Amazing, Fabulous, Spectacular: New Works Light Up Fort Worth’s Amphibian Stage in 2024

It’s likely you’ve never heard of any of the titles in Amphibian Stage’s 2024 season, and that’s exactly how Kathleen Culebro wants it.

“We specialize in new work, for better or worse,” the theater’s founding artistic director says. “People love to see those familiar titles, but our audiences are very invested in seeing what we’ve found for them. Even more, they love plays that have some sort of attachment to real events or truth or history.”

Each of the four plays in the Fort Worth company’s 25th anniversary season fits this bill, in addition to the return of the popular SparkFest new play festival, which this year will spotlight the AAPI community.

Harry Houdini shows up—in a way—for the first production, Instructions for a Séance by Katie Bender, running Feb. 2-11, 2024. This “DIY séance party” attempts to summon the master escapologist while simultaneously providing playwright/solo performer Bender with a nightly chance to escape her own life. Culebro first saw a streamed version of the play during COVID, and then co-artistic director Jay Duffer later caught a live performance and was “totally charmed” by it.

“Katie’s star is rising right now, and this play is a really nice fit for us because it’s so smart,” says Culebro. “She does a lot of research, into both the historical figure and the city she’s performing in, but it’s also very personal. We can all relate to that feeling of ‘can I just escape my life for a while?’, right?”

Culebro reveals that the show contains several mentalist moments and relies on a bit of theatrical magic, but is very clear that there’s no forced audience participation: “She won’t be sawing anybody in half—well, maybe an Amphibian staff member,” she laughs.

Spring brings an “earth-shaking musical celebration” with Marie and Rosetta by George Brant. It chronicles the first rehearsal between Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the “godmother of rock ‘n’ roll,” and her protégé Marie Knight in 1947. Despite their influence on Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and more, Knight and Tharpe are largely unknown to the general population. Brant’s play with music corrects these historical oversights by providing a stage for one of the most significant music duos of the 20th century.

Starring as Tharpe will be DFW stage and song icon Denise Lee, and Culebro was so determined to involve Lee that she chose the production dates, April 5-28, 2024, around her availability.

“Music insiders know Tharpe, but with time who’s going to know her if we don’t keep telling her story?” asks Culebro. “It’s not a lecture, it’s not heavy-handed, it’s just a sweet and important story that we should all know.”

Culebro spends a massive amount of time reading plays for possible Amphibian productions, and admits she puts many down within the first 10 pages. But one that spurred immediate laughter was The Handless King by Harley Elias. Developed at last year’s SparkFest to huge audience acclaim, Elias’ play is set in 728 BCE but told in modern vernacular. It presents the age-old argument between old and new, as two government employees of the Assyrian Empire battle it out to retain a single job.

“I don’t love a play where everyone is shouting at each other the whole time, but this is a very funny argument that we’ve been having for ages—you’ll get to laugh at yourself, too, for how you interact with younger generations,” says Culebro. “It’s also about power and the male tendency to one-up each other; Harley is an expert at writing conversations that make me giggle.” It runs July 26-Aug. 18, 2024, and will be directed by Duffer.

The final mainstage production is The Amazing, Fabulous, and Spectacular Untruths of Juan Garcia by Culebro herself. Based on Juan Ruiz De Alarcón’s 17th-century comedy La Verdad Sospechosa, which follows a compulsive liar whose tall tales get his city in a tizzy, Culebro’s “English with Spanish peppered in” version is based on her own translation of the Spanish original.

Set in colorful Oaxaca, Culebro’s script is self-admittedly full of anachronisms and has a different ending than the original, which relied on victimizing a female character.

“The women here are very smart and cultured despite when it was originally written,” says Culebro, “and I’m really bringing that forward. The women get to comment and show their smarts while they’re being ignored by the men, who are a bit weak but are always flexing their muscles.”

The all-Latinx cast will be costumed by Culebro’s own sister, Lauren Anderson Barbata, the artist behind the sartorial confections of 2022’s Marie Antoinette. It runs Oct. 11-Nov. 3, 2024, and will be directed by Evan Michael Woods.

“There are a whole bunch of plays written in Spanish, by either Mexican or Spanish playwrights, that nobody knows!” says the Mexico City-born-and-raised Culebro. “I want people to know that high culture didn’t just come out of English and French-speaking countries.”