Gender roles

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ONE OF THESE GIRLS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHER | Walter Lee Cunningham Jr., right, plays his character Frenchie sometimes as a girl, sometimes as a cross-dresser, in Dallas Theater Center’s wild and sexed-up production of ‘Cabaret.’ (Photo courtesy Karen Almond)

Life is a drag-aret, old chum — at least it is for Walter Lee Cunningham Jr., who gets all girlie for his role in DTC’s sexy, edgy ‘Cabaret’

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

Getting cast in Cabaret was a plum gig for Walter Lee Cunningham Jr. Since moving to Dallas from his native Abilene in 2007, Cunningham has been performing around town in shows like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Caroline, or Change. But he had taken off nearly a year before he auditioned for the Dallas Theater Center’s spring musical.

So when he got that call that he’d been cast as Frenchie, “one of the dancers in the Kit Kat Klub,” he was thrilled to be making his DTC debut.

Then he showed up for the first costume fitting,

“That’s when I found out I would be playing a girl,” he says.

Yes, he would be in the ensemble — only not as a Kit Kat boy as he had assumed, but playing one of the female chorines.

That was a surprise for sure, but wasn’t such a big deal for Cunningham: Since 2004, he’s performed drag under the name Jada Fox at clubs around North Texas, including Station 4, the Drama Room and the Rainbow Lounge. No, it was really when he saw his costume that he had his first big gulp! moment — there simply wasn’t that much of it.

“It kind of freaked me out a bit,” he says. “When I do drag, I wear pads to give myself the physique of a girl. Without them, I have the body of a boy.”

Being clad only in a bra, lace panties and sheer stockings didn’t give him much to play with — or hide behind.

As with drag, maintaining the illusion of femininity requires a man to, ummm, “tuck.” That’s not so hard when donning an evening gown for a 20-minute drag show; it’s quite another for a two-hour musical that requires high kicks.

Let’s just say Cunningham has to work harder than anyone else onstage not to let his Pride flag wave too proudly.

“I have to worry about my junk,” he says frankly. “Something could very well pop out. You just have to make it work.” (So far during previews, that hasn’t happened, though it has occurred backstage at unexpected moments.) He also has to sing an octave above his normal range. All in all, it gives new meaning to Faith Whittlesey’s dictum, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did — only backwards and in heels.”

Performing as a female impersonator certainly prepared Cunningham for this role. As with acting, drag requires the creation of a character, and Jada Fox has been described as “a black Barbie doll — I’m not the bitchy queen, it’s just not me.” (When pressed, he compares his persona to Sahara Davenport, the Season 2 contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race.)

It’s all part-and-parcel with the concept of the show, a sexed-up, wildly racy updating of “the divinely decadent Sally Bowles,” a British showgirl living in Weimar Germany when everyone was sleeping around with everyone else — male, female … even Nazi. Joel Ferrell directs and choreographs, turning the floor of the Wyly Theatre into a real cabaret with some café-table seating. That gives Cunningham the opportunity to interact with the audience in ways neither he nor most of the attendees are quite used to.

“There’s definitely a game of ‘spot-the-boy,’” he says. “I can see the audience, especially the women, trying to figure me out, It’s kind of funny. It gives me a bit to play with. I’m not trying to freak anyone out, but there was this number [at a preview] where I was looking at these guys and they refused to look at me.” He took it as a challenge.

It becomes easier to spot-the-boy during Act 2, where Cabaret ventures toward Zumanity territory with explicit nudity — none of which bothers Cunningham.

“I personally don’t care — I’m very comfortable with my body,” he says. (At 25, he says he eats all he wants to and only occasionally works out and yet still maintains his lean physique.)

So, is Frenchie a real girl, or just a cross-dressing guy living the gay life in decadent interregnum Berlin? Even Cunningham’s not sure.

“They never told me exactly what they wanted,” he says. “It’s a choice I get to make. I kind of play with it — sometimes I’m really a girl and sometimes not.”

Unless, of course, he pops out of his costume during a performance. At that point, the audience pretty much gets to make the decision for him.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 29, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Weekly Best Bets

Friday 03.18

Footes won’t fail you now
Honoring the Texas playwright, the theater community unites for the first Horton Foote Festival. The fest kicks off with DTC’s Dividing the Estate. but even a touch of gay can be found with The Young Man from Atlanta, which Uptown Players will perform in April.
DEETS:
Various theaters and venues. Through May 1. Visit HortonFooteFestival.com for details.

Friday 03.18

When wine strolls attack
Savor Dallas is upon us again, filling the weekend with food, wine and fabulosity. The event starts off with an Arts District Wine Stroll within the museums and venues. Just don’t get tipsy and spill the wine on the art. That’s a whole lot of bad karma. And look for local celebrichefs like Stephan Pyles and Blythe Beck. Bon appetit!
DEETS:
Various venues. 5 p.m. $35. Through Saturday. Visit SavorDallas.com for schedule.

Saturday 03.19

Hey, why don’t you go take a walk
Designer Anthony Chisom took issues into his own hands starting the Anthony Chisom AIDS Foundation and creating the inaugural South Dallas AIDS Walk. Seeing the impact of AIDS beyond the gayborhood, Chisom’s foundation strives to expand the city’s vision of where AIDS impacts. After all, it is the same fight for the cure.
DEETS: South Dallas Cultural Center, 3400 S. Fitzhugh Ave. 8 a.m. SouthDallasAIDSWalk.org.

—  John Wright

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

Moriarty’s contract with DTC extended to 2014

Kevin Moriarty

Kevin Moriarty, the gay artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center, will be in town a little longer.

Moriarty, who took over the post in 2007, had his contract extended this week through the end of the 2013-14 season, keeping him as head of the 52-year-old company through August 2014.

The DTC also finished its fiscal year in the black for the eighth time in 10 years, with a budget surplus, despite spending exorbitantly on the revamped musical It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman.

The DTC’s managing director, Mark Hadley, announced his departure earlier this year; this month represented his last show with the organization. He will be working with a church in Arlington. A search is currently under way for his replacement.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

A curtain falls

Propmaster Rick Gilles, DTC’s butchest employee, leaves to be with his man

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer lopez@dallasvoice.com

Rick Gilles
GO WEST | While finishing up work at DTC’s production studio, Gilles is planning his big move to California — for love. (Rich Lopez/Dallas Voice)

Two loves separated by long distance. One left for his future. The other stayed for their future. But now, happily ever after is about to begin.

Quick, what is that? Tagline in a movie trailer for the next sappy Reese Witherspoon rom-com? No, but it is based on a true story. After 14 years in Dallas, Rick Gilles is packing up and heading west to be with his partner Shannon Swindle. Once they are reunited after a year-and-a-half separation, the plan for Gilles is to settle in, get a job and begin planning their wedding next year (initially scheduled for this year). It’s a real-world romance just in time for Prop 8 being overturned.

“I started realizing that I wasn’t going to get the wedding I wanted,” Gilles laughs. “We had been talking about it for a little while, but with the stress of moving, we postponed until next year. We want it outdoors in Napa Valley with close family and friends. And that isn’t going to come particularly cheap.”

Swindle built a sweet reputation as the pastry chef at Craft in Dallas’ W Hotel, but last year he was transferred to the Los Angeles location. He’s been living in an apartment, waiting for Gilles. But as the properties master for the Dallas Theater Center, Gilles had his own full plate — namely, moving into the new Wyly Theatre. After 14 seasons working at the DTC, he couldn’t bring himself to just leave without seeing it flourish.

“Part of the reason the move didn’t happen earlier was I had been working on getting this theater open,” he says. “I really wanted to see that to fruition and see it go through a full season.”

When Gilles wasn’t constructing sets and working on props for the stage, he was an active member of the Leather Knights (see sidebar), where he found something beyond his leather interest: He could also make an impact on the local LGBT community that he doesn’t foresee in L.A.
“When I lived there before it took a lot more effort, time and money to be involved,” he says. “With Leather Knights, I could fit into my schedule and help the community and contribute my talents.”

Perhaps the hardest part of Gilles’ move isn’t just leaving his longtime tenure at DTC, but chiefly because, he isn’t all that ready to leave Dallas. Coming here from Buffalo (though originally from California), Gilles has made his connection to the city.

“I’ll be really sad to leave here,” he admits. “Dallas has treated me exceptionally well. I love this job and I love Dallas a lot. But ultimately, I’m really excited about the future. We’ve been living apart long enough.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 6, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Casting news; B'way hunk Matt Cavenaugh will be Superman

CavenaughThe Dallas Theater Center’s updating of the ’60s-era musical It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman! gets its first major casting announcement. Matt Cavenaugh — who played Jerry and Joseph Kennedy Jr. in the Broadway production of Grey Gardens — will take on the role of Clark Kent/Man of Steel. I guess this means I need to spend even MORE time at the gym … if I want to be Jimmy Olsen.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones