Stage: Year In Review 2010

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | jones@dallasvoice.com

1-GE6_81212010 proved to be an oddly uninvolving season at the theater.

The tours, even the good ones, were often retreads of past shows (I love Avenue Q and Wicked, but have seen them already — a lot) or dreadfully overproduced, crap (the unwatchable Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the appalling Shrek).

Local companies tried to be creative, with mixed results. There were high points — and when they were high, they were spectacular — but mostly it was middle-of-the-road stuff and disappointing, unfulfilled promise. And when things were bad, as they were with the disastrously under-realized reinvention of It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Superman! at the Dallas Theater Center, they almost made me red-faced with rage. But there was still enough to warrant a “best of” list, and here they are.

10. August: Osage County and 9. Spring Awakening (Lexus Broadway Series). The two best tours of the year were both part of the new series at the Winspear. Neither was quite as good as the New York productions, but August, with its epic take on the family dynamic, and Awakening, with its frank, modern spin on sexual yearning, made the hassles of going to the Arts District worth the effort.

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WINNER’S CIRCLE | Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre managed two of the best shows of the year: ‘Opus,,’ left, and ‘Bach at Leipzig,’ both of which made classical music exciting.

8. The Beauty Plays (Dallas Theater Center). Give credit to the DTC for tackling three Neil LaBute plays often relegated to more “alternative” theater companies by putting them in rep in the 99-seat Wyly black box. These are uncomfortable plays to watch, with the versions of Fat Pig and Reasons to Be Pretty outlapping The Shape of Things, but the series itself was a welcome bit of daring programming.

7. SubUrbia (Upstart Productions). Taking on its second Eric Bogosian play in a year, and on the heels of This Is Our Youth, Upstart showed an admirable facility with modern plays about aimlessness.

6. Boom and 5. Charm (Kitchen Dog Theater). Two vastly different comedies — Boom, a futurist tale about a gay guy wanting to repopulate the world, and Charm, a period piece about a feminist icon — turned basically unfunny ideas into beautiful, almost surrealist bits of whimsy.

4. Our Town (WaterTower Theatre). After a few disappointing seasons, WaterTower got back on track with this American classic. Defying conventional wisdom that it’s an “easy” piece of sentimental tripe, director Terry Martin fathomed its iconic, homespun realism. It’s a more peculiar piece than it gets credit for, and the realization here was exquisite.

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FEMINISM GONE WILD! | Tina Parker, right, played an independent woman in 19th century America in Kitchen Dog’s aptly named ‘Charm.’

3. My Fair Lady (Lyric Stage). The best musical on the list was Lyric Stage’s gussied-up, NEA-granted, original orchestrated mounting of one of theaterdom’s crowning glories. (It’s probably the best book of a musical ever written … which you can attribute to Shaw.) Magnificently costumed and designed, and directed with panache by Cheryl Denson, it was like a time machine to 1954, and proved why Steven Jones is North Texas’ finest theater producer.

2. Bach at Leipzig and 1. Opus (Circle Theatre). Fort Worth had it all over Dallas (and Irving!) with the two best shows on the year. In Bach, playwright Itamar Moses conceived of his play — a comedy about Baroque composers — as a theatrical fugue, and director Robin Armstrong made it happen with gorgeous sets and a cast that understands that farce is more than pie-throwing, but the melding of wordplay and swordplay in equal doses. But Circle Theatre also claimed the best show of the year, also about music, with Opus, in which a gay couple’s breakup nearly ruins a famed string quartet. If all classical music were this enchanting, Mozart will still be on the pop charts.

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ACTOR OF THE YEAR

The stage — especially local theater — is a great medium for actors to stretch themselves. There were some strong ensembles this year, in both of the top plays, Bach at Leipzig (especially Steven Pounders and Andy Baldwin — and excluding the actor who played Bach himself, who missed his only cue) and Opus, as well as the three leads in the No. 3 show, J. Brent Alford, Kimberley Whalen and Sonny Franks in My Fair Lady. Terry Martin made a good Stage Manager in Our Town, but it was the performances he elicited as the director from Joey Folsom, Maxey Whitehead and Ted Wold that stood out most. Folsom was strong, too, in SubUrbia. Tina Parker led a great cast in Charm with her patented wide-eyed energy.

DTC_031010_FATPIG_dress_078Sometimes what most impresses you, though, is someone good in a show that doesn’t deserve it. Morgana Shaw made Closer to Heaven a hoot (despite a deeply problematic script), and Gregory Lush’s flamboyant turn in Sherlock Holmes in the Crucifer of Blood gave the show a jolt. Wendy Welch transformed the likeable revue Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits into the comic highlight of the fall. And the up-and-down revision of Henry IV was made hilarious with the return to the DTC of Randy Moore. R Bruce Elliot’s interpretation of Beethoven in 33 Variations almost saved that rambling show. Almost.

But the actor who I will judge 2010 by will always be Regan Adair. He took on two roles in DTC’s Beauty Plays  — Fat Pig, where he played a conflicted yuppie (pictured above with Christina Vela), and Reasons to Be Pretty, as a working class lech — so vastly different you could hardly recognize him from show to show. His way with Shakespearean dialogue in Henry IV and his harried but touching take on Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol showed how effortlessly he can assault a variety of genres.

Adair is moving away from Dallas in 2011 — a terrible loss to our artistic community; he’s been a frequent finalist on my year-end list. But even if he weren’t leaving, he deserves to be recognized as the actor of the year.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 31, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Mything the mark

Puppets rule in ‘Mount Olympus,’ but the effect ends up wooden

Theatre TooJeffrey Schmidt | Theatre3Dallas.com

Puppets and theater don’t come to mind often, save for Avenue Q. That Broadway hit knew how to mix its Sesame Street-like puppets with a contemporary storyline.

Theatre Three’s world premiere of Bruce Coleman’s Tales of Mount Olympus tweaks the idea using puppetry to tell the classic stories of gods and monsters from Greek mythology. Coleman, who wrote, directed and designed Mount Olympus, exudes innovation. He mentioned that this show is a built of worldly components of theater. The Greek myths are narrated in American storytelling fashion with Hungarian black lights and Japanese Bunraku puppetry. If only as a whole, they all worked.

The show begins with more primitive puppets. Gaia, or Earth, was a large globe with her face painted on and rotated thanks to the actor in black. Her husband, Uranus, was an interestingly constructed creature made up of Christmas lights. Ultimately though, they came off as school craft projects. This remained the same for the following set of gods, Cronus and Rhea.

Two-dimensional pedestals with large heads depicted the married couple while actors from behind emoted with their hands. When Rhea gives birth, her babies are delivered by a magnificent puppet of of a bird in beautifully done Day-Glo feathers to Cronus who ate them for fear they would revolt and overthrow his power. There is some injected humor here as he burps after each devouring and the bird acts as a busybody telling everyone’s business, but there is nothing compelling here. Actors don’t voice the characters. Instead, they are pre-recorded and acted out. This is more of a disconnect than an effective too, but more on that later.

Before long, we are introduced to the glorious puppets of the gods. We see Aphrodite borne from her shell albeit not nude. Coleman initially planned for that bit of nudity, but construction became an issue. Hades, Poseidon, Hera and others are all brought out in striking puppet form. The faces are bold and can be seen clearly from each seat and two actors control most of the characters with one as the brain, and the other as the body.

Zeus however is part of the stage. His huge face is depicted on a wall with a moveable jaw like Big Tex. Understandably, it depicts his grandiose standing, but it’s also underwhelming. When he speaks, the bottom of his beard scrapes the floor and distracts from everything else.

Act 1 has been filled to the brim with more Greek stories before intermission. The tale of Aphrodite infidelity to Hephaestus by her affair with Ares and Persephone’s trip to the Underworld to become Hades’ wife all play out before the break and feel a little rushed.

The first half lacks any emotional punch and the visuals wear off quickly despite the detailed construction of the sets and puppets. Coleman did allow for humor so there are moments when a puppet is actually funny by way of a gesture or the shakes. When two gods give a high five in Act 2, it’s a priceless, hilarious moment.

Theater Three
Jeffrey Schmidt | Theatre3Dallas.com

Thankfully, this is where Olympus redeems itself somewhat. By telling the whole tale of Perseus and Andromeda (or for the cinematic-minded, Clash of the Titans), there is time to get invested into the characters as Perseus sets out to save Andromeda from the Kracken. The innovation explodes here. When Perseus meets Pegasus, the winged horse provides a gasp of wow and although Medusa isn’t as threatening as she needs to be, it is an inspired piece of work they created. I don’t want to give too much away — either in the Kracken’s appearance or Cerberus’ the three-headed dog — but there is some room for surprise in the show, even if they are small ones.

