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The Undermain Makes Its Move into the Arts District

by Jerome Weeks 10 Jan 2013 7:39 AM

The Undermain is the first theater to use the City Performance Hall. It’ll be a chance for the company to show it can hold its own with the big boys in the Arts District.


Is this sufficiently ‘sausage-y’ for ya? Bruce DuBose, Gregory Lush and Max Hartman as the layabout suitors in Penelope

The Undermain Theatre will be the first stage company to use the new City Performance Hall in the Arts District. The company opens there this weekend with the play Penelope. KERA’s Jerome Weeks says it’s a typical Undermain undertaking: ambitious and unusual.

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On stage at the City Performance Hall, carpenters and painters are finishing the set for the Undermain’s production of Penelope. It’s by Tony Award-winning Irish playwright Enda Walsh — who taught at SMU this past fall as a winner of the Meadows Prize. His comedy concerns the suitors who tried to woo Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, while he was away fighting the Trojan War. Walsh considers the suitor characters somewhat “underwritten” by Homer (they’re basically just a mob of moochers). So, in a move somewhat like what Tom Stoppard did in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, he’s taken minor players in a major story and put them center stage — to comic, absurdist and fatal ends. Walsh has updated their tale to contemporary Ireland, where the paunchy, would-be lovers still bicker with each other, after years of hanging out. The men strut around a moldy, built-in swimming pool, while above them, in a white-curtained cabana, Penelope watches and waits.

1st actor: “This is Fitz we’re talking about here. Look at him. This is a decaying man. Could you happily deposit this geriatric at her door? Of course you couldn’t.

2nd actor: “So the fight continues?”

1st actor: “Of course the fight continues.”

Second actor: “Excellent!”

Building a cabana on top of a swimming pool is what originally led the Undermain to the City Performance Hall.

Bruce DuBose and Katherine Owens — the company’s executive producer and artistic director — had settled on Penelope  and knew they wanted Stan Wojewodski, Jr (left), the chairman of SMU’s drama department, to direct it. But he argued that  the verticality of the set itself — which allows for Penelope’s aloof presence above the men — made a statement.  And a two-story-tall set wouldn’t fit in the Undermain’s  basement space in Deep Ellum.

“I understood that the Undermain space had been used extraordinarily imaginatively,” says Wojewodski. ” In fact, on two occasions I had done so – hah hah hah. But I couldn’t imagine how to do this in that space.”

So the acclaimed theater company is climbing up out of that basement for the opportunity provided by the new City Performance Hall. It’s not just about the height of the stage — it’s about the location. Katherine Owens (below) says this is what the Hall was built for. It’s a major, downtown showcase for arts groups that couldn’t swing the larger, costlier facilities in the AT&T Performing Arts Center.

“I think the vision of the Arts District was to have a lot of people come into a central part of Dallas and present there,” she says.  “I always thought that was a terrific idea.”

The idea is to show the Undermain can play right alongside the Dallas Theater Center or the touring musicals at the Winspear – and match them in dramatic interest and artistry.

But the City Performance Hall has come under fire from some of the smaller arts groups. Eventually, it’s supposed to have two smaller performance spaces built to flank it on either side. Those were the plans. But because the 750-seat auditorium was built first, arts groups have said it’s too big and too costly for them to use. And who knows if Dallas will ever put together another bond issue that would include those smaller, secondary spaces?

So the Undermain’s production of Penelope may demonstrate the Hall’s flexibility in accommodating smaller companies. But it’ll also demonstrate the Undermain is no longer a small company.

“We’re solidly a mid-sized company now,” says Owens. “It started in 2008, the strategic plan, we’re working with the board. We’ve had this whole big renewal of all of our resources. So we’re a pretty big company now.”

These days, the Undermain’s annual budget is $600,000 – and later this year, the Undermain will be 30 years old.

This is not the first time the Undermain has staged above-ground shows. The company has performed in New York and Macedonia. Even so, Penelope  has been challenging. The crew working on the set at the City Performance Hall is also putting together the risers and the chairs for the audience on the stage. The auditorium with its rows of seats will not be used. Instead, the Undermain has closed off the auditorium and is using just the stage itself as the entire theater, turning it into a 100-seat ‘black box’ space.

Owens says she’s familiar with doing just that, having grown up in West Texas “where you didn’t have any proper theaters” and had to adapt different spaces. And while he was head of Yale’s theater program and even before, when he ran Baltimore’s Center Stage, Wojewodski has done the same, he says. They’re veterans of carving smaller theaters out of bigger ones.

Nontheless, the company had to rent a warehouse to build that set. They had to rent a semi-trailer to haul it to the Arts District. They had to learn how to use a much more high-tech facility. Not many North Texas stage companies could have pulled all this off.

“It was a lot of trouble. But theater,” Owens adds with a laugh, “is a lot of trouble.”

And Wojewodski believes the opportunity provided by the new Hall was worth it: “I feel very happy about the fact that this production can signal availability and possibility for Dallas theater. I’m happy about that.”

  • Listen to the suitors as they debate the relative merits of the sausages (‘bangers’) they’ve been grilling: