Good actors pushing words, emotion and body weight against each other are an essential, thrilling and somewhat ephemeral aspect of revealing theater. Oh, I love a brilliant monologue. What poetry lover and English professor does not? I love dense, clever sets and rich costumes, and sound effects. Stage lighting is a lovely, mysterious aspect of theater by which I am totally “taken in,” as Huck says.
Yet, somehow, the grit and strength, the sinewy muscle that holds a play together, rests on the electricity, the illumination, the sparks that fly in the dialogue scenes, as written and delivered, by two actors bearing down on meaning. What better way to define the heave and ho of a really good play?
I’ve seen some 60 productions of at least three times that number produced in 2019 in the many venues and cities within our DFW metroplex. So, in order of when I saw them, here are some seismic scenes and entire shows that deserve an end-of-year curtain call. I’d see ’em all again.
I should also note that all recollections of DFW theater in 2019 owe much to Undermain Artistic Director Katherine Owens, who died in June and whose work I will always remember and revere. RIP, brilliant Kat.
Our rightfully famous Dallas Theater Center had an exhilarating season. Sally Nystuen Vahle, as a tough-as-nails widow, in Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, dancing and drinking with a nearly addled, but drunkenly articulate work pal, played by a vulnerable, red-eyed Barbra Wengerd, reminded us that women in factories and fields have long carried the bottom-rung work of America’s economic dominance. Here, Rosie the Riveter tossed race and everything else in the gutter in one sweet, evocative bar scene. Directed by Tim Bond.
Uptown’s Players’ Spring Awakening was a revelation, not just for the ensemble singing of the rich score, but because Marianne Galloway was bold and vivid as every seductive mother or repressed wife of the show’s late 19th century setting. Directed and choreographed by Jeremy Dumont, with music direction by Isaac Leaverton.
Jenny Ledel’s Mae, an uprooted woman dumped by her boss, lover and life in general, nevertheless summons a loving reserve in Clare Barron’s You Got Older, at Kitchen Dog Theater, when she embraces her cancer-riddled dad, made difficult and loving by a tough, thin-lipped Barry Nash. He even pats her head, as one would a dear, hapless pet who knows not what’s ahead. Our parents love and confound us. Okay. This same play had a weird, sex fantasy scene featuring a quivering Ledel and an unshaven Max Hartman, as a kind of macho Marlboro cowboy who’s got the pounce and virility of a real-life, Stetson-wearing man. The two actors were hilarious and touching in the dream blizzard, pulling us into their edgy, sensual dream. Directed by Tina Parker.
Elly Lindsay’s total embodiment of Annie Nations in Theatre Three’s production of Susan Human and Hume Cronyn’s Foxfire created a theatrical surge that kept resonating. She easily moved time and place to Appalachia in the late 60’s, as the strident, loving 80-year-old woman, living in the present and allowing her dead husband, a stolidly real John Davies, to resurrect their life and love in the face of a weak-kneed son and relentless developers. These fulsome actors made immortality an endearing possibility. Directed by Emily Scott Banks.
The Dallas Theater Center production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will, warmed with the subtitle’s invitation. Christopher Llewyn Ramirez was a dazed, ship-wrecked prince drawn like a magnet to Ace Anderson’s scrumptious, fascinated pirate in a light-as-air homoerotic scene I’d never imagined for this play. Dallas-based playwright, director and antic actor Blake Hackler’s crazy, comic clown, danced like there was no tomorrow on the beach, making me love the bard’s version of our invented human world even more. Directed by Kevin Moriarty.
Amphibian Stage assembled a spirited, vigorous cast for Abigail Killeen’s adaptation of Babette’s Feast, a fable with rousing music and dance based on Isaac Dinesen’s romantic novella. Lilting and earthy at once, this story of celebration and unity, directed with a light hand by Jay Duffer, had everyone in the audience eager to join the inclusive table, graced with French herbs and gavottes, of course.
Furiously funny, intrepid Bethany Burnside got on her “wild and coltish” mantle and rode it as Jo March, confronting her creator Louisa Mae Alcott, played with elegant reserve and a wry smile by Victoria Wright. “Let me be a man!” Jo demands, in Isabella Russell-Ides’ tight, revealing Jo & Louisa, a premiere WingSpan Theatre Company production at this summer’s Festival of Independent Theatres. Directed by Susan Sargeant.
Jessica D. Turner was the dynamic center of What We Were, the premiere at Second Thought Theatre and Circle Theatre of Blake Hackler’s play about three sisters surviving their father’s sexual abuse on an East Texas farm. Turner was taciturn and aching by turns in her scenes with her vulnerable, volatile little sister, played by Jenny Ledel. These fearless actresses implied so much feeling with their arms and eyes alone, and gave us a glimpse of what it feels like to be wrapped in a loving, damning family secret. Directed by Christie Vela.
The entire cast of Dallas Theater Center’s sizzling In the Heights thrilled and carried the audience into Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ pre-Hamilton musical world. Joyful and communal, the play was a great companion to the touring production of Hamilton, a sell-out at Dallas Summer Musicals. Of course, it was a terrific show, and the acoustics at Music Hall at Fair Park sounded better than ever.
Over at Stage West, Evan Michael Woods, as the scruffy, glittery-eyed proofreader with a Harvard degree fired the production of John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s Lifespan of a Fact, as a whole, and especially in the taut, hilarious scenes with sophisticated lit zine editor Dana Schultes, whose posture and eyebrows made it clear she never gave a damn where he went to school. Happy, satiric laughs. Directed by Marianne Galloway.
Speaking of satiric, Ashley Woods’ perfectly hilarious embodiment of a wannabe method actor on the British circuit in Theatre Three’s riotous product of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, was stuff I’d view over and over if it were on film. Woods, with or without his pants on, delivered classic farce, particularly in scenes with play-within-a play director Michael Federico, a ruthless comedian who matched Woods quizzical-line for fist-punch in the wicked first act. Directed by Kara-Lynn Vaeni.
Kat Lozano’s aggressive, alcoholic rich girl Julie made the posh Miami restaurant kitchen a riveting confessional in Hilary Bettis’s Queen of Basel, at Kitchen Dog Theater, when she clashed with a desperate cocktail waitress, played by Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso in a flaying showdown of female ferocity made verbal. Both actors cut through the words to make us feel the gaping divide between the haves and have-nots. Directed by Christopher Carlos.
The Firehouse Theatre had a terrific season of musical theater, growing not only as strong community theater in Farmer’s Branch, but as a respected and viable venue where new talent meets long-time artists in our region. I had a great time at all three shows I saw there this year: The Boy Friend, Cats, and The Wizard of Oz. I look forward to their 2020 productions.
Year-end lists are personal and a bit fortuitous. Think back on your own memories of 2019. As I wrote, more shows and scenes came to mind, but I’m saving my long list of runners-up for another story, as I look forward to the exciting shows coming up in 2020.
See you at the theater!
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