Nancy Wozny: Pack a lunch, Lady T, we have a year and a decade to discuss. Let’s not be so top ten-ish, but think categorically. I always find what we are still talking about is the most revealing.
Tarra Gaines: Before we begin, I should announce that I intend to occasionally go rogue when it comes to genre and medium categories. <Pretentious Beat critic playing the bongos voice> I won’t be bound by societal conventions of what “theater,” “performing arts” or even “live” means, man </pretentious Beat critic voice>.
NW: When have I ever curtailed the Tarra-ization of any request?
Pick one show that had that complete experience, top to bottom, a totally satisfying night in the dark. I am calling it the NARRA award. It’s very special. Everyone wants to win it.
For me it was Houston Ballet’s performance Stanton Welch’s Giselle which not only featured Yuiko Kajiya in a luminous interpretation of the role, but a dashing Connor Walsh and a pitch perfect production. It was like a beauty infusion into my soul. I remember leaving the theater thinking, “OK, maybe I will stick around in this wobbly arts writing biz after all.”
TG: The Houston Grand Opera production of Barrie Kosky’s version of Handel’s Saul wins my vote as the most visually and musically vivid and stunning show of the year, but it became the total experience for me personally because its beauty seemed nourished, shall I say like witch’s milk, on pure weirdness. This show contains scenes of Goliath’s giant severed head rolling around the stage, David and Jonathan making out while rolling around a kingly table, Saul nursing from the Witch of Endor’s breast and a dancing chorus of insanity-inducing spirits. So my absolute favorite aspect is that rereading the story as it unfurls in I and 2 Samuel, I have to admit–aside from the fashion choices–yeah, this was pretty much a faithful depiction.
NW: Excellent choice! I could eat that opera! But you forgot to mention Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen’s riveting performance.
Let’s keep moving. Who gets the most charming, endearing, warm your heart like a cozy blanket slot?
Houston Grand Opera’s Mariachi opera El Milagro del Recuerdo won me over in the first few notes sung by the wonderful mezzo-soprano Cecilia Duarte.
TG: Here’s one where I answer from an odd angle.
NW: You are the queen of odd angles.
TG: I had a family member suffer through–but then thankfully recover from–a critical illness earlier this year, so I spent a lot of time waiting in emergency and hospital rooms. I ended up finding some strange and humorous solace from two shows about death and the wonder of all the life we go through first: Hyde Park Theatre’s production of Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey presented by University of Houston and Catastrophic Theatre and then Horse Head’s lovely swan song, Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die.
NW: Only Eno can write a charming play about dying, and Alli Villines was such a perfect choice for Horse Head’s farewell. Who knew that death could be so cuddly? I love clever shows, where I don’t quite get what’s happening, like Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein at SPA.
TG: I did love Frankenstein, but I think for the opposite reason. Because of the way Manual Cinema performs there seemed no part of the process we didn’t see, no offstage, behind-the-scenes secrets kept. The audience witnesses the act of creation of Frankenstein–a story about an act of creation–as they stitch together this shadowy monster of a show in front of us primarily using light and objects.
NW: Well now, this demonstrates that you figured the whole thing out sooner than I did. I left the theater feeling like I had witnessed something amazing cooked up right in front of me. On that fun note, which show filled you full of joy? I treasured seeing Syren Dance perform The Art of the Fugue as part of the Bach Society’s contribution to the Houston Early Music Festival at Christ the King Lutheran Church. It was just sumptuous to see these lovely dancers take over this stoic Lutheran Church. Truly, the most sensuous Bach experience ever!
TG: And here’s where I go off-road when it comes to categories because my pick for most joyful performance art experience wasn’t a live show but the film/immersive art installation The Visitors by Ragnar Kjartansson at the MFAH. Lasting a little over an hour, the film chronicles on nine screens a group of musicians creating a song together while playing and singing alone in different rooms of the historic farmhouse in New York. Those nine screens just show the simple act of musicians playing but the whole piece has such a literary feel. Viewers become like the omniscient narrator of a 19th century novel, able to view everything at once. It also had a very theatrical, three act narrative sense about it, even following Chekhov’s gun rule in the form of a miniature cannon.
