My table will seat 14, if we sit cozily check by jowl. So I decided to invite the lucky 13 characters (and the extraordinary actors who embodied them) to come over New Year’s Eve and welcome in 2016. I saw more than 70 shows in 2015, so it’s not that easy to tighten the list so everybody has a seat. My chief criteria for a chair is the powerful visceral effect of a glowing theater moment that remains long after a performance is seen and written about. For me, that magic is attached to an actor somehow transcending all barriers and linking the man, woman or swan from the past, the present, the future—to me in theater in that big fat eternal present where time sort of steps aside and theater happens.
And now, the guest list:
Sally Nystuen Vahle in the title role of Euripides’ Medea, directed by Kevin Moriarty in the Dallas Theater Center’s basement space, conjured the force of a tornado, calculating, crazed and hollow-eyed from grieving for the faithless Jason, who she throws to the ground in fury, as she steels herself for her awful revenge. Next to Medea, I’m seating Shannon Kearns as Mary in Undermain Theatre’s one-woman play, The Testament of Mary, based on Colm Toibin’s novel and directed by Katherine Owens. Fierce, independent, and as unforgiving of her son’s controlling disciples as she is of the men who crucified him, Kearns’s brave performance was as chilling and relentless an act of motherhood as you’re apt to witness. The things women bear, both literally and metaphorically.
Across the table I want charismatic Hassan El-Amin as the visionary old jailbird Elder Joe in August Wilson’s Radio Golf, directed by Bernard Cummings for African American Repertory Theater. El-Amin’s intensity conveying his character’s sage-like sense of self-knowledge coupled with his hilarious wild-eyed crazy-like-a-fox tirades about justice in the slums drove Wilson’s nail of truth into the heart. On Joe’s left hand, I’m seating Michael Federico’s fidgety, antic Gus, one of Harold Pinter’s strung-out working-class hit men in The Dumb Waiter, directed by Tim Johnson at Kitchen Dog Theater. Funny-nuts and funny- ha-ha Federico land his carefully hilarious Chaplinesque matchbook-in-the-shoe business one moment, and the next makes us feel pity for a ruthless killer, as Gus visibly quivers at the creeping doubt about who the next victim might be.
Mid-table we need an engaging pair, good looking and fun. Justin Locklear’s Marvin, the title character in Matthew Posey’s world premiere of The Egg Salesman at Ochre House, fills the bill when it comes to radiating easy charm. Gangly, sad-eyed and sweet-smiling, Locklear’s Marvin moves in old-fashioned ways around the racetrack, the bar and his darlin’ wife. Grinning, grimacing or just goofing around with puppets he designed for the show, Locklear’s Marvin is a guy you want to take home and forgive everything. Across from him sits glowing Janelle Lutz as Nellie Forbush, the high-hearted and sassy young Navy nurse, from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific, directed by Len Pfluger at Lyric Stage. Slender, bright-eyed, and exuding glamour, Lutz’s sassy Nellie is the very spirit of youthful cockeyed optimism singing in a vibrant, crystal voice, “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair.” Wayward men and feisty women must be cast just right.
Don’t want to get too far from the crazy end of the feast before seating sophisticate, cowgirl and comedienne extraordinaire Tina Parker as Penelope Easterwood, the hilarious and terrifying female political candidate and time bomb of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Totalitarians. Parker’s wild-eyed, swaggering, take-no-prisoners, stump-speeching, weapons-wrangling performance is what Trump might deliver if he wore dresses. Hanging on Penelope’s every campaign promise is Kyle Igneczi, as Hedwig, the title character in John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s ferocious rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, directed by Jeremy Dumont at Uptown Players. Igneczi, his hair still glittering from his astonishingly wicked and touching performance as the ex-Berliner of indeterminate gender, singing and vamping about botched surgery, bitter love and old jealousies. Thrilling and bold as a wigged-out drag queen singing his heart out, Igneczi is most powerful when he is literally stripped of everything, and something wrenchingly real at his center is revealed. Tough gals, Pen and Hedwig!
Speaking of strong females, enter singularly stunning Sherry Jo Ward as Brodie, the relentlessly rational, donor-impregnated, 40-ish lesbian linguist at the top of her academic game in Madeline George’s Precious Little directed by Kelsey Leigh Ervi at Echo Theatre. In cool sex scenes with an adoring graduate student or in a compelling, wordless scene in which she locks eyes with an old female ape in the zoo, Ward’s Brodie makes us see that a child in the womb swells with powerful instincts, as well as with physical growth. Next to brilliant Brodie—and surely a sympathetic sister beneath it all—we’re seating B. J. Cleveland’s title character from Douglas Carter Beane’s The Nance, directed by Bruce R. Coleman at Uptown Players. Ever-versatile and a natural hambone, Cleveland’s breakthrough performance as Chauncey, a middle-aged gay comic playing a flaming gay man, or a “nance,” grew in detail and power right to the end. Hankies all round.
Pairing for old times and sheer talent, I’m seating actor, writer, director Akín Babatundé next to actor, writer, and theater spirit par excellence Terry Vandivort, as the aging actor in Theatre three’s fresh, evocative production of The Fantasticks, directed by Bruce R. Coleman, and still on the boards through this weekend. Babatundeé has compiled an excellent body of directing work in area theaters this year, but I’m inviting him especially for his thrilling, soulful production of The Color Purple at Jubilee Theatre, filled with music, dance and a joyous lightness in the midst of hard, difficult lives. Good for the soul. Vandivort’s derelict, forgetful, knobby-kneed old thespian, smiling in happy surprise at the audience when he gets applause and laughs, is quintessential stuff that dreams are made on. I won’t forget this exquisite moment for a long time. I hope!
And topping off my baker’s dozen is the 13th seat for Tex Patrello, a teenage actor in Jeff Swearingen’s Fun House Theatre’s one-night staged reading (emphasis on staged) of Elaine Liner’s A Ripping Christmas Carol. Patrello stood on a chair wearing a tiny, dumb Big Ben hat throughout the show, and saying, “Bong bong, bong,” on cue, to hilarious effect. But his big moment came at show’s end when this skinny kid in a shirt and tie, who looks and sounds a little like a very young Sinatra, steps off his chair and starts singing Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” in a sweet ballad voice with a confident, cutie-pie delivery. You got it, Babe! We’re hiring Tex to ring in the New Year—and look forward to seeing him and many other exciting young actors at Fun House in years to come.
That leaves the last chair for me. Okay. Maybe I’ll invite my TJ editor to squeeze in on a stool for the totally crazy party.
2015: Year in Review
- Monday, Dec. 28 Margaret Putnam's Year in Dance
- Monday, Dec. 28 Cheryl Callon's thoughts on the year in dance
- Monday, Dec. 28 Katie Dravenstott's thoughts on the year in dance
- Monday, Dec. 28 Columnist Danielle Georgiou's Year
- Tuesday, Dec. 29 Gregory Sullivan Isaacs' Year in Classical Music and Opera
- Tuesday, Dec. 29 J. Robin Coffelt's thoughts on the year in classical music
- Tuesday, Dec. 29 M. Lance Lusk's Year in Shakespeare
- Wednesday, Dec. 30 Jan Farrington's thoughts on the year in theater
- Wednesday, Dec. 30 Martha Heimberg's thoughts on the year in theater
- Wednesday, Dec. 30 David Novinski's thoughts on the year in theater
- Thursday, Dec. 31 Amy Martin's thoughts on the year in comedy
- Friday, Jan. 1 Mark Lowry's Year in Theater
- Sunday, Jan. 10 TheaterJones writers look forward to 2016
- Monday, Jan. 11 The top performing arts news of the year