The Wicked Stage does Dallas

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A quick weekend jaunt to Dallas allowed me to catch both The Tempest at the Dallas Theater Center and the soon-to-be-mounted-in-San-Antonio play In the Next Room, Or The Vibrator Play.

Now, it’s clear that Beowulf Borritt, the designer for The Tempest, not only has the funkiest name in show biz, but a superb visual imagination. The opening scene of The Tempest is here re-staged against a chalk outline of a plane carrying a dozen or so passengers above the inky seas: if this image reminds you of the TV show Lost, that’s not the last time that Lost will figure as a sort of cultural touchstone for the production. After a visual coup de théâtre, we land on the island of The Tempest, which, again like the TV show, features (Shakespearean) ‘survivors’ and menacing ‘others,’ along with increasingly blurry ethical boundaries. This fast-paced, intermission-less production works best when Borritt is pulling out all the stops, including the wild (and wonderful) entrance of “The Magic Dog,” a sort of demonic parody of The Lion King’s human-sized puppets.

But when director Kevin Moriarty takes the reins, this is a rather more standard-issue version of The Tempest, in terms of both diction and interpretation. There’s good work by the bumbling clowns (Lee Trull, especially), while Chamblee Ferguson’s Prospero could use a far greater sense of gravity and rage: when he finally breaks his staff and a sweat, such action seems to come out of nowhere. Meanwhile, Hunter Ryan Herklicka’s Ariel is the gay-est, campiest sprite I’ve ever seen, and I’m something of a connoisseur. In sum: two mildly disoriented thumbs up.

Meanwhile, the intrepid Kitchen Dog Theater opened the Pulitzer-nominated In the Next Room, a play that is (finally) coming to the Cellar Theater in San Antonio next summer. (In fact, Ruhl is one of the few ‘hot’ playwrights whose works ever get mounted in conservative San Antonio. As for Bruce Norris, Annie Baker, Conor McPherson, and Enda Walsh: oh, well.) The beauty of In the Next Room, set in the early days of electricity and women’s medicine, is that it boasts the structure of a Feydeau farce, but the content of a scabrous inquiry on sexuality. The set-up: a doctor cures hysteria in his female (and even male!) patients by drawing down the humors from the uterus/pelvis into the appropriate orifice. This is accomplished through the employment of the newly-invented vibrator, which, when properly applied, produces an unexpected splash of moisture and an extremely thankful patient. When the doctor’s wife breaks into the office—which is in the next room, naturally—she investigates the machine even more, um, thoroughly than mere medicine might advise. Pandemonium ensues.

It’s a smart play: one that handles gender and medicine both gingerly and lyrically, and with a sharp satirical eye. Unfortunately, it’s too clever by half: the inclusion of an African-American wet nurse throws race into the mix as well, and that’s simply too much for a two-hour play. Indeed, the piece becomes increasingly unfocused in its second act and even launches into a coda tinged with magical realism (Ruhl’s trademark). The Kitchen Dog’s production does much to mask the play’s flaws, however, especially the picture-perfect portrayal of medical cluelessness by Max Hartman. As the doctor’s wife and the play’s central figure, Martha Harms can’t quite navigate Ruhl’s hair-pin turns from outright slapstick to the play’s Serious and Weighty Themes.

It’s worth noting that tickets to the Kitchen Dog Theater run between $15 and $25 dollars, which is equal to, or less than, the prices for similarly-sized theaters in San Antonio, including the Cellar, Classic,  Attic, Woodlawn, and Cameo Theaters. So when I make comparisons between San Antonio theater and other cities’ small- to mid-sized theaters, it’s the Kitchen Dog Theater I think of first and foremost. I’ve never regretted seeing a show there—and consistency is a crucial component of audience growth.

-Thomas "I'm Saving My Vibrator Jokes for My Eventual Print Review" Jenkins, Current Theater critic.

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