"Stage West keeps pushing buttons with darkly funny, romantic Halley Feiffer play"

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by Nancy Churnin, Dallas Morning News | Mar 17, 2018

FORT WORTH — If you think of Fort Worth as a sleepy, conservative Texas city, you haven't been to Stage West. For 39 years, this small, professional company, run by artists who are frequently onstage or behind the scenes, has pushed the boundaries. 

They offer contemporary, cutting-edge work that doesn't shy away from profanity and sex, from the 2016 regional premiere of Robert O'Hara's Bootycandy, an audacious collection of vignettes about growing up black and gay, to its current show: the bitingly funny and surprisingly romantic regional premiere of  A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City. It's by hot young playwright Halley Feiffer, who happens to be the daughter of Jules Feiffer, the celebrated cartoonist.

And here's the thing. The theater's patrons and artists, who spanned a range of mature ages on Saturday's opening night for A Funny Thing..., a show aimed at adults only, don't expect to love all productions at the intimate 146-seat venue. They expect to be challenged by shows done at a high level of professionalism. They also expect to feel welcome at the theater itself, with its funky, inviting open bar and home-style restaurant, open an hour and a half before each show, and lots of opportunities to mix and mingle with the company's artists and staff.

A Funny Thing... fits that bill and then some.  Feiffer's play melds the funny with the poignant from the opening lines as an uninhibited young comic (a fearlessly funny Janielle Kastner) tests out sex jokes on her unresponsive, cancer-stricken mother (Shannon J. McGrann, with a few surprises up her hospital sleeves), while a man, watching his mother on the other side of the curtain, listens in shock (Thomas Ward, in a brilliant, reaction-rich performance). The story unfolds in a hospital room, designed by Jocelyn Grigorie with Pepto-Bismol-pink walls that remind us of our mortality.

Sherwin Rubin of Fort Worth is one of those patrons who has been coming since the beginning, when the company's late founder, Jerry Russell, decided to put on a production of Edward Albee's Zoo Story in his European Sandwich Shoppe in Fort Worth. 

"How could I write to you about Stage West without naming Jerry Russell first and foremost?" Rubin, responding to a question about why he's remained a patron, said in an email. Russell died in 2013 at age 77.  "He was the secret of its success from the downtown restaurant on. He was the reason for my loyalty and he kept us coming back year to year wherever the theater moved. ... Time flies when you are having fun."

Up next in May is Hir, another regional premiere — this one written by 2017 MacArthur "genius grant" winner Taylor Mac — about a veteran who returns home to find his sister is now  a brother who identifies as hir, pronounced /here/.  The season also includes the regional premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Obie Award-winning An Octoroon, which deals with racial issues, starting in August. Dallas Theater Center opened the regional premiere of Jacobs-Jenkins' Pulitzer Prize finalist, Gloria, in 2016.

Stage West may be bold, but it's not blithe about its choices, says managing director Mark Shum. The company knows what it's like to come close to closing — which it almost did after debt accrued due to the ill-fated 1999-2002 merger with Shakespeare in the Park in Fort Worth, which closed, and left the company with a new name, Allied Theatre Group, that they no longer use. 

Stage West also knows what it takes to build a financial structure that should help it last for the long term, says executive producer Dana Schultes. In 2008, loyal Stage West supporters, under the name Ol' Vic L.P., purchased the building that Stage West leased. Stage West built back slowly, counting pennies as it painstakingly added utensils, plates and glassware to its dining area.  After creating a financial cushion that Schultes estimates will surpass $200,000 this year and starting an endowment that's at $66,000 and growing,  the Stage West board of directors, backed by Schultes and Shum, took the step of purchasing the space in December. 

They run a six-show subscription season plus one special annual event with a 12-person staff that's a mix of full-time and part-time employees, a $1.1 million annual budget and a mortgage of $965,000 on a property purchased for $1.8 million. The monthly payment is less than the rent and makes Stage West one of few local theaters to own their performance space. They hope to launch a capital campaign in the fall to raise $1.5 million to finish a 130- to 200-seat studio space, adjacent to the restaurant, where the theater currently runs its educational programs.

Shum admits to having nerves about Bootycandy, particularly because he was one of the show's strongest advocates. It turned out to be a hit. Their regional premiere of Holland Taylor's Ann, about late Texas Gov. Ann Richards, a show Schultes relentlessly pursued and directed, proved a runaway success in 2016. 

A Funny Thing..., which Schultes also directed, made her anxious, she acknowledges. In fact, Schultes says, there are very few Stage West shows that don't "scare the crap" out of her. 

"There's not one play we've produced that doesn't make me sit up at night and think, 'What happens if no one wants to see this this play?' There are theatergoers who come purely for escape and I respect that, but I also found there are a great many people who do want that extra challenge."

For those who have questioned the company's choices, Schultes liked to point out that Russell planted the seeds for what this company has become. His initial choice of an Albee play about loneliness and class distinctions wasn't conventional. 

Russell's passion for running the theater while being a participating artist serves as a model for its current leadership. In addition, Stage West continues Russell's tradition of serving food with theater but has taken it up a notch by adding a bar and a chef, Arturo Limon, who whips up a hot entrée along with salads and sandwiches.

One thing Schultes promises will not change is Russell's pastrami sandwich, a favorite that appears on the menu as the "Irving R. Feldman," after a character referenced in Herb Gardner's 1962 play, A Thousand Clowns.

"Irving R. Feldman's birthday is my own personal national holiday," says Murray Burns in the play. "I did not open it up for the public. He is proprietor of perhaps the most distinguished kosher delicatessen in our neighborhood, and, as such, I hold the day of his birth in reverence."

A key difference between Russell and the fictitious Burns is that Russell did open Irving R. Feldman's birthday to the public. You can celebrate it with a sandwich of thin-sliced deli pastrami and baby Swiss served on fresh, stone-milled rye with mustard and avocado for $12.95 anytime before a performance.

You can even order dessert to arrive at your table during intermission. For this run, there's a coconut cream pie prepared by Three Danes Baking Company in Fort Worth that, like A Funny Thing..., does not disappoint. 

Support local arts coverage! Read this article at the Dallas Morning News, and consider a digital subscription afterwards to show the paper that Fort Worth coverage is valued!


Photo by Khampha Bouaphanh