Fort Worth — A big orange moon rises over Hip Pocket Theatre’s 40th anniversary season revival of The Lake Worth Monster — A Musical Odyssey, and a character named Luna Moon (Carmen Scott) dances across the stage—nature and theater in kinetic conversation, with a chorus of cicadas humming the harmony.
And hoo boy, that monster is some piece of work.
What comes before and after his (hers? its?) second-act appearance is a quirky, personal, heart-deep (and very Texas) piece of 1970s counterculture music theater. Monster was Johnny Simons’ and the late Douglas Balentine’s first major collaboration, and played in the long-gone solarium of the old Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in the early 1970s (the solarium is now the Sanders Theatre at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center). The work was Simons’ thesis project for his master’s degree at TCU and also the beginning of Hip Pocket, which the two friends would co-found in 1977, along with Johnny’s wife Diane Simons.
Monster has been revived only twice since the first production, once in 1978 and again in 1989. But Simons—looking like a ballet-trim Old Man of the Mountain—came onstage opening night to say it had seemed right to mark the company’s 40th season by bringing back its very first show. Judging by the hugs and stories exchanged all around Silver Creek Amphitheatre, the opening night audience was having a moment—recalling old times and friends gone by, notably Balentine, who died in 2008.
The Lake Worth Monster is a kind of alt-cowboy’s lament, the story of Billy (handsome, curly maned Brian Cook), a Texas kid chased through life by guilt over a childhood tragedy. The lurking manifestation of that guilt—a self-created demon keeping his life in an uproar—is the Lake Worth Monster.
Young Billy and Grandpaw (a genial but haunted Thad Isbell) live on Lake Worth, but after the old man dies, Billy runs away from his memories. He takes up the eternal young man’s journey, seeking love and understanding, trying any experience (whiskey, good women, bad women, New Orleans) that might help him “strip down to the soul” of who he really is…and learn to live at peace with himself.
Happily, there are “awful purty” girls dancing—Scott, Austin, Cristina Cranshaw, Rebo Hill and Jeff Stanfield are the lively ensemble—and a great band/vocal group onstage, or we might be less willing to wait for Billy’s epiphany. Balentine’s inventive music, reconstructed for this production by his brother Bruce, incorporates funk, folk, R&B, gospel, country-rock, jazz and more. The musicians are led by Joe Rogers (he’s on keyboards, too), known for his work with Simons at Hip Pocket and the late Rudy Eastman at Jubilee Theatre. He and the band (Darrin Kobetich on guitar, Chris White on bass/flute/trumpet, Eddie Dunlap on drums) take the show’s quick-change musical styles in stride.
Monster is a story told almost entirely in song, à la Hamilton—and in fact, its non-stop, ever-varying parade of songs has a bit of Hamilton-esque rat-a-tat rhyming lyric style. The actors pantomime their songs and actions, with vocals provided by a quintet of singers (Don Arnett, Patti Littlefield, Quentin McGown, Peggy Bott Kirby and Elysia Ann Worchester) “up top” with the band. It’s an unusual choice that produces a dreamlike effect, as if we’re floating through Billy’s mind.
Actor and puppeteer James Maynard—smiling, graceful, unsettling—plays Wiley, an M.C.-ish character who trails after the agitated Billy and chimes in to narrate at critical points. Amazingly, Maynard is returning after more than 40 years to repeat his role from the original 1975 production. He designed several marvelously detailed marionettes for the show, and in one surprising moment onstage becomes Billy’s puppeteer as well.
Both Scott and Frieda Austin dance beautifully as Luna and Belstar, Billy’s two very different loves, as does Delace McMahan as the spirit of that bad old boulevard “Rue Royal.” There is a crystal-clear intention here to make music, words and dance equal partners in the storytelling. Simons wrote the play and the lyrics, but he’s the choreographer, too. (Among the many “did you know” stories being passed around that night is a recollection that Simons was one of TCU’s first male ballet students.) The white-clad corps of dancers—sometimes prancing and perky, sometimes bold and bawdy—propel the story forward at every moment: they are a rippling aqua lake, a Mardi Gras parade, Billy’s cheerleaders—and sometimes his nightmares.
But about that monster.
The creature doesn’t appear until the final scenes of the show, and it’s worth the wait. (There are no photos of it being released yet; you'll have to see it for yourself.)
Basil Twist, a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” recipient for his work in puppetry (see Mark Lowry’s interview with Twist in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram), has partnered with Hip Pocket before. Most notably, he and the Simons’ daughter, puppeteer Lake Simons, brought Twist’s production of Petroushka to Bass Performance Hall with the Fort Worth Symphony in 2008.
“Bow down before the Lake Worth Monster’s majesty,” says a recurring song line—and Twist’s creation is the bed of a dank, tangled Texas lake come shambling to life: a walking, dripping coalescence of bottom-dwelling bottles and trash, slimy green weeds and bony-white tree roots. It’s quite a sight oozing forward onstage—and most impressive, perhaps, in the moment of its inevitable comeuppance and disassembling.
There’s so much Fort Worth theater history wrapped up in The Lake Worth Monster, in the story of Hip Pocket’s 40 years, in the life-consuming dedication of artists such as Johnny and Diane Simons, Balentine, and others who’ve left us in the recent past: Circle Theatre’s Rose Pearson, Stage West’s Jerry Russell. For those old enough to remember a Fort Worth before these inventive, struggling, horizon-broadening small theaters arrived, it’s a reason to count our theatrical blessings—and a time to celebrate.
I live out on the lake
I live there for the sake of my soul
The lake is deep and wide
With secrets swimming down deep inside.