The Thud of a Great Beast Stamping

“The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore. One after another they massed themselves and fell; the spray tossed itself back with the energy of their fall. The waves were steeped deep-blue save for a pattern of diamond-pointed light on their backs which rippled as the backs of great horses ripple with muscles as they move. The waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping.”
― Virginia Woolf, The Waves

Children’s Waterpark, Waxahachie, Texas

Oblique Strategy: Would anybody want it?

There’s a button on a stand. The button doesn’t do anything at first – but then the water, a little bit at first, then more and more and more until torrents are spewing from pipes and nozzles. A plastic bucket fills, tilts, and dumps it’s cargo of dihydrogen monoxide out in a foamy amoeba into the hot Texas sun.

Let’s Do the Time Warp Again

During intermission I was talking to a guy about my age standing in our row at the Wyly – he was standing because the saxophone player was sitting in his seat and refusing to budge until the second act started and I was standing to be polite to him. We were wondering about when The Rocky Horror Show premiered in London – we guessed 1974, and were off by a year (it was born in 1973). The more well-known movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show was made in 1975.

The film famously (and truth be told, deservedly) bombed at the box office upon it initial, conventional release. I saw it about a year later, late ’76 or early ’77, at a special showing at college. It hadn’t hit its big, cult status yet – but it was on the cusp and there was a lot of buzz about it. I barely remember seeing it for the first time – the projection was bad and the sound was worse – it didn’t make much of an impression.

That changed soon enough. I was the right age to fall into the habit of going to midnight movie showings and saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show maybe fifty times. It began to be a habit, like watching the six o’clock news after work.

Then, in the early eighties, I saw a stage production here in Dallas in the West End. That production was specifically designed to mirror the movie as much as possible. It was in a small theater and for one show I was able to get front-row seats (I saw it twice). Dr. Frankenfurter sat in my lap and sang a song – I remember his leather jacket reeked.

The live play was a blast – especially in a small venue. We actually were able to go to a bar with the cast afterward.

I’ve always said that live is the way to see it.

So a while back I was excited to see that the Dallas Theater Center was doing a production of The Rocky Horror Show at the Wyly – and we bought tickets for tonight.

Wow, what a lot of fun!

One nice thing was that they weren’t afraid to stray from the familiar film tropes. Rocky, for example had dark hair. The actor playing Dr. Frankenfurter had the good sense to not channel Tim Curry’s iconic performance and to make the good doctor his own. He was kind of a Texas Frankenfurter… maybe a little, maybe – a bit different at any rate. But really, really good.

The show was not afraid to be quite a bit raunchier that the film. For example (I’ll try to avoid overt spoilers) there is one quick scene involving the Doctor, Brad Majors, a hand-powered egg beater, and the line, “Well, we just lost the Baptists.”

The best thing about the show was the pure action – especially of the first act. There is so much going on – the music is underrated and comes across powerfully live – with dancing, costumes, lights, and rolls of toilet paper being flung from the crowd through the flashing lights like a shower of tissue comets. At the intermission a woman sitting next to me stumbled around a little dizzy, “Oh, I’m having a fangirl moment,” she said.

The Wyly is a perfect venue for this – the flexible space was arranged so that there was no clear demarcation between audience and stage – the performers spent most of their time in the crowd and more than a few spectators ended up dancing with the stars.

Dallas Theater Center Wyly Theater Dallas, Texas

Dallas Theater Center
Wyly Theater
Dallas, Texas

So if you find yourself in Dallas in late September through mid October, see if you can get down to the Wyly for some slightly guilty fun. And if you are a devout Baptist… well, good luck with all that.

Year of the Rooster

Year of the Rooster Dallas Theater Center Upstart Productions

Year of the Rooster
Dallas Theater Center
Upstart Productions

I’ve been a fan of the Dallas Theater Center’s Wyly Theater ever since it first opened. I’ve seen a double handful of plays there, and enjoyed every one.

I was excited when I heard about the Center’s new initiative, the Elevator Project. This gives six local theater groups: African American Repertory Theater, Cara Mia Theatre Co., Dallas Actor’s Lab, DGDG: The Danielle Georgiou Dance Group, Second Thought Theatre and Upstart Productions – an opportunity to stage one play each in the Wyly over the next year.

These plays won’t be in the large main auditorium, but in smaller spaces on the sixth and ninth floors of the giant Borg-Cube like building. And yes, you do ride an elevator from the below-grade lobby to reach the shows.

Dallas Theater Center Wyly Theater Dallas, Texas

Dallas Theater Center
Wyly Theater
Dallas, Texas

I had seen one show, Red, in the ninth floor space (completely redone – you had no idea where you were – it felt like a New York artists’ studio). While it was running on the ninth floor, King Lear was going on downstairs.