But I kept returning to the MFAH this summer for this work because for me it became a cosmic, transcendental experience, in the Whitman, Dickinson, Melville sense of the word. As the song finally died away and the musicians and porch friends came together to wandered off into the twilight, and then we watch the video tech come in and turn off each camera one by one until there was only total darkness, it felt like the universe ending on a last note of lingering joy.
Now, for the head scratcher, you are still thinking about this one, left the theater puzzled, perhaps disturbed, full of questions, wondering what just happened.
Pete, a dance musical created by Dallas-based Dark Circles founder Joshua Peugh, investigated some tricky questions: “Who gets to ask what?”, “What is black masculinity?” and “How can we use a performance based on Peter Pan, performed by a largely African American cast, to dig into a story that most of the cast felt left out of?” The questions were embedded in the show. I am still wondering why he chose this vehicle to ask these questions, but I am glad that he did, and that he is tackling difficult subjects in his work. Of course, I am looking forward to his work with Dallas Black Dance Theatre later this spring. Peugh is a Texas treasure.
TG: This is an easy one. Leaving Catastrophic Theatre’s world premiere collaborative work Toast, I heard a woman near me mutter puzzled: “I thought this was supposed to be loosely based on Dante’s Inferno” to which I replied under my breath: “You and me both, sister.” Yet, after much time I realized maybe that published synopsis of the show just meant the audience would spend the entirety of the performance wondering what in the hell just happened.
Toast maintained two through-lines it kept returning to: the first, the desk-bound actors recitations of dialog from the film Alien, the other, dramatic recitations of recent political and cultural events transcripts including Gayle King’s R. Kelly interview and sections from Kavanaugh congressional testimony. Really you haven’t experienced theater at its rawest until you’ve heard Kyle Sturdivant screech “I like beer” into the primeval void. Top all this off with a choreographed placement of a flock of plastic flamingos on stage that was one of my favorite movement pieces this year and well, I still don’t know what the hell you have, but damn if it wasn’t a marvel.
NW: I loved Toast but for the opposite reasons. I felt so at home in this Pina Bausch-y piece.
While we are on the subject of oddball things, let’s look at something weird, silly, kooky, fun, nutty, you get the picture. I adored Danielle Georgiou’s Run of Show, presented at the Houston Fringe Festival. It was funny, smart, full of pathos, Fellini-esque, and oh so bizarre. Within hours of seeing the show, I got a story in motion on Georgiou, one of Dallas’s most provocative artists and performers.
Back to you. What ya got?
TG: I’m going to careen into your lane for this one because there were several dance performances I saw this year that I enjoyed for their beauty, woven with I think was a sense of whimsy or at least humor, two excerpts from Dance Salad I mentioned in our mid-year musings, Semperoper Ballet’s moo-velous Cow and the gender dance-roles bending Strokes Through the Tail from Donlon Dance Collective. In the Houston Ballet mixed-rep Locally Grown. World Renowned, I also had no idea what the Houston Ballet dancers represented in Disha Zhang’s Elapse (elk? moose? trees?) but they were dramatically fun, as was the migrating dance of bird in Edwaard Liang’s gorgeous Murmuration.
NW: Oh, you are the moo-velous one! Careen into my lane anytime. I always enjoy your thoughts on dance. Yes on the whole bundle, and I could watch Liang’s 2013 Murmuration all day long.
TG: I don’t know that I necessarily ventured out on an entirely new exploration, but I thought one of the more innovative space solutions this year for smaller theater companies was to mount shows in houses, including B&Bs. Landing Theatre Company’s Micro Theater Project has placed several short plays by local playwrights inside of homes, so when we’re watching actors putter around the kitchen, they’re in a real kitchen. Firecracker Productions jumped into the home theater trend as well, for a new holiday show that took “The Night Before Christmas” poem into the 21st century.
