One of Ballet Austin‘s most memorable efforts from the early 1990s was a popular but controversial 1993 staging of “Firebird” that featured, as arts writer Sondra Lomax drily put it: “a prison camp overseen by an evil warden who rides a motorcycle.”
Did we need that?
I remember it with fondness, however, because of performances in the title role by Nadya Zybine, whose fierce, compact presence onstage won’t easily be forgotten.
The next artistic director, Stephen Mills, followed with his own reinvention of the balletin 2009. Mills stuck more closely to the aesthetic of Igor Stravisnky‘s revolutionary 1910 score.
Ballet Austin revived this more compatible “Firebird” last week and paired it with Lar Lubovitch‘s 2007 “Dvorák Serenade,” which we’ll consider first.
In abstract segments that employed between two and 12 dancers, Lubovitch employs mathematical precision to portray various forms of romantic affection.
The choreography fit the company like a glove, in part because Lubovitch’s contemporary ballet vocabulary — which includes the liberal use of modern dance — seems closely related to Mills’ in the way that curves are elongated and repeated, physical connections are extended, and the patterns are rigorously completed.
Lubovitch’s emotional reticence keeps the audience at a distance, except for fleeting moments of tenderness, joy and, at the end, outright diversion. Ashley Lynn Sherman and Oliver Green-Cramer refined the purity of the ensemble’s movements into perfection as the lead couple.
In the much more dynamic “Firebird,” Mills staged the first scene — as Prince Ivan hunts then befriends the mythical creature — in a bold, muscular Russian Classical style, then switched over to a softer look out of the Romantic era for the entry of Tsarevna and her princesses.
The arrival of elaborately costumed Edward Carr as the evil Kastchei the Immortal changed the tone again to one that could have been borrowed from Asian theater. Eventually, all three styles were combined thrillingly in the climactic showdown.
As they did during the Dvorák, Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony kept the famous Stravinsky score tightly under rein.
Among the double-cast roles, Morgan Stillman embodied the epitome of a balletic prince as Ivan on Sunday, expertly foregrounding his two partners, while Chelsea Marie Renner delicately revealed the inner fortitude of Tsarevna.
Yet all eyes were on Aara Krumpe whenever she entered — and then dominated — the stage as the Firebird. Her form was all but flawless and her power breathtaking. You don’t expect to be moved by “Firebird,” but this time I was.
As a reviewer, I try to be as dispassionate and analytical as possible in my critique of most works of theater. That’s why, when a particular production speaks to me on a wholly personal, intimate level that might not precisely translate to other audience members, I feel the need to explain why.
Jarrott Productions’ newest show, Joshua Harmon’s “Significant Other,” is just such a production. The play is a comedy/drama hybrid that follows the lives of four college friends in their late 20s as they negotiate the slippery terrain between their friendship-focused young adulthood and the more family-focused lifestyle of oncoming middle age. At the center of all this is Jordan Berman, a gay man who watches his three closest friends (all female) couple off while he remains single and increasingly alone with his own neurotic, self-destructive thoughts.
As somebody who only recently negotiated the type of life transition explored by this play, Jordan’s trials and tribulations spoke to me with a great deal of cutting, uncomfortable truth. What’s more, his story reminded me far too much of that of a dear friend of mine whose own journey through those years ended in tragedy.
I was emotionally wrecked by “Significant Other” and had one of those transformative evenings at the theater that cut through to the core of my being. I don’t know, however, whether the experience of most audience members will be the same (though, judging by the other people sobbing after the curtain fell, I was likely not the only one so moved).
In many ways, this production is stronger than the sum of its parts. A sharp, witty script, kinetic direction and design, and several very moving performances combine to make an extremely solid production that — if the source matter speaks to you — has the ability to transcend into a truly personal piece of art.
Much of what creates this transcendent potential is the warm, nuanced, complex performance by Will Douglas as Jordan. Douglas truly captures the feeling of being a lonely, compulsive neurotic whose own miseries are only multiplied by the happiness of those he loves most. He makes Jordan’s anxiety and despair palpable in remarkably subtle ways, particularly when paired with Susan Myburgh as his best friend, Laura. David R. Jarrott’s directorial flourishes wisely focus on transitioning from scene to scene (the text fluidly moves between locations) while showing faith in his actors to carry the momentum within each individual scene through the strength of their performances.
“Significant Other” will be an entertaining, engaging, moving production for most audience members; for some, it will be the kind of wrenchingly emotional experience we crave from the theater. The final image, a spotlight on Douglas’ face as he struggles with a variety of deep, conflicting emotions, somehow landing simultaneously on hope and despair, will haunt me for quite some time to come.
“SIGNIFICANT OTHER” When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 30 Where: Trinity Street Playhouse, 901 Trinity St. Cost: $23-$30 Information:jarrottproductions.com
Not only is Thompson an associate professor of African and African Diaspora studies at the University of Texas, but she is also one of Austin’s most accomplished playwrights, having crafted a series of works that explore the African-American experience, both historically and today, with depth, nuance, and emotional and intellectual precision.
The world premier of Thompson’s latest play, “Monroe,” at Austin Playhouse is no exception to this rule. Set in Monroe, La., in 1946, the play explores the aftermath of a lynching on the young victim’s family and friends. For such a heavy premise, though, “Monroe” is not a play that wallows in pity. Rather, it celebrates the life, love and vivaciousness of the survivors and explores the varied resonances of what it means to either stay or move away in the wake of such a tragedy.
Unfortunately, this production of “Monroe” doesn’t quite fully click. Director Lara Toner Haddock, though very talented, does not seem to be the perfect match for this subject matter. The anger and menace that are embedded within the subtext of the play never quite come forth on the stage, leaving one with a sense of low stakes and low energy when, in fact, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
A shining exception to this is Kriston Woodreaux as Clyde James, who was the first person to find the lynched boy, Jefferson. Woodreaux’ approach to the role is brimming with charm and good humor, while just underneath the surface hides a deeply wounded sense of trauma, confusion and bitterness. His performance most closely gets to the nature of the PTSD that this entire community is experiencing, even though that feeling is missing elsewhere in the production.
It’s important to note that this is the world premiere of “Monroe” and thus just the start of a long journey that is likely to see the play take on many permutations. It is a vital look at an aspect of American history that far too many of us still choose to ignore, and as such this is hopefully only the first of many stagings of a work that has the potential, to quote Thompson’s own program note, to lead us to “speak the unspeakable, listen to history, and imagine a better future.”
Sometimes, they look like the grandmothers and mothers who might have taught you to sew a long time ago, but increasingly, they look like men and young people and punk rockers and people who also run marathons on the weekend.
Hosted by the Austin Area Quilt Guild, the show has taken place every other year since 1980, and the event returns to the Palmer Events Center, 900 Barton Springs Road, on Sept. 28-30.
The theme this year is “World of Color,” and you can see the more than 350 quilts on display — and the quilting, fabric and sewing vendor booths, as well as live demonstrations — from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
This year, they also have a special exhibit featuring 46 miniature quilts that are also competing for prizes. Tickets cost $10 online and $10 at the door. Children 12 and under are free.
From a release:
Through the Capital of Texas QuiltFest, AAQG is able to share its mission (preserving the art form and heritage of quilting and promoting excellence and education in quilt-making) with the greater community around us. Through the show, we share our art medium with others and widen their horizons to appreciate quilts in new and unexpected ways.
By displaying these quilts for the public to view and enjoy as well as conducting live demonstrations of various quilting techniques, the AAQG is fostering growth and appreciation of this art form. Visitors will find that quilts aren’t just something made for the bed anymore. They find themselves astonished by the artistry of these quilts. Our members come from diverse cultural backgrounds, and those themes can be seen in their displayed quilts. There is truly something for everyone to appreciate and enjoy at the QuiltFest.
Here are some of the quilts that will be on display this year. You can find out more about the show at captxquiltfest.org.
Now that the Austin Symphony has consummated Part 3 of its “Mighty Russians” series, ithas completely shed its former reputation for underplaying big music. Almost to a fault.
Music director Peter Bay opened the formal part of the concert on Saturday with the bright and bold “Carnaval Overture” by Alexander Glazunov. Dismissed by some critics in the 20th century as merely “academic” — in other words, glib, predictable, conservative — Glazunov is also capable of great orchestral virtuosity. This rousing performance — a taste of what was to come at the Long Center for the Performing Arts — made me want to dive right into his eight completed symphonies.
Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s Piano Concerto No. 1 is all about the soloist, but the ensemble is given plenty of opportunity to introduce and expand on the piece’s gorgeous themes and variations. French pianist Lise de la Salle did not shy away from the famous concerto’s showiness. Compact and contained when off the bench, in performance, she swayed and nodded, extended her arcing arms, attacked the keyboard like an avenging angel, then caressed it like tender companion.
At times, de la Salle’s hands appeared to blur over the complicated finger work. (“I can’t imagine what the score looks like,” said a friend during intermission.) Besides technical skill and fearlessness, she added some interpretive touches, such as startling hesitations and a certain playfulness with the composer’s unconventional rhythms. These seemed to bleed right into her delicately rendered encore selection: a Debussy Prelude.
“How are they going to top that?” said the stranger seated next to me after intermission.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s “Manfred Symphony” is all over the place. Based on the poem by Lord Byron, it is at times unabashedly pictorial, at other times outright theatrical, always Gothic and so varied that a listener sometimes gets tangled in its taiga of melodies.
This is where we get to part about Austin Symphony’s plenteous sound. Remember back at Bass Concert Hall prior to 2008? “Manfred” would have shrunken to “Boyfred.” (Sorry.) Nowadays, the orchestra’s power rises, if not quite to the level of a major American ensemble, quite close, especially with the additional brass.
At times, it went right up to the point of excess. I felt a little pummeled. But that’s what “Manfred” calls for and the Austin Symphony delivered mightily.
“The Who’s Tommy” (aside from sounding like it should be an Abbott and Costello routine) has one of the most interesting pedigrees in Broadway musical history. “Tommy” started out as a concept album from the rock band The Who, mostly composed by guitarist Pete Townsend, and was adapted into a film in 1975 before ending up as a stage version in 1992, with a book co-written by Townsend and director Des McAnuff.
Given that “The Who’s Tommy” is a true rock opera — consisting, as it does, of music originally created for one of the world’s greatest rock bands — it is a daunting musical for any theater company to mount, but City Theatre’s new production, playing through Sept. 30, shows that the play can be performed with a minimalist aesthetic.
With few sets, props or flashy lighting techniques, City Theatre’s production emphasizes two aspects of “The Who’s Tommy” equally — the music (provided by an enthusiastic, on-stage five-piece band led by musical director Tyler Groft) and the performances. Though the relatively small size of City Theatre’s stage often makes for a crowded scene in a show with 15 cast members, director Jeff Hinkle excels when it comes to creating clear, dialogue-free tableaux during musical interludes that push the story along.
That story itself is a bit uneven. It follows Tommy Walker, a boy who is struck deaf and blind after witnessing a childhood tragedy but who nevertheless becomes a marvel at playing pinball. Much of it, though, feels like padding, added on to turn a one-act concept album into a two-act musical. The music, however, serves as a driving engine that helps keep the pace up even as the script tends to wander.
Though “The Who’s Tommy” is a truly ensemble piece, a few numbers stick out, including the exuberance of Jacob Bernelle, as the adult Tommy, singing “Sensation”; Hilary Werthmann’s throatily seductive turn as the Acid Queen; and Chris Cannata’s irredeemably evil and creepy turn as Tommy’s pedophilic Uncle Ernie singing “Fiddle About.” The show’s multiple featured dancers also excel at Rose Mitchell’s muscular choreography, a particularly challenging feat in such a contained space.
Although it is far from classic fare, “The Who’s Tommy” is a rollicking stage production filled with exuberant performances, a dynamic sound and some standout moments that are solidly entertaining.
“THE WHO’S TOMMY” When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 30 Where: 3823 Airport Blvd. Cost: $20-$45 Information:citytheatreaustin.org
TerrenceMcNally, who grew up in Corpus Christi, ranks among the top two or three playwrights from Texas. In Austin, the Ransom Center at the University of Texas holds his papers, while Zach Theatre has become something of the official home for performances of his plays and musicals.
The two groups have teamed up to salute McNally on his 80th birthday with a weekend of activities.
Nov. 10: Theater backers and producers Carolyn and Marc Seriff give a special dinner for the playwright at their home.
Nov. 11: The Texas Union Theater will screen “Every Act of Life,” a documentary about McNally’s life. Zach artistic director Dave Steakley will interview the playwright from the stage afterwards. A reception will follow at the Ransom Center.
Nov. 12: Zach will present a birthday gala performance that will include actors Richard Thomas, F. Murray Abraham and John Glover. They will highlight the McNally’s career which includes Tony Award wins for “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” “Master Class,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Ragtime.”
Bloomberg Philanthropies has named 26 Austin cultural groups that will receive significant grants as well as management training as part of a $43 million second-wave campaign to strengthen small-to-medium-sized American arts nonprofits.
The charitable foundation — established by businessman and former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg — chose the groups by invitation only in selective cities.
“It was a complete shock,” said Ron Berry, artistic director of Austin recipient Fusebox Festival. “I was in the office reading an article about how Bloomberg was expanding into our region and remarked to the team about how exciting that was, and then we got an email from them about five minutes later.”
“The arts inspire people, provide jobs and strengthen communities,” Bloomberg said in a statement. “This program is aimed at helping some of the country’s most exciting cultural organizations reach new audiences and expand their impact.”
In May, Austin was named alongside Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Washington D.C. to receive a second round of Bloomsberg grants valued at $43 million. Rare for this type of giving, the money is intended to cover operational expenses rather than specific programs.
“We wanted to reach cities that we thought had a really strong mix in the way they were serving up arts and culture,” Kate Levin, who oversees arts programs for Bloomberg, told the New York Times in May.
Previously, the program had given $65 million to smaller groups in New York, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In response to the news, Austin arts leaders talked about immediate needs, such as rent or replacement facilities and equipment, but also longer term strategies like marketing and development.
“Because our building has been sold, we must move in two years,” said Chris Cowden, longtime leader of Women & Their Work Gallery.”We have decided that, to avoid ever higher rents and the instability that brings, we must buy a building. Since the Bloomberg grant is earmarked for operating expenses, money that we would normally have to use for rent and salaries can now be set aside in a fund that will be used to buy that building.”
Finding new audiences is a high priority for long-established groups that have not reached their potential in the community.
“We are investing most of the funds into marketing because that is what we believe will make the strongest impact,” said Ann Ciccolella, artistic director of Austin Shakespeare. “I am personally thrilled! It’s taken a long time to get to a $500,000 budget and now it’s time for growth. With so many arts groups in the city learning new tactics together, I am hoping for powerful results.”
For some groups, the grant money takes a back seat to training. Bloomberg’s arts innovation and management program was devised by DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland.
“The grant comes with a wealth of consulting services and access to experts in the fields of marketing and development,” said Michelle Schumann, artistic director of the Austin Chamber Music Center. “I’m really thrilled to have the opportunity to ‘up our game.’”
The Bloomberg group instructs recipients to keep mum about the gift amounts, but an informal poll suggests that the grants equal 10 percent of their existing operating budgets.
“I am pumped,” said Jenny Larson, one of Salvage Vanguard Theater‘s artistic directors. “This funding could not have come at a better time for us. Being in a place of transition with the venue and staff has made us feel off balance. This support gives me hope and confidence that over the next two years we can create a solid foundation for SVT to continue to grow from.”
What do local arts leaders want to do with the windfall?
“Everything!” said Lara Toner Haddock, artistic director of Austin Playhouse. “Seriously there’s always a huge wish list of what we could do with extra funds. An unrestricted grant is so welcome.”
“I am as thrilled and excited as I remember being when we received our first grant ever in 1984,” said Sylvia Orozco, head of the Mexic-Arte Museum. “I am glowing! When you are young and daring, you believe you can do anything and accomplish everything you dream of. That’s how I felt then and that is how I again feel now.”
26 Austin cultural groups will receive Bloomberg Philanthropies grants
Allison Orr Dance (Forklift Danceworks)
Austin Chamber Music Center
Austin Classical Guitar Society
Austin Creative Alliance
Austin Film Festival
Austin Film Society
Austin Music Foundation
Center For Women & Their Work
Esquina Tango Cultural Society
Penfold Theatre Company
Puerto Rican Folkloric Dance
Roy Lozano Ballet Folklorico De Texas
Salvage Vanguard Theater
Vortex Repertory Company
UPDATE: Lara Toner Haddock’s name was missing from this story in an earlier post.
In ancient Greece, theater was more than just a classy evening out. For audience members, theater was a ritual, bordering on religious, experience. Greek tragedy, then, was a performance type meant to bring viewers to the extreme edges of human experience, where they could see an assortment of horrors, feel their impact, and walk away with a sense of catharsis without having to undergo those extremes themselves.
Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” is a play deliberately cast in the mold of Greek tragedy. Its high-status protagonist, Martin, is a world-famous architect brought low by both his own flaws and the hypocrisies of the society around him, and the normal, subdued tones of the opening slowly descend into a frenzied nightmarescape by the play’s end. What’s more, “The Goat” is a provocative theatrical hand grenade thrown by one of America’s fiercest playwrights, who deliberately asks his liberal audience to reconsider their own notions of what they consider taboo and why.
Capital T Theatre’s outstanding new production, playing through Sept. 15 at Hyde Park Theatre, taps into the depth, terror and ultimate humanity that are at the heart of Albee’s text. Over the course of three harrowing scenes, we see Martin and his family (his wife Stevie and son Billy) descend into a hell of Martin’s making, a plunge mirrored pitch-perfectly by the subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes in Patrick Anthony’s lighting, Cheryl Painter’s costumes and director Mark Pickell’s own fastidiously naturalistic set.
As the play opens, the full range of Robert Pierson’s portrayal of Martin isn’t quite evident. He is distracted, forgetful and tonally subdued, all of which is due, we learn through a confession to his best friend Ross (played with boyish jocularity by Tim Blackwood) that he is having an affair. That infidelity, we learn, is not with another woman, but rather with a goat named Sylvia.
Albee treats what may at first glance seem to be comedic or surrealist with deadly seriousness, as we see Stevie and Billy’s reactions to Martin’s revelation. From there, Pierson’s performance opens up, as Martin refuses to see anything wrong with what he has done, as his affair with Sylvia has given him happiness he has rarely known. Underneath this hapless obliviousness, though, is the dark edge to Martin’s character, which Pierson slowly brings out, as a man who seeks the ultimate sympathy and understanding from his family has absolutely no sympathy for Stevie or Billy’s feelings or concerns.
Rebecca Robinson, as Stevie, is given an equally demanding role by the text, forced to exist on the precipice of rage and hysteria, a frenetic tone that she maintains with daunting forcefulness. Her rage provides one of the play’s fearful driving engines, as does Billy’s simmering, hormonal, teenage sexuality that threatens to burst other societal taboos.
“The Goat” is the kind of play that engenders both deep emotion — from unease to disgust to, yes, even sympathy — and deep conversation about the nature of what we, as a society, are willing and unwilling to accept. By the end of Capital T’s marvelous production, Martin’s admission feels among the least disturbing secrets we have learned, and yet each further revelation engages us intellectually even as it reaches to the core of our deeply embedded social assumptions.
Though its dark, frank material may not be for everybody, “The Goat” is a must-see for those looking for a moving, moody, meditative family tragedy of Greek proportions that may forever change the way we view our world and ourselves.
‘THE GOAT’ When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Sept. 15 Where: Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd St. Cost: $20-$30 Information:capitalt.org
The Blanton Museum of Art is passing out of 500 works of art to 17 other Texas museums. These are part of the historic collection of 700 pieces transferred last year to the University of Texas museum from the Contemporary Austin. The Blanton will keep 200 pieces that match its current collecting strategies more closely.
In 2017, the rapidly growing Contemporary decided to part ways with its eclectic collection collected put together rather haphazardly by its predecessors, including the Laguna Gloria Art Museum, Austin Museum of Art, Texas Fine Arts Association and Arthouse.
Its leaders will concentrate instead on the Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria and its “museum without walls” program that places art around the city. It will continue to stage temporary shows at its downtown Jones Center location.
For its part, the Blanton continues to add to its collection of nearly 18,000 objects. It displayed some of the work transferred from the Contemporary in a special show that highlighted Texas and Austin artists, including UT grads Jules Buck Jones, Lance Letscher and Eduardo Muñoz Ordoqui.
Some of the works transferred to other Texas museums — hungry to have them — were pieces by distinguished artists such as Alexander Calder, Dorothy Hood, Luis Jiménez, Alex Katz and Robert Rauschenberg.
“As part of this large and thriving arts ecosystem, the Blanton is proud to support other Texas institutions in serving their communities,” Blanton director Simone Wicha says, “while also preserving this important collection of Texas art for future generations.”
Participating institutions included the Amarillo Museum of Art; Art Museum of Southeast Texas, Beaumont; Art Museum of South Texas, Corpus Christi, affiliated with Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi; the Grace Museum, Abilene; International Museum of Art & Science, McAllen; Kerr Arts and Cultural Center, Kerrville; Longview Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of Texas Tech University, Lubbock; Nancy Fyfe Cardozier Gallery, Odessa at the University of Texas Permian Basin; Pearl Fincher Museum of Fine Arts, Spring; Regional Arts Center, Texarkana; San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts; the Wittliff Collections and Texas State Galleries, San Marcos; Tyler Museum of Art; Visual Arts Gallery, Brownsville at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley; and Wichita Falls Museum of Art at Midwestern State University.