Sharing the same lyricists as the 2016 box-office hit “La La Land,” “Dear Evan Hansen” takes the Tonys by storm with nine nominations, including best musical. Starring Ben Platt, the actor known for his role in “Pitch Perfect,” the show’s plot focuses on an internet-infused story that spins out of control, complete with an emotional soundtrack full of belting ballads. This musical that puts social media (and its consequences) at the forefront would be a must-see for a startup city like Austin.
“Groundhog Day the Musical”
Movies turned musicals don’t always succeed, but “Groundhog Day the Musical,” which earned seven nominations on Tuesday, stands in a rare category along with Broadway favorites “Hairspray,” “Catch Me If You Can” and “Kinky Boots.” Nominated for eight Laurence Oliver Awards, the show won best actor in a musical (Andy Karl) and best new musical at that ceremony last month. Looking for a show you can enjoy again and again (…and again?) — the search is over.
“Come From Away”
In today’s political climate, with immigration and refugee issues being divisive subjects, Canadian-born production “Come From Away” presents the aftermath of 9/11 in both an honorable and sentimental way. The play takes place in Gander, Newfoundland, the week after Sept. 11, 2001, and the characters portrayed on stage are based on real-life locals and tourists stranded in the small town after 38 planes were forced to land unexpectedly. Written by a husband and wife duo, Broadway’s emotional, uplifting and refreshing take on this horrific moment in history picked up seven nominations, including best musical.
Stage veteran Bette Midler stars in Broadway’s revival of the classic “Hello Dolly!,” which earned 10 nominations, including best revival of a musical. Aside from its leading lady, the show has many other elements audiences (and Tony voters) admire, including the ensemble, scenic design, orchestration and direction. Based on recent reviews, “Hello, Dolly!” is a shoe-in for a phenomenal national tour.
“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”
Sweeping the scene this year is “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” which leads the Tonys with 12 nominations, including best actor (Josh Groban,) best actress (Denee Benton), best original score and best musical. The show first gained traction when pre-“Hamilton” actress Phillipa Soo (now starring in “Amelie”) starred in its off-Broadway production in 2012. Set in Moscow in 1812, the musical is based off a small section of Leo Tolstoy’s famous novel “War and Peace.” With the most nominations of any show this season, it just bumped itself to the top of everyone’s “must-see” list.
This review written by freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal
The current political climate in the United States is tense, perhaps the worst it’s been in recent memory, but Robert Schenkkan’s “The Great Society,” playing through March 5 at Zach Theatre, reminds us that our country’s political history has seen many periods of great regression.
In “The Great Society,” Schenkkan covers a great deal of ground, from LBJ’s re-election in 1964 through his decision not to run for another term — and the subsequent victory of Richard Nixon — in 1968. As a result, the play is quite long and does tend to meander some, veering between a character study of Johnson, a taut political thriller about the confluence of Johnson’s progressive domestic politics and his increasingly hawkish stance on Vietnam, and a look at the split in the civil rights movement between the pacifism of Martin Luther King Jr. and the rise of the more militant Black Power movement.
Not all these threads come together in a satisfying conclusion, but “The Great Society” is less about story structure than about revealing the tragic downfall of LBJ’s policies and the movement from “All the way with LBJ!” to “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” It’s in the dramatic re-creation of these historical and political events where Schenkkan’s writing shines as he crafts potent drama out of the many compromises that LBJ makes and the lies he tells in order to get his policies through, slowly betraying many of his most fervent allies and becoming increasingly paranoid about whom he can trust.
The tension of these moments would be impossible without the tour de force performance given by Vinovich, whose LBJ charms as much as he dismays, drawing as much sympathy and approbation as he does criticism. A large, top-notch ensemble, in an assortment of roles, provides varying degrees of counterbalance to the larger-than-life Southernism of Vinovich’s LBJ.
Of special note here is Cecil Washington Jr., who portrays civil rights icon King with strength, dignity and lyricism while simultaneously portraying a vulnerability that lets us see into the far-from-flawless man at the heart of the icon.
It should come as no surprise that “The Great Society” has particular resonance to contemporary politics, and the final scene (which does feel a bit tacked on) directly tackles this issue, pulling the audience right into current day fears of corruption and autocracy following in the footsteps of a noble attempt at progressivism. This is not an uplifting play, but it is a necessary one, and it is a vital study for all those who wish to learn from the past in order to gain some idea of what we might do in the present.
