Appreciation: Rene Moreno, 1959–2017

MorenoThere’s a secret in the restaurant business that a lot of chefs can flambe cherries jubilee or bananas foster tableside, and many can toss around their knives like a magician in a side show, but when you wanna hire someone to run your kitchen, you ask him to cook an egg. Flamboyance is great and showmanship is wonderful, but mastering simplicity is the true sign of talent.  Can’t cook a measly egg? You’re all sizzle, no steak.

The same holds for a number of disciplines, not the least among them the craft of theater. I’ve seen directors crash chandeliers and fly helicopters and I’ve thought “Wow.”  But until you’ve seen a director who can break your heart and make you smile simultaneously while showing you an awkward Irish couple navigate their feelings for each other,  or gasp at the humor and humanity of an octogenarian and his prickly relationship with a young gay man, you don’t know what great directing means.

Rene Moreno directed Outside Mullingar and Visiting Mr. Green and dozen of other plays during his illustrious career. And damn, that man could cook an egg.

I first encountered Moreno as an actor. It was nearly 25 years ago I saw him in a minor role in Dallas Theater Center’s production of A Christmas Carol, and  he stood out — not because he used a wheelchair, but because he grabbed your attention. He made an impact as an actor — in the Dallas-filmed movie Late Bloomers, on Broadway in the original run of Amadeus (before the accident that paralyzed his legs), even in a late-career return to the stage as the title villain in Richard III — but his true calling was really behind the scenes. It probably wasn’t long after that Christmas Carol that he ventured into directing full-time, starting in 1996 with Miss Julie. He took to it like a duck to water. What was that mystical conjuring that allowed him to extract such painfully beautiful performances out of any cast of actors he blessed with his touch? He could turn a seemingly mild comedy-drama like Good People into something profound; in my review, I noted it was “directed, as always, with deft understanding for the subtleties of humanity by Rene Moreno.” That was it, all the time. He knew the human psyche so intimately, he was able to coax out breathtaking work — not just from actors, but designers, too. His prowess at storytelling was legendary. He could tackle massive American dramas like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and August: Osage County with brilliance, spin back to adapting a Restoration comedy like The Lucky Chance to swingin’ Mod London with light-footed farce, turn to a chamber comedy-drama like The Trip to Bountiful and manage to helm a Strindberg to rarefied heights. He wove the most exquisite tapestry of life, one where you never saw the seams.

So when word broke late Tuesday that Moreno, who had undergone recent surgeries, has succumbed to a heart attack in the hospital, it didn’t just feel like the Dallas theater community had lost as artist; it felt like the soul of all North Texas had been somehow vanquished.

In a region flush with amazing theater professionals, from actors to directors to producers, musicians and designers, I don’t think anyone would disagree that Rene Moreno was nonpareil — not merely the best of the best, but virtually peerless. He had the incredible ability to elevate everyone in a show he was in charge of. (He won more Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum Awards than I can count.)

“WaterTower Theatre Board and Staff offer their deepest condolences to the friends and family of René Moreno,” Gregory Patterson, managing director at WTT, messaged me. “Rene was a longtime colleague of WaterTower’s and he will be greatly missed by all. Our thoughts and prayers are with the DFW theatre community as we mourn the loss of this great artist.”

“It’s an extraordinary loss,” Susan Sargeant, founder of WingSpan Theatre Co., told me. “My heart aches.” (Moreno’s final directorial effort, WingSpan’s staged reading of Rose, will proceed as planned this weekend at the Bath House Cultural Center.)

But it wasn’t just that he was a director, but a consumer of theater. I last saw Moreno — whom I count as a personal friend (our birthdays were just days apart — both Geminis, which Rene found humorous) — watch a show a few weeks ago. We chatted that he was undergoing several surgeries; he seemed upbeat but a bit sanguine as well at the prospect. Still, the heart attack at age 57 that took his life following, reportedly, a recent back surgery, came as a shock. The outpouring of grief on social media was immense, with condolences conveyed to his longtime partner, Charles McMullen.

Perhaps it was his comparative youth, or the suddenness, or the realization of the loss of his good humor, that surprised people most. But speaking personally, it feels deeper than mere loss. Rene Moreno was an authentic genius of his craft whose work transformed all who saw it. The cost feels incalculable.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Sleepy genius

PGcover

Mike Hadreas — aka Perfume Genius — has grown into an ethereal messenger since 2010’s Learning. Touching on themes that can apply to anyone, Hadreas is both a beacon of hope and a teller of dreamy tales on his new CD, Put Your Back N 2 It (Matador Records).

Hadreas starts the album on a sleepy, languid path with “AWOL Marine” and stays consistent throughout the 12 tracks. This can be a turn-off for someone looking for a more spirited album, but Hadreas is about depth and his lyrics reveal a major advance since Learning.

Finding inspiration from homemade basement porn never sounded so exquisite as it does in “Marine,” but the minimalist approach adds gravitas, not to mention beauty. He adds stunning emotions to “Take Me Home” (based on “hookerism”) and “Floating Spit” (about overdosing). Hadreas is fearless about turning out butterflies from such depths of social standards.

On “17,” Hadreas writes an ode to gay men who have issues with image. He admits the song is a “gay suicide letter” (and a short one, too, at 2:30) but it’s a shattering one. He doesn’t shy from abstract lyrics but they still bring enough poetic power to have a heartbreaking impact. When he quietly sings In the body of a violin/String it up on a fence/Cover it with semen/I am done, I am done with it, the words are piercing even through his simple delivery.

From suicide to romance, the title track is a love song that floats on a lush piano and brings to light the feelings of budding love and awkward gay sex. Hadreas is gloriously blatant, but decidely poignant. Lyrics like There is love with no hiding/Nothing you’ll show me I will never leave here/Let me be the one to turn you on whisper gently and before you know it, it’s already on your mixtape to your beau.

Put Your Back N 2 It is impressionistic in its package and addresses life as a gay man, but also life in general. He sings about his mother, holding his boyfriend’s hand and even death, all with a delicacy that speaks volumes if you listen closely.

— Rich Lopez

Three and half stars.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 24, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

Movie Monday: Gus Van Sant’s ‘Restless’ at the Angelika

Get a little Restless today

Any other director would almost certainly have turned Restless into a maudlin tearjerker (even the disrespectfully crass Judd Apatow made the mawkish disaster Funny People). But Van Sant operates on about two settings: Crazy genius (Milk, To Die For, Drugstore Cowboy) and disastrous boondoggle (his misguided Psycho remake) …. though he throws some impenetrable art films in as well (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days). Restless is really none of those, though it is very good — a lighthearted look at death that never seems off-beat for its own sake.

Read the entire review here.

DEETS: Starring Henry Hopper, Mia Wasikowska. 95 min. Now playing at the Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station.

—  Rich Lopez

Rex Reed introduces you to Ira Gershwin tonight at the Eisemann Center

Famous for his bitchy film criticism, Fort Worth-born Rex Reed  turns his eye (and his ear) to music with Ira Gershwin revue

Watching too many movies can be a bad thing. After years of deconstructing films and either ripping them apart or praising their genius, Rex Reed has finally had enough. For now at least.

“You have no idea of the crap I sit through. Movies today are ghastly,” Reed says. “I gotta get out of this rut. Everybody has to do something in life that’s a little bit of fun and I love this a million times more than reviewing.“

“This” refers to The Man that Got Away: Ira without George — The Lyrics of Ira Gershwin, a show Reed created to celebrate the work of the lesser-known songwriting brother. The production makes its first stop outside of New York in North Texas Nov. 12 at the Eisemann Center.

“This show is a celebration of his genius,” he says. “I feel this kind of music is our culture; it’s America’s greatest gift to this world and it’s in danger of disappearing.”

Along for the ride with Reed are performers Tom Wopat, Marilyn Maye and Susan Mays, who sing songs from Gershwin’s catalog. They help Reed do his part in preserving a part of American culture, in which he gave preferential treatment to his favorite lyricist. He created this show to bring Ira from under his brother’s shadow, despite Ira having the longer career. But with George’s huge signature pieces, Reed still has to remind people that they aren’t going to get what they think they came for. Either that, or they don’t know the difference between the two siblings.

