The 2017-18 theater season began underwater. Literally. In late August, 2017, Harvey roared through our Bayou City and lived up to its biblical plague prediction. The monster storm dumped more than 50 inches of rain on us, and the effects are still being felt in our theater community.
Wortham Theater Center, home to Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet, was shuttered due to the flooding, forcing both companies to scramble to find appropriate venues for this past season. HGO built its own venue at the George R. Brown, carving out a less than ear-friendly space, but their inventive scrappiness is to be applauded.
Every theater in town suffered due to Harvey, from rearranged schedules to dwindling attendance. The box office was hit hardest. The Alley lost 75,000 props, that had been stored in the basement, as well as costumes, while the underground Neuhaus Theatre was inundated with ten feet of water. Smaller companies struggled with loss of patrons, shell-shocked from the damage to their own homes. Nobody wanted to party. But if there's something we at the Houston Press know about Houston and its strong theater community — the show must go on, even damp with mold and water-stained. Resourcefulness, as shown by companies helping companies around town, kept spirits high. And anyway, who's going to prevent an actor from going on stage? Not Harvey!
The rebuilding and rebounding continues. Even in the face of overwhelming calamity, the 2017-18 theater season was a success. The depth of our onstage and backstage talent is truly breathtaking and cause for celebration. New companies have arisen, some went dark, but the quality remains unparalleled and praise-worthy. World premieres were especially welcome, showcasing fresh talent, new faces, diverse voices.
Stages created their Latin Sin Muros festival while the Alley continued its All New initiative for playwrights in need of that important first live reading. Some companies surprised. Innovative Rec Room gave us a stunning production of an opera, Engelbert Humperdinck's neo-Wagnerian Hansel and Gretel in a room that held at best 25 patrons; while Opera in the Heights produced their best show in years, Leonard Bernstein's Broadway-laced Candide. And the smaller troupes muddled through and kept afloat, as difficult as it was.
But it's onstage where our resilience shone. Think how poor we'd be without Describe the Night; Balls; Fetch Clay, Make Man; Men on Boats; The Mystery of Edwin Drood; Feathers and Teeth; The Last Days of Judas Iscariot; We Are Proud to Present; An Iliad; Small Ball...
The healing continues, the audiences have returned, the box office will rebound. After the wrath of Harvey, how did we get so blessed? – D.L. Groover
Men on Boats (Main Street Theater)
In what we called the theatrical event of the season, Jaclyn Backhaus' Men on Boats splashed down at Main Street Theater and swamped all competition. A grand adventure adapted from the historic 1869 Powell Geographic Expedition that mapped the Colorado River, there were thrills on a mammoth scale: we met Indians and snakes, we faced perils in the foaming waters, found rest in shady pools under a blanket of sky, feasted on fish and flour biscuits, grumbled and nearly mutinied as the dangers steadily increased. But always there was that water pushing onward, roiling, cascading, thundering. Yet what was most exciting of all was the play's overarching theatricality. Filled with spectacular danger and spectacular beauty, the river that ran through Main Street was plywood, the canyon walls were shredded fabric, the four boats of the expedition were flexible tubes, like extended hula-hoops, and the ten men of the 1869 Powell Geographic Expedition were played by women.
With this grand gesture of gender reversal, the struggle for survival as the team plows forward was glossed with a subtle frisson it wouldn't have if the roles had been played by men. It's a gimmick, but it's a gimcracking exceptional one. There was a soft thrum of humor that threaded through the story because of this, as well as wry social commentary. With the first sight of the “men” maneuvering through the treacherous headwaters, you forgot the sex and enjoyed the ride. By the play's marvelous end you felt as if you, too, had paddled down the Colorado with these intrepid explorers.
Under director Philip Hays, Men on Boats was a continuous voyage of discovery, a virtual coup in every way. Designer Ryan McGettigan's raw wood floor swirled with streaks of river blue, and massive panels hung upstage to create crevasses and outlooks. Macy Lyne's redolent costumes were modishly period with enough rawhide and suede to satisfy any urban outfitter; while John Smetak's exterior lighting bespoke campfire or rushing rapids. Especially good was Shawn W. St. John's roaring soundtrack that etched each section of the river in its own particular motif, be it waterfall, eddy or foaming chute. He drenched us in sound.
The actors caught all the macho bombast, glory, fear and inspiration of these disparate ten. There's camaraderie and tension built in, leavened by stalwart Celeste Roberts as one-armed Major John Wesley Powell. It's his mission to survey the river, sanctioned by the government, and he's going to do it. In buckskin and boots, Roberts anchored the production. She was stern, commanding and diplomatic, a fierce blend of the sexes. We'd follow her anywhere. Her adversary was Patricia Duran, as William Dunn, trapper from Colorado, who chafes at Powell's disregard for safety and his own open desire to be leader. Prickly and ready to fight, he will leave the expedition days before it reaches its final destination in Nevada, taking two of the men with him. Hiking out of the canyon, they will disappear into the wilderness, never to be seen again.
The women were a glorious ensemble: Shannon Emerick, Rachel Dickson, Candice D'Meza and Mai Le as two surreal deadpan Indians, Marissa Castillo, Lydia Meadows, Caroline Donica, Andrea Boronell as the group's spiritual guide. They all oared through their adventures as if their lives depended on it. During one campfire segment, the men accompany Boronell with rhythmic clacks on their tin cups and plates. It's a magical moment of comradeship and community.
Grand and off-kilter, strange and soulful, epic yet intimate, Men on Boats was stuffed with theatrical wonder. We've lauded Main Street in the past for its wicked Coward, illuminating Stoppard and sterling Shakespeare, among its intriguing productions. Add Backhaus to that list.
Finalists: An Iliad (Main Street Theater and Prague Shakespeare Company), Balls (Stages Repertory Theatre), Disgraced (4th Wall Theatre Company), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (The Ensemble Theatre), The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (Gravity Players) and Well (Mildred’s Umbrella Theatre Company).
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Obsidian Theater in association with Standing Room Only Productions)
It's an interesting idea, having an audience vote to decide the end of your story, one that Rupert Holmes used when he took an unfinished Charles Dickens novel and turned it into an interactive, choose-your-own-killer musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. But a gimmick only gets you so far. Luckily, Obsidian Theater in association with Standing Room Only Productions didn’t just effortlessly carry this one across the finish line, they won first place.