I got to discover some new Houston neighborhoods while catching some intriguing world premiere shows.
NW: Neighborhoods count. OK, let’s get normal for a minute. Your best-ish play of the season?
TG: In keeping within live Texas theater guidelines, I still think The Wolves at Dallas Theatre Center was the best of the year. The direction, acting and especially the story of a soccer team of teenage girls just contained a superb heart/mind balance with so much to think about and feel for these young women becoming their own kind of 21st century supportive, warrior tribe. (However, if I cheat outrageously on definitions, and since I did see the screening at the River Oaks Theater in Houston, I have to do a shout out to National Theatre Live broadcast of Midsummer Night’s Dream from the Bridge Theatre. This production, where director Nicholas Hytner switched Oberon and Titania’s plots, is now my definitive version of Midsummer. Hint, hint to 14 Pews, which is screening NTLive now, as well.)
TG: So again, I want to pause for a short discussion on definitions. For me, this will not be a best-of list because a decade is a long time, and I know some of the most excellent performances, directing, movement, musical renditions and sets and spaces I’ve seen the last 10 years have faded or dissolved in my memory. Instead these productions had some unique quality, causing them to continue to alight in a corner of my mind so I can pull them out, ponder, admire and say “Oh, yeah, I remember that one.”
NW: Agreed. Not a best of list. More of a memory train.
Here goes: Open Dance Project’s ‘Bout a Stranger, choreographed by Annie Arnoult, with music direction by Garreth Broesche and set by Ryan McGettigan. The audience had the freedom to unravel the experience on their own terms. Hands down the most fully realized locally produced dance show. Super excited to see her next opus, All the Devils are Here: A Tempest in the Galapagos, a NPN project with Diverseworks slated for May 7 – 16 at the MATCH.
With all our conversations about immersive theater over the years, I wanted at least one pure immersive in this mix, and I believe this will be a surprise choice:This Page Left Intentionally Blank, presented during CounterCurrent 2016 at the Menil Collection by Big Dance Theater. All immersive theater should contain fascinating, yet silly art lectures, docent and audience dance numbers and popsicle rewards at the end. Intentionally Blank reminded me that immersive theater can still give the audience agency, hold real meaning and still be delightful.
NW: What’s not to love about a show that ends with a popsicle? Enjoyed your review, too.
TG: I feel like I need a traditional contemporary play pick, and for this decade I find myself memory torn between either Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man or Aaron Posner’sStupid Fucking Bird, both at Stages Repertory Theatre. In the end I picked Whipping Man because the performances and stories combined to make it one of the most extraordinary productions of that year. Just your average family members with a complicated relationship come together for a religious holiday show, only Lopez sets his play at the end of the Civil War and of the three Jews celebrating Passover, two were enslaved by the father of the third man, a wounded Confederate soldier.
I believe this was also the first time I saw Joseph Palmore on stage and the second time I’d seen Shawn Hamilton. There was no weak leg in this three-man performance and Ross Bautsch certainly held up his side (bad-taste leg pun not really intended there), but this show became a kind of semaphoric symphony of signs for the depth and breadth of Palmore and Hamilton performances to come on Houston stages.
NW: The Whipping Man was on my non-list too. And would it really be an N & T chat without a Joe P mention?
Rite of Spring, choreographed by Laura Gutierrez and directed by Matt Hune at the Rec Room, goes down as one of my most haunting experiences in a theater. I will never forget that feeling when the band of young women entered the room with an, “I got this” expression. I knew then that young women would be playing an important role in just about every arena: sports, politics, arts and the climate.
TG: Note to Matt: think about reviving this as a limited, special companion piece to The Wolves in May.
