With the public art festival Aurora, Dallas appropriated the Parisian appellation of La Ville Lumière, The City of Light, even if for only one night of the year.
When Paris became the first city in Europe with the technology of outdoor gas lighting, it garnered the city this name, which would become its calling card and an intellectual mantra. Though not the first in the world to host an outdoor video and new media festival, Dallas is way ahead of the game with Aurora, transforming the city’s famous and now-beloved monuments to art — the buildings in the Dallas Arts District — into so many light-receptive screens as they lay unused between appointments.
Yet, Aurora is not simply about using unused space in a highly acclaimed quarter of architecture. because it is public — free, open, exciting, and beautiful — it is an unfettered invitation to all who might not otherwise come to the Arts District in downtown Dallas.
Shane Pennington, one of two partners in the creation of Aurora, the other being Joshua King, explains, “I think mainly Aurora helps open up the conversation about how public art in public spaces can improve a city’s landscape. I think it is vital to a community. How wonderful to stumble upon a great piece of art in a public space during your day! The viewers were not expected to purchase the artwork or pay an entry fee…and the artists were able to create and express themselves in an amazing environment which allowed a broad audience.”
The night of Aurora, October 28, 2011, video and software art projected off the sides of the blue chip architecture, both up high and on the street level. Meandering into the gardens behind and suggestively odd spaces between the buildings, one found more projections and smaller interactive pieces by artists and art students. And then there was a bevy of smart, trendy food trucks, selling everything from gourmet cupcakes to barbeque.
Overall, there were hundreds of works of cutting edge art, works mostly generated from electricity, the computer, and sundry other stuff, and a panoply of edibles to fuel the curious through the long worthy walk along Flora Street.
In its second incarnation this year, Aurora was an extraordinary success and a boon to the Dallas art scene, raising the bar in a way that it seems so often unable to do. It was open and truly for everyone, as many as could fit on the streets, and it was smart and high quality. In its populism it sacrificed none of the integrity of what it means to be “art.” It was public and chic; civic and hipster; outside in the elements while good looking, i.e., formally tight and resolved.
Pennington and King started researching the project four years ago, looking to the Nuit Blanche, or White Night, festival of Toronto that grew out of the 24-hour museum festivals in Nantes, France and Helsinki, Finland in the mid and late 1980s. The idea of an outdoor interactive art party officially sanctioned and supported by a city’s museum district spread like wildfire, with art parties, then called “Les Allumées” (“The Lighted Up”), popping up in the early 1990s in Barcelona, St. Petersburg, Buenos Aires, Naples, Cairo, and Havana.
As such, Aurora provides the city with one more stamp of international approval. Dallas’ Aurora, according to Pennington, “is funded by sponsorships, in-kind donations, and countless volunteers. Also, several organizations within the Dallas Arts District graciously assisted with various stages of setup and electrical needs.”
With an open call to artists, Aurora was a careful balance between democracy and sophistication. There were more than 100 works of art and more than 70 artists, including the department of Architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington, participating in Aurora.
Pennington explains, “each participant was required to work within light, video, sound, or performance based mediums.” For guidance choosing artists, Pennington and King reached out to Centraltrak, Booker T. Washington, SMU, UNT, UTA-Architecture, and UT-Brownsville. Wanda Dye, Assistant Professor of Architecture at UTA and Founder and Director of Repurposing Materials in Architecture, Art + Design, an innovative and edgy ecologically conscious gallery and studio, was a participant in Aurora last as well as this year.
Describing Aurora in Heritage Village (Old City Park), last year’s location, Dye explains, “having the light installations in a somewhat more rural setting amongst older historical structures was quite interesting in terms of the surreal juxtaposition of the ‘old’ and ‘new.’”
But publicness is key, and the Dallas Arts District is more accessible and recognizable than Heritage Village. Holding Aurora in the Arts District made for a much larger turnout. Dye explains the profound importance of public art and the challenges of working around celebrity architecture, “I think the potential for transformation of public space and architecture is tremendous …[yet] when installing in such an architecturally significant landscape and hardscape, the installations have the chance of not making as large of an impact as an installation in a more neglected space…”
In collaboration with the artist Alison Starr, Dye made two furniture-scale pieces that sat along the side of Flora on the sidewalk, one out of tire rubber scraps found on i30 (eek!) and the other plastic white grocery bags. In that passersby could actually sit inside of them, and were invited to do so, these objects, and their artificial creaturely-ness, created the perfect counterpoint to the flickering lights up above.
— CHARISSA N. TERRANOVA
JOHN MARIN AMON CARTER
Museum of American Art, Fort Worth November 5, 2011–January 8, 2012
John Marin’s paintings dart between scenes of Cape Split, Maine and New York City and each piece seems more bold, ambitious and gorgeously vivid than the last. New Yorker critic, Lewis Mumford declared Marin to be “the most significant and poignant and accomplished landscape painter of his generation in America.”
After looking at the more than 60 paintings on view at the Amon Carter it’s easy to understand why his praise was so generous. In fact, if anything, it seems it could have been even more ambitiously fraught with adjectives. “Movement: Sea, Ultramarine and Green; Sky, Cerulean and Grey” is voluptuously radiant.
The work is unabashedly lyrical and ushers us into a world that’s resolutely cheering. It shows us what a beautiful blue globe we’re able to log roll on. Plus, it’s no noggin buster. It asks little of us except our abject wonderment. Despite that observation, questions still inevitably arise. Such as: how have we come to a place where beauty is suspect and seen as simple-minded fodder for the foolish? And why is grief a requisite component of grandeur?
Negotiating the light of rugged coastlines and city buildings seems a form of flirtation and giddy attraction in Marin’s work. It’s not-so-deep-space and that’s lovely. It’s a stippled and dappled world he lived in and he invites us to share the delights inside his luscious bubble. His was a remarkable brand of generosity and it can make more angst-ridden shows seem luridly self-indulgent. “Tunk Mountains, Maine” is ecstatically rendered and serves as proof that representations of landscapes are sometimes more vital and “real” than actual clouds, mountains and water. It helps us negotiate the space between cognition and the outside world. And it does it beautifully. Put simply, it’s a glorious example of how images educate. They bypass the Aristotelian rigmarole we ingest in college classes and burst loose inside our sometimes underrated hearts, the organ capable of metaphorically housing Wisdom, that old-fashioned thing that surpasses intellect like thoroughbreds outrun burros.
The show spans the last two decades of Marin’s life and it depicts a period of experimentation and enthusiasm for working in both oil and watercolor. His work at times seems as rugged as his beloved Maine landscape. It’s grand without ever resorting to fussiness or juiced-up tricks. At times he seems to daub color with resolute speed. But he never leaves us behind. He’s kind enough allow us to accompany him on his vertiginous bouts of loopy skies and oceans. And that elicits the highest praise of all — gratitude.
— PATRICIA MORA
William Campbell Contemporary Art, Fort Worth October 22–November 23, 2011
German painter Joachim Kersten’s recent show “Open Sky” at William Campbell Contemporary Art in Fort Worth was about as straight-forward in intent as an abstract show could be. With its succinct title, the exhibition focused on skyscapes and little else. While this could be limiting to some artists, the talented Kersten mines the subject matter to good effect.
With brilliant hues of reds, yellows and blues, one thinks sunset and, for much of the show, nothing else. And in Kersten’s hand, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The results, collectively, are illuminated canvases and mixed media on paper works, all visually compelling. In “66 Prozent #6,” “66 Prozent 5” and “66 Prozent #7,” the works on paper seem to float, unmounted from the wall.
In some pieces, Kersten uses circular shapes, like in “Gems 2,” where they successfully coalesce, yielding great textural forms. At 60″ x 48″, it is one of the show’s largest works. It’s interesting, though, that in his smaller pieces, such as “66 Prozent #1,” the results are more gem-like and resonant. Kersten is interested in color, shape and texture, and he translates this by forming multiple layers of pigment and varnish. He takes his time in applying the layers so that they develop into a lush patina, thanks to the chemical reactions that take place.
Through fields of color, layers of paper and a vibrant palette, the artist’s renditions of open skies, and their ethereal and sometimes spiritual qualities, are invoked in a highly accessible way. Foreground and background, earth and sky, all intermingle in nearly tangible ways here. Their juxtapositions create a certain ironic harmony. Kersten’s skill, on full display, made this a highly enjoyable show.
— ANNA CAPLAN
Conduit Gallery, Dallas October 15–November 12, 2011
Joan Winter makes well-honed beautiful minimalist objects — just like it was 1970. Think here Eva Hesse, Lee Bontecou, and even Louise Bourgeois. It is brilliant work, but without the big ideas. They are works of art, which result not so much from a clever, but rather a well-studied sense of process and very steady hand.
“Ripple” is a propeller-like resin sculpture that is notable for its shape and, more importantly, remarkable for its surfaces. Having cast the opalescent resin in wooden molds, “ripple” bears traces of an alien substance — wood grain —along its otherwise pristine plastic stair-step protrusions.
Hanging on the wall, “Falling Water” is similar stuff wrought differently. It is a tangle of large white opaque and translucent resin loops. Working through another subtle sense of counter-intuition, the loops look soft and flaccid but are hard and rigid. Winter’s inspirations for this body of work are Japanese and, in particular, architectural. Happy to say, those influences are quite subtle, with architectural Japonisme surfacing in the powerful combination of evanescence and permanence.
The wind-blown wall of fabric wavering from within a white steel frame of Shigeru Ban’s Curtain Wall House (1995) in Tokyo comes to mind here in particular. Perhaps even more felt is the presence of minimalism. We might even go so far as to refer to Winter’s work as a strain of “neo-minimalism,” especially with pieces like the Eva Hesse-inflected “unfolding light.” This is a work that, though nothing intellectually groundbreaking, brings pleasure to the senses. It is fun, if not soothing, to look at and, of course, seamlessly fabricated.
“Unfolding light” is several small orange and white open-ended pyramidal forms mounted on the wall in the order of open geometries. The problem with Winter’s work is that there is just not a lot to say other than they look good and will probably make for happy household arrangements. Intellectually speaking there is little discussion to be had.
— CHARISSA N. TERRANOVA
Valley House Gallery and Sculpture Garden, Dallas, November 5–December 3, 2011
Fort Worth artist Sedrick Huckaby’s beautifully ornate paintings are as thick with meaning as they are with the impasto of his oil paint. Huckaby’s current exhibition at Valley House Gallery, “When Old People Talk to Young People,” presents a large collection of paintings from his quilt series.
The works range from highly representational to verging on complete abstraction. Though the works are powerful in their own right, Huckaby has loaded them with a personal, generational, and religious significance. From a distance, Huckaby’s paintings appear painstakingly detailed. The elaborate rows of squares, folds, and patterns flow across his panels with a wrinkled accuracy.
From a closer standpoint, we see a rough and seemingly imprecise approach to mark making. In the work “From Earth to Heaven,” the oil paint is so thickly caked it nearly becomes sculptural. In some places, the roughness of the media begins to mimic the tactility of the fabric it represents. The quilt is not only the subject of the paintings, but begins to become a part of their overall construction. In the work “The Day We Talked a New Talk,” six wood panels of varying sizes are connected together to create a larger scene.
Furthermore, in “Our Brokenness #1” a large group of panels are placed together to create a unified composition out of many separate quilt compositions. The works move from being paintings of quilts to being, in a way, actual quilts of oil and wood. Some of the most interesting works within “When Old People Talk to Young People” are Huckaby’s sketches and studies for eventual paintings.
With these small sketchbook drawings we see evidence of process, planning, and regard for scale. In “Study for Hidden in plain Site,” a red grid overlays a complicated sketch of four different quilts. As the title of the exhibition suggests, these paintings deal with issues of generational communication. Huckaby’s incorporation of an old and traditional craft into highly contemporary paintings becomes an homage to the quilt as an art form, as well as an effort to bridge the gap between his grandmother’s mode of artistic expression and his own. Many of us may find these paintings to be sentimental as we remember the quilts passed down through our own families, but the real value within Huckaby’s work is its ability to relate the work of different generations and create a dialogue between contemporary work with the craft of our past.
— KASTEN SEARLES
Talley Dunn Gallery, Dallas October 29-December 10, 2011
Anyone with access to Wikipedia can instantly learn that Philip Pearlstein was born in the ’20s, shared roach-infested digs with Andy Warhol and is filed under “Contemporary Realism.” But no online compendium of facts will prepare you for the sheer pleasure of seeing his recent paintings at Talley Dunn.
For a man in his 80s, his work exudes a surprisingly joyous boyishness. Pearlstein is adept at reminding us that the world is deliciously tactile. “Model with Chrome Chair, Kiddie Car, Kimono and Bambino” serves splendidly as an exercise in visual plundering. it’s refractory; it’s shiny; it’s chocked with baubles and it’s impossible not to love it. The aforementioned kiddie car enters the painting with pent-up velocity that plays against the model’s angular lassitude.
A gloriously colorful floral motif connects the two with a vertical riff and it’s all dopplegangered in the reflections of a chrome chair. This is more fun than dessert carts at a birthday party.
The painting’s cherry red is alliteratively cheery and we’re simultaneously dazzled by the jumbled array of the coolest-garage-sale-stuff-ever-assembled and puzzled by the somberness of the female figure. She’s firmly situated in the lineage of odalisque figures of the 19th century.
However, she’s been updated and given the shimmer of exotica cast by dreadlocks and ethnicity. She becomes stuff among other stuff, asleep in Wonderland. Perhaps it’s being suggested that we’re slumbering, too.
Pearlstein offers us a white-hot chance to wake up. If these paintings can’t jolt us into a marvelous new sensibility regarding everyday objects I don’t know what can. The show is absolutely splendid.
— PATRICIA MORA
The Reading Room, Dallas November 3-26, 2011
In the intimate space of The Reading Room, Rebecca Carter thoughtfully offers up linguistic works that reveal how intention and medium simultaneously fail and profit one another. Her show, “Re: Reading the Love Letter,” intimates how this is particularly true for personal correspondence, a form of communication certainly not immune to the vicissitudes of translation. And it is only made more perplexing when the word becomes art.
Recall how some have believed that virtuous sentiments stir within all of us, sentiments thought to be the essence a nobler humanity, of a true religion. Here, language becomes something of a Socratic adumbration conveying truth when it touches the soul. And consider how words now mainly slip. We find disjointure in every text, in every passage of every text, and there is no longer a pure relation of intention to meaning. The world over now stands as a text awaiting its interpretative deconstruction. The former, much older view provokes us to write meaningful letters to friends and loved ones, while the latter incites our playful reception and appropriation of them.
Carter’s work — mostly fragile thread compositions of words — seems inspired by both semiotic conceptions. She draws upon both without naiveté or heavy irony. The personal correspondence from which most of the pieces derive suggests intimacy, sincerity, and affection. The words and phrases extracted from the letter (or from other exchanges) seem to disclose this genuine sentimentality by being works that are delicately thread-wrought, suspended, and exposed. And, like living language, their fibrous roots seek the surrounding air.
This nod towards communicable intention, however, is concurrently challenged by the very act of excerpting those words and phrases from their context. The medium, craft, and presentation of the art plays upon itself so well that it elicits an interpretive challenge: How do we read art — especially when it uses, or is, language — that alludes to some original sincerity after it has been elegantly dissimulated into art? Thankfully, such questions don’t actually require answers. Still, it is terribly enjoyable to experience works that provoke them. And Carter’s do just this. They belie all myths of perfect communication, but not to the point of disappointment, rather towards the experience of unending exchange.
Rebecca Carter’s work was also recently shown at the DMA as part of their Late Nights series, and in a group exhibition at the Free Museum of Dallas, with a closing reception December 2.
— ANDY AMATO
Mighty Fine Arts, Dallas November 15–December 11, 2011
A gritty darkness overwhelms Andrew Ortiz’s current photographic works at mighty Fine Arts. The exhibition “Measured Disorder” contains a series of digitally composed photographic prints that deal with the artist’s own struggle with seizure disorder.
Though the work emerges from a real and truly personal source, even the self-portraits within the exhibition appear illusory and emotionally vacant. The obscured portrait is a recurring subject within “Measured Disorder.”
In Ortiz’s “Sealed,” we find a partial face that is contained and cropped by an implausibly sealed glass jar, and clouded with a haze of strange marks and numbers. In addition to these digitally imposed distractions, the figure’s lack of eyes prevents us from achieving a connection with the subject. In the work “Measured Disorder,” we view the self-portrait through a layer of MRI data and undefined black forms.
Similarly, in the piece “Beginning” we view the figure through a layer of clay-encrusted skin and an applied veil of found textures. Whether it’s the superimposition of textures or the physical presence of cracked clay on skin, there are multiple efforts within the exhibition to camouflage or obscure the subject. The use of Photoshop in these works is evident, but not so heavily relied upon that they appear transparently as works of fiction. Though the giclée prints are unmistakably odd, they maintain their connection to reality and reference traditional black and white photography.
Ortiz’s desaturated color pallette and film-like textures anchor us in a world we understand, only to disrupt that world with marks that don’t make sense. The images within “measured disorder” are manufactured and manipulated but remain tied to the body, the figure, and the earthy substances that are imposed upon them. At first glance these pieces seem stark, emotionless, and lacking a real communicated experience.
As a self-portrait, the image “Measured Dissorder” is eerily disengaged from the viewer. Within this exhibition, we have been given portraiture absent the individual. These uninhabited portraits, though difficult to engage, are extremely descriptive of what people with seizure disorders endure. A seizure is often not an experience, but an event where consciousness is lost and the body is left to act on its own. Ortiz’s digital works, though uncannily vacant and challenging as portraiture, are adept in their depiction of the disorder for which the show is named.
— KASTEN SEARLES
EX VOTO: THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTIONS OF FRIDA KAHLO
The Ochre House, Dallas November 2–19, 2011
What I like best about most Matt Posey’s original plays is the uncanny way he gets inside the minds, psyches and souls of the characters he creates. He doesn’t rely on linear structure or follow a pre-set “paint by numbers” narrative, even when bringing non-fiction characters to life.
His play about Hunter S. Thompson (“14 Death Defying Acts: An Autopsy of Hunter S. Thompson”) and the theater noir William Burroughs/Alan Ginsberg “Bill” demonstrate his particular skill at getting under the skin of his characters, giving the audience a unique experience of how those real people may have thought, felt and behaved. I attended opening night of Posey’s current original “Ex Voto: The Immaculate Conceptions of Frida Kahlo” with high expectations and came away disappointed. Instead of transporting the audience inside the unusual world of this dynamic, tortured, impassioned, explosively creative woman, exploring the waxing and waning of her physical and emotional pain as the driving source of her artistic output, Posey created a flat, stereotyped object.
Looking like a wax figure at Madame Tussaud’s museum, this Kahlo trudges along in a surprisingly conventional linear manner. Elizabeth Evans strives valiantly as the play’s object/protagonist but seems fixed in perpetual combative frown, posing as Posey’s concept of Frida drawn from photographs and paintings, never inhabiting her as a flesh and blood woman.
It’s as if Posey wrote the play from Kahlo’s overbearing, unfaithful husband Diego Rivera’s perspective. Dante Martinez debuts with promise as Rivera. He gives a multifaceted, intriguing performance, revealing the genius painter’s vulnerability as well as his predatory, larger-than-life persona without becoming caricature. Examples of Kahlo’s art appear throughout the production, in unfolding tableaux, or as sketches she occasionally fusses with, but they seems little more than peripheral distraction, not essential to her being.
Trenton Stephenson and Mitchell Parrack Portray quack doctors who abuse Kahlo, utilizing Posey’s signature puppetry in a surreal approach to “surgery.” While their scenes are equally fascinating and revolting to watch as theatrical devices go, they do nothing to expand the audience’s understanding of Kahlo or her suffering. They feel like some sort of cruel men’s joke about “women’s mysteries.” The most evocative, artistic elements of this production come from the musicians and flamenco dancer (Justin Locklear, Stefan Gonzalez and Delilah Buitron), costumed and made up to appear like “Dia de los Muertos” characters. Most effectively, they convey the brave, twisted, creative desperation that became Frida Kahlo’s motivating muse, through music and dance. With Cyndee Rivera as Kahlo’s long-suffering, devoted sister and Ochre House regular Kevin Grammer in several supporting roles. Overall, it’s an interesting curiosity piece, not quite up to Posey’s usual breathtaking invention.
— ALEXANDRA BONIFIELD, www.criticalrant.com
Kitchen Dog Theater, Dallas November 11–December 10, 2011
A teenager’s frantic plea for help due to a queasy stomach upsets the cozy familial status quo applecart. Quiara Alegria Hudes’ popular 2009 domestic dramedy “26 Miles” evolves into a rapid-fire 26-scene journey of exploration from a blue collar Philadelphia suburb to Yellowstone’s pristine peaks.
Feeling sometimes like “Kramer vs. Kramer” meets “Thelma and Louise” and “Dances with Buffalo,” this bonding themed play follows an estranged mother and daughter’s spontaneous cross-country trek, interrupting it on occasion with flashback or one-sided pay phone conversation to establish time’s passage and context.
Focused more on the detail of life’s transitions than its poetry, Hude’s play settles into kitchen dog Theater’s cavernous main playing space as if it were written with the company in mind. KDT Co-Artistic Director Tina Parker directs handily, while her counterpart Christopher Carlos acts as the play’s Mother Beatriz’s Honey Manuel and several other quirky characters along the road trip.
Christina Vela gives a pleasing, empathetic performance as an outspoken mother who learns as much about herself as about her intellectual daughter Olivia on the trip. In her Kitchen Dog Theater debut, Booker T. Washington Junior Allie Donnelly functions as the play’s narrator as well as its main character Olivia. Absolutely at ease and focused in every scene, she shows genuine talent as a stage actress and a natural bent for ensemble playing.
Ashley Wood’s portrayal of Olivia’s dad Aaron looks and acts with a bumbling, self-absorbed quality that matches Olivia’s self-absorbed intellectualizing. This is a predictable but non-offensive play with lightweight melodrama and modest peak life revelations along with TV sitcom-style humor. The flashback scene, recreating a “moment at Woodstock” where Olivia’s parents supposedly met (wouldn’t they just), feels like it belongs more in an SNL skit parodying the 60’s era than in a respectable stage production, but it sure earned a laugh opening night.
A stately, non-symmetrical, sprawling, staggered platform set by Cindy Ernst gives the actors plenty of interesting space to explore internal motivations or act out conflict. Costumes by Korey Kent, other than in the overdone “Woodstock” scene, reinforce characters respectably. Director Tina Parker makes the most of her straightforward task without ever allowing the play to sink into soap opera stink. This would be an ideal performance to attend on a first date with someone met online, not too deep or challenging but interesting enough to chat about over coffee afterward.
— ALEXANDRA BONIFIELD, crtiticalrant.com
SMU FALL DANCE CONCERT
Bob Hope Theatre at the Meadows School of the Arts, Dallas November 2–6, 2011
In conjunction with the 100th anniversary of Southern Methodist University, the dance department altered their normal programming — of re-staging works by Martha Graham and Paul Taylor — to bring in eight of their own alumni.
For the choreographers, this was a way to give back to the university that launched their careers. For the dancers, a chance to work with established and emerging choreographers. Overall, it was a great way to show the community the talent coming out of its own backyard.
Three pieces stole the show, and they came from Jamal Story (BFA 1999), Joshua l. Peugh (BFA 2006), and Annmaria Mazzini (BFA 1994).
Story’s “Choose Me” was one of three premieres. A powerful jazz piece, it examined our need for acceptance, reward, and recognition. It’s three sections each had their specific moments of comedy, tragedy, and desire. And all used the space beautifully as groups seamlessly were created, and solos and duets broke out with ease. There was a liquid quality to the movement that was entirely engaging.
“Shuffle” by Peugh was a perfect mix of contemporary dance and classic rock n’ roll. Completely unique to Peugh’s sense of movement — full of wiggles, struts, the hand jive, and duck walks — the dancers Harry Feril, Aaron Kozak and Allison Leopold expertly took a hold of it and thus, took us on a fun and quirky ride. The scene was set even before the dance began: music was played during the intermission and the dancers took the stage with house and work lights on, so you never knew when the dance actually “started” or when it “finished,” as the dancers just walked off stage as music was still playing.
Mazzini’s “Bakelite Apparition” was set to an unusual interpretation of the classic Irving Berlin song, “Cheek to Cheek,” and suggests the deterioration of a relationship. But it not only speaks to the relationship between a man and woman, portrayed by fellow alums Lee Duveneck (BFA 2010) and Elizabeth Bragg (BFA 2005), but to the breakdown of the economy in the thirties (when the song was first written) and to our current economic situation. Moving exclusively in slow motion, the dancers responded to the sputtering and crackling of the music with robotic swaying and jumping.
The other alumni showcased were Anna Marie Ewertpittman (BFA 1994), John Malashock (BFA 1975), Jarrell Hamilton (BFA 2009), Cheryl Chaddick (BFA 1977), and Max Stone (MFA 2005).
— DANIELLE M. GEORGIOU, Assistant Director of the UTA Dance Ensemble
TROGG! A MUSICAL!
Level Ground Arts, Dallas November 11–December 3, 2011
It would seem that popular movies, adapted for the stage, may well be the wave of the future. Consider: “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “The Producers” and “Billy Elliott,” to name but a few. In some instances the resulting piece may actually work better than the original. Another hybrid of this genre might be dubbed the Schlock Film Spoof. These shows take ghastly films (notably excessive and implausible?) and create inspired, tarted-up satire. Such is the case with Level Ground Arts, a whiz-bang kinetic theatre company that continues to break new ground in the realm of celluloid transmogrification.
LGA’s most recent offering is “Trogg!” a musical concocted from Joan Crawford’s last big screen appearance (1970) in which she plays a scientist who rescues a recently discovered caveman. “Trogg! A musical!” opens with a group of saucy teens on a beach, sitting around a campfire, working through the hormone-fried anguish of being in love. Their paths intersect with a strange looking guy dressed in little else but an animal skin breechcloth and sporting a long, black, mangy coiffure. He may be preverbal, but all he needs is a little TLC.
Barbara Cannon, daughter of renowned anthropologist Dr. Joan Cannon, hopes this will give her and her mother a much needed opportunity to bond. Dr. Cannon takes “Trogg” (short for Troglodyte) to her laboratory where hopefully, she can study, nurture and educate the poor fellow.
Jonah Huntington, mayor of this small beachside community (and Joan’s ex-lover) is determined to put this disgraceful man-beast behind bars at the local zoo. Our throng of high-strung, conscientious teens converge to protest and free Trogg from his ignominious incarceration.
Created by David Cerda, Cheryl Snodgrass and Tyler E. Ross, “Trogg!” is peppered with camp hi-jinx and a retro, rockin’ score. Michael Moore, whose drag technique comes close to sorcery, makes the most of Joan Crawford’s propensity for self-caricature and then some. Marcus Jaurgui does a sly turn as Carol Ann (Cannon’s assistant and maid?!) evincing the ambivalent attitude of privileged class WASPs towards the help. Jaurgui’s work here is understated and spot-on. Cassidy Crown as Peanut, milks teenage frenzy in a style that is all her own. When she surrenders to the heebie jeebies you’ll swear she needs medical attention. Cerda, Snodgrass, Ross, Director Billy Fountain and Choreographer Emily Shaw never miss an opportunity to work in another raucous song and dance number. Shaw’s choices are versatile, fresh and exuberant. No matter how quirky the premise, LGA seems to possess the ability to choose a piece hiding under the pop radar and tease it into something irresistibly zippy and pleasurable.
— CHRISTOPHER SODEN
Garland Civic Theatre November 17–December 10, 2011
In his first book, “Shock Value” (1981) John Waters included an essay, “The Nicest Kids in Town,” describing his native Baltimore, Maryland’s local version of American bandstand, and its struggle with integration in the 1960’s. This essay was the basis for “Hairspray” (1988) Waters’ first crossover film, after a long and noteworthy career making cheaply done, misanthropic, hilariously counter-culture classics such as “Pink Flamingos” (1972) “Female Trouble” (1974) and “Desperate Living” (1977).
Waters clearly showed a gift in these early features for turning unapologetically repugnant and perverse behavior into surprisingly effective comedy, though, admittedly, it probably required a monumental leap of faith. Waters seemed to take particular glee in pushing even minimal boundaries of acceptable taste, and if you didn’t go with it, you were lost. Small wonder that Waters would come up with “Hairspray.” It showed obvious contempt for the WASP zombies of bourgeoisie America and chose Tracy Turnblad as its heroine, a chubby girl who teased her hair like other “juvenile delinquents” and danced to the inappropriate rhythms of African American pop tunes.
By making Tracy a spokesperson for every underdog ever marginalized by dominant cliques (and a flag-bearer for integration) Waters transformed his antipathy for homogenized culture into a rallying-cry for the triumph of the oppressed; lacing it with enough good-natured mockery and vibrant tunefulness to imbue the experience with optimism. Imagine if Rasputin were alive today and did a cover of “Blackbird” or “Twist and Shout” that brought you to your feet.
“Hairspray” has the distinct advantage of advancing an altruistic ideology without tasting like cod liver oil. In what has now become a somewhat typical process, “Hairspray” the film became Hairspray (2002) the Tony-winning stage musical became “Hairspray” (2007) the movie musical. In a touching homage to the departed drag genius divine, the role of Tracy’s mother, Edna Turnblad, continues to be played by male actors, including Harvey Fierstein and John Travolta. In Garland Civic Theatre’s director Dyle McClaran’s version, R. Bradford Smith does fabulous work as Tracy’s reluctant (though heroic) mom.
The cast is loaded with manic, infectious energy, delivering plenty of soulful, gorgeous ballads. Maurice Johnson and Larry Borero’s choreography is sizzling, high octane celebration and Ryan Matthieu Smith’s scintillating costumes are way too cool for high school (or college). In addition to Brad Smith, other sparkling performances include : Samantha Parrish (Tracy Turnblad), Miranda McCarthy (Penny Pingleton), Austen Anderson-Gorny (Link Larkin), Jenny Tucker (Velma von Tussel), Catherine Montgomery (Motormouth Maybelle), Robert Perry (Wilbur Turnblad) and Anthony Willis (Seaweed). Special kudos to the show’s tribute to girl groups of the 60, Dynamite, featuring Christian Houston, Drusilla Blakey and Gabrielle Rogers.