2011 Year in Review: Stage

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KIT KAT KLUBBERS | Wade McCollum, center, almost dominated DTC’s ‘Cabaret’ as the sleazy Master of Ceremonies, but everyone was at the top of their game in this production, directed by Joel Ferrell.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  
Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Dallas theaters done good in 2011, with many exciting, funny, touching and/or energetic productions to choose from. Here, from No. 10 to the top:

10. Ovo (Cirque du Soleil tour). We’ve come to expect excellence from Cirque du Soleil, but their latest show is probably the best touring production to come to North Texas. Nearly a year later, it lingers for its beauty, derring-do and even storytelling, as it portrays romance in the bug world.

9. In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play (Kitchen Dog Theater). Sarah Rule can be an acquired taste, but I acquired it with Kitchen Dog’s outrageous comedy of manners about how science adapted Victorian culture’s sexual repression to treat female “hysterics” with bizarre blindfolds over what they were doing. It took Freud and Jung to release us from these constraints.

8. The New Century and Beautiful Thing (Uptown Players’ Pride Festival). Uptown’s debut festival had some definite misses (the mainstage production of Crazy, Just Like Me was unwatchable), but I’ll walk away from the festival remembering the touching domestic drama Beautiful Thing and the camptastic Paul Rudnick comedy The New Century, which also managed to make audiences cry.

7. Arsenic and Old Lace (Dallas Theater Center). This crusty old comedy from the 1930s seemed like an unlikely source of some of the top laughs of 2011, but the Scott Schwartz-directed production, including a magnificent revolving set and a fresh, pixieish energy from Tovah Feldshuh and her co-star, Betty Buckley, was a real hoot — a chestnut roasting into a nutcake.

6. How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (ICT MainStage). Max Swarner found his niche in 2011 as the breezy light musical comedian — and How to Succeed was the perfect vehicle to showcase it. Looking big and expensive on a community theater budget, director Michael Serrecchia made this very-‘60s-era comedy feel as modern as The Colbert Report.

5. Dividing the Estate (DTC). The first entry in the city-wide Foote Festival was also the best, due in large part to director Joel Ferrell’s brisk pacing of a Gothic Southern (or in this case, Texas) saga about family sniping and intrigue. Any Southerner will recognize characters from his or her own background in the most sweeping portrait of blood dynamics since August: Osage County.

4. The Hand (Broken Gears Project Theater). Poor Broken Gears seemed to implode because of this show — a quickie little two-hander about men in a bathroom — one of whom is missing a hand… and wants one back. Snappy, gruesome and thoughtful, with a strong undercurrent of homoeroticism, it was guerrilla theater at its best.

3. Red Light Winter (Second Thought Theater). Adam Rapp’s drama about alpha-males and sexual politics marked the temporary return to Dallas of actor-director Regan Adair, and it was a fitting swan song for him as he tenderly parsed the most poignant of love stories with a dark, vicious side. The three actors were exceptional handling the explicit sexual content.

2. Next to Normal (Uptown Players). Uptown Players scored a coup in nabbing this Pulitzer-winning musical, basically an opera about mental illness. Beautifully sung (especially by the emotionally connected stars, Patty Breckenridge and Gary Floyd), it was the second major hit from director Michael Serrecchia.

1. Cabaret (DTC). It’s tempting to single out Wade McCollum, as the seductive Master of Ceremonies, with a large share of the success of this reinvention of the Kander and Ebb masterpiece, but it was not just him but Julie Johnson, David Coffee and especially director-choreographer Joel Ferrell — who turned the Wyly Theater into a seedy Weimar night club — plus everyone involved with making Cabaret the not-to-miss production of this, or any, season.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 30, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Lips together, legs apart

The ultimate stage mom gets her turn — and it’s a good one — at Lyric; a doctor rubs women the wrong way in Kitchen Dog’s ‘Vibrator Play’

EVERYBODY FLIRTS | A scientist (Max Hartman, left) treats hysteria in his wife (Martha Harms) and even a man (Austin Tindle) with a medieval dildo in scathing, hilarious ‘The Vibrator Play.’ (Photo by Matt Mrozek)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

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ON THE BOARDS
IN THE NEXT ROOM at The MAC, 3120 McKinney Ave. Through Oct. 8. KitchenDogTheater.org
GYPSY at Irving Arts Center, 3333 MacArthur Blvd., Irving. Through Sept. 18. LyricStage.org.

