(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
With relatively simple technical demands, and generally small casts, playwright Annie Baker’s work (a return, of sorts, of naturalism to the American stage, complete with a symphony of awkward silences) is popular with regional and local theaters throughout America.
Austin’s own Hyde Park Theater (HPT) is no exception, having produced several of Baker’s works over the past few years. Now they bring us her 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Flick, and once again showcase the power of her writing.
The Flick is the story of a run-down movie theater in the Boston area, and three of its employees: Sam, who feels he is far too old for such a menial job; Avery, a neurotic college student with a deep and abiding love for movies; and Rose, an outspoken manic pixie projectionist with her own set of issues.
The star of HPT’s production of The Flick is its design concept. Baker’s text calls for a view of a movie theater from the perspective of the screen, looking out at the seats. Director and set designer Ken Webster has creatively placed the audience on what is traditionally the theater’s stage, turning the bolted-in audience seats into the playing space.
Because HPT’s seating area is divided into two distinct sections, the audience’s attention is constantly being pulled back and forth between these two spaces that can’t be taken in simultaneously. This allows for a sense of physical division between characters when called for, and a delightful sense of unity when they are brought into the same space. The Flick’s subtext is thus wonderfully physicalized by its staging.
HPT’s small space also creates for a sense of intense intimacy between audience and performer. Baker’s work is often filled with small talk and discussions about popular culture and other everyday ephemera; here, the audience feels like they are actually in the movie theater alongside Sam, Avery, and Rose, almost tempted at times to join in the conversation. In a play that is entirely about the close (and yet simultaneously distant) relationships between these three individuals, that kind of closeness makes a real difference.
In being able to pull off such an intimate performance, Shanon Weaver (Sam), Delanté G. Keys (Avery), and Katie Kohler (Rose) show true versatility, as each of them is required to display both the broad performance style demanded by the stage as well as the specific performance of facial and emotional nuance needed in film. Keys, in particular, pulls off this balancing act impressively, showcasing the nuances of Avery’s nerdiness, depression, and anxiety.
It’s easy to understand why The Flick – with its exploration of issues ranging from heartbreak to depression to race/class dynamics to the magic of the movies themselves – won a Pulitzer. Hyde Park Theater’s new production of the play only goes to further show us its power and depth, reminding us that live theater is just as important and magical as the movie theater.