Every year I think my year-end wrap-up is going to be easy to write. I start prepping for it in January, with the help of a detailed file I keep of all the performances I see, adding in highlighted notes, such as “new work” or “best-of contender.” The lists are broken down by month, and in the case of multi-day festivals like Dallas Solo Fest or Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, have bulleted subsets. I’m kinda anal about it.
It does come in handy in early September for the annual Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum meeting, and in mid-December as I prepare for my final big story of the year—not only as I compile the best-of list but also in evaluating the trends and themes of the year.
For the record, in 2015 I saw 172 performing arts productions; 140 of those were theater, the others dance or opera. And in case you’re wondering, a program that features several short plays (like TeCo’s PlayPride Festival or a ten-minute play fest) is considered one, as is a two-show block at the Festival of Independent Theatres (but overall, FIT counts as four; and Loop even more). That’s about on par with every year for the past decade or so, with the exception of 2013, the year I made the New Year’s resolution to see 200 shows, and surpassed the goal—but it wasn’t easy.
I’m not bragging, but rather making the point that even with that much theatergoing, there is a lot I didn't see. I’m embarrassed to say that I missed way too much in Fort Worth (Stage West, Circle Theatre, Amphibian Stage Productions, Jubilee Theatre, Stolen Shakespeare Guild and Casa Mañana: I won’t desert you in 2016) and half (or more) of the seasons for Dallas stalwarts Theatre Three, Shakespeare Dallas, Second Thought Theatre and African American Repertory Theater. I did attempt to make shows by emerging groups, such as House Party Theatre, RatRace Productions and Shakespeare in the Bar; and still missed debuts by Cry Havoc Theater, Proper Hijinx, Tackett & Pyke and several others.
It’s true, there’s a wealth of theater here. I could have seen 50 more shows and still not have caught everything I should have. Thankfully, we are really growing in stylistic diversity, which makes all the theatergoing more interesting. But sometimes you gotta take a weekend off.
At the bottom of this story, you’ll find my Top 15 productions of 2015 (because 10 just wasn’t enough for such an outstanding year), honorable mentions and miscellaneous designations, but I’ll begin by sizing up some of the themes and trends I noticed this year.
Some of these are carryovers from 2014 that grew stronger this year, and others I hope will become more prominent in subsequent years. I’ve also tried to pinpoint some of my favorite performances, designs and innovations of the year—although again, there was so much good work, it’s impossible to mention everyone who deserves it. Also, look for a companion piece featuring the top performing arts news stories of the year, and a report on the year in new works, as 2015 marked another year of growth in that area.
Let’s start with themes and trends in 2015.
DFW has traditionally not had the amount of black theater made by black theater artists that you would expect, considering our large population.
The reigning king is Fort Worth’s Jubilee Theatre, which hit its 35th anniversary this year. Since co-founder Rudy Eastman’s death in 2004, that theater has had two artistic directors, and with the second, Tre Garrett, being released this year under a legal cloud, the search is on to find a new A.D. in 2016. The Garrett situation is unfortunate; he is bright, talented and has the connections and vision to bring Jubilee into the national theater conversation. The current season, announced after Garrett’s release, is very safe compared to those that Garrett and his predecessor Ed Smith curated. (Garrett’s production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size was my number one production of 2014.) Here’s hoping the new person is as adventurous as Garrett was, and still understands how to balance a season.
In Dallas, African American Repertory Theater continues, and while they do good work, artistic director Regina Washington seems mainly interested in well-made plays. Nothing wrong with that (AART has a production in my best-of list below), but some experimentation would be welcome. TeCo Theatrical Productions has a lovely space in the Bishop Arts Theatre District, and while production quality has been spotty, it has improved significantly in the past few years. In 2016, it will participate in a nationwide initiative to hear more women’s playwriting voices, with premieres by Charlayne Woodard and Maria Patricia Urbina Cervantes, two women of color. There's also Sheran Goodspeed Keyton's chugging-along DVA Productions and occasional independent productions.
The Black Academy of Arts & Letters is an institution where you can sometimes find imported, interesting plays about important black figures, such as the upcoming Al Green biographical piece Saturday Nights, Sunday Mornings. This year founder Curtis King also gave visionary R&B artist Erykah Badu—who grew up performing at Booker T. Washington HSPVA and TBAAL—a platform for her first theater piece, Live Nudity: A One-Human Show. It was kind of a mess, but could be something great with further development. TBAAL gets a bad rap from “serious” theater artists for the touring plays with bad dialogue and broad characterizations and situations, but c’mon, that can also describe a ton of groan-worthy Texas/Southern comedies that use caricatures and settle for cheap laughs. You don’t want to know how many of those I’ve sat through over the years. TBAAL’s tours do get a lot of butts in seats, and people leaving the house and entering the theater is never a bad thing.
The 2014 reformation of Soul Rep Theatre Company—a group that was one of the area’s best in the late ‘90s and early 2000s—is a most positive sign, as its women leaders are pretty adventurous. SRTC’s revival of plays by Ted Shine this year was memorable. I’m looking forward to their work in 2016.
Vicki Meek at the South Dallas Cultural Center, through her involvement with the National Performance Network, has brought in some daring fare. It was her commitment to nurturing one of our own playwrights, Jonathan Norton, that resulted in one of the highlights of 2015: Mississippi Goddamn (read more about it in my best-of list below).
Norton is one of three local playwrights commissioned—all men, ahem—by the Dallas Theater Center, which, since Kevin Moriarty arrived on the scene has shown a serious commitment to producing black-created works in months other than February, not to mention has changed the game with colorblind casting. DTC’s long-developed Stagger Lee, by Will Power, and its production of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, were other high points this year.
Stagger Lee felt especially important in the #blacklivesmatter era, when strong, vocal black men are considered "threatening." Given what’s currently happening with discussions on race in this country—“post-racial” nothing—I hope black writers are writing those stories, and others, and that black theatermakers here take them on. There’s a wealth of adventurous, talented black writers out there—McCraney, Hall, Kia Corthron, Dael Orlandersmith, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Robert O'Hara (Stage West is doing the latter’s Bootycandy in 2016)—to name a few.
Has any theater here ever done something by Adrienne Kennedy? Why haven’t we seen Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer winner Ruined? Or something by Suzan-Lori Parks besides Topdog/Underdog? You’d hear me scream if a theater here programmed her brilliant 2014 triptych Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 and 3. Yes, I know Undermain did her early work Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom before I came on the scene, and they’ve also taken on Jackie Sibblies Drury and Korean-American Young Jean Lee’s provocative The Shipment.
One promising development this year was the launch of RatRace Productions, a self-funded project by Rockne Ragsdale, who produced a double bill of his own Guilty or Not Here I Come, a raw play based on his experience of being wrongly arrested. It was paired with Black Arts Movement writer Amiri “Leroi Jones” Baraka’s Dutchman, in an imperfect but brave production, at the Eisemann Center. I hope we hear more from this group.
Another exciting sign came from an unlikely source: Southern Methodist University, a school not exactly known for its racial diversity. This year Meadows School of the Arts announced an Arts & Urbanism Initiative, led by Clyde Valentín, formerly of the Hip-Hop Theater Festival. Valentín’s work brought the fascinating The Clothesline Muse to the Bishop Arts Theatre Center (co-presented with TeCo) and Detroit-based Complex Movements, which developed an unforgettable, had-to-be-there theater/rap/art installation called Beware of the Dandelions.
All of that is to say that 2015 has shown we’re on the path to more stylistic diversity in the black theater scene; let’s keep that momentum going.
Come to the Cabaret
We should all bow down to Amy Stevenson, who has long kept the cabaret flame lit with her Mama’s Party on occasional Monday nights at Grand Prairie’s Uptown Theater (the next one is Jan. 4). There have been flickers of cabaret doings here and there over the years, but 2015 is the year the cabaret scene exploded.
Sammons Center for the Arts has had a cabaret series for a few years now, and the Kitchen Café in North Dallas has done its job, even bringing in former Dallasite Jim Caruso (now of New York’s Cast Party) twice in recent years. This year also saw the birth of Jay Gardner and James McQuillen’s cabaret organization Front Line Cabaret; Katherine Taylor Rose debuted her in-progress one-woman cabaret Love Me Tinder; and Bruce Wood Dance Project blew us away with a fancy dance/cabaret event that featured Broadway stars Hugh Panaro and Liz Callaway. We also saw Charles Busch bring his cabaret to town in the Off-Broadway on Flora series; and in Brad McEntire’s second Dallas Solo Fest, New Orleans-based Bremner Duthie performed his brilliant, dark one-man show ’33: A Kabarett.
But the big cabaret news was the Denise Lee-led—and free!—Fair Park Cabaret Series at the Women’s Museum. In July, her own show Too Old, Too Fat, Too Black: Songs I’ll Never Sing on Broadway had ’em lined up around the park, and the spring 2016 series moves to twice-monthly. In July, Lee will bring in Caruso to be part of the first Dallas Cabaret Festival. She’s using her powers for good.
In related news, there has also been an explosion of variety entertainment and open-mike events, everything from NY Goofs’ “Hopped Up on Goofballs Cabaret” to Circus Freaks’ “Salmagundi” to Open Classical DFW’s open classical mike to the growing burlesque scene. Liz Mikel also has a music open mike on Mondays at the Balcony Club, and The Tribe has been doing cabaret shows there, too.
The use of non-traditional spaces for theatermaking continued. You can read Jess Hutchinson’s terrific essay about space here, and I’ll repeat and add to what she said.
Shakespeare in the Bar is leading the charge with performances in outdoor spaces at bars; and this year we saw several productions in private homes, with Octaviar Productions’ The Down Low, Sundown Collaborative Theatre’s Far and Away and Teatro Dallas’ The Wake, the latter using several spaces, upstairs and down, at the Cedar Crest Mansion in Oak Cliff.
Meanwhile, the Dallas Theater Center, which has two awesome spaces with the Kalita Humphreys Theater and the Wyly Theatre, did Medea in a basement sceneshop at the Kalita. AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project allowed small theaters to use the Wyly’s Sixth Floor Studio, but that wasn’t enough for Dallas Actors Lab, which staged Annie Baker’s adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in a lounge area on another floor of the Wyly, with the audience sitting on sofas.
