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Christopher Soden's Top Ten Shows for 2013

Montgomery Sutton and Jenny Ledel
Montgomery Sutton and Jenny Ledel
Second Thought Theatre

Top Ten for 2013

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Ah me. The joys and hazards of assembling the annual Ten Best List. As in previous years (I am happy to report) there was enough noteworthy and impressive theatre here in The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to easily double the list below. I considered increasing the number of shows, or creating a list of honorable mentions, a separate list for musicals, etc.....but none of the alternatives seemed to be quite the right fit.In the end, when faced with numerous pieces of undeniably equal value, I went with the shows that resonated with me the most profoundly. The plays that kept popping up in memory long after my reviews were posted. I must also add my sincere regrets that my mention of Circus Tracks lacks elaboration, after extensive searching I cannot find my notes. Needless to say, I labored long and hard in my decisions, and Outcry has more than earned their place of distinction. Please note the list is in alphabetical order.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo-Theatre 3

The ghost of a tiger wanders the streets of Baghdad, wondering if he is culpable for the killings he’s committed for the sake of food. A gardener who specializes in topiary is haunted by the ghosts of his dead sister, and the megalomaniacal tyrant who raped her. A soldier searches for the golden gun and golden toilet seat he looted during the course of an assassination. A soldier who has lost his hand (to the tiger) pays a prostitute for manual gratification, to momentarily create the illusion that it’s still there. Such are but a few of the grotesque, satirical, wrenching and often poetic images that inform Rajiv Joseph’s strange and strangely, intensely affecting black comedy : Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.

There is something close to miraculous in the way that Rajiv Joseph takes his bizarre, cartoony plot with its shtick and loopy imagery, and creates a desperately sad, sometimes cosmic exploration of the nature of God, violence, mankind, torture, dignity, hubris and the substance of life lived. Almost none of the characters are remotely kind to another, unless they want something. The best they can hope for is indifference. There’s a wry equanimity in the treatment of all those involved. The life of a sociopath, a child, a beast, a simpleton, they are all given equal weight, both for good and ill. They all feel abandoned by a deity who seems detached at best, but feel loathe to bring their own buried spark of divinity to bear. Bengal Tiger raises so many questions, blending a kind of vaudevillian absurdity with grief and disappointment sharper than any scalpel. In the right hands, theatre can reawaken us to the urgent pleas of our lost humanity, and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo managed this with rough grace and mastery.

Boy Gets Girl-Rover Dramawerks

Theresa Bedell (Kim Winnubst) a writer for an erudite magazine, is set-up on a blind date with Tony. First, she meets him for a beer, and the second time, seeing that it's not working out, leaves early. It’s really a no-fault situation. Tony wants so badly to get everything right, and sees (as so many of us do) romantic success as a validation of character. Beyond his extreme case of nerves, Theresa realizes they are not a good fit, and makes an excuse, in order to spare his feelings. Assuming he’s gotten the message, she forgets about Tony (Ross James Miller) and moves on. They really haven’t had a relationship, not to speak of, but flowers start arriving at Theresa’s office, and inexplicably, Tony shows up unannounced. With no other options, Theresa rejects him outright.

Written by Rebecca Gilman, Boy Gets Girl tracks Theresa’s ordeal as Tony, innocuous and achingly awkward, morphs from boy-next-door to pathological misogynist, simply because he gets turned down. Boy Gets Girl is Gilman’s paradigm for a male-privileged, patriarchal culture, that unwittingly panders to the male ego, diminishing and degrading women in the process. As one character explains, in movies, television, theatre and books, no matter how often a woman says, “No,” the man is encouraged to ignore this, and rewarded for persistence. We live in a society that is tacitly indoctrinated to a predatory dynamic. Tony can’t grasp that refusal is not some veiled affront to his manhood. As the drama unfolds, and we consider the situation, it becomes clearer and clearer how we all participate and contribute to a structure that doesn’t necessarily nurture enlightenment and altruism.

Rover Dramawerks created a marvel in their staging of Boy Gets Girl. Kim Winnubst heads a powerful and engaging cast, director Rebecca McDonald keeps the action enervating and taut. Rover continues to produce (in addition to buoyant, character-rich comedy) incisive, intelligent theatre that facilitates dialogue regarding our most painful and wrenching issues. They make an exceptional effort to create poignant, intense, risky shows that submerge us in the realms of shadow and redemption.

Children of a Lesser God - Contemporary Theatre of Dallas

CTD consistently, vigilantly strives to produce poignant, elucidating, emotionally rich and radiant entertainment. With Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God they hit one straight out of the park. Rarely have I seen such a beautifully intense, painfully authentic drama, that submerges us in the volcanic, excruciating romance of Sarah Norman and James Leeds. Sarah (Marianne Galloway) comes from the world of the profoundly hearing-impaired and James (Ashley Wood) is her speech therapist. Before the first act is over they are married, but despite the unmistakable depth of their devotion to each other, divergent world views are still lurking. Director Susan Sargeant, and the poised, powerful cast took us to realms overwhelming and memorable.

Medoff explores how misguided even genuine, seemingly selfless love can be. James goes to incredible lengths to be with Sarah, but ultimately has trouble not seeing her as disadvantaged. Children of a Lesser God works because the ferocity of Sarah and James’ sparring comes from their consuming desire to make the connection work. More than anything else in this world. They want to love each other perfectly, while staying true to themselves. Special note must be given to Galloway and Wood. Their performance is fierce, sublime, raw, voluptuous, demonstrative and wrenching. A tsunami would have been more merciful. CTD’s production was glorious and grand and a gift to theatre-lovers.

Circus Tracks - Outcry Theatre- Out of the Loop Fringe Festival-Water Tower

It’s not easy to describe Outcry’s particular brand of enchantment, their gift for wielding the miraculous on a shoestring and a thimble, but every visit to one of their edgy, giddy, poetic plays has been exhilarating and absorbing and Circus Tracks was no exception. A folkloric allegory of the baby Moses and subsequent Messiah, set in the contemporary world of circus folk, was skewed and cynical and hilarious and wrenching. Amazing ensemble work. Frantic, poised, sublime and dangerous energy. In their short and astonishing history Outcry has proved themselves repeatedly to be a jazzy, canny, raucous David in the face of Goliaths.

Detroit-Kitchen Dog Theater

Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit is a startling, engaging, and deeply disturbing piece. A drama that begins innocuously enough and shifts gears so subtly, you hardly notice. Until chaos bubbles over. It’s like watching a relaxed, subdued birthday party gradually turn into a pantheistic orgy. When Detroit opens, Ben and Mary have invited their new neighbors, Kenny and Sharon over for a cookout. Ben is grilling supper for the four of them, and Mary (Tina Parker) is trying to adjust the festive umbrella that attaches to the outdoor furniture. Early in the meal, Sharon is overcome with emotion. She makes a very moving speech about contemporary alienation, and the unusually friendly gesture of receiving a dinner invitation, simply because they live next door. She is frank, genuine, spontaneous. She cries. This key moment sets everything else in motion. Before long Mary is stumbling over to Sharon and Kenny’s house in the very early hours, weeping over her troubled marriage.

Much is made over the discrepancy in the two couples’ position on the food chain, and indeed, like any good Americans, Ben and Mary ignore these class distinctions as snobbery. Who hasn’t ever known hard times or been forced to make do on a paltry budget? Kenny and Sharon have destructive tendencies they have cautiously concealed, but as the four become closer, they begin drinking again and the walls start to crumble. D’Amour explores several different (though overlapping) angles in Detroit. The difference between civilization and arrogance. Simplicity and savagery. Intimacy and promiscuity. Authenticity and impulse control. Poverty and bankruptcy of the soul.

Detroit feels like an allegory or dialectic that jumps the tracks. The American paradigm for success has failed Ben and Mary and even after catastrophe has erupted, they feel gratitude towards Sharon and Kenny. Whatever their flaws the two had something to offer that Mary and Ben weren’t getting. This revelation hits like a lightning bolt. Detroit is flabbergasting, beguiling, subversive, refusing to offer any easy answers and leaving us with a toppled hornet’s nest of questions. This was dangerous, rattling, remarkable theatre. Like a dominatrix who decides to ignore the safe word.

Dreams of Slaughtered Sheep-The Ochre House

I always get a little chill when I know I’m visiting The Ochre House, a frisson in anticipation of the signs and wonders to come. Writer, director, producer Matthew Posey has a jaded, scurrilous, deranged and poetic vision, his terrible and depraved seraphim scrapping tirelessly. It’s not always easy to tell if we’re participating in an exorcism, celebration of the id, or perhaps a tortured soul attempting to navigate the dark, fanciful and troubling universe we pathetic humans dwell.

A mélange of fever dream, liturgical spoof and grisly premonition, Dreams of Slaughtered Sheep is a richly disturbing, nightmarish ode dressed in light colors of its Easter Sunday best. Posey’s repartee between mentor Charliewise (Posey) and apprentice Spencerville (Justin Locklear) is Shakespearean homage, lofty yet jovial, salted with giddy alliteration and ringing, buoyant metaphors. The central conceit of Paschal Lamb as sacrifice for the sins of mankind is echoed consistently throughout. The revival tent gospel music is supplied by a trio dressed in Ecclesiastical black, the adobe interior of Spencer and Charlie’s shared abode suggests a chapel. There are crosses and countless references to religious imagery throughout the script. Posey has a keen gift for building an intensely spiritual sensibility while supposedly cleaving to the secular.

Posey’s Dreams of Slaughtered Sheep, was a queasy, surreal oracle proffered to explore mankind’s urgent need to apply the Christian ideology of passivity and self-immolation, for the sake of redeeming Lucifer’s dupes. While I consider the improbability of Posey’s props, devices, puppets, “toys,” I’m astonished at how powerful and overwhelming they are. There’s a kind of sorcery in his ability to manifest dreams on a stage with nonchalance and irony. What we might expect from Bergman or Lynch. There’s a visceral truth to his loopy brand of prestidigitation that’s ingenious, implacable, mesmerizing, virulent. Like Lewis Carroll’s hookah puffing caterpillar, Posey perches on a poisonous, alluring mushroom and offers a bite. Who can resist?

The Ghost Sonata-Undermain Theatre

Undermain has a delectable penchant for the oracular, the enigmatic, the absurd. Plays that feel spontaneous, non-linear, associative, that embrace defiance and strangeness. August Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata has an allegorical sensibility to it. A selfless, heroic young man (The Student) becomes the protégé of venomous usurer (Hummel) keen to attach him to an exquisite heiress (The Young Lady) who perhaps shares his blamelessness in a fallen world. Throughout this drama, we see various characters in assorted stations of life (Milkmaid, Cook, Colonel, Student) going about their daily business, not necessarily interacting with one another, submerged in the reverie of their occupations. As the narrative unwinds we discover Hummel is empowered to guarantee their matrimony because everyone involved is indebted to him, in one way or another. Either they owe him money or he knows their secrets, or both. We also learn that long, long ago, Hummel himself was once a servant, who worked in the kitchen. The Ghost Sonata ends with the couple pronouncing devotion to one another, yet thwarted by circumstances that make bliss between them impossible. Everything in the world they dwell is poisoned, corrupt. Pure love is an unattainable illusion. “Christ redeem us as we suffer and strive to love out of abundance (instead of desperation) etc.…”

To borrow from Tennessee Williams, “the bird of truth” that Strindberg is trying to snare would seem to be spiritual impoverishment, and the farcical rituals of pretension and cachet that make genuine human contact impossible. Hummel doesn’t lend money to help others, he does it to diminish and oblige them. The servants in The Colonel’s household are there as much for the sake of opulence as actual assistance. When The Student’s object of affection confides that she can think of nothing worse than sorting laundry, we’re meant to laugh, but it’s the substantial core of truth that makes it so funny. Undermain’s production of The Ghost Sonata is spot on, in a piece where precision, delivery, attitude and poise are crucial. Undermain consistently chooses scripts that are characterized by pervasive, rigorous demands, and then, surpasses them.

Gruesome Playground Injuries-Second Thought Theatre

It has been a long time since I saw something as electrifying, wrenching, brilliant and melancholy as Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries, at Second Thought Theatre, Bryant Hall, just a stone’s throw from the Kalita Humphreys. Half expecting a variation on God of Carnage, I was intrigued to discover instead, the story of Kayleen and Doug, best friends who meet at the age of eight in the infirmary of a Catholic School. We soon learn that Doug is accident prone (and insanely fearless) while Kayleen has issues of her own. Gruesome proceeds to document subsequent key intersections in their lives, hopping back and forth from eight to eighteen to twenty-three to thirteen…There is a ritualism to each encounter. Both actors : Jessica Renee Russell and Montgomery Sutton go to their separate dressing tables (with cracked mirrors) change costume and makeup for the next scene, make eye contact across the chasm between them, then with grim resignation, assist each other in the scene change.

To say Gruesome Playground Injuries takes a curious approach to the unfulfilled romance of Doug and Kayleen is like describing the Hindenburg as a mishap. They seemed destined to be lovers but that scenario is never quite realized. Many playwrights focus on the sweet and extravagant aspects of intense, life-changing love, but Joseph seems obsessed with the queasy, terrifying, miserable and frustrating exchanges that never make it to the stage. Usually it’s the woman who’s starry-eyed and gaga, but here its Douglas, who suffers one ordeal after another in pursuit of the cynical, hesitant Kayleen. She calls him : “freak” and “stupid” and she’s not necessarily wrong. Doesn’t love bring out those choices in all of us? Doug is convinced she has magic healing powers (at least in his life) and she’s scared to death that he just might be right. She can barely manage her own catastrophes, how could she consider taking on someone else’s?