Moving on to the play I never really wanted to see twice, yet has stayed with me for almost half a decade, The Nether at the Alley Theatre. In a dystopian future where the online world remains a vivid and beautiful facade and the real world grey and lifeless, an internet cop tries to crack a child-predator case. Jennifer Haley’s play layers puzzles and questions of identity and imagination, where love in all its beautiful and horrific permutations might be the revelation to those questions but not the easy solution. Great performances from the whole cast, especially the young Jemma Kosanke, but the secondary roles taken by Chris Hutchison and Philip Lehl led to my clichéd gasp, from surprise, but also the feeling I’d been kicked in the stomach.
NW: You were two rows ahead of me at The Nether. I distinctly remember wondering, “What will Tarra think?”
TG: As the ultimate piece of theater about theater-making for this decade and maybe the rest of my life I need to give a nod to Austin Rude Mech’s The Method Gun. The Mechs collaborated on this show about a group of actors collaborating for a years-long project to create A Street Car Named Desire production without any of the main characters. On one level Gun aims some hilarious meta-commentary on teachers and the act of collaborative creating at audiences, yet on another, the show becomes a moving story of how chosen families can drive each other as crazy as a blood families.
NW: Method Gun was my Rude Mechs baptism in 2014. Such a wonder! Ah, that was one of our early road trips where all this chit chat began.
TG: Sticking with performances out in the everyday wild, I’d dub Horse Head Theatre’s The Whale or Moby Dick the decade’s most moxie production. Actor/director Philip Hays loved Melville’s novel so much he attempted to sort of adapt it as a one-man show, put it in the 21st century and then framed it as a story of an actor named Philip and the whole audience on a sinking party boat in Galveston Bay. A whale swallowed the whole party (a la Book of Jonah), and then the whale and Philip made a deal that it will vomit up the audience only after it hears a dramatic recitation of Moby Dick, from its stomach. Let’s not forget that Horse Head and a group of volunteers assembled a giant, air conditioned, geodesic event-dome on the shore of Buffalo Bayou to play the whale.
Oh, yeah. I remember that one.
NW: With Horse Head gone, will we ever see something as crazy wild as that again?
Anyone who saw one of two performances of Hillerbrand + Magsamen’s 2018 performance 147 Devices for Integrated Principles is part of a special club. We left the theater in a haze of hope, wondering what we had just seen. It’s a beautiful and poignant work, funny too, and full of amazing DYI antics. Although the work was performed, and they are visual artists, there was nothing “performance arty” about it. A new version is coming around again. Watch for it.
TG: Reaching back to the beginning of the decade, I want to send out a round of applause to Main Street Theater’s mounting of Tom Stoppard’s entire The Coast of Utopia trilogy in two different theaters over the course of a season. MST was the first regional company in the U.S to attempt it, and they certainly succeeded. Honestly, and with no disparagement meant to any of the Main Street regulars in the cast nor to artistic director Rebecca Greene Udden who directed the first in the trilogy, Voyage, I don’t have vivid memories of any one specific scene or performance in the shows, but I do remember the on and offstage historic sweep and ambition of these productions.
NW: Simply historic for Udden to take the trilogy on, and with such finesse. The lady knows her Stoppard!
TG: As I’ve rooted through my memories of performance art past, I realize I have selected some of the plays I find most lovely, fun or devastating. For my final remembering, I’d argue the contemporary retelling of that ancient tale of irrational love and loss, Tristan & Yseult from Cornwall’s Kneehigh Theatre, brought to Houston thanks to the Alley Theatre, qualifies as all three, sometimes within the same breath of a moment.
The onstage and midair dancing, the original and reimagined music that weaves through the show, the love watchers dressed as birders, all so much fun. The love and love-lost triangles, rectangles and I believe at one point a pentagon: beautiful and devastating. The doubling and tripling of roles so that some actors played lovers and mortal enemies just added to the beautiful tragedy. Finally, if I had a Method Gun aimed at my head to pick the most memorable theatrical moment of the decade, I’d likely choose when Yueslt unfurls her sail for Tristan too late as Wagner’s “Liebestod” crescendos.
NW: I recall that exact moment. I also recall us working Tristan into every conversation with anyone and everyone. It may go down in history as the best show ever to come to Houston that the city largely ignored.