STAGE REVIEWS: ‘Fiddler’s Cave,’ ‘The Caveman Play’ at FIT

Posted on 04 Aug 2017 at 6:15am

FIT-19-Dustin-CurryAmong the shows at the Festival of Independent Theatres is The Boxer, starring Jeff Swearingen and presented as a kind of silent film, including actual video. Well, two other shows at FIT cross-pollinate those elements: Fiddler’s Cave is Dustin Curry’s wordless pantomime about a man who awakes in a strange place with no memory of how he got there until he sees a silent film of his life; The Caveman Play, written by Swearingen (who also plays a part) deals with another strange place to wake up in: Trump’s America.

Curry’s one-man performance (he also wrote it, with B.J. Cleveland directing) is a lovely bit of tomfoolery, with his unnamed character finding himself in a traditional sad-sack situation a la Chaplin’s Little Tramp. He jolt awake and tries (successfully) to play a stringless violin, to keep water from dripping on his head (less successfully) and simply to climb out of this dank space (with the help of some unwitting audience members). For the first 15 minutes or so, it mirrors a circus act cum magic show, with Curry clowning and goofing with amusing visual jokes. But just as that has run its course, the story changes, and we see a film of Curry wooing (and losing) a girl. And suddenly, the cave becomes less a physical prison than an emotional one: How do you let go of someone you still love? It’s charming and tender, made more so by Curry’s welcoming face and deft sleight-of-hand. Fiddler’s Cave performs Thursday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m.

Complex relationships are also the subject of The Caveman Play, but of a different sort. It’s a Tuesday, and Ugh (Chris Rodenbaugh) is arguing with his wife. Will he apologize? Does he even know what he’s apologizing for? Well, nevermind, then, if you don’t know I’m not gonna tell you. The twist, of course, it that the Tuesday happened 265,000 years ago, before mankind mastered fire or agriculture, but wives were already nagging Neanderthals to take out the garbage. The more things change …

It’s not difficult to see where Swearingen is going with all this. It’s not just interpersonal relationships that have plagued us for millennia, but also the tendency of leaders to mislead, of folks to forget or ignore when they are being lied to, of progress to be undercut by syllogistic reasoning and craven demagoguery. That applies whether you’re planning to raid another tribe or cast a vote for president. The allegorical implications are unmistakeable (and, in case you did mistake them, pretty much spelled out at the end), but it’s the comedy that grows increasingly more poignant that gets you. The Caveman Play performs Saturday art 8 p.m.


BREAKING: FWO announces new world premiere opera, ‘Frida & Diego’

Posted on 04 Aug 2017 at 6:00am

The Fort Worth Opera — which just appointed a new general director, Tuomas Hiltunen, and gave long-standing maestro Joe Illick the title artistic director — has another major announcement: the commission of a new opera to make its world premiere in 2020.

The Last Dream of Frida & Diego, set on el Dia de los Muertos in 1957, tracks the tumultuous relationship between the icon Mexican painters. The libretto, which will be in Spanish, is by Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz (Anna in the Tropics) with a score by Gabriela Lena Frank. It will debut in FWO’s 2020 season. The “official” press conferences about the commission will take place in Mexico City on Aug. 24 at the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

The opera was co-commissioned with the San Diego Opera, the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin and DePauw University. It culminates the FWO’s initiative Operas of the Americas and the Noches de Opera program of broadening the troupe’s audience among Latinos.


WATCH: Music video with Arts Magnet teacher Nathan De’Shon Myers

Posted on 31 Jul 2017 at 11:39am

This week’s Family Life Issue is also out Back-to-School Issue, and gay people are a huge part of the primary and secondary educational system in North Texas — I personally know at least nine teachers within DISD; both my parents were teachers as well. And, of course, many gay-led families are getting ready to come back for the fall semester. (Reminder: Tax-free weekend for back-to-school shopping is Aug. 11–13; NorthPark Center has just announced it will be extending its hours that weekend.) Teachers need to be celebrated for what they do.

Old Navy has sponsored a new campaign, Unsung Heroes of Back-to-School — a series of eight music videos of original songs penned and performed by teachers. Among those contributing is Nathan De’Shon Myers, the chorale director at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Downtown Dallas. His video, “Sing Out,” is an empowering and lovely song, sung with power and passion. (Myers has also performed with the Dallas Opera.) Take a look … better yet, take a listen.


STAGE REVIEW: ‘Tommy Cain’ at FIT

Posted on 27 Jul 2017 at 10:22am

Zach Leyva. Photo by Joshua Hahlen

A lot of attention has been heaped (justly) on Sherry Jo Ward’s solo show Stiff, but another haunting one-man performance at the Festival of Independent Theatres deserves just as much praise. Zach Leyva is heartbreaking in Tommy Cain, a new play written and directed by Van Quattro.

