‘Significant Other’ prompts a significant emotional reaction

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.

Contributed by Kathryn Lane Photography

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

Austin playwright examines those left in wake of racial violence

A new Lisa B. Thompson play is an occasion.

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.

Contributed by Austin Playhouse

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.”

“MONROE”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 30
Where: 6001 Airport Blvd.
Cost: $16-$36
Information: austinplayhouse.com

City Theatre brings rock opera ‘The Who’s Tommy’ to life

“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.

Contributed by Aleks Ortynski

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.

Contributed by Aleks Ortynski

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

‘The Goat’ makes audiences take hard look at what we consider taboo

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.

Rebecca Robinson and Robert Pierson in “The Goat.” Contributed by Alan Trammell

 

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

TexArts tries to take some of the nastiness out of ‘Trailer Park Musical’

When it premiered off-Broadway in 2005, “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” was intended as a lighthearted piece of intentionally offensive satire in the vein of “South Park” or “Family Guy.” In our current era, though, with soul-searching about the fate of poor, white America in books like “Hillbilly Elegy” and shows like “Roseanne,” it’s difficult to not see the extremely problematic side of this text.

Contributed by TexArts

TexArts’ new production of the play is a high-spirited, rollicking rendition that attempts to overcome those textual failings by focusing on the female empowerment aspects of the plot. But it is still somewhat mired in a troubling caricature of a subset of Americans brimming with deep resentment and simmering class and racial tensions.

All of this, of course, is a very rarified way to talk about a goofy show that features an up-tempo song called “Road Kill,” but the structure of “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” — with a book by Betsy Kelso and music and lyrics by David Nehls — does trade in some very classical allusions. As much as it is a satire of trailer park life, it also has fun with the structure of Greek comedy, featuring a singing chorus of three female “Fates” and a plot with some passing similarities to that of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

In their portrayal of these three narrators, Boni Hester as Betty, Cara Statham Serber as Lin and Alyssa Malgeri as Pickles are all manic wit, assaying a variety of personalities and emphasizing the numerous ways in which clever, driven women are able to get one over on dull-witted men. The plot, on the other hand, revolves around the lives of four characters — hapless toll collector Norbert (Jarret Mallon), his agoraphobic wife Jeannie (Julie Foster), his “stripper-on-the-run” mistress Pippi (Emily Villarreal), and Pippi’s violent ex-boyfriend Duke (Zach Thompson).

Mallon, Foster and Villarreal wring some real pathos out of the story, with sympathetic, nuanced performances that often give more respect to the characters than does the text. Thompson, meanwhile, provides the most over-the-top performance, and gets some of the biggest laughs; this is aided in no small part by the fact that the jokes at Duke’s expense constitute some of the few times that the text is “punching up,” at an abuser, rather than punching down at the poverty-stricken.

Director Sarah Gay does her utmost to downplay the more offensive “white trash” elements of the show; her vision of “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” is clearly one that focuses on the ways in which women overcome hardship (often caused by men) in order to, as one lyric goes, “like a nail, press on.” And though this is, indeed, the laudable side of the text, there is still an inherent elitist nastiness to much of the humor that is impossible to overlook.

It is unlikely that “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” has mean-spirited intentions, either when it was written or in TexArts’ newest incarnation of the play. However, the text fundamentally lacks a necessary layer of irony that would make its humor productive, rather than at the expense of an entire class and community. Though TexArts’ production adds in a great deal of sympathetic nuance, in the end that complexity is frequently overwhelmed by the simplistic, mocking nature of so much of the musical.

“The Great American Trailer Park Musical”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, with 7:30 p.m. Aug. 29 performance, through Sept. 1
Where: TexArts, 2300 Lohman’s Spur
Cost: 43-$60
Information: tex-arts.org

Play about professor with cancer is a moving look at death and how we live

The 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Wit” was the first and only play written by Margaret Edson, who has otherwise spent her career working as an elementary school teacher. That educational drive shines through in “Wit”, a moving meditation on death, and is a driving force behind the Austin Scottish Rite Theater’s new production of the drama, playing through Aug. 25 and co-produced by the Final Acts Project.

“Wit” at Scottish Rite Theater. Contributed

The play follows the final months of English professor Vivian Bearing as she undergoes treatment for ovarian cancer, in particular focusing on her relationship with Jason, a young doctor (and former student) obsessed with research rather than treatment; and Susie, a caring nurse who provides the only warmth in Vivian’s life. It’s no spoiler to mention that Vivian dies at the end; she says as much in her opening monologue, a direct address to the audience that forms the narrative spine of the play, weaving together her memories and fantasies with her real-life experiences in the hospital.

Director Susan Gayle Todd’s vision of “Wit” heavily implies that we are immersed within Vivian’s mind in her final moments, and that what we are seeing is her attempt to turn the physical, bodily experience of her death into one last lecture, akin to her career-defining exegeses of the metaphysical poems of John Donne. Todd and her design team (including lighting designer Deanna Belardinelli, costume designer Desiree Humphries, sound designer Chris Humphrey and scenic designers Leilah Stewart and Vicki Yoder) take advantage of the fact that the Scottish Rite Theater highly resembles a high school auditorium and create a fever dream-like melding of an academic setting and busy hospital.

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The result is an off-putting yet immersive experience that re-creates Vivian’s conflict between giving up control of her own body and her obsession with being a respected academic and commanding teacher. Kristin Fern Johnson’s masterful performance perfectly rides the line between strength and despair, switching on a dime from a version of Vivian suffering in her hospital bed, begging for comfort, and an inner lecturer who wants to commandeer her final performances and refuses to stoop to maudlin sentimentality or needless humor.

This conflict is underscored by the study in contrasts provided by Delanté Keys’ Jason and Megan Ortiz’s Susie. While Keys matches Johnson’s poetic, philosophical musings in his awe over the majesty of cancer, Ortiz connects with her baser, more human moments, providing the caring succor that Vivian refuses to even acknowledge that she needs. Both relationships are developed in part thanks to an almost invisible added scene partner, the live music composed and performed by Darrel Mayers that provides a backing of emotional depth and resonance to a text that frequently elides such cathartic closure.

“Wit” is a complex text, addressing themes about control, academia, palliative care and the ways in which doctors sometimes treat patients with no more care than a professor taking apart the grammar of a poem. Austin Scottish Rite Theater faithfully captures all the nuance and intricacy of the play in a production that is, itself, full of a mixture of both heady intellectual wit and, in the end, simple human kindness.

‘WIT’
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Aug. 25
Where: 207 W. 18th St.
Cost: $15-$25
Information: brownpapertickets.com/event/3520845

‘There and Back’ looks at history of immigration through one woman’s life

Any narrative of the history of U.S. immigration that culminates in 2018 seemingly must, by necessity, end in heartbreak and tragedy.

The world premiere of Austinite Raul Garza’s new play “There and Back” at Ground Floor Theatre, though, paints an intimate portrait of the issue that chooses a different sort of conclusion.

 

Ground Floor Theatre is staging the premiere of Austin playwright Raul Garza’s new work, “There and Back.” Contributed by Kenneth Gall

“There and Back,” playing through Aug. 25, tells the story of Gloria, a Mexican woman who immigrated to an American work camp in the 1960s as a part of the Bracero Program in order to join her husband, Victor. It follows Gloria’s life over a broad swath of time, focusing on the ’60s, ’80s and today, thanks to some magical time-hopping courtesy of Gloria’s guardian angel, of sorts, the Virgen de Guadalupe.

Along the way, Garza provides a brief account of the history of immigration to the United States in the latter half of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. Much of that history is one of betrayal and dashed hopes, spurred on by false promises offered from politicians on the left as well as the right (with particular emphasis placed on the policies of John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and, of course, Donald Trump).

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Garza resists the urge to idealize Gloria and her family, though, and indeed is frequently as critical of issues involving the immigrant community — gender relations, intergenerational political clashes, labor relations, etc. — as he is of U.S. policy. What results is a very human narrative about one woman’s struggle to live a simple life of human dignity in a country that continually tries to rob her of it.

Gloria, as portrayed with sympathetic depth and nuance by Karina Dominguez, is a pillar of quiet yet intense strength. In her relationship with the Virgen (played with divine wit and self-awareness by Giselle Marie Muñoz) we see a journey of self-empowerment that evades and counters much of the hopelessness, hateful rhetoric and violence of our contemporary moment. Though the half-imaginary relationship between the two women serves as the heart of the play, much of the historical breadth of the narrative comes from Mical Trejo’s assaying of three unique generations of Gloria’s family, showcasing the generational nature of the immigrant experience.

Director Patti Neff-Tiven’s production of Garza’s text is elegantly simple, relying largely on the counterplay of a generally realistic set from Ia Ensterä against evocative lighting and sound design from Natalie George and Lowell Bartholomee, respectively, that bring forth the more magical moments.

“There and Back” is not flashy, but in its straightforward earnestness it tells a powerfully important story that more than makes up for a somewhat slow start and ambiguous ending. Garza is a vital voice for our contemporary moment, and his new play is a necessary, humanist contribution to one of the most important conversations of our time.

“THERE AND BACK”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 25
Where: 979 Springdale Road
Cost: $5-$45
Information: groundfloortheatre.org

Zach Theatre brings an animated favorite to life in a big way

The finale of Zach Theatre’s 2017-18 mainstage season is its splashiest show yet, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.” This stage adaptation of the 1991 Disney animated classic (the first animated film to be nominated for an Academy Award for best picture) has always been a bold, flashy venture; when it debuted on Broadway in 1994, Disney’s investment in Broadway was the cornerstone of a campaign to revitalize (and sanitize) New York City.

Contributed by Kirk Tuck

Zach’s new production is completely in line with the level of bombast — and expense! — that was a part of the musical’s initial staging. Every element of the show, from Court Watson’s epic, mutable scenery, to Susan Branch Towne’s playful costumes, to Michelle Habeck’s sumptuously muted lighting, comes from a place of artists given a budget with which to run free.

Fortunately, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” is not just a display of flash; it’s also quite fun. The epic, large-scale production impresses with visual splendor and also creates a family-friendly atmosphere that is sure to delight children while still engaging grown-ups.

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Contributed by Kirk Tuck

The story of the play follows Disney’s version of the classic fable, and as such it maintains a lot of the movie’s questionable politics, particularly when it comes to the Stockholm Syndrome-like relationship between Belle and the Beast and the class dynamics of the Beast’s relationship to his magically transformed servants (“Life is so unnerving to a servant who’s not serving” might just be the most insidious lyric ever to be found in a children’s movie). Like the movie, though, the play completely evades interrogating these questions; its story is entirely a surface-level one, without much nuance or depth.

The purpose of this production, though, is not to provide emotional realism. Rather, it is intended to be family-friendly fun, and at that it more than succeeds. The beatific singing of Briana Brooks as Belle and Alexander Mendoza as the Beast carries the main love story, while the comedic antics of the household servants-turned-objects (especially the rascally charming Martin Burke as Lumiere) and of the smugly villainous Gaston (Matthew Redden) and his sidekick LeFou (Kevin Pellicone) provide plenty of laughs and charm.

“Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” is a staggering display of the kind of spectacle that can be accomplished on a large budget, and it’s at that type of spectacle that both Disney and Zach Theatre excel. The production serves as a fun time for grown-ups and (perhaps more importantly) as a first introduction to the magic of the theater for children.

‘DISNEY’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 2
Where: 202 S. Lamar Blvd.
Cost: $25-$125
Information: zachtheatre.org

‘Grease’ is the word if you want a nostalgia-filled romp

TexArts is something of a unique animal among Austin theater companies — a nonprofit organization that focuses equally on training and education of young theater artists and on producing professional musical theater. With their newest show, “Grease,” the company has combined these two missions in a buoyant production that features several young performers who have been trained in TexArts’ academy.

Contributed by April Paine Photography

TexArts’ “Grease” takes full advantage of the key differences between the stage version of the musical and the famous film adaptation. While the movie focuses on the characters of Danny and Sandy, two high school lovers in the 1950s who come from very different backgrounds, the play is much more of an ensemble piece that tells a variety of stories about the students at Rydell High.

As such, the stage version of “Grease” avoids many parts of the movie’s narrative that have not aged well. Though, ultimately, the message of Danny and Sandy’s romance is still that, if a girl likes a boy, she should change everything about herself in order to be with him (and for a more positive take on relationships and gender dynamics, viewers should try the far superior “Grease 2”), this is counterbalanced by other relationships with healthier dynamics. A particularly inspired casting change regarding the song “Beauty School Dropout” also adds some contemporary commentary to the frankly dated text.

Part of what gives TexArts’ production a greater emphasis on these other characters is the strength of the cast. While Lauren DeFilippo and Ryan Alvarado as Sandy and Danny are charming leads, they are bolstered by memorable performances of characters given very minor roles in the film (Jessica Askey’s Jan, Maddie Reese’s Marty, Jackson Pant’s Roger, and Connor Barr’s Doody are particular standouts). In addition, Amy Nichols as Miss Lynch brings a hilariously witty vivaciousness to the show’s one teacher.

Bouncy, rowdy, ebullient ensemble pieces are TexArts’ sweet spot, and “Grease” fits well within this range. Director Kasey RT Graham and choreographer Christopher Shin are adept at creating energetic stage pictures out of a crowded cast, and the focus is always on fun. Graham seems to recognize that the play version of “Grease” is as much a nostalgic review of ’50s-themed music as it is an absorbing narrative, and this carries through in all the performances.

TexArts excels at staging musicals that are, first and foremost, a rollicking good time for its audiences, and “Grease” is certainly no exception. Though certainly out of sync with contemporary gender dynamics in many ways, this production’s pure charm and whimsy win out in the end to create a fast-paced, toe-tapping rendition of a well-known musical.

‘GREASE’
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through July 29
Where: TexArts, 2300 Lohman’s Spur, Suite 160
Cost: $43-$53
Information: tex-arts.org

Hyde Park Theater does compelling job with a frustrating text

In a recent episode of Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast, actor Paul Rudd spoke about his admiration for comedian Andy Kaufman’s mixture of provocative performance art and stand-up comedy, including early routines in which Kaufman would come out on stage, eat potatoes and go to sleep as his entire act. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s brilliant,'” Rudd said. This prompted Maron to reply, sardonically, “Unless you’re there.”

Contributed by Bret Brookshire

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Bakers newest work, “The Antipodes,” is a bit like that Andy Kaufman routine. It is, in theory and on the page, conceptually brilliant; in performance, it’s something one reacts to with (to quote Rudd on Kaufman) “an intellectual appreciation and an emotional annoyance.”

Hyde Park Theatre’s new production of “The Antipodes” is only the second staging of the play in the United States, following the original off-Broadway run in New York last year. Obtaining the rights for this show is a triumphant coup for Hyde Park Theatre, and director Ken Webster, a first-class design team and engaging cast of actors absolutely make the most of it. There are certainly moments of great hilarity and heartbreak within this staging “The Antipodes,” and much of that comes from the production choices more than the text itself.

The play is, essentially, plotless, and intentionally so. It follows a team of writers brainstorming ideas for a vague “project” (structured in the form of a TV writer’s room), sharing inappropriate stories of their lives as they attempt to do so. This is where Baker’s play is conceptually brilliant — it is a meditation on the nature of story that conscientiously resists becoming a story in and of itself, instead taunting the audience with crumbs to a wider narrative that never quite coheres. Even the tales that the writers tell to one another about their lives tend to be unsatisfying anecdotes or comedic riffs rather than actual stories, and they rarely have an impact upon their interrelationships as people.

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Although this is an intellectually fascinating exploration of the nature of story itself, the problem with a two-hour play about people telling bad stories is that ultimately the audience is sitting in a room for two hours listening to people tell bad stories.

Fortunately, in Hyde Park Theatre’s case, the storytellers are brilliant. The top-notch cast members, many of whom never leave the stage, consistently milk the text for every iota of entertainment and make remarkable use of Baker’s famous silent pauses to tell worlds of stories about their characters between the words. The slow-burning rage of Shanon Weaver’s Dave, for example, the sensitivity of Dave Yakubik’s Danny, the terrifying emotional vacancy of Blake Robbins’ Brian, or the resigned acceptance of the sexism Anne Hulsman’s Eleanor faces as the only woman in the room all create a more cohesive narrative arc than the play itself does.

Webster’s pitch-perfect casting, rapid-fire transitions and absolute trust in his actors ultimately results in a solid production of an unstable text that remains compelling even as it frustrates.

In many ways, “The Antipodes” feels like an unfinished play, both in and of itself and within Baker’s larger body of work. Between the abstract and absurdist elements of this text and the haunted trappings of her previous play, “John,” she is clearly interested in transitioning out of the extreme realism of her earlier, acclaimed work (such as “The Flick,” for which she won the Pulitzer). Where she ends up will, hopefully, be as brilliant as those previous plays, but “The Antipodes” feels like a bit of a transitory bump on the road between two periods, one that drama students in the future will love reading but not feel a burning desire to produce.

“The Antipodes”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Aug. 4
Where: 511 W. 43rd St.
Cost: $22-$26
Information: hydeparktheatre.org