In a year that seemed to give us a decade’s worth of Houston theater news, 2017 produced almost as much behind the scenes drama as it did stunning performances. TUTS finally found their new artistic director Dan Knechtges and gained an executive director Hillary Hart, along the way. Stages announced plans for a $30 million, three-theater campus, the Gordy. AD Players moved into their dazzling, new Jeannette and L.M. George Theater, only to lose the theater’s namesake, Jeannette Clift George, their founder and a pillar of the Houston theater community, on Christmas Eve.
And oh yeah, a little bit of rain named Harvey drowned the Theater District.
Yet through it all theater survived and sometimes thrived, gifting the city with remarkable scenes of drama, comedy, music, and life. Instead of compiling a standard best-of, year-end list, it seems apropos to gaze back at some of those great performances but also highlight the theatrical trends and significant moments both onstage and beyond.
Houston gives the world new theater
It seemed every company that was any theater company offered up a world premiere in 2017. Syncing Ink and Describe the Night at the Alley and the Stages/One Year Lease co-production Balls all headed to New York after their local debut. Fifty years after the publication of Donald Barthelme’s post-modern classic Snow White, Catastrophic Theatre’s Greg Dean brought the Barthelme-penned, epic stage adaptation to the MATCH. Finally, Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the timely Front Porch Society by Melda Beaty about a group of African-American women in Mississippi on the eve of the 2008 presidential election made us glad again for such amazing Houston firsts.
The lights go up onstage at the UH Quintero Theatre, September 15/Philip Lehl makes a pre-Reckless announcement, December 1
With all the bad news Houston theaters faced in 2017, sometimes small moments revealed dramatic resilience. After flood waters poured into the Neuhaus space, the Alley delivered a theatrical miracle getting their world premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s Describe the Night over to UH two weeks later. Meanwhile, Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl revealed they would disband their company, 4th Wall Theatre, months before the hurricane, yet when Lehl announced on opening night of their holiday show Reckless that a surprise $100,000 donation from Ken Bohan would allow them to keep the company going, audience couldn’t help feeling a bit of that #HoustonTheaterStrong spirit.
Stages Theatre and Obsidian Theater/SRO Productions display perfect post-Harvey comic timing
Both Stages free performances of the phenomenally silly Xanadu at Miller Outdoor Theater and Obsidian/SRO’s intimate and charming production of the comic mystery musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood were scheduled for September runs months before Harvey was even an ill wind in the Gulf. No one would have blamed the theaters for cancelling. Yet, the companies rallied, quickly offering up some much needed levity and deranged fun to keep us going that very dark month.
Tamarie Cooper tames Kyle Sturdivant’s wild(ish) beast
Sturdivant found his inner animal in two Catastrophic Theatre productions directed by Cooper: the title role in the heartbreaking yet fantastical Trevor where he played a chimp with a fully-realized, showbiz-inspired inner life and Rhinoceros where his opinionated French dandy, Jean, morph into a rhino. Under Cooper’s direction, Sturdivant needed no makeup nor fake fur/hide to create riveting, comic and sometimes terrifying performances.
Theater goes 360 degrees surround sound, sight and touch
Though many local theaters and productions have taken a dive into immersive theater in the past, 2017 brought two full-on, truly original immersive theater productions created specifically for Houston audiences with Dinolion’s haunting memory performance/experience Red House and Strange Bird Immersive’s escape room spooky-fun, drama Man From Beyond.
Carolyn Johnson shines bright but never overshadows the Luna Gale Cast
Stormy waters ran very deep in the seemingly quiet drama Luna Gale at Stages. Stellar local favorite Carolyn Johnson owned every scene she was in–almost every scene in the play–as a social worker attempting to find the best home for the infant Luna, the daughter of two meth addicts. Yet the whole cast of veteran Houston players and young newcomers held their own, and under Seth Gordon’s direction, made every performance, small and large, a tragic reveal of characters who always felt real, sad, and beautiful. The production ended up as one of my favorites and the cast my favorite ensemble of the year.
Rec Room cleans out its Back Room
With all the high tech and expansive performance spaces in town, my favorite for 2017 ended up being the nondescript, nothing of a room at the back of Rec Room, eloquently named the the Back Room Stage. The smallness of the space only served to intensify the power of two Matt Hune directed works staged within: a Stravinsky Rite of Spring choreographed by Laura Gutierrez, featuring an explosive gang of young women dancers; and a stripped down version of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel performed within a beautifully creepy wooded set. Performing arts rarely gets so intimate and precarious.
John Feltch keeps it all inside for Act of God at the Alley Theatre
David Javerbaum’s comedy about God creating new commandments made for a benign, fluff of a play that affords the actor (Todd Waite) playing God (on Broadway it was Houston’s own Jim Parsons) to chew enough scenery to probably give him raging nightly indigestion. Yet, while one helping angel, Michael (Emily Trask) earns a modicum of character evolution, the play gives Gabriel (Feltch) absolutely nothing to do but stand around commandingly reciting God’s new edicts. But something funny happened in this James Black directed production. (I like to imagine Black’s wise performance advice went something like Robin Williams’s choreography riff in the Birdcage: “You do Iago, Iago, Iago. You do Mephistopheles, Mephistopheles. Or Kowalski, Kowalski, Kowalski. But you keep it all inside.”) Whatever play Feltch had going on inside his head that leaked out into his resting acting face was three times as intense (I thought Gabriel might shank God with a sharpened lyre end at one point) and ten times funnier than the actual godly dialogue.
Two storytellers embark on journeys into war
Sometimes the most profound theater involves only one human in a room telling stories. Such was the case of 4th Wall Theatre’s Cry Havoc! and the inaugural production in Rice Moody Center’s Lois Chiles Studio Theater, An Iliad. In Havoc, Stephan Woldert uses his own military experiences and historical war stories to portray veterans’ lives in and beyond the trenches. Adapted from Homer’s The Iliad, Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s An Iliad depicts a wandering, weary poet cursed to retell the story of the Trojan War forever. The most devastating moments of theater I saw anywhere this year came as Leon Ingulsrud, playing the poet, recited every human war as a kind of horrific meditative mantra. (Main Street Theater will produce a limited run of An Iliad with Guy Roberts of the Prague Shakespeare Company as the poet January 4 to 14, 2018. Don’t miss it.)