Theater Critic Picks
Writing my reflections on the Dallas-Fort Worth theater scene of 2020 has been ... interesting. Obviously, nothing went to plan this past year, and many of the performances we all had been looking forward to were postponed or outright canceled (though Hamilton is supposedly still coming to Fort Worth in 2022).
But as dispiriting as a lot of the year was, there were also examples of incredible innovation and admirable resilience. Not only did theaters find new ways to present their art, but they also found new ways to connect to their communities.
Some, like Dallas Theater Center and Rose Costumes, shifted to making masks for essential workers. Others, like Dallas Children's Theater, developed special programming with an interactive component so kids and parents could use this time to discuss important issues together.
Nearly all, with one glaring exception, prioritized the health and safety of their staff and patrons. Companies turned to live and pre-recorded streaming, solo shows, archival productions, Zoom scripts, and drive-in performances.
Theatre Three even pioneered a new way of editing actors together with its recorded production of The Immigrant, and the Festival of Independent Theatres moved its entire two weeks of programming online.
Stepping into an unprecedented situation was Carson McCain, the new artistic director for Second Thought Theater, who assumed the position soon after the pandemic began.
We also dealt with the sudden loss of composer and actor Donald Fowler in May, and the closing of Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre in June. A memorial fund has been set up in Fowler's honor to help local artists create new work.
Earlier in the year, the Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum (of which I am a member) met by Zoom and hashed out its top picks for the September-August season.
It was a list unlike any we've put together before, and the same goes for my year-end reflections below. A quick note: I did not review any productions this year, as I felt that a critical eye was not fair during this strange and unusual season. I also did not accept any free tickets for the productions I saw from March-onward.
In a year full of firsts, here's what stuck with me:
Come From Away, Dallas Summer Musicals
Like many, this was the last production I saw in a theater before the global pandemic was announced. The national tour of the Tony-winning musical opened at the Music Hall at Fair Park on March 10, I saw it on March 11, and then shuttered on March 12. Originally it was scheduled to return in January 2021, but that, too, has been postponed indefinitely.
It feels fitting that my final live, indoor theatrical experience of 2020 was an uplifting tale about the small-town residents of Gander, Newfoundland, who welcomed thousands of rerouted crew and passengers following the 9/11 attacks. In this real-life event, out of fear and uncertainty came connection and hope, and I've often returned to this feeling throughout the year.
The True History of the Tragic Life & Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World, Amphibian Stage
When the Phib first staged this inspired-by-real-events play by Shaun Prendergast in 2003, it did so in total darkness. That was to let your brain imagine, rather than see, the side show attraction known as the Ape Woman.
The play about the Mexican-born Julia, who endured years of abuse and ridicule due to her genetic conditions, was reborn this past June as a radio play. There was something special and intimate about putting on headphones, pulling the curtains, and immersing myself in Julia's world, and it felt as close as possible to being in the room with the actors.
Everything Will Be Fine, Prism Movement Theater and Stage West
This was perhaps my most cathartic experience of the year. Prism Movement Theater is already known for original work that relies on the body instead of the voice, so it seemed a perfect match when Zoe Kerr wrote a script about unexpected loss that Jeffrey Colangelo and Kwame Lilly then choreographed in an open-air, drive-in setting. The show premiered at the Latino Cultural Center in June, then moved to Texas Wesleyan University in September, where I caught it.
After Kelsey Milbourn's character loses her fiancee (real-life partner Mitchell Stephens) to a mysterious virus, she re-learns how to live and is able to finally move forward alone. Milbourn gave a remarkable lead performance, channeling the frustration, anger, and fear we were all feeling into a tour de force of dance and movement, all accompanied by prescient music choices piped into our cars via the radio. It was stunning.
The Bippy Bobby Boo Show: Live Call-In Special, Danielle Georgiou Dance Group and Theatre Three
I loved this spooky, silly original work created by Georgiou and Justin Locklear last year, when it haunted the basement space of Theatre Three. The original plan was to bring it back this Halloween, and, well, ghosts just won't be denied.
The ensemble reformatted the piece into a classic call-in variety show, adding sequined masks and pre-taped skits, plus some creative puppetry. Viewers were encouraged to ring up the suave host, Bippy Bobby (Locklear), and tell him a joke, ask advice, or just simply chat. In a time of on-demand streaming, there was a true sense of occasion caused by pouring a cocktail and tuning in for the 10 pm curtain, not to mention interacting with other humans — even if they were ghosts.
Get Up, Stand Up! A Drive-In Celebration of Democracy, Kitchen Dog Theater
Full disclosure: My partner performed in the first of these four parking-lot concerts, and he was the main reason I attended. But I was so inspired by the protest and freedom songs I experienced, all staged with strict safety protocols for the individual performers (the audience remained in their cars throughout), that I immediately purchased a pass for the remaining three performances.
Performers sang everything from Nina Simone to Lady Gaga, Willie Nelson to U2, with several stirring original songs also in the mix. And the mood at each concert — especially the one on election night — was supportive, emotional, and hopeful. It was also great to see a wide range of participants, with local musicians joining theater stars and a different emcee each night.
One particular performance still gives me shivers: Jamall Houston sang his original composition "Underwater," about what it is like to be a Black man in America right now. Unbeknownst to the audience, a police officer on his nightly rounds had parked his car beside the lot to listen. When Houston finished, the officer flashed the car's lights and stuck his fist out the window in solidarity. The crowd went wild, and at least for a little while, things felt alright.