“The Great Society”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through March 5
This review written by freelance arts critic Luke Quinton
A blue light glowed on a pillar at the center. We were inside the gallery at Canopy, where Line Upon Line Percussion was hosting its February show, part of their ongoing series, blending the music and art worlds. This program featured three newly commissioned pieces.
The crowd circled the room’s perimeter in chairs, while metal cables fell from the ceiling pillar, attached to a rope that draped across to the music stands and percussion instruments below. An arresting visual, and more than a prop, as the ensemble would explain.
“When we play the piece, we are reading off the ropes,” Line Upon Line’s Matt Teodori said.
They had commissioned UK composer Claudia Molitor for a new piece, “and she sent us these” — he paused — “ropes.”
The crowd gave a quick laugh. This is the sort of playfulness people seek out at these shows. Ingeniously, it turned out that the ropes contained information, knots tied into the rope that could be read as music.
“Entangled” was a piece that had as much in common with music as it did with experimental theater. The trio grabbed the ends of the ropes, and that’s when you realized that the ropes weren’t just hanging in a straight line from the ceiling but were draped like a messy spiderweb throughout the music stands, cymbals and vibraphone.
The performers started from the loose end and felt the rope with their hands. They would stop to perform the action indicated by the knots and then move on to the next knot. The lines crossed, hanging over other ropes, making obstacles as the three players walked over and under the strands.
The performance consisted of whispered sentences and short rhythms played on a sort of leafy dried palm (surely there is a name for this instrument, but internet searches for experimental percussion can be rather inscrutable) and tapped prescribed rhythms on their bellies or forearms like bored teenagers.
As they went forward, the trio wrapped the rope around their bodies. Finally, at the end, they reach the pillar and the carabiner holding each strand. On cue, they released.
They whispered phrases like “intangible places of reference” and “ceases to exist” — words, the program notes, that come from George Perec, the late French member of the literary experiments group Oulipo.
As an artistic exercise, “Entangled” was worthwhile, though, as it’s largely silent, it’s also an exercise in audience patience.
“Alchemy Test,” by Central Texas composer Brett Kroening, was more typically musical and a little more satisfying. At its center was an eerie, rapidly punctuated interplay between a vibraphone and glockenspiel. It seemed straightforward, until this meshing was interrupted by loud tom toms that banged in out of left field. It could conjure up the oddball machinery in a chemist’s studio.
More experimental again was “Engraving on Bronze” by Pablo Vergara, which took the idea of engraving seriously. Teodori, in his introduction, linked this piece to the famed cymbal company Zildjian, a company that has made cymbals for 300 years.
The musicians were scribbling madly on these cymbals as if they were paper. It sounded like the act of creation. Like cymbals being born. Smoothing over everything was the occasional booming gong, seeming to symbolize the rough dawn of … something.
A fourth piece came as a surprise, as it wasn’t listed on the program. Turned out it was a preview of a soon-to-be-premiered work at the Brown Symposium, in March, at Southwestern University in Georgetown.
This work was a bit of an odyssey for the listener. The symposium’s theme is “Art and Revolution,” so this work, “Revolve/Retract” by Jason Hoogerhyde, “revolves” around key changes. At times it sounds as though there are three unique players that each sound like they’re tumbling down Alice’s rabbit hole at the same time. It moves from frantic to thoughtful and even has a bit of a humorous intrusion when a comical section brings deadened mallets to play. It all ends in a moment of calm and chill, when a bowed vibraphone returns. If you make your way to Georgetown for this event in March, it will be worth your time.
This isn’t the meat and potatoes show that we are sometimes spoiled by when it comes to percussion music; the big, pulsing works with shifty rhythms and addicting arpeggios. These more experimental concerts are opportunities to push out boundaries, shake off the doldrums and try new things.
This review written by freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal
The National Theatre of Scotland’s production of “Let The Right One In” (playing through Jan. 29 at the McCullough Theatre at the University of Texas, as part of the Texas Performing Arts Essential Series) packs quite a bit of weight behind a vampire love story. This is no small feat for a Scottish adaptation of a popular Swedish book and movie, now touring the United States.
“Let the Right One In” succeeds in so many different forms because of the headiness and humanity underneath the surface-level horror narrative. Indeed, to call it horror is to do it a disservice, as it is also equal parts romance, Bildungsroman and complex exploration of gender and sexuality. This carefully balanced narrative can be found in the original Swedish novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist as well as the film of the same name written by Lindqvist and directed by Tomas Alfredson. (There’s also an Americanized remake, “Let Me In.”)
In adapting “Let the Right One In” to the stage, playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany emphasize the essential humanity at the core of its two protagonists — shy, bullied 12-year-old Oskar and the ageless vampire Eli, who physically appears to be a young girl of about Oskar’s age. The two form an unlikely pair and soon develop feelings for one another, which are complicated by the people in Oskar’s life (separated, dysfunctional parents and a set of merciless bullies) and the older man, Hakan, who kills for Eli in order to obtain blood for her.
As this might suggest, there are moments of gory violence and a few scares in “Let the Right One In,” from which Tiffany does not shy away. The extreme brutality of both bullies and vampires is staged through equal parts bloody special effects and heavily stylized movement. These moments of dance-like presentation are also used to portray the intimacies of the characters, providing a level of emotional insight that might otherwise be lost in moving from the pages of a novel to the stage. It’s no wonder, with this level of theatrical magic, clever staging and simple solutions to complex visuals that Thorne and Tiffany have gone on to pair with J.K. Rowling in creating “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”
Here, as with “Harry Potter,” children are at the heart of the narrative. Cristian Ortega, as Oskar, gets to the core of the boy’s inherent innocence, as well as its slow erosion, with a good dash of both sadness and sweetness. Lucy Mangan, as Eli, is much bolder in her performance, befitting the character, and proves to be deliberately, and delightfully, off-putting in both style and delivery throughout the show. Also of note is Ewan Stewart, as Hakan, whose disturbing love for Eli manages to be endearing at the same time as it is frightening.
In addition to the strong performances, the play boasts a top-notch design team. Composer Ólafur Arnald’s energetic, classical-meets-rock-and-electronic score, along with Gareth Fry’s sound design, create a cinematic scope to the entire production. That sonic-scape is interestingly counterpoised to the bare, minimalist set and costume design of Christine Jones and atmospheric lighting of Chahine Yavroyan.
The overall sparseness of the production allows the moments of special effects (designed by Jeremy Chernick) to shine through all the more, every bit as stunning as they are terrifying. That mixture of awe with terror, of the heart-breaking and the pulse-quickening, is what gives “Let the Right One In” its fierce, unique energy.
This dark, moody, moving meditation about young love, complex sexuality and self-identity, beautifully staged and acted, is not to be missed while it is still in Austin.
“Let the Right One In”
When: 8 p.m. Jan 18-21, 24-28 and 2 p.m. Jan 21-22, 29
Where: McCullough Theatre, 2375 Robert Dedman Drive
This review was written by freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal
Austin playwright Stephen Dietz’s new play “Bloomsday,” receiving its Texas premiere production at Austin Playhouse through Feb. 5, is a lyrical, intriguing drama that belongs to the somewhat unique genre of “time-travel romance.” Some works have used this genre to great success (Audrey Niffenegger’s novel “The Time Traveler’s Wife”) and others to a lesser degree (Richard Curtis’ film “About Time”); “Bloomsday” fortunately falls into the former category.
Despite the time-traveling motif, “Bloomsday” is far from a work of science fiction. Indeed, it is left open to interpretation whether we are witnessing time travel, memory, fantasy or an intermingling of all three; this is, in many ways, the point of the play. Nevertheless, with its interactions between two temporal sets of a single pair of lovers, in both their younger and older incarnations, “Bloomsday” plays with the tropes and traditions of time-travel romance, but it does so in order to tease out the poetry of such encounters rather than the mechanical consequences of plot.
Robbi and Caithleen (or, as they’re known in their older versions, Robert and Cait) are the young couple at the heart of the play, meeting in Dublin, Ireland, on a Bloomsday walking tour that covers the parts of the city traveled by the character Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” The novel itself takes on a large role in the play, with its themes, characters and language recurring throughout and its famous modernist structure mirroring the achronological flow of events in “Bloomsday.”
Because of this, the exact plot of the play remains ultimately vague, but it revolves around Robert and Cait revisiting their thirty-years-younger selves’ brief moment of romance. Though the specifics of the events (and the revisitation) are somewhat muddled, the emotional resonance is never lost.
