For years, the only theater festivals in North Texas that have reliably returned annually have been the Festival of Independent Theatres and WaterTower Theatre's Out of the Loop Fringe Festival. Uptown Players joins the fray with its first Dallas Pride Performing Arts Festival, which continues through Saturday, and is timed with the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade, Dallas' gay pride parade (gay pride month is in June, but Dallas doesn't want to deal with the Texas temperatures in June, and has long held its parade in September).
While it won't be an annual event (it's not on Uptown's 2012 season), judging from what I've seen so far, it seems to have sold well. The Pride fest warrants a return. Perhaps they can do it every two or three years, like the Dallas Theater Center used to do with its now-defunct Festival of the Unexpected?
Such festivals are important to a city's arts scene, so let's have more of'em, OK?
They are also fantastic outlets for showcasing works that would probably never make it onto a theater's mainstage season, especially one with the sizeable budget that Uptown has, and with the number of seats it has to fill in the Kalita Humphreys Theater. Also, as with most festivals, not all shows are going to be loved, and that works out fine when there are other choices and cheap ticket prices.
Here are thoughts on the four shows I've seen, in the order in which I viewed them:
The New Century
- by Paul Rudnick
- directed by Andi Allen
- remaining performance: 4 p.m. Sept. 17 in Frank's Place, upstairs at the Kalita Humphreys Theater
Hands down, Paul Rudnick is the American playwright who's most gifted at quippy, bitchy and ultimately funny one-liners. He usually slays you with laughter before giving you some food for thought. Take his hilariously irreverent The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, which begins with Adam and Steve and Jane and Mabel in the Garden of Eden, and takes them through history to a modern gay setting. Sort of a gay The Skin of Our Teeth. It's been more than a decade since I saw it off-Broadway (there was also a production in Fort Worth in the late '90s), and I can still remember the quotes. "Angels are just Prozac for poor people" and "We don't have children—we have taste" still occasionally jump out of my mouth.
Uptown has done his plays Valhalla and Regrets Only, but Fabulous and Jeffrey should be on their revival list. In the history of gay theater, Rudnick is as important as anyone, thanks to his ability to make us laugh at ourselves and society.
His 2008 play The New Century falls in that category. It's basically three monolouges from characters who eventually find an unlikely bond.
The first is Helene (Marisa Diotalevi), a Jewish mother speaking to a PFLAG group about her three kids, each of whom had increasingly surprisingly revelations for their mom. All are hysterical, and brilliantly relayed by Diotalevi with expert timing and punchy line delivery.
Then we get Mr. Charles (Paul J. Williams), "the gayest man in the world," with a cable-access TV show in South Florida. He makes Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly and Austin Scarlett look like Chuck Norris. Mr. Charles is helped by a dumb but cute twink, Shane (Brandon Simmons), who has dreams, not to mention something to show off.
If Mr. Charles and Helene's children are not of the norm, we then meet Barbara Ellen (Lulu Ward), a Midwest mother whose oddity is crafting. Glue. Glitter. Scrapbooking. Crocheting. If it can be entered into a small-town fair's creative competition, she does it.
About five minutes into Barbara Ellen's speech, you start to think that Rudnick is saying that everyone likes something that probably seems odd to others, whether it's macramé or scatophilia. But then her story becomes very sad, moving and uplifting.
Turns out, Helene and Barbara Ellen have very different ways of expressing it, but they're both mothers who love their children more than anything, as does the minor character of Joann (Audra Howard), a new mother with an affinity to Mr. Charles' magic.
The New Century is Rudnick coming close to his quippiest, bitchiest and funniest work. It's the final gut-punch of emotion that will get you, though.
Under Andi Allen's direction, the three main actors nail it. We already knew that Diotalevi and Williams had the kind of over-the-top comic chops needed for this material, but Ward is equally funny, in a different way, and she's able to blend that with a beautiful pathos that brings it all together.
If you can only see one show in the Pride Festival, this is it.
- by Jonathan Harvey
- directed by B.J. Cleveland
- 7:30 p.m. Sept. 15 and 2 p.m. Sept. 17 in the Kalita Humphreys Theater
Another good bet in the festival is the area premiere of Jonathan Harvey's nearly 20-year-old play Beautiful Thing, which you might know from the 1996 film version of it. It's an extremely likeable and sweet movie, and director B.J. Cleveland and his cast prove that the play can reap the same results.
In a working class housing project in Southeast London, teenager Jaime (Sam Swensen) lives with his mum, Sandra (Dena Dunn). Their neighbors include the promiscuous, Mama Cass-loving Leah (Madeline Purches) and dreamy high school athlete Ste (Parker Fitzgerald). The other character is Tony (Shane Beeson), Sandra's boyfriend.
Jaime has a crush on Ste, and it turns out that Ste has feelings too. It's about coming of age, falling in love and learning to accept others. It could be viewed as too sticky-sweet, but there are healthy doses of humor, mostly courtesy of Sandra.
In that role, Dunn is fantastic. It's a funny character anyway, but Dunn hits a perfect comic stride with it, rightfully earning the biggest applause at curtain call. Purches is funny, too, and Beeson is lovable. His character is a nice balance between the play's wacky and sweet. Swensen and Fitzgerald are believable as emotionally conflicted teens. The sometimes hard-to-understand south London accents are mostly on, too.
Nothing groundbreaking here, but it's an adorable, well-told love story. As the title implies, that's a beautiful thing.
