ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
From local productions to tours, musicals to plays, sweeping ensembles and one-man shows, there was a lot for everyone on Dallas stages in 2018. Here’s what stuck out most.
10. Bright Star (tour through ATTPAC). There were actually a number of entertaining national tours this year, including Waitress and On Your Feet, but none surprised me more than Bright Star, a folksy mix of bluegrass, Broadway and gospel that tells a fable about the intersection of lives with great beauty.
9. Six Characters in Search of a Play (independent). Technically, Six Characters was also a touring production, but because the writer and star, Del Shores, is a native Texan who frequently performs here — and whose other plays, like Sordid Lives and Southern Baptist Sissies, are locally staged — it felt more home grown. Shores tells how six actual people from his life affected his development, if only by adding anecdotes for him to recount, all by spilling Texas tea with twangy hilarity.
8. Clear to Partly Crazy (independent). OK, one more deviation … and for the same reason as Shores. Jaston Williams — he of the Greater Tuna series of plays — returned for yet another of his one-man shows, this one a premiere focusing on a few moments in his rural Texas upbringing with a difficult mother and equally difficult environment (climatological and neighborly). Williams writes with such literary precision that even if the stage were entirely dark, the works alone would conjure every image you would need to place yourself right there.
7. Glengarry Glen Ross (Imprint Theatreworks). David Mamet’s best play also became the launching pad for a new theater company, Imprint, which delivered an impressive debut season. The stark set pits several cutthroat real estate salesmen against each other as they try to figure out who robbed the office they share. The withering dialogue and inventive plotting show you how the #MeToo Movement was presaged decades ago — men are pigs.
6. Hand to God (WaterTower Theatre). A church in South Texas attempts to do outreach to the year in its parsonage with activities include puppetry, but when one devout kid’s hand puppet seems to become possessed by Satan, all hell brakes loose. This “exorcise” in satire, staged in a setting that resembles a church basement, is profane but also humane, especially with great performances by the entire case.
5. Pompeii!! (Kitchen Dog Theater). Those clever sots at Kitchen Dog (Max Hartman, Cameron Cobb, Michael Federico) sure know how to come up with an entertaining take on a pitch-black story of the destruction of an ancient city in the idiom of an outdated music hall cabaret. It’s an unlike tale of hubris that takes on a weightiness in context of the slo-mo self-destruction of our own society, told through music and a circus-like amalgam of scenarios. It was a blast.
4. Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika (Uptown Players). The second half of Tony Kushner’s epic two-part drama Angels in America, called Perestroika, is less frequently performed than its first, Millennium Approaches, and it’s clear why: It can be almost unwieldy (nearly four hours from start to finish) and Kushner has perpetually tweaked it for decades. But Uptown Players’ production, following its 2016 production of Part One, proved it’s in some ways a better play, with more classic structure, closure and quality performances by the tight cast than we have reason to expect from such an explosive, dour story as the AIDS crisis in microcosm.
3. Bread (WaterTower Theatre). On the day of the 2017 inauguration, a family is South Dallas is met by the return of one member, the prospect of a lucrative but risky real estate scheme and the changing face of race relations under a new administration. Regina Taylor’s world premiere play subtly captured the black experience with insight and power, in a compelling production that felt as relevant as August: Osage County or A Raisin in the Sun.
2. Frankenstein (Dallas Theater Center). Nick Dear’s modern take on the Frankenstein story takes the familiar tale of the over-reaching doctor and makes it basically a superhero origin story concentrating on the birth of his creature. Joel Ferrell’s amazingly fierce production, with Kim Fischer as the tortured meta-human, was a heart-wrenching and unsettling vision of human frailty, at first scary but ultimately prescient.
1. The Royale (Kitchen Dog Theater). In this fictionalized telling of the tragic heavyweight boxing champ Jack Johnson — a black man at the turn of the last century who, in the near-decades following the end of slavery, upended the apple cart of white superiority — a man who deserves all the acclaim he gets unravels when the nature of society finally overwhelms him. This exciting and powerful play was itself a knockout. █
Actor of the Year
Ah, yes, the tragedy of the struggling actor — toiling through auditions, sacrificing nights and weekends, often for small remuneration, all in service of Art. I’d call it a thankless job, except each year, I do my best to thank all of the actors who made theatergoing in the previous calendar year something memorable.
Memorable, for instance, like the entire casts of Pompeii, the rollicking meta-musical, and Angels in America, Part II: Perestroika, the follow-up to Uptown Players’ 2016 production of Millennium Approaches. The entire casts of a few other shows also impressed me, buy why not just name everyone in the three-hander of Drew Wall, Jenny Ledel and Chris Ramirez in Second Thought’s Empathitrax, or the solo performance by Terry Martin in the gay play fest one-act The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey and Del Shores in Six Characters in Search of a Play.
Some folks stood out by reminding us that almost any role can be made exceptional with the right actor in place, as Ana Haegdorn did in DTC’s Steel Magnolias in the goosy role of Anelle; then again, Sally Nystuen-Vahle proved perfectly cast as the ornery Ouiser in the same production. The stage musical version of Uptown’s Priscilla Queen of the Desert had its problems, but among the highlights were the charismatic performances by Blake McIver and Jack Donahue. Indeed, surpassing the scope of a play is one of the charms of acting. Emily Scott Banks elevated a cumbersome staging of The Cherry Orchard by exuding dignity and humanity, and Alex Organ and Christie Vela gave strong performances in Enemies/People.
Enemies was written by Blake Hackler, who had an acting triumph in 2018 as well, in DTC’s amazing rendition of Nick Dear’s Frankenstein, holding his own again the work of co-star Kim Fischer. Shannon McGann gave a complex, tender and human performance in WaterTower’s raunchy Hand to God; Mark Oristano had his best role in years as Shelley Levene in the debut production of Imprint Theatreworks, Glengarry Glen Ross, while Kate Paulsen and Gloria Benavides did excellent work in A Doll’s House.
There was nary a false note acting-wise in both Bread and The Royale, though it bares singling out Elliot Marvin Sims and Stormy Demerson in the former, and Jamal Gibran Sterling, Lee George and Jaquai Wade Pearson in the latter. And Janelle Lutz once again powerfully conjured Judy Garland in A Very Judy Christmas.
Ultimately, however, it was Garret Storms who stood out especially for me in 2018. He’s been a creative and fascinating stage presence for several years, but his work in Hand to God and especially Angels In America: Perestroika was singular and powerful, and proved his talent at both comedy and drama. That kind of versatility warrants a tip of the hat… and the title of Dallas Voice’s 2018 Actor of the Year.
— Arnold Wayne Jones