The last year of the decade proved a transitional year for Houston theater, with lots of happy hellos, dramatic moves, and a few sad goodbyes. Stages Repertory Theatre began a long farewell to its Allen Parkway building as they prepared to move to the new Gordy Campus, across the street.
Rob Melrose settled into his new artistic directorship at the Alley Theatre. Theatre Under the Stars closed out its stellar 50th season to dance headlong into the next half century. The closing of two theater spaces, Chelsea Market and Obsidian’s Heights stage, set more than two companies on the road looking for a new spot to call home. But even offstage stumbles and setbacks led to some amazing productions and performances.
So with this year of change in mind, once again instead of compiling a standard best-of, year-end list, let’s look back at some of those strange and special moments that made 2019 an extraordinary year of Houston theater.
Most-fun Production (Rated E for Everyone): The Three Musketeers at the Alley Theatre
The last show of interim artistic director James Black’s caretaker 2018-2019 season could have been a quiet transitional affair before new AD Rob Melrose’s inaugural lineup began. But, instead, Musketeers proved an “en garde” proclamation the Alley was ready for something truly radical, having fun again.
The show boasted gallant sword fighting heroes (male and female), dastardly villains (again male and female) silly wigs and facial hair, even more ludicrous hats, lots of buckles swashed, and one of the funniest death scenes to grace the Hubbard stage in years. Those many musketeers proved an all for one and one for all delight.
Funniest Production (Rated CH for Choking Hazard): Catastrophic Theatre’s Bootycandy
Having interviewed Bootycandy playwright Robert O’Hara when he was in town to direct TUTS’s The Wiz in 2018, I thought I was prepared for his comedy philosophy to get the audience to “choke” on the humor. But even bracing myself — after witnessing this different kind of adolescent to adulthood journey that is part sketch show part memory play, part meta commentary where characters talk back to their author/creator, and all hilarious, even at its darkest — I, and the rest of the audience, definitely needed the Heimlich before heading home.
Most Intimidating Interrogator: Siobhan O'Loughlin in Broken Bone Bathtub
The source of many of the full on immersive theater works these last few years, Dinolion Production Company got into the presenting business as they brought to Houston this one woman show starring and devised by O’Loughlin, who tours the work internationally and performs the piece in the bathtub of a real home in whatever city she lands in.
Costumed in only real bath bubbles and an arm cast, Loughlin tells her story of a bicycle accident and the need to rely on friends for the small essentials of life, including bathing. Yet somehow the audience, crouched together on stools and pillows around the bathtub, are the ones who end up baring their emotional baggage to her. Armed with only some bath toys and shampoo, she persuades her new bathroom-bonded stranger-friends to reveal the saddest, happiest, and limb-breaking moments of their life. You will tell the naked lady all.
Best smiling through tears moment: Horse Head Theatre’s We’re Gonna to Die
One of Houston’s most innovative company this last decade, Horse Head, went through many mutations helmed by several different creative director hands over the years. Yet it always kept its roaming spirit, performing plays wherever the setting called for — including in and behind bars, in a historical church, and once, in a geodome they built themselves.
For a last hurrah performance before closing the company, they chose to revisit one of their most emotional yet philosophical productions: Young Jean Lee’s play meditation on grief, joy, and love disguised as a cabaret performance. The evening ended with an audience participatory rendition of the title song performed on kazoo, ukulele, and human voice. With a room full of Horse Head supporters and what seemed to be half the Houston theater community, as those last notes faded, few dry eyes remained but there sure were many saltwater flavored smiles in the house.
Best Destruction of a Set (Comedy Division): The Play That Goes Wrong
Best Destruction of a Set (Absurdist Tragedy Division): Baby Screams Miracle
Though not quite a trend, the intentional collapse of scenery started to become a theme this year. Whether an ecological-political or just meta theme is best left up to audiences. The Play That Goes Wrong, presented by Broadway at the Hobby Center, brought to Houston its Tony-winning scenic design, that’s designed to collapse under the weight of amateur theatrics. The play takes every actor’s nightmare and turns it into a comedy about the chaos of theater.
Meanwhile, Catastrophic scenic designer Ryan McGettigan became the unsung saint — or perhaps Satan — in Clare Barron’s tale of a family’s faith as they go through Job-like tribulations, including a catastrophic storm that seems to follow them wherever they seek shelter only to have that shelter shutter and fall around them.
Liveliest and Loveliest stage-guests: Mildred’s Umbrella’s The Hunchback of Seville at the Alley and Classical Theatre’s The Fair Maid of the West at Queensbury
The loss of the Chelsea Market space this year affected more than just the home company Classical, but also many smaller companies that occasionally used the stage, including Mildred’s. Yet both reminded audience they were still alive and kicking, sometimes literally with the stellar shows that took history for a spin.
Fourth Wall Theatre’s Philip Lehl helmed the Classical production, raiding a toy box to assemble this English Renaissance play about a plucky pirate queen. Fair Maid illustrated that a little imagination can create a whole world of wonders on stage.
Likewise, thanks to an assist from the Alley, Mildred’s Seville became one of the sharpest historical what-ifs productions of the year, (like what if Columbus backer Queen Isabella of Spain had a smarter, wiser “adoptive” sister who might have tempered the whole conquest of the new world thing).
Most Glorious WTF Moment: “On a Sunday By the Sea,” dance sequence from Theatre Under the Stars’ Jerome Robbins’ Broadway
This anthology musical celebration of some of the great Jeromy Robbins’s most beloved numbers included iconic scenes and dances from West Side Story, Peter Pan, and Fiddler on the Roof. But in the second act, out of nowhere, and with little context, this strange and wondrous vaudeville-reminisce dance from the seldom revived High Button Shoes exploded on the stage. Featuring dancing keystone cops, crooks, bloomer-clad bathers of both sexes, and a gorilla — all after a cartoony bag of stolen money as they jump into and out of a row of early 20th-century beach changing huts — the number seemed to go on and on into a bizarre infinity.
Both profound and inexplicable in its zaniness, I truly believe all 21st-century musicals, from Dear Evan Hanson to Love Never Dies, should just shove this sequence into their own stories. No it wouldn’t make a proton of sense, but I doubt it made any sense in High Bottom Shoes either. In years of great change, we can all use a bit of such beautiful nonsense in our lives.