In Trinity Groves, Dead White Zombies, Upstart Productions and PrismCo each used different warehouse spaces. The aforementioned Beware of the Dandelions used several spaces in a cavernous building in Fair Park, with the audience spending most of the time standing under a small dome or “pod” designed for this show, with projections on all sides.
The group that played with space the most is House Party Theatre, a collection of SMU students/alum determined to make their kind of theater anywhere they can. This year that included the gallery/sculpture garden at Ash Studios in Fair Park, a machine shop in Trinity Groves and the large brewing space at Community Beer Company in the Design District. Most of their work was original, but they also did plays by Sam Shepard and Pablo Picasso. Read more about House Party below.
Remember, you don’t need NASA or George Lucas to explore space. May the force be with you.
Theater, Meet Dance
Dance has, of course, always been an important component in theater. In America that has mostly meant musical theater. And while we’re not gonna talk about musical theater dance, which has some brilliant dancemakers like Bob Fosse, it’s worth mentioning that two locally produced musicals upped the ante this year.
With Catch Me if You Can, Uptown Players put together a first-rate chorus (of mostly TCU students) that executed Ann Nieman’s choreography with the kind of precision that you don’t see around these parts, except occasionally with touring musicals (Newsies had standout dancing this year) or at Dallas Theater Center, which often imports their chorus dancers from New York, where the country’s best chorus people tend to gravitate—and then age out of those roles after their 20s. That’s just the way dance works, folks.
The other is The Color Purple at Jubilee Theatre, where new choreographer Shaté Edwards accomplished something I’ve never seen at that theater: interesting, angular and period-appropriate choreography that made smart use of a cramped space, and with a large cast to boot.
But let’s talk about how dance and theater intermingled this year in ways that don’t require jazz hands. That’s because the choreography was done by artists who are better known in the dance world—and if you think about it, some of musical theater’s groundbreaking choreographers were ballet or modern dance choreographers, from Jerome Robbins to Agnes de Mille to Lar Lubovitch to Twyla Tharp.
The rolling world premiere of Colossal at Dallas Theater Center used Joshua L. Peugh, the brightest new choreographic talent in North Texas, for interesting movement and dance—and with football players, no less. The main character, a man in a wheelchair who was injured in a football accident, has a father (played by Joel Ferrell) who was a ballet dancer. Any chance you get to see Peugh’s company, Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, do it.
Danielle Georgiou has given the dance world her special brand of dance-theater, modern and influenced by German expressionism, which she displayed in DGDG’s dance-theater works NICE and The Show About Men. She also choreographed the world premiere of Lee Trull’s Wilde/Earnest at Kitchen Dog Theater.
Having characters in a remix of a classic work (in that case The Importance of Being Earnest) break out into presentational, fun and dance party-style dancing is a theme we also saw in The Hot Mikado at Theatre Three, The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight Errant Don Quixote at Amphibian Stage Productions and Faust from the Drama Club. That also happened in Mr. Burns, a post-electric play at Stage West.
PrismCo is a movement theater company, which means mostly wordless work. But in its two main productions this year, Prism and Persephone, the dance and weight-sharing was closer to something you’d see on a contemporary ballet stage than to other works of movement theater, which are usually more pantomime.
Then there is the Ochre House, which has partnered with the Dallas Flamenco Festival for several years, and this year’s offering, Buñuel Descending, was their best melding of theater and flamenco yet. I could watch Delilah Muse and Antonio Arrebola stamp for days.
Add to this category Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklórico, which this year gave us a theater piece telling the story of Martinez, featuring lots of terrific folklórico.
Theater: The Remix
Remixes of other works is not new—the Humana Festival of New American Plays has been doing this is a side offering from its mainstage shows for years—but as mentioned above, it was fun to see adaptations of classic works reimagined and remixed. Wilde/Earnest riffed on Oscar Wilde, Quixotic on Cervantes and The Hot Mikado on Gilbert and Sullivan. The Drama Club took this to another level with Faust, freely adapted from Marlowe and Goethe.
I might also add Fun House Theatre and Film here, whose A School Bus Named Desire—a super clever adaptation of Streetcar set in a kindergarten classroom, with a bullying message—was maybe the most fun had in any theater this year. And although I didn’t see it, Cry Havoc Theater emerged on the scene with a retooling of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, called The (out)Siders Project.
And then there was mixing on actual turntables, with the aforementioned Beware of the Dandelions by Detroit-based hip-hop outfit Complex Movements.
In a World ... With No Art
Several plays posed the possibility of life without theater or art, as imposed by religion, political regimes or, you now, apocalypse: Aaron Posner’s adaptation of My Name is Asher Lev at Circle Theatre; Mandy Patinkin and Taylor Mac in The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville at the Eisemann Center; Bremner Duthie’s ’33: A Kabarett at Dallas Solo Fest; Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play at Stage West; and Meg Miroshnik’s The Droll (Or, a Stage Play About the End of Theatre), which had its world premiere at Undermain Theatre. Discuss.
Touring Productions Not in Venues with More Than 2K (or even 1K) Seats
Not a new trend, as the Eisemann Center in Richardson and Performing Arts Fort Worth have been bringing in smaller-scale tours for years to augment the bigger national tours at Bass Performance Hall, Music Hall at Fair Park and Winspear Opera House. But with the ATTPAC’s first Off-Broadway on Flora season launching in 2014, this year we had a wider variety of imported shows worth seeing. And the Eisemann had a really interesting 2014/15 season, which this year gave us the world premiere of a piece with major theater stars Mandy Patinkin (um, also known for film and TV) and Taylor Mac. Yes, we got that before New York did.
