Black & White in color

Former Dallasite Robert Bartley returns from NYC to helm Pegasus Theatre’s latest monochrome play

TAMING PEGASUS  |  New York-based writer/director/actor Robert Bartley, above, returned to Dallas to direct his first Living Black & White production, ‘The Frequency of Death!,’ below, which recreates the look of ’30s-era movie melodramas with complex and challenging makeup and design processes. (Production  photo courtesy of Phil Allen)

TAMING PEGASUS | New York-based writer/director/actor Robert Bartley, above, returned to Dallas to direct his first Living Black & White production, ‘The Frequency of Death!,’ below, which recreates the look of ’30s-era movie melodramas with complex and challenging makeup and design processes. (Production photo courtesy of Phil Allen)

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

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FREQUENCY OF DEATH!
Eisemann Center for Performing Arts, 2351 Performance Drive, Richardson. Through Jan. 22. MCL Grand Theater, 100 N. Charles St., Lewisville. Jan. 26–29. $20–$35. PegasusTheatre.org.

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Films like The Artist and Hugo have spent the last month racking up awards and nominations as they tribute the golden era of black & white movies of yesteryear. But for Kurt Kleinmann, there’s a bit of “been there, still doing that.”

Kleinmann is the star, author and impresario of Pegasus Theatre, which for more than 25 years has produced the signature “Living Black & White” show: A murder-mystery send-up to the melodramas of moviedom’s past. Over 16 plays — all written by Kleinmann, with kitschy titles like Mind Over Murder!, Death Is No Small Change! and The Frequency of Death!, the last of which is now playing at the Eisemann Theatre in Richardson — the galumphing, clueless “world famous detective and aspiring actor” Harry Hunsacker (played by Kleinmann) and his sidekick Nigel Grouse have solved crimes while surrounded by a cast of overwrought hams … all the while wearing makeup and performing in a set that fools the eye into believing you are watching a black and white movie.

Frequency of Death! is a “thorough rewrite,” Kleinmann says, of a previous incarnation of the play, but the signature look remains the same. For director Robert Bartley, that posed some challenges.

“Kurt is always reminding me, ‘You can’t do that.’ For instance, you have to be very aware of the facial area,” Bartley explains. “You can’t have people kissing or touching their faces. Even the set is a problem: You can’t use reflective surfaces, like glass in the doors, or you will be able to see the red EXIT signs in the theater.”

That’s just part of the fun for Bartley though, who spent much of the holidays in Dallas mounting the show for its two-venue run, separated from his partner of 13 years. The sensibility fits with his own aesthetic. Pegasus shows have always contained a camp element, ideally suited for gay audiences accustomed to drag queens basing their characters on Tinseltown divas of the ‘30s and ‘40s.

It’s also a homecoming of sorts for Bartley. A boyish 49 who looks like he still gets carded for buying beer, Bartley cut his teeth on theater in the Metroplex while attending the University of North Texas. For more than two decades, though, he’s made New York his stage, acting and dancing in plays and movies, and launching Broadway Backwards, directing and conceiving of what has become a major fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, attracting talents including Betty Buckley, Neil Patrick Harris and Clay Aiken.

But Dallas feels like home.

“This is where I worked on The Cuban and the Redhead,” he explains over an Atkins-friendly lunch in the gayborhood. Bartley workshopped the musical, about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, in Arlington and Garland from 2004 to 2007, and he couldn’t have been more pleased — then and now.

“The theater community here is as good as ever,” he says. “We had great turnout for our play.” The same is true of Frequency of Death, he insists. Among the cast is Susan Mansur, a Broadway veteran (the original cast of Best Little Whorehouse, the revival of Damn Yankees!) familiar to local audiences as Helen Lawson in Uptown Players’ Valley of the Dolls. (“She drinks throughout our show,” Bartley quips — her character, that is.)

Bartley came of age in the era of AIDS, and says the community has also grown up a lot since then.

“When I was in college, I was the only person there who admitted being gay,” he says. “I think there is more acceptance of the gay and lesbian community — it’s more open.”

Not everything, after all, is black and white … except, of course, a Pegasus show.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 6, 2012.

—  Michael Stephens

A Christmas memory: Sharla’s goodies

This time of year, it’s hard to walk into the office breakroom and not encounter free food: Turkeys, hams, cookies, brownies, popcorn, doughnuts, cupcakes, dropped off by business associates or left over from holiday celebrations held by others in the office. It’s addictive and bad for you but always welcome.

But this year, also a little sad.

I walked into the breakroom a few minutes ago to see an empty container than once housed homemade brownies — none of which I got. I immediately had a pang of anger. “Did Sharla bring by her goodies and everyone get to them before I found out?” I thought for a brief second. And then I remembered: No, she did not. Sharla died last week of brain cancer.

I did not know Sharla well. She worked part-time as a driver for Dallas Voice for many years, though she didn’t spend much time in the office unless she was filling in for her wife, Maryann Ramirez, who for ages was the distribution manager for the Voice. Maryann was (and is!) a strong personality who always seemed tamed by Sharla’s sweetness. Maryann talked so affectionately to Sharla on the phone (her work station was outside for a long time), and about Sharla around the office.

Every Christmas — and truth be told, other holidays too, or for no occasion at all — Maryann would bring in baked goods Sharla had made for all of us. She wasn’t in the office to share them with us; it was a totally selfless gift. And while I always said thank you and tried never to take her generosity for granted, this year it resonates with me especially knowing that era is over. No more treats from Sharla. This is sad for me and everyone else in the office; but I can hardly imagine what it is like for Maryann.

This is a difficult time of year to suffer loss: The holidays magnify everything, and it’s having free time and exchanging gifts is something a lot of people look forward to, so to have that experience cut short is especially heartbreaking (particularly since everyone else around you seems to be so happy). I broke up with an ex with finality on Christmas Eve years ago — that was hard. But to lose a partner like Maryann lost Sharla is unfathomable to me.

It’s easy to get lost in yourself this time of year, to attach too much significance to material things. But I will spent part of my time this season thinking about what I did not get: Sharla’s brownie bars. And that will make the holiday more important to me.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones