STAGE BRIEFS

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The Night of the Iguana. As if we need further evidence that Rene Moreno is Dallas’ best director, we have this remarkable production as Exhibit A, pictured right. Tennessee Williams’ last great play is set in tropical Acapulco, so most productions emphasize its steam sexuality. But Moreno — at least in Act 1 — discovers Williams’ biting humor, staging the action with the pacing of a farce. He saves the sultry stuff for Act 2, allowing the melodrama to sneak up on it.

Set at a run-down motel in the off-season, it features a hurricane, a failed clergyman (Ashley Wood, appropriately manic) tied to a hammock, a slutty proprietress (Cindee Mayfield, who could unleash a whole new career as a bad girl) and an underaged nymphomaniac. Hey, it is Williams.

It clicks along so spritely, with the cast (including Elizabeth Van Winkle, and Terry Vandivort delivering his best performance in years) capturing the exaggerated Southern melody or Tennessee’s over-wrought dialogue, you get easily lost. Imbuing a classic with fresh energy is one fine feat.
Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. Through Mar. 4.

Pluck the Day. It’s been almost 10 years since Second Thought Theatre produced Pluck the Day, a comedy about quirky Texans set entirely on a ramshackled porch littered with beer cans and forgotten dreams. The original was a longish two-acter about lost 20somethings.

The revisions by STT’s co-artistic director, Steven Walters, of his rambling play tighten a lot of the action, but the major accomplishment is one that the calendar gets the most credit for: The maturing of the characters. Now they are in their 30s, when the malaise of realizing your best years were more than a decade back really sets in.

The men at the center are an unusual trio, despite their similar upbringings. Duck (Clay Yokum) is a dumb, married redneck and proud of it; Fred (Mike Shrader) is his bachelor counterpart, about to pop the question; and Bill (Chris LaBove) the smart gay one who has hung around this one-stoplight town for far too long. But just how gay is Bill?

The plot revolved around a did-they-or-didn’t-they plot you might have caught on Three’s Company, but there’s a sweetness to it all and a full share of laughs, especially when Duck — who wouldn’t know a metrosexual if he gay-bashed him — wonders why Bill isn’t attracted to him. Been there.
Second Thought Theatre. Through Feb. 26.

stage-2-2Bring It On: The Musical. Talk about the power of the pyramid: Cheerleading onstage kicks ass. Oh, say what you will about it being a cheesy faux-sport practiced by mean girls (there’s a lot of that here, no question) — when you see a man in a tank-top and shorts do a running back-flip across the stage, it’s hard not to fall in love.

Or at least in serious, serious like, which is the reaction you’ll have to Bring It On, pictured left. While based on the teen rom-com, the touring production now at Fair Park creates its own story about Campbell (Taylor Louderman), a flighty senior cheer goddess and team captain gerrymandered into an inner city school district. In predictable fashion, she rallies the hip-hop girls (including one sassy black trans, given an overdose of spunk by Gregory Haney) into turning their dance crew into a cheer squad.

Like Legally Blonde, or even Hairspray, it’s a sunny, silly story about the redemption of a teen queen through the power of (fill in the blank: Law, cheerleading, dancing). But like Wicked, it’s also underhandedly smart, with a catchy, contemporary score and clever lyrics.

The tour hasn’t made it to Broadway; it probably doesn’t need to go there. New York audiences probably imagine themselves too sophisticated to appreciate a musical about cheering; here in the hinterlands, we’re not ashamed to stand up and rah-rah at impressive displays of athleticism that come with singing as well. Go, team!
Dallas Summer Musicals. Through Feb. 26.

The Secret Life of Girls. Thank God I don’t have kids — and am not one anymore. Dallas Children’s Theater tackles teen bullying in its studio production, but not in a way you might expect. There are no hate crimes here, nor even an obvious hero or villain, just continually readjusting cliques among teen girls. It’s the darker side of Bring It On, where sniping doesn’t warrant a “snap!” but leads to cutting and bulimia. Though gay issues are not directly addressed, it’s an instructive and shockingly timely show (followed by a therapist-led talk-back) that all families can walk away from with new insights into how hard it can be to grow up.
Dallas Children’s Theater. Through Feb. 26. Suitable for teens and adults.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 17, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

Pride Performing Arts Fest wraps up

Uptown Players’ inaugural performing arts festival, timed to coincide with Dallas Pride, was a risky venture, if only in training theatergoers to seek out new plays mid-week and in repertory. But the experiment has paid off so far; co-producer Craig Lynch reported that most of the performances in the upstairs Frank’s Place space were complete or near sell-outs last weekend. Good for them, but even better for audiences, getting to see Paul Rudnick’s hilarious New Century, where Lulu Ward gives the best performances I’ve seen on a stage this year, and a fully-dressed staged reading of the lesbian melodrama Last Summer at Bluefish Cove — both of which you can still see one more time (New Century on Saturday at 4 p.m., Bluefish on Friday at 8 p.m.). The whole event wraps up Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., with a cabaret performance RSVP Vacations vets by Amy Armstrong and Freddy Allen, pictured.

— A.W.J.

All performances at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Through Sept. 17. UptownPlayers.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 16, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Saloonatics

‘Wild Oats’ is over the top — in all the wrong ways

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YEE HUH? | The Old West formula goes awry when a Reformation comedy gets a badly written update to the American frontier, though Andy Baldwin and Lee Jamison, center, make the most of it.

STEVEN LINDSEY   | Contributing Writer
stevencraiglindsey@me.com

The audience reaction throughout Wild Oats says it all. Half the theater-in-the-round patrons sit with stoic looks of boredom, arms crossed in defiance to the attempts onstage to garner laughs. The other half cackles uproariously at the Old West shenanigans in this pseudo-vaudevillian melodrama from playwright James McLure.

I sided more with the arm-crossers than the cacklers, though a laugh occasionally escaped me during this production. Wild Oats is one of those unfortunate theater experiences where I found myself focused on the Playbill, counting the number of scene until intermission like an inmate anxiously ticking away the days to parole. Perhaps the fact the theater was stiflingly hot and everyone around me was sweating and fanning themselves with their programs contributed to the prison feel; maybe it was the goofy over-acting by most of the actors. Or quite possibly, it is simply source material that’s gone stale.

McLure adapted the play from an 18th century comedy by John O’Keeffe, transporting the action to 19th century Muleshoe, Texas. All the elements for a classic Old West comedy are present and accounted for: A Native American with an Irish accent. A devilish pastor. A handsome, Shakespeare-loving cowboy. A flamboyant West Point drop-out. A wealthy, unrefined heiress. So why does it go so horribly awry?

For every moment of inspired lunacy, a joke is killed by being explained. Nothing kills a punch line more than a dissertation on its funniness. And while some clever gimmicks are funny the first time, they are only mildly amusing the third and fourth and completely worn out by the 16th rehashing. There’s a lot to absorb in the frenetic action unfolding all around you, one of the pure pleasures of theater-in-the-round, and this A.D.D. approach can often translate into grand comedy. Instead, it comes across as desperation.

There are some solid performances from actors who know how to tread the treacherous line between over-acting and willful exaggeration. Watching Andy Baldwin and Lee Jamison is sublimely enjoyable regardless of what they’re doing. They’re captivating, and each knows how to make the most of what they have been given. (A same-sex near-kiss between Baldwin and James Chandler is one of the play’s greatest bits of physical comedy.)

This production is the first show of Theatre 3’s landmark 50th anniversary season, so here’s hoping like the true sowing of wild oats that this is something they just had to get out of their systems. For a company deft at switching from comedy to Broadway musicals to intense drama with such finesse, this miss is easily forgiven.

But a miss it is. Maybe you’ll end up on Team Loves It and can joyfully explain what the rest of us missed. We can tell you what was interesting in the Playbill.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 19, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Queer locals of 2010

Twelve months isn’t all that long a time, but the impact someone can make on an entire year during any part of it can reverberate well beyond the calendar year. When we thought back on the culture in 2010, these are the 10 men and women who stood out most — for good or bad.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

Israel Luna, filmmaker, left

Kelli Ann Busey, ticked-off activist, center
The most vocal debate in the gay community about the arts that occurred on a national scale started in Dallas, as Busey, a trans woman, objected to the title of Luna’s “transploitation” revenge melodrama Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives. GLAAD got involved, protests were lodged when the film played at a festival in New York City, accusations and insults flew … it wasn’t always (ever?) pretty, but it did get people talking.

Mel Arizpe, Voice of Pride winner, right
After numerous attempts, Arizpe delighted her fans by winning VOP in August as a soloist and for a duet with her girlfriend … who herself came in second overall. Talk about keeping it all in the family.

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Jorge-Trinity

Jorge Rivas, photographer, left
Following Adam Bouska’s NOH8 photo campaign, Rivas started Faces of Life, a series of portraits of locals aimed at raising money for AIDS Arms. Like Bouska, Rivas hopes to take it nationwide.

Trinity Wheeler, theater queen, right
Wheeler hasn’t lived in Texas for a while, but when he returned to his hometown of Tyler to direct The Laramie Project, he faced vocal resistance. The play was still put on, and became a success.

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Jeffrey-Jack

Jeffrey Payne, leathermen, left

Jack Duke, leathermen, right
Payne, the outgoing International Mr. Leather of 2010, was nearly replaced by Duke, who ended up in third place overall. Payne set a high standard as IML champ, having an award named after him and starting a foundation to help the hearing impaired within the gay community. Duke has led an active role in the leather scene locally, statewide, nationally and internationally, showing the world Dallas knows leather culture — and gentlemen.

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Danielle-Harold

Danielle Girdano, cyclist, left
Girdano wanted to raise money to bring awareness to teen
suicide even before the issue made national news, so she biked from Minnesota to Dallas, pulling in just in time for the Pride parade.

Harold Steward, arts visionary, right
Steward gave the black LGBT community a shot in the arm, co-founding the Fahari Arts Institute which hosts the popular Queerly Speaking series at the South Dallas Cultural Center.

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TKO-Softball

Team TKO, softballers
Member teams of the Pegasus Slow-pitch Softball Association did gangbusters at the annual World Series in August, but none did better than the players on Uptown Vision’s TKO, who collectively won the B-
Division trophy by defeating the Long Beach Rounders in the NAGAAA tourney in Columbus, Ohio. When it comes to sports, it’s hard to beat a Texan — Tony Romo notwithstanding.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 24, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Pocket Sandwich gets spooky with ‘Dracula: The Melodrama’

This play sucks — but that’s a good thing

Pocket Sandwich Theatre’s melodramas are a Dallas treasure. Because anytime you’re allowed to throw food at someone (in this case, popcorn only), then it’ll be a good time. Being October though, their latest offering also caters to the season of Halloween. Dracula: The Melodrama gives you the chance to laugh and shriek…and toss popcorn at the cast. Just don’t get it in Drac’s mouth. That might mess with the fangs.

DEETS: Pocket Sandwich Theatre, 5400 E. Mockingbird Lane. Through Nov. 13. 8 p.m. $10–$18. PocketSandwichTheatre.com.

—  Rich Lopez

Broadcast TV getting gayer, GLAAD says

Every fall season, GLAAD issues a report about LGBT characters on the main networks’ scripted series, and whether that indicates an improvement from years past.  This year’s report notes a “significant increase” in gay characters, according to the study — the most, in fact, ever.

ABC leads the pack with 11 of 152 lead or supporting characters (7.2 percent), helped by shows like Modern Family and Brothers & Sisters. Fox has  5 of 100 (5 percent), including Kurt from Glee, pictured, animated character like Smithers on The Simpsons. NBC marked a decline from last year (only three of 143) and CBS was again in last place with one of 125 (Emmy winner Archie Panjabi from The Good Wife).

The study has its flaws. For instance, the report claims zero gay characters on Fox in 2007, yet one listed now includes Smithers, who has been on the show since 1989 but is considered “recurring” (the study doesn’t including recurring characters in the main figures). And it doesn’t account for, frankly, qualityBrothers & Sisters has never been good, but this season has swan-dived into especially odious melodrama with gay stereotypes.

A separate report counts basic cable series, where gay characters (often with more interesting and frank storylines than on broadcast) are more common and realistically portrayed. I mean, True Blood: Who doesn’t watch that for the hot bodies? The study also doesn’t include reality shows, which really dominate the TV landscape. With Dancing with the Stars judge Bruno Tonioli swishing up the most popular show on TV right now, as bisexual comedian Margaret Cho dances, you’d think that would warrant a mention, as would Jeff Lewis, Jackie Warner and half the contestants on Bravo’s competition series. That would paint a fairer picture. But it’s still nice to see progress.

—  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

Pas de don’t

Movie about TBT director Sir Ben Stevenson mixes ballet with cliche

STEVE WARREN  | Contributing Writer thinhead@mindspring.com

Mao’s Last Dancer
EN POINTE | Bruce Greenwood, left, plays Ben Stevenson, now the artistic director of the Texas Ballet Theater, who turns a poor Chinese dancer into a sensation in the schmaltzy ‘Mao’s Last Dancer.’

2.5 out of 5 stars
MAO’S LAST DANCER
Bruce Greenwood, Chi Cao, Kyle MacLachlan. Rated PG. 115 mins.
Now playing at the Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station.

A great story and some amazing dancing are, unfortunately, sacrificed on the altar of cheesy melodrama in Mao’s Last Dancer. It’s hard to believe the great Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies, Driving Miss Daisy) could have watched this, let alone directed it. And no one who even typed the scripts for Shine and The Notebook could have been responsible for this screenplay, let alone the person who wrote or adapted them (Jan Sardi).

This is the true-ish story of Li Cunxin (Chi Cao), who was invited to spend the summer of 1981 with the Houston Ballet and decided to stay in America. In a throwback to movies of several decades ago, Bruce Greenwood plays the ballet’s artistic director, Ben Stevenson — now the artistic director of the Texas Ballet Theater — as an obviously gay man who lives alone and has absolutely no life outside of his work.

Li, by contrast, is obviously straight, because even as a boy, every time he partners a female on stage there is another female in the audience looking jealous.

Nine years prior Li, one of seven sons of a peasant couple, was plucked from his humble village to be trained at the Beijing Arts Academy, along with 39 other Chinese children. They’re given a standard indoctrination in Communism, including being taught that China has “the highest standard of living in the world,” and capitalist nations the lowest.

When he arrives in oil-rich Texas at the height of the boom, Li is overwhelmed, having never seen such luxury, even in Beijing; he can hardly believe Ben has such a house to himself. But the Chinese consul has counseled him not to trust anyone, “especially women — they’ll lead you astray.”

The early part of the film toggles between Houston and Li’s early years in China, where he is unhappy until an old-school teacher, later prosecuted for his teachings, makes him appreciate dance and his own skills.

When the Houston delegation visits Beijing in 1980, they’re disappointed to see the students, except for Li, are more like athletes than dancers. In Houston Li gets a break but has only three hours to learn the pas de deux from Don Quixote.

Li meets aspiring dancer Elizabeth Mackey (Amanda Schull), who, in this screenplay, is more a device than a person. Afraid of what will happen to his family in China if he defects, Li learns he can stay in the U.S. if he marries a citizen. (Ben pitches a hissy fit.)

Unable to contact his parents, Li worries about them constantly. Years later, Ben arranges for them to surprise him by showing up in the audience for a performance. It must have taken months to arrange and could have taken a lot of stress off Li if he’d known it was in the works, but the surprise makes for a more upbeat (and corny) climax.

That may be the stupidest thing in the movie but there are countless smaller things, like people working in a Washington office in what must be the middle of the night. Even original twists are presented in such a way as to look clichéd.

The ballet sequences, choreographed by Graeme Murphy, are the saving grace of Mao’s Last Dancer — if only we got a two-hour recital instead of the story. Not to be shortchanged is the principal dancer, Chi Cao, who is also a decent actor as far as the script allows. He’d be a natural for a new film biography of Bruce Lee — I’d pay to see Chi replicate Lee’s fight choreography.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 27, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas