Good news. It looks like Theatre Three is playing in a new sandbox.
Over the last three years, North Texas theater leadership has experienced an unprecedented turnover: Five, long-time stage companies have undergone significant, sometimes tragic changes in artistic directors: Stage West (from the late founder Jerry Russell over to Dana Schultes), WaterTower Theatre (Terry Martin to Joanie Schultz), Jubilee Theatre (what remained of the late Rudy Eastman’s company to Bill Ray), Circle Theatre (from the late co-founder Rose Pearson to her husband and co-founder, Bill Newberry) and, of course, Theatre Three (the late co-founder Jac Alder to Jeffrey Schmidt).
Of the four, Circle Theatre seems to be staying the course with its new season of light, contemporary comedies. And Jubilee could be said to be steering a more conventional path (with shows such as the current ‘Beehive’).
The other companies have gone off-roading, aiming for new and different GPS coordinates – with fresh plays, young writers, darker material (Stage West’s ‘The Nether’ and ‘Mr. Burns’) and plays that are more politically and sexually outspoken (‘Bootycandy’ at Stage West and ‘Hit the Wall’ at WaterTower, along with the upcoming ‘Hand to God’ and Quiara Alegria Hudes’ ‘Eliot, a Soldier’s Fugue’).
Now it’s Jeff Schmidt’s turn at the wheel.
Schmidt’s debut season at Theatre Three, announced in March, is ambitious, expansive and intriguing. It includes collaborations with smaller, adventuresome companies (a five-actor ‘King Lear’ from PrismCo, a new musical by Our Endeavors Collective), plus a world premiere of a comedy by former Dallas playwright Matt Lyle. And four productions directed by Schmidt himself (who, like Alder, often designs his shows).
It’s true Theatre Three started more than 50 years ago as Dallas’ ‘off-Broadway’ house, presenting Edward Albee and ‘Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.’ And in recent seasons, executive producer Jac Alder had sporadically refreshed the offerings – with area premieres of daring shows like ‘Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson’ and developing the popular musical ‘On the Eve’ (designed and directed by Schmidt).
Still, if ever an aging company needed a re-boot, it was Theatre Three. Its shows could settle for easy camp and medium-warm ambition or execution. Basically, it offered theatrical comfort food. It lived up (or down) to its standing as the city’s “second theater” after the Dallas Theater Center.
But that position is important – as was Alder’s efforts as a de facto arts leader. The same goes for Theatre Three’s future as the only Equity company, other than the Theater Center, with a home in downtown Dallas.
Alder succeeded for so long because he ably wended his way between DTC on the one side (with its national ambitions, its city-supported facility, its wealthy patrons, its quest for Civic Significance) and on the other side, let’s call them the Wild Bunch: the alternative theaters, the no-longer-so-young disrupters like Kitchen Dog, Undermain, Ochre House and the Uptown Players. Alder’s theater had a significantly older audience and a decidedly middle-class-not-high-society board. But the company succeeded in buying its own space (unlike the smaller theaters), and Alder had become expert at multi-tasking, working his way through all the local layers of political support, finagling grants, remodeling and upgrading his theater.
And simply surviving. That may not sound like a noble achievement, but one director doing it for more than 50 years? That’s a heroic length of time in the American resident theater. And especially in Dallas – gentrifying-mad, population booming, rich, shiny, bulldozing Dallas, which is always after what’s new and next. So around here, it’s what lasts that’s truly rare.
All of which leads us to Schmidt’s sandbox, which is center stage in his playful area premiere of Anna Ziegler’s ‘The Minotaur.’ The play’s not a bad place to begin: an updated, whimsical version of a classic Greek legend about the labyrinth. New and old at once.
Schmidt’s set is ingenious and metaphoric: The ‘labyrinth’ in this case is made of shadowy rows of hanging sheets in one corner (looking like sails), with a sizable sandbox in the middle, trapping the characters, surrounding them with small streams of water. The whole isolated little island is like a beach volleyball version of ‘No Exit.’
Obviously, the design was partly inspired by the isle of Crete, ruled by King Minos and Queen Pasiphae, the original location of the mythic labyrinth. But it was also inspired by the child-like ‘gamesmanship’ in Ziegler’s clever comedy: The Minotaur (son of Pasiphae) and Ariadne (daughter of Minos) pass the time playing Connect 4 while being kibbitzed by a Greek chorus made of – wait for it – a priest, a rabbi and a lawyer.