Sutton and Russell rise to the demands of this perverse script with courage and compliance. They dive headlong into the volcano. It’s a tumultuous sacrament, though not toxic, say, like Shepard’s Fool for Love or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Joseph sets these two people up for blinding, excruciating near misses, like an extended version of the “it feels so good when I stop” gag. He explores that heightened, loopy, balance-shattering state of mind in which our compass goes missing and every choice feels inevitable and wrong. This being said, the warmth, the tenderness and adoration, the grace comes through, though it feels like they’re trying to kiss in a blizzard. An early scene where the banged-up, inebriated Doug tries to get Kayleen to dance with him, is a virtual journey into raw, ironic bliss and despair. How often do we get see the complicated, jagged, sublime curse of love with such vivid accuracy? Once again, Second Thought Theater (and the remarkable Montgomery and Jessica) have dragged us into the voluptuously authentic dream world of unbuffered life.

In the Heights-Artes de la Rosa

If for no other reason, it was worth the trip to Artes de la Rosa in Ft. Worth to share in the sheer joy and exuberance the cast (and crew) brought to In the Heights. The warmth, humanity, electricity and precision. The live, vibrant, raucous orchestra was a blessing. The choreography (thank you, Elise Lavallee) was spectacular, exhilarating and brimming with gusto. Rarely have I seen such a varied gathering of devoted, gifted, energetic artists collaborate so seamlessly and effusively. They care so much, with such unabashed elation, you couldn’t help feeling giddy. And overcome. It’s no surprise that director Adam Adolfo encouraged his performers to go out into the aisles, close enough to touch. You felt invited to this celebration. You felt included in this community.

Conceived and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, with book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, In the Heights shares various stories from Washington Heights (a Latino district of New York City). The connective tissue is our narrator, Usnavi, a good-hearted soul who runs a bodega (convenience stand) with his cousin, Sonny. Carla is Usnavi’s “Abuela” who raised him as her grandson. On this particular day, Nina has returned from Stanford to visit her parents and reconnect with Benny, who works for her dad. Usnavi will discover he has sold a winning lotto ticket, there will be a blackout, and other life-changing events will transpire throughout the show. It’s a quilt, a collage, a mosaic taking us through the sorrowful and sensuous and giddy and enraged, intensely rich and absorbing.

In what my friend described as “the best curtain speech I’ve ever heard” Adam Adolfo welcomed us “home” echoing a core theme of In the Heights and the attitude of Artes de la Rosa, a theatre that welcomes us, and cultivates a sense of inclusion. Miranda and Hudes have constructed a contemporary version of say, Fiddler on the Roof or Porgy and Bess, painting the details of a culture steeped in tradition, fierce loyalty and avid pride, with all its graces and foibles. By honoring what makes the Latino community unique, they also demonstrate what makes us all the same. In the Heights was a genuinely astonishing evening of pulse-quickening, soul-brightening theatre.

Knock Me A Kiss-Jubilee Theatre

In the midst of the 1920’s Harlem Renaissance, W.E.B. Du Bois advised his protégé, poet Countee Cullen to take a wife. At the time, Cullen was seeking advocacy in his pursuit of Ivy League education and Du Bois made his endorsement contingent upon this. Now. Why this should be so crucial, and why Du Bois would countenance the marriage of his daughter, Yolande to Cullen, is the subject of Charles Smith’s powerful new drama, Knock Me A Kiss. Du Bois was a preeminent intellectual and leader of the African American Community. The wedding between Yolande and the promising new poet was the social event of the season, and a fortuitous paradigm for a community eager to put its best foot forward. Smith explores the degree to which Du Bois is willing to sacrifice himself and his family (with or without their consent) to achieve the “greater good.”

Using this formidable premise as a launch pad, Charles Smith carefully (often comically) examines the nature of sex itself, the expectations, confusion, and frustration women and men must process when trying to connect. Yolande’s boyfriend, jazz musician Jimmy Lumsford, is avid but comes off as salacious. Her new “suitor” Countee, is respectful and romantic, bringing her flowers, and treating her to the finer (if Platonic) side of sybaritic pleasure. It’s a testimonial to Smith’s incisive understanding of heterocentric culture that he splits these urges and impulses. If you need lofty, giddy romance, find a gay man. If you want to get laid, find a straight guy. It’s not that these dichotomies necessarily exist, but Yolande must navigate these elemental, traditional cultural “truisms” or perhaps try to step outside them.

Charles Smith doesn’t stop with Yolande, Jimmy, and Countee. We discover what sex means to Du Bois and his wife, the nature and failure of intimate contact, disappointment, and the collision between divergent cosmos. Smith takes an historical event and turns it into a vibrantly wrapped package, overflowing with all kinds of hilarious, nuanced, egregious, sorrowful issues when it comes to actual human contact and the devices we use to deceive, negotiate, mislead and manipulate one another. Knock Me A Kiss, is stunning, amusing, graceful and layered with intelligent, lyrical insight into the pain, longing and ridiculousness that dogs humanity. The cast and crew of Jubilee Theatre, under the direction of Tre Garrett, did a remarkable job. The acting was intense, warm, precise, delightful and compelling. Knock Me A Kiss, was an absorbing, scintillating, unforgettable experience.