Dallas — Have you ever written a letter to your future self and then 10, 15, or 20 years later find and read the document and evaluate your life decisions? That’s what the revival of The Last One Nighter on the Death Trail Starring the Disappointment Players, which has one more weekend of performances at Theatre Three, may remind you of—if you were a Dallas theater-goer in the late 1990s through mid-2000s.
This future-letter has nothing to do with the storyline of the play, which concerns a group of fifth-rate Vaudeville performers in 1939 desperate to keep doing what they love even if they’ll never be noticed by anyone of import—including an audience. That’s what all performers crave, and need, after all.
But it is interesting to look at members of the group that originated the work in 2005, the much-missed Our Endeavors Theater Collective. They’ve done some combination of the following: moved away for other opportunities, gone into academia, started families, and stuck around to become innovators and leaders in the North Texas theater scene. More on that later; but first we must take time to rhapsodize about OETC.
The company, led by husband-wife duo Scott Osborne and Patti Kirkpatrick, ran from 1997 to 2005. They only managed one or two productions a year, but each was to be relished because of the kind of material they were attracted to—works by Gertrude Stein, Richard Foreman, Kurt Vonnegut, Federico García Lorca, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Charles Ludlam, Pedro Almódovar and others—but also because it was a small, independent theater with extremely high production standards. Their work was always eye-popping. I saw most of it, with the highlight being the musical Gorey Stories, based on the cartoons of Edward Gorey, with a genius forced-perspective set. Scott was often the designer.
Christie Vela, who co-wrote the book of Last One Nighter with David Goodwin, directed the original production at Frank’s Place, the upstairs venue in the Kalita Humphreys Theater (Matthew Earnest returns to Dallas to direct this T3 production; he also handles scenic and sound design). They asked the artists of the collective to create sketches about Vaudeville, intending to compile them for Last One Nighter, which turned into a play with songs.
The Death Trail refers to the journey from post-Vaudeville New York to California, where film was the next frontier for anyone with dreams of stardom. In this show, the company—the Disappointment Players—is in a low-rent Tin Pan Alley of sorts, behind the Majestic Theatre in downtown Dallas. They only get to go on if the booked act cancels, which would incur boos from the audience. Will that happen this time?
The group includes company manager Moe (David Lugo), aging classical actress The Countess (Wendy Welch), mysterious Trixie (Olivia de Guzman), sex kitten Veronica (Dominique Brinkley), pretty-but-terrible actor Wally (Trae Hicks), starry-eyed The Kid (Rashaun Sibley), and gluttonous clown/comedian Pudge Johnson — think Fatty Arbuckle — played by Isaac Young. Cora Grace Winstead is Pudge’s child bride, Skeeter; and music director Scott A. Eckert is the wise, mute piano player, Gabby. (Drummer Allan Pollard is the only other band member.)
The songs, credited to Our Endeavors Theater Collective (music and lyrics by Patrick Johnson, John M. Flores, Laurie McNair, Ted Waite, Frank Mendez, George Gagliardi, Shane Hurst, Vela, Goodwin, and Eckert) are a pastiche of styles, with some paying homage to famous composers of the era. Goodwin and Flores’ “Guns for Sale,” for instance, is a play on Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale.” “A Boy Named Moe” and “Inappropriate Baby Number” are stupid-funny, and Johnson’s “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” is an unapologetic riff on the more famous song with that title (steal from the best, they said). My favorite is Flores’ witty, innuendo-laden “All the Pretty Horses,” referring to, but not about, a carousel.
Amelia Bransky’s costumes, Bryant Yeager’s lighting and Wayne Sciurus’ props take us back to the era, as does a film created for the original production, projected on the in-the-round stage floor.
It is doubly interesting that this production overlapped with Kitchen Dog Theater’s original musical Pompeii!!, written by Michael Federico, Cameron Cobb and Max Hartman—artists who frequently overlap with the artists behind Last One Nighter—which also uses Vaudeville as a plot device. Both works warn of the end of the line, although Pompeii!! in a more disastrous-to-humanity sense.
Both are terrific, but my biggest complaint about Pompeii! is that while it’s a funny, clever musical, the fantastic songs were sung by actors who have physical comedy chops but not necessarily great vocal prowess. Last One Nighter is, in some cases, the opposite. As characters, the performers might be low-rent, but most of the actors at T3 have considerable vocal skills. Young, who is one of the brightest of DFW’s shudder of theatrical clowns, is only outshone by more veteran actors Lugo and Welch.
Amid the goofs and hokum, there is smart commentary on larger issues, such as the idea of art vs. commerce, as in the hilarious scene with the Countess trying to relive playing Cleopatra (Moe: “the Shakespeare is the only bit that keeps that little check from the fine, upstanding ladies of the Baltimore Auxiliary Club comin’, cuz they don’t give grants to travelin’ flesh-pots”), and then later, the Countess bemoans dancing rats. "THIS is what we’ve come to as a culture.”
I can’t remember if the original production had political commentary, but this one seems to have been updated for our current state of affairs, such as when Skeeter refers to the country’s “angry and desperate populace … entering into a Faustian pact with a repressive dictatorship,” or, in probably the funniest line, Pudge says “listen, sister, no one wants to hear artistes rattling on about politics. That’s why I stick to what I know, SELTZER IN THE PANTS!”
As for the aforementioned future-letter, I realize that’s not what the artistes of OETC were doing, even with winking comments like “we should relocate to a more culture-friendly environment.”
I’d like to believe that it’s because in the 1980s and ’90s, Dallas visionaries had ideas for small theaters with specific missions: Undermain for avant-garde and experimental voices, Teatro Dallas for scripts by Spanish and Latin American playwrights, Kitchen Dog Theater for new works, and Echo Theatre for only producing works written by women; as well as gone-but-not-forgotten companies like the proudly weird-and-wonderful Our Endeavors, and Ground Zero Theater Company, which only produced new works by local or Texas writers. They are just a few reasons why the theater scene is where it’s at today; world premieres by local and national playwrights abound in DFW’s professional theaters, and there's more stylistic diversity than ever.
Those involved with Our Endeavors who are still in town? Goodwin still works at area theaters, and is director of actor training at Shakespeare Dallas. Christie Vela is still an educator, writer, actor, and one of our most in-demand directors, having directed at Dallas Theater Center and Trinity Rep in Providence, R.I., among others. Scott Osborne designs sets all over town. Lydia Mackay, who was in the original Last One Nighter, is a prominent actor, educator and voice coach. Her husband, Jeffrey Schmidt, who was more OETC-adjacent, is another brilliant designer and director who is now the artistic director of Theatre Three, where he has made his dedication to producing works by local writers clear.
The Last One-Nighter wasn’t designed as a letter to their future selves, but since they’ve reopened the document, they can take comfort in knowing that no matter how crazy the world becomes, they have “made it” in this tough, crazy, temperamental, glorious, rewarding career. Their passion—and more opportunities that respectably pay artsits—will keep them going.
In case they didn’t know it before—and there’s no way they didn’t—theater is in their blood.
That's great news for us.