Nightmare on Pearl Street.

Subversify welcomes Alexandra Bonifield, a theatre critic out of  Dallas, Texas.  You can find more of her writing at http://criticalrant.com/

By: Alexandra Bonifield

Like most theatre-loving folks in Dallas and as a regional theatre critic, I was very curious to see what the experience of attending a performance the new Wyly Theatre would be like. I got my chance this past Friday night, October 30, when Dallas Theater Center inaugurated its use of the Wyly Theatre with the production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I call the evening “My Nightmare on Pearl St.”

WYLY: Giant Gray Water Cooler

It took a while for my press pass to get confirmed by DTC staff, but when it did, I learned they arranged a parking pass for me at “the garage” so I wouldn’t have to pay $15 to park. I was instructed to “enter the garage from Pearl St. to get my parking pass.” Sounded simple. Seek parking pass, Wyly Theatre garage off Pearl St.

I hardly ever go downtown. Why would I? The theatre productions I review weekly are performed at a wide range of accessible venues in neighborhoods throughout the community. The closest I generally get to downtown is Deep Ellum for Undermain Theatre or Uptown for Kitchen Dog Theater. Plenty of free parking, close to the venues, with interesting bars and restaurants nearby for post-show discussion. I didn’t feel the need to Google the location; after all, the Wyly Theatre is a tall building standing off alone, probably sporting a prominent marquee of some sort, right? Hard to miss. I figured I’d get on Pearl St., cruise down to the theatre and park in its garage, as instructed. Just to be on the safe side, I left home fifteen minutes early, to allow for traffic.

I get to Pearl St., no problem. Except, it’s one way. Not the way I need to go. I know the general location of the venue, so I start exploring the frustrating one-way, ‘no turns allowed’ zigzags one has to follow to negotiate downtown Dallas’ street maze. If there are street signs, I can’t see them at night. I know I’m somewhere close as I can see the lipstick red of the Winspear Opera House as I foray along. Oddly, I can find no sign saying, “This is the Wyly Theatre”, or “Wyly Theatre Parking Here”. Five minutes pass. I go by what looks like a giant old-fashioned evaporative cooler, a tall, grayish box-y building. Not attractive or welcoming. Maybe the Wyly? Nothing much near it except the Winspear glowing like a space ship in full bloom about a football field away. I keep making turns; sure I’ll see a line of cars going into the bowels of the earth below the building, with signs and uniformed attendants. Finally I come across a line of cars heading into a parking structure. Delighted, I join the queue. This has to be it; I won’t arrive late. As I approach the attendant gate, it occurs to ask if I’m at Wyly parking. There are no signs anywhere, none that I can see. Wouldn’t it be silly to be at the wrong garage? “You’re at the Meyerson, miss.” Oops. I glance at the LONG line of cars behind me. “How do I get out, and where is Wyly parking?” I ask in panic. Told to “drive on through” with a shrug as though this is an everyday occurrence, I begin the labyrinthine search for an exit, recalling the Minoans and Sartre, realizing that at least three of the four cars parading along ahead of me are being piloted by lost souls, too. Another five minutes passes, feels like half an hour. The exit looms, and I pull to its lip. “Right Turn Only” greets me, again no street signs. I am truly lost now.

“The Wyly, a tall box of a building wrapped in a skin of aluminum tubes, is standoffish outside and yoga-flexible within; in classic Koolhaas form, the 600-seat theater dares the Dallas arts establishment to complain about its severe, basement-level concrete lobby, the almost punitively narrow main staircase and a terrace lined with bright-green fake grass.” Christopher Hawthorne, in the Los Angeles Times

I note again that giant grayish water cooler structure looming darkly, and there appear to be cops wearing reflective orange vests on another street corner a half block away, directing creeping carloads of confused people. Maybe they’ll guide a lost soul?  Cheerily, they point me to the Winspear. I insist I’m there for the Wyly. “The WYLY.  It’s over there?” Cop smiles broadly. “It’s got no parking yet, miss; you have to park under Big Red.”  Big Red: a revelation. I turn left to approach Winspear parking entrance off yet another no-name street. To my amazed delight, the attendant has my name on his press-parking list, and I’m waved on in. By now, my “extra” five minutes have elapsed. My heart races, even if my car cannot due to the line of lost souls chugging ahead of me, seeking similar respite. I park my 2004 Kia Hatchback on Lexus P2, exhale a huge sigh and follow two ladies in stiletto heels to an escalator up. Up? I’m feeling disoriented by now. Am I still in Dallas or on some weird glass and concrete planet?

We arrive at ground floor level by Big Red. I can see Giant Gray Water Cooler some distance away. Trying not to fall into a dusky reflecting pool at walkway level, I approach another orange-vested gent. “Is that the Wyly over there, and how do I get to it?” I query him.  “Just hop right in this golf cart, young lady, and I’ll buzz you on over! There’s a long, steep slope and I’d hate to see you fall in the dark, hurrying down it.” Golf cart? I notice a flotilla of them. Steep slope? And howdy, more concrete. A bonanza for the skateboard set ought to be real interesting to negotiate in heels when black ice season hits. So, the terrain is flat around here…why dig a hole with a steep slope to bury the theater entrance below ground level? How will limos or cars with elderly and disabled people pull up close to disgorge their attending patrons? I flash on a sudden image of a graceful circular drive, landscaped attractively with colorful, live plants, flowing under an elegant, arching portico, bright-lit and welcoming. A bevy of handsome doormen bustle to assist patrons to alight. Chandeliers, buzz, merry anticipation? Wishful thinking. Back to dark, steep slope in a golf cart. Fake greenery. Grim aspect. It doesn’t even look like a theater.

Jeremy Gerard (former Dallas Morning News theater critic), in Bloomberg News: “In the Wyly, “There seems to be no quiet way for the actors to make exits and entrances; footsteps on metal stairs throughout the building pierce the walls, as do noises from the lobby. The seats are torture-chamber hard. All that stacked technology, I guess, required the entrance to the theater to be below the plaza level, down a concrete hill that seems to invite tripping.”

I emerge from my chariot and enter the Wyly’s main doors that remind me of a 1960’s science fiction movie set. I’m hoofing it now; don’t want to miss the opening moments of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 8pm curtain. Can’t be hard to locate my seat.

I get my ticket at the press table and go through more sci-fi doors. Stairs loom ahead of me. LOTS of steep stairs. In grey metal, dimly lit. Whoa. No time to lay carpet before opening? I trudge slowly up, placing my feet carefully. On the landing, an usher purrs, “Thanks for going slow up these stairs, that’s very wise of you.” Ominous, yet… “Where is the carpet?” I wonder. “Gosh, these stairs are ugly and slippery. Hope there’s an elevator.” I’m baffled.

I find my seat on the ground floor, against the back wall, toss my purse and press packet into the empty chair bucket next to me and fall into mine. I need a stiff drink, but the show’s about to start, once the junior league chairman of the auxiliary committee to redefine art as we know it for the next century concludes his opening remarks. What’s this? No cush for the tush? Hard grayish plastic bucket seat, following the grey metal stairs motif. Ouch! Rough to sit through O’Neill’s Desire under the Elms or Stoppard’s The Invention of Love in chairs like these. Venue booking requirement; only short one-act plays, please, seats hurt audience bums too much for longer performance.  How much did Dallas pay for this theater? Does the architect hate audiences? Did he ever take time to sit in these seats? I’ve sat on high school gym bleachers more comfortable than this. These seats will be easy to wash–just hose them down. Note to self: if you ever return here to review, bring ample stadium pillow for comfort.

Then I look up and around. The seating here is raked, so why can’t I see the stage? A man, average-sized, no Afro, no Stetson, sits in the row below, directly in front of me. I can’t see most of the stage through his head. I’m no midget. A seat with an obstructed view in a theater that cost how much? I shift to the empty seat to my left. Better, I think, until I realize my view of stage right is now blocked by a huge, grey, (no other color will do) column. A seat with an obstructed view in a theater that cost how much? I’d be pretty mad by now if I’d paid for this.

Finally, relief! Shakespeare’s words begin to grace the air. It’s a fast-paced show with much running up and down levels, climbing ladders, and entrances and exits from all sides of the modified thrust stage. There’s a catwalk about five feet above my head. I realize I’m missing dialogue because of the loud clomping of the herd of elephants, “fairies”, charging pell-mell down the ramp above to get to their next entrance on time. No baffling? No carpet? More bleak grey metal surface perhaps? Another venue requirement: only produce shows here where actors are barefoot and tiptoe along the catwalks. Whose ridiculous idea was this?

Intermission arrives. My neck aches from leaning way over to try to view stage right action, and I can’t feel my derriere. I stand up. Presumably there’s a ladies’ rest room and a BAR, somewhere, but I may need to rappel back down the slippery metal stairs to find them. I stretch and eat a breath mint. Pass on bathroom and adult beverage, at least for here. Visions of Knox-Henderson late night.

The play ends with cascades of balloons and soap bubbles, loud music and dancing, commingling of audience and cast in what feels like the final scene from the film Slumdog Millionaire. I find an exit out of Giant Gray Water Cooler Wyly at street level. I don’t have to climb the steep slope back out of the hole in the ground.  I pause at the street corner en route to Big Red, marveling at the discomfort and confusion I’d just experienced. Who will want to endure it when winter comes, when rain and ice and wind whip across the vast emptiness between the Winspear and the Wyly, with no way to avoid their onslaught? Didn’t the architect learn about Dallas weather?

I ride a crowded elevator with other exhausted, stressed playgoers to Lexus P2 and slide into the comfy, padded driver’s seat of my lowly Kia. Before I turn on the ignition I find I can’t stop smiling. I really love reviewing Dallas’ regional theatre. Visions dance on my dashboard. I picture Undermain Theatre with its congenially tended parking lot right next to it on Main St. and Flower Mound Performing Arts Theater with its rustic charm, up close ground level access, free parking. I smell the breezes wafting off White Rock Lake by the Bath House Cultural Center and recall the warmth of its reception/ gallery/ box office area, the friendly staff. I recall how welcome I feel at well-lit Water Tower Theatre in Addison with its two clearly designated performance spaces, ground floor accessible, and easy to find bathrooms. Right next door is the Stone Cottage where MBS Productions performs with folding padded chairs, but no obstructed view in the house. I don’t mind sharing the one bathroom with Mark-Brian’s cast. At Lyric Stage I can drive right up to the brightly lit entrance and drop off a companion before I park in the lot adjacent; the excitement of live theatre spills out of the building from its ample carpeted lobby. No obstructed views and well-padded seats help make attending theatre there a pleasure. At Shakespeare Dallas’ Samuel-Grand Park setting, I set up my folding chair wherever the PR director escorts me to, ease back and enjoy a great view with snack and libation right out of my own ice chest. In Ft. Worth, there’s free parking after 6pm in the downtown garages on the square. Whether I’m heading to elegant Bass Hall or intimate Circle Theatre, I feel safe strolling to any of the eight or ten restaurants not five minutes from either venue before the show, or after, even if I’m alone. There are no steep concrete slopes to negotiate, unprotected from severe weather. I’m so glad the metroplex has a wide array of thriving performance arts groups and venues that serve the needs of attendant audiences and artists so well. My” Nightmare on Pearl St.?” It offers a different sort of memorable experience. I wish the Wyly Theatre speedy resolve with some of their evident opening challenges. I also wish Dallas Theater Center, flagship Theatre Company for the region, the very best with productions at its new, modern venue.

“Although Los Angeles is often dismissed (and misunderstood) by Europhiles as a city with no center and no heart, Dallas would be the better example….The Arts District is the cultural version of that city. Here star projects sit in self-satisfied isolation, unrelated to each other, unconcerned. If these buildings are supposed to be part of an effort to ‘regenerate’ or ‘reconnect’ the city center, they have failed.” Edwin Heathcote, in Financial Times

Quotes pulled from Scott Cantrell’s article in the Dallas Morning News Sunday, November 1, 2009: “Critics weigh in on Wyly Theatre and Winspear Opera House”