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The puns for In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, now setting off sparks at The MAC courtesy of Kitchen Dog Theater, practically write themselves: “Stimulating!” “Probing!” “Certain to rub some people the wrong way.” But it’s the less-obvious appeal of the play, and its unexpected and abiding humor, that makes all of those jokes accurate descriptions of a naughty but thoughtful comedy of manners.

Oscar Wilde it ain’t — it is, rather, Sarah Ruhl, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow who’s an acquired taste. Her brand of theatrical realism is difficult to pin down. The full title for this play sounds both ominous and dirty, but, at least in this version, it is neither. In fact, trying to pigeonhole it in any way is a fool’s errand. It’s a proudly feminist screed fulminating against male-dominated society while retaining nuance. It is sui generis: A woman-centric sex farce with lesbian overtones.

In the 1880s, after the Civil War and at the dawn of the age of Edison, women are still hemmed in by Victorian values even as modernity threatens to break them free. For Catherine Givings (Martha Harms), the electrification of her home, quite literally, turns a light on for her. She’s bored with her husband (Max Hartman), a scientist of some kind who becomes known around town for treating women suffering from “hysteria,” a blanket term for any female who seems remotely dissatisfied with her life. How could any girl in her 20s, married to a man in his 40s and living in comparative luxury be anything other than content? Marc Cherry didn’t invest desperate housewives; society did that generations ago.

CLEAR THE DECKS | Rose (Sue Mathys) dominates her kids in ‘Gypsy,’ getting a full-orchestra treatment at Lyric Stage. (Photo courtesy Michael C. Foster)

Dr. Givings’ treatment, discussed with clinical detachment, includes a new-fangled device made possible by electricity: It stimulates the vulva, releasing the “pent up juices” that “congest” the female body and mind.

Basically, he’s masturbating clients while their husbands wait in the next room, happily paying for a service they could perform for free if only they’d open their eyes.

A lot of the humor comes from the disconnect between Givings’ therapies and the ecstatic rapture he induces in his patients, none more dramatically than Mrs. Daldry (Catherine DuBord). A modern doctor would easily diagnose Mrs. Daldry with post-partum depression … at least until noticing that she seems to get her “juices” released better when Givings’ nurse Annie (Kristin McCollom) performs the service by hand.

The play takes its most raucous turn when Dr. Givings is visited by a Leo (Austin Tindle). Male hysterics are rare, the doc notes, though it is more common among Bohemian types. He then proceeds to treat his patient by “massaging the prostate” with a cigar-shaped version of the vibrator, which Leo enjoys more than the supporting cast in a Falcon video.

Such absurdism — can the men truly be so ignorant? — clicks alongside some potent observations about how women are made neurotic by well-intentioned oppression, and about how homosexuality basically among men and women is best dealt with by ignoring it. The style is both scathing and sexy, funny and poignant. Just as Mrs. Daldry explores her incipient lesbianism, she’s arrested in her burgeoning self-awareness by societal norms. (In some ways, not much has changed.)

Comedies about onanism in which people have onstage orgasms may seem like a hard sell, but director Jonathan Taylor makes it all work without digressing into lurid potty humor. He teases well-crafted performances from the entire cast, all of whom combine a modern perspective with a comfort level with the 19th century idiom … which is to say, not all that comfortable. That’s kind of the point.

There has probably never been a better book-musical written for the American musical theater than Gypsy, which Lyric Stage has mounted, as has been its wont in recent seasons, with a full 39-piece orchestra and magnificent sets and costumes (the clothes were actually bought from the recent Broadway revival with Patti LuPone).

Set in the world of Vaudeville, it’s the perfect meta-play: A show about show people for show people. Hard-driving stage mom Rose Hovick (Sue Mathys) pushes her daughters into show business as kids: One will eventually become B-movie actress June Havoc; one the legendary ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee. But until then, they were just Shirley Temple wannabes schlubbing around the Orpheum circuit during the last gasps of Vaudeville.

The songs, by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, are classics: “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Small World,” “Some People,” “Rose’s Turn.” Just the names can give a theater queen chills. Still, music director Jay Dias could add a little more tempo to some of the numbers. “All I Need is the Girl” needs to sparkle as lightly as champagne bubbles, and charming as the number is here, it could have more energy.

But who’s gonna complain too much, when you get to hear these gorgeous numbers as they are meant to be, by a stellar cast. Mary McElree makes a convincing transition from mousy Louise to sophisticated seductress Gypsy Rose, and Sara Shelby-Martin steals her scene as Miss Mazeppa. But this is largely Mathys’ show: She’s short but firm, with the low center of gravity shared by all great male movie heavies. Her pipes are powerful but her acting is even better. You believe her mania even as you hold her in contempt. There’s real magic in that.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 16, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Caste of thousands

A sorta-funny thing happened on the way to the ashram in world premiere ‘Bollywood Lysistrata’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

‘A Bollywood Lysistrata’
AIN’T NO TAJ MAHAL-ABACK GIRLS | Women withhold sex to get what they want in ‘A Bollywood Lysistrata.’

BOLLYWOOD LYSISTRATA
KD Studios Theater, 2600 N. Stemmons Freeway, Suite 180. Through Sep. 5.
Fridays–Saturdays at 8:15 p.m.
LevelGroundArts.com

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I’m not sure why so many playwrights feel compelled to adapt a 2,400-year-old Greek comedy and call it new art. I can think of half a dozen variations of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata in the last decade alone, the most recent being the musical Give It Up that the Dallas Theater Center premiered earlier this year. Well, the most recent until the current version, Level Ground Arts’ A Bollywood Lysistrata, now at the KD Studios Theater. Women withholding sex to get what they want? Isn’t that called marriage?

Anyhoo, LGA’s take moves the plot from ancient Greek to Raj-era India, where cricket has become an obsession for British men and their native counterparts — so much so that one sports-widow, Lakshmi (Rhonda Durant), convinces the women, Indian and English, to close their legs until the men give up the game. Talk about a sticky wicket.

And see? That’s one of the problems with the show. The jokes are so obvious — lots of double entendres about men and their bats, what they can do with their balls, etc. — that you tend to make up many of your own during the slow parts.

The adaptation by Andi Allen — who co-directed and co-stars as one of the British wives — is a hodgepodge of styles: The language is formalistic, even academic, sounding like a literal translation from the Greek. Even setting it in the 1890s, why not update it with modern vernacular? It’s also a Wilde-esque comedy of manners and, of course, a Bollywood musical extravaganza with silly acting, pointless dancing and beautiful costumes.

I actually liked the pointless dancing (with the word “Bollywood” in the title, you should know going in what you’re in for), and Jill Hall’s costumes are colorful — I’d enjoy more of both. But the acting? That’s as varied as the play itself.

Allen is one of the best at making her dialogue sound natural, and as the local ranee, Lorna Woodford commands her scenes. Even Camille Monae — who, as the horny Hindu Chandini, gets many of the best ribald lines — and Durant (a dead ringer for Catherine Zeta-Jones) holds the thread of the show together well.

Beyond that, it’s a free-for-all: Inconsistent accents; wildly goofy melodrama from Robert Shores and a low-budget Robert Morley impersonation from the marshmallowy R. Bradford Smith; and the raja is played by Jon Morehouse as a cross between Johnny Carson’s Carnac and Jafar from Aladdin. It’s impossible to stay in the moment who you aren’t sure whether it will be Mumbai or Marx Brothers from minute to minute.

There’s an exuberance, especially during the dancing sequences, that captures what’s fun about the Bollywood format, but I’ll just say thank you, I won’t come again.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 20, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens