Austin theater alum Tyler Mount wins Tony Award

Tyler Mount, who studied at St. Edward’s University and developed a popular vlog for Playbill.com, took home a Tony Award on Sunday. Mount recently returned to town to emcee the Greater Austin High School Musical Theatre Awards.

RELATED: Tyler Mount returns to Austin for musical theater awards.

Although it was hard to pick him out in the acceptance crowd onstage, Mount’s honor came as a named producer for “Once on This Island,” which won Best Revival of a Musical. Austinites Marc and Carolyn Seriff also invested as producers in two winning shows this Broadway season, but their names did not appear above the title, so they were ineligible. They actually were named producers last season for “Anastasia,” which comes through town via the Broadway in Austin series at Bass Concert Hall next season.

RELATED: Broadway smash “Hamilton” in Austin 2018-2019 season.

Mount made a fantastic emcee for Austin’s closest entertainment equivalent to the Tony Awards. He even joked about his possible Tony status during the ceremony. And while we are on the subject, this year’s Tonys were, with one jarring exception, tone perfect. The students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who sang “Seasons of Love” from “Rent,” had me weeping from the first first piano chords.

RELATED: Winning the Austin High School Musical Awards.

‘Little Bird’ looks at ways young women are looked at by men

“Little Bird,” a new play by Nicole Oglesby now playing at the Dougherty Arts Center, is only the second production from one of Austin’s newest theater companies, the Heartland Theatre Collective. Formed by Oglesby and Marian Kansas (who directs “Little Bird”) after they graduated from the University of Texas, Heartland describes its mission as telling “rich, powerful stories of Texan women of the past, present, and future that feature female artists working in Austin.”

Franny Harold and Laney Neumann in “Little Bird.” Contributed by Daniel Ellsworth

Like the company’s first production, “Dust” (also an Oglesby/Kansas collaboration), “Little Bird” weaves a rich, emotionally nuanced tapestry around a story that is vital to women. While “Dust” was a period piece, “Little Bird” is much more contemporary. Set in an East Texas bayou, it tells the story of two teenage girls, best friends Willa and Peg, as they find themselves on the cusp of womanhood and suddenly under the gaze of predatory men.

Though a world premiere, this is clearly a play that has undergone a lot of thought and revision, thanks in part to dramaturg (and, with Oglesby and Kansas, co-producer) Katy Matz. Oglesby’s text is complex, layered and emotionally difficult at times, dealing as it does with issues of abuse and pedophilia. Underneath the darkness, though, shines the light of the girls’ friendship, a beacon to pull them through the dark swampland of their troubles. The relationship between the two women is the heart of the show, and the two actresses portraying the girls in this production keep that heart beating fervently.

RELATED: ‘Dust’ announces a powerful new theater company

Kenzie Stewart’s exuberant, innocent Peg is a stark and powerful contrast to the more reserved Willa, played by Franny Harold with a kind of uncomfortable wisdom that a girl Willa’s age should not have. From the first scene, it is clear that Willa has been traumatized in her past, and the play hints that she will not be spared further trauma in the future. Laney Neumann plays Margot, a ghost whom only Willa can see and who was murdered by her own abuser. Her poised performance, undergirded by childlike, kinetic playfulness, serves as a commentary on the ways in which society sexualizes young women, often with tragic results.

Kenzie Stewart and Keith Paxton in “Little Bird.” Contributed by Daniel Ellsworth

Rounding out the cast is Keith Adam Paxton as “The Hunter,” a shorthand title for the transmutation role he takes on as all the men in the play. Oglesby deliberately keeps the story free of noble or protective males, showcasing instead how different types of men — from family members, to strangers, to boyfriends — can be predatory towards young women. Paxton’s strength here is in the subtle differentiation he shows between different types of abusers, some of whom are merely creepy while others are violently dangerous, raising important questions about contemporary male culpability.

“Little Bird” is a play of relationships and small character moments, and Kansas wisely puts all the focus on her quartet of performers. She takes advantage of the enormous depth of the Dougherty Arts Center’s stage, creating power dynamics out of negative space and crafting instant transitions on Amanda Perry’s transformative set design, with the aid of Lindsey McGowan’s lush, saturated lighting and Christabel Lin’s somber violin score (played live by the composer herself).

With both “Dust” and “Little Bird” making vital contributions to important conversations surrounding the lives of Texas women, the Heartland Theatre Collective promises to be an important voice in Austin theater in the years to come, and Oglesby and Kansas a creative collaboration to watch out for.

“LITTLE BIRD”
When: 7:30 p.m. June 14-16
Where: Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Road
Cost: $15-$25
Information: heartlandtheatrecollective.com

Summer Stock Austin is a-comin’ down the street

Before you know it, Summer Stock Austin will be packing folks into the air-conditioned Rollins Studio Theatre for three shows at the Long Center for the Performing Arts.

Last year, we were bowled over by “Annie Get Your Gun” and mightily amused by “Monty Python’s Spamalot” as performed by students and young pros.

TheMusicMan_1200x628

The three selections this year:

“The Music Man” (July 20-Aug. 11) Meredith Wilson‘s classic about a con man selling the idea of a marching band to small-town Iowa is an ideal match to the Summer Stock project. Bonus: Top teacher Ginger Morris directs and choreographs.

DirtyRottenScoundrels_1200x628

“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (Aug. 1-11) This adaptation of the Steve Martin-Michael Caine movie — also about swindlers — is not revived often enough. We admired the David Yazbek-Jeffrey Lane show on Broadway but haven’t seen it since. Dustin Gooch directs.

ROB1N_1200x628

“Rob1n” (July 24-Aug.11) Every year, Austin national treasure Allen Robertson contributes a new show to the Summer stock season. He worked with Damon Brown on the book for this family-friendly version of the Robin Hood tales — hey, another lovable criminal?).

Robertson’s job? He only wrote the music and lyrics, co-wrote the book and serves as the show’s director and music director.

Ticket info:

Tickets are available at TheLongCenter.org or by calling (512) 474.LONG (5664). Also available at the Long Center’s 3M Box Office located at 701 West Riverside Drive at South First Street. For groups of 10 and more, please call 512-457-5161 orgroupsales@thelongcenter.org.

Shakespeare in Round Rock: Free family fun for a summer night

‘Tis the season for theater under the stars, and Penfold Theatre continues its tradition of bringing outdoor productions to Round Rock with “Much Ado About Nothing,” playing for free through June 23 at the Round Rock Amphitheater.

Contributed by Kimberley Mead

At first blush, a bit of Shakespeare might not seem to be the most natural fit for Penfold’s outdoor summer production, which tends to play to more of a family audience than Austin Shakespeare’s own annual production in Zilker Park. Director Ryan Crowder, however, has created a smart, slimmed-down adaptation of the text. This leaner, meaner play cuts down on anything but the main plotline, following two pairs of lovers as they fall in and out of love (and sometimes both at once).

Set and lighting designer Chris Conard has created an inventive playing space, re-creating the porch and front yard of a rural Texas farmhouse in the late 1800s. The text holds up remarkably well to such a setting, working in concert with Conard’s set, Jennifer Davis’ simple, evocative costumes and sound designer Eliot Fisher’s bed of “A Prairie Home Companion”-esque fiddle music. This conceit also allows for several fun moments of live music and line dancing.

What such production choices ultimately achieve is to streamline the story, eliminating many side characters, gender-swapping a few others and casting two performers (Suzanne Balling and Taylor Flanagan) in multiple roles, so as to focus on the lovers’ storylines. Indeed, the villainous Don John, played by Balling with a delightful Southern drawl, is reduced to the bare essential stereotypes of a black-hatted villain who may or may not live in the outhouse, while Flanagan is called upon to ebulliently switch between three separate roles within one scene.

While Balling and Flanagan get to vacillate between a variety of characters, both serious and silly, the rest of the cast focus on more nuanced portrayals of the two pairs of lovers. As the young, engaged couple Hero and Claudio, Emily Christine Smith and Nathan Daniel Ford portray a sense of wistful naivete that nicely contrasts to the more cynical, knowing jibes of Jennifer Jennings and Nathan Jerkins as Beatrice and Benedick. These four have their moments of humor, too, but their laughs come more from the sarcasm and playfulness of Shakespeare’s words (though both Jennings and Jerkins have a few moments of broad physical comedy), and it is to the actors’ credit that they are able to make that language so nimble and active.

Penfold’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is, in short, a Shakespearean comedy that trims the textual fat while adding plenty of bells and whistles in order to create a light piece of summer fare that is suitable for the entire family.

‘MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING’
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through June 23
Where: Round Rock Amphitheater, 301 W. Bagdad Ave., Round Rock
Cost: Free
Information: penfoldtheatre.org

Winners rejoice for 2018 Austin Critics Table Awards

Seems like yesterday when we sat down at Katz’s Deli to vote on the first Austin Critics Table Awards. Now a whole new generation of arts journalists are making the decