Love gone wrong

5womenGen12

Relationships are screwed up in ‘Dying City,’ ‘5 Women,’ ‘Cyrano’

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

All of the female characters in Alan Ball’s comedy Five Women Wearing the Same Dress fit cozily into “types:” Cynical young rebel Meredith (Catherine DuBord); perky, Bible-quoting Frances (Heather Sims); saucy beauty queen Trisha (Emily Scott Banks); emotionally volatile Georgeanne (Barrett Nash); blowsy lesbian Mindy (Catherine Wall). You can practically hear a pitch meeting where he tried to get a network to option it as a sitcom.

But there’s nothing wrong with situational comedy, especially when it’s presented with such frothy fun. The danger is when the jokes and set-ups never move beyond what’s expected. Familiarity truly can breed contempt.

IMG_2431That doesn’t happen here, though it could. When Meredith enters — cig drooping from her lips, her sunglasses and leather biker jacket barely hiding a bridesmaid dress that looks like a hideous explosion of Pepto-Bismol, taffeta and bows — it seems like a shorthand to establish her character as “the bad girl.” But DuBord goes further, as Ball’s script allows her, finding depth between all the one-liners.

She and the other four ladies are all attendants at her sister’s wedding, though none of them seem to like the bride very much. They reconnect with each other, bonding over their hatred for the sickening frosting-colored gowns, the sleazy guests … and sometimes each others’ prejudices. (Frances is appalled that the groom has a lesbian sister “and everyone knows it!? They look just like real women!”)

The cast is superb, with the standouts a sassy, beautiful Banks (whose authoritative entrance pegs her instantly as the character to watch) and Wall (who delivers the punchy lines with brio). Ball is clearly out-magnoling Steel Magnolias, with dishy dialogue as well as zingers about the Christian right and thoughtful observations about AIDS and child abuse, but he never lets those aspects weigh down its confectionary tone. If there’s only one June wedding you attend this year, make it this one.

Dying City isn’t the most upbeat title for a play that itself is sometimes swallowed by sadness, but Second Thought’s regional premiere of this play about a gay man (Rhett Henckel) who visits the widow (Grace Heid) of his twin brother (also Henckel) a year after his apparent suicide in Iraq has much to recommend it, notably its two actors.

As the gay brother, Henckel is marvelously superficial playing an actor who’s a bit too full of himself and whose attempts to connect with his sister-in-law fall infuriatingly short. Heid is less accessible emotionally (she spends too much time with her arms crossed across her slender frame), but she modulates the scene between past and present beautifully.

The play itself is a reverie on Truth and Perception and War and Human Understanding — big themes that are difficult to resolve, or even give sufficient cursory treatment, but if writer Christopher Shinn bites off more than he can chew, he gets props for trying to do something meaningful and contemporary without banging his (or our) head into a wall.

For 40 years, Dallas’ Shakespeare in the Park has been just that: The Bard, and just the Bard, outdoors.

But Bill only wrote 38 plays (and far fewer good ones), so to mix it up this season, Shakespeare Dallas has thrown in Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. It is a somewhat puzzling addition. Rostand wrote it about 300 years after Shakespeare; although written in verse (in French), the translation of this production removes most of the poetry.

And then there’s this little problem: It’s not actually that good of a play. Cyrano’s poetry is purple; the death scene is needlessly prolonged; the characters largely unlikable.

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SEEING PINK | A gay bridesmaid (Catherine Wall, top left, with Catherine DuBord) looks ‘just like a real woman’ in ‘Five Women;’ Cyrano (Chris Hury, above) turns love into war; a gay actor (Rhett Henckel, top right) visits his brother’s widow in ‘Dying City.’

This production clocks in at more than three hours — a long time to sit in the punishing winds and Texas heat of Samuell-Grand Amphitheater. Its famous central conceit — that the big-nosed poet and warrior Cyrano (Chris Hury) writes all the love notes to his beloved Roxane (Lydia Mackay) on behalf of the doltish young hottie Christian (Austin Tindle) — isn’t even introduced into more than an hour in. Until then we spend a lot of time with peripheral characters; after then, we begin to realize what a high-maintenance and superficial bitch Roxane really is. (When Christian doesn’t woo her with good poems, she turns on him like a snake.)

I cannot imagine that the director, Raphael Perry, has ever instructed any actor to “tone it down:” There’s a stentorian, commedia dell’arte flamboyance to the performances he leads, and it’s rarely needed, even in the gustiness of outdoors that often carried the miked voices of the actor into the trees. (At times, the winds blew so hard on the extensively caped cast I thought it might morph into a stage version of Batman; I started looking to see if Julie Taymor was around.) Even the costumes are freakishly overdone, some shoes bedecked with such garish pompoms that it appears the actors are continually kicking Teletubbies.

Nonetheless, the balcony scene (perhaps that’s the Shakespeare connection) is superbly wrought by the central actors, and despite its length (and the overall “eh” reaction I had when it was over) there is a calming, civilized wave that befalls as you sit amid nature, eating cheese and pinot grigio out of a picnic basket while a play rages on before you. It ain’t the Winspear. But neither is it a walk in the park.

Five Women Wearing the Same Dress. Through July 2. ContemporaryTheatreofDallas.com. Dying City. Through July 2. SecondThought Theatre.com. Cyrano de Bergerac (in repertory with As You Like It). Through July 23. Shakespeare Dallas.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 24, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Postcards from the edge

Screen legend Shirley MacLaine talks about everything under the sun …. and a few things beyond it

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‘EVENING’ STAR | Shirley MacLaine, left, gives audiences the dish on her films in her one-woman show at Bass Hall Saturday. She’ll also talk up her life, possibly her past lives and anything the audience asks.

