CRITICAL EYE Smart Theater

In June the Dallas Theater Center will stage something called The Big D Festival of the Unexpected. That’s the good news. The bad news-at least for some DTC theatergoers-is that the festival’s contents will indeed be surprising.

It’s been about a year, now, since Richard Hamburger arrived here from Portland, Maine, to become artistic director of the Da las Theater Center. A lot of folks were delighted to see him come. Hamburger’s reputation for staging nontra-ditional, contemporary work by some of the country’s “out there” playwrights like Mac Wellman and Erik Ehn preceded him. His was the sort of work we usually could rely only on the Undermain to give us.

At our ’theater on the hill,” such a break in populist, entertainment-oriented fare would be heady. The DTC, with its $3.5 million budget, could heap big production values onto such work. For the first time anywhere, for example, an audience might see the kitchen in Mac Wellman’s breathtaking Bodacious Flapdoodle flip upside down as the script demands. Or DTC could show us the planet of Saturn, as Wellman’s Albanian Softshoe requires.

Hopes really took off when it was announced thai Hamburger had named his wife, Melisse Cooper, as DTC’s dramaturge. Cooper had served Hamburger’s programs at Portland Stage in the same capacity. The result was same path-finding work with such playwrights as Wellman, Ehn, Eric Overmyer and Dario Fo. All on a budget under $2 million.

But by the start of Hamburger’s inaugural season last fall, it was clear that Hamburger and Cooper were in the grip of that peculiar gravitational force that tugs on artists’ flights of fancy in Dallas. Someone had hung DTC’s box office around both their necks.

Please note that they aren’t saying this. I am. They got scared. Scared they’d lose money at the blessed box office if their shows looked too dicey. Scared they’d turn off the crucial subscribers with the sort of free-thinking, issue-driven, politically volatile work that makes up so much of modern theater. Scared to look too much like Adrian Hall, scared to look too little like Paul Baker.

The mainstage season started with a production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It sat on the Kalita Humphries Theater stage like an ambitious haircut. So desperate was it to appeal to a Yuppie audience that it included a strolling sax player and an MTV-like New Orleans set that was much too tidy for the Big Easy.

A pageant-perky A Christmas Carol was followed by a glacially slow production of Ronald Harwood’s Another Time. The show lasted so long that you left feeling you’d drifted, in fact, into Another Time.

Something worse was yet to come. Neil Bartlett’s glib modem-Hollywood adaptation of Molière’s The Misanthrope was an insult to the audience. It suggested that theatergoers can’t handle a classic on its own terms and tried to dumb it down by inserting references to Schwarzenegger, thir-tysomething, David Mamet and so on. It was tiresomely acted and clumsily directed, by Jackson Phippin.

At this writing, A Doll House and Lady Day in Emerson s Bar and Grill are still to come in Hamburger’s mainstage lineup.

Is it too early to judge him? Of course it is. For that matter, the 20 months that the New York Shakespeare Festival gave JoAnne Akalaitis before canning her as artistic director of that grandmother of all nonprofit theaters was too short. So I’m not closing the book on Hamburger because of four safe-sell shows.

But it sure makes Cooper’s Festival of the Unexpected look good. I commend it to you as our best hope but potentially saddest long shot for a truly bold initiative in powerful theatrical literature at DTC.

Cooper is as compelling and exacting a theater personality as her husband Hamburger is. I love them both for what 1 am utterly, unshakably certain is their deep understanding of nonmainstream stage expression. They’ve taken a lot of flak for importing artists from outside Dallas, but they’re right to do it: We can’t expect to believe Randy Moore and other local actors in five different roles a year.

And when it comes to programming, Cooper isn’t easily thrown off her stride, either. Try suggesting, as I did, that the more sophisticated theater coming to her festival belongs at centerstage of DTC’s programs,

“I honestly don’t believe that a lot of work like Mac Wellman’s Terminal Hip (a wildly ingenious long monologue of a show) is appropriate for a mainstage venue,” she says. “Granted, at Portland Stage, a lot of the work we did was more performance-art oriented, and we did do it on the mainstage. But that took years.

“There’s work that will never be received by a broad audience. I want a diverse audience but there’s no way that we can expect a broad one for this kind of work. When you have an institutional theater, you have to have an ongoing dialogue with the audience, a flow between the theater and the audience-education.”

And there’s our key disagreement, something I want you to consider.

It revolves around the word education.

Cooper is backed by legions of theater people who talk of creating an “educational context” for advanced, serious theater. They always want to “prepare” a house- for years, maybe decades, mind you- before asking it to face something tougher than Agatha Christie. They think you’ve never seen a film at the UA Cine, let alone the Inwood. They think your cable system doesn’t offer A&E, let alone Bravo, They think you’ve never heard Kronos play, let alone Philip Glass.

The panicked cry for “Education!” is an excuse to do work that’s easier to sell at the box office and thus safer for the theater financially.

Schoenberg composed atonal music in 1908-how long are we to “educate” the audience before we play a simple tone cluster? Edvard Munch showed us what a good Norwegian can do with clinical depression when he painted his harrowing The Scream in 1893-a century later, we now can deem ourselves “educated” enough to see a little expressionism without fainting. And take Henrik Ibsen, on whose A Doll’s House Hamburger’s A Doll House is based; Ibsen wrote this fiery feminist play in 1879. You want feminism? I’ve got your feminism right here: Try Mame Hunt’s new work for San Francisco’s Magic Theatre based on the transcripts of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings: something about our lives and times. But no, sorry, I forgot: We have to educate our audience. Back to Ibsen.

Well, mercifully. Cooper’s Festival of the Unexpected isn’t Ibsen. Admission to it is a pay-what-you-can or suggested-dona-tion format. And there are some genuinely major, talented dramatists coming to Dallas for it. It’s not getting anywhere near the DTC’s Humphries or Arts District Theater mainstages-it’s relegated to rehearsal halls, studios, “alternate spaces”-but at least it’s here, happening the first two weeks in June at odd times of the day in odd spaces around the Theater Center: Call 522-TIXX for full details, ready by the time you read this.

At press time, these were Cooper’s promising key events, subject to change.

The America Play by Suzan-Lori Parks. This “language-poet” playwright, only now entering her 30s, captivated New York’s downtown-culturati in 1989 and won a 1990 Village Voice Obie (off-Broadway) Award with her Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom. Undermain gave it a full staging earlier this season. The incisive director Liz Diamond, who staged Parks’ The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World last year at Yale Rep, will come to Dallas to work on The America Play. This developing show will have about four performances with some modest design elements-the rest of the festival will be more simply mounted.

Eric Overmyer is a playwright who has written for television’s “St. Elsewhere” and “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd” and who is best known in theaters for his On the Verge, or The Geography of Yearning. and The Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin. His new work-in-progress, referred to for now as The Audubon Project, is about the famous bird-man John James Audubon and will get about three readings, staged by Cooper herself.

Hamburger will direct a workshop version-meaning it will likely be a bit more than a reading-of a new play called Porcelain by newcomer Chay Yew. Yew dubs the piece a “voice play” and has named four Caucasian male characters Voice One, Voice Two, Voice Three and Voice Four.

Mexican director and translator Melia Bensussen-she staged the Langston Hughes translation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding for Akalaitis at New York’s Public Theater-will get together one or two performances of Dostoevsky Goes to the Beach by Chilean playwright Marco Antonio de la Parra.

In addition to these four likely projects, the festival may include appearances by Paul Zaloom, a satirist who uses extensive toy props to make political points. Cooper also says she’s thinking of having an outside company-I vote for Undermain- offer a reading during the festival.

So. a few suggestions:

(1) Support Melissa Cooper. Go to every single thing you can in the Festival of the Unexpected. You’ll enjoy the novelty of it, if nothing else. Then,

(2) Support Richard Hamburger, Write him, tell him everything you saw in the festival, what you thought of it and conclude with this sentence: “So, you see, Richard, now I’m educated and ready for work that means something on our main-stages.”

As rude as I sound doing it-and as cordial as I’m sure you can make it-we’ve got to start telling this theater that we want to enter the fin de siècle intelligence of new theater enjoyed in other major cities. Or our potentially great DTC is going to slide back into its swamp of common comedy and cheap classical retreads-Dallas’ fiesta of low expectations.

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