Act 2 may stick with you, but the show won’t. The play feels much more like a production intended for school-age children, which is hard to reconcile with Theatre Three’s usual professional standards. The recorded narration is also miscast, as the voices are never powerful enough. Zeus should ring through the stage, but instead sounds far from almighty-ness. Actors could have possibly voiced the characters with more depth and emotion but the choice to go with recorded narration takes away from the dramatics. I wanted so much more from this show, which I would have gotten if I was a whole lot younger.

Tales from Mount Olympus at Theatre Three (in the Theatre Too space), 2800 Routh St., Suite 168. Through Nov. 28. $20–$30.  214-871-3300. Theatre3Dallas. com.

—  Rich Lopez

The puppet master

Bruce Coleman wields power over the gods, turning Greek myths into Day-Glo puppets for his family-friendly world premiere ‘Mount Olympus’

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer lopez@dallasvoice.com

BUNRAKU? I HARDLY KNOW U!  |  The actors in Bruce Coleman’s newest play are hidden in shadow while their alter egos are vividly colored Bunraku puppets from Greek mythology. (Photo courtesy Ken Birdsell)
BUNRAKU? I HARDLY KNOW U! | The actors in Bruce Coleman’s newest play are hidden in shadow while their alter egos are vividly colored Bunraku puppets from Greek mythology. (Photo courtesy Ken Birdsell)

MOUNT OLYMPUS
Theatre Three
2800 Routh St., Suite 168. Oct 29– Nov. 28. $20–$30.  214-871-3300.
Theatre3Dallas. com.

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Greek gods, with their muscular bodies and tendency to wear skimpy garb, may be the fantasies of gay men. But to kids, the mythology behind Zeus, Hercules, Hera is more like the perfect combination of a comic book and a soap opera. Superpowers intertwined with high drama held many youngsters’ attentions, even for li’l Brucey Coleman.

Now that he’s director-designer-playwright Bruce Coleman, that fascination has stuck around. He comes full circle to his elementary school days with his newest play, Tales from Mount Olympus, which gets its world premiere this week at Theatre Three’s downstairs stage, Theatre Too. Keeping a childlike sense of wonder alive, he’s turned his gods into puppets.

“When I was a fourth grader, I remembered this book on Greek myths which I checked out so many times from the library,” he says. “I loved the order and sense of those stories and the gods, not that my own life was chaotic. They had their domains. That order appealed to me and maybe even made sense for why I came into theater — everyone in theater has their [sensibility].”

In Mount Olympus, Coleman has reimagined four tales from classic Greek mythology performed by a cast of puppets. But he doesn’t go all Avenue Q on the audience with R-rated language and adult situations. Instead, as he pitched the idea of the play to Theatre Three founder and executive producer Jac Alder, this is a family-friendly play that appeals to adults and kids. In fact, he hopes people will bring their children out — even if there is some puppet nudity.

“Well, we all know Aphrodite wasn’t born in a track suit,” he laughs. “But I had suggested that we hadn’t done any family programming and I wanted to push this as something adults and their kids could come to. Jac got really excited about that.”

During Coleman’s stint as a high school drama teacher, part of his curriculum was to do a children’s show every year. Staying away from the usual Three Pigs/Cinderella plays, he directed shows based on mythology. Not only did the students get into it, so did other teachers. He knew he was on to something.

But entertaining third and fourth graders is one thing; will professional theater audiences buy into it? Coleman isn’t worried. He holds his young cast in high esteem and the design of the show is electrifying. Glowing puppets, blizzards, rising moons — Coleman knows his audience will fall into the magic of it all.

KING OF THE SEA  |  Poseidon is actually the god of hotness — for a puppet, at least — in the world premiere ‘Tales from Mount Olympus.’
KING OF THE SEA | Poseidon is actually the god of hotness — for a puppet, at least — in the world premiere ‘Tales from Mount Olympus.’

“We use Bunraku puppets where the puppeteer is clad in all black,” he says. “Julie Taymor called this the double event, where the audience is aware of both, but there is this moment when you cross over into seeing the puppets only. It’s really kind of thrilling.”

