Natalie Wilson King and Liz Mikel in ‘Bootycandy’ at Stage West Buddy Myers
Natalie Wilson King and Liz Mikel in ‘Bootycandy’ at Stage West Buddy Myers

Performing Arts

Leadership changes set the stage for theaters’ daring 2016 shows

By Mark Lowry and Punch Shaw

Special to the Star-Telegram

December 29, 2016 06:00 AM

In 2016, Fort Worth suffered another loss of one of its theater pioneers when Rose Pearson, co-founder and executive director of Circle Theatre, died in August after years of fighting cancer.

We will see how it affects the theater in feature seasons. Pearson’s widower and Circle co-founder Bill Newberry will take over as executive director, with Tim Long as general manager/producer.

Meanwhile, two of Fort Worth’s other long-running professional theaters saw leadership changes in 2016. Dana Schultes was named executive producer of Stage West when Jim Covault announced he would retire, and 2016-17 was the first season selected entirely by her.

And Jubilee Theatre named its third artistic director since the 2005 death of Rudy Eastman, William “Bill” Earl Ray, who also selected his theater’s 2016-17 season.

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Artistically, Stage West had a stellar year, while Circle, Jubilee, Amphibian Stage Productions, Trinity Shakespeare Festival, Hip Pocket Theatre and Casa Mañana had productions worth remembering at year’s end. Both of our freelance critics, Mark Lowry and Punch Shaw, each loved a production at Artes de la Rosa, which seemed to find its footing just as Artistic Director Adam Adolfo announced his resignation after seven years of shaping that company.

Here are our critics’ picks for the top five Tarrant County productions in 2016, with a few honorable mentions.

Mark Lowry’s Top 5

1. Bootycandy

Stage West (Aug. 11-Sept. 11)

In its regional premiere, this hysterical and, yes, imperfect, autobiographical script by Robert O’Hara had some of the biggest laughter-through-gasping scenes of the year. In interconnected vignettes, it commented on being black; being black and gay; and being black, gay and a playwright in America. Directed by Akín Babatundé with a stellar ensemble that included Liz Mikel in her best performance in years and an unforgettable scene from Djoré Nance as a minister with something to say about gossip. Most daring programming choice of the year.

2. The Nether

Stage West (March 10-April 10)

Jennifer Haley’s award-winning, tough play about a world in which internet chat rooms have become dangerously sensory was directed with sensitivity and grit by Garret Storms, with two of the year’s best performances from Randy Pearlman and Allison Pistorius; and another excellent scenic design for Stage West, by Storms and Nate Davis.

3. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Winter’s Tale

Trinity Shakespeare Festival (June 7-26)

There’s no question that Trinity Shakespeare always gives us the year’s finest productions of the Bard, but these, in the group’s eighth season, were exemplary by even those standards. Midsummer, arguably Shakespeare’s most popular work, directed by Stephen Brown-Fried, was visually gorgeous and had the funniest gaggle of mechanicals I’ve ever seen; while the problematic Winter was made more accessible and insightful than ever in the hands of director T.J. Walsh.

4. The Lake Worth Monster

Hip Pocket Theatre (Sept. 16-Oct. 16)

It’s been more than two decades since Johnny Simons revisited his signature, autobiographical rock musical, first created for his graduate thesis in the early 1970s, before Hip Pocket was formed. He brought in the big guns to help him: Designers, musicians and actors involved in the original production or its revivals, and New York puppet genius Basil Twist to design the incredible, very large title creature. It showed that Simons’ aesthetic hasn’t changed in more than four decades, and for that, we’re grateful.

5. Welcome to Arroyo’s

Artes de la Rosa (May 21-June 5)

Adam Adolfo directed Kristoffer Diaz’s 2010 play about a woman’s quest to find more information on a Puerto Rican woman’s pioneering role in the early days of hip-hop, leading her to a Puerto Rican-owned bar in New York’s Lower East Side. There, the characters offered two generations of insight about love, changing times and music. Performed with two live DJs remixing the narrative, if you will, Adolfo’s production was like hip-hop itself: flashy, smart, loaded with swagger and with deeper meaning between the lines.

Honorable Mentions: I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers, Amphibian Stage Productions (April 7-May 1); Jesus Christ Superstar, Casa Mañana (Sept. 10-18); Under the Skin, Circle Theatre (April 28-May 21); Don Quixote, Hip Pocket Theatre (Aug. 12-Sept. 4); Atwater: Fixin’ to Die, Dragstrip Courage/Arts Fifth Avenue (June 3-12)

Punch Shaw’s Top 5

1. The Nether

Stage West (March 10-April 10)

This bold, devastating drama by Jennifer Haley dealt with the most repugnant of subjects: pederasts on the internet. But thanks to an amazing cast and brilliant staging by director Garret Storms, it was impossible to look away from this gut-wrenching production, which succeeded on the strength of its enormous inner powers.

2. Funnyman

Circle Theatre (Oct. 21-Nov. 19)

Randy Pearlman (one of the stars of The Nether) delivered one of the best performances ever seen on a Fort Worth stage in this drama about a 1950s actor striving for legitimacy after a career in baggy-pants comedy. And director Krista Scott’s handling of Bruce Graham’s excellent script, which was loosely based on the life and career of Bert Lahr, was right on the money.

3. Jesus Christ Superstar

Casa Mañana (Sept. 10-18)

The inspired direction and choreography of Josh Rhodes made this production of this slightly shopworn musical soar to new heights. His approach to this early effort by Andrew Lloyd Webber was refreshingly natural and relentlessly intense.

4. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Artes de la Rosa (July 22-Aug. 7)

This company, which has struggled to find consistency, found a comfort zone in this inexplicably neglected musical. Former Artes de la Rosa artistic director Adam Adolfo’s direction, and an outstanding pit ensemble led by Richard Gwozdz, made it hard to understand why we don’t see this show more often.

5. A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Trinity Shakespeare Festival (June 10-26)

Willy Shakes’ most delightful comedy was served up with tons of charm and broad humor in this production directed by Stephen Brown-Fried. Richard Haratine’s turn as the fairy king Oberon, Aaron Patrick DeClerk’s costuming and Bob Lavallee’s set design were among the reasons that this production captured the magic of the material so well.

Honorable Mentions: Seven Guitars, Jubilee Theatre (Feb. 5-28); Tartuffe and A Doll’s House, Stolen Shakespeare Guild (Oct. 14-30); Ann (The Ann Richards Play), Stage West (Oct. 8-Nov. 6)

2016 A&E Year in Review

Dec. 23: Movies and music

Dec. 25: Visual art, books

Monday: Television

Tuesday: Dance

Thursday: Theater

Friday: Restaurants

Saturday: Classical music