Critical rankings of the best of 2014 in film, stage, television and books
Theater is a mysterious thing. Usually, companies decide on a season of shows more than a year out, and they have no idea what the casts will be and how the shows will fit the mood of the audience. Sometimes we’re in the mood for farce, sometimes melodrama, sometimes just a campy musical. The 10 shows that make up my year-end list range from musicals (lots of ’em) to comedies to dramas, from contemporary to period pieces.
10. Stiff (FunHouse Film and Theatre). Actor-playwright Jeff Swearingen has long scored in experimental comedies, but his devotion to creating plays with adult ideas and turning them over to teens makes him kind of a genius, and this play — a theatrical riff on Weekend at Bernie’s dealing with a dead critic and a terrible play —had audiences roaring.
9. Once (ATTPAC Series). There were a number of good touring productions this year, some unexpectedly so (the Queen musical We Will Rock You did just that), but they saved the best for last: this intimate but impassioned chamber musical, adapted from the Oscar-winning film, was a bittersweet tonic to bombastic shows, proving a human scale works in musicals, too.
8. Hands on a Hard Body (Theatre 3). Doug Wright is a master of making stage productions of stories that don’t seem designed for the stage, and a musical based on a Texas-set documentary about a contest involving touching a pickup truck is among them. But T3’s theater-in-the-round setting is actually ideally suited for this examination of what desperation, desire and the downturn in the economy means to people with limited options.
7. The Fortress of Solitude (Dallas Theater Center) Ever since Kevin Moriarty took over as artistic director, the DTC has taken a firm hand in developing new works that can live beyond a month-long run at the Wyly. Some (Lysistrata Jones, Fly by Night) have shown more promise than others (Giant). But perhaps the most intriguing is this adaptation of the modernist best seller about an friendship between unlikely young men who bond over comic books … and perhaps more. Although still a work in progress when it debuted last spring, the ambition of the project was matched by its craft.
6. Dogfight (WaterTower Theatre). It’s a night in late November 1963, just before a few newly-enlisted servicemen are about to ship overseas to a nation called Vietnam. They have no idea what’s in store for them (or the nation, which is also about to lose its leader to a rifle shot in Dealey Plaza), but they want to celebrate with a cruel hoax of a game: See who can bring the ugliest girl to a party. From this juvenile experiment arises a delicate relationship between one solider (Zac Reynolds) and the unsuspecting waitress (Juliette Talley) whom he targets. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul composed the delightful music to a show with tons of heart and a message of love … delivered, nonetheless, in a minor key.
5. The Brothers Size (Jubilee Theatre). Two African-American brothers — one the industrious and humorless owner of a mechanics’ shop (Rico Romalus), the other recently released from lock-up and still unsure about his future (Seun Soyemi) — clash over friendships, goals and how to achieve them. Tre Garrett directed this area premiere, one of a trilogy about the black experience, with tribal rhythms and a charge of homoeroticism, and handed up 2014’s most bracing 80 minutes of theater.
4. The Boy from Oz (Uptown Players). This jukebox musical hadn’t really had a life outside of Broadway since its original star, Hugh Jackman, left — probably since no one could handle the part of Peter Allen, the flamboyant showman who also happened to be Judy Garland’s son-in-law. Of course, none of them had Alex Ross, whose boundless energy set the stage of the Kalita on fire in a flashfire of singing and dancing, brilliantly directed by Cheryl Denson.
3. Oedipus el Rey (Dallas Theater Center). The myth of the doomed king takes on aching relevance in this razor-sharp updating. Director Kevin Moriarty moved the action into the Wyly’s cramped studio space, turning the audience into a kind of Greek chorus observing the crucible wherein Oedipus sets out on a tragic path. Classics often don’t play well to the contemporary ear; this, though, was pitch perfect.
2. Barbecue Apocalypse (Kitchen Dog Theater). Social-climbing suburbanites wonder about their priorities while adhereing to the trappings of civility (represented by a backyard cookout) until a cataclysm (we’re never sure what) renders the world a wasteland. But that’s no reason not to still have the neighbors over. Matt Lyle’s satire struck the ideal tone in this withering dark comedy, performed by Kitchen Dog’s most reliable company members.
1. Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike (Uptown Players). More classicism made stinging: Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winner turned Chekhov on its head as dsyfunctional siblings gather at their remote family home and hash out the complex resentments that have denied them true happiness for decades. The cast was flawlesss, as was B.J. Cleveland’s beautiful direction. Quite possibly, this is the best show Uptown has ever produced.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 26, 2014.