Best in Dallas Theater :: 2008


EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday January 4, 2009

What was the best theater in Dallas/Fort Worth this past year? EDGE's Christopher Soden and Chris Sandlin offers their choices.

Doubt :: A Parable

John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, A Parable concerns the ordeal of Father Flynn, suspected of pedophilia, and Sister Aloysius, who accuses him. By picking such a horrendous crime, Shanley has upped the ante. If, for instance, Flynn were accused of embezzlement, the issue would require evidence. But often child molestation leaves no visible mark, and monsters can learn to pass for angels. The search for intelligent, responsible actions in the light of such accusations can leave us in a quandary. Can we leave the moral high ground and still claim the right to judge? Running ninety minutes, in a succession of scenes, Shanley constructs his play like a domino train, a metaphor used by Aloysius (Nancy Sherrard) and Flynn (Regan Adair) in conversation. Sister Aloysius, witnessing a fleeting incident, suspects there may be something amiss with Father Flynn. She confides in Sister James (Jessica Wiggers) telling her to keep her eyes open. To the elder sister's way of thinking, trust is a luxury we can't afford in a world where evil is omnipresent and cunning. At the core of Shanley's play is the adage (older than the seven blind men and the elephant) that as long as we cleave to our individual, subjective worldviews, the merciful power of Truth will be lost. The small, inspired cast in the Water Tower Theatre production was intense, subtle, modulated and affecting in these difficult, demanding roles. Adair, Sherrard, Wiggers and Lee helped resuscitate this homily with intensity and verve. Christopher Soden

The Drowsy Chaperone

The Drowsy Chaperone started life as, of all things, an entertainment at a stag party that the creative team of Don McKellar (book) and Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (score) created for their friend Bob Martin. From there the team, along with Martin, developed their skit into a full-length show, adding the so-called Man in Chair to guide the audience through this spoof of 1920s musical. They premiered their rewritten show at Toronto's Fringe Festival where it was such a success that it moved on to be developed as a full-scale Broadway musical, premiering in 2006 where it took Broadway by storm winning five Tony Awards that June and running 687 performances. Fortunately its national tour, which came to the Music Hall at Fair Park, featured a number of performers from the original cast, including Georgia Engel. They were only part of the reason that this production was a charming, whimsical, and funny experience from start to finish. Chris Sandlin


David Mamet's Edmond raises a lot of questions you might not normally consider. Does Mamet like Edmond, his protagonist? Does he (or we) need to? Is "Edmond" supposed to be funny? There's funny dialogue to be sure, but if this is a comedy, it's blacker than pitch. Mamet's attitude towards the material seems important but conveniently taciturn. Edmond experiences one evening of freedom (or at least groping for it) that quickly takes him through a myriad of intense, harrowing changes. And my gut tells me that at some level Mamet finds all this amusing. "Edmond" is a confounding play, it drags us as if we were tied to the ass-end of a mustang. Yet it is riveting, disturbing, consistent in its logic and exceptionally well-written. It takes awhile to process. But there's no doubt in my mind that it's an evening of provocative, memorable theatre. In the Second Thought Theatre production, director Rene Moreno did an estimable job in handling this volatile material, using the raucous music and relaxed lighting to perhaps soften the blows. He brought out the humor when he could. The rhythms of Mamet's urgent repartee often brings to mind Abbott and Costello on Crystal-Meth. Regan Adair carried the burden of the title role with grace and clarity. He's just unbalanced enough to seem human and flawed without telegraphing the chaos to come. The whole cast was punchy, adaptable, focused, believable and up to the task of Mamet's drumming dialogue. Christopher Soden

The Goat or Who is Sylvia?

Edward Albee's The Goat or Who is Sylvia? may raise more questions than it answers as one of the most compelling dramas written on the nature of sexuality and humanity. When Martin, a highly talented and revered architect falls in love with a goat, you wonder how seriously you're supposed to take it. Is it intended literally or constructed to explore deeper issues? Albee has a tendency to sprinkle scripts with wry, parenthetical humor, which only makes it more difficult to anticipate where the play is headed. It can't be easy to manage such a tempestuous play, with Albee's penchant for quirky rhythms and impossible lines like: "Shut your tragic mouth." But manage they did, and far more than that. Bob Hess as Martin was canny, genuine, wry, and tortured. Hess has the kind of deferential congeniality that made Martin work. Kevin Moore's Billy (the son) had some difficult, wrenching scenes, and was exceptional: mesmerizing, poignant and memorable. Diane Box-Worman, as Martin's wife, Stevie, was nerve-rattling, exquisite, astonishing. She has great range and meticulous, spontaneously accurate delivery. Though it's slowly changing, Dallas theaters aren't always eager to risk challenging or offending their audience. I have unabashed admiration for groups like Kitchen Dog, and directors like Tim Johnson who are willing to tackle plays like "The Goat or Who is Sylvia?" and kindle the sort of raw spectacle that real, grown up, exhilarating theatre is all about. Christopher Soden

Mamma Mia!

As the lights dimmed at the touring production of Mamma Mia! and the announcement was made that the lead role of Donna Sheridan was to be played by an understudy, I prepared for the worst. Not that subs are always a bad omen for a musical, but they usually are. Thankfully Stephanie Lynge did a stellar job of leading the cast of this smash hit musical's national tour that's pretty darn good. Then again, I just saw the film version a few months ago...and Pierce Brosnan's awful singing still creeps up in my memory each time I hear "S.O.S." I must confess that I'm an out-and-proud fan of the musical in all forms, despite its film not being all that fantastic. Fortunately seeing a tour again so soon after the movie made me remember why this show is so fun and entertaining. With national tours, a few bad seeds can make a rotten show. Not so, this time around. The current tour isn't perfect and a big step up from the movie. Chris Sandlin

The Pillowman

Beyond harrowing. Beyond disturbing. Beyond brilliant. Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman is cutting-edge theatre at its zenith, a merciless play filled with jaundiced humor, grisly metaphors and love so tender and fierce it burns like a mixture of Robitussin and strychnine. Rarely if ever does one experience such intense, glorious, deranged theatrical poetry, cynical and more incisive than a scalpel. Which is not to say "The Pillowman" is the sort of Grand Guignol theatre that revels in graphic mayhem. The play's premise has been the subject of debate for perhaps centuries: Does suffering create better art? McDonagh addresses the torment of the mutilated spirit, the wounded mind, the diminished heart. Leading a skilled and powerful cast in the The Kitchen Dog Theatre production is Lee Trull as Katurian Katurian, a writer who (along with his mentally-impaired younger brother) is brought in for questioning by the police. Trull brought courage, wit, irony and mastery to the role of Katurian. This kind of performance is like tight-rope walking across a volcano and Mr. Trull was astonishing. Christopher Soden

Steel Magnolias

Robert Harling's 1987 comedy/drama is best-known to audiences through its all star film version released in 1989. The version at Fort Worth's Casa Ma?ana had star power of its own, led by the return of one of the city's legendary ladies Ruta Lee, who was supported by Sally Struthers (best-remembered as Gloria from "All in the Family," but possessing an impressive theater resume as well) and the fantastic Margaret Colin (one of the more familiar faces from television's numerous versions of "Law and Order."). "Laughter through tears" is a common idea throughout the play, and it delivers a lot of that, and more. Despite a few performance flaws, Steel Magnolias is a funny, well-acted and heartwarming play that's perfect for DFW audiences. Chris Sandlin


One person's trash is another's treasure, as the saying goes. This is especially true in the long-running off-Broadway smash hit STOMP, in which a percussive troupe of rhythmic geniuses proves that you don't have to be a virtuoso orchestra member to be a musical master. Through a complex, frenetic choreography of body movement and sounds made from a treasure trove of everyday items (Zippo lighters, matchboxes, trash cans, brooms and plastic bags to name a few), "STOMP" begs the question, "What is music?" Throughout the show I caught myself staring at the stage with my mouth slightly open in awe, entranced by these talented performers. Calling them "talented," though, is like calling Mother Theresa "kind." And boy do they get a work out during this show! They're not just actors or dancers: They're equally performers, musicians and athletes. So much is going on that at times it's hard deciding where to center your attention. But wherever you look, it's entertaining. Chris Sandlin

A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway in December of 1947, garnering Tennessee Williams the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. "Streetcar" explores the plight of Blanche Dubois who, overcome by emotional upheaval, shows up at her sister Stella's home in New Orleans. The tumultuous chemistry between Blanche and her sister's husband, Stanley Kowalski, stokes the ferocious battle that will end in nothing less than annihilation. At The Contemporary Theatre of Dallas director Rene Moreno orchestrated a "Streetcar" with originality, intrigue, fluidity and bite. Moreno had the moxie and aplomb to rediscover "Streetcar" and give his interpretation its own velocity and cunning. Choices he made in the timbre of the characters were bracing and surprising. Lydia Mackay made the role of Blanche completely hers, using what might seem trivial and affected to survive the depths of despair. Mackay was by turns withering, buoyant, frank, frail, heroic, but always achingly human. Clay Yocum's Stanley Kowalski had all the bestiality if not the pretty, rough-trade appeal. Russell DeGrazier as Mitch was sweet and soft-spoken. Ironically more connected to Stanley than Blanche. Jessica Wiggers was unlike any Stella I've seen before: stronger, more subdued than diminished. Williams once said the message of Streetcar is "The apes shall inherit the earth. " and would have been profoundly moved by this production. Watching the show, the air seemed almost suffused with dread, dissipation, and the unbearably sad music of resignation. Christopher Soden

Sweeney Todd

One of the most radical rethinking of Sweeney Todd came with British director John Doyle's production, which scaled the show down and featured the company members acting as the orchestra as well. It was a hit in London and New York, where Michael Cerveris (playing the guitar) played the title character and Patti Lupone (on tuba) played his partner in crime - the baker Mrs. Lovett. For the production's national company the great Judy Kaye took over as Mrs. Lovett, who not only steals the show, but saves it as well with her fantastic singing, impeccable comedic timing and commanding stage presence. But take this sensational songstress out of the equation and you've got a tough problem to solve. David Hess in the title role is forgettable and a bit of a let down, with a mediocre vocal performance and overdone acting that emphasized his character's "brooding" nature. Luckily, the well known music and a solid (though far from great) supporting cast make this production worth a trip. Still, like "Sweeney Todd's" nefarious barbershop, something just isn't quite right with this tour. Nonetheless Kaye and the great Sondheim score made it worthwhile. Chris Sandlin