For 50 grueling minutes, Leyva sits (with occasional strolls) in the center of a stage illuminated by a harsh light casting a shadow of prison bars. His Tommy is in juvie, waiting for his aunt to come pick him up, because even though his stint is over, a minor cannot check himself out. It’s getting late in the day, and Tommy — a nice, average 17-year-old making his way as the 1960s draw to a close — doesn’t want to stay another night in lock-up. Tommy’s not a tough kid, but he’s had a tough life. Sweetly natured but not the sharpest knife in the drawer, he’s made some bad decisions… the kind all teenagers make, but the effects of which are exacerbated when you consider his home life. Tommy’s mom isn’t around anymore (in due course, we find out why) and his father is something of a monster: Physically and emotionally abusive, he has made Tommy’s life a living hell as only failed, sad men in the mid-century could have, with heartless attacks on his manhood… his personhood. Tommy confesses these travesties with the sympathetic hesitation of a beaten dog — he’s trying to normalize the abuse (to the audience, to himself), which only magnifies its horror.

The play is a marvel in its paradoxically rangy precision: The monologue, by nature, is discursive and broad, with many details, but that only enhances the verisimilitude of Leyva’s goofy teen angst; all the elements eventually come back together, and we feel rapt up in this portrait of a boy who is fascinating and deserving of our empathy not because he is special, but because he is not. It’s a wrenching call for empathy, brilliantly performed.

Performs at FIT July 28 at 8 p.m., July 29 at 2 p.m., July 30 at 5 p.m. and Aug. 5 at 5 p.m.


SCREEN REVIEW: ‘Atomic Blonde’

Posted on 26 Jul 2017 at 10:12am

There’s no point in resisting it — we have to admit that we live in a world where Oscar-winning actors with actual acting chops gladly appear in movies based on comic books (or “graphic novels” if they want to sound classier) to establish their movie-star bones. It’s not that there’s anything inherently bad about drawing-based literature; certainly Frank Miller is the literary superior to Suzanne Collins or Stephenie Meyer, and don’t even get me started on E.L. James. But just the trigger-words “comic-book movie” suggest a two-dimensionality; it’s as if the books aren’t works in and of themselves, but storyboards waiting for a movie to be filmed around them. You sense many filmmakers don’t feel the need to “add to,” but to “cleave to:” The action scenes have been drawn, might as well shoot them.

The fight stagings in Atomic Blonde, which comes out Friday with (Oscar-winner) Charlize Theron as the putatively title character (nobody ever calls here that, nor does it make actual nuclear sense), are competently if not expertly executed: a level above cheesy chop-socky, not as viscerally fluid as Paul Greengrass manages (though it bears mentioning that the director, David Leitch, has mostly worked as a stuntman, including several Bourne films). And the plot — a Cold War thriller set in Berlin just before the wall comes down, with an MI6 agent (Theron) sent to retrieve “the list,” a catalogue of undercover agents, before it falls into the hands of the Commies (a classic McGuffin if ever there was one) — has a kind of retro appeal. In fact, hands-down the best thing about the film is its setting, and the reminder of how bitchin’ the music of the late ’80s/early ’90s was.

But the details that make it a real movie, a narrative you can get behind with characters you understand, are lacking. The story hops around like a frog from lily pad to lily pad, from character to character, set piece to set piece, with no real understanding or even care for what happens next or why. Theron’s character is supposed to be undercover, but is “made” before she leaves the airport. She spends the rest of the movie walking between East and West Berlin as a tall, platinum bombshell, yet no one can find her, even though her apartment is bugged and there’s a double agent stalking her (if you can’t figure out who that is within the first 10 minutes, it’s only because it seems too obvious). Sure, it’s a summer action film — “don’t be so critical” people like to say. But hey, why not hold the filmmakers to a minimum standard of sensibility? War for the Planet of the Apes does it with monkeys; can’t we ask as much of Charlize?

One of the puzzling aspects is the casting itself. For all her kick-assery, Theron seems to best a lot of much bigger men physically completely out of proportion with her frame and the absence of a golden lasso. Until everyone shoots at her in an extended chase/face-off sequence, no one shoots at her, preferring garrotes, knives and insults. (“I’m gonna kill you, bitch!” one villain smirks, second before she runs a corkscrew threw his trachea; “Am I still a bitch?” she comes back…  uh, yeah, definitely!) Even the appreciative preview audience laughed as some of the will-not-die moments. Theron also has a nearly expressionless face between her eyes and lower lip, as if Botox was handed out for free 30 year ago. And James McAvoy is horribly miscast as a weaselly spy who has gone native; he is too Michael J. Fox, to play that kind of hardened predator.

