As 2008 ends, memorable theater ranged from camp to heartwrenching
How do you measure a year? Jonathan Larson asked in "Rent." For critics, the answer is usually, "a top 10 list."
Sometimes the best productions leap out at you; sometimes they sneak up on you, fully blossoming only in retrospect. Many local shows — Uptown’s "Facts of Life" spoof, DTC’s powerful "The Good Negro," a surprisingly slick "Nine" from ICT MainStage, WaterTower’s thoughtful "Doubt," CTD’s hilarious "SantaLand Diaries" and Lyric Stage’s one-two punch of "West Side Story" and "Fiorello!" — and some national tours — "The Drowsy Chaperone" and "Jersey Boys" — were enjoyably memorable.
But when the dust settled, these 10, starting at the bottom and working up, stood out as the best theater of 2008.
10. Children’s theater that has the power to be as relevant to adults as to tots is always worth seeing. The message of inclusion of A Year with Frog and Toad (Dallas Children’s Theater), told with charm and love in the year’s best-designed show, accomplished just that. This sweet "bromance" about an improvised family of woodland creatures was both touching and cute. Cute is good.
9. There’s nothing remotely cute about Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (Contemporary Theatre of Dallas), a musical cabaret that tracks the final days of Billie Holiday. But from that darkness emerges the bright light that is M. Denise Lee’s performance: Poignant, beautiful and scary by turn, the show conjures a peculiar mix of verisimilitude and the wooziness of a dream all at once.
8. After more than 20 years, Jaston Williams and Joe Sears proved they still have something new and funny to say with their "fourth in the trilogy" production, Tuna Does Vegas (independent), probably the best "Tuna" play since the original. It was wonderful to see them rediscover their love for the material.
7. There’s a good reason Edmond (Second Thought Theatre) is performed without an intermission: David Mamet’s play is so abusive, so discomfiting to watch, it has to be experienced once, quickly — like ripping off a Band-Aid. This production, fluidly directed by Rene Moreno and brilliantly acted (especially by Regan Adair in the title role), zeroed in on the dark soul of a man unflinchingly.
6. Even "Edmond" couldn’t compete for grimness with Bent (Uptown Players), about the Nazi persecution of gays. If it wasn’t the feel-good production of 2008, it was the most moving. Directed by Bruce Coleman, and with a breakthrough performance by Kevin Moore, "Bent" hones in on some part of the gay Zeitgeist, telling a cautionary tale of history that could, too easily, be part of our future.
5. Coleman wrote and directed Look What’s Happened to Pixie DeCosta! (Theater Three), which couldn’t be further from "Bent" in tone, but in its way, speaks just as wisely about the gay experience. More than merely a spoof of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane," it’s a well-crafted homage to film noir and the mystery potboiler, acted with frenetic bravado by its bold cast.
4. One could argue that Kitchen Dog Theater’s production last summer of Sick was a lead-up to their recent staging of Edward Albee’s "The Goat:" Both turn urbane family life upside down with absurdist flair. "Sick" establishes its writer, Zayd Dohrn, as Albee’s artistic progeny as it carefully parses out such weirdness that "normal" can never seem normal again.
3. There was very little serious about the summer confection Zanna, Don’t! (Uptown Players) — except the seriously impressive talent of its young cast, who live in a Bizarroworld where gay is the norm and straights are in the closet. Silly featherweight fluff? Yeah — so what? Director Coy Covington took the entertainment level off the charts.
2. Martin McDonagh’s twisted genius is his seemingly effortless ability to combine horrifying, macabre violence with scathing comedy, and The Pillowman (Kitchen Dog Theater) is his manifesto. Kafkaesque but sickly hilarious, this tale of a writer living in an oppressive society has tons to say about creativity, artistic responsibility and the power of leaving a legacy — no matter how disturbing it might be.
1. There were some storytelling blindspots in The Who’s Tommy (Dallas Theater Center), but the energy of the show steamrolled over all weaknesses and left you instead with a feeling, and that feeling was, "I am witnessing something magical." DTC’s artistic director, Kevin Moriarty, made his local-directing debut, and overnight proved what a great choice he was to lead the company into 2009 and beyond.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 26, 2008.