The first production in the Elevator Series is done by Upstart Productions and is a work called Year of the Rooster. It is presented in the sixth-floor black box theater area – where I had never been. I wanted to go on one of the first nights, but work has been kicking my ass and I wasn’t able to get there until today, for a Sunday Matinee performance. I thought about riding my bike down there, but it was too hot (and ungodly humid) so I settled for a train ride.

I made a particular effort to not read anything about the play beforehand – to leave an element of surprise. I only knew that it involved at least one chicken.

The play was crackerjack. It was a harrowing tale of a struggling McDonald’s clerk, trying to keep his elderly mother supplied with stolen honey mustard packets without getting fired – who has only one chance at success, escape, and redemption – his fighting cock, Odysseus Rex.

The protagonist chicken is played by Joey Folsom as a spring-steel tight PED drugged bundle of avian rage and hate flashing a folding knife like it is his only hope in the world. Steph Garrett plays dual roles as an over-ambitious McDonald’s manager and as Odysseus Rex’s love interest – an overweight, cage-raised, soon-to-be-fried hen.

It’s not always a pleasant tale – full of salty language and Oklahoma doom. The fight scenes are exciting and a bit frightening in the small space of the sixth floor black box. In the end it’s an unforgettable entertainment – you can’t make an omelet without breaking a couple of eggs.

There are a few performances left – so if you are in the North Texas area, get your tickets before they are sold out.

The odd thing about a matinee performance is that you emerge from the darkness of the play into the unexpected and almost forgotten fiery light and withering heat of the late afternoon. The world is still there – though somehow always changed by the entertainment you have sat through. And that’s the mark of a good play – because of what you have seen – what you have lived through – you now see the world a little differently. You know something you didn’t before.

Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure

The Wyly Theater in the Dallas Arts District

The Wyly Theater in the Dallas Arts District

THE STORY: The world’s greatest detective has seemingly reached the end of his remarkable career when a case presents itself that is too tempting to ignore: The King of Bohemia is about to be blackmailed by a notorious photograph, and the woman at the heart of this crime is the famous opera singer, Irene Adler. With his trusted companion, Doctor Watson, at his side, Sherlock Holmes pursues first the case, and then the affections of Miss Adler—and in doing so, marches right into the lair of his longtime adversary, that malevolent genius of crime: Professor Moriarty. In this spirited, fast-moving and thoroughly theatrical adaptation, Steven Dietz presents Holmes at the height of his powers—surrounded by all the elements that fans of his exploits have come to expect: danger, intrigue, wit, humor and surprise. “The game is afoot, Watson—and it is a dangerous one!”

As I have said before, I remember watching the enormous Borg Cube of the Wyly Theater going up in the shiny new Dallas Arts District and thinking, “What a cool place! Such a shame I’ll never be able to afford to go to a play there.”

The Wyly Theater.

The Wyly Theater.

I was wrong. By judicious actions and careful attention to the Internet – I have been able to find a series of bargains and go to a play down at the Wyly on a fairly regular basis. My most reliable source for affordable seats is the Dallas Theater Center’s Pay What You Can performances. As each play opens, the first performance is open to anyone and the price is what you think you can afford. I guess one way to look at it is that it’s a bargain admission to what really is a final dress rehearsal – but I have really enjoyed all the performances I’ve seen.

This time around it was Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure. I logged in exactly at ten – when the tickets went on sale – and I’m glad I did. The show sold out in eight minutes. I managed to snag tickets for myself and a couple friends from my writing group.

The play was a lot of fun. It was nice to see a straight play – nothing special (although the moving sets were ingenious and effective) except a handful of actors standing out there delivering the classic Arthur Conan Doyle lines.

I won’t give away any secrets – although this isn’t so much a whodunit as much as it is a chess game between Holmes and his greatest enemy, Moriarty. The play is faithful, with a little bit of updating (a modern love story, a very strong female character, and an emphasis on Holmes’ drug use) to make it engaging to a 21st century audience, but it keeps the quaint style and innocent entertainment.

Opening night, there were a few hiccups. The opening was delayed by a few minutes with sound board problems, but the crowd entertained itself with the start of a wave. But all was forgiven and a lot of smiles came out at the end.

Now, the next play at the Wyly is Le Mis. I’ll have to have fast fingers, I’m sure it’ll sell out even faster.

The Fortress of Solitude

The Wyly Theater in the Dallas Arts District

The Wyly Theater in the Dallas Arts District

The Dallas Theater Center has this thing, these “pay what you can” nights. These are opening performances where you can get a ticket for whatever you want. These are great for me, because I couldn’t afford to go to the Wyly otherwise.

So far, I’ve seen King Lear, The Tempest, Red, and The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, at the Wyly and enjoyed the hell out of every one. This time it was the premiere of The Fortress of Solitude – a new musical adapted from the bestselling book by Johnathan Lethem. The show will run here in Dallas and then move onto New York.

I have never read the book, so I knew nothing of the story. There was nothing on the web about the musical – which isn’t surprising, because this is the premiere. That was actually sort of exciting – other than workshops and previews and such, this was the first time anyone had seen The Fortress of Solitude.

My son Lee is in town after graduation, staying for a few days before going back to New Orleans to work. We took the DART train downtown and walked over to the Wyly. Before the curtain came up, Lee asked, “Where is the orchestra pit?” I said there wasn’t one and I guessed they would use tape. Once the play started, however, a screen rose to show the musicians up on a scaffold above most of the action. There was a conductor down in front, facing a blank wall, directing into a small video camera – and her image was displayed on several carefully placed screens for the musicians and singers.

The musical was crackerjack. I imagine the source material isn’t the most obvious place to pull song and dance – and that made the story a lot more subtle and complex that the usual “girl meets boy” plot. The songs were great, especially when they were used to give a sense of time passing from the 1970’s to the turn of the century – from rock to soul to folk to rap to punk and finally, even a little Talking Heads thrown in.

It was a good time.

Our original seats were up on the third balcony (all good – there isn’t a bad seat in the Wyly) but a numbering mess-up had us move down into the orchestra level. I noticed a man sitting next to Lee holding a small notepad and scribbling all through the first act. During intermission I looked through the program and realized that the man was Daniel Aukin (I think), who conceived and directed the play. It must have been exciting for him to see his creation in front of a full audience for the first time.

Later, after the ovation died down, he asked Lee, “Well, how did you guys like it?” Lee said it was awesome. And it was.

Now, the next play is Sherlock Holmes and pay what you can tickets will be sold on April 21. Get in quick, they go fast.

Black Swallows the Red

“There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend: One day, the black will swallow the red.” – John Logan, from Red

Red

It was time for another “Pay What You Can” night at Dallas Theater Center’s Wyly theater. I have seen King Lear and The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity at rock-bottom prices and now watch the web site for any new opportunities.

This go-round is the Tony Award winning play Red, by John Logan. It’s a two man play based on the artist Mark Rothko, set in Rothko’s studio in 1958, during the time he is working on a group of large murals for the new Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York. Rothko and his fictional assistant, Ken, work and talk about art and life. The overarching conflict between the two is the very acceptance of the commission to decorate the walls of a restaurant frequented by the wealthiest people in the world. Rothko insists it is a subversive act, that he wants to paint, “something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room.” Ken counters that Rothko simply wants to feed his ego with the money and fame the prestigious commission offers.

At any rate, I was going alone, and went to catch the train downtown. Since I left from work, I felt underdressed – but that was fine; the crowd for “Pay What You Can” night was motley and wearing all sorts of styles at various levels.

I was interested in the staging of Red. King Lear is still running at the Wyly in the main stage above the lobby (the Wyly is revolutionary in its stacked structure – the lobby is at the bottom, the stage area above, with the support spaces higher up). For Red, they converted the rehearsal hall on the ninth floor into an artist’s studio.

While the patrons attending Lear were entering on the right side of the Lobby, we were divided into groups and sent up elevators to the ninth floor. The tickets had no seat assignments, so the crowd wandered around the edges of the studio, finding chairs lined against the wall on low risers. After I settled in, I noticed the actor playing Rothko silently sitting in a comfortable chair in the center of the room, staring and contemplating one of his in-progress color fields. Finally, the last patron came in looking around, looking lost – I noted his clothing was curiously dated… like something out of the fifties. Suddenly I realized that this was the actor playing the assistant, he spoke to Rothko, and the play began.

The play was simple – only two characters, one set, no intermission. Very intimate – you are there in the studio with the two characters. It was more intellectual than passionate – the only real moments of raw emotion was generated by Ken talking about the death of his parents… and that felt a bit forced. Still, it was enjoyable – the character of Rothko is a grand pompous bully – and a brilliant one. Ken was more of a blank canvass where Rothko would paint with his powerful personality and stubborn ideas, but Ken’s point of view somehow kept winning out in the end.

One highlight was a long, wordless passage where Rothko and Ken together slather the dark crimson undertone on a giant canvas, both working hard, slinging heavy brushfulls of paint in different sections of the wall-sized work, their breathing hard and passionate in the small space. To Rothko his paintings are living things… and he feels responsible for and concerned about their ultimate fate.

There is a lot of talk of the art of the time. It was fascinating how Rothko boasted of how he and the abstract expressionists dethroned Picasso and Matisse (“Nobody even thinks of painting cubism anymore, it’s dead”) and how Ken feels that Pop Art is now overthrowing Rothko.