Under the keen direction of Rachel Landon, the cast of Edwin Drood balanced the show’s silliness with their undeniable skill, including Danny Dyer as the Chairman, the piece’s irreverent, fourth wall-breaking narrator; Sarah Jeanmarie Myers as the put upon (and unfortunate) Edwin Drood; Elizabeth Curtin, as Drood’s beautifully voiced fiancée, Rosa Budd; and Seth Daniel Cunningham, in a breakout performance as Drood’s scoundrel of an uncle. Musical Director Betsy Wilson led the cast through Holmes’s music while Landon and Liz Tinder, a dynamic choreographing duo, provided the moves. Put it all together with Shannon Nichols’s costumes, and you’ve got a winner. In fact, you’ve got a three-peat. After Best Musical wins for American Idiot in 2016 and Passing Strange in 2017, it’s starting to get hard to remember a time Standing Room Only and/or Obsidian Theater didn’t have a lock on this category.
Finalists: Cabaret (Obsidian Theater), Candide (Opera in the Heights), Daddy Long Legs (Main Street Theater), Guys and Dolls (Theatre Under The Stars) and Unlock’d (Queensbury Theatre).
Cristine McMurdo-Wallis as Maria in The Revisionist (Stages Repertory Theatre/ Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston)
A single, senior citizen, female, Polish, Holocaust survivor who lives alone and obsesses over the family she has left but doesn’t know or hasn’t met. It doesn’t exactly sound like a fresh idea. We’ve seen a version of this women dozens upon dozens of times in many different forms of narrative.
But the character Cristine McMurdo-Wallis brings to life in scene-stealing after scene-stealing fashion is far from expected. Maria is a character full of contradictions, swinging emotions and a way with words that can wrap a compliment and insult all into one hysterically efficient package. “Look at your eyes,” Maria says to David, a young cousin visiting from America. “They are like mine. Blue but ugly.”
With such an outsized character, it’s easy for an actor to lose control, but not McMurdo-Wallis. Whether railing dramatically, playing hard for laughs or showing emotional vulnerability, her precision of tone, speech, accent, movement, comedic timing and just being present in a scene are like a master class of what it’s like to own a role.
We know how Maria’s story is going to go. The fact that we cling to every moment along the way is due to McMurdo-Wallis’ talent. What do we care if we’ve long ago guessed her secret when we can revel in her gut-bustingly funny hand-waving while talking, flitting about the set, lack of respect for closed doors and ability to take up space by sheer will of personality? Give this woman the award!
Finalists: Julia Gibson as Della in The Cake (Alley Theatre), Kim Tobin-Lehl as Rachel in Reckless (4th Wall Theatre Company), Shanae’a Moore as Jerusha Abbott in Daddy Long Legs (Main Street Theater) and Celeste Roberts as John Wesley Powell in Men on Boats (Main Street Theater).
Guy Roberts as The Poet in An Iliad (Main Street Theater/Prague Shakespeare Company)
Compact and powerful, Guy Roberts has a striking stage presence. He brings his own light, his eyes always alive, every gesture apt and true. He's so into the moment of a role you'd need an earthquake to shake him out of character. He excels in Shakespeare and if you saw his indelible performances as spider-like Richard III, rousing Henry V, ardent wooer Benedict, boozy Sir Toby Belch or self-tortured Macbeth, you know the thrill of watching a grand champion at work.
Founder and artistic director of Prague Shakespeare Company, Roberts frequently collaborates with Main Street Theater and their joint ventures are always marvelous adventures. An Iliad is their latest creation, part one of a triptych entitled The Trojan War, that includes Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida and Euripides' The Trojan Women. Still feeling the impact from Harvey, for financial reasons Main Street has postponed the latter two shows until next season. If they're as insightful and eloquently staged as is Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare's recension of ancient Homer, this should be another classy staging from the partnership.
Notice that the title is not The Iliad but An Iliad. There is a Poet to guide us through the horrors and glories of war. Though he plays Achilles, Hector, Priam and a host of Greek archetypes, Roberts, as the Poet, plays a contemporary avatar whose battle exploits have hardened him. He has witnessed them all, from Marathon to Aleppo, as he rattles off every war in a superbly realized feat that leaves us stunned over the endless list of follies committed.
Accompanied by two Muses (Jessica Boone and Fanette Ronjat) who recite in ancient Greek and incant composer Patrick Neil Doyle's diaphanously mysterious music, Roberts leads us through the overwhelming physical and emotional toil of any war, anywhere. In great waves he amps up the violence, then pulls back for a quiet moment of reverie, then he's off again, rushing pell mell through the broken columns and dust-strewn ruins of Adam Thornton’s evocative setting. Sleeves rolled up, in soiled fatigues and combat boots, he looks newly arrived from Afghanistan. Wild eyed, he invokes the gods for he's got a story to tell us, the greatest war story ever. He peers into the distance, right at us, perhaps through us, and sees the great armada approaching the shore of Troy. We see the ships, too. When great Hector inevitably falls, we feel the spear strike, see the blood flow, the bones break. In his anguish and elation, the very rush of battle made flesh.
With physicality to spare, Roberts plays the eternal soldier, the eternal victim, the eternal warrior. He embodies the glory, the vainglory, the cowardice, the courage, the taunts, the boasting, the homesickness, the camaraderie, the numbing violence. In a highly modulated performance, he climbs each peak and valley of warfare with stunning magnificence. He can growl and bluster, then purr and coo, or weep and wail. Our finalists are the best among best but, by all accounts, Roberts’ performance was the deepest, most committed, most truthful portrait this season.
In 2013, we at the Press awarded Roberts as “Honorary Houstonian” for his sterling work with Main Street in partnership with Prague Shakespeare Company. He's no longer an honorary Houstonian; now, he's one of us.
Finalists: Jason Carmichael as Stepin Fetchit in Fetch Clay, Make Man (The Ensemble Theatre), Gopal Divan as Amir in Disgraced (4th Wall Theatre Company), TiMOThY ERiC as Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (The Ensemble Theatre), Seán Patrick Judge as Jim Lehrer in The Strangerer and Jim Lehrer and The Theater and its Double and Jim Lehrer’s Double (The Catastrophic Theatre) and Nathan Wilson as the Emcee in Cabaret (Obsidian Theater).
Best Supporting Actress:
Tamarie Cooper as Simon in Leap and the Net Will Appear (The Catastrophic Theatre)
Chana Porter’s experimental play, Leap and the Net Will Appear, is as surreal as it is weird. There’s a lot going on, but at its heart it’s about a woman and her relationship to her own identity, how that identity is shaped and by whom. Still, with a show like Porter’s, something needs to hold it together, to bring you back when necessary, and in Catastrophic Theatre’s production, it was Tamarie Cooper.
As protagonist Margie’s father, Simon, Cooper was a revelation, and not just because of the gender-bending. Cooper has impeccable comedic timing and turns in a brilliant performance, from the well-delivered old-fashioned, clichéd, standard-issue dad advice she doles out to her slapsticky physicality. Simon is a real character, over-the-top and bombastic, but Cooper grasped his humanity. Margie is a character dealing with all the shoulds in life, but it is easy to remember that Simon, as out of touch and overbearing as he is, is that way because he got caught up in the shoulds too.
Finalists: Sally Burtenshaw as Ann in Well (Mildred’s Umbrella Theatre Company), Rachel Dickson as John Colton Sumner in Men on Boats (Main Street Theater), Patricia Duran as St. Monica in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (Gravity Players), Lindsay Ehrhardt as Anne de Bourgh in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Main Street Theater) and Liv Rooth as Yevgenia in Describe the Night (Alley Theatre)
Best Supporting Actor
Wayne DeHart as Toledo in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (The Ensemble Theatre)
Oh, to be so woke in 1927. In Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the third play in August Wilson’s The Pittsburgh Cycle, Toledo isn’t just Ma’s piano player, he’s a thinking man. Toledo is the group’s philosopher, dispenser of wisdom, and the only person in the band who can read. And Wayne DeHart’s Toledo, in The Ensemble Theatre’s production, is a weighty presence on stage, his portrayal of Toledo full of pointed perceptiveness, which is as insightful as it is cutting as the story’s trajectory plays out to its tragic conclusion.
He is weathered, and skillfully carries the burden of Toledo’s understanding in his performance, whether it’s in his acknowledgment of the place black men and women have in society (as “leftovers,” he calls it, from a cultural stew) or his acceptance of the uselessness of intentions. Toledo is clear-sighted; he can see the big picture, recognize that everything is changing all the time, but when he uses chemical elements and molecules to convey that thought, it’s met with dismissive confusion. But DeHart masterfully imparts and sermonizes, ensuring that the audience hears and hangs on to Toledo’s every word. Even if his bandmates don’t.
Finalists: Aaron Echegaray as Aaron Ehrlich in Daisy (Main Street Theater), Matthew Keenan as Osip, et al in The Government Inspector (Classical Theatre Company), Joseph “Joe P.” Palmore as Actor No. 2 in We Are Proud to Present (Stages Repertory Theatre) and Wesley Whitson as Hugo in Feathers and Teeth (Mildred’s Umbrella Theatre Company)
Macy Lyne for Men on Boats (Main Street Theater)
When you decide to pick up where Lewis and Clark left off and brave wild rapids in a wooden boat, floating down the Colorado River through the uncharted terrain of the Grand Canyon, the question is: What to wear? What to wear is a question Macy Lyne has answered time and time again in productions all around the Houston area, but her answer for the ten explorers of Jaclyn Backhaus’s Men on Boats at Main Street Theater is what set a great production over the top.
Lyne’s costumes evoke 19th-century frontiersmen with ease; you get your fill of bandanas, hats and vests, in cotton, canvas and suede. Richly textured layers — jackets over vests, vests over button-ups, button-ups over undershirts. A color palette of earthy tones and neutrals, with pops of bold color. But more than that, Lyne’s designs successfully imbued each character with a visual marker of individuality. From Celeste Roberts’s empty sleeve, pinned or laying limply down her side; to Shannon Emerick’s almost Diane Keaton-esque ensemble as the gentleman explorer; or the colors and print that linked Mai Le and Candice D’Meza’s characters, this win is all in the details.
Finalists: Eva Bellefeuille for An Iliad (Main Street Theater/Prague Shakespeare Company), Pat Padilla for Cabaret (Obsidian Theater), John Santillan for We Are Proud to Present (Stages Repertory Theatre) and Claremarie Verheyen for Mrs. Warren’s Profession (Classical Theatre Company)
Best Set and Property Design
Liz Freese for God's Favorite (A.D. Players)
Coup de théâtres, those awe-inspiring moments when some spectacular effect takes your breath away, are rare in the theater today. It's a matter of money. CGI projections can help, but they're just as expensive to shoot and set up as is a life-size papier-mâché temple of Dagon. And productions have gotten smaller, no cast of hundreds anymore. If you get 24 swans in Swan Lake, count yourself lucky. Intimate is in. What's so refreshing about seeing God's Favorite from A.D. Players is its opulence.
The play is minor Neil Simon, although a few glimmers of his patented snarky New York banter are in evidence in his retelling of the Book of Job, but it's Freese's set that overwhelms. Joe Benjamin is very rich, a successful self-made man living on the tony North Shore of Long Island. Think Gatsby. In Act I his house is positively palatial, stretching across the George Theater stage like a spread out of Condé Nast. There are statues, paintings, urns with flowers, plummy furniture, niches with expensive tchotchkes, elegant millwork, shelves filled with tomes, a terrace glimpsed through the French doors. It is radiant to look at, solid and prepossessing — something you might see at the Alley (known for its own wondrously expensive-looking sets).
Tempted by a comic Satan and tested by God, Joe suffers a drastic change in fortune, blighted by diseases too numerous to count. By the end of Act I, his factory has burned down, his house has lost most of its possession, the heat is off, and his family bickers in the kitchen. What else could go wrong? Well, lightning strikes. The curtain falls.
When it rises after intermission, the transformation is awe-inspiring. The audience gasped, as did we, as the scene of utter devastation is revealed. The entire stage, once so DeMille-like in its richness, is a total wreck. Joe's home has burned to the ground, leaving spindly charcoaled beams sprouting at odd angles. Rubble, bricks, dust cover everything. There are heaps upon heaps of ash. Burned to a crisp, the sofa is springs. Shrouded in Thomas Murphy's smoky afterglow, the set is a marvel of eye-popping ruin. There are further problems to test Joe's faith, but we don't care because we're so mesmerized by Freese's stupendous prestidigitation. You keep looking somewhere else to see what she's wrought. Every inch is filled with destruction. How does the stage crew clean up this mess?
There's that old canard about going to a show and leaving whistling the scenery. Although no musical, God's Favorite deserves no whistle, except for Freese's incandescent, truly phenomenal design. It's a whistle all right, a wolf whistle.
Finalists: Stefan Azizi for Sender (Rec Room), Kristen Robinson and Jodi Bobrovsky for Balls (Stages Repertory Theatre), Ryan McGettigan for Men on Boats (Main Street Theater), Kimberly Powers and Jodi Bobrovsky for The Revisionist (Stages Repertory Theatre/Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston), Adam Thornton for An Iliad (Main Street Theater/Prague Shakespeare Company).
Christina Giannelli for Replica (Stages Repertory Theatre)
In Mickey Fisher’s Replica, which Stages Repertory Theatre world-premiered this spring, a woman attempts to circumvent death by agreeing to an experimental procedure that would produce a replica of herself, in a way guaranteeing that she would live on. The existential questions it raises are plentiful, but Replica is also a good old-fashioned piece of atmospheric science fiction. And lighting designer Christina Giannelli’s work went a long way in establishing that atmosphere.
Giannelli enhanced the cold, sterile feel of the play’s only set, an observation room, with stark lighting so evocative you could almost hear the clinical hum of the expected fluorescent lights overhead. But Giannelli’s lighting designs were also partially built into the set, so light not only illuminated the observation room, it emanated from it, and bordered it, framing and trapping the characters with angular, aqua blue LED lights. They made the set practically thrum with energy, providing an ominous glow behind each scene that furthered the piece’s sense of unease while also contributing to the sleek otherworldliness of the set. Giannelli stayed true to the genre, creating designs that are both familiar and unique, and picked up our award in the process.
Finalists: John Baker for The Exonerated (Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.), Adam Thornton for An Iliad (Main Street Theater/Prague Shakespeare Company), Addie Pawlick for Topdog/Underdog (University of Houston), Rui Rita for Holmes and Watson (Alley Theatre) and Greg Starbird for Feathers and Teeth (Mildred’s Umbrella Theatre Company)
Saddest Theater News
The Death of Jeannette Clift George
She always said she wanted to be in the circus. It was her dream job. The circus held excitement, danger, exotic animals, fancy costumes and, most importantly, aerialists. She so wanted to be an aerialist, well, maybe an opera singer, too; she threatened to run away and join a circus anytime one came through Houston. Thankfully, Jeannette Clift George chose another circus as her career. She joined the theater and became an actress. Then, afterward, author, playwright, director, impresario, and founder and artistic director of After Dinner Theater, which morphed into A.D. Players in 1967. She remained at the head of that organization for five decades, and her fitting monument will always be the company's state-of-the-art facility, the Jeannette and L.M. George Theater in the Galleria area on Westheimer, that opened January, 2017, the fifth Equity theater in Houston.
Her early career was as peripatetic as any circus performer's. She was an early member of the Alley and Stages, and performed at New York’s Shakespeare Festival, Washington's Arena Stage, and Philadelphia's Playhouse in the Park. Later, she was a Golden Globe nominee for her role as Corrie Ten Boom in The Hiding Place (1975), a WWII drama set in Amsterdam. In her golden years, she was enchanting on stage, exuding charm that warmed the theater. As Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, she carried her small frame like a stately galleon, full rigged and ready for battle, her nose held high as her walking stick. Her Daisy Worthen in Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy and her Carrie Watts in Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful still resonate as subtle, endearing studies in psychology.
She was always very down-home, in style, technique, personality. Her opening remarks in greeting theater-goers was a definite highlight at the faded Grace Theater on Alabama. She connected effortlessly with the audience and could sell ice to Alaskans. She was a sly one, that Jeannette. She had fun when playacting, you could hear it, see it, feel it. It was her joy that was so effective, stemming no doubt from her abiding faith that shot through the footlights. She had humanity in spades. One of a kind, she will be sorely missed.
The Closing of Theater LaB Houston
As the edgiest of cutting-edge theater companies, Theater LaB Houston, brainchild of Gerald LaBita, was a party palace. The venue at 1706 Alamo Street, his parent's former grocery store, was so tiny and cramped that an actor couldn't jump up when excited or he'd bang his head on the rafters. Yet what worlds LaBita celebrated in that most intimate space. Always on the lookout for weird and wonderful plays or musicals, he'd scour Edinburgh or Broadway on annual jaunts to find many of the oddest, the most distinctive, the most remarkable of plays to entertain us.
And entertain us he did. For 22 years he dazzled his loyal audiences with the likes of Neil LaBute, Stephen Sondheim, Athol Fugard, John Patrick Shanley, Tim Miller, Jonathan Harvey, Charles Busch, David Hare, Richard Greenberg, Brad Fraser, Douglas Carter Beane, A.J. Gurney, David Sedaris. Then there were those crazy musicals he'd produce with such panache: Johnny Guitar; China: The Whole Enchilada; Top Gun; Eating Raoul; The Musical of Musicals; Reefer Madness; Debbie Does Dallas; Gutenberg, the Musical! He'd bring in nightclub acts, such as Kiki and Herb, Steven Brinberg, Deborah Boily, reminding us that we were not in Houston anymore.
LaB was gay, straight, a bit of both, kinky, and thoroughly unforgettable. Many of Houston's brightest players got their start there, playing in an area so small that a feather boa whipped about by an energetic actor could strangle you in the first row. It was exciting, novel, terribly chic in a grunge sort of way. Like some exotic bird displaying its plumage for our delight, Theater LaB was unique to Houston. Nobody did it better. Air kisses to LaBita, or maybe a riding crop and bustiere. You never knew what you'd find on Alamo. Whenever we hear, “Remember the Alamo,” our first thought flies to that dilapidated theater where dreams came true. Or might. You never knew, that was its allure.
