REVIEWS: What to see at FIT

The Festival of Independent Theatres got off to an auspicious start last weekend (see below), and continues for a few more. Tonight, Lanford Wilson’s The Madness of Lady Bright, pictured — sometimes called the first major work of gay theater — follows an aging drag queen as she puts on her makeup, perhaps for the last time. It shows at 8 p.m., and also Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m. Also tonight at 8 is a double bill from WingSpan: Tennessee Williams’ A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot and John Guare’s The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year. It also plays Saturday at 5 p.m.

But some very good shows have already opened. Upstart Productions launched it with WASP, an absurdist comedy from Steve Martin (yes, that one) about the Protestant nuclear family: Disaffected dad (Ted Wold), neurotic wife (Diane Casey Box), confused son (Christopher Eastland) and airhead daughter (Nicole Stewart). The style — flat, crazed, silly, disturbing — fits perfects the nonsense, such as the voices mom hears because her husband can’t be bothered to look at her. Jell-O mold desserts, sexual frustration, 1950s-ish ignorance and a host of other stereotypes of American suburban culture are deliciously skewered. (Also plays Saturday at 5 p.m., July 28 at 8 p.m. and Aug. 6 at 8 p.m.)

Very different — but in many ways more compelling — is Second Thought Theatre’s Bob Birdnow’s Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self, a world premiere from local playwright Eric Steele (he runs the Kessler as well) as the second play directed by Lee Trull (he premiered as a director earlier this year with Dying City). One-armed local celeb Bob Birdnow gives a motivational speech to a Midwestern sales convention recounting how, in fact, he lost his limb. For 50 minutes, actor Barry Nash holds your attention transfixed in this captivating monologue, full of drama and tension and beautiful imagery, all with limited movement. It’s a tour-de-force performance. (Also plays Saturday at 2 p.m., July 29 at 8 p.m. and Aug. 4 at 8 p.m.)

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Wilkommen

A haunting, exhilarating, unforgettable ‘Cabaret’

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

LIFE IS A … WELL, YOU KNOW | The Emcee (Wade McCollum, center) presides over the last days of a doomed society in DTC’s excellent staging of ‘Cabaret.’ (Photo courtesy Karen Almond)

CABARET
Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St. Through May 22. $10-$80.
DallasTheaterCenter.org

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It’s no exaggeration to say that Cabaret is the best thing the Dallas Theater Center has done since moving into its new digs at the Wyly Theatre almost two years ago. When they took over the space, artistic director Kevin Moriarty said it would take a few years before the artists working there fully assessed what the theater could be. With back-to-back stagings by Joel Ferrell — Dividing the Estate in March, now this — it’s clear that at least one artist has staked his claim on understanding that potential.

Ferrell’s decision to turn the floor of the theater into a nightclub — with cocktail service and café tables and the actors interacting with the audience as they might inside the Rose Room — both gives some attendees respite from the notoriously hard green chairs of the Wyly and a sense for the intimacy and humanity of a musical that, at its heart, is about sweeping ideas and man’s inhumanity.

It’s 1931 Berlin, and the Nazis are rising to power, but for the staff and patrons of the Kit Kat Klub, it’s hard to see that the party’s almost over. They should know it — in Clint Ramos’ tattered costumes, ghastly makeup and walking through Bob Lavallee’s skeletal set, everyone looks hung over and slightly diseased. (So intense is the sexual energy in the buoyant opening number, I had a strong desire to leave immediately and get tested for Chlamydia.)

Cliff Bradshaw (Lee Trull) is late to the party. A stand-in for the gay writer Christopher Isherwood, Cliff hopes the decadence of the city will inspire his next novel. He settles into a boarding house that’s a microcosm for the diversity of the city — and a hotbed of what will rip Germany apart.

Of course there’s Kander and Ebb’s potent score, but Ferrell’s direction is stand-out. His deftness with political subtext, foreshadowing the horrors of the Holocaust and conveying the allure of institutionalized hatred as a rallying point for a defeated and scared proletariat, echoes realities of our own politically divisive society with haunting poignancy. (Sally Vahle, who transforms from street whore to grande dame of the Fatherland, is the starkest metaphor for its appeal. It’s fun while it lasts; après-vous, le deluge.)

Wade McCollum dominates the cast as the Emcee. In red eyeliner, low-slung hip-huggers that barely conceal his junk and a demonic grin that creeps you out and seduces you at the same time, his characterization is equal parts Alice Cooper, Dr. Frank-N-Furter and Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Surrounded by his Droogs — the chorus boys, a raucous bunch of muscled hooligans — he presides over the festivities with a flirtatious recklessness (during the Nazi anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” he hyperventilates at the notion of watching the world end), he’s practically the raison-d’etre of the piece.

Practically, but not entirely — no one disappoints. As Sally Bowles, the headliner at the cabaret, Kate Wetherhead is physically delicate but convincingly flighty and self-destructive with a great performance style. Her delivery on “Maybe This Time” lingers. David Coffee and Julie Johnson as the middle-aged couple tentatively staking out a romance form the core of the play’s emotional life. Their doom resonates and the irony of the show’s most famous lyric — “Life is a cabaret, old chum — come to the cabaret” — leaves you breathless by the end.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 6, 2011.

To read an interview with the director and star, click here.

—  Michael Stephens