Thanks to SMU, we had the aforementioned Clothesline Muse, and because of Off-Broadway on Flora, Austin’s famed Rude Mechs made their Dallas debut. Additionally, South Dallas Cultural Center brought in San Francisco-based Progress Theatre for The Burnin’, Oklahoma-based unMasqued Theatre brought its show Wasteland to the studio theater at Stage West, and Amphibian Stage Productions imported Michael Milligan’s traveling show Mercy Killers. Also, Dallas Solo Fest and Out of the Loop Fringe Festival had fringe circuit shows on their rosters.
My favorite small-scale tours of the year:
1. The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville, with Mandy Patinkin and Taylor Mac at the Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts, Richardson. Mac is a genius theatermaker, and turns out Patinkin makes a terrific clown. Together, it was magic.
2. The Clothesline Muse, a gorgeous show relating storytelling and torch-passing to laundry, featuring Grammy winner Nnenna Freelon, developed by her and Maya Freelon Asante, presented by SMU Meadows School of the Arts and TeCo Theatrical Productions at the Bishop Arts Theatre Center in April.
3. The Rude Mechs’ wacky-wonderful Stop Hitting Yourself, presented in AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Off-Broadway on Flora series at the Wyly Theatre.
4. '33: A Kabarett, by Bremner Duthie at the Dallas Solo Fest at the Margo Jones Theatre. Fantastic piece about an entertainer in Weimar Germany.
5. Miniature Curiosa’s An Excruciatingly Ordinary Toy Theater Show, with fascinating hand-created toy theater projected on a screen, at WaterTower Theatre’s Out of the Loop Fringe Festival.
And while we’re on the topic, it was not a great year for the big national tours. Matilda at ATTPAC was a letdown, and Newsies and Kinky Boots were OK tours of so-so musicals (well, the dancing in Newsies was spectacular). Here are my favorite big national tours of the year:
1. Once the Musical, presented by Performing Arts Fort Worth at Bass Performance Hall
2. Peter Pan 360, presented by AT&T Performing Arts Center at the Threesixty Theatre in the Dallas Arts District
3. Pippin, co-presented by Dallas Summer Musicals and Performing Arts Fort Worth at the Music Hall at Fair Park and Bass Performance Hall
4. The Book of Mormon, presented by Performing Arts Fort Worth at Bass Performance Hall.
Growth of Performing Arts Festivals
For years, it has mainly been Out of the Loop Fringe Festival and the Festival of Independent Theatres, but in recent years we've added Dallas Solo Fest, Dallas DanceFest and Dallas One-Minute Play Festival. In 2015 the festival scene grew with the most ambitious one yet, the Dallas Symphony's Soluna Festival (which got off to a rocky start), plus the wonderful tap dance festival Rhythm in Fusion. In 2016, look for the first Dallas Choral Festival and first Dallas Cabaret Festival, and a fringe festival is reportedly coming to Fort Worth. And Teatro Dallas has its biennial International Theater Festival. Would love to see Dallas Theater Center bring back Festival of the Unexpected.
Best performing arts festivals in 2015:
1. Dallas Solo Fest, presented by Audacity Theatre Lab at the Margo Jones Theatre (June)
2. SOLUNA: International Music & Arts Festival, presented by Dallas Symphony Orchestra at various venues (May/June)
3. Dallas DanceFest, presented by Dance Council of North Texas at Dallas City Performance Hall (September)
4. Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, presented by WaterTower Theatre, Addison (March)
5. Rhythm in Fusion Festival, presented by Rhythmic Souls at the Majestic Theatre (January)
The big loss in the performing arts world was Jac Alder, the longtime producing director of Theatre Three, which also sufferered a tremendous loss with Terry Dobson. More on this in the Top Performing Arts New Stories of the year, coming on TheaterJones. Other losses: actress Michele Rene; actor Nye Cooper; puppet meister John A. Hardman; agent Richard Perrin; and Jimmy Joe Steenbergen, who was an important part of Hip Pocket Theatre's first two decades. Let me know who I'm missing.
THE YEAR IN PERFORMANCES
Best actor (female): Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso, Lydia, blu and Blood Wedding, Cara Mía Theatre Company at the Latino Cultural Center. Jasso has come a long way, and the range of roles in plays that required different acting styles in her season at Cara Mía was spectacular. Especially in Octavio Solis' Lydia.
Best actor (male): Jason Leyva, The Whale, L.I.P. Service at the Firehouse Theatre in Carrollton. The other actors in this production weren't on his level. Had they been, this might have been the production of the year. Playing a nearly 600 pound gay man in Samuel D. Hunter's deep, infuriating and touching play, Leyva gave a subtle, brutal performance with as many layers as the fat suit he wore.
