The Texas CulturalTrust, an advocacy group, has set the dates for its next celebrity-sated Texas Medal of Arts Awardsceremony. The multi-part fandango — which is also intended to update state leaders on cultural funding — will take place Feb. 26-27 at the Blanton Museum of Art, Long Center for the Performing Arts and elsewhere in Austin.
The group has had no trouble attracting big names — from Willie Nelson and Eva Longoria to Walter Cronkite and Debbie Allen — to the event. The most recent blow-out at Bass Concert Hall in 2017 was a highlight of the social season.
The new event co-chairs are Leslie Blanton from the world of cultural philanthropy and Leslie Ward from the corporate (AT&T) halls of external and legislative affairs.
The group, now overseen by Executive Director Heidi Marquez Smith, has given out 108 medals since 2001 when the initial class of honorees was assembled at the Paramount Theatre. The evolving list of categories: music, film, dance, visual arts, arts patron (corporate, foundation and individual), media/multimedia, television, architecture, theatre, arts education, literary arts, design, and lifetime achievement.
The folks who run America’s historic theaters were in Austin last week. They conferred their Marquee Award on Jaston Williams, the actor, writer and director whose plays have brightened the Paramount Theatre and State Theater for more than three decades.
The members of the League of Historic American Theatres do not just preserve hundreds of the country’s older venues, they keep them breathing and alive by producing and presenting all sorts of entertainment on their stages.
Among Austin’s main historic live theaters, the State and Paramount, along with the Scottish Rite Theater (originally Turn Verein), Scholz Hall (now known as Scholz Garten) and HoggAuditorium, still see performances. The Millett Opera House stands but long ago lost its theatrical function; it now houses the Austin Club, which is reviving the memory of the building’s theatrical past. Among those lost to time: Hancock Opera House, Brauss Hall, Peck’s Hall, Austin Opera House, Long’s Opera House, Smith’s OperaHouse, Casino Theater and Capitol Theater.
Austin’s Paramount served as host of the League’s annual summer conference and at a dinner on July 15, Williams, who often worked with collaborator Joe Sears on the “Greater Tuna” comedies, picked up the honor that has gone to Hal Holbrook, Garrison Keillor and Vince Gill. The Marquee Award, established in 2012, goes to artists who inspire League members and also showcase the historic theaters where they perform.
Stars for Williams and Sears were planted under the Paramount’s marquee years ago. Three years ago, on its 100th birthday, the theater, built for vaudeville in 1915, regained it upright blade sign which once again graces Congress Avenue.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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
Leonard Bernstein‘s “Mass” is about nothing less than a profound loss of faith, Not just personal, but also national, even universal.
Premiering in 1971 during some of the most grim days of the Vietnam War, the great composer’s theatrical take on the traditional Mass structure was to deconstruct it and put it back together.
He poses a saintly Celebrant against competing masses of singers, dancers and instrumentalists.
First one group, then others, and ultimately the Celebrant himself lose the comforts of faith and peace and smash the religious images that adorn the altar at the center of the stage. If this spirtual chaos can seem heart-rending today — and at the Long Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, it was — one can only imagine the effect on buttoned-up audiences right after the 1960s, a decade that tore apart conventional social norms on so many fronts.
No wonder its debut at the Kennedy Center was so controversial. Not only that, the two-hour spectacle that begins with Broadway-Bernstein’s “Simple Song” — sung too softly here — ricochets musically among Copland-Bernstein, Stravinsky-Bernstein and the sometimes unsettling High-Modernist-Bernstein.
All this added up to an evening of almost overwhelming sensation, thanks primarily to Peter Bay, who has dreamed of conducting this towering piece since he witnessed the Kennedy Center premiere 47 years ago.
Let’s break it down:
Children’s choirs: The combined troupes, led by multiple directors, provided moments of joyful respite from the the heavier drama of “Mass.” Their brightly-clad innocence and sweet harmonies elicited an audible “aw” from the audience every time they appeared. Despite Michael Krauss‘s large, never crowded and gorgeously sacred set, the kids were by default and musical necessity required to cluster downstage. While stationed there, they were the stars of the show.
Bernstein100Austin Chorus: Placed upstage of the altar, this formidable group of singers, dressed for most of the action in dark robes, provided a sort of solemn anchor for everything else. Led primarily by Craig Hella Johnson of Conspirare, their sound was rock-solid and responded to whatever challenge Bernstein and Bay threw at them. It would be interesting to hear some of their sections done separately in concert. They would hold up.
Street Chorus: While the upstage choir blended into a whole, this group of two dozen or so singer-actors — dressed in street clothes and semi-seated to the side — injected particularized humanity into their roles. While they clearly represented some of the social subsets from the early 1970s, the performers made each part their own, thanks in part to stage director Josh Miller‘s efforts to distinguish each individual’s profile. Their solo meditations on faith and doubt really got the show’s near-operatic project rolling.
Dancers and Acolytes: Not having seen a stage version of “Mass” before, I could only imagine — or rather, struggle to imagine — the function of these mostly silent figures dressed in plain black-and-white cassocks. Yet, choreographed by Jennifer Hart, they kept the show in almost constant motion, delineating sections and amplifying the major themes. Included onstage were some of Ballet Austin‘s finest dancers, who know how to make movement into theater. If you don’t have the dancers, you don’t have “Mass.”
Celebrant: At first, baritone Jubilant Sykes provided the warm, soulful heart of the show. Wearing his vestments lightly and employing the full range of his stunning voice, Sykes tried to reach out and mend the rips in the social-sacramental fabric around him, not easy to do when there are 300 other performers around you. Yet when it came time for the Celebrant to break down and lose his personal connection to God, Sykes, defrocked in a solo spotlight, gave us a raw psychological study that could have been drawn from the most terrifying Greek tragedy.
Austin Symphony Orchestra+: Austin’s primary classical ensemble was supported by rock, jazz and marching band musicians. Yet they carried the preponderance of the musical weight triumphantly under Bay’s baton and, let’s be plain, they have never sounded more urgent or imperative. Especially during the interludes, they shed any mundane notion of constraints or equivocation. And as the audience made abundantly clear during the curtain calls, this was pinnacle so far in the career of conductor Bay. That’s not to say it’s downhill from here, but with this monumental “Mass,” all the participating Austin performing arts groups proved our city can aspire to almost anything. (And it made profit that will go back to the arts groups, says co-producer Mela Sarajane Dailey.)
“We hold very different perspectives on experiences we imagine we’re sharing.” So speaks Alex, one of two characters in Simon Stephens’ “Heisenberg.” It’s a line that serves as the perfect summation of the play’s themes, and Zach Theatre’s new production plays off those differing perspectives to create a dynamic performance with two astonishing leads.
“Heisenberg” begins with the incidental meeting between Alex, a 75-year-old London butcher, and Georgie, a 42-year-old American expatriate whose 19-year-old son has abandoned her. The unlikely courtship between the pair is at the heart of the play, which explores the uncertainty in all relationships as well as the vague ways in which we influence others without even realizing it.
Plays with only two actors live and die on the chemistry of their performers, and in Harvey Guion and Liz Beckham, “Heisenberg” has an engaging, charming, heartbreaking pair. Beckham’s manic externalization of every passing thought is the perfect counter to Guion’s quiet insularity, and when the two meet in the middle, the result is nothing short of magical. Indeed, their remarkable pairing — guided by the deft directorial hand of Nat Miller, who very effectively uses staging in the round to highlight the couples’ varying perspectives — might just exceed the source material.
Stephens’ text is deft and subtle, featuring some unexpected narrative twists and deeply romantic moments. However, its ending is a bit abrupt, leaving some of the themes (as well as the plot-line) unsatisfyingly unresolved, and not in a meaningful way.
“Heisenberg” is, to be fair, a very good play; Beckham and Guion, however, are more than very good: They are excellent.
Zach is known in Austin for its large-scale productions on the massive Topfer Stage, so it is a welcome and refreshing change of pace to see them produce a smaller-scale piece on the Kleberg Stage that focuses less on spectacle and more on some truly remarkable performances. Beckham, Guion and Miller have proved that there is room for such subtlety even in Austin’s biggest theater company.
‘HEISENBERG’ WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through July 22 Where: 202 S. Lamar Blvd. Cost: $30-$58 Information:zachtheatre.org
Siblings Amy and David Sedaris may not be best known as playwrights, but writing together as “The Talent Family” they have co-authored several comedic scripts, including “The Book of Liz,” which is running through June 30 at Trinity Street Theatre, courtesy of Different Stages.
“The Book of Liz” is, more than anything else, a very silly play, and this is not an insult — silliness is clearly the intended goal of both the playwright and the production. It tells the story of Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, a member of the “Squeamish” religious order (picture a food-obsessed parody of the Amish) and the creator of the signature, wildly popular cheese balls that the order sells in order to remain financially afloat. When she begins to chafe under the order’s male domination, Liz decides to run away and finds herself facing the modern world (and an eclectic array of contemporary characters) for the first time in her life.
The Sedaris’ comedy here is of a gentle kind, more akin to the NPR-friendly humor of David’s writings than the off-the-wall zaniness characterized by Amy’s television work. It is very much like an extended sketch one might hear or see on “A Prairie Home Companion”; none of the jokes are particularly sharp or mean-spirited, but they elicit more than a few wry chuckles and deeper laughs at the pure goofiness of it all.
Different Stages’ production is entirely in on the joke; it highlights this good-natured silliness at every opportunity, ranging from broad characterizations and pantomimed props to over-the-top fake beards. Director Robert Tolaro is not trying to push the envelope here, or to produce searing social commentary, but rather just to get the audience to smile, and in that he wholly succeeds.
The cast, as well, is completely in tune with the text’s gentle humor. Miriam Rubin, as the put-upon Liz, is sweetly and smartly charming, a wonderful juxtaposition to the zanier antics of the rest of the cast. Robert L. Berry’s sonorous voice is put to great use in the dual role of the head of the Squeamish order, Reverend Tollhouse, and the manager at the restaurant where Liz ends up working. Katherine Schroeder, as both a sister in the order and a recovering alcoholic doctor whom Liz visits, provides a slow, subtle comedic burn that ramps up into some of the deepest belly laughs of the play.
The younger members of the cast — Sunshine Garrison, Christian Huey and Beau Paul — all show their comedic chops in their ability to shift between a variety of different character types. In a surprise appearance as the narrator of the play, Different Stages producer (and recent Austin Arts Hall of Fame inductee) Norman Blumensaadt also provides an unexpected highlight, moving the story along with dapper charm and bouncy feet.
If “The Book of Liz” could be described in one word, it would be “cute,” and there’s nothing wrong with that. It is also, though, surprisingly sweet and tender in its final few moments, providing a bit of insight about the roles of both tradition and change in our contemporary world. And, of course, it is at all times willfully, lightheartedly and unselfconsciously cheesy.
“THE BOOK OF LIZ” When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through June 30 Where: Black Box Theater, 901 Trinity St. Cost: $15-$30 Information:differentstagestheatre.org
When the universe ends, is it also the end of love? Is being taken up into the stars by the gods a reward or a punishment? How do science, poetry and the cosmos interweave meaningfully in human lives?
These are the questions raised by playwright Reina Hardy in the world premiere of “The Afterparty,” produced by Shrewd Productions and playing through June 30th at the Vortex.
“The Afterparty” is a mixture of science fiction, magical realism and memory play, told through the eyes of Claire, a poet whose favorite topics include the stars, science and mythology. She ruminates over her long-dead first love, a young boy named Devon, before being taken into the stars for a semi-mystical party where historical figures Aristophanes, Johannes Kepler and Henrietta Swan Leavitt greet her.
The text mixes poetry, comedy and surrealism to explore the ways in which human narratives interweave science and mythology in order to come to a greater understanding of the human condition, particularly the most mysterious part of that condition: love. The layered investigation of these issues is interesting and nuanced, but at times Hardy exchanges the exploration of her metaphors for grounded character interactions, creating a narrative that is told to us as much as it is shown. In addition, the story starts off rather slow and runs somewhat longer than a play focused more on ideas than on characters can sustain.
Where Hardy excels, however, is at creating moments in the text for visual and physical exploration, which director Liz Fisher choreographs beautifully. Ann Marie Gordon’s set, Patrick Anthony’s lights, Nick Hart’s music and sound design and Andrew McIntyre’s projections all combine organically to create an atmospheric space that truly feels cosmic at times. The relatively small black box theater of the Vortex becomes infinite and expansive thanks to the clockwork synchronicity of these technical elements.
“The Afterparty” also sports a talented cast, headed by Shannon Grounds as Claire. Grounds is able to sell both the poetic and comedic sides of the character, particularly when playing off Ja’Michael Darnell’s lovably innocent portrayal of Devon. As Aristophanes, Kepler and Leavitt, respectively, Rommel Sulit, Trey Deason and Valoneecia Tolbert bring vivacious life to the second act, imbuing it with a comic zing that is somewhat lacking in the first half.
Though uneven in places, “The Afterparty” is an aesthetically pleasing exploration of the overlap between art and science that poetically focuses on the cosmic questions we ask when we look up at the stars.
“THE AFTERPARTY” When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through June 30 Where: The Vortex, 2307 Manor Road Cost: $15-$35 Information:vortexrep.org
The blazing news that stands out from the recently announced Austin Shakespeare season is the return of beloved actor and Universityof Texas professor Fran Dorn in a staged reading of “Antony and Cleopatra” in October (dates to be announced).
Otherwise, the mid-sized theater company splits its main season between the Bard and other classically inspired dramatic literature.
The free Shakespeare in the Park option will be “The Merchant of Venice” in May 2019 at Zilker Park. The Young Shakespeare selection is “Macbeth” in June 2019 at the Curtain, the Elizabethan-style theater out on Lake Austin.
The 20th-century choices are Tennessee Williams‘ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (November-December) and Tom Stoppard‘s “Indian Ink” (February 2019). Luckily, much can be found about both playwrights in the archives of the Ransom Center.
Austin Shakespeare also plans a collaboration with the Austin Chamber Music Festival in the summer of 2019.
Still left on the 2017-2018 docket are the chamber music joint effort over scenes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (July 22); “Shakespeare and All That Jazz” at Parker Jazz Club (July 8); and the remaining run of its Young Shakespeare “Hamlet” at the Curtain (through June 24).