Got all that? No matter. Here are the two important things to know: One, Ziegler can write. Updating a classic text by putting comic, contemporary spins on characters is at least as old as Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ (1966). As Stoppard’s title indicates, ‘Rosencrantz’ has a bleak view of the possibilities for real change. No matter how witty or self-aware the characters may be, they’re still trapped inside a centuries-old script.
Ziegler has a slyer, more ambivalent take on fate. After all, the original Greek legend has Theseus killing the Minotaur and freeing his victims. It’s a traditional myth of a Joseph Campbell-y hero, complete with the trial the hero undergoes, infiltrating the villain’s lair and resurfacing to claim the girl (and win Athens).
But what Ziegler has pounced on is the often overlooked oddity that the Minotaur (Darren McElroy) and Ariadne (Cora Grace Winstead) – essentially, this story’s villain and female prize – are half-siblings. Their relationship is the center of this play. The two sit around with their game board, grumbling like resentful teens. They complain about the roles they must play. And Ariadne secretly sends girl-crush emails to Theseus, hoping he will come and save her from this sad, little half-life.
Before anyone can sing ‘Teenage Wasteland,’ Theseus (Kyle Igneczi) arrives. He’s the one person who eagerly grasps his conventional role (a hero just keeps moving forward!) because he doesn’t seem to have an introspective cell in his body. Until, that is, he faces Ariadne’s emotional needs (confusing!) and the fact he’s destined to kill her half-brother (what?) – but can do it only with her crucial help (even more confusing!).
Two years ago, Ziegler had a year most playwrights dream of: She had four different plays opening across the country and a fifth opening in London with Nicole Kidman. And here she is, finally making her North Texas debut with ‘The Minotaur.’ A round of applause.
It’s true ‘The Minotaur’ is an earlier effort, and it shows. The writing gets unfocused near the end of the 90-minute, intermissionless comedy; just who wants what or gets what is unclear. But we sense this primarily because the play has been so nimble and nuanced until then.
References to items like an iPod full of a girl’s favorite songs are going to date the script, but it may well remain fresh and clever, as long as it’s given the kind of cast and direction Schmidt has brought to it. Which is the second important thing to know.
Schmidt’s production designs have tended toward the conceptual with realistic flourishes – like his brilliant re-imagining of ‘The Farnsworth Invention’ as a giant TV studio. Oddly enough, the weakest aspect of the ‘Minotaur’ production is a case of one concept-too-far. Schmidt acknowledges Crete’s current immigrant crisis by stringing some barbed wire around a stage entrance. It’s unnecessary, a distraction. Not a single character wonders if he or she will be rejected as an immigrant. The Minotaur only worries if he’ll be allowed to live.
Still, the important point is that Schmidt’s directing isn’t conceptual. No forced or highly stylized acting choices. He lets a good cast take off with a good script.
As Ariadne, Cora Grace Winstead is a real find: fresh-faced, with the boldness of youth and a quicksilver intelligence. Her Ariadne is cagey enough to fear the pitfalls around her. As Theseus, Kyle Igneczi is close to playing the hero the way Patrick Warburton used to play the title character in the TV series, ‘The Tick’ – as a guy who’s dimly aware that old-school heroism may be a joke, but still, you know, he’s a hero. Gotta count for something. That monster’s not gonna die on his own! I’m gonna save Athens – if I can just ignore all this needy (but alluring) Ariadne or the Gloomy Guses of the chorus.
Darren McElroy brings his strong air of melancholy to the Minotaur, which perfectly suits playwright Ziegler’s efforts at humanizing the monster. With every line, McElroy’s Minotaur conveys a tragic sensibility, the hang-dog knowledge there’s no way this story comes out happy for him. And the entire Chorus – from conception to cast – is a low-key, deadpan delight. David Lugo, Renee Jones and Randy Pearlman take turns delivering their put-down observations, their reminders of the uncomfortable backstory here. No joke, the priest, the rabbi and the lawyer are a collective reality principle.
To sum up: The reality here is that Schmidt chose to start his tenure at Theatre Three with a small, quick-footed and new(ish) comedy that plays to his strengths: not hard-edged dramatic realism but a theatricality that’s wry and inventive (not surprisingly, all four shows he’s scheduled to direct this season are comedies). Non-traditional casting is also no big deal for him.
With this show and this season, Schmidt’s ambitions may not be grand or deep – so far. But they are smart and confident. His entire approach says, ‘I got this. As an artist, I grew up at Theatre Three. And on this island that Jac Alder found, we can build something fresh.”