Family events took over my life and thoughts these past few months — and before Christmas, I told our editor Mark Lowry I probably wouldn’t be contributing a year-end piece. But here I am at the end of the parade, waving my imaginary hat in the air for the Best Shows I saw in 2019. Because I don’t just want — I need — to give each of them a nod of recognition.
Here, then, are the four North Texas shows that stuck with me most — the ones I’m carrying forward and still thinking about—with a huge thank-you to everyone who made these theater pieces sing!
By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Jake Nice
Can’t we have rollover minutes in theater too?
Technically, Stage West’s fascinating regional premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins Everybody opened at the end of December 2018. But I saw it in the first few days of January—so I’m claiming my dang rollover minutes (only two hours worth!) to include it as one of the very best shows I saw this year.
Director Jake Nice and a fantastic, improv-ready cast brought heart, energy, goofiness, and depth of feeling to this modern riff on the 15th-century morality play Everyman. It’s the story of an ordinary person, suddenly facing Death, who desperately tries to find someone—or something!—to bring along on this last journey for comfort and company.
Playwright Jacobs-Jenkins’ real game-changer is that in Everybody, most of the cast doesn’t know what character they’ll be playing at any given performance: a “pick” is made after the first few scenes. And in a flash, each of these actors must be ready to bring it: comedy, pathos, wheeling-dealing, anger, even a possible jog around the theater stripped to their scanties. (You can’t take it with you, you know.) All by itself the reworked script is a clever mashup of old ideas and new lingo—but with the electric, meta-theatrical jolt of knowing the play creates a different experience for actors and audience every single night…wow.
A medieval “huzzah!” to gutsy, light-on-their-feet actors Jovane Caamaño, Bwalya Chisanga, Olivia Cinquepalmi, Ryan Michael Friedman, Megan Haratine, Marcus M. Mauldin, Amy Mills, and Mark Shum for making us feel the humanity in every moment of this very odd, very old tale.
What We Were
By Blake Hackler
Second Thought Theatre and Circle Theatre
Directed by Christie Vela
The Texas-most work I saw in 2019 was Blake Hackler’s devastatingly down-home story of abused sisters, What We Were. A co-production by Second Thought in Dallas and Circle Theatre in Fort Worth, the play felt as if it might be taking place in a house down the road, happening to girls and women we knew from school, waved to after church, or saw at the Sonic picking up a cherry limeade.
Under the direction of Christie Vela, actors Jenny Ledel, Lydia Mackay, and Jessica D. Turner gave us tender, tough, and unforgettable performances as sisters Tessa, Carlin, and Nell, who make very different choices to save themselves. Tessa stays on the move, living as a perpetual teenager, looking for the innocent love she never knew. Carlin and Nell stay put in their Texas town, steeped in denial and a quiet anger—but looking for Tessa all through the years. Actor Benjamin Stegmair, playing Tessa’s sometime boyfriend Luke, more than kept up in the play’s only male role. There’s grief and anger, but also some wonderfully true “talkfests” among the young sisters—and a surprising thread of LOL humor that runs throughout.
Will this broken sisterhood find its way back together? Hackler has created characters we care about, and tells this hard story in words that range from plain to poetical—and are hard to forget.
Crossing the Line
By the Cry Havoc Theater Company Ensemble
Cry Havoc Theater and Kitchen Dog Theater
Directed by Mara Richards Bim and Tim Johnson
All I can add to the pile-up of year-end praise for Crossing the Line is that I interviewed co-directors Mara Richard Bim of Cry Havoc and Tim Johnson of Kitchen Dog before the show opened—along with some of the teen actors who traveled to the border in preparation for this “devised” piece of theater. I was incredibly impressed by their account of the experience, their detailed knowledge about the issues, and the hard work they’d done to create a script.
But could data and interviews become theater? I wondered…and then was amazed.
This group of “actors who happen to be teens”—and the adults who work with them—simply blew me away onstage. They handled lightning shifts from one role to another, complete with distinct and memorable voices, accents, cadences. They transformed a “verbatim” scripts—all words, all talk—into something active, physical, and at times heart-pounding. They took the opinions and ideas of the policy wonks, the detainees, the activists, the border guards, the nuns, and so many more—and crafted gripping, emotionally spot-on verbatim monologues that explained “what’s going on” with a clarity newsrooms and government hearings might envy.
I don’t think anyone who saw this production will forget it.
Everything is Wonderful
By Chelsea Marcantel
Directed by Kelsey Leigh Ervi
Chelsea Marcantel’s based-on-truth play Everything is Wonderful, about an Amish family who forgive (and take in) a young stranger who has killed their two sons in an auto accident, was beautifully directed by Kelsey Leigh Ervi at WaterTower Theatre. The story is a layered, heart-tugging portrait of a culture we hardly know, and an ethic (of letting go of self and submitting to God’s will) we can barely understand.
Played with seats surrounding the action on three sides, we are pulled intimately into the story. TJ reviewer Jill Sweeney said Donna Marquet’s set design was like “looking at the aftermath of a disaster—burned beams, a dirt floor, overturned chairs at a simple dining room table. And so it should be; the family has been through a disaster, and now they must live in the wreckage.”
The entire cast, which included Seth Magill, Haley Evans and Blake McNamara, was excellent, but the performances of Steven Pounders, Jenny Tucker, and Kelsey Milbourn (as an Amish couple and their estranged daughter) have lingered longest in my thoughts. Pounders and Tucker, as the long-married and faithfully Amish Jacob and Esther, seem solid and settled. But Esther’s quiet rage when she’s alone, and Jacob’s blurted questions—“What did I owe God,” he asks, “that He needed such repayment?”—tell a different story, one of struggle and confusion. Daughter Miri has run from her family and community after a traumatic experience—and we share her pain, her sense that the community has failed her, her longing to be “inside” again. Milbourn’s dual portrait of an open-hearted young girl and the wounded woman she becomes is “spoken” not just in words, but in her revelatory body language and movement.
Marcantel has given us a complicated world to think about, one that defies easy answers for its characters…and for us.
Here’s to 2019—and to our great expectations for North Texas theater in the Roaring Twenties.
Happy theater-going, y’all!
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