STAGE REVIEWS: ‘Wilde,’ ‘Hot Mikado,’ ‘And Then There Were None’

‘WIlde/Earnest’ at KDT

Three very different adaptations of classic British theater make their way through North Texas this week … and all delight in their own way.

Christie, clear

The most traditional of them is also the only original: And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie’s stage version of her own thriller, courtesy of Theatre Britain and playing through Saturday in Plano. Ten virtual strangers are all invited to a mysterious island by their anonymous host, only to find out each has been accused of murdering someone and getting away with it. The murderer proceeds to pick off each of the guests, in accordance with a childhood nursery rhyme. Surely, the only person left alive will be the killer … or his (her?) last victim.

Christie was never much one for careful character development, but damn, she knew plot; even fans who know the outcome may find themselves second-guessing what comes next, and why. But if the dialogue is occasionally stuffy to modern audiences, Christie was also a great one for social justice. As much about the plot, the thriller jabs everything from light punishment for well-heeled perpetrators, religious extremism, warmongering, infidelity, women’s lib and the British class system.

The cast fits well in their roles. Francis Henry has a lovely monologue as a dotty old soldier, and Henry Okigbo cuts a fine leading-man profile as the concerned (or murderous?) Dr. Armstrong. Michael Speck (a Theatre Britain regular) overplays his part as a deceptive and sniveling charlatan, though; Michael Boughton, who also plays an obnoxious character, has much more fun … as does the audience.

The Zoot story

‘Hot Mikado’ at T3.

Ironically, two much older pieces get modern updates that show how the more things change, the more they stay the same. Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1885 comic operetta, The Mikado, is a casually racist bit of Victorian fluff set in Japan but where everyone has Chinese names. It hardly mattered — even then, it was a satire of British aristocracy, glued together with now-classic songs: “A Wand’ring Mistral I,” “Three Little Maids,” “Tit-Willow,” “The Mikado Song.”  Theatre 3′s production of David H. Bell’s 30-year-old jazzed-up adaptation, Hot Mikado, undercuts the silliness precisely by embracing it: “This is written in Japanese!” the actors (with one exception, none Asian) repeatedly exclaim, before pausing to add … “uhhh … like we are.” It’s not a willing suspension of disbelief — it’s an elbow to the ribs.

Hot Mikado doesn’t concern itself with Japanese actors — in fact, many of them are African-American, and most are bedecked in Zoots suits Big Band-era primary-color costumes that mix Vegas-fab with swing, jazz and Broadway, as well as the bones of G&S’s original score. This is less an operetta than a party with music, dancing and jokes, all told by an engaging and endlessly energetic cast.

Leading the way is Paul Taylor as Ko-Ko the Lord High Executioner, a lascivious bureaucrat who wants to marry his young ward Yum-Yum (Natalie Coca) except she’s in love with Nanki-Poo (Dennis Wees). Nanki-Poo, though, has been betrothed to the detestable Katisha (Denise Lee). Who marries who? Who cares — it’s all just so much fun.

Lee has a blast in this variation of her Wicked Stepmother role in Rapunzel at DCT last fall (her dry-humping of a mike stand is drop-dead hilarious), and Taylor combines bits of Jack Benny, John Waters and Paul Lynde in making Ko-Ko a sympathetic villain. But the scene-stealer in this bunch is Darren McElroy, whose rich baritone, deft comic timing and charisma as Pooh-Bah electrifies the stage.

Bruce Richard Coleman directed the show in the style of Rocky Horror, and it strikes the tone that T3 wasn’t able to generate a few years back in its version of Pippin: A carnival of delights.

Hipsters gone Wilde

Over at Kitchen Dog, company member Lee Trull has tackled his own modernization of a 19th century monument of theater, Oscar Wilde’s flawless 1895 comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest. It is, to me, an unparalleled work of art; I’ve said before, you could cast Steven Seagal as Lady Bracknell and, if he did nothing more than get the words right, it would still entertain you. So why futz with perfection?

The good news is, Trull’s version — called Wilde/Earnest, which he also directs — doesn’t change too much, even as it streamlines the plot, adds musical numbers and double-casts roles. The updates speak to contemporary audiences: Chausable (Leah Spillman) is now a woman who gay-crushes on Miss Prism (Taylor Anne Ramsey); Lady Bracknell (Spillman again) is now just Mrs. B, a helicopter mother with a Highland Park attitude. She’s not sure Jack (Max Hartman) is good enough to marry her spoiled daughter Gwendolen (Jenny Ledel, awesome as always), but tolerates Jack because he’s best friends with her nephew Algernon (Matt Lyle). They all behave like obnoxious hipsters with craft cocktails and overgrown toys to fill their empty lives … just like Wilde’s characters were in his society more than a century ago.

There are two main things that make Wilde/Earnest great. The first is Matt Lyle. The second is Matt Lyle! With his matchy-matchy tailored suits, pencil moustache, thrift-store esthetic and wiry scampering, Lyle brings a giddy wonderfulness to the insufferably vain Algernon. I’d watch a sequel that was just him.

But in truth, the entire cast excels, from the Intern (played with bearded ennui by Sam Cress) to Martha Harms as Cecily to Spillman’s arch doyenne. And Trull gives them all plenty of room to let loose in his Day-Glo set that explodes in color and boundless enthusiasm.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Review: Kitchen Dog’s ‘The Arsonists’ becomes a farce of the mind

ARSON6Gottlieb (Max Hartmann) is an unscrupulous businessman in such denial, he doesn’t worry a bit that a key employe he cheated out of a future committed suicide because of the betrayal. He’s happily removed from the realities of how hard life is for the 99 percenters, clucking his tongue that a group of arsonists appear to be targeting the wealthy. How do his peers allow themselves to be so deceived by criminals?

Until one day, Joseph (Jason Kane), a brutish thug, shows up on his doorstep with a ludicrous sob story and, via intimidation and guilt, wheedles his way into Gottlieb’s life to plan yet another act of terrorism … just for the hell of it, apparently.

The late Swiss intellectual Max Frisch made his rep as a playwright 60 years ago with The Arsonists, but this newish translation — getting its regional premiere from Kitchen Dog Theater — gives ample legroom for theater companies to make of it as they wish. In KDT’s case, they’ve turned it into a vaudeville — a farce of the mind that relies on stabs of original music, word play and subtle psychology to burrow under your skin about the nature of society and man’s capacity for self-deception: “They can’t be arsonists — they don’t have matches,” Gottlieb reasons before turning over his Zippo to a scary crew of villains (which now also includes Michael Fererico, who has perfected the art of turning whiny nebbishes into intense comic foils).

This is prime real estate for director Tim Johnson to trod over, combining his affection for absurdism with dark insights into the psyche that can be arresting between blurts of laughter. The cast is top-notch, including Jenny Ledel as a passive-aggressive maid whose frustration with her employer mirrors the audience’s … and her inability to show him the light reminds us that sometimes, mankind is simply beyond helping itself.

Now playing through Dec. 13. KitchenDogTheater.org.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEW: ‘Gidion’s Knot’ at KDT

Leah Spillman and Jenni Kirk in ‘Gidion’s Knot’ at KDT.

A mother attends a parent-teacher conference to discuss her fifth-grader, who was suspended for a week, but the the teacher doesn’t recall making the appointment … unless the mother is … oh, her.

That’s the first 20 minutes or so of the 80 minutes that make up Gidion’s Knot, a regional premiere now playing at The MAC. It’s a frustrating first quarter, with long, slow, wordless scenes and intentionally obtuse exposition. How can the teacher, Miss Clark (Leah Spillman), childless and new to the classroom not recall a conference set up only three days ago? Then again, when the mother, Corryn (Jenni Kirk) arrives in her class the first time, why doesn’t she just say her son’s name, or Miss Clark’s, and save us all the discomfort and mystery?

The answer is pretty simply, actually: Then the play would only be 62 minutes long, and the author, Johnna Adams, wouldn’t have been able to impress us with her stagecraft — her ability to pull a Mamet out of a hat. It’s a playwrighting gimmick, a first-act conundrum meant to draw us in but which only holds in sharp relief the incompleteness that infests the entire play.

Some of that incompleteness is intentional. Miss Clark and Corryn are both incomplete women, especially when it comes to children: The teacher without any of her own (she has a cat instead), and the single mother, not especially devoted to her only child but trying to make up for it when, alas, it’s too late. No wonder they don’t communicate in full thoughts or engage in sensible dialogue — they are both cut off in some ways, adrift in their work.

It turns out that the reason Miss Clark forgot about the meeting (one for which Corryn is 20 minutes late, a further indication of her lack of parental responsibility) is that she assumed it had been canceled — after all, the child in question, Gidion, killed himself over the weekend. What led to that? And how was it related to his suspension? More mysteries, more drawn-out explanations.

When the reasons are finally revealed — quite astonishingly, if melodramatically (more extended exposition, as if Adams were terrified her play would only last 38 minutes) — it’s a further disconnect for teacher and mom: Gidion was a troubled, Miss Clark says — brilliant says mom … but why can’t he be both?

Gidion’s Knot bulges with literary and mythic references (check out the title itself), and the points it raises are thoughtful and complex, but its weaknesses are just as apparent. “Want to get people on your side? Throw in a dead child!” Corryn hisses at Miss Clark about modern society, but that’s exactly what she’s doing (and what Adams is). A dead kid raises all sorts of troubling questions, and how can outsiders (Miss Clark, the audience) judge the emotional reaction of a distraught mother?

But that’s what the play invites us to do, and Corryn — fiercely played by Kirk, who’s matched with coolness by Spillman — falls short. (Her last name, it turns out, is Fell.) She’s a bundle of contradictions, who demands the participation of the school’s principal but gets angry at Miss Clark when she won’t engage in tit-for-tat sniping, who blames Miss Clark even though she was deaf to her own child’s pain, who wants to play “what’s my line?” guessing games but criticizes efforts at deflection. She’s also critic-proof, because who are we to say her irrationality isn’t justified?

And therein lines the heart of Gidion’s Knot — its unresolvability. All rules go out the window; like the Gordian Knot, it cannot be solved, it can only be destroyed and rebuilt. Sometimes there are no answers, just more questions.

Plays through April 26. KitchenDogTheater.org.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

This week’s takeaways: Life+Style

Van Cliburn

Van Cliburn

The big news in entertainment this weekend is the 14th quadrennial appearance of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition — the first without its gay founder (Cliburn died in February of cancer). The six finalists will compete until the winner is revealed on Sunday.  Miss it, you and you’ll have to wait another four years for the next one.

Razzle Dazzle weekend is in full swing, with Thelma Houston headlining the MetroBall at Station 4 Friday night, then the big downtown party coming to Main Street Gardens Saturday night. It’s family-friendly and there are buses running from the event to locales in the gayborhood.

Sister Act, written by gay scribe Douglas Carter Beane, continues at Fair Park Music Hall for more than a week, before moving over to Bass Hall in Fort Worth. Meanwhile, the new cirque-ish show Traces opens at the Winspear on Tuesday. And the Festival of Independent Theatres — and Kitchen Dog Theater‘s New Works Festival — continue through June 22.

To get a little skin in the game, check out Adam and Eve in the Garden of Delights at the Stone Cottage Theatre in Addison, or move inside to the WaterTower Theatre mainstage for the light comedy Black Tie starring out actor Stan Graner.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

This week’s takeaways: Life+Style

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It’s a busy, exciting weekend in Dallas — especially for the gays! First off, our Spring Sports Issue is on the stands, with cool stories about the lesbian tennis group Sets in the City and the newest gay rugby team. And that comes right on the heels of Mavs owner Mark Cuban giving the gays a shout-out on Fox Sports. Just after Magic Johnson endorsed the idea of an openly gay player in Los Angeles, Cuban said he’d be “honored” to have the first out player in Dallas. Read about it here.

That’s just some of the fun, though. At the premiere of the Dallas International Film Festival this week, artistic director James Faust bragged to me that he programmed this year’s seventh annual event with lots of gay content in mind. It starts this afternoon at 4:15 p.m. at the Angelika, with Del Shores in attendance for the screening of the film Cry, in which he has a featured acting role. It gets even gayer next week with the local debuts of Ash Christian’s gay rom-com Petunia with Michael Urie, Yen Tan’s Pit Stop and Laurence Anyways on Monday, and the David Sedaris comedy C.O.G. and the gay doc God Loves Uganda on Wednesday. Check out the full schedule here. And I’ll be blogging reviews during the fest, so come back! For music lovers, recording artist Frankie will be performing her new single three more times in Dallas this weekend, with appearances tonight at Plush at 11:30 p.m., then another an hour later at 12:30 a.m. at the Round-Up Saloon, plus another late-night performance on Saturday at 11:30 p.m. inside the Rose Room. Or you can check out gay artist Owen Pallett at the Palladium Saturday, with gay band Grizzly Bear, pictured, also on the bill.

In theater, you still have a chance to see John Michael and the Order of the Penix, a one-man performance piece at the Magnolia Lounge that’s pretty damn fearless. You also definitely need to catch Rx, the new hilarious comedy about love and other drugs courtesy of Kitchen Dog Theater. Once again, Tina Parker delivers a not-to-miss performance. And Uptown Players’ latest cross-dressing spoof, Re-Designing Women, opens for a seven-week run at the Rose Room, with author Jamie Morris in the role of Julia Sugarbaker.

The stage musical of Priscilla Queen of the Desert doesn’t open in Dallas until next month, but you can get a sneak peek of sorts. On Saturday from 2 to 3:30 p.m., Dallas Summer Musicals and the Cupcakery on McKinney Avenue team up for a taste competition with three local drag queens on hand for an event called Priscilla Queen of the Desserts. You can even win tickets to the show. And if you’re really interested in desserts on Saturday, there’s still time to attend the No Tie Dinner, a benefit for AIDS Services of Dallas, at the Frontiers of Flight Museum starting at 7 p.m.

A final option for foodies: Dishcrawl, a national movement where you get to know your culinary choices within a given neighborhood, debuts in Dallas with the Uptown Crawl on Sunday, with eight restaurants (among them, Meso Maya Uptown, Pop Diner and Momo’s) participating. Proceeds benefit the North Texas Food Bank. Tickets are $40 in advance or $45 on-site.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEWS: ‘Anything Goes,’ ‘Catch Me,’ ‘The Chairs,’ ‘The Lucky Chance’

Anything GoesStephen Sondheim Theatre (formerly Henry Miller's Theatre)

It’s a busy season for theaters, with opening and closing coming fast and furious. Few things, though, as as fast and furious as the tap-dancing in Anything Goes, which continues its run this weekend at the Winspear Opera House. The national tour of this Tony Award-winning revival is part of the classic strain of American musicals where quick-witted people end happily while dancing their asses off, all the the tunes of folks like Cole Porter. There are more hits in this score than during a Mafia wedding: “Friendship,” “You’re the Top,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “It’s De-Lovely” and, natch, the title tune. If hearing the sounds that make up the foundation of the Great American Songbook, belted out like Merman on speed, isn’t your idea of a fun night of theater, there’s something wrong with you.

Rachel York leads the cast as Reno Sweeney, the sassy cabaret star who’s chasing after a boy who has eyes on another girl, who is engaged to be married to a British lord, who doesn’t care much about marrying her …. Oy. Plot is not its friend. But jaunty one-liners, sexy men in sailor suits and timeless songs are. Even 80 years after it opened, the energy is as fresh as morning glory. (Through Sunday.)

How, then, can Catch Me If You Can at Fair Park Music Hall, which is just two years old, feel so much more dated than Anything Goes? Scored by the team that did Hairspray (partners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) and written by Terrence McNally, it’s also set in the 1960s and based on a hit movie. And that’s where the similarities cease.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Hurry! Free Night of Theater 2010 tix will be released at noon Monday

If you missed out on last year’s Free Night of Theater, try again at noon today when tickets will be released to a variety of productions and more. Participating theaters so far for this year’s event include Kitchen Dog Theater, Dallas Theater Center and Theatre Three.

But Pocket Sandwich Theatre’s your best bet for getting into the Halloween season. They will be offering tickets to Dracula — The Melodrama.

Click here to plan your attack, because if it’s like last year, these tickets will go fast. Don’t fret too much though. This is actually the second of a round of giveaways that FNOT will be giving out. Every Monday at noon in October, they will open up a new set of shows with free tickets.

—  Rich Lopez