Crazy Just Like Me
- music and lyrics by Drew Gasparini, book by Gasparini and Louis Sacco
- directed by Coy Covington
- remaining performance: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 16 in the Kalita Humphreys Theater
The Pride Festival's headliner is probably going to be popular, with audiences leaving saying "that was fun!" But this musical about a love triangle is—to paraphrase (and distort) a famous quote—trite wrapped up in a hackneyed ball of cliché.
Roommates Simon (Corey Cleary-Stoner) and Mike (Alexander Ross) have been best friends for 22 years, since they were in diapers. So unless one or both of them took an unusually long time to potty train, they're what, 23/24-ish? Mike and his girlfriend of a year-and-a-half, Lauren (Kayla Carlyle), are worried that Simon isn't dating or moving on with his life.
Lauren sets Simon up on on a blind date, with a dude named Stacey (Angel Velasco). That is a surprise not only to Mike, but to Simon, who protests too much. Finally, after some convincing from Mike and Lauren, Simon agrees to see a shrink named—get this—Dr. Headman (Ryan Roach), via a song with lyrics that go "you've got to get some Head...man." (That's nothing, wait to you hear some of the other lyrics in this show.)
What's unbelievable about this device is that Simon is gay, but he doesn't realize it until Headman tells him that. There's no gradual "I think I might be gay, or at least on the bisexual layover to gay-town" kind of thing.
The shrink says "you're gay!" and—poof!—Simon is.
Look, coming out is different for everyone, and it happens at all ages and in any number of ways. Even in our current society of LOGO and teens fighting to take their same-sex dates to the prom, it's still hard for some to realize and come to terms with being gay. Sure, some bulldoze through the closet door, run down the hallway, out the front door and across the street into someone else's backyard barbecue, proudly proclaiming their sexuality. For many others, it's more slow-going and subtle.
But the notion of the psychiatrist putting an idea into Simon's head that he seems to have never questioned before (at age 24)—but instantly agrees with—is far-fetched, even in the suspension-of-disbelief conceit of musical theater.
It makes Simon a weak character, and Cleary-Stoner is, sadly, never able to make him any more interesting. Meanwhile, Mike and Lauren are having problems and they reason "that's what couples do, they fight."
The whole thing is bitterly cynical in its outlook on romantic and friendly relationships.
Ross and Carlyle sing the generically bouncy and tuneless songs fine (Cleary-Stoner had some pitch issues at Sunday's performance), and Carlyle gives the best performance with the only really likeable character. But they're all fighting material that's just not good.
The show's title plays with the idea that everyone thinks him or herself crazy, when we're all just pretty normal humans going through the craziness of life (the real crazies are generally locked away).
If you leave this musical feeling disappointed, well, you're not crazy.
The Last Sunday in June
- by Jonathan Tolins
- directed by Rick Espaillat
- remaining performance: 8 p.m. Sept. 15 in Frank's Place
With this play, Tolins proves himself Rudnick lite. Very lite. It's one of those stories in which a group of people (straight or gay) are in the same apartment, house or space, and secrets emerge, crushes are revealed and self-hatred is explored.
I saw this play off-Broadway in the early 2000s, and couldn't remember much about it, except that it was one of those stories with a group of gay guys in an apartment being bitchy. The title refers to the gay pride parade in Greenwich Village, on the last Sunday in June. (Therefore, good choice for Uptown's Pride Festival.)
We're in the apartment of Tom (Chris Edwards) and Michael (Jonathan Greer), lovers of seven years. Although they were planning a trip to Pottery Barn (sigh), they live on Christopher Street, and the parade is happening below, which they can see from their window. Friends, acquaintances and others eventually invite themselves over. These include actor and musical theater queen Joe (Rick Starkweather), witty Brad (Lon Barrera), the older-and-wiser Charles (Jerry Crow), and the king of self-hatred in this story, James (Robert Camina), a gay man who's sick of trying to meet expectations of the gay world. We also meet hunky and smarter-than-he-appears Scott (Greg Turnipseed); and Susan (Lee Jamison), who many would dub that term that describes straight women who hang out with gay guys. You might prefer "fruit fly."
What makes this play almost clever is that there's a recurring joke about other gay plays in which a group of gays are in the same room, and the same stereotypes and situations always occur. In effect, these characters are in that play. But this is no Boys in the Band or Love! Valour! Compassion!
There are jokes about poppers and showtunes, and a game in which they each have to say which figure from the O.J. Simpson trial they'd like to sleep with. As the more experienced of the group, Charles gets his speech about fighting for gay rights in the Stonewall era ("we had a march, you have a parade"), and James is so self-hating that even though he represents a very real kind of gay man, he just grates on your nerves.
Tolins' brand of bitchy and quippy isn't nearly as smart or funny as Rudnick's.
Rick Espaillat's production is mildly entertaining, with some performances that are fine (Crow, Jamison, Turnipseed, Starkweather), two that are OK but have to struggle with dull, underdeveloped characters (Edwards and Greer), and one that's just bad (Camina). Barrera has the luxury of the character who gets the most laughs with quick quips, and he does them justice. But too often, the show drags, which could easily be chalked up to one of the problems with arts festivals, where rehearsal is limited and shows sometimes don't get another performance for days.
The cast tries, but to be fair, this is one of those mediocre plays that's destined to not be remembered. You gotta have those, otherwise the good ones (and the really bad ones) don't stand out.
The other shows remaining in the festival are:
The short plays Click/A Midsummer Night's Conversation and Asher TX '82: 6 p.m. Sept. 17 in Frank's Place
Last Summer at Bluefish Cove (staged reading): 8 p.m. Sept. 16 in Frank's Place
Cabaret performers Amy Armstrong and Freddy Allen (of RSVP cruises): 8:30 p.m. Sept. 17 in the Kalita Humphreys Theater