Much of that resonance comes not just from a script with beautiful language but also from four performers who have a deft hand at expressing those words. Aaron Johnson and Claire Grasso, as the young Robbie and Caithleen, are pure charm, embodying youthful romance tinged with the fears and anxieties of an unknown, unsteady future. Huck Huckaby and Cyndi Williams are far more reserved and philosophical in their portrayal of the couple’s later days and express the text’s deep melancholy just as the younger actors do its hopefulness.
Director Don Toner and his design crew have wisely gone with a very bare, stripped-down production, with just a few set pieces, props and projections to create Dietz’s (and Joyce’s) Dublin. The minimalist approach allows for the actors to fill the stage with their own emotive strength, a move that best serves the text.
“Bloomsday” is a bittersweet love story awash in a sentiment that is equal parts American and Irish, and Austin Playhouse’s production, with four talented actors at its heart, does that story quiet, poetic justice.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 5.
This review was written by freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal
I’m a big fan of the black comedies that seem to be the stock in trade for Austin’s Capital T Theatre company. I leave most of their productions a little out of breath from having laughed so hard, and sometimes from my choked sorrow at their tragic endings. Much of the company’s work in recent years— “Year of the Rooster,” “Trevor” and “Hand to God,” for example — have been big, muscular, athletic character pieces that focus on physicality as much as philosophy.
Capital T’s current production—Taylor Mac’s “Hir,” directed by Delanté G. Keys and playing at the Off Center through Jan. 22 — is something of a departure in this regard. Not that it isn’t funny, nor are the performances anything less than physically demanding, but “Hir” is ultimately a comedy of ideas as much as it is a comedy of characters, where the philosophical and sociopolitical ideologies on stage are as important as the relationships being explored.
“Hir” begins with Isaac, a young man who has been working in the Marines mortuary division in the Middle East, returning home to his family’s run-down, lower middle class suburban house. Far from receiving a hero’s welcome, however, Isaac finds that the entire house and family have been upended in the years that he’s been gone.
His abusive father, Arnold, suffered a debilitating stroke and is now subject to the whims of his mother, Paige, who has liberated herself from his control by treating him like a pet and doing everything around the house the exact opposite as he used to (thus keeping it freezing cold and covered in clutter and mess). Meanwhile, Isaac’s teenage sister, Max, has begun transitioning into a boy who prefers the pronouns “ze” and “hir” instead of “he” and “him.”
“Hir” is a play of identity politics, and the ways in which we, as the audience, identify and sympathize with the various characters is in constant flux throughout the performance. Isaac’s ostensible normality is quickly stripped away as we discover the extent of his post-traumatic stress disorder, while Paige’s overbearing nonconformity gets viewed through the lens of her own anguish. Their struggle with each other — which pulls in Arnold and Max as pawns—becomes the conflict of the play, and its dark heart.
All four performers in “Hir” turn in solid work. Nate Jackson’s Isaac simmers with anger and trauma, while Roxy Becker, as Paige, is deliberately and delightfully off-putting with her abrasive cheerfulness covering up an inner darkness. Dillon Uriegas, as Max, is wonderful at portraying the ambiguities and confusion that plague a transitioning youth (as well as any listless teenager, regardless of gender). Jay Byrd, though, delivers a tour de force performance as Arnold, fully committing to the physical and mental debilitation of the character while still imbuing him with equal parts nobility and monstrosity.
Capped off with the usual top-notch Capital T design and production value, the intellectual script, dark conflicts, layered performances and unflinchingly intimate direction of “Hir” make for a powerful, if far from uplifting, evening of theater.
By Andrew J. Friedenthal, American-Statesman freelance arts critic.
For the entirety of 2016, I have freelanced as a theater critic for the American-Statesman, reviewing all manner of shows small and large, from the splashiest musical to the edgiest experimental laboratories. As we wrap up this very long year, I’ve put together a Top 10 list of my favorite shows of 2016.
This is a highly personalized, idiosyncratic list, and it is specifically my favorite theatrical productions of the year rather than a “best of” list. For those kinds of rankings, I find that you need a group consensus of the kind bestowed by the B. Iden Payne Awards or the Austin Critics Table Awards. This, however, is just my personal favorites of the almost fifty shows I reviewed, and the reasons why I found them to be so good.
Zach Theatre’s “Mary Poppins.” Photo by Kirk Tuck.
Zach Theater has the funding to produce the biggest-budget local shows in Austin, and occasionally that money seems to be spent on emphasizing that “bigness” at the expense of story-telling. This was emphatically not the case with their production of the stage adaptation of Disney’s Mary Poppins. The story of Mary Poppins required strong performers, magical scope, and, most importantly, a large sense of whimsy and fun. Those director Dave Steakley delivered in spades, thanks to a talented cast ranging from veteran thespians in the lead roles, incredibly gifted child actors, and a stupendous ensemble whose enormous song-and-dance skills created several show-stopping numbers. Although other shows stayed with me longer on an emotional and/or intellectual level, Mary Poppins was certainly the most fun I had seeing a show in 2016.
Sometimes a production stands out because the text itself is so good, and the director and actors simply and elegantly present that story to the audience with few bells and whistles. This was the case with Penfold Theatre’s production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park, by Bruce Norris. The play, a sort of sequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun, is a thoughtful, provocative exploration of race relations in the United States, comparing the 1950s to the present day through the stories of a single house’s owners. Clybourne Park’s “gimmick”—jumping between the two eras during intermission—is one easily achieved without much technical magic, and so it falls to a given production to relate the text’s story as directly and powerfully as possible. Director Nathan Jerkins and a formidable cast did just that, and their Clybourne Park was a funny, intellectual, confrontational meditation on some of American history’s most troubling legacies.
Everything about Dust was new and fresh—it was the first production of a new theater company (The Heartland Theatre Collective), with a new play written by a young playwright (Nicole Oglesby) and helmed by a young director (Marian Kansas), featuring a cast of current UT Austin students performing in a unique space (the tiny Pony Shed at the Vortex Theater). The young women behind this production, though, belied their relative inexperience with a powerful play, incredibly intimately staged, that spoke to both historical awareness and contemporary issues of class, sexuality, and gender. I went in to this show with relatively lowered expectations, knowing that the creators were so young, and was surprised and delighted by the level of professional craft and strength that I saw. I definitely look forward to more work from Heartland in the future.
Capital T Theatre is probably my favorite theater company in Austin (though they are closely followed by Hyde Park Theatre, whose playing space they frequently use), because artistic director Mark Pickell’s taste in plays tends to speak to my own—dark comedies that are as funny and heartfelt as they are bizarre. Nick Jones’ Trevor is just such a text, telling the story of a chimpanzee “actor” living in a suburban home with a human woman who thinks of herself as his mother. Needless to say, things end up going poorly for woman and chimp alike, with hilarity and heartbreak along the way. The soul of Trevor, though, was Jason Newman’s portrayal of the titular chimpanzee, in a hyper-physicalized performance that required as much stamina as it did emotional depth. The muscular, energetic show explored the relationship between human nature and animal nature in a way that was hysterical in all senses of the word.
“Hand to God”
Hand to God is my second Capital T production on this list (I told you they were my favorite company), and to me it was their strongest of the year. Playwright Robert Askins’ exploration of youth, sex, religion, and violence in small town Texas was rife with both laughter and winces, in equal measure. Amidst a ridiculously detailed, realistic, mutable set designed by director Mark Pickell, the furiously talented cast hit notes of humor, horror, and heart around the bizarre concept of a Christian ministry puppet possessed by the devil. The highlight of the show was Chase Brewer, as the young boy whose puppet gets possessed, who almost impossibly managed to portray two unique characters and personalities at the same time. There were moments I swear I heard both the voice of the boy and the puppet simultaneously, although logically I know that was impossible. His performance left a lasting impression that truly impressed.
“With Great Difficulty Alice Sits”
I don’t know if Salvage Vanguard Theater’s With Great Difficulty Alice Sits (written by Hannah Kenah, who stars as the titular Alice, and directed by Jenny Larson) was deliberately intended to be a production for Halloween or not, but it was definitely the scariest show I saw all year. That’s not to say that the production was full of jump scares and horror tropes; quite the opposite, in fact. Alicewas a slow burn of mounting angst, literally embodied by Alice’s pregnancy-without-end. As Alice grew bigger, so did the tension. What began as humorous surrealism quickly turned into dark existential horror, embodied by an ingenious set and props that literally fell apart in front of us. Strange, elliptical, and ambiguous, With Great Difficulty Alice Sits was equal parts deeply moving and deeply troubling.
The Austin Critics Table gave Vortex Theater’s production of Terminus (directed by Rudy Ramirez, with dramaturgy and assistant directing from Gabrielle Randle) the honor of Best Drama at the 2015-2016 awards, and with good reason. Gabriel Jason Dean’s new play about family secrets, economic depression in rural America, and the ways in which race plays heavily into both is, unfortunately, more timely than ever as we reach the end of 2016. As part of Dean’s larger multi-play project,The Attapulugus Elegies, I expect we’ll be hearing much more about Terminus in the years to come, as an important, necessary, and at-times hilarious look at the hidden corners of America that many of us urbanites have allowed to slip us by, with dangerous and heartbreaking results.
If I had to name the single most interesting acting performance I saw in 2016, it would be Ben Wolfe in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Disgraced, produced by Austin Playhouse and directed by Don Toner. Wolfe was not the only strength in Disgraced, of course; the rest of the cast was superlative, and the production was a simple, no-frills portrayal of Akhtar’s sophisticated drama of ideas and relationships. Wolfe, though, took his performance to another level, creating a man so layered by the lies and assurances he tells to himself and to others that we could see those levels get sliced apart by the circumstances of the play and his reactions to them. What at first seemed to be a relatively stock portrayal turned out to be the carefully crafted persona put on by a much deeper stew of insecurities and anger, as Wolfe potently revealed throughout the course of the play.
The shows put on by Austin’s Rude Mechanicals can sometimes be hard to classify, because they will remount past productions, consider entire runs to be “open rehearsals,” and create such substantial changes to a work that has been previously produced that it appears almost unrecognizable. Field Guide was something akin to this, labeled by the company as a “second draft.” The unfinished, inchoate nature of the work was part of its strength, though, mixing the play’s first draft (co-created by Kirk Lynn and Madge Darlington, and itself based in part on adapting Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov) with new text by the cast, especially Hannah Kenah. The mix of this all was delightfully chaotic without becoming confusing or muddled, and it lent a fresh vibrancy to the performance that actively brought the audience in as co-creators, both metaphorically and (in a few sections of direct address to us) literally. What made Field Guide so breathtaking, though, was its amazing implementation of simple-yet-elegant staging techniques that created breathtaking moments of surprise, whimsy, and theatrical magic. Some of those images are amongst the most unique and ingenious I’ve ever seen on a stage, which is what made Field Guide such a revelation this year.
Theater doesn’t get much simpler and more direct than Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs: two actors, a bare stage, no obvious light or sound cues, and no intermission. Hyde Park Theatre’s production of the play (directed by Lily Wolff) added a slight twist—the actors performed in the round, inside a rather small playing space—that only added to the direct immediacy of a text that is already about the fierce intimacy between couples that at times verges on the obscene and dangerous. With powerful, nuanced, funny, heartbreaking performances by Liz Beckham and Michael Joplin, Lungs was spoke to me on a deep, direct, personal level (in part due to my own stage in life, I just admit) and I have thought about it frequently ever since. That is why it was by far my favorite production of the year, and I look forward to more work from Wolff, Beckham, Joplin, and Hyde Park Theatre in 2017.
(By Andrew J. Friedenthal, American-Statesman freelance arts critic.)
Austin Shakespeare’s production of Noël Coward’s classic comedy Present Laughter, playing through Dec. 4 at the Rollins Studio Theater in the Long Center, creates a comedic slow burn that is a perfect evening of escapism.
Like most of Coward’s work, Present Laughter is a combination of linguistic play, biting wit, and acidic-yet-likable characters, which combines to create a classic recipe for timeless comedy. In this case, Coward’s insightful eye turns towards the world of the theater itself, focusing on the escapades of famous and successful actor Garry Essendine, his team of creative co-conspirators, his personal staff, and his many lovers and admirers. Through Garry’s life, Coward explores what it means to “perform” in daily life, both to others and to ourselves, interrogating the ways in which we define and understand our own shifting identities.
Of course, accompanying the social commentary, there’s plenty of laughter along the way. Coward’s characters, though frequently politically incorrect by today’s standards and viciously droll to one another, are ultimately beacons of humanity, whose love and camaraderie pull them through conflict and passion. As such, a strong production of Coward relies upon a strong cast, and Austin Shakespeare has an ensemble that pulls it off.
Marc Pouhé is the perfect pick for Garry Essendine, using his own exuberant stage presence and mellifluous voice to embody the aging actor in a pitch-perfect portrayal that is equal parts send-up and loving embrace. The redoubtable Babs George, as his ex-wife (but eternal partner) Liz, serves as a bemused, cynical counterpoint to Pouhé, while Alison Stebbins, as his secretary Monica Reed, creates a more directly (but lovingly) antagonistic challenge to his vainglorious, womanizing ways. Stebbins, in particular, excels at digging into the more biting side of Coward’s wit, making Monica all the more likable as she does so.
Other highlights amongst the cast include Corinna Browning, as the increasingly unhinged ingénue Daphne Stillington; Kara Bliss, as Joanna Lyppiatt, the manipulative and cold-hearted wife of one of Garry’s friends; Steve Cruz, as Roland Maule, a young playwright whose obsession with Garry takes broad comedic strokes that give the production its most hilarious moments; and Toby Minor as Fred, Garry’s valet, whose small role is the most humane in the play, giving voice to a way of life outside of the manipulations of Coward’s upper-class protagonists.
Director Ann Ciccolella and her talented design team have put together a believable, naturalistic world in which these actors are able to romp. John Mayfield’s set, highlighted by Patrick W. Anthony’s lighting and Chaz Sanders props, creates an epic scope to Garry’s domicile that speaks to his wealth and power while at the same time hinting at some of his inherent tackiness. Benjamin Taylor Ridgway’s gorgeous costumes create the same lush sensibility, aided by wig designers Tara Cooper and Allison Lowery.
Present Laughter is a show that creates exactly what the title suggests—laughter. Its equal dose of warmth and cynicism, building up to farcical hysteria, are much needed in the present, and still have some pointed critiques to make about the destruction that comes when we allow ourselves to believe our own performances and the charismatic lies of other people.
(By Luke Quinton, American-Statesman freelance arts critic.)
November’s the season for Wagner, the great German composer. The leaves fall, dark afternoons descend, and the underworld of spirits seems at hand.
Enter the “Flying Dutchman,” a sea captain cursed after making an ill-advised deal with Satan, who is forced to wander the seven seas, returning home only once every seven years — and then, only to look for a sympathetic woman who will fall in love with him and break the Dutchman’s bondage.
If it sounds complicated, the plot in practice couldn’t be simpler. Few of the operatic conventions; the twists, plotting and betrayals are here on stage. Instead, on his ship, the Dutchman (baritone Wayne Tigges) broods about his plight with an eerie red twinkle in his eyes.
Meanwhile, Daland (bass Peter Volpe) who captains a second ship, turns out to not be much of a judge of cursed captains. After meeting the Dutchman and eyeing his trove of gems, Daland proposes a marriage to his daughter, Senta (soprano Melody Moore).
The music, directed by conductor Richard Buckley is vigorously Wagnerian, a character unto itself, with oboe solos and other motifs which rise, sell and punctuate characters and their actions.
The chorus scenes, with women of the village gossiping and working woolen spinning wheels, and sailors reveling in the drunken night, are by far the most energetic elements of the story. Elsewhere, a brooding libretto maintains a stranglehold on the action, feeling slow and plodding.
At intermission, Austin Opera folks took the stage in front of a raised curtain, fielding questions from the audience about the set and the set change.
The set, by Arizona Opera, featured gray boards galore. Stairs, masts, sails and costumes brightened the palette slightly.
The ships felt mostly static. Visuals then are leaned on to take the depth of scenery, with videos of clouds and churning waves. The Dutchman’s ship is rendered in an appropriately eerie red cast on the rear screen, sketched in an intriguing, almost cartoon-like, mist. Ironically, perhaps the sketch adds more atmosphere than the chopped up low-resolution of the waves and clouds which seem neither old enough to hold stylistic character, or recent enough to flush the audience with the intensity of modern high definition video.
Wagner fans will be more satisfied with good solos from Melody Moore’s Senta, with a clear tone and solid acting, and with Peter Volpe’s welcome comic gestures, as Daland .
Austin Opera’s “The Flying Dutchman” plays once more, Nov. 20, at 3 p.m. at the Long Center.