Review: You Can't Do That, Dan Moody! by The Georgetown Palace Theatre
by Michael Meigs

You Can't Do That, Dan Moody!  offers spectators some cracking drama, particularly in the second half, with riveting re-enactments of brutality by the Ku Klux Klan and of the 1923 trial at the Georgetown courthouse in which district prosecutor Dan Moody became the first in the nation to convince a jury to convict and jail Klansmen.

But in intention and form this production is directly in line with the epic origins of theatre.  

An epic, taken from the Greek epikos, is a poem or song of heroes. The Oxford English dictionary comments, "The typical epics, the Homeric poems, the Niebelungenlied, etc., have often been regarded as embodying a nation's conception of its own past, or of the events in that history that it finds most worthy of remembrance. Hence by some writers the term national epic has been applied to any imaginative work (whatever its form) which is considered to fulfill this function." 

You Can't Do That, Dan Moody! was prepared for the 1998 celebration of Georgetown's sesquicentennial. The Palace's artistic director at that time, Tom Swift, worked with attorney Ken Anderson and his account of Moody's success against the Klan and subsequent political and civic career, including service as governor of Texas. 

This is the sixth production in ten years of the piece. It runs on Fridays through Sundays from Labor Day weekend until Columbus Day weekend. There are 35 roles, many of which are double cast, and a dozen technical staff, so between 50 and 60 Georgetown residents are involved in the retelling of the story.

Tom Swift (ALT photo)

Co-author, director and key actor Tom Swift opens the evening with a thoughtful, sometimes humorous account of Anderson's research on Dan Moody and on their rescue of the story from a fading oral tradition. Swift has the presence and magnetism of an old-time mountebank, a man expansive and at ease with the public.

We find as the story goes forward that the key theme is in fact the counterpart of the title. At the opening we see the nine-year-old Dan Moody (Arthur Dale) learn a stern lesson from his grade school teacher: You can't do that, Dan Moody -- you cannot hurt another person! 

She is a tough old bird, with stern standards. She reinforces the message of the sacred duties of citizens, as we sit through the opening of the children's school day -- with a Bible verse, the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lord's Prayer and a patriotic song. 

(ALT photo)
The first half establishes for us the visible brotherhood of the Ku Klux Klan and its violent vigilante course, including a recent murder of a prosperous black man and the assassination in Austin of a prosecutor.  


Bill Ballard, Jacob Maspero (ALT photo)
Most of these guys are simple brutes; one exception is the sanctimonious and simpering Rev. A.A. Davis (Jacob Maspero). The principal Klan enforcer is Murray Jackson, played by a frighteningly vivid and dramatically very effective Bill Ballard (double cast with Chris Spence). 


The spectacle of Klan robes in the noble playing space of the Georgetown Courthouse is a disturbing one. Their masked ceremony is a devil's invocation, necessary in this action to demonstrate the importance of the deliverance achieved by Moody, a handful of lawmen, and a jury. 


Curt Hillier as Dan Moody, Georgetown Palace
Two mature Dan Moodys appear in this piece. The 29-year-old prosecutor played by Curt Hillier (double cast with Phil Rodriguez) trades some quips with his secretary, investigates the Klan and argues the case against two Klansmen. Silver-haired Ron Chalmers hovers at the side of the action, stepping forward periodically to speak as Dan Moody at the age of 69, serving as chorus and narrator to advance the action.


Tom Swift, Bill Ballard, Woody Thompson Sr, Jacob Maspero (ALT photo)

Writer/director Tom Swift has the key role of traveling salesman Robert W. Burleson, a lodger in a widow's boarding house. Klansmen accuse him of an immoral relationship with her. He refuses to be intimidated, either by the brutes or by the silver-tongued devil preacher. 

Any trial has elements of ritual and drama -- for example, when bailiff Herman Colt (Jim Mutzabaugh) announces the arrival of the judge with the customary "All rise!" He pauses, looks out at the immobile spectators with annoyance, and insists, "I said, all rise!"  

Testimony in the trial, based on the historical record, shifts into dramatic re-enactments of the assault on Burleson, pulled from his car in the presence of his landlady. Acting and details are vivid. Tom Swift is riveting, as is his assailant Bill Ballard. By strategem, hard work, and good luck, Moody and craggy Constable Lowe (Lou Gibson) disprove perjured testimony and obtain the verdict that confirms You can't hurt another person!

You Can't Do That, Dan Moody is not the sort of happily fictionalized singing and dancing spectacle that is regularly offered at tourist destinations. It's not slick and sometimes the text is leaden, but it is, ultimately, gripping.   It's a participatory piece for Georgetowners, both those in the production and those who watch it. 


Woody Thompson, Sr., Tom Swift, and Bill Ballard (ALT photo)

That includes particularly those many from elsewhere who have relocated to the area because of its climate, its amenities and its arts opportunities, including the high quality productions of the Georgetown Palace Theatre. 


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You Can't Do That, Dan Moody!
by Ken Anderson and Tom Swift
Georgetown Palace Theatre

September 04 - October 11, 2009
Williamson County Courthouse
710 S. Main Street
Courthouse Square
Georgetown, TX, 78625