STAGE REVIEWS: ‘Discord,’ ‘Straight White Men’

Ian Ferguson, Jeremy Schwartz, and John-Michael Marrs in DISCORD at WaterTower Theatre. Photo by Karen Almond.

There’s a lot of interesting things going on theatrically lately, even if it’s mostly coming from middle-aged, white, heterosexual Christian males — a terribly under-represented societal segment, I know, but stick with me.

There are three such men at the center of WaterTower Theatre‘s The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, an unwieldy title for a heady comic discourse about ego and religion. In a strange mirrored room outside the space-time continuum, three historic figures with a penchant for writing — Jefferson (Ian Ferguson), Dickens (John-Michael Marrs) and Tolstoy (Jeremy Schwartz) — are thrown together by an unknown being… but for what purpose? They eventually realize their common bond is that they each have a different concept of Christian scripture, from fundamentalism (Dickens) to humanism (TJ) to some kind of synthesis (Leo). But which is “right”?

Employing historical figures as avatars to stand in for ideas isn’t new, and neither is segregating them in a crucible for conflict (No Exit), but writer Scott Carter doesn’t do so with pomposity, but with great human and insight. He’s a writer for Real Time with Bill Maher, so there’s already a baseline of religious skepticism you can expect, but Carter doesn’t tip his hand too much. Though Dickens (a flamboyantly self-interested caricature, wonderfully captured by Marrs) seems to be the object of most criticism, the point of the play is that, when it comes to spirituality, or even principles, we are all hypocrites. Because we just don’t know.

It may be early to say this, but I sincerely feel that Emily Scott Banks, who directed Discord, may herself be the spiritual successor to Rene Moreno. Like him, she has a fluid yet mysterious grasp both theatrical presentation and humanity. There’s rarely a false note in any of the shows I’ve seen her direct. She and Moreno share an eye for good casting, but are also able to bring out the best in their actors. In addition to Marrs, Ferguson and Schwartz are perfectly suited, and never become rigid archetypes, but remain genuine people. Over 80 fast-paced minutes, we get a lesson not only of giants of the 19th century, but insights into ourselves.

Ward, Wall, Potter and Campbell — men’s men. Photo by Karen Almond.

The lessons, and the people involved, are far less upfront in Straight White Men from Second Thought Theatre. It’s Christmastime, and a family of men — a dad (Bradley Campbell) and his three sons (Thomas Ward, Drew Wall, Brandon Potter) — have gathered to celebrate the holidays and needle each other mercilessly. The holidays often bring out negative feelings among family, although this doesn’t come across as one of those turning point melodramatic dramedies. Dad is jovial but tends to keep his head in the sand about his oldest son (Ward), an Ivy Leaguer who has moved back home to a menial job while one brother (Potter) is a successful if cutthroat banker and the other (Wall) a college prof and acclaimed novelist. Why hasn’t the older brother, who had more promise than the other, met with success? Is he not enough of a shark? Or is he not drowning himself in psychiatry to unravel his tortured soul? And why should any of them try to be their brother’s keeper?

The title, and the cast (well, most of it), would seem to suggest that these characters should be the unrepentant masters of their universe — they even play a Monopoly-esque board game their late mom invented called Privilege, to remind themselves of their advantages … but was the game meant to chasten them, or reassure them? They each seem to experience it differently. But in fact, there are other people onstage during these scenes of domesticity: Two Persons-in-Charge (Christine Sanders and Zo Pryor), who, between scenes, pose the men and occasionally eve direct their actions, like disinterested puppetmasters, forcing the men to play out their scenes are the P-in-Cs — or even, society — mandates. Maybe the privileges of masculine dominance … weigh on them? Perhaps all their homoerotic fraternal horseplay is a coping mechanism for human meaningful interaction.

