Theater troupes to release seasons, but we already know one by the Bard

It’s that time of year when theater companies begin to unveil their seasons, and nowadays, they like to make it a show. Tonight, the Lexus Broadway Series will reveal its third season at the Winspear (look here on Instant Tea this weekend for an update!) and next week, the Dallas Theater Center and Theatre 3 both have ceremonies to announce their seasons.

We already know one of the plays on the Lexus slate: The Tony-winning War Horse, pictured, which was revealed last year. But we also know one of the DTC’s upcoming shows.

This fall will mark the start of the company’s fourth season at the Wyly, and artistic director Kevin Moriarty has always opened his season with a Shakespeare play: The comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the history Henry IV (Parts I and II) and the romance The Tempest. That only leaves one of the major tragedies (Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear), and smart money has always been in Lear: It’s less performed than all the others except Othello, and so the production would be pretty fresh. The question was, who would tackle the lead?

Now we know. The DTC may not have released its schedule yet, but Trinity Rep in Providence, R.I. — with which Moriarty has had a long affiliation — has. It released its 2012-13 season brochure a few weeks ago, which I happened upon online, and here’s what it says:

King Lear [Sept. 13—Oct. 21] Our resident acting company joins forces with the acclaimed Dallas Theater Center for a co-production of Shakespeare’s masterpiece. … In the winter, Trinity Rep’s actors will venture to Dallas to remount this thrilling co-production. Resident acting company member Brian McEleney stars as Lear.

It looks, then, like Shakespeare will not kick off DTC’s season for the first time at the Wyly, but will wait until early 2013, following DTC’s annual presentation of A Christmas Carol … another show Trinity Rep is also doing. Might there be other convergences on the two schedules? We’ll find out next week!

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Nest of vipers: ‘Dividing the Estate,’ DTC’s foray in Foote, gets Gothic Southern comedy just righ

LITTLE FOXES | Mama (June Squibb, standing right) refuses to give sway to her money-hungry daughter Mary Jo (Nance Williamson, left) in ‘Dividing the Estate.’ (Photo courtesy Brandon Thibodeaux)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor

“They were lazy and no good but they came from lovely families,” declares Mama (June Squibb), matriarch of the Gordon family of tiny Harrison, Texas. It’s a line that really sets the bar for your appreciation of Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate: You either get the joke (and the fact it’s not really a joke at all) or you don’t. This is a play that targets a Southern audience and assumes everyone else will just sleep in the weeds for two hours. And it’s OK with that.

I am, too. There’s a proud, fine tradition of Gothic Southern theater that runs a gamut from campy hoots (Del Shores, the Tuna guys) to strained melodrama (Tennessee Williams, especially his later stuff). There’s been a renaissance of it lately, with Broadway productions of Tracy Letts’ awesome epic August: Osage County and Dividing the Estate, both of which tweak and (dare I say) improve upon their source material: King Lear and The Little Foxes, classics about crotchety old folks who use money to control their families and expect the world to conform to their will. I’ve known women like Mama; I called one Grandma.

The Dallas Theater Center’s current production at the Wyly, directed with astonishing sure-footedness by Joel Ferrell, is a crackerjack comedy filled with death, lung-emptying sibling in-fighting and money-grubbing, and if that doesn’t sound like the stuff of comedy to you, you might be a Yankee.

Set in the mid 1980s, it captures the fashions and Reagan Era social climbing with uneasy accuracy. Mama’s three kids — Lucille (Gail Cronauer), Lewis (Kurt Rhoads) and Mary Jo (Nance Williamson) — are all in need of money, and debate whether they should divide the estate now or wait for Mama to die. None has ever worked a day in their lives, so they see the farmland, largely fallow, as some magical money machine. Mama will have none of it, but her resistance really just causes more problems.

John Arnone’s quasi-expressionistic set conjures the end of gracious living: A moldering plantation manor in need of a paint job, a faded memory of a once-glorious monument to glamour… much like the Gordon family itself. But the performances are what really sell the play. Williamson’s blowsy Houston wannabe socialite is a testament to superficiality. Rolling her eyes and hissing her lines, Williamson gives Mary Jo a swagger out of proportion to her own abilities. Her uncontrolled avarice is a study is slapstick. She contrasts beautifully to Lynn Blackburn’s Pollyanna centeredness as an outsider about to marry into the family. Akin Babatunde seems to have a rhythm all his own, a sing-songy cadence as the 92-year-old servant who engenders more respect than any of the children.

But at the heart is Squibb: Lips pursed, jaw set like a shovel in the ground, eyed focused so narrowly, Mama cannot see the big picture. You sympathize with her even as you know the mistakes she’s making — just like your family, probably — certainly mine. Dividing the Estate resolves nothing; it merely reminds us that that’s how it always is.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 25, 2011.

—  John Wright

Let’s make one thing Lear

Last month, Britain’s National Theatre broadcast the (sort of) live production of its stage version of Fela!, a musical about the African musician and activist who eventually died of AIDS. The same service now presents a very different show, but one that should be just as fascinating: King Lear.

Arguably Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Lear has long been a showcase for actors in the twilight of their careers, though the casting of gay acting icon Derek Jacobi, fresh off his ensemble cast SAG Award as the wily Archbishop in The King’s Speech, has enjoyed widespread popularity and acclaim almost continuously for four decades. Already a prime interpreter of the Bard (his Richard II remains a defining characterization), the chance to see him as Lear is a treat.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

Screens at the Angelika Dallas Feb. 9 and 10 and Angelika Plano Feb. 13 and 14 at 7 p.m.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 4, 2011.

—  John Wright