles of actors who understand the text and motivation. It doesn't hurt that their productions are gorgeous to boot.
7. Next to Normal, Uptown Players at Kalita Humphreys Theater, Dallas (June)
Uptown Players scored a coup with getting rights to the first local production of this Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, and while I have to admit that it left me a little colder than I wanted it to, that's part of its power. It's not a happy musical, and Michael Serrecchia (who had a terrific year) assembled a first-rate cast and Andy Redmon gave us one of the great set designs of the year. It was Uptown's best use of the Kalita space to date, not to mention their best production there. And in fact, their best production of a musical ever.
8. Wittenberg, Amphibian Stage Productions at Fort Worth Community Arts Center's Betty and Hardy Sanders Theatre, Fort Worth (July)
For a company that has largely been interested in hard-hitting drama, the 'Phibs had two high-scoring comedies this year, starting with this. Martin Luther, Dr. Faustus and Hamlet walk into a bar. Yeah, it sounds like a set-up for a one-punchline joke, but David Davalos' comedy sustained the idea for a thought-provoking comedy pitting philosophy against theology, without taking either side. Like Martin Luther hammering his 95 Theses onto a church door, director David A. Miller's cast nailed it.
9. Morphing, Balanced Almond at the Ochre House, Dallas (August)
Along with Second Thought Theatre and the Dallas Theater Center, Matthew Posey's Balanced Almond also had a breakout season. Memphos and The Butcher each set new watermarks, but it was Morphing, Posey's deconstruction of O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, with its innovative use of live video in the tiny Ochre House space (and behind it), that sealed it. Taking the essence of the Tyrones' drama, and with a brilliant turn by Justin Locklear as the matriarch, Morphing was as addictive as they come.
10. El Viaje de Tina (Tina’s Journey), Cara Mía Theatre Company and Laboratorio de la Máscara at the Latino Cultural Center, Dallas (August)
I'm a sucker for well-done physical theater, one of the reasons I appreciate Fort Worth's Hip Pocket Theatre and Dallas' Cara Mía so. In this international collaboration with a physical theater in Mexico City (the show was also performed there), the story of a girl adjusting to a new life in the States was filled with symbolism and cultural relevance, and beautifully performed with mask and object-manipulation puppetry that made for some of the most memorable visual images of the year, as seen as this video promo:
Directed by Laboratorio's Alicia Martínez Álvarez. The two groups are planning another collaboration for 2012. Do not miss it.
Did I mention that I attended nearly 200 shows this year? That's a lot of theater-going. If I did a Top 20, then the next 10 would include (not ranked, but in alphabetical order):
- Ages of the Moon, Undermain Theatre, Dallas (October)
- Arms and the Man, Stage West, Fort Worth (October)
- Arsenic and Old Lace, Dallas Theater Center at Kalita Humphreys Theater (February)
- Gypsy, Lyric Stage at Irving Arts Center (September)
- It's Only Life, Theatre Three, Dallas (November)
- The Lesson, Second Thought Theatre at the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, Addison (March)
- The Madness of Lady Bright, One Thirty Productions at the Festival of Independent Theatres, Dallas (July)
- Spring Awakening, WaterTower Theatre, Addison (October)
- 3 Foote: An Evening of One-Act Plays, Kitchen Dog Theater, Dallas (April)
- Thom Pain (based on nothing), Second Thought Theatre at the Studio Theatre at Addison Theatre Centre (January)
Actress of the Year: Emily Scott Banks for Boeing-Boeing, Circle Theatre; Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas; A Most Dangerous Woman, Echo Theatre; and Arms and the Man, Stage West
- Runner-up: Anastasia Munoz for The Lesson, Second Thought Theatre and To Kill a Mockingbird, Casa Mañana and Dallas Theater Center
Actor of the Year: Lee Trull for Arsenic and Old Lace, Cabaret and The Tempest, all at Dallas Theater Center
- Runner-up: Alex Organ: Red Light Winter, Second Thought Theatre; Macbeth and As You Like It, Trinity Shakespeare Festival; and Little Shop of Horrors, WaterTower Theatre
Most Improved: Keith J. Warren for Flora the Red Menace at Lyric Stage and Kiss of the Spiderwoman at Artes de la Rosa
More great performances:
- Major Attaway: The African Company Presents Richard III and Alice Wonder, both at Jubilee Theatre
- Patty Breckenridge, Next to Normal, Uptown Players
- Jonathan Brooks: As You Like It, Trinity Shakespeare Festival and A Christmas Carol, Dallas Theater Center
- Jonathan Fielding: Vigil, Amphibian Stage Productions
- Mark Fickert: Becky's New Car, Circle Theatre and Ages of the Moon, Undermain Theatre
- Adam Garst: Spring Awakening, WaterTower Theatre
- Martha Harms: In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, Kitchen Dog Theater
- David Jeremiah: The Shipment, Undermain Theatre and Topdog/Underdog, Jubilee Theatre
- Elly Lindsay: The Trip to Bountiful, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas and Vigil, Amphibian Stage Productions
- Justin Locklear: Morphing, Ochre House
- David Lugo: The Lesson, Second Thought Theatre and Alexander and Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day at Dallas Children's Theater
- Shannon McGrann: Intimate Exchanges, Stage West and Bad Dates, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas
- Barry Nash: Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self, Second Thought Theatre
- Larry Randolph: The Madness of Lady Bright, One Thirty Productions
- Dana Schultes: Talking Pictures, Stage West
- Sally Soldo: A Catered Affair, Theatre Three
- Tamara Stovall Peterson: Billie's Blues, DVA Productions
- Drew Wall: Red Light Winter, Second Thought Theatre
- Steven Walters: Thom Pain (based on nothing), Second Thought Theatre and The Tempest, Dallas Theater Center
- Lulu Ward: Oedipus the King, Broken Gears Project Theatre; The New Century, Uptown Players; and Spring Awakening, WaterTower Theatre
- Akron Watson, The Shipment, Undermain Theatre; Once on This Island, Jubilee Theatre; and To Kill a Mockingbird, Casa Mañana and Dallas Theater Center
- Natalie Young: Red Light Winter, Second Thought Theatre and Oleanna, Dallas Actor's Lab
- Dividing the Estate, Dallas Theater Center
- 3 Foote: An Evening of One-Act Plays, Kitchen Dog Theater
- Red Light Winter, Second Thought Theatre
- As You Like It, Trinity Shakespeare Festival
- The Shipment, Undermain Theatre
- Wittenberg, Amphibian Stage Productions
- A Most Dangerous Woman, Echo Theatre
- It's Only Life, Theatre Three
Theater of the Year: Dallas Theater Center
- Runner-up: Second Thought Theatre
Best tours (all of which featured outstanding Broadway dancing):
- Irving Berlin's White Christmas, Performing Arts Fort Worth at Bass Hall (November)
- West Side Story, Dallas Summer Musicals at Music Hall at Fair Park (October)
- Billy Elliot the Musical, Lexus Broadway Series at Winspear Opera House (June)
Best overall design (sets, costumes, lighting, sound, etc.):
- Macbeth, Trinity Shakespeare Festival, which also had the year's best fight choreography (June)
- The Tempest, Dallas Theater Center (September)
- Next to Normal, Uptown Players (June)
- In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, Kitchen Dog Theater (September)
- Creditors, Broken Gears Project Theatre (February)
Best planned playwright festival: The Horton Foote Festival. Participants: Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas Theater Center, Flower Mound Performing Arts Theatre, KERA, Kitchen Dog Theater, One Thirty Productions, Rotunda Theatre, Southern Methodist University, Stage West, Texas Theatre, Theatre Three, Uptown Players, WaterTower Theatre, Wingspan Theatre Company
Best unplanned playwright festival: The Foote Fest was important and was indeed well-planned. But who would have known that the spring and early summer would give us four productions from an important musical theater duo, John Kander and Fred Ebb? In February we got their early work Flora the Red Menace in a delightful production from Lyric Stage, followed by Kiss of the Spiderwoman at Fort Worth's Artes de la Rosa in April and DTC's brilliant Cabaret in May, and then a tour of their biggest hit, Chicago, at Bass Performance Hall in June. Anyone up for The Scottsboro Boys soon?
- Runner-up: Steven Dietz, whose plays were done at Circle Theatre, WaterTower Theatre, Amphibian Stage Productions and Rover Dramawerks this year.
Best children's theater production: The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs at Dallas Children's Theater
Best show performed by children: The Hundred Dresses at Creative Arts Theatre & School
Best show for children not at a children’s theater: Seven in One Blow or the Brave Little Kid, Circle Theatre
Best university production: The Skriker, Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts
Outstanding debut production: Oleanna, Dallas Actor’s Lab
Best choreography: Joel Ferrell, Cabaret, Dallas Theater Center
- Runner up: John de los Santos, Spring Awakening, WaterTower Theatre
Favorite non-theater performing arts experiences of 2011:
- Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, presented by TITAS at Hamon Hall in the Winspear Opera House
- Hydrogen Jukebox, Fort Worth Opera at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center's Betty and Hardy Sanders Theatre
- A Gathering: The Dallas Arts Community Reflects on 30 Years of AIDS at the Winspear Opera House
Five unforgettable moments at the theater in 2011:
- Bruce DuBose shooting, with a shotgun, the finicky ceiling fan in Ages of the Moon at Undermain Theatre.
- The end of Thomas Riccio's blahblah in the debut production by Dead White Zombies at the Green Zone in the Design District. At the end, as characters set off for a metaphorical Emerald City, the large garage door of the space opens up and we see the real downtown Dallas and perfectly center is the Bank of America skyscraper lit up in shimmering green. They walk out into the night. Utterly magical.
- There were lots of memorable moments from Ex Voto: The Immaculate Conceptions of Frida Kahlo at the Ochre House, what with the recreation of Kalho's paintings and retablos, the skeleton puppet, original score and scenes in an upright bed. But during a hospital bed scene as the docs are checking out her unborn baby, they crawl down into her womb and we see what happens there through the magic of shadow puppetry.
- In a quick, last-minute revival of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys at the Eisemann Center in Richardson (it also played one night at Casa Manana...more working together!), the former vaudeville brothers were played by Jerry and Dick van Dyke. Local actress Denise Lee held her own as the nurse, and Jerry had the major part. But Dick got the biggest laugh. Upon his entrance, he made a quick swerve around a strategically placed ottoman. Funny on its own in that Dick van Dyke is still as master at physical comedy, but for nostalgia lovers, it was that instant flashback to the opening sequence of The Dick van Dyke Show that made it all worth the ticket price.
- In Second Thought Theatre's Red Light Winter, Drew Wall’s monologue to Natalie Young as his character, Matt, recounts to hers that night in Amsterdam when he hopelessly fell for her. Here's part of it, from a video we filmed after opening night.
Here's to all of us falling even more in love with local theater in 2012, and to more collaboration.
◊ Editor's note: You can also read thoughts about the year in theater from TJ writers Kris Noteboom, David Novinski and Perry Stewart, here; and more thoughts from TJ media partner CriticalRant, a.k.a Alexandra Bonifield, here. And for the other performing arts, Gregory Sullivan Isaacs' take on the year in classical music is here; Margaret Putnam's Top 10 dance events are here; and Cheryl Callon's take on the year in dance is here.
It's all easily findable in our special section 2011 in Review.