More great performances:
Andy Baldwin, Grand Hotel, Lyric Stage
B.J. Cleveland, The Nance, Uptown Players
Amber Devlin, Picnic, Theatre Three
Hassan El-Amin, Radio Golf, African American Repertory Theater; The Mountaintop and A Christmas Carol, Dallas Theater Center
Frida Espinosa-Muller, Lydia, blu and Blood Wedding, Cara Mía Theatre Company
Blake Hackler, Love's Labour's Lost and King Lear, Trinity Shakespeare Festival
Kyle Igneczi, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Uptown Players
Tiana Johnson, The Mountaintop, Dallas Theater Center
Mason King, Jerry Springer the Opera, Ohlook Performing Arts
Jenny Ledel, Belleville, Second Thought Theatre; The Droll (Or, a Play about the End of Theatre), Undermain Theatre
David Lugo, Skippyjon Jones, Dallas Children’s Theater; Catch Me If You Can, Uptown Players; The Fantasticks, Theatre Three
Janelle Lutz, Lady in the Dark and South Pacific, Lyric Stage
Ebony Marshall-Oliver, In Real Life and The Color Purple, Jubilee Theatre
Terry Martin, All My Sons, WaterTower Theatre
Grace Neeley, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Uptown Players
Sally Nystuen Vahle, Medea, Dallas Theater Center
Tina Parker, The Totalitarians, Kitchen Dog Theater
Chandler Ryan, The Adventures of Flo and Greg, Echo Theatre
Diana Sheehan, All My Sons, WaterTower Theatre
Zoe Smithey, A School Bus Named Desire, Fun House Theatre & Film
Terry Vandivort, The Fantasticks, Theatre Three
Steven Walters, Colossal, Dallas Theater Center
Sherry Jo Ward, Precious Little, Echo Theatre
Pat Watson, Streamers, L.I.P. Service
Zack Weinstein, Colossal, Dallas Theater Center
Faust, The Drama Club
The Flick, Undermain Theatre
Lydia, Cara Mía Theatre Company
Mississippi Goddamn, South Dallas Cultural Center
Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, Stage West
Radio Golf, African American Repertory Theater
Stagger Lee, Dallas Theater Center
Best Solo Performances By Local Actors:
1. Shannon Kearns Simmons, The Testament of Mary at Undermain Theatre
2. Van Quattro, Standing 8 Count at Out of the Loop Fringe Festival and Dallas Solo Fest
3. Ebony Marshall Oliver, In Real Life at Jubilee Theatre
4. Brigham Mosley, Mo[u]rnin’ After at Dallas Solo Fest
5. Emily Scott Banks, Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol at Stage West
Biggest musical theater news that the local press, including TheaterJones, didn’t write about enough, but the national press did: Lyric Stage released the cast recording of its 2014 production of The Golden Apple, the first time this score has been heard in its entirety on album. NPR and other outlets raved. Look for more on this in an accompanying story on TheaterJones.
Hot author: Contemporary playwrights Madeleine George, Samuel D. Hunter and Annie Baker had several of their plays produced locally this year, but Miguel Cervantes is the hot topic. His Don Quixote was given original spins twice in Fort Worth this year: Adam Adolfo’s PTSD interpretation of the musical Man of La Mancha, and Brenda Withers’ The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight Errant Don Quixote at Amphibian Stage Productions. I know I heard Quixote referenced in at least one other show. It makes sense because 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death. This year, look for Shakespeare Dallas (2016 is also the 400th deathaversary of the Bard) to present another adaptation of Don Quixote, this one by Octavio Solis.
Best production with youth actors: A School Bus Named Desire, Fun House Theatre & Film
- Runner-up: Look Up, Kids Who Care
Best overall design: Design team for Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, Stage West — Set (Jim Covault, Nate Davis and Garret Storms), costumes (Derek Whitener and Victor Newman Brockwell), masks (Garret Storms), lighting (Michael Kruger-O'Brien), sound (Garret Storms)
- Runner-up: Design teams for King Lear & Love’s Labour’s Lost, Trinity Shakespeare Festival — sets (Brian Clinnin & Bob Lavallee), costumes (Aaron Patrick DeClerk & Lloyd Cracknell), lighting (Michael Skinner & Aaron Johansen), sound (Toby Jaguar Algya)
Best set design: Scott Osborne, Lydia, Cara Mía Theatre Company
- Runners-up: Sean Urbantke, The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight Errant Don Quixote, Amphibian Stage Productions; and Sarah Brown, Belleville, Second Thought Theatre (interestingly, these two used doors as a design element and not for a door’s usual purpose)
Best costume design: Suzi Cranford, The Nance, Uptown Players
- Runners-up: Melissa Perkins, The Adventures of Flo and Greg, Echo Theatre; Ryan Matthieu Smith, Urinetown, Theatre Arlington; Laura Anderson Barbata, The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight Errant Don Quixote, Amphibian Stage Productions
Best props: Lynn Mauldin and Rebekka Koepke, The Adventures of Flo and Greg, Echo Theatre
- Runner-up: Vanessa Rohrer and Taylor Willis, The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight Errant Don Quixote, Amphibian Stage Productions
Best projections: The Mountaintop, Dallas Theater Center
- Runners-up: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Uptown Players; The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight Errant Don Quixote, Amphibian Stage Productions
Best original music: Will Power and Justin Ellington, Stagger Lee, Dallas Theater Center
- Runners-up: Darrin Kobetich, The Enchanted Lake, Hip Pocket Theatre; Adam C. Wright, The Nance, Uptown Players; Nick Martin, Skippyjon Jones, Dallas Children’s Theater
Best puppets: Kyle Igneczi, Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, Amphibian Stage Productions; and The Spark, WaterTower Theatre
- Runners-up: Lake Simons, The Enchanted Lake and Tree Pop, Hip Pocket Theatre; James Maynard, Lili, Hip Pocket Theatre; Justin Locklear, Blink, The Ochre House
Best holiday production: A Christmas Carol, Dallas Theater Center
- Runners-up: Frosty: Songs of Redemption, House Party Theatre; Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, Amphibian Stage Productions; Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, Stage West
Best new theater company: House Party Theatre
Led by Chris McCreary and with a roster of artists that includes Brigham Mosley, Sarah Hamilton, Ted Gwara and others, House Party began earlier in the year but didn’t come on my radar until its June production of True West at That That Gallery in Deep Ellum. I didn’t see that, but would later catch a trio of original plays, The Grand Slam, in three different spaces at Ash Studios in Fair Park; Brigham Mosley’s clever riff on pop culture worship and pseudo-intellectualism with #basic in Trinity Groves; and its one-night rock musical Frosty: Songs of Redemption at Community Beer Company. Frosty, in which several Christmas characters are dealing with climate change and soapy situations, was terrifically funny and irreverent, a welcome antidote to the other holiday fare. Another show I missed was Picasso’s Desire Caught by the Tail at Ash Studios (but we reviewed it).