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

Maybe Shirley MacLaine is onto something with all her talk of otherworldly topics. When I asked the screen legend about her iconic status in the gay community — due to appearances in such films as Steel Magnolias, The Children’s Hour and even Postcards from the Edge — her phone cuts out. She doesn’t skip a beat on the return call.

“See how it went dead when you said the word ‘iconic?’ That’s a sign!” she says with a true guffaw.

At 77, MacLaine is still a spitfire who can quickly turn a question back on the interviewer. She’s a veteran at talking about her work and life, but admits that there are some things she doesn’t know about herself.

“I don’t know why the gays might think of me that way. What do you think?” she asks. The humor for one thing, I say — and how gays can’t resist a good, strong-willed woman.

“I’m curious what strikes me and what doesn’t,” she says. “Oh, and I think Madame Sousatzka is also popular. It’s the humor and that’s what I loved about those parts. There’s nothing more sophisticated than the gays’ sense of humor.”

So true — especially when it comes to Broadway. MacLaine raves enthusiastically over The Book of Mormon by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker and the musical version of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Both show an irreverence as well as artistic merit, which MacLaine thinks is just what art needs right now.

“I just got back from New York and the audiences were so receptive,” she says. “Mormon is quite astonishing. You’ve just got to see it. You know, the world is in such bad trouble that [artists] don’t give a shit anymore. The feeling is, ‘We’ll make humor out of it.’ And Priscilla was moving and well done and over the top. It was such an exercise in imaginative clothing and shoes and humor. I had no idea.”

She has less to say about Promises, Promises, the musical revival based on her famed film, The Apartment. “Everyone keeps asking me that, but I just haven’t seen it,” she says.

MacLaine is onstage in North Texas with her show An Evening with Shirley MacLaine, which stops at Bass Hall Saturday. Despite her musical theater cred (she was Sweet Charity, after all), don’t expect singing and dancing —  she’s over all that. Instead, the Oscar winner will talk about her movies, her life and her loves.

She’s been doing that a lot lately. She’s been making the media rounds lately for her 13th book, I’m Over All That: And Other Confessions, including a spot on Oprah. But the show isn’t necessarily the live version of her latest autobio.

“The show is really fun and just a retrospective of my life — I tell stories about my films and Broadway, television, travels, love affairs,” she says. “It’s just me and a remote control up there.”

Screen shot 2011-04-28 at 5.36.00 PMHopefully that will includes anecdotes about another screen legend, her late friend Elizabeth Taylor. MacLaine was part of the Golden Age that introduced the world to the likes of Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon and Taylor. But Liz’s passing (from this world, at least) struck MacLaine the hardest.

“That affected me more than I thought it would, to tell you the truth,” she says. “I met her when I was 20. I knew how she was feeling and I knew this would happen. I’ve been calling her and am talking to her still, but I don’t like to think of a world without her in it.”

Umm, still talking to Taylor? Well, MacLaine is almost as famous for her new age beliefs as for her acting prowess. She has written books that cover topics such as reincarnation, spiritual exploration and transcendentalism. So when she says she’s talking with Elizabeth Taylor … well, who can doubt her? A headline in a British tabloid recently labeled her “kooky,” but that’s nothing new to her. For years, she’s been mocked about her beliefs, but she uses the same thick skin needed for her acting career and she never let the media get to her.

Even having reached living legend status, MacLaine says that there is one thing she still hopes to accomplish in this lifetime.

“I’d like to go into space,” she says. “But not with an astronaut — an extraterrestrial spacecraft. I know a lot of people who’ve been taken aboard one. I haven’t done that yet in this lifetime.”

Of course, there’s always the next one.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 29, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

‘There is no day but today’

By Trinity Wheeler, director, “The Laramie Project”

If one, definitive lesson has lingered with me since working with “Rent,” it is that of the lyric, “No day but today.”

This message in mind, I knew it was time — though, well overdue — for “The Laramie Project” in East Texas. When invited to direct a show in my chiefly conservative hometown of Tyler — which experienced a hate crime nearly identical to Matthew Shepard’s, five years before his murder in Laramie, Wyo. — I could have very easily chosen “Steel Magnolias,” “Harvey,” or any other tried-and-true, community-theater staple.

But I didn’t want a crowd pleaser. I wanted to present a production that would allow the audience to consider the views of others, and reconsider their own. To invite debate, discussion, and to open a dialogue — the seeds of progress.

The response I received in coming out was nowhere near positive or pleasant. If this was the reaction of my own family, how would the community respond to a work in which the topic of homosexuality is unabashedly broached?

I went out on a limb in choosing this show, and was very aware of the chance the bough could break, and down would come baby. But the number of East Texans who voiced their support for this production after protests from members of the theater board proved to be unexpectedly staggering.

The show is no stranger to controversy, though I don’t believe any of us imagined we would face opposition long before we even began rehearsals, especially from those who once fully supported the project. But the cast, crew, and community banded together to brave the storm, and I believe we are all the more resolute because of it, having formed a brand of bond unique to such an experience, which may not have happened otherwise.

And that is exactly what this show is about. A community coming together in the wake of adverse events. I have hope for this production, and for Tyler and East Texas. I hold to hope for tomorrow, but, for now, there is no day but today.

—  Dallasvoice