Oklahoma City theater hibernates from Christmas until about the ides of January, so as we turn our attention to bowl games and ringing in 2011 — which marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of playwright Thomas Lanier Williams, better known as Tennessee — let’s look back on some of the city’s more noteworthy dramatic events of 2010. With few exceptions, the old theatrical year is not likely to be remembered past about 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2011.
Exception No. 1 was Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre’s first-rate production of “August: Osage County,” the acclaimed epic by Durant’s own Tracy Letts (now of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Co.). This was the first production of “August” by an Oklahoma theater company and one of the first regional productions anywhere (the national tour played Tulsa in January).
Staged on Ben Hall’s impressive two-story set, the play depicts an episode in the lives of the Weston family of Pawhuska. I’ve been telling everyone from out of state that the Westons are a typical Oklahoma family. Letts goes about one iniquity too far in the story, but “August: Osage County” should achieve its place in the canon of Great American Plays. Playing Violet, the family matriarch, Pam Dougherty wins best performance of the year by an actress in a leading role.
Exception No. 2 was “Rent,” produced by the University of Oklahoma’s Weitzenhoffer School of Musical Theatre. “Rent” (book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson) is not one of the great American musicals, but this elaborate production, directed with elucidating clarity by Shawn Churchman, gave the show a welcome freshness.
Other than those two productions, the most interesting and provocative dramatic work of 2010 was done in out-of-the-way venues for brief runs that might have escaped anyone who didn’t survey the theater scene with lyncean intensity.
One of the more prominent productions was Ghostlight Theatre Club’s delightful “[title of show]” (Jeff Bowen, music and lyrics; Hunter Bell, book). “[title of show]” — yes, that’s the title of the show — follows two fellows (played with cool accuracy by Scott Hynes and Christopher Robinson) as they create a yet-untitled musical. This is a great one for drama queens to display their knowledge of musical-theater minutiae.
Kudos goes to “9 Parts of Desire” by Iraqi-American playwright Heather Raffo at the OU Lab Theatre. Smartly directed by Alissa Millar, “9 Parts” takes place in Iraq, London and New York City from 2003 to the present and portrays the lives of several Iraqi women in various social strata. Their individual stories reveal the futility of the misguided war and miseries inflicted on innocent Iraqis. The six actresses nailed the Iraqi accents.
Also notable was the aleatoric “Bombs, Babes and Bingo” by University of Central Oklahoma graduate Merri Biechler, presented by Fayetteville, Ark.,-based Artist’s Laboratory Theatre at Actor’s Warehouse. This theater company has garnered well-deserved national attention. (Remember when we used to look down on Arkansas?) The conceit is that a random drawing of bingo balls determines the order of scenes in the play.