“George has always had his share of fame and praise even though he rarely made a move without his brother,” he says. “It was time he got his fair share. This is not about George. We’re not gonna have Rhapsody in Blue or Porgy and Bess. This is all Ira on his own.”

DEETS: The Man that Got Away: Ira without George — The Lyrics of Ira Gershwin. Eisemann Center, 2351 Performance Drive, Richardson. 8 p.m. $39–$72. EisemannCenter.com.

—  Rich Lopez

Rex in effect

Famous for his bitchy film criticism, Fort Worth-born Rex Reed  turns his eye (and his ear) to music with Ira Gershwin revue

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer lopez@dallasvoice.com

Film critic Rex Reed
GAGA FOR GERSHWIN | Film critic Rex Reed prefers his love of Ira Gershwin’s music to reviewing the ghastly movies coming out today.

THE MAN THAT GOT AWAY
Eisemann Center,
2351 Performance Drive, Richardson.
Nov. 12 at 8 p.m. $39–$72.
EisemannCenter.com.

…………………………………….

Watching too many movies can be a bad thing. After years of deconstructing films and either ripping them apart or praising their genius, Rex Reed has finally had enough. For now at least.

“You have no idea of the crap I sit through. Movies today are ghastly,” Reed says. “I gotta get out of this rut. Everybody has to do something in life that’s a little bit of fun and I love this a million times more than reviewing.“

“This” refers to The Man that Got Away: Ira without George — The Lyrics of Ira Gershwin, a show Reed created to celebrate the work of the lesser-known songwriting brother. The production makes its first stop outside of New York in North Texas Nov. 12 at the Eisemann Center.

“This show is a celebration of his genius,” he says. “I feel this kind of music is our culture; it’s America’s greatest gift to this world and it’s in danger of disappearing.”

Along for the ride with Reed are performers Tom Wopat, Marilyn Maye and Susan Mays, who sing songs from Gershwin’s catalog. They help Reed do his part in preserving a part of American culture, in which he gave preferential treatment to his favorite lyricist. He created this show to bring Ira from under his brother’s shadow, despite Ira having the longer career. But with George’s huge signature pieces, Reed still has to remind people that they aren’t going to get what they think they came for. Either that, or they don’t know the difference between the two siblings.

“George has always had his share of fame and praise even though he rarely made a move without his brother,” he says. “It was time he got his fair share. This is not about George. We’re not gonna have Rhapsody in Blue or Porgy and Bess. This is all Ira on his own.”

When Reed met younger sister Francis Gershwin, he discussed his plans for the show. As it turned out, she felt it was time.

“She gave me her full blessing,” he says. “When I met her she said, ‘This is what I’ve been praying for. I’m so glad you’re doing this.’ That was that; it was amen and here we go, after that. I’m really hoping people in Dallas will like it.”

This concerns Reed. He begins asking questions about the venue, knowing that it isn’t in Dallas proper — and he wonders if there is an appreciation for American standards. He senses a hunger for this music and figures it deserves to be exposed. He even challenges LGBT audiences, hoping they will break away from the usual listening pleasures.

“As a rule, gay people have always had better taste, they just need to be exposed to this,” he says. “It could expose LGBTs to something higher in quality than the stuff they are hearing in discos. That can just go so far. I don’t go to these places where I hear eardrum bursting second-rate music.”

The challenge though is to move people out of their musical comfort zone by heading to the past. Like Michael Feinstein, who comes to Dallas later this month, Reed finds it important to preserve this musical heritage of America. That’s his mission — besides reviewing films.

“I applaud Michael for what he’s doing. When people hear this, I hope a light bulb goes off,” he says. “If it’s not in top 40, they’re afraid to listen. I just need to get them to move beyond the fear of discovering the unknown.”

But he does give fair warning: Reed hosts the show but also sings one Gershwin tune.

“There is an awful lot of me in it! So if you don’t like me, don’t come.”
He’s kidding.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 5, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens