Despite the strong work on Tarrant County stages in 2013, this year will always be known for a tremendous loss in the theater world: the death of Jerry Russell, founder of Stage West and its driving force for three and a half decades. As a director, actor, teacher and advocate, Russell was a vital presence on the North Texas performing arts scene.
When he entered the hospital for abdominal surgery in August, he had several irons in the fire: He was three weeks into rehearsals for what would be his final show to direct, Thank You, Jeeves; he was putting together the theater’s educational outreach production of Macbeth; and he was set to star in The Sunshine Boys at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. We feel certain that he must have been proud of his theater, which is financially and artistically strong, although the two of us — as theater critics are wont to do — couldn’t agree on which productions we liked best.
Local stars who wowed us this year include Jubilee Theatre’s Tre Garrett, who successfully worked outside of his theater for two terrific Dallas shows ( A Raisin in the Sun at Dallas Theater Center and Will Power’s The Seven at Southern Methodist University); and Krista Scott, the Texas Christian University theater faculty member who made our 2013 top 10 list twice, as an actor and director.
In other noteworthy news: Stolen Shakespeare Guild grew artistically by leaps and bounds; Amphibian Stage Productions completed its first full year in its beautiful new home; Circle Theatre had one of its best seasons in years; and Tarrant Actors Regional Theater made a notable debut.
Here’s our list of the 10 best productions of 2013 in Tarrant County, followed by honorable mentions that must be discussed.
1. The Taming of the Shrew, Trinity Shakespeare Festival (June): In its fifth year, Trinity Shakes once again proved its standing as the gold standard for North Texas Shakespeare, and T.J. Walsh’s handling of the problem faced by all directors of this play — toning down the misogyny — was a stroke of genius. He didn’t change the text, but he did insert a simple action just before the final scene’s famed speech that was table-turning.
2. Clarence Darrow, Stage West (April): It was the third time that Jerry Russell had played the role of the famous early-20th-century lawyer in this one-man show, and there’s no way anyone could have known it would be his last performance. As usual, he found the humanity and humor in a role that seemed tailor-made for him. This show also inaugurated Stage West’s Studio Theatre. After Russell died unexpectedly in the summer, theaters across North Texas, including AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas, gave testament to his influence and importance and dimmed their lights in his honor.
3. Exit, Pursued by a Bear, Circle Theatre (August): The title is an infamous stage direction in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, and playwright Lauren Gunderson turned it into a brutally funny contemporary comedy of revenge and big dreams. Directed by Krista Scott, it was the highlight in an exceptionally strong year at Circle Theatre.
4. Black Pearl Sings!, Jubilee Theatre (February): Dallas actress Liz Mikel has previously played the title role in this drama about an incarcerated black woman in the 1930s South who becomes the subject of a musicologist’s research, but the magic happened this time around with the pairing of Mikel, actress Lana Hoover and director Akin Babatunde, whose work on the music in the show when it was first done in Dallas was so good that he became a favorite collaborator for the playwright, Frank Higgins.
5. Picnic, Stolen Shakespeare Guild at Sanders Theatre (April): One of the most positive stories in Fort Worth theater in 2013 was the continuing rise of the Stolen Shakespeare Guild. This little amateur-troupe-that-could has always done a lot with a little, but never more so than this past year. The company is doing increasing good work while also serving as a training ground for young talent and a comfortable home for seasoned performers who still have something in the tank. This production soared thanks to Bill Sizemore’s highly sensitive direction and creative set design, plus some superb performances in the supporting cast.
6. Wit, Theatre Arlington (March): A tour de force performance by Krista Scott, gently guided by Emily Scott Banks’ direction, resulted in a production that delivered all the power of this poignant piece of theater about a proud woman who refuses to be humbled by a devastating illness.
7. God of Carnage, Circle Theatre (January): Yasmina Reza’s comedy about two sets of parents whose conversation about their children’s playground fight becomes something louder and bigger was elegantly directed by Robin Armstrong, and thanks to casting, far exceeded the area premiere of this work the year before at Dallas Theater Center.
8. Death Tax, Amphibian Stage Productions (October): Amphibian Stage Productions had a solid first full year in its new home, but nothing hit the marks like this Lucas Hnath comedy about a dying elderly woman, her money-grubbing daughter, a scheming doctor and a Caribbean nurse who’s pulling the puppet strings on it all. Directed by Rene Moreno.
9. The Woman in Black, Tarrant Actors Regional Theater at Sanders Theatre (September): The debut of the year. A new company, with the acronym TART, comes on the scene with a title that has been running for decades in London, and director Allen Walker scores big with a well-cast, suspenseful and perfectly-paced production, with indispensable help from the lighting and sound designers.
10. Waiting for Godot, Dragstrip Courage at Arts Fifth Avenue (July): This production was so good that you almost expected Godot to show up at the end. Leads Seth Johnston and Robert X. Rodriguez made this an absurdly appealing staging of a classic that is too seldom seen.
Honorable mentions: The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Theatre Arlington; A Tempest, Hip Pocket Theatre; Thank You, Jeeves, Stage West; Monty Python’s Spamalot, Stolen Shakespeare Guild; Rapunzel! Rapunzel! A Very Hairy Fairy Tale, Casa Mañana Children’s Theatre.