Dallas — Attending the Ochre House Theater is always a trip.
Just arriving at the 50-seat storefront space on Exposition, lodged between funky bars and edgy art galleries a block from Fair Park, cranks the on-with-the-show juices. Artistic director, playwright and company patriarch Matthew Posey has created a fertile ground that’s spawned not only his own unique work, but that of the joyful, productive ensemble members that call Ochre House their home base.
Justin Locklear, Ochre House actor, designer, acclaimed puppeteer and this season’s artist-in-residence, directs the world premiere of his play Dreamless. At the Saturday opening, his cast and crew turned up the style, turned on the charm and delivered a heartfelt story of sibling rivalry, muzzled ambition, and the courage to accept true love. As the title suggests, the characters are exhorted through song and plot to wake up, grow up, dream less—and labor to make their ideas concrete in the real world.
Light hits the dark stage, and the 10-member ensemble launches into a kind of insomniac’s anthem: “I drink in the night,” they sing, telling of restless desires, new recipes and earthy tastes. Locklear’s metaphorical lyrics and Earl Norman’s searching melodies set the tone for the first act.
White clown makeup lights their faces, in the commedia dell’arte style—sometimes highlighting the braggart’s arrogant smile, sometimes a weary chef’s despair. The clown paint clearly signals when characters are wearing the face they want the world to see, to cover the fear of failure they sing about in the darker songs. As the play moves forward, the paint comes off some characters that actually begin making their dreams of lasting love and fresh new recipes a reality. Not everybody is a winner when the masks come off, and end up literally grabbing the grease paint to slap on and return to their own lonely fantasy.
In the same way, Amie Carson’s costumes pick up on the shabby glam theme of Norman and Locklear’s uneasy songs, from the dark moon and stars print of the men’s shirts to the contrasting bright, glittery costumes of ingénues and TV show hosts.
The plot is modest stuff, but brings a cast of inventive characters together in one spot, each getting a chance to brew a “think drink,” cook up a savory soup or stir up a stale romance. True to its commedia dell’arte origins, each cast member enhances the characters they play with a unique panache.
Hardworking home girl Claire (Carla Parker) and her gallivanting brother John (Brad Hennigan) have inherited their late daddy’s diner, and now big bossy brother has returned to run the place and juke the menu from home-style solid to flashy specials. Brash and hilariously hollow, he sings funny boasting Harlequin-inspired songs about how great he is. “It’s hard to be the best—like me!” he shouts, prancing around the stage, his white face gleaming with sweat and ego.
Parker’s handsome Claire, her eyes tired from sleepless nights fueled by ambitious ideas, is outwardly modest about her own culinary gifts, earned by her father’s side. She musters the will to object to all her brother’s flamboyant finery, “We don’t make fancy food; we make good food,” she declares before going off in her drab apron to whip up one of her hearty soup dishes.
Brother John has to deal with a couple of other bald Johns on the premises. All Johns are not alike, as we all agree. There’s the sweetly loyal chef and ex-manager, John No. 2 (a stoutly devoted Josh Jordan), who encourages Claire to cook up some of that stuff her dreams are made on.
Chatty young bartender, John No. 3 (coy Ryan Glenn) sings a hilariously sad song about bachelorhood. Bartender John is pursued by a certain local lady named Fuxie Shuzz (shiny comic Marti Etheridge) who gets her hot chick on, dons a lipstick red dress and makes her play in a sexy come-hither number that had the audience stomping the floor for more.
A glitzy couple show up in the old-time art-deco diner, complete with black and white checkered stools, tiled floor and hammered aluminum moldings, designed by Posey, with Izk Dvs’ trompe l’oeil backdrops of copper pans and kettles show through the pick-up window where the musicians/chefs (Norman and Stefan Gonzales) keep it cooking. Wide-eyed Elizabeth Evans, in a strapless pink confection, is bedazzled Belinda, leaning on the arm of Barry, a gangsta glam Dante Martinez in a purple sequined jacket.
The world travelers, whose mindless, place-dropping chatter sounds like a parody of a J. Peterman catalogue, spring to their feet, transformed into a pair of game show hosts with a bizarre range of prizes. What’ll it be? Diners can “spin the wheel for permanent happiness or a new car.”
So many choices, so many fates to be decided before the night’s over.
Throw into this soup, if you will, an elegant stray Cat (a wry, angular, bespectacled Trey) who sings a bluesy song, but always lands on his feet. Slipping in the big red door, or just appearing suddenly from the kitchen, he too is struggling with (or at) an identity crisis. Talk about the cat’s meow.
At the boiling point is the question: whose goose gets cooked?
The Dreamless diner, full of people singing for their supper, cooking up their future and trying not to eat their words, is comically revealing and humanly touching. The rhythm sags a bit in the second act when the dialogue veers too long on plot expo, but otherwise Locklear and his strong, stylish ensemble keep the show lively and light on its feet right to the end of the dance.
» Read our Work in Progress column about Dreamless