In 2017 I saw 100 plays and musicals. That’s 40 fewer than in 2016, which at the time I thought was low. (I typically manage around 175.) I think it’s the lowest number of shows I’ve seen in 15 years. That doesn’t include opera and dance performances, or productions in other cities like New York and San Francisco, which would boost my number of 2017 arts-going experiences to about 125.
I always reveal the number of shows seen to point out that it’s important to see a lot of work in Dallas-Fort Worth (the fourth-largest Metropolitan Statistical Area I the country) and a wide range of it—stylistically, geographically, budgetary—to have a bigger perspective of the scene.
Part of my limited arts-going this year was due to a life-changing personal loss in the spring, and part of it was, beginning in September, losing a regular reviewing gig by my longtime employer, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which was once a full-time job and has been contract work since 2009. In case you haven’t heard, the Star-Telegram has axed its arts coverage, which is sad for Fort Worth arts organizations and an embarrassment for a city whose tagline is “Cowboys and Culture,” and boasts the Cliburn, three world-class museums, the Fort Worth Opera, six professional theaters, a large classical ballet company led by a ballet legend, etc. More on that in another #2017inReview story.
Despite seeing fewer works of theater, I found 2017 the most exhilarating year for DFW theater in my 18 years of being a theater critic. Maybe it’s that in cutting the number of shows I reduced the possibilities for mediocre theater; or maybe it’s just that there was less mediocrity, period. Second Thought Theatre had its strongest season yet, and Dallas Theater Center had its best of the Kevin Moriarty era—and won a Tony Award. Kitchen Dog Theater, Stage West, and Undermain Theatre were consistently good to great. WaterTower Theatre and Theatre Three were emboldened by leadership changes, with new artistic directors Joanie Schultz and Jeffrey Schmidt, respectively, announcing their first seasons and signaling change. So far, they’ve delivered it. Theatre Three was a refreshing surprise because for decades that theater has been the most wildly inconsistent of the local professional theaters.
Apologies to some notable professional productions I missed this year: The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord at WaterTower, Ripcord at Circle Theatre, Dr. Bobaganush at Ochre House, Quixote at Shakespeare Dallas, Yemaya's Belly at Cara Mía Theatre Company, Susan and God and The Birds at Theatre Three, Evita at Casa Mañana, and The Full Monty at Uptown Players. I try to catch every show at the 15 or so professional theaters in town, but a few always slip through the cracks.
As for the themes I noticed this year, the major one shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has dared to look at a news feed in 2017. The work reflected the headlines—or should I say Tweets?—of the American political condition, notably of the current decade and certainly of the first year of Trump’s America. Theater has always reflected politics and current events, but this year it ramped up. Expect even more response to it for the next few years, at least.
A few new works were direct reactions to the Trump presidency, such as The Great American Sideshow from Cry Havoc Theatre and Jeff Swearingen’s clever The Caveman Play, performed by The Basement. Dallas native David Carl brought his latest one-man show, Trump Lear, to Kitchen Dog Theater. Tanya Saracho’s Fade, at the Dallas Theater Center, was about Latinx identity in traditionally white spaces, but this 2016 play had some tough words for the 45th president.
A few classics, like Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty at Upstart Productions and Inherit the Wind at Dallas Theater Center, took on new resonance. As did Cara Mía Theatre Company’s Deferred Action, which premiered in 2016, but was even more relevant—with its theme of the Dreamers and DACA—in 2017 when the company toured it around DFW, to Houston and Los Angeles.
The intersectionality of science, religion, politics and art were also resonant, as in Inherit the Wind, Brecht’s Galileo at Undermain Theatre, and A Lost Leonardo at Amphibian Stage Productions.
Race relations, white privilege and white supremacy were prominent in several of my favorite productions of the year, including Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men at Second Thought Theatre, a concert version of Parade at WaterTower Theatre, Cabaret at Brick Road Theatre, and the world premieres of Shots Fired by Cry Havoc Theatre Company, Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s Br’er Cotton at Kitchen Dog Theater, Boo Killebrew’s Miller, Mississippi at Dallas Theater Center, and Matt Lyle’s Cedar Springs, or Big Scary Animals at Theatre Three.
Cedar Springs marks a good segue into the topic of LGBT theater. For a few years, I’ve been complaining—mostly to myself and other critics around the country—about the dominance of gay white male representation (the category into which I fall), but very little L or T or LGBT of color. That changed this year. Well, we could still use more L. Yay for the tour of Fun Home.
Cedar Springs involved a mixed-race gay couple and their new neighbors, a straight white couple, making for a volatile and funny mix with one of my favorite closing lines in any new play I’ve seen in a while. LGBTQ+ rights, history and activism were also on the front line in Joanie Schultz’s explosive directorial debut here, Ike Holter’s Hit the Wall, about the Stonewall riots. Meanwhile, transgender women of color took center stage in the world premiere of Paul Kalburgi’s imperfect but effective In the Tall Grass at Bishop Arts Theatre Center, which featured several transgender performers. Transgender characters and/or actors were also big in Straight White Men at Second Thought; and La Cage aux Folles, The Tribute Artist and The Legend of Georgia McBride, all at Uptown Players. It’s happening behind the scenes, too: Danny Bergeron, for instance, is a trans sound designer.
Shakespeare was hyper-political this year, with Richard III at Trinity Shakespeare Festival and Titus Andronicus at Shakespeare Dallas. Even New York’s Shakespeare in the Park’s Trump-themed Julius Caesar led to death threats at Shakespeare in the Parks all over the country, including Shakespeare Dallas.
Then there was Dallas Theater Center’s Hair, which 50 years later still has political bite and scores of issues that we’re still debating.
And for anyone who couldn’t shake that feeling of hopelessness, Theatre Three gave us one challenging, dark and beautiful dystopian fantasy with the musical of Adding Machine: A Musical. Yay?
Ghosts were big this year, too: so go the ghosts of méxico, part 2 and John at Undermain Theatre, Br’er Cotton at Kitchen Dog, Miller, Mississippi at DTC, Haunted at Our Productions Theatre Company, The Occupant at WingSpan Theatre Company, The Turn of the Screw at Dallas Opera—to name a few. The past has something to say.
No significant new theater groups emerged this year, but the ambitious Metamorphosis: a new living theatre delivered one interesting-sounding production, of Leroi Jones’s The Dutchman (I didn’t see it), so we’ll have to see more from them (co-founder Aaron Zilbermann writes a column for TheaterJones). Jake Nice self-produced Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die with Sammy “Rat” Rios fronting a band in this song-confessional at various venues in DFW. It was so good it’s being picked up in AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project and at Fort Worth’s Amphibian Stage Productions in 2018. Speaking of, The Elevator Project’s third season was announced, and it’s a good one; submissions will soon be accepted for the fourth. There was also a co-production between two of Dallas’ cultural centers, Latino CC and Oak Cliff CC, with an ambitious if heavy-handed and overlong production of Bill Cain’s Stand-Up Tragedy using professional and high school actors.
The point is, it’s great that theatermakers are finding ways of producing work when there’s not a named company involved, with the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs providing micro-grants for individual artists. As with Jake Nice and Adam Adolfo, who are both part of the Elevator Project in 2018, all you need is a person’s name.
Below are some listy reflections of my theater-going experiences in 2017. The shows on my Top 10 were not perfect productions or perfect plays, but then again, what is? “Perfect” is one of those words that we should all limit the use of, along with “legend,” “iconic,” and “amazing.” If everything and everyone is, nothing is. I’d much rather see an imperfect production of an imperfect play that has something important to say (even if it’s just speaking to me) than a “perfectly” written/directed/acted/sung/danced production of some mediocre piece of theater. Lord knows there are lots of those.
In 2018, let’s strive for passion, vision and immediacy over some generic ideal of perfection.
1. Fun Home, AT&T Performing Arts Center Broadway Series
2. An American in Paris, Dallas Summer Musicals and Performing Arts Fort Worth
3. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, AT&T Performing Arts Center Broadway Series
4. Tina Packer’s Women of Will, Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts
5. The King and I, AT&T Performing Arts Center Broadway Series
Best Production with Youth Actors: Shots Fired, Cry Havoc Theatre
Best Holiday Production: The Great Distance Home, WaterTower Theatre
Best Actress: Christie Vela, for Paper Flowers at Kitchen Dog Theater and The Necessities at Second Thought Theatre; Runner-up: Liz Mikel, for Inherit the Wind and Miller, Mississippi, both at Dallas Theater Center
Best Actor: Walter Lee, for Hit the Wall at WaterTower Theatre and The Legend of Georgia McBride at Uptown Players; Runner-up: Thomas Ward, for Who Am I This Time? (And Other Conundrums of Love) at Circle Theatre, Straight White Men at Second Thought Theatre, and Adding Machine: A Musical at Theatre Three
Best Ensemble: Stupid Fucking Bird and Life Sucks. at Stage West
Best Original One-Person Show: Stiff written by and starring Sherry Jo Ward, directed by Marianne Galloway; Runner-up: Warm Soda, written by and starring Justin Lemieux, directed by Jake Nice
Best Original Music: Hit the Wall at WaterTower Theatre, music composed and performed by the Mystiks; Runner-up: Original Man at Ochre House Theatre, music composed and performed by the ensemble
Best Designer: Jeffrey Schmidt has always been a smart, thoughtful scenic designer; but after he was announced as the successor to Jac Alder at Theatre Three, his designs have been stand-outs in a space that’s difficult to make scenic design interesting. Just look at his sets for The Minotaur, with its sand box and wall of sheets/sails; two detailed and very different apartments in the tiny Theatre Too space for Cedar Springs, or Big Scary Animals; and Solstice: Stories and Songs for the Holidays, with its birch trees and puppets that, when paired with the audio/visual design by Sid Curtis, became the most memorable aspect of a disjointed holiday theater piece.
Best puppets: Hood: The Robin Hood Musical Adventure, Dallas Theater Center, James Ortiz, puppet design, Stefano Brancato, associate puppet design
Director of the Year: Kevin Moriarty, for Electra, Inherit the Wind and Hair at Dallas Theater Center
Theatermaker of the Year: Blake Hackler has been a force as an actor and director for years, but this year he hit it out of the park in three arenas: Actor in the title role of Richard III at Trinity Shakespeare Festival, playwright of The Necessities at Second Thought Theatre, and director of Adding Machine: A Musical at Theatre Three.
Theater of the Year: Not only did Second Thought Theatre begin its path toward an Actors Equity Association Small Professional Theatre, pay was upped for artists and they delivered three strong productions in Grounded, Straight White Men, and The Necessities. Best batting average of the year. Next year, STT is moving back to four productions. More STT is something to be excited about.
TOP 10 PRODUCTIONS OF 2017
1 Straight White Men | by Young Jean Lee
Second Thought Theatre at Bryant Hall, Dallas
Directed by Christie Vela
Young Jean Lee’s play about a father and his three grown male children—all fitting the title description—has been reworked a couple of times since it debuted at the Public Theatre in 2014. After Trump’s election, she made significant changes, first reflected in a production she directed in Chicago, and then in Second Thought’s. What takes this version to the next level is the addition of “Persons in Charge”—who are not straight white men— on the sidelines, watching the SWM, changing scenery, and yes, judging. In this production, they were transgender, LGBTQ+, and/or women of color. Loud, obnoxious, and on point. (In 2018, Straight White Men makes its Broadway debut, with Armie Hammer in the cast.)
2 Hit the Wall | by Ike Holter
WaterTower Theatre at Addison Theatre Centre, Addison
Directed by Joanie Schultz
Anyone expecting a docu-drama about the Stonewall Riots would not have seen it; that isn’t the objective of Ike Holter’s blistering play. Instead, it shows a disparate group of LGBT New Yorkers, many of them of color, in the blazing June heat in 1969. Already charged by constant homophobia, racism, transphobia and misogyny, when the cops go too far and raid the gay nightclub the Stonewall Inn, they lose it. WaterTower’s new Artistic Director Joanie Schultz, who plugged in this show after the final title in Terry Martin’s final season was pulled, gave us an electric, beautifully chaotic ode to that moment when frustration and dissent becomes anger and action. With fantastic original music played by the Mystiks.
3 Miller, Mississippi | by Boo Killebrew
Dallas Theater Center at Wyly Theatre, Sixth Floor Studio Theatre, Dallas
Directed by Lee Sunday Evans
Spanning four decades, beginning with the 1960s, in Mississippi, Boo Killebrew’s Southern Gothic play about a white family dealing with the ghost of their late father, a powerful judge, other internal family issues and the changes happening in the world around them was a difficult-to-watch gut-punch about how casual racism can lead to white supremacy, and how those growing up with such beliefs can be dangerous when given power. Talk about relevant in a year of Roy Moore, Richard Spencer and Donald Trump.
4 Br’er Cotton | by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm
Kitchen Dog Theater at Trinity River Arts Center, Dallas
Directed by Rhonda Boutté
Presented as the first of a three-city National New Play Work Rolling World Premiere by Kitchen Dog Theater, Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s play deals with a revolutionary-minded young black man, Ruffino, and his single mother, in a Southern house that is “sinking” into a cotton patch and haunted by the ghosts of slaves. A pivotal moment comes when Ruffino leaves to protest police brutality in Charlottesville, Virginia. A few months after KDT’s production, America was shaken by a white supremacist march, and the murder of a counter-protester, in Charlottesville. The stage direction of “the kitchen is sinking” will pose a challenge to directs and designers, and that’s exciting. On opening night, I wished for a production that would tighten up, which I assume happened over the run. Six months later, it’s one of the plays I can’t stop thinking about.
5 Inherit the Wind | by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
Dallas Theater Center at Kalita Humphreys Theater, Dallas
Directed by Kevin Moriarty
More than 60 years after this play about the Scopes Monkey Trial premiered in Dallas at Margo Jones’ Theatre ’55, Kevin Moriarty radically reimagined it for the Dallas Theater Center, with modern dress and cast without regard to race or gender. Turns out, Lawrence and Lee never intended it to be a period piece. Liz Mikel, a black woman, played the role of Bible-thumping politician Matthew Harrison Brady, and somehow it all made sense, especially in a culture where people believe “alternative facts” as truth, and some would prefer America as a theocracy.
6 Hair | by John Rado, Gerome Ragni, Galt MacDermot
Dallas Theater Center at Wyly Theatre
Directed by Kevin Moriarty | Music direction by Vonda K. Bowling
Moriarty was all about holding the mirror to society this year, and with his “happening” he reminded us that the 50-year-old rock musical is still revolutionary. In his 10 years at DTC, Moriarty has had some wacky ideas about changing the audience experience, but none has worked as well as Hair, played in the round with the audience in themed areas, a giant tandem slide, and a killer band in the middle of the action. (He also scored on the audience-perspective front with the outdoors, promenade-style Electra.)
7 Ruined | by Lynn Nottage
Echo Theatre and Denise Lee Onstage at Bath House Cultural Center, Dallas
Directed by Pam Myers-Morgan
Lynn Nottage won her first Pulitzer Prize for Drama with this play about women at a brothel/bar in the Congo, in a time of political conflict, militia and the abuse of women and displacement. As Mama Nadi, Lee gave her best performance of the year, surrounded by an equally great cast including Tyrees Allen, Whitney LaTrice Coulter and Kristen Bond. Fantastic live music played by Neeki Bey, Christopher Green and S-Ankh S. Rasa.