Still, when Atomic Blonde isn’t going through the motions, it does score a few points — for the aforementioned soundtrack, but also the frank lesbian relationship between Theron and a French spy, played by Sofia Boutella (The Mummy). The film does not use the relationship as heteromale fantasy not as a gimmick nor even as a statement, but as a plausible complication of spy life. It’s the most interesting part of the film and would have made a better focus … if only the storyboards didn’t stand in the way.

Two and a half stars.


2nd annual Dallas Cabaret Festival opens Thursday

Posted on 25 Jul 2017 at 10:36am

As we reported earlier this year, local songstress Denise Lee is devoted to making cabaret more mainstream. Toward that end, she is bringing back her Dallas Cabaret Festival for a second weekend.

It opens Thursday at 7:30 p.m. with Cynthia Scott, performing at the Women’s Building at Fair Park. Scott will debut her new cabaret show. Then there will be performances on Friday, July 28, including the winner of the “So You Think You Can Cabaret?” competition, Tarnecia Durham, and The Voice finalist Simone Gundy.

The fest will conclude Saturday with locals Willie Welch, Calvin Roberts, Stephanie Brehm, Kevin Halliburton and Lee herself, joined by blues guitarist Samuel James, for a blues-centric show.

As before, the entire weekend’s event are free. But make reservations here.



Today is National Tequila Day… as if you needed a reason

Posted on 24 Jul 2017 at 1:11pm

As I’ve written about repeatedly, there is a national alcohol day for every liquor under the sun. For some reason, July 24 is National Tequila Day, which is slightly funny since by definition tequila is from Mexico, and we are celebrating a foreign country’s product, sort of like Donald Trump Jr. But here in Texas, tequila is a revered drink. It’s the basis for margaritas, or course, but also richly historied and complex. And there are many brands and places that specialize in them. In fact, today, a number of restaurants are offering special tequila promotions — among them Cantina Laredo ($5 Hornitos Anejo shots today), Cafe Salsera ($6 cocktails every day for happy hour, including the usual half-priced Margarita Mondays from 4–10 p.m.), Applebee’s (“DollaRitas” through the end of the month) and Mi Dia from Scratch (discounted shots and drinks on all price levels). My own choice of tequila is Casa Dragones, but there are many others out there to sample today. So to get you started, here’s one recipe for a tequila drink you can make at home… and it doesn’t have to be today.

The Mayan Mule (pictured, created by Milagro brand ambassador James Salas)

2 oz. Milagro reposado

1/2 oz. fresh lime juice

3 oz. ginger beer

Angostura bitters

Mint, lime

Making it: Add lime juice, tequila two dashes of bitters to a Collins glass with ice. Add ginger beer. Garnish with mint sprigs and lime wheel.


WATCH: ‘War Paint’ cast recording gets a making-of documentary

Posted on 24 Jul 2017 at 9:42am

The musical War Paint — Dallasite Doug Wright’s retelling of the rivalry between cosmetic gurus Helena Rubenstein (Patti LuPone) and Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole), with a score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie — is a Broadway hit, with a powerhouse cast recording to boot (which I reviewed here). But now you can glimpse the making of the cast album as well, with a 7-minute, online behind-the-scenes documentary. You can watch it here.


Building a ‘Wall’

Posted on 21 Jul 2017 at 6:00am

WaterTower’s new artistic director chooses as her first production a rollicking history of Stonewall


Joanie Schultz, WaterTower Theatre’s new artistic director, aimed for a diverse and authentic cast for her first show as a director here, the hot-button play-with-music ‘Hit the Wall.’ (Photo courtesy Karen Almond)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor

Whenever an arts organization brings in a newcomer to lead it, there’s an expectation that fresh blood equates with fresh ideas … and sometimes radical rethinking. The decision by Addison’s WaterTower Theatre to tap Chicagoan Joanie Schultz to take over for longtime artistic director Terry Martin was a leap of faith for both: Schultz had never led a theater company as AD before, and WTT was looking to expand its footprint in North Texas theater. Sometimes, the new guy — or new woman — dips a toe into the waters gingerly, but Schultz has decided to dive in.

Her first production as a director — a bowshot to signal her lively approach to making theater — was to replace the planned summer musical, Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, with something far more radical: Hit the Wall, a play about the Stonewall Riots that triggered the modern gay rights movement.