Happiest Theater News
4th Wall Theatre Company
In case 4th Wall Theatre Company, which used to be Stark Naked Theatre Company, decides to ever change its name again, may we suggest “Phoenix.” Selected last year as one of our saddest theater stories to tell because it was closing up shop, 4th Wall was able to rally with the help of donor Ken Bohan, who not only issued a $100,000 match challenge but led their fundraising efforts. In December co-founders Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl, recipients of a MasterMind Award and several Houston Theater awards in the past, announced they would be able to stay open after all.
Adding to that, in May they announced the addition of Tim Richey, their new and first-ever managing director who would focus on the fundraising and the administration side of the business while Philip and Kim could concentrate on acting and directing. It was wonderful news for a theater company that has consistently put out compelling fare and even more delightful to know that people in Houston recognize and support that. And, of course, good news for actors throughout Houston who will continue now to have parts there.
Stages Repertory Theatre
Anyone who has ever sat through a play at Stages freezing because he got in one of the seats directly under a rogue air conditioner vent had to be cheering loudly in December. Anyone who ever got a pinched nerve from craning her neck around a pillar to try to see what was going on onstage was equally ecstatic.
The news that Stages Repertory Theatre would be moving to new digs, erecting a theater compound with three stages specially designed to be trouble- and pillar-free with new heating, cooling and lighting systems was more than welcome. Donors Glenda and Russell Gordy contributed $5 million, an essential inspirational gift to move along fundraising efforts toward its $30.5 million goal.
A grand groundbreaking was held in May, a tented ceremony packed with theater goers and local officials applauding the bold commitment to more theater in Houston. And, again, good news for actors seeking fulfilling work onstage.
Best New Production
Describe the Night by Rajiv Joseph (Alley Theatre)
A world premiere is a wonderful thing. The excitement of an opening night of a show we've never seen amps up anxiety, curiosity and sheer love of theater. What's it going to be? What will happen? Will it astound or mystify? Will it thrill, or bore. We want the best. Who roots for failure?
When the play is from Rajiv Joseph, we're nearly giddy. One of the best young American playwrights (he's 44 years old), his works have always surprised, touched us, and renewed our faith in the power of theater to move us to places that only live theater can do. He makes us feel; he makes us think.
You know a bit what to expect. Something surreal, a touch of magic realism, an epic theme made small and personal. His unsettling and whimsical Gruesome Playground Injuries (2009) and his less-than-successful The Monster at the Door (2011) premiered at the Alley; Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (2009), a weirdly effective disquisition on the Iraq War was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 2010. As for pop culture, in 2012 he was show editor and writer of two episodes of Nurse Jackie, starring Edie Falco as a pill-popping health practitioner.
He is a golden boy among the latest generation and has no problems finding producers. The Alley had previously nurtured him and the company duly commissioned a new work from him. Once again, the ugly face of Hurricane Harvey sneered at the creators, but when the Alley relocated its season to the University of Houston while its devastated theaters were gutted and renovated, Night went with them. That's commitment.
Describe the Night has an epic sweep that Tom Stoppard or Tony Kushner would admire. It's a giant fantasia on Russian themes that includes Polish history, WWII, Stalin, the KGB, Vladimir Putin, and the poet and dissident Isaac Babel. And don't forget the leech soup. In one of the play's many fragrant scenes, the former lover of Babel, now feeble and the guardian of Babel's granddaughter, makes a pot of this supposed Polish delicacy. Prick your fingers, stick them into the bowl, let the leeches feast, then feast on the leeches.
"I want to write plays that can be their best as plays. And not a play that would be better as a movie," Joseph told the Houston Press once.
Making a movie out of this swirling kaleidoscope would be futile. It's too much a piece of theater. Relationships ebb and flow, one year friends, the next enemies. Characters connect, then disappear, only to show up years later. The art of observation is dissected and made into fiction, then truth. Babel's diary threads through the knotty plotline as curse and benediction. Poetry may haunt our protagonist, but it can not save him; treachery is everywhere, even among friends. They feast upon each other.
Great themes are evident, all in capital letters: Art, Loyalty, Love, Betrayal, Revenge. It's like an opera with its many motifs and recurring rhythms. Though needing a rewrite, which Joseph accomplished before the play's Off-Broadway debut, and saddled with one role glaringly miscast, Describe the Night thrilled with its audacity, its intelligence, its inventiveness, its naked emotionalism. A rich night in the theater. And we learned how to make leech soup.
Finalists: Balls by Kevin Armento and Bryony Lavery (Stages Repertory Theatre), Leap and The Net Will Appear by Chana Porter at The Catastrophic Theatre, Replica by Mickey Fisher (Stages Repertory Theatre) and Small Ball by Mickle Maher (The Catastrophic Theatre).
Best Utility Player
Candice D’Meza (Sender at Rec Room, The Cake at Alley Theatre, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at Gravity Players, Men on Boats at Main Street Theater, Small Ball at The Catastrophic Theatre and Panto Cinderella at Stages Repertory Theatre).
When the Houston Press picked Candice D’Meza as one of its young actors to watch in the 2017-18 season, we knew she had a lot of shows on the go. So much so that we were getting updates on new productions she booked just days before our story published. When all was said and done, D’Meza clocked in no less than six performances with six different companies this season. But more impressive than the sheer volume of her work is the strength of her talent.
In fact, strength is also the perfect word to describe many of the characters D’Meza took on and turned into show-stopping performances this season. Whether it was a take no bullshit, riot-act-reading wife in Sender, an out and proud gay fiancée who becomes explosive in the face of homophobia in The Cake, or a Lilliputian palace guard who fights gigantic rats yet still manages to belt out one hell of a beautiful final tune in Small Ball, D’Meza showed us that strong women have depth and humor and made it impossible for us to look away.