Ken namedrops Warhol, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Lichtenstein – and Rothko asks, “Lichtenstein, who’s that?”

I was happy when, in my mind I thought, “Comic Books,” and then Ken says, “Comic Books.”

There is a lot of namedropping here, and it helps to know a thing or two about a thing or two – but not so much that it gets in the way of the entertainment.

After the play we rode the elevators back down to the lobby. It was full of patrons from King Lear, which was in intermission. They were all very nattily dressed, formal, seeing and being seen in that Dallas way while we cheapskates skittered away at the edges.

Outside, the glittering canyons of the city were shining at night while torn scraps of low cloud skimmed by overhead, illuminated by the lights below. It was beautiful and a bit of a shock – while the play was going on it was easy to think you were really in a dingy art studio and forget that you were really nine stories in the air in a huge aluminum cube-theater-machine.

Down Flora Street, between the hulking rows of the Arts District public edifices stood the Dallas Museum of Art. Inside, I knew, there was a Rothko painting. I’ve seen it before – but now I want to go back and stare at it for a while, watch it pulse, see it live, think about what the artist was thinking in that dark place where it was painted.

Mark Rothko, Orange, Red and Red, Dallas Museum of Art

Mark Rothko, Orange, Red and Red, Dallas Museum of Art

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity

The Wyly Theater in the Dallas Arts District

When the Wyly theater was constructed I remember being excited about the building and its architecture, even more than the other venues in the Arts District. Its unique design and resemblance to a Borg Cube made it fascinating in my eyes.

But one thought I had was, “This is a cool place – but once it’s finished I’ll never be able to afford to see a play in such an expensive and opulent venue.”

Kids Splashing in front of the Wyly Theater. An HDR image I took on the opening day of the theater.

I was wrong. Sure, there are plenty of expensive seats at the shows at the Wyly, but if you play your cards right you can get in inexpensively. You can get in cheaper than a 3-D movie. We saw The Tempest there a while back for only a few measly bucks. Today, we saw a play that I had never heard of, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, for… well, for whatever I felt like paying.

The operators of the Wyly, The Dallas Theater Center, have these Pay What You Can Nights – so I logged in and bought a couple tickets. I thought for a minute about how much to pay… and ended up paying less than I should have but more than I could have. There is a thin line between cheap and poor.

At any rate, we took the DART train down to the Arts District. There was a lot going on – the Friday night late night music, food trucks, crowds, and a preview (A Glimpse) of the upcoming Aurora light and sound installation/exhibition (which I do not want to miss again this year).

We walked past the giant floating red/orange jellyfish writhing in the air outside the theater and went in to take our seats.

The play is about wrestling. I have never been a big fan of the “sport” (though it is in my blood, I guess, I’ll post something about that this weekend). The play was a blast, though.

The Wyly can best be described as a theater machine. The entire interior of the building is infinitely reconfigurable. For this play it was set up as seats surrounding a real wrestling ring, and one side would open up, the seats sliding sideways, to allow the wrestlers to enter through a cloud of smoke. High above were four giant video screens showing the wrestler’s publicity films or the output from handheld cameras showing the action in the ring or the announcing outside.

The narrator of the story is the wrestler Macedonio Guerra, known as Mace, who is a professional loser. He is so skilled that he makes the headline wrestler look good, even when he’s lousy. Wrestling has been Mace’s lifelong dream, and although he has a lot of complaints, he is quiet about them. He doesn’t want to upset the apple cart and lose whatever sliver of his dreams he is allowed to keep.

The first half of the play is a colorful, funny exposé of the funhouse mirror world of professional wresting – where money is king, and the performers are a brotherhood dedicated not to winning, but to entertaining, telling a story, and making sure nobody gets hurt.

After the intermission things get more confused and serious and Mace is inevitably faced with the need to make a choice and decide whether he will have to abandon the moral neutral ground he has been hiding in and take some sort of stand. There also is some real wrestling, which is rousing, fast, and exciting, even if it isn’t a real sport.

Every body in the hall had a hell of a good time, learned a little, and left smiling.

The cast of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety

What shocked me was the number of empty seats. The performance was on a pleasant Friday evening, in the midst of an Arts District full of fun things to do, and cost, potentially, pennies. Why wasn’t every seat taken? I never understand why more folks don’t go to live theater. They pay more money than this to go to a crowded suburban googleplex to see the newest remake of some scumsucking hollywood slimebucket and eat stale popcorn while listening to teenagers’ phones going off.

Grow a pair, do something different, go see some live entertainers. You will be glad you did.

Aluminum Tube Skin on the Wyly Theater

Aluminum Tube Skin on the Wyly Theater