The ultimate message of SWM — like Discord, directed by a woman, Christina Vela — isn’t how obnoxious these stand-ins for the mainstream are, but how that obnoxiousness may disguise many doubts and weaknesses. Maybe we’re supposed to have sympathy for the devil — not because he needs it, but because we need to give it to him.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Funeral arrangements set for Rene Moreno

MorenoRene Moreno, the acclaimed local director who died of cardiac arrest earlier this week at age 57, will be interred at Restland Funeral Home in Dallas, on Greenville Avenue near the intersection with LBJ. The service will be at 11 a.m. Saturday. A memorial will be set for some time in April. Family requests that in lieu of flowers, mourners make a donation to the charity of their choice.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

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

REVIEW: ‘Angels Fall’ at CTD

Angels 3When Angels Fall opened on Broadway in 1983, it wasn’t meant be a period piece, but in the 30 years since, that’s sort of what it has become: Nuclear energy, Native American rights, religion, mental illness — all were buzzworthy topics back then.

Wait a minute … aren’t they still?

That’s sometimes the magic of theater: A story that seems rooted in its time continues to resonate for decades later, even when the iconography seems different: Athletes wearing socks up to the knee, people using pay phones, hairdos that haven’t been fashionable since the Reagan Administration. The playwright, Lanford Wilson, speaks about the human condition so simply and honestly, the look matters less than the feeling.

There’s plenty of feeling in this production at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, directed forthrightly by Rene Moreno. Six folks — college prof Niles (James Crawford) and his young wife Vita (Allison Pistorius), art collector Marion (Sue Loncar) and her boy-toy tennis pro Zappy (Jake Buchanan), and squirrelly genius Don (Ivan Jasso) and his foster parent, Father Doherty (H. Francis Fuselier) — spend an afternoon together in a remote New Mexico mission. The roads are impassable due to a problem at the nearby nuclear reactor. Are these the end times? Or just a reminded that we’re always on the brink?

Angels Fall is the old-school “comedy-drama” in the best sense. Interpersonal relationships fuel the exposition, not vice-versa: We learn about Niles’ mental breakdown and Don’s ambivalence about his future organically, without contrivance or melodrama. (The most theatrical bit is the coincidence that brings them all to church, a completely forgivable conceit.) There’s a richness and authenticity undergirding the lives of these people.

A lot of that is Moreno’s legendary skills at storytelling, but much rests with the cast. The strained marriage between Niles and Vita is brittly parsed by Crawford and Pistorius, and Buchanan gets in man comic riffs; his May-December romance with Loncar feels real. And Fuselier’s whimsical, leprechaunish befuddlement scores over and over.

Rodney Dobbs’ set is amazing, too, but it’s what’s inside that works. Wilson was a prolific playwright who’s seldom talked about in reverential tones; with productions like this (and the recent The Madness of Lady Bright), he may receive the critical reevaluation he deserves.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Kelsey Ervi: The sorcerers’ apprentice

Kelsey Ervi picKelsey Ervi hasn’t been out of school for even two years, and already she’s stomping out a vintage with her young career in theater.

The Waco native moved to Dallas in 2011 after graduating from Baylor. Obviously, she just couldn’t get enough Waco. Yeah, right.

“I grew up there, which is scary for someone who is gay,” Ervi says. “I was like, ‘I gotta get out of here.’”

But despite the Texas town’s conservative rep, Ervi says she got a great education in the theater department there, which was very open-minded. It also taught her how to do almost anything in theater — in front of the footlights and behind.

“The theater department was so wonderful,” she coos. “I acted, directed, wrote.”

Ervi continues to work as a jack-of-all-trades: Her first play produced, Waking Up, debuted at WaterTower Theatre’s Out of the Loop Fringe Festival last year. Set in a bedroom, with 11 characters, it explored pillow talk in the modern age. The success of that show landed Ervi a permanent job in Dallas, as assistant to Terry Martin, the producing artistic director at WTT.

Moving to Dallas has given Ervi renewed energy about the potential of doing good work in the theater. Martin, one of the most respected directors in town, asked Ervi to assistant direct WTT’s current show, The Grapes of Wrath.

“My education at Baylor was great, but the tactile experience [working here] is a whole world of knowledge,” she says. “Grapes of Wrath is such a massive show. Terry has worked with the [Joad family cast members] and I’m working with the ensemble.”

Grapes just adds to her resume. Not only has she worked with Martin, but her career already includes several stints with the dean of North Texas’ theater directors, Rene Moreno, as both assistant director or stage manager on August: Osage County, Twelfth Night and The Lucky Chance.

“It’s such a learning experience,” Ervi says. “Rene is a wonderful teacher; he’ll [do something] then whisper to me, ‘This is why I’m doing this.’”

Ervi is continuing to write (she’s working right now on a three-woman show about the trials and tribulations of love and sex; she hopes to finish it over the summer), and she’s open to auditioning to act in a show “if I feel like I’m right for it.” But mostly she’s just happy to be pursuing her passion professionally.

“I love Dallas — it’s such a booming theater community,” she says. “Classmates talk about moving to New York, and I say, ‘Come to Dallas! It’s great here.’”

The Grapes of Wrath runs through April 28.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

DFW Theater Critics Forum bestows annual honors

B.J. Cleveland, center, won a best actor award from the DFW Theater Critics Forum, along with its director, Michael Serrecchia.

It was a banner year for Theatre 3 at the annual Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum luncheon, with three shows — The Farnsworth Invention, Superior Donuts and Avenue Q, which is still running — collectively garnering 10 awards, the most for any company. The star of Donuts, Van Quattro, also received the Emerging Artist Award.

It was a love fest for love, too, as partners Michael Serrecchia and Michael Robinson were both recognized for Avenue Q — Serrecchia for directing, and Robinson for designing the puppets.

Terry Vandivort, a staple at Theatre 3 for decades, received an award for his performance at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas in its The Night of the Iguana, alongside co-winner Ashley Wood. The show was also recognized for Rene Moreno’s direction. Moreno was additionally cited for directing August: Osage County at WaterTower and Coriolanus at Shakespeare Dallas.

Uptown Players received several nods as well: For B.J. Cleveland’s leading role in The Producers, wrapping up its run this week (as well as Serrecchia’s direction), and for Lulu Ward’s performance in last year’s Pride Performing Arts Festival for The New Century. (I declared her 2011’s Actor of the Year for the role.)

The gay-penned surprise hit musical Bring It On was the clear favorite among national tours.

In total, 30 shows were recognized and 41 awards given by the participating critics: Arnold Wayne Jones, Dallas Voice; Elaine Liner, Dallas Observer; Mark Lowry, Perry Stewart and Martha Heimberg, TheaterJones; Lawson Taitte, Dallas Morning News; Lance Lusk, Lindsey Wilson and Liz Jonhstone, FrontRow/D Magazine; Alexandra Bonifield, CriticalRant; and Punch Shaw, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Here’s the complete list:

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Uptown Players announces lineup for second Dallas Pride Performing Arts Festival

Last year, Uptown Players launched its first-ever Pride Performing Arts Festival to coincide with the Dallas Pride celebration. It was a hit, and the festival is coming back for a 10-day series of gay plays and performances.

Already announced will be the regional premiere of 8, the play by Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black based on the actual transcript of the challenge to California’s Proposition 8 law, banning same-sex marriage. Rene Moreno will direct the staged reading in the Kalita Humphreys main stage. (Sept. 6.)

Also on the main stage will be Songs for a New World, a song cycle by composer Jason Robert Brown, directed by Bruce Coleman and music directed by Kevin Gunther. (Sept. 9, 11 and 15.) [EDITOR’S NOTE: Uptown Players has announced that Songs for a New World has been removed from the schedule.]

The remaining shows will all be performed in Frank’s Place, the upstairs venue at the Kalita. Among the lineup:

Speech & Debate, about three teenaged misfits united by a town sex scandal. (Sept. 7, 8 and 10.)

The Madness of Lady Bright, starring Larry Randolph as a drag queen slowly going insane; it played last year at the Festival of Independent Theatres, winning Randolph awards for his performance. (Sept. 8, 9 and 15.)

Still Consummate, in which master comedienne Marisa Diotalevi, pictured, revisits her award-winning one-person show The Consummate Woman. It will be on a double bill with Paul J. Williams’ standup act Triple Crown Queen, about growing up gay. (Sept. 8, 11 and 14.)

A-GAYS, Stillwater, Oklahoma. Young performance artist John Michael Colgin reprises his one-man show about being gay at OSU, and the ptifalls of finding a boyfriend. (Sept. 8, 9 and 15.)

Why Am I Not Gay. Straight guy Jason Kane loves musical theater and looks like a bear on the prowl at a Hidden Door beer bush, but — gasp! — prefers girls. He pokes fun at the stereotypes of gay folks, and being on the other side of them. (Sept. 9, 12 and 15.)

I Google Myself, which played a few years back at WaterTower’s Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, will return. This comedy is about a man who finds he shares the same name with a porn star. Kookiness ensures. (Sept. 9, 13 and 15.)

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

STAGE BRIEFS

stage-2-1
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

Theater Critics Forum bestows honors

The DFW Theater Critics Forum met last week over friend chicken and sweet tea to bestow its annual awards for local theater excellence, as as usual, the gay community was well-represented.

Of the eight best director winners, five locals were gay: Regan Adair for Red Light Winter, Rene Moreno for three shows (The Trip to Bountiful, No Child… and Creditors), Michael Serrecchia for two shows (Uptown Players’ Next to Normal and ICT MainStage’s How to Succeed…), Joel Ferrell for two shows at DTC (Cabaret and Dividing the Estate), and Len Pfluger for My Fair Lady at Lyric Stage. Pfluger’s partner, Jay Dias, was also singled out for his season of music direction with Lyric.

Larry Randolph, as a tragic drag queen in One-Thirdy Productions’ FIT entry, The Madness of Lady Bright, was a popular choose for acting, as were two New York actors who sizzled at the Wyly (and whom we interviewed): Wade McCollum as the M.C. in Cabaret, pictured, and Sydney James Harcourt as the Tin Man in The Wiz. Whitney Hennen, the ditzy blonde in Uptown’s Victor/Victoria, was also singled out.

Justin Locklear received the second Emerging Artist Award for his acting and costume work this season with Balanced Almond, which actually won him two other individual awards.

In addition to yours truly, participating critics in Martha Heimberg (Turtle Creek News); Elaine Liner (Dallas Observer); Mark Lowry (TheaterJones and Fort Worth Star-Telegram); M. Lance Lusk (D Magazine); David Novinski (TheaterJones); Punch Shaw (Fort Worth Star-Telegram); Perry Stewart (TheaterJones); Lawson Taitte (Dallas Morning News); and Lindsey Wilson (D Magazine).

Full list below.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

WaterTower’s 2011-12 season

WaterTower Theatre tonight announced several premieres or locally produced Tony Award winning shows, including Spring Awakening and August:Osage County. Here’s the schedule:

Spring Awakening, the 8-time Tony winning musical with a score by Duncan Sheik, opens the season on Sept. 30. The play about sexual repression in the 19th century was choreographed by Bill T. Jones.

Rockin’ Christmas Party returns Nov. 26. The jukebox musical features rock versions of Christmas carols returns after an absence of a few years (pictured is the 2007 edition).

The Diary of Anne Frank opens 2012, starting Jan. 6. It tells the story of a Jewish girl and her family hiding out in an Amsterdam attic during World War II.

August: Osage County, Terry Letts’ remarkable panoramic play about an Oklahoma family, opens March 30. Rene Moreno, who direcyed a version of it last year out of state, will direct WaterTower’s version. The play won the Tony for best play and the Pulitzer Prize.

Boeing Boeing, Marc Camoletti’s sex farce about a man dating three flight attendants, opens May 25.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe, another jukebox musical featuring the songs of Leiber and Stoller (“Hound Dog,” “Woman”) closes the season with a July 20 opening.

Also returning is the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, running March 1–11.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones