The Designated Mourner – Not really a review

Greg Dean (Jack), Patricia Duran (Judy) and Paul Menze (Howard) in Designated Mourner

Greg Dean (Jack), Patricia Duran (Judy) and Paul Menze (Howard) in Designated Mourner. Photo by Anthony Rathbun.

 

This isn’t a review of Catastrophic Theatre’s excellent production of Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner. If it were, I’d praise Shawn’s timely play that skewers the entitled arrogance of the intellectually elite while at the same time decrying the dumbing down of society. Written in 1996, but painfully hitting us where we presently live, Mourner cleverly takes swipes at the highbrow/lowbrow underbelly and warns us that things won’t end well for anyone.

If I were reviewing, I’d also have to gush about Shawn’s delicious language delivered by its three characters in monologue as they sit at a table facing the audience. What they describe are their lives leading up to and in the era of a totalitarian takeover. A takeover that violently culls the elites and the culturally elevated from society. Sure there is Shawn’s famous moralizing and yes he serves up more post show topics of conversation than is possible for any one human being to tackle. But he also gifts us with wildly funny and imaginative lines such as, “My dick lay limply inside my trousers, like a little lunch packed by Mother.”

But like I said, this isn’t a review of the play.

Instead, I’d like to address the notion of favorites.

Upon learning I’m a theater critic, it usually doesn’t take long for a certain kind of folk to ask me what my favorite company is or who my favorite actors are. This has been the case no matter what city I’ve worked in. Who do I think is the best in town X – they want to know.

Over the years I’ve found polite ways to non-answer this question. Not because I’m afraid of showing bias, although that would be good reason enough. But because I truly don’t have these kinds of favorites when it comes to theater. I may love a certain play or performance, but to then say that the company producing the work or the actor performing it is my favorite is, to my mind, ludicrous. It would imply that I’ve loved everything they’ve done and that simply is never the case in my experience. No talent is infallible. It would also suggest that I would like in future anything they would do, and that’s not only unprofessional but crystal ball hooey.

Instead, I like to discuss artists that intrigue me. Those talents who, while I may ardently dislike some (or even much) of their efforts, find ways to wow me in manners that stick. Seeing as much theater as I do, it’s not the consistently good that tingles my nerves over time, it’s the occasionally terrific I remember and thrill about long after the show is gone.

As it turns out, three artists I feel fall into this category were featured in The Designated Mourner – cast members Greg Dean, Patricia Duran and director Jason Nodler. (The show also featured a terrific Paul Menzel, but as this was the first time I’d seen him on stage, I’ll leave him out of this discussion) So three talents that have at one point or another immensely impressed me. Dangerous ground I worried. Could all three make magic together or would this be another case of better luck next time for one or more of them? Happily for me, and I believe the rest of the audience, this was a distinct case of intriguing artists doing killer work. More specifically, doing killer work because they were all in it together.

No matter the production, it’s always apparent Nodler (also the artistic director of Catastrophic) is enraptured with his script. You can feel the love in his productions. There is passion and energy and an undercurrent of fanboying that desperately wants us to see what he sees in the work. When Nodler gets it right, it’s very very right. I saw this most recently with his direction of Mickle Maher’s Song About Myself – a show I would have enjoyed far less had the direction not been as beautifully elegant as it was. And here, with Designated Mourner, he does it again. There’s no doubt that Director Nodler revels in Shawn’s script. The love of the ideas and words ooze out of every pore in this production. But unlike some of Nodler’s other efforts I’ve seen, here he doesn’t let his reverence get in the way of making sure the production itself thrills. Breathing room, energy, drawing out palpable action from sedentary characters, humor and suspense – these are all elements that Nodler expertly stirs into and teases out of this fine production.

With such care and attention, it’s no wonder that Dean and Duran both rise to the challenge and deliver their particular brand of wow.