House Party is doing bare-bones, DIY theater that I expect to cover more in 2016. You can also read an interview with McCreary (and other theatermakers using the Trinity Groves spaces) here.
It's fun to see the connections and crossovers with several other newish outfits with strong SMU ties: The Tribe, PrismCo. and Shakespeare in the Bar.
1 Mr. Burns, a post-electric play | By Anne Washburn
Stage West, Fort Worth
Directed by Garret Storms | Music direction by Aimee Hurst Borzath
If you look at production photos from any other staging of Washburn's whimsical, weird play, you'll see images of the actors in masks as characters from The Simpsons. Director Garret Storms, for the local premiere of the play at Stage West, didn't go that route, and it paid off. Yes, there are masks, but in this staging, they are much more artful and still beautifully evoke Homer, Marge, Lisa, Bart, et al, and as a result made an even more powerful statement about how storytelling and art evolves over time. The premise: The first scene is immediately following an apocalyptic event, in which electricity—and as a result lights, TV and cellphones—is no longer available. So our band of survivors passes the time by remembering an episode of The Simpsons, "Cape Feare." In the second scene, seven years later, telling the story again, by a new set of characters played by the same actors, offers funny in sight into the "business" part of "show business." And in the third act, 75 years later, the story reaches operatic heights, tapping into something darker and mythical. The play is great, but Storms' vision made it even more special. And, as mentioned above, the best overall design of the year, including those masks, the costumes and a very clever false proscenium arch in which the wires and guts of computers, TVs, cellphones and other gadgets revealed its own secrets when lit up. Genius.
2 Lydia | By Octavio Solis
Cara Mía Theatre Company
Latino Cultural Center, Dallas
Directed by David Lozano
Cara Mía Theatre didn't take any easy routes this year, and certainly not with this heavy drama about a Mexican-American family in 1970s El Paso with some deep, dark secrets. Really great design and acting from the ensemble, anchored by Rodney Garza is an abusive father, Frida Espinosa-Muller as a loving, frustrated mother and Alejandra Flores as the title character, a maid who instigates changes in the family. Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso delivered a textured performance as Ceci, the daughter who suffered a brain injury and can only make sounds and small movements, but sometimes steps outside of herself to offer more context. The final scene was probably the most difficult scene to watch this year on any stage (and that's with keeping Dallas Theater Center's Medea and Upstart Productions' Dry Land in mind), and part of the reason why, eight months later, Lydia remains unforgettable.
3 Grand Hotel | Music and lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest (additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston), book by Luther Davis
Irving Arts Center
Directed by Len Pfluger | Musical direction by Jay Dias
Lyric Stage's mission is to preserve the American musical, and for the past seven years, they've been doing that with Jay Dias' full-orchestra restorations of classics, both major masterworks (Fiddler, Gypsy, the R&H warhorses) and rarely revived and flawed gems (Kurt Weill's Lady in the Dark this year and The Golden Apple last year, which they also preserved on a stellar recording). Who knew what to expect from their revival of this sadly neglected piece, which made it to Broadway in 1989 under the direction of Texas native Tommy Tune, after years of rewrites. Now we know: Wow. Set in a Berlin hotel in the late 1920s, before really bad things would begin happening in Germany, this hauntingly dark musical was given a thoughtful staging by Len Pfluger, with an excellent cast featuring Christopher Deaton (his best work to date), Mary-Margaret Pyeatt, Taylor Quick and Barry Phillips. And then there's Andy Baldwin, reminding everyone that he's a triple threat. It's hard to pick Lyric's best production since they started these full-orchestra revisits with Carousel in 2007, but Grand Hotel might be it.
4 Mississippi Goddamn | By Jonathan Norton
South Dallas Cultural Center
Directed by vickie washington
With each of his plays since My Tidy List of Terrors in 2012, Jonathan Norton's growth has been remarkable. In 2013, his homeschooled had great promise, and obviously sharpened his skills with this one. Taken from the Nina Simone song of the same name, it deals with a family living across the street from rabble-rouser Medgar Evers in the Civil Rights Movement. A powerful look at another side of the movement, the play's final scene is its main flaw, but everything that came before is so well constructed that it's easy to overlook (and he'll probably keep working on it). Director vickie washington assembled a terrific cast. Kudos to South Dallas Cultural Center director Vicki Meek for sticking with this project for two years. As mentioned above, Norton has been commissioned to write a play for Dallas Theater Center. Can't wait.
5 The Nance | By Douglas Carter Beane
Kalita Humphreys Theater, Dallas
Directed by Bruce R. Coleman
B.J. Cleveland was once known for hamminess, and to be sure, he can do hambone better than anyone around. But since leaving his longtime post as head of Theatre Arlington, his acting chops have become refined, and we've seen that best at Uptown Players, where he has continued to play the roles that Nathan Lane, a similar type of actor, has played in New York, including in The Producers and, next season, in It's Only a Play. Beane's play about a gay man, Chauncy, in 1930s New York who makes his living playing stereotypical gay characters ("a nance") has surprising depth to it, as well as being outrageously entertaining. Director Coleman put together an exceptional cast, including Sterling Gafford, Linda Leonard, Bob Hess and Sherry Hopkins. Cleveland—also an astute director and all-around mensch—was cast when the season was announced in 2014, and there was no other choice. His performance had many layers, and the scene in which he uncomfortably goes on stage as one of his nance personas was phenomenal. I don't think a theater experience has ever given me those kind of tears, spawned from side-splitting laughter and devastating sadness. Make no mistake: Nathan Lane is New York's B.J. Cleveland.
6 The Flick | By Annie Baker
Directed by Blake Hackler
Everyone read about the original New York off-Broadway production, which caused several subscribers to write angry letters about the show's length (nearly four hours, then) and a lack of action. But the show had its fans, and won the Pulitzer Prize. Yes, it's long (Undermain's production was just over three hours) and, set in an outdated movie theater in a small New York town, there are lengthy scenes with little or no dialogue and mundane tasks performed by three employees, wonderfully played by Mikaela Krantz, Alex Organ and Jared Wilson. Still, it didn't feel long, and Baker's themes of modernization and millennial boredom hit home with all ages.
7 Blood Wedding | By Federico García Lorca
Cara Mía Theatre
Latino Cultural Center, Dallas
Directed by David Lozano
Such a great year for Cara Mía Theatre Co. Not only did they give us two shows that made my Top 10 (see Lydia above at number 2), and two others that were acclaimed (blu and References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot; I didn't see the latter), but they began an important collaboration with AT&T Performing Arts Center by doing one night of live Spanish translation for the touring musicals there. In reviving Lorca's Blood Wedding, director Lozano and his cast delivered stunning mask work (a CMTC hallmark) and a deeply lyrical work of myth and magic. Lorca is tough, and the Cara Mía crew—which is consistently producing some of the best theater in town—did him proud. In the spring, look for a collection of new plays, as well as Lozano and Lee Trull's Deferred Action at Dallas Theater Center, a companion to CMTC's exploration of immigration, first seen in Lozano and company's haunting 2013 work The Dreamers: A Bloodline.
8 Colossal | By Andrew Hinderaker
Dallas Theater Center
AT&T Performing Arts Center, Wyly Theatre
Directed by Kevin Moriarty | Choreography by Joshua L. Peugh
This National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere brought the unlikely pairing of football and contemporary dance together, featured a main character in a wheelchair (from a football accident) and two football players in a romantic relationship. The Wyly Theatre was transformed into a stadium, with the football field front and center. Much to say about several kinds of male relationships: father/son, teammates, mentors and lovers. With Joshua L. Peugh of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance offering complex, geometric choreographic. So crazy it actually worked. Extra points for casting a disabled actor, Zack Weinstein, as Mike. Also, one of the best portrayals of a gay man, by Steven Walters as a physical therapist, onstage this year.
9 Faust | Freely adapted by Michael Federico, Lydia Mackay and Jeffrey Schmidt
The Drama Club
Bryant Hall, Dallas
Directed by Jeffrey Schmidt
After two memorable productions earlier this decade at the Festival of Independent Theatres, The Drama Club returned in a big way with one of the craftiest shows of the year, an update of the Faust legend, freely adapted from Goethe and Marlowe. In this version, Faust (Cameron Cobb) is a Big Pharma honcho who gets more than he bargained for, with Lydia Mackay as a sexy Mephistopheles and terrific performances by Drew Wall, Steph Garrett and Chandler Ryan. Wonderfully inventive in its theatricality, and making smart use of an actual window in Bryant Hall, Faust gave the creeps several times and never forgot to be brave and fun. The best news: The Drama Club has more productions in the pipeline.
10 The Adventures of Flo and Greg | By Briana Pozner
Bath House Cultural Center
Directed by Terri Ferguson
Sometimes the ones you remember most are the ones that sneak up on you. That describes this well-crafted two-handed about the title characters, she a bored teen in a highrise apartment, and him a superhero wannabe who could be dangerous or crazy or, just maybe, more normal than most of us want to believe. Terrific introductory performances by Chandler Ryan and Matthew Holmes. There was a deeper, darker message, but with the frequently funny dialogue and some wonderfully inventive props, this play was Echo's winner in its second Big Shout Out contest. They picked well.
11 Stagger Lee | Book by Will Power, music and lyrics by Will Power and Justin Ellington
Dallas Theater Center, in collaboration with SMU Meadows School of the Arts
AT&T Performing Arts Center, Wyly Theatre
Directed by Patricia McGregor | Music direction by Rick Fox
Developed and workshopped for about three years before we saw the final product, DTC playwright-in-residence and Meadows Prize winner Will Power's work about the legend of Stagger Lee had some flaws, but also a wealth of powerful moments and much to add to the current conversation about race and powerful, intimidating black men. Spanning the 20th century and America, the music was a rousing mix of styles, from ragtime to jazz to soul to hip-hop, and the amount of talent on that stage, including Cedric Neal (returning from his big-time gigs in London and New York), Tiffany Mann, Brandon Gill, Denise Lee, Traci Lee, J. Bernard Calloway, Hassan El-Amin, Saycon Sengbloh, Major Attaway and Akron Watson, among others, was staggering. Would love to see this show again with an entirely new team.
12 Hedwig and the Angry Inch | Book by John Cameron Mitchell, music and lyrics by Stephen Trask
Kalita Humphreys Theater
Directed by Jeremy Dumont | Music direction by Scott Eckert
How I love this musical, and have since seeing the original off-Broadway with Mitchell and Trask in 1998. Uptown Players' production, featuring a star-making performance by Kyle Igneczi in the title role, and Grace Neeley as Yitzhak, was damn good; if maybe a bit swallowed up on this large stage. The music, for one, wasn't loud enough to match the rock concert experience. Igneczi was a marvel with the improv requirements, and some of the jokes (written by B.J. Cleveland) were updated and deliciously distasteful, as they should be.
13 Radio Golf | By August Wilson
African American Repertory Theater
AT&T Performing Arts Center, Wyly Theatre Sixth Floor Studio
Directed by Bernard Cummings
This was the final show in the inaugural Elevator Project at the AT&T Performing Arts Center, and sadly, it's looking like it was the last one for that series ever. (Fingers crossed they're just working out the details for another EP.) AART loves August Wilson, and the first local production of his final play met every expectation and then some. Set in the 1990s, it deals with gentrification in a black neighborhood in Philadelphia and the idea of what happens when anyone who's now squarely in the upper middle class forgets where they came from. Powerhouse performances from Vince McGill, Adam Anderson, Hassan El-Amin and Regina Washington.
14 South Pacific | Music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan
Irving Arts Center
Directed by Len Pfluger | Music direction by Jay Dias
I'm not sure why, but after every great production of South Pacific I see, I always think "wow, that's a great musical." I mean, I knew that, but it doesn't hurt to be reminded. Carousel is hands-down my favorite R&H, and I adore The King and I and Oklahoma!, too, but Lyric Stage's revival of South Pacific reminded of why it might just be the best of their big five shows (yes, The Sound of Music is pretty great too). Beautifully sung, gorgeous to look at and filled with first-rate performances, not to mention the joy of hearing Rodgers' glorious score with a full orchestra of more than 30 pieces. Plus, "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" is still one of the most powerful songs about racism. Sadly it rings true, then and now.
15 Tree Pop by Lake Simons
Hip Pocket Theatre
Silver Creek Amphitheatre, Fort Worth
Directed by Lake Simons | Music by John Dyer
A word of advice to anyone making puppets and physical theater in this town: In 2016, when Hip Pocket Theatre announces its season and the dates for the annual show by Lake Simons, daughter of co-founders Johnny and Diane Simons, put it on your calendar. I'm generally a fan of the Hipsters anyway, but Lake Simons, whose studies in puppetry, mime and physical theater began with her parents' theater (Johnny is self-taught) and then progressed to North Carolina School of the Arts and then with Jacques Lecoq in Paris, has turned into a marvelously sophisticated physical theatermaker. Based in New York, she has worked with Basil Twist and other renowned puppeteers, and her own work has evolved from what we think of as standard puppets (handheld, marionettes, shadow puppetry) to object manipulation, toy theater, clown and the wonderfulness that was Tree Pop. A playful, amorphous meditation on death and memory, even the fantastic tree costumes served as puppets of sorts. Performed with her collaborator John Dyer, who scores all her shows and plays several instruments and makes interesting sound effects and background vocal noises, all with improv whimsy, it was delightful and thought-provoking. In 2016 HPT marks its 40th anniversary. Looking forward to what's in store.
10 more to love, in alphabetical order: All My Sons, WaterTower Theatre; Belleville, Second Thought Theatre; Clarkston, Dallas Theater Center; The Color Purple, Jubilee Theatre; Dry Land, Upstart Productions; The Fantasticks, Theatre Three; Love's Labour's Lost, Trinity Shakespeare Festival; Medea, Dallas Theater Center; The Mountaintop, Dallas Theater Center; A School Bus Named Desire, Fun House Theatre & Film.
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