8 John | by Annie Baker
Undermain Theatre, Dallas
Directed by Bruce DuBose
Such delicate ensemble work in Annie Baker’s play about newlyweds visiting a bed and breakfast that was once a Civil War hospital near Gettysburg. Baker love pauses, moments of action and inaction between dialogue, and she’s not afraid of a long play that doesn’t need a complicated plot to tell a compelling story.
9 Adding Machine: A Musical | By Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith
Theatre Three, Dallas
Directed by Blake Hackler | Music direction by Mark Mullino
This 2009 musical based on Elmer Rice’s ahead-of-its-time 1923 play has a rich, complex score played beautifully by a three-person band under the musical direction of Mark Mullino was eerily of the moment with its dark themes of murder, the afterlife and how machines play into a post-industrial America. Dystopian drama, beautifully sung and conceived in Blake Hackler’s production.
10 Galileo | by Bertolt Brecht
Undermain Theatre, Dallas
Directed by Katherine Owens
Science denied and prosecuted by politicians and the church? So relevant in this country that it’s scary. Once a season Katherine Owens picks a work by a forerunner of the contemporary dramatists that her theater loves, and Brecht is one of the majors. About time a professional theater here took on his work, and delivered on the promise.
20 MORE TO LOVE
Because there was too much great work this year. In alphabetical order:
The Aliens | by Annie Baker | Stage West, Fort Worth | Directed by Dana Schultes
Cabaret | by John Kander, Fred Ebb and Joe Masteroff | Brick Road Theatre at Courtyard Theatre, Plano | Directed by Jeremy Dumont
Cedar Springs, or Big Scary Animals | by Matt Lyle | Theatre Three, Dallas| Directed by Jeffrey Schmidt
The Christians | by Lucas Hnath | Dallas Theater Center at Kalita Humphreys Theater | Directed by Joel Ferrell
Deferred Action | by David Lozano and Lee Trull | Cara Mía Theatre Company at Latino Cultural Center and various locations | Directed by David Lozano
Electra | by Sophocles | Dallas Theater Center in Strauss Square, Dallas | Directed by Kevin Moriarty
The Great Distance Home | by Kelsey Leigh Ervi | WaterTower Theatre | Directed by Kelsey Leigh Ervi
In the Tall Grass | by Paul Kalburgi | Bishop Arts Theatre Center | Directed by Paul Kalburgi
Ironbound | by Martyna Majok | Kitchen Dog Theater at Trinity River Arts Center, Dallas | Directed by Tina Parker
A Lost Leonardo | by David Davalos | Amphibian Stage Productions, Fort Worth | Directed by Illana Stein
The Minotaur | by Anna Ziegler | Theatre Three, Dallas | Directed by Jeffrey Schmidt
The Necessities | by Blake Hackler | Second Thought Theatre at Bryant Hall, Dallas | Directed by Joel Ferrell
Original Man | by Matthew Posey | Ochre House | Directed by Matthew Posey
Pride & Prejudice | by Kate Hamill, adapted from Jane Austen | WaterTower Theatre, Addison | Directed by Joanie Schultz
Richard III | by William Shakespeare | Trinity Shakespeare Festival at Texas Christian University, Fort Worth | Directed by Stephen Brown-Fried
Shots Fired | By Cry Havoc company | Cry Havoc Theatre Company at Margo Jones Theatre and Trinity River Arts Center, Dallas | Directed by Mara Richards Bim
Stiff | by Sherry Jo Ward | Risk Theater Initiative at Festival of Independent Theatres, Dallas and Stage West, Fort Worth | Directed by Marianne Galloway
Stupid Fucking Bird | by Aaron Posner, loosely adapted from Chekhov | Stage West, Fort Worth | Directed by Emily Scott Banks
West Side Story | by Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim | Casa Mañana, Fort Worth | Directed by Eric Woodall
We’re Gonna Die | by Young jean Lee | Jake Nice at Wild Detectives, Dallas (and other venues)