So many of Greg Dean’s performances have rocked my world. This makes it all the more frustrating when I simply can’t pick up what he’s putting down. A physically tic-y performer, I’ve watched his motor skills overshadow his grasp of character. I’ve also seen him shockingly perform from script, not yet having his lines down. No such trouble here. Not only does Dean carry the two-act aggressively verbose script on his very well prepared shoulders with perfect fluidity, he does so with an effortless physical ballet, punctuating all that is said or thought. To watch his hands flutter to his face – perhaps to tap at his mouth in contemplation or to nervously groom his mustache is like watching another fascinating and fully formed character on stage. In fact, his physical prowess as a man who is anything but powerful in this show is so absorbing that often I caught myself staring at him even when it wasn’t his turn to speak. This is Dean at his finest.

Patricia Duran is one of those intriguing performers who, as of yet, has not taken any distinctly wrong turns in the time I’ve watched her. While not necessarily always afterglow memorable in all her roles, it’s fair to say that to date I’ve found her to be a strong and often remarkable actor. And while this season it’s hard to top her barn burning performance as Victoria in Motherfucker with the Hat (Obsidian Theatre), this effort might be a good second. Calm and haughty with a soupçon of vulnerability, Duran’s eyes blaze at us from the stage and we hang on her every word. That she is utterly unlikable as a character matters none, Duran’s compelling portrayal ensures that we welcome every syllable.

So what was the point in my saying all this? Why give a non-review that simply singles out talents doing exceptional jobs in a show? Well dear Houston theater goers, whether you make it to The Designated Mourner or not, these are artists I want you to keep on your radar. To actively look for their productions and then attend. Sure, you could be disappointed. Not every effort is going to shine brightly. But on the chance that you catch them in brilliance, that kind of end of rainbow pot of gold is what every theater lover is hoping for.

My advice is simple – take a chance to be wowed.

 

The Designated Mourner runs through January 15 at  The MATCH, 3400 Main. For information, call 713-521-4533 or visit catastrophictheatre.com or matchouston.org. 

The Rocky Horror Show – Houston Press Review

Scott Harrison as Brad and Connor Lyon as Janet in The Rocky Horror Show

Scott Harrison as Brad and Connor Lyon as Janet in The Rocky Horror Show. Photo by Os Galindo.

 

The Rocky Horror Show

Music, Book and Lyrics by: Richard O’Brien

Directed by: Mitchell Greco

Choreographed by: Kristen Warren

Musical Direction by: Stephen W. Jones

Company: Theatre Under the Stars

Run date: Through November 20, 2016

http://www.tuts.com

 

Read my review of The Rocky Horror Show for Houston Press at

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/the-rocky-horror-show-is-freaky-and-dirty-done-right-8935160

 

 

Why This Critic Doesn’t Pal Around with Theater Folk

Image result for no friends allowed

 

It all started with a huge mistake. Actually, I wouldn’t realize what a huge mistake it was until later. At first it seemed like the most professional and ethical thing I could do. The thing? Reviewing a show written by a dear friend of mine.

This was fairly early in my career (both generally and in this particular city) and so I felt that in order to REALLY show how objective, unwooable, immune to outside influences and principled I could be, I needed to do it. To sharpen my pencil and critically examine one of my closest friend’s labor of love.

It was fine, he said. Have at it, he said. And he meant it. Not that his seemingly laissez-faire, progressive attitude helped me much when, midway through his play, I knew I was going to have to give it a pan.

Long story short, I was true to my less than complimentary thoughts and reviewed it as I saw fit. And I was nauseous for about a full week after. I’m sure my friend felt the same way. At least I assume that’s why we didn’t speak for what felt like an eternity but was, in reality, probably only a couple of weeks.

Thankfully our lines of communication once again opened after the allotted guilt/anger period and we today remain thick as thieves. But the lesson I learned from this episode haunts me still. Like Jacob Marley warning Scrooge about the chains one forges in life, I too have heeded the exhortations and have been changed for good.

Under no circumstances should a critic review a friend’s play, I now firmly believe. Sure, but that was the obvious lesson. My epiphany went further than that. I walked away with a much deeper and, I believe, irreproachable set of principles. Under no circumstances EVER become friendly with anyone whose work you think you one day might want or need to review. It puts one in a potentially awkward position, it unnecessarily stresses friendships and most importantly, it leaves readers wondering what your motives are, whether you deliver a pan, a rave or something in between. It’s the motive one that I worry about most as reputation and credibility are things we, as critics, cannot afford to even come close to tarnishing.

(*Full disclosure, there has been one case in Houston where I have dined with an occasional theater maker who is a mutual friend of another journalist I’m close with. But it this instance, I have made it very clear to that artist that I will recuse myself should her work ever find its way on stage here in future.)

This ‘no theater friends’ principle is something I’ve adhered to for a long while now and so I was thrilled when a critic colleague, whom I like personally and respect professionally, recently decided to write about it. In his article entitled, Why it’s a bad idea for theatre critics to be friends with anyone who’s in the biz, (https://goo.gl/PsYM5u), NOW Magazine Editor/Writer Glen Sumi describes his own reasoning for why critics shouldn’t rub sociable shoulders with theater makers. Undeterred by other critics in his market who are not only friends with theater people, but have directed and even married them, Sumi lays out his own thoughtfully professional reasons for wanting to steer clear of these kind of conflicts.

I loved the article and said so loudly to all who would listen on social media and in earshot range. But I also felt that it didn’t go far enough. You see, laying out standards for how a critic behaves and who they befriend before a show is only half the battle. It’s also what we do post production that can give off the wrong impression and compromise a critic’s integrity.

Thou shalt not attend an opening night party where it is customary to socialize with the creative team and partake in free food and drink if thou are reviewing said show or will be reviewing one of their shows in future. Like an 11th Commandment meant just for critics, it’s a code of conduct I’ve assigned myself. It’s also a principle I’ve been recently talking about with my critic friends in Houston.

Not that everyone is happy to hear of my beliefs. Some critics feel that attendance at the after party is a kind of reward or thank you for their work. To them I counter that the free tickets (with the added bonus of a plus one) is the ‘reward’ for their work whereas the party is a thank you exclusively for the company’s patrons, friends and family. We should not as critics be scarfing down shrimp platters or draining wine bottles paid for by the companies we write about. Plus there’s always the threat of having to make pleasant small talk with folks that you may be going home to write unfavorably about. To my mind it’s bad manners at best and questionably unethical at worst.

Other critics argue that the opening eve party is a great place to chat to theater makers, gather insight and even score a nifty scoop or two. This holds a little more weight with me, but still I would argue that a party atmosphere where friendly socializing is going on is not the place for these discussions. You want insight from an actor/director/playwright? Book an interview. Don’t wait until they (and potentially you) are a tad tipsy or just post-show high and spilling beans. Critics should be professionals, not cocktail party buddies.

However, before anyone thinks I’m espousing a complete and impenetrable friendship firewall between critic and artist I’m happy to say that I have several close relationships with people in the theater. Friendships that have given me incredible insight into the struggles, challenges and issues that directors, actors, writers and designers face. Friendships that have absolutely sharpened my eye, deepened my knowledge and made me a better critic.

But here’s the thing. These theater artist friends of mine live nowhere near my reviewing area. Most of them aren’t even in the same country as I am. Some relationships were forged after leaving a city to go write elsewhere and some I’ve actively sought out as sounding boards to help me get a better understanding of their craft. After all, who wants a critic that doesn’t intimately appreciate how uniquely creative a projection designer needs to be or all the ways a director shapes a show or how an actor feels when they land a role in a play they know isn’t very good and so on. Yes we can read about these things or study them in school, but there’s no greater insight than hearing it from the horse’s mouth. And insight for us who judge is a priceless commodity.

 
Now I know that my stance is by no means the consensus among critics. I’ve been told that my principles are overly strict, isolating and just plain silly. After all, we are all part of the same ecosystem and surely we can co-exist as friends, understanding that each has a job to do. And if that works for other critics, I will respectfully agree to disagree and conclude that everyone must conduct their own ethical policing as they see fit. I just know what works for me and what lets me sleep at night.

My purpose for writing this was not necessarily to change anyone’s mind or wag a finger at those that behave differently than I do. But rather to disclose the way I work. And as always to start a conversation.
I’ve always believed that my reviews aren’t verdicts, but rather the start of a discussion. I hope this ‘review’ of my own process does the same.

The Judgment of Fools – Houston Press Review

(L-R) Jason Duga, Callina Situka, Laura Moreno, Brendon Duran and Ronnie Blaine in Judgment of Fools

(L-R) Jason Duga, Callina Situka, Laura Moreno, Brendon Duran and Ronnie Blaine in Judgment of Fools. Photo by David Tong.

 

The Judgment of Fools

Written by: Bernardo Cubría

Directed by: Philip Hays

Company: Horse Head Theatre Company

Run Dates: Through November 12, 2016

http://www.horseheadtheatre.org

 

Read my review of Judgment of Fools for Houston Press at

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/audience-participation-undoes-the-judgment-of-fools-8915323

 

Dry Land – Houston Press Review

Skyler Sinclair and Kat Cordes in Dry Land.

Skyler Sinclair and Kat Cordes in Dry Land. Photo by Gentle Bear Photography.

 

Dry Land

Written by: Ruby Ray Spiegel

Directed by: Julia Traber

Company: Mildred’s Umbrella

Run Dates: Through October 31, 2016

http://www.mildredsumbrella.com

 

Read my review of Dry Land for Houston Press at 

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/dry-land-sets-the-bar-for-portraying-teenage-girls-on-stage-8877637

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Houston Press Review

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(L–R) Joy Yvonne Jones, Luke Hamilton, McKenna Marmolejo and Jay Sullivan in the Alley Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by Lynn Lane.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Written by: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Gregory Boyd

Company: Alley Theatre

Run Dates: Through November 5, 2016

http://www.alleytheatre.org

 

Read my review of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Houston Press at

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/a-midsummer-nights-dream-at-the-alley-theatre-fails-to-charm-8849915

De Kuss – Houston Press Review

de-kus-by-prophotostl-9458

Eric Dean White and Lisa Tejero in De Kus. Photo by Peter Wochniak.

 

De Kuss

Written by: Ger Thijs

Translated by: Paul Evans

Directed by: Kenn Mclaughlin

Company: Stages Repertory Theatre

Run dates: Through October 30, 2016

http://www.stagestheatre.com

 

Read my review of De Kuss for Houston Press at

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/dull-angst-and-no-stakes-makes-de-kus-a-prickly-peck-on-the-cheek-8863176

 

 

Becky Shaw – Houston Press Review

becky-shaw

Reed Walker and Darin Montemayor in Becky Shaw. Photo by Pin Lim.

 

Becky Shaw

Written by Gina Gionfriddo

Directed by: Kelsey McMillan

Company: Firecracker Productions

Run Dates: Through October 22

http://www.firecrackerproductions.org

 

Read my review of Becky Shaw for Houston Press at

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/firecracker-productions-stages-a-wickedly-dark-and-funny-becky-shaw-8839740

 

The Redemption Series – Houston Press Review

(L to R) Justin Gibbons, Faith Fossett, Estee Burks and Brandon Hobratschk in Creatures of Habit.

(L to R) Justin Gibbons, Faith Fossett, Estee Burks and Brandon Hobratschk in Creatures of Habit. Photo by by Christopher J Fraher.

 

The Redemption Series

12 short plays:

SUMMER STORM, by Jaisey Bates
directed by Melanie Burke

CRAM SCHOOL SNOW DAY, by Reina Hardy
directed by Rob Kimbro

STOP FRISK, by Rich Rubin
directed by Cheramie Hopper

GYM CLASS HEROES, by Dillon Rouse
directed by Mara McGhee

DOLPHINS AND SHARKS, by James Tyler
directed by Vicky Comesanas

NORTH BEND, by Ariene Jaffe
directed by Lauren Hance

CREATURES OF HABIT, by Blaise Miller
directed by Sophia Watt

BULL, by Peter Snoad
directed by Clara Goodwin

THE BETROTHAL, by Germaine Shames
directed by Rebecca Bernstein

TWO BROKEN HEADLIGHTS, by Elliot Kreloff
directed by Jonathan Gonzales

DALLAS/LOVE THE BOMB, by Josh Inocéncio
directed by Erika Watson

DANCE AGAIN, by Emilio Rodriguez
directed by Stephen M. Miranda

Company: Landing Theatre

Run Dates: Through October 1, 2016

http://www.landingtheatre.org

 

Read my review of The Redemption Series for Houston Press at

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/the-redemption-series-fails-to-move-us-forward-from-crisis-8799814