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‘Remember Rudy’ combines Suavant Guarde and purpose

Ochre House Remember Rudy
Kevin Grammer as Rudy in the Ochre House Theater's “Remember Rudy.” / TRENT STEPHENSON
Brian Wilson
“Most of what happens happens beyond words. The lexicon of lip and fingertip defies translation into common speech.” - “Marriage of Many Years,” Dana Gioia 

We are welcomed to silence for the first four minutes of Ochre House Theater’s production of “Remember Rudy,” written and directed by Carla Parker. A man past his prime sits on a couch with empty beer bottles and martini glasses arrayed in front of him, in a gauche cotton waffle robe that looks like a knock-off Gammarelli. The man fiddles with his phone as the feeling that he has lost the sense of plot in his life grows. That he, as a character, doesn’t have a purpose. A young man, a shadowy figure stands in the background and approaches, but the man doesn’t see him.

What follows is a masterful work of storytelling fully in keeping with Ochre House, at 825 Exposition Ave., role as “Pioneers of the Suavant Guarde.” The cast of this production, all long-time Ochre House veterans, have that same implicit understanding of a family, which is what so much of this play is about.

As to the actors themselves, Marti Etheridge continues to grow with every production. After her role as a phone operator for the gods in last season’s “Pompeii” at Kitchen Dog Theater, it was evident she had a unique comedic power, which she drew on in her role as Mother and in her hilarious what we’ll call “preface scene” as Pearl. But when she sits down as Rudy’s ex-wife Pearl, she’s becomes heartbreakingly empathetic and delicate.

Similarly Monet Lerner as Sarah/Shril shows her range. She deftly and convincingly shifted from teenage sexpot to hardscrabble talent agent managing a depressed alcoholic client. Ben Bryant’s comedic timing was spot on as Father/Old Ghost and also has an impressive tenor on display during the musical numbers. Chris Sykes as Jake is terrific in the subtle changes in pitch of his emotions.

Kevin Grammer stars as the main character former child television star, Rudolph Raeburn. I’ve seen Mr. Grammer in prior Ochre House productions and he is usually quite adept at supporting character roles. However in the main role of Rudy in this production, his performance was spotty. In some ways he was very convincing as a man coming apart at the seams from the death of his son and diving into the bottle. But he lacked the emotional register necessary during the musical numbers and I wasn’t sure during Rudy’s alcohol-fueled visions of his childhood whether he was inhabiting the space of his child actor days or was a drunk old man revisiting them — and either possibility left something to be desired in the performance (not to mention some difficulty in finding his light during some scenes, which is especially noteworthy as Mr. Grammer served as lighting designer).

The music and score (directed and composed by Justin Locklear) was haunting and added tremendously to the emotional depth of the play. While some of the lyrics were overly simplistic at times, overall the musical direction and execution of the play was well done. The four-piece band consisting of Sarah Rubio-Rogerson, Thiago Nascimento, Lyle Hathaway and Trey Pendergrass was splendid in their performance, especially during some of the more complex minor key pieces.

Set design is by Ochre House founder Matthew Posey and set engineer Mitchell Parrack, who give us quite a treat and thoughtful contrast in shifting from Rudy’s 1970s-style wood panel living room to the set of his 1950s TV show living room, and Ryan Matthieu Smith’s costume design was exactly what you want in this kind of play: something that compliments the action, impresses with its level of detail, but doesn’t draw you too much away from the rest of the production.

Carla Parker has truly done a wonderful job with this play, weaving together a complex tale with all the pieces that make Ochre House Theater such a standout of the Dallas theater scene. As experimental and innovative as Ochre House consistently is, this is still a terribly relatable and cathartic tale of the trials of success, of art and of love, and these human trials are what we look for in theater and have found in “Remember Rudy.”