Still, he credits the puppeteers with really acting their parts, and doesn’t want audiences to forget that. With no formal puppet training among them, everyone started at a level playing field. Coleman rallied them into thinking of it as one major acting exercise.

“The cast is young and strong and help bring this to life and keep pushing it,” he says. “There is a moment when Hades’ discovery brings him down. Lee Wadley and Ryan Martin did these simple movements and made it heartbreaking. There is lots of teamwork and they worked really hard to create emotions.”

With eight actors playing more than 100 characters — including pillars, butterflies and other background — Coleman is ready to move on from rehearsals to show time. Actors came into the show with enthusiasm and no preconceived notions about their work. And Coleman says every rehearsal has brought some new surprise to the show.

“I’m anxious to get this in front of an audience,” he says. “And with the actors, the puppets have taken steps in their evolution. One of my main goals is to get that imagination ignited again. We have a blizzard at the end of Act 1. Who does that?”

With adult hindsight, Coleman now sees the importance of these stories and the meanings behind them for young people. The moral tales and life lessons come much clearer with life experience. But he also knows that the gods and goddesses have their own subtexts that speak directly to LGBT audiences. The characters are already inherently interesting, but it sounds like they have some major fab cred behind them.

“Well, yes! I mean Artemis is the goddess of all lesbians. She made Zeus promise her that she’d never have to marry a man,” he laughs.

“Goddess of the hunt? OK, go on, girl. And everyone knows Dionysus [the god of wine] is our patron saint.”

But one puppet god might end up catching some eyes ogling a little more intently.

“Someone had looked at my Poseidon and said he is not the god of the ocean,” Coleman chuckles, ”he’s the god of hotness!”

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Spooky theater

Just in time for Halloween, some plays are opening with a sense of the macabre.

Over at SMU, James Crawford has directed a play by the oddly named Five Lesbian Brothers called The Secretaries. The brutal, satiric play about feminism and female bonding is set in a logging town where once a month something nasty happens. The student production gets its final performance Friday at 8 p.m.the Margo Jones Theatre on campus. Call 214-768-2787 for tickets.

Elias Taylorson recently joined Broken Gears Project Theatre as co-artistic director just in time for their newest show, The Pitchfork Disney. A sexually changed surreal play about indulgent young people, it plays in the heart of Oak Lawn in a new 40-seat theater at 3819 Fairmount, across from the Grapevine Bar. For tickets, call 917-415-9482.

Perhaps even creepier than all this, of course, is heterosexual romance. Eeek! Don’t be too afraid (a little, not too) of Neil Simon’s early classic about newlyweds in New York, Barefoot in the Park, pictured. It’s actually a charming situation comedy with lot of signature Simon one-liners. Contemporary Theatre of Dallas opens the show Friday. For tickets, call 214-828-0094

— Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 29, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas

How will Gary Coleman's death affect 'Avenue Q' tonight?

The actual actor Gary Coleman died today of a brain hemorrhage, but the character of Gary Coleman lives on. Or at least, might.

Avenue Q, which opened this week at the Winspear Opera House, has a character in it (played by a woman) named Gary Coleman. Thing is, it really is supposed to be THE Gary Coleman. Like, Diff’rent Strokes boy and all. Seems he’s fallen on hard times and is now working as a super at a low-rent apartment house. He even gets to sing a song called “It Sucks to Be Me.”

Boy does it, now that he’s dead. So the question is, how will that affect the performance? I’m attending tonight, so it’ll be worth seeing….

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Win tickets to 'Avenue Q' at the Winspear by signing up for Dallas Voice e-mail updates

Avenue Q4

I think “Avenue Q” is a brilliant musical. It weds adult humor with a childhood sense of wonderment — think of it as “Sex and the Sesame Street.” It’s dirty and sweet. And the tunes are totally hummable.

You don’t have to take my word for it — you can see it for yourself … and you might not have to pay.

Dallas Voice is giving away a pair of tickets to one lucky reader who enters our contest. Sign up by going to DallasVoice.com, scrolling down to the lower left of the main page and sign up at “E-mail Updates.” (After you see your first update, if you’re not interested, just click “Unsubscribe” and you’re off the list.) Your e-mail address will automatically be entered in the drawing for a free pair of orchestra seat tickets to see “Avenue Q” on May 25 at the Winspear Opera House.

See? The Internet isn’t just for porn. And if you don’t get that, you really need to see this show.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones