Review: Austin Opera’s “A Masked Ball”

(This review was written by American-Statesman freelance critic Luke Quinton.)

Newly rebranded, Austin Opera celebrated the opening of its 2014-14 season this weekend, with Verdi’s “A Masked Ball,” and threw in pre-concert singing alongside some digital art on the Long Center’s pavillion. But the digital art that really mattered was a set of all-digital projections, a collaboration between the University of Texas Theater and Dance students and noted Opera designer Wendall Harrington.

First, though it’s worth noting that the Long Center is a bank-vault of acoustic engineering. With Fun Fest’s three raucous stages in Butler Park next door, not a drop of Nas (or any other headliner) leaked in.

The sounds inside were crisp and clearly led under direction of Richard Buckley, beginning his eleventh season in Austin.

But when the curtain came up, all eyes were on the three-surfaced digital set, projecting both still, and moving, images on a huge scale. The strikingly clear opening image, out-of-focus masses moving down crowded escalators, gave way into a familiar Capitol dome and a rotunda, populated on stage by buzzing governmental workers — all clothed in monochromatic grey suits.

Of the libretto, rarely has so much been sung about so little: a love triangle between a politician, Riccardo (Dominick Chenes) and the wife of his best friend, Renato (Michael Chioldi).

Austin Opera's "A Masked Ball"
Austin Opera’s “A Masked Ball”

Voices are solid and will please fans throughout the run, notably Mardi Byers as Amelia, with a lovely aria “Morro Ma Prima” alongside a moving cello part, and Chioldi (a last-minute substitution for an ill Jason Howard), with a whiskey-rich baritone. Austin favorite, soprano Sara Ann Mitchell is charming in the trouser role of Oscar.

The story’s minimalism extends into a spare set. Between a chorus that does quite a bit of standing (amid some strong singing) and the 2D projections, there was something of a void. Contemporary costumes and rows of aluminum chairs don’t do much to transport an audience in the same way more physically-minded sets, more elaborate costumes and props help guide us into another time and place. It doesn’t all have to be the sparks and stone wheel of “Turandot,” but that visual activity keeps the story moving along.

The projection certainly had its moments. Three clowns pop out to perfectly timed “sforzandos,” and dark, moonlit clouds move eerily in the background as we visit Ulrica, the fortune teller.

Yet the brief appearance of the Texas Capitol is enough to incite longing for an updated libretto. Performers in contemporary clothes walk the stage and wield handguns, but what’s so scandalous about visiting a fortune teller that it’s a valid plot point to actually consider exiling her from the country?

The originally story was touchy enough with current events that Verdi was forced to move its plot away from Europe, to Boston. The hints of contemporary life here make one pine for actual political intrigue and relatable emotional scenarios, as opposed to an opera that sounds like the 1700s but looks like today.

 “A Masked Ball” continues 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13 and 3 p.m. Nov. 16. www.austinopera.org

Review: Trouble Puppet’s “The Strange Case of Edward Hyde & Dr. Jekyll”

This review is written by American-Statesman freelance critic Claire Christine Spera.)

The Strange Case of Edward Hyde & Dr. Jekyll 11//2014
Trouble Puppet’s “The Strange Case of Edward Hyde & Dr. Jekyll.” Courtesy Steve Rogers Photography.

Trouble Puppet Theater Company is taking the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to a whole new level of creepiness with a puppet-based rendition, “The Strange Case of Edward Hyde & Dr. Jekyll,” adapted from the Robert Louis Stevenson novel by Connor Hopkins, playing at the Salvage Vanguard Theater through November 23.

As far as classic tales go, the Jekyll and Hyde drama is particularly ripe for the puppet picking — and as though puppets themselves aren’t eerie enough, the production is layered with dramatically dark lighting (designed by Stephen Pruitt) and boasts sets on wheels (designed by Annie Bradley McCall) that recall dirty London streets, scaled to puppet size, of course. The sound design (by K. Eliot Haynes) caps off the experience: thunder, rain, creaking doors — the stuff that makes you sit just a little closer to the edge of your seat.

Though the puppets themselves are scaled down from life size, they loom large in this writer’s memory because the 10 performers manipulate them so expertly and intricately. Two to three performers control each puppet, giving each character a signature walk, and working their arms to make gestures and even wield props. It’s detail-oriented work that immerses us in a whole new world.

The Strange Case of Edward Hyde & Dr. Jekyll 11//2014
Trouble Puppet’s “The Strange Case of Edward Hyde & Dr. Jekyll.” Courtesy Steve Rogers Photography.

Furthermore, it’s a testament to both  Hopkins and the performers’ abilities that we can so easily forget we’re even watching puppets. When Dr. Jekyll is in his study, cackling madly while injecting himself with an experimental drug he believes will cure mental illness, we flinch when the needle goes in his arm. In another scene, a woman walks alone down a street, her footsteps echoing under the dim streetlights, before Hyde — or is it Jekyll? — emerges from the shadows to murder her; we watch the episode with anticipation.

Amongst all the darkness is some humor, too. Two dim-witted cops, constantly outsmarted by Hyde/Jekyll, end up in a bumbling “Bloody hell!” yelling match when they realize they’re always going to be two steps behind.

As with most versions of the Jekyll and Hyde story, Trouble Puppet’s adaptation leaves many questions unanswered. Is Hyde a real person, or an alternate personality of Jekyll? How does one explain the continued murders after Jekyll is imprisoned? Was it all Hyde from the beginning?

This is when we realize we’re being manipulated, too.

“The Strange Case of Edward Hyde & Dr. Jekyll” continues 8 p.m. Thursdays- Saturdays. 6 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 23. $12-$20 (Thursdays, all seats are $10). Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Road. www.troublepuppet.com

Review: La Follia’s Bach Vs. Handel “Smackdown”

(This review is by Luke Quinton, American-Statesman freelance arts critic.)

When the warring parties have been dead for a few hundred years, the stakes are lowered, but that didn’t mean the performers for La Follia’s Bach Vs. Handel “Smackdown” this weekend were taking the competition frivolously.

There was a moment in this Saturday night’s concert when La Follia’s director Keith Womer knew he was going to lose. He was explaining to the crowd that for the solo keyboard section, he’d given each composer a piece on his favorite instrument: Womer would play the homely harpsichord for Handel, which left Chris Keenan playing Bach’s famous “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” on the room-filling organ.

“What was I thinking!” Womer wondered aloud.

These little asides, the moments of theatrics engaged the audience in a concert that asked for their participation and attention all night long. Is it gimmicky? Sure. Yet a gimmick is only a gimmick if that’s all you come away with at the end of the night. Instead, La Follia’s smackdown, with the gregarious Womer as Master of Ceremonies; his white-wigged assistant announcing each round with a boxing-style placard and a bit of schtick; and pictures of both composers handed out to the audience so they could vote for their favorites, were proof of a carefully considered spectacle. And the lineup of musicians was serious enough to actually execute the idea.

Bach and Handel never met in person, despite being born in the same year and even sharing the same medical doctor. So there’s some satisfaction in pitting one against the other in rounds that test each composer’s strengths in different configurations and ensemble arrangements.

We heard Bach’s solo cello suite (number 1), poised against Handel’s “Violin Sonata in D” (no contest there for Mr. Bach) and then Handel’s melodic “Water Music Suite 2” pitted against organ music again, with Bach’s raucous “Cantata 29” backed by La Follia’s baroque strings and horns.

Most surprising was the unexpected power of each composer’s vocal music. Not many in the crowd would have pleaded deep familiarity with Handel’s “Ombra mai fu” from the composer’s opera “Serse,” which competed against Bach’s overplayed “Air on the G string,” in the “mellow” music category.

Here, as later in the program, the rich voice and presence of countertenor Nick Zammit had the audience practically swooning. Zammit is best remembered locally for his performance in Austin Opera’s contemporary opera “Flight.” And perhaps it’s overvaluing the market for Austin countertenors, but the fact that Zammit, whose day job finds him working as personal chef, lists no upcoming musical gigs, seems to be a loss verging on criminal.

Zammit had an brilliant sparring partner in the ever-charming chanteuse Meredith Ruduski. There were only a few musical letdowns, some out of tune horns and slightly shabby string playing.

So what do we learn from this exercise? Well, these matters are hard to decide. Do you like Handel’s piece better, but not this particular version? Is that worth casting a contrarian vote for Bach? Yes, it was a night of grave decisions.

With Bach in the lead, the piece de resistance appeared: singers from Chorus Austin performing Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” who then followed with Handel’s all-but-unbeatable Hallelujah Chorus.

The score after all this wrangling?

A tie.

www.lafollia.org

Review: “Am I White” at Salvage Vanguard Theater

(This review is by American-Statesman freelance critic Claire Christine Spera.)

In local playwright Adrienne Dawes’ intense new work, showing at the Salvage Vanguard Theater through Oct. 18, everything is mixed up: the present with the past, reality with the dream world, reason with feeling and, as the play’s title suggests, the very racial identities of the characters.

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In “Am I White” (directed by Jenny Larson), J. Ben Wolfe plays the lead role of bald-headed Wesley Connor, a neo-Nazi terrorist with a dirty little secret, serving time for a failed bomb plot. Inspired by the true story of white supremacist Leo Felton, Dawes’ Wesley struggles to reconcile his identity as a White Order of Thule member with the reality of his mixed-race heritage — his “beige” skin, we learn, is the gift of a black father and white mother.

The 60-minute play keeps a refreshingly brisk pace as the five-member cast brings to life a series of episodes, all tied together with questions of identity.

Wesley’s cellmate, Ryan (Michael Joplin), is an outspoken member of the Aryan Brotherhood whose body is adorned with swastikas. Prison guard Justine (Florinda Bryant), a self-proclaimed “Mexi-black,” constantly questions Wesley’s identification as Caucasian. In contrast to Ryan and Wesley’s prison jumpsuits, when we see flashbacks to scenes with Wesley’s girlfriend, Polly (Katie Van Winkle), she’s wearing traditional skinhead attire of Doc Martens and suspenders. Wesley’s mom, Jade (Cyndi Williams), reminds us of her son, “He’s a very sick man.”

The uncomplicated scenic design (by Ia Ensterä) — consisting of a white square painted on the floor to denote the boundaries of a prison cell, along with two chairs and a barred window high in one corner of the stage — allows for seamless transitions between scenes.

In one moment, just as Wesley prepares to knife a black prisoner who’s giving Ryan a hard time, the scene flows into a flashback to 10-year-old Wesley clutching a knife in his childhood kitchen, confronted by his mother. The white floor plays host to video footage (by Lowell Bartholomee) featuring news reports, TV static and splattered blood, which adds to the effectiveness of such transitions.

In another scene, a minstrel show plays out in a spooky alternate reality. Wesley’s face is painted half black, while Justine has abandoned her prison guard uniform for clothing of an appropriately racist tribal nature. The emcee, of course, is Ryan. To him, the world is simply black and white.

To Wesley, the world is more complicated: Beige.

“Am I White” continues through Oct. 18. www.salvagevanguard.com

Review: Hyde Park Theatre’s “A Bright New Boise”

(This review is by American-Statesman freelancer Cate Blouke)

Samuel D. Hunter wants to make you uncomfortable. He also wants to comment on corporate America, religious fanaticism, family relationships, and the nature of art – which is a lot of ground to cover in a 90-minute show.

“A Bright New Boise,” playing now through Oct. 25 at Hyde Park Theatre, tries to do too much.

Set in the dingy break room of a Hobby Lobby in Boise, Idaho, the play brings together a hodgepodge of quirky characters and big themes that struggle to cohere in a digestible way.

First, there’s the deliberate discomfort: Hunter’s script calls for a video feed of surgical procedures to intermittently appear on a TV in the break room. It’s a big screen, positioned so that there’s no real escape from the images other than to look away. And it’s a strange experience to sit through a play and deliberately avoid looking at the actors for long stretches of time.

At least the video makes the characters uncomfortable, too, but it’s never particularly clear why Hunter has included it in the play. Unless, of course, the videos serve as an extension of his Leroy character (Chase Brewer), an art-school student who deliberately makes people uncomfortable.

Chief among those victims is Will (Benjamin Summers), the lead character, whose tarnished past with a religious cult functions as the mystery that drives the narrative. After something scandalous happens up north, Will comes to Boise to start over and try to cultivate a relationship with his estranged son Alex (Nate Jackson).

Jackson and Brewer (recently seen in Capital T Theatre’s production of “Punkplay”) offer another excellent set of performances together. While Brewer takes on the role of assertive and over-protective older brother, Jackson’s sullen teenage moodiness contrasts with the typical aggression of his recent roles.

Summers stalwartly carries the narrative burden and convincingly shifts between awkward insecurity and vehement fanaticism as the tension builds. Perhaps the most interesting character, though, is the one we know least about: the socially inept but exuberant Anna (Katie Kohler).

Mark Pickell’s set is outstandingly realistic – creating a point-perfect replica of every depressing break room ever, right down to the tatty fake plant and passive aggressive refrigerator notes.

Although the show has a fair bit of comic relief, primarily in the form of the harried and foul-mouthed store manager Pauline (Rebecca Robinson), the overall effect is unfortunately haphazard and unsatisfying.

“A Bright New Boise” continues through Oct. 25. www.hydeparktheatre.org

Review: Ballet Austin’s “The Firebird” and “Agon”

(This review is by American-Statesman freelance writer Claire Christine Spera.)

Ballet Austin’s productions of “Agon” and “The Firebird” at the Long Center made for an evening of contrasts threaded together with a commonality: Both ballets are set to Igor Stravinsky scores, beautifully performed in this case by the Austin Symphony Orchestra.

The differences between “Agon” and “The Firebird” are stark: Abstract dance versus story ballet; basic leotards and tights versus Russian-themed character costuming; a plain stage versus scenic design; and classic George Balanchine choreography versus that by Ballet Austin’s artistic director, Stephen Mills.

In “Agon,” presented by Ballet Austin by arrangement with The George Balanchine Trust, the choreography demands exactitude. The simple garments and adornment-free stage, which features only a blue background, leave us to focus exclusively on the dance, set to a Stravinsky score with memorable horn melodies. The classical vocabulary of arabesques, pirouettes and tableaus comes with contemporary flairs. The women, though dancing en pointe, bend their supporting legs and perform flat-footed turns; meanwhile, the ensemble unfurls their legs into high extensions and thrusts the hips forward, out of classical alignment. In comical moments, small body wiggles had the audience laughing. The tableaus often have the women balancing in one-legged positions between male partners.

From the series of duets, trios and quartets that make up the ballet, the long lines of Ashley Lynn Sherman and Christopher Swaim at the Sept. 27 performance stood out. In a moment of contrast, they both came to a hunched-forward position, with one of Sherman’s legs wrapped around the back of Swaim’s neck.

 

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From the moment the overture begins for Mills’ version of “The Firebird,” we’re thrust into the foreboding realm of an enchanted forest, ruled over by Kastchei the Immortal (Edward Carr, in a creepy skeleton-esque costume). The guttural humming of strings gives way to outbursts of energy when the Firebird enters, flashing around the stage in a red-gold tutu (all sets and costumes were on loan from Louisville Ballet). As the Firebird, Jaime Lynn Witts transformed her body, incorporating a twitching head and quivering arms to bring the wings of the creature to life. Her one-legged hops in arabesque gave a flighty air to scene.

Mills’ choreography has many lovely moments. Nine princesses — led by Sherman, with whom Ivan (Frank Shott) falls in love — pluck golden apples from a tree that they toss and roll around the forest. When the evil Kastchei captures Ivan, the ensemble of castle guards, wives and princesses fills the stage, creating a feast of dynamic visual patterns accented by the Russian-flavored costuming. Ultimately, the Firebird rushes to Ivan’s aid, and though winds up mortally wounded by Kastchei, Ivan discovers the egg that contains the skeleton king’s soul and smashes it to the ground, giving his protectress new life.

Ballet Austin’s program over the weekend showed that just as the Firebird is reborn, so is ballet; from classical to contemporary, today’s ballet dancers are expected to do it all.

Review: Mary Moody Northen Theatre’s “Love and Information”

(This review is by American-Statesman freelance writer Claire Canavan)

In the modern world, information flows freely and it’s easy to get swept up in the current.

In “Love and Information,” British playwright Caryl Churchill explores the ways relationships function (or don’t) within the fragmented nature of contemporary life. David M. Long directs the play’s regional premiere at St. Edward’s University, now running through October 5.

Jeopardy-style trivia questions greet the audience before the show begins, but soon the questions scroll across the screens so quickly they become a blur of nonsense. The actors emerge for a wild opening dance number featuring neon hula-hoops and a song about DNA. The show then abruptly shifts into realism, with a short but punchy scene about a couple with a secret.

Aly Jones and Jake McVicker in the regional premiere of "Love And Information" by Carly Churchill at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre, St. Edward's University. Photo by Bret Brookshire.
Aly Jones and Jake McVicker in the regional premiere of “Love And Information” by Carly Churchill at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre, St. Edward’s University. Photo by Bret Brookshire.

These tonal shifts — from the surreal to the familiar — are a signature of Churchill’s work, and part of the fun of the show. Like many of her other plays, “Love and Information” does not rely on a linear plot. The show unfurls as a series of over fifty different vignettes, some almost overlapping, that show us slices of present-day life.

A woman on vacation in a remote location worries about her inability to access the Internet. A group of friends watch a wedding video and lament that they can’t remember anything from that day that wasn’t recorded. A couple fears climate change but is paralyzed by inaction. Some scenarios are poignant, some are funny, and others are downright bizarre, but they are all held together by Churchill’s snappy dialogue.

Under Long’s direction, the fast pace never lets up, and the staging is dynamic and physical. The actors are constantly in motion. Veteran actors Janelle Buchanan and Rick Roemer ground their scenes with the weight of experience, while the student cast members bring an infectious energy to each scenario.

The structure of “Love and Information” reinforces the content. The characters struggle to process information much in the same way the audience must absorb the fragmented style of the show. The randomness of the way the scenes unfold mimics the disjointed nature of web surfing. It is an of-the-moment piece that mixes social commentary with old-fashioned human relationships. It is a whirlwind, and one well-worth getting swept up by.

 “Love and Information” continues through October 5, Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Mary Moody Northen Theatre, 3001 S. Congress Ave.  $8-$22. http://think.stedwards.edu/theatre/