Replacing a musical by a beloved icon of American theater with a rarely-performed, politically charged retelling of liberation? It’s not as crazy as it sounds… or at least, Schultz didn’t imagine it would be so.Water tower bug

“When we knew we were going to reprogram the summer show, we went to the [usual suspects]. I was looking for something uplifting and inspiring [to replace Sondheim], something that would attract a young, excited crowd,” she says. She then remembered Hit the Wall, which she first encountered about five years ago in Chicago.

“I knew it would be a good summer show. What struck me when I saw it was the unique storytelling — a hybrid between being a rock concert and a play. It has characters, but it’s the feel for the passion, the spirit underneath it [that captured me],” Schultz says.

She also realized at the time she first saw it how little she actually knew, as a straight woman, about its subject matter.

“I remember not knowing a darned thing about Stonewall,” she admits. “I had heard the words but didn’t really know what happened. I was shocked that a major historical moment in America” was not more widely known. “Stonewall is not being taught in our history classes, though for sure it should be.” It would, she thought, be a good way to start her tenure at WTT.

But the journey has been more uphill than she expected.

“When I picked it, I hadn’t moved to Texas yet,” she says. “It was a huge hit [in Chicago],” so she anticipated an easy sell. “It’s been more challenging for my audience than I anticipated. Some people have said, ‘Haven’t we heard so much about Stonewall?’ But we have a cast full of some younger people who didn’t know much about Stonewall before embarking on this. It has caused a lot of conversation around our theater” — which, Schultz says, is ultimately the role of theater in the life of a society.

It has also plunged her headfirst into the North Texas theater community, which has turned out to be a positive experience for her.

“I had to do the casting very quickly, because I was still not [living full-time in Dallas]. We had 100 actors come out on the first day — 100 truly good actors. And it’s a complicated play in terms of casting, trying for as much authenticity as possible — not just racially, but eight out of the ten roles are queer characters,” and she wanted to reflect that diversity as well.


Joanie Schultz

“This is a really different kind of play to ask people to come in for — I wonder how much some of the actors code-switch to present themselves professionally and not be bitchy, and then I’m asking them for just that,” she laughs.

Assembling the design team presented its own issues. The lighting designer has been a mainstay at WTT, and working with him has shortened her learning curve in dealing with the theater’s unique space. But she took a chance in hiring as her scenic designer a third-year candidate for master of fine arts at SMU to design her first solo show.

“I wanted to give someone new a chance to bring an exciting, younger voice to the stage,” Schultz says. She also hired a trans man to write and perform the music for the show (it’s not a musical but has a rock element that is essential, she explains). Combining new voices with established artists is part of the collaborative process that Schultz enjoys in the craft of theater. And the controversies and hiccups embolden her more than they intimidate. That is, she feels, the very point of the endeavor.

“This is an exciting moment for us to do this play,” she says. “I’ve been really working with the folks here to push our version of Hit the Wall so that we really push it over the wall.”  

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 21, 2017.


STAGE REVIEW: ‘The Bodyguard’

Posted on 20 Jul 2017 at 10:50am

I have to admit it upfront: I hated the movie version of The Bodyguard, and when I heard the original cast recording earlier this year felt underwhelmed. So I went into the stage version —  a jukebox musical now at Fair Park and then moving to Fort Worth’s Bass Hall — with jaundiced eyes. The plot is cheesy. The thriller aspect not-so-thrilling. The songs have not been assembled to actually advance the story in any meaningful way.

But I still loved it.

The Bodyguard is the stage iteration of the beach-read novel, or the summer movie blockbuster. Its aim is pure entertainment, and it hits a bullseye.

You probably know the plot: Recording star Rachel Marron (Deborah Cox) is campaigning for an Oscar for him film debut, but it being stalked by a dangerous fan. Her management team hires Frank (Judson Mills) to spearhead her security detail. She resists; he insists; both are kisses (by each other). Can Frank still protect Rachel while (gulp!) in love with her?!?!


The film was a monster hit, owing in large part to its soundtrack of hits sung by Whitney Houston. All of those songs — as well as more from Whitney’s canon (plus Chaka Khan, Deniece Williams and a few more) — get shoehorned into this show, but because Rachel is a singer (as well as her sister), there’s usually cause to plant Cox centerstage, hand her a microphone and zip up a mermaid dress, and let her belt out a number.

And belt she does. Cox is practically the raison d’etre of The Bodyguard, tasked with the most numbers, and she’s in fine voice. She’s a terrific stage presence. But Jasmine Richardson as her wallflower sister more than holds her own musically, Mills is a dashing and humorous Frank and even the backup dancers make for likable eye-candy. I don’t believe in the phrase “guilty pleasure,” but The Bodyguard definitely defies you not to be delighted. You’ll leave the theater happier than when you went in.

Fair Park through July 30. Bass Hall, Aug. 1–6.