Even when she was playing a man. Yup, D’Meza did that too this year as a charismatic layabout frontiersman with swagger to spare in Men on Boats. Oh and then there was her comic turn as Mary Magdalene in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and Little Bo Peep in Panto Cinderella.
Our point is that there’s a reason D’Meza was everywhere this season, and we’re thrilled so many artistic directors saw what we’ve been seeing for some time now. Hers is a talent that can shine as a lead, enhance an ensemble or become something memorable even with the smallest of roles. And this is why she is our unquestionable pick for this year’s Best Utility Player.
Finalists: Luis Galindo (The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at Gravity Players, The Lilies of the Field at A.D. Players and Alma en venta at Stages Repertory Theatre) and Shanae’a Moore (Daddy Long Legs at Main Street Theater, Unlock’d at Queensbury Theatre, Mrs. Warren’s Profession at Classical Theatre).
Brendan Aanes for Balls (Stages Repertory Theatre)
Without question, one of the most creative shows of the season was Balls at Stages Repertory Theatre that depicted the 90-minute Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. But the show did more than just depict, it accurately replayed, pantomiming the match shot by shot in a unique blend of choreographed physical theater.
Crucial to the experience was Brendan Aanes’ sound design, an exercise in the kind of precision the show demanded. Think of all the tennis sounds we take for granted. The dribble-dribble-patter that is pre-serve setup. The thwack of a backhand, the smack of a forehand, the ping of a shot barely reached, the rustle of the net. Aanes nailed them all.
Now consider that, in addition to tennis sounds, Aanes was charged with making sure the various “out of nowhere” voice over segments felt cohesive with the creative vision of the play. Again, he achieved aces. Great sound design can be something in your face or details that you don't even know you are responding to. In Balls, Aanes tackled both challenges and greatly enhanced the wonderful sensory experience that was Balls.
Finalists: Jon Harvey for Mrs. Warren’s Profession (Classical Theatre Company), Courtney D. Jones and Peter Ton for We Are Proud to Present (Stages Repertory Theatre), Shawn W. St. John for Men on Boats (Main Street Theater) and Rhinoceros (The Catastrophic Theatre) and Alli Villines for The Exonerated (Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.).
Philip Hays for Men on Boats (Main Street Theater)
Imagine your job is to direct ten women playing adventurers — all men in real life — who run rapids, forge rivers, meet Indians and kill snakes while mapping out the Colorado River in the Old West. And you’re carrying this out on a stage with no real river, mountains or boats. And somehow, you have to make the audience believe. Believe this is a story and not just a stunt.
Main Street Theater picked the right director for the assignment: Philip Hays, who previously demonstrated imagination magic on a grand scale when he conceived of and acted in The Whale; or, Moby Dick for Horse Head Theatre Company, in which the audiences sat inside the whale along with Hays at each performance.
Aided by some wonderful sounds, costumes and set design, the actors in Men on Boats negotiated a delicate dance of almost constant motion, weaving their way down the river, through collisions and pulling each other to safety. The playwright had wanted women to have the same chance as men to relive great expeditions. And this fine troupe of actors did just that, showing not just stalwart souls but real human beings with conflicting ambitions and outlooks; differing strengths and weaknesses.
As a play it was an enterprise that could have easily gone wrong upon any one of several missteps, but under Hays’ steady hand, the playwright’s vision came to life in glorious fashion and, sitting there in rapt attention, we all believed.
Finalists: Bree Bridger for Well (Mildred’s Umbrella Theatre Company), Eileen J. Morris for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (The Ensemble Theatre), Josh Morrison for Sender (Rec Room) and Kim Tobin-Lehl for Disgraced (4th Wall Theatre Company).
Best Director of a Musical
Paul Hope for Cabaret (Obsidian Theater)
Obsidian Theater knows how to put on a musical. If you saw The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Passing Strange, Green Day's American Idiot, Assassins, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (most co-produced with Standing Room Only Productions, now merged into Obsidian), you experienced them in extreme close-up. You might even have been hit by flying sweat, you're that close to the performers in the intimate venue on White Oak. Obsidian gets the zeitgeist of these works. If teen angst is needed, rest assured there will be actual teens singing and dancing up a storm of dissatisfaction and ennui.
But the company's backstage wizards are equally present and multi-dimensional. When you hire Paul Hope as director, you've hired the best of the best. Cabaret (1966) is one of the essential '60s shows. Written as a pastiche using Weimar Republic-era Kurt Weill's acidic style, this John Kander (music), Fred Ebb (lyrics), Joe Masteroff (book), and Harold Prince (director, producer) classic is one of a kind, no doubt about it. Based on Christopher Isherwood's autobiographical collection, The Berlin Stories, it details the sexual decadence, some might say freedom and experimentation, in Europe's most wicked city during the rise of the Nazis.
American gay innocent, Clifford (Cole Ryden), comes to Berlin to glean inspiration for his burgeoning writing career, falls for dissipated cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Whitney Zangarine), she herself an ex-pat from Britain, and grows up in a dreadful hurry as he witnesses the steady moral erosion of everyday Germans. Overseeing the Kit Kat Club is the oily and smarmy Master of Ceremonies (a glittering mask of debauchery, Nathan Wilson).
Cabaret glistens under Hope’s assured direction. He points them toward hell and lets loose the dogs. We spiral downward with them. There are minor touches that register in major ways. Those clam shell footlights, that antique radio, those telephones straight out of a Joan Crawford movie, those bruises on the neck and arms of the girls, that fringed chandelier, those Art Deco sconces — on Obsidian's shoestring budget, the Weimar Republic lives through Chloe Westfall's set design, Pat Padilla's redolently tatty costumes, and Nikki Johnson's stark lighting. Abetted by Krissy Richmond's rich choreography, Hope pulled it all together with brilliant assurance. Hell never looked so good.
Finalists: Tamarie Cooper and Jason Nodler for Small Ball (The Catastrophic Theatre), Rachel Landon for The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Obsidian Theater in association with Standing Room Only Productions) and Andrew Ruthven for Daddy Long Legs (Main Street Theater).
Krissy Richmond for Cabaret (Obsidian Theater)
Showbiz debauchery has never looked so lovely as when the seedy Kit Kat Club girls and boys of Cabaret strut their stuff. They preen and leer at us, daring us to approach. But touch at your own peril. Do you see those bruises on their arms and legs? Is the kohl lining their burned-out eyes smeared from weeping or after heavy sex. You see the desperation in how they move. They want to impress, but, underneath, they probably don't give a damn. Legs spread, arms akimbo, they'd roll you just as soon as look at you. Don't answer that telephone on the table! It might be Helga, Fritzie, or...Max.
The taunting and tempting sweeps you through this classic American musical. The show's gimlet eyes wink with Weimar-era insouciance, while the songs are swathed under a pastiche of Kurt Weill. It's seductive, knowing, and slick as snake skin. The clothes are tatty, used up like the chorines. Come and play, they beckon, crooking a dirty finger at us. We won't bite...much. Cabaret needs sex to succeed, we've got to be turned on by the sordidness, the promise, the pain. The world's going to hell, it's implied with lewd stares and provocative poses, come on along.
Richmond, former Houston Ballet principal and Broadway star (Roxie Hart in Chicago, the Garbo-esque Madame Grushinskaya in Grand Hotel, the imperious Queen in Matthew Bourne's gay-infused Swan Lake), and Houston treasure (she teaches the Parkinson class for Houston Ballet), glosses this underground world with a tacky inventiveness and a Broadway pro's technique and know-how. Her Cabaret swirls in dark tones and silky moves; it's smoothly seductive. It's got glitz and grunge allure. There's nothing more that can be done to cafe chairs than what the Kit Kat Club girls do to them in “Mein Herr.” Richmond has graced our stages as performer and choreographer, and last year received her first Houston Theater Award for Choreography (Godspell at A.D. Players). Now, she has another.
Finalists: Julio Agustin for Guys and Dolls (Theatre Under The Stars) and Rachel Landon and Liz Tinder for The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Obsidian Theater in association with Standing Room Only Productions).
Daryl Morey, general manager for the Houston Rockets for commissioning Small Ball at The Catastrophic Theatre
Imagine that Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets General Manager and an avid musical theater lover, commissions a musical about, what else, basketball. Now imagine that The Catastrophic Theatre, the company he’s tapped to do the job, pitches not a standard story of lay-ups, free throws and courtside drama, but instead a musical about Lilliputians, emotional inertia and a Michael Jordan that isn’t that Michael Jordan.
And Morey says, sure….sounds good.
It sounds ridiculous, right? Like, there is no way any of this can be true. Morey would have to be crazy to greenlight something like that. Well, if by crazy you mean risky, and by risky you mean creative and by creative you mean smart – then yeah, it’s all true.
Small Ball (book and lyrics by Mickle Maher and music by Merel van Dijk and Anthony Barilla) might not have been a mainstream musical, but it got a rave review from us for its wild originality in service of a risky, new, meaningful yet funny as hell theatrical experience.
There’s that word, risky, again. Morey took the shot not knowing if he’d even get anywhere near the net. Instead he trusted in the talents of the theater makers he respected. That’s exactly the kind of risk taking we can heartily award.
Best Ensemble Cast
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot: Luis Galindo, Patricia Duran, Philip Hays, Courtney Lomelo, Nick Farco, Jeff Miller, Paul Menzel, Candice D’Meza, Josh Morrison, Roc Living (Gravity Players).
So what exactly does a Best Ensemble award mean? Does it mean the play was terrific? Sure. That the production thrilled? Yes. And there were no weak links? Absolutely!
But it’s more than that. Best Ensemble means that while the script featured a mix of lead and supporting roles, each and every performer in the show not only shone, but made their other cast mates shine brighter in the process. Best Ensemble is a group effort with explosive results.
And this season, there’s no better example of this collective artistic excellence than the ridiculously talented cast of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Stephen Adly Guirgis’ comedic play set in a courtroom in purgatory. Not that we should be surprised, really. The Gravity Players production of the show assembled what can only be called a Houston dream team of performers. Performers who individually would be reason enough to go see a production, but whom together almost feels like too much talent in one space.
Playing sparing lawyers, Courtney Lomelo and Luis Galindo feed off each other’s high octane energy to deliver wildly different but equally outstanding performances. Paul Menzel as the judge plays foil to the courtroom antics, making them funnier and funnier. Patricia Duran’s smack-talking St. Monica wouldn’t be as funny if she didn’t have the more serious Candice D’Meza’s Mary Magdalene to play off. Josh Morrison’s terrifying Pontius Pilate and Jeff Miller’s rock and roll Satan ratchet up profoundly thanks to the quaking/fearful reactions from their cast mates. Philip Hays’ various characters slip into the action as a splendidly quirky cooling off juxtaposed to the heated action the others have created. And Nick Farco’s Judas pinballs around off all of them right up until the beautiful final moments that need Roc Living’s Jesus to bring it all together.
Take away any one of these actors and the play just wouldn’t be the same. The show may have taken place in purgatory but, for us, the ensemble was pure heaven.
Finalists: Men on Boats: Celeste Roberts, Patricia Duran, Shannon Emerick, Rachel Dickson, Candice D'Meza, Mai Le, Marissa Castillo, Lydia Meadows, Caroline Donica, Andrea Boronell (Main Street Theater); The Exonerated: Dave Osbie Shepard, John Patterson, Todd Thigpen, Travis Ammons, Andraes Hunt, Holly Vogt Wilkison, Niesha Bentley, Bill Giffen, Jimmy Vollman, Katrina Ellsworth Ammons, Melissa J. Mayo, Michael Pickett (Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.) and We Are Proud to Present: Michelle Elaine, Laura Menzie, Camryn Nunley, Joseph “Joe P.” Palmore, Chasen Parker and Aaron Ruiz (Stages Repertory Theatre)
Best Touring Show
Hamilton (Broadway at the Hobby)
Let’s not waste space on what you already know. We don’t need to tell you all the reasons why Hamilton is a transcendent work of art. If you’re reading this, you already know why. But let us remind you why Hamilton’s month-long stop here in Houston lived up to the hype train that preceded it. When you know a show is that good, the only real question is whether or not a touring production can even hope to capture some of the magic of its Broadway run. The answer in Houston was a resounding yes.
From David Korins’s unique double-turntable stage setup to Alex Lacamoire’s complex arrangements, Andy Blankenbuehler’s relentless choreography to Paul Tazewell’s period costumes, it quickly became apparent that the touring production would prove faithful — exceedingly, successfully faithful — to the Broadway production. And then there was the cast, including stellar performances from Nicholas Christopher, Sabrina Sloan, Carvens Lissaint and Peter Matthew Smith.
But maybe the most telling example of the tour’s greatness: On media night, both Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler were played by their understudies, Edred Utomi and Dorcas Leung, and you’d never even know the difference.
Hannah Lee as Wang Min in Caught (The Landing Theatre Company)
Christopher Chen’s Caught is a play about truth and our perception of it. What is true and how do we identify it? Characters are not what they seem. Situations are lies. It’s all meant to make us assess how we fundamentally see the world around us.
It’s an exciting and challenging show on its own, but throw in the superlative performance of Hannah Lee and this show became not just a unique, site-specific theatrical experience, but about watching a new-to-us talent slay her every scene with a remarkably diverse performance.
And by diverse, we mean that she was so good that it took an embarrassingly long time for us to realize that she was the same actor playing two roles. It wasn’t just the different hair and makeup that had us confused. It was Lee’s ability to change up her entire physical, emotional and intellectual presence from an exasperated and exasperating, haughty, oh so academically philosophical visiting artist to a smart young woman who goes from eating junk food to having her world rocked in a matter of minutes.
We’re fortunate in Houston that every year there are several emerging performers that catch our eye. Ones that make us sit up and say…who is THAT! Without question, this year’s THAT is Hannah Lee and it’s our hope, moving forward, that she continues to become more known to us and other theater patrons in the city.
Best Artistic Director
Kenn McLaughlin (Stages Repertory Theatre)
Stages Repertory Theatre may have turned 40 this year, but if anyone thought that a midlife crisis was ensuing, they’d be wrong. Instead, thanks to the leadership of Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin, Stages could be said this year to be going through a midlife celebration, replete with shiny new initiatives.
We all knew that Stages’ building needed a refresh, but what we didn’t know is that another opportunity was brewing in the form of an entirely new space altogether. This May, Stages broke ground on its $30.5 million, 66,850 square foot, three-theater campus just a block south of its current location. A complex that McLaughlin has said he also intends to share with the public; a place where smaller theater companies can come in to plan and rehearse.
Just as noteworthy was McLaughlin’s decision to make Latinx plays a regular offering in the Stages season. McLaughlin intends this initiative to be a long-term sustainable investment into a population that makes up 44 percent of Houston, yet whose stories are rarely seen on Houston stages. This past spring, Stages presented its first annual Sin Muros: A Latina/o Theatre Festival featuring full productions of two plays, as well as three workshop readings of three Latinx plays by Texas natives.
The rest of the season had the traditional mix of crowd-pleasing comedies and musicals that Stages is known for, but it's always the company's edgier fare that makes us take notice. Balls, in co-production with the New York-based, avant-garde One Year Lease Theater Company, told the story of the epic 1973 Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. The show, which gave us an almost shot by shot literal re-enactment of the game, was part circus, part athletic event, part visual installation (turning Stages’ theater into a remarkably designed professional grade tennis court with bleachers), part social commentary on gender inequality and a whole lot of fun.
We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 had us laughing until we abruptly stopped. Until we were stunned into silence and horror at the fact that we were laughing. The fact that it was all a set up to show us our most shameful of histories. And then there was something we rarely see on stage: science fiction. The world premiere, Replica, told the story of a woman with a terminal illness who pays to have her personality and memories live on in an exact replica of herself in order to participate in the lives of her husband and children.
For his leadership, creative risk-taking, inclusive outlook on what theater can and will become in Houston, Kenn McLaughlin is our Best Artistic Director winner of the season.
Finalists: Matt Hune and Stephanie Wittels Wachs (Rec Room), Jason Nodler (The Catastrophic Theatre), Kim Tobin-Lehl and Philip Lehl (4th Wall Theatre Company) and Rebecca Greene Udden (Main Street Theater)
Main Street Theater
Striking images, memorable moments on stage, bold and different ways of looking at how we live in this world. Plays both challenging and accessible with performances both capable and astounding. When you are able to put that all together in the alchemy that is a successful season, then you truly have something special. Which is what Main Street Theater did in 2017-2018.
Headed up by the vision of Artistic Director Rebecca Greene Udden, Main Street, its actors, designers and directors presented us with a season that was engaging and engrossing. There were the big moments like Men on Boats, which has received several awards from us this year (Best Play/Production, Best Director, Best Costumes). It could have been awful; a caricature of women playing at being men. That it was none of that speaks clearly to the fact that Main Street knows what is is doing. It knows and does well by its established audience — those lovers of Jane Austen and William Shakespeare — but also is unafraid to venture out into new areas.
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Main Street has a relationship of several years now with the Prague Shakespeare Company that has brought so many good performances to its stages, often intermingling casts from two continents. In An Iliad, Guy Roberts, winner of our Best Actor award this year for that role, gave us so many moments that seared themselves into our brains. Who better than The Poet to tell us the story of man’s bitter achievements in blood lust and death?
Looking through the lists of winners and finalists, Main Street is represented in almost every category, actors, designers and directors who made distinct impressions in the work they did. Those impressions have to include the acidic wonderfulness of Lindsay Ehrhardt as she swept into the room as Anne de Bourgh in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Shanae’a Moore’s beautifully heart-breaking singing in Daddy Long Legs, well directed by Andrew Ruthven. Aaron Echegaray’s bug-eyed twitchiness as the TV producer scared to death of atomic bombs, whose every motion was so absorbing that he was hard to look away from in Daisy. The set design of Ryan McGettigan and sound design of Shawn W. St. John that turned a bare stage into a wilderness dominated by a roaring river in Men on Boats. The lighting and set design of Adam Thornton that highlighted and supported every move made in An Iliad’s war torn stories.
These are group efforts of outstanding artists and when they come together as they did this season at Main Street, they offer us the very best in theater. And we are indeed grateful for that.
Finalists: Stages Repertory Theatre and The Catastrophic Theatre.