Last January when TheaterJones editor Mark Lowry challenged the readers and writers to attend 100 art events in the new year, I knew it wouldn’t be that difficult for me. I’ve been happily over-booked and over-extended since my undergraduate days at the University of Texas at Arlington in the late 1980s and early 90s. It was then that I first committed to arts activism and support during what we naively thought at the time was the peak of the culture wars.
Since then, I’m sure there have been years when I didn’t quite hit 100. But I think that more often than not I surpassed that mark. This year, though, has been the first year I actually tracked my attendance, and even though 2019 has felt like a low-attendance year, I still managed to hit at least 120 art events. Out of that, 46 were theater productions, slightly more than in 2018.
What stands out in this year of art-viewing and art-going is the vibrancy and professionalism of North Texas’ performing arts. Out of those 120 things, I can in all honesty say that less than five were of poor quality. By that, I mean that audiences had to wait for performances to begin or that performers were not as prepared as they should’ve been or that directors/producers lacked a coherent vision. Regardless, that’s barely more than four percent. If only other aspects of life had a mere four percent not-worth-my-time quotient!
For my 2019 highlights, I’ll stick to the completely arbitrary categories I used last year. I’ve also arbitrarily decided that a show can only win one award, so no one production will sweep the board. And in addition to the 46 theater productions, I’ll also choose from eight alternative productions that appeared on my list. These include everything from spoken word and poetry to performance art. As many of you know, sometimes it’s hard to decide in which genre something belongs.
The sheer number and quality of solo performances across the Metroplex in any given year often pleasantly surprises me, and 2019 was no exception. Unfortunately, I missed the last Dallas Solo Fest, which had been produced annually since 2014 by Audacity Theatre Lab. But I did catch its mastermind Brad McEntire’s show at the 21st Annual Festival of Independent Theatres (FIT) called The Beast of Hyperborea. McEntire is a master storyteller, and his commitment to the format is exemplary.
For the past couple of years, Uptown Players has programmed one-person shows for its Gay History Month Series, and this past October I saw the outstanding work of Paul J. Williams in Drew Droege’s Bright Colors and Bold Patterns. Equally impressive, and, as far as tone goes, at the opposite end of the camp/comedy spectrum, was Bruce DuBose in Undermain Theatre’s weighty An Iliad.
Among these unquestionably impressive performances, however, WingSpan Theatre Company’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Footfalls and Not I stand out as Best Solo Performances of 2019. Directed by Susan Sargeant and starring Jennifer Kuenzer and Sargeant, respectively, these two works by Beckett proved that the European absurdist avant-garde can still speak volumes when allied with local talent and artistic vision, which WingSpan has plenty of.
Best Physical Theater goes to The 1st Annual Gay Show, presented by Very Good Dance Theatre at this year’s FIT. (You can read my review here.) This work, a devised piece co-written by Colby Calhoun and William Acker in collaboration with the cast, combined dance, theater, stand-up comedy, poetry, and burlesque in a show that still made you think while laughing out loud. Acker directed and Danielle Georgiou choreographed. I can only hope that they were serious with the name and that this will be an annual event.
There were plenty of contenders to choose from for Best Original Music/Songs. From the trippy, kaleidoscopic narratives of Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet, produced by Imprint Theatreworks, to Undermain’s production of An Iliad, with sound design by DuBose and Paul Semrad. But the award goes to a different Undermain production: so go the ghosts of méxico, part three, a poet sings the daughter songs by Matthew Paul Olmos with music composed by April Guthrie. Katherine Owens and Danielle Georgiou co-directed. Music is an integral part of Olmos’ trilogy, and Guthrie’s score somehow manages to ground the story while also giving flight to the characters.
The year I’m expanding and tweaking Best Set Design to Best Overall Technical Theater, and I’m pleased to confer this award to Resolute Theatre Project’s production of The Few by playwright Samuel D. Hunter. (Here’s my review.) With outstanding attention to detail, this was a show that celebrated the gifts of technical theater. It was directed by Seth Johnston with Dayna S. Fries’ properties design, Johnston’s set design, and Joshua Hahlen’s sound design. It is no exaggeration to say that they transformed the studio space with their curatorial artistry.
There was stiff competition for Best One Act. Second Thought Theatre wowed with its productions of a pair by Caryl Churchill: Drunk Enough to Say I Love You and Here We Go. And WingSpan’s Jo & Louisa by Isabella Russell-Ides was a standout at FIT. But it took a drive to Fort Worth to find the winner: DragStrip Courage’s production of Tennesee Williams’ I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow, which was part of the 4th Annual International Fort Worth Fringe Festival. Directed by Lark Wallis Johnston, it starred the accomplished Natalie Gaupp and Seth Johnston as two rundown souls lost between the noise of the past and the silence of now.
Ever since first learning about Yoko Ono and Laurie Anderson while growing up on a farm in East Texas, I have retained the softest of spots in my heart for performance art and the avant-garde. So 2019 was very gratifying in that the year offered a vast range of superb alternative performances.
In February, Culture Hole, in collaboration with MentalDrift and Mutarrancho, produced an evening of sound performance that included Jaap Blonk, Vic Rawling and Liz Tonne, and Swirve, a collaboration between Tamitha and Chris Curiel. In partnership with Dallas Contemporary, WordSpace organized an evening in August of performance and spoken word featuring artists and poets responding to Francesco Clemente’s exhibition Watchtowers, Keys, Threads, Gates. It included Dallas Poetry Slam, Laney Yarber, Randall Garrett, Tammy Melody Gomez, and Abel Flores, Jr. And across autumn, The MAC hosted a series of Queer performances as part of their Cosmic to Corporeal exhibition, of which LeAndra LeSeur, Yuliya Lanina, Colton White, and Jer’Lisa Devezin stood out.
The award for Best Alternative Theater is a tie between small hours, a wordless work by Lucy Kirkwood and Ed Hime, featuring Barrett Nash, and directed by Nick Leos, that was Leos Ensemble’s contribution to FIT; and Abel Flores, Jr.’s AFJ, which he performed as part of the Fort Worth Fringe.
And finally, my pick for Best Theater Production of 2019 goes to The Classics Theatre Project’s production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, which I reviewed here. It was directed by Van Quattro and starred Joey Folsom, Sasha Maya Ada, Chris Messersmith, and Braden Socia. With exceptional acting and remarkable technical skill across their first full season, TCTP has earned a place among North Texas’ more storied theater groups. I can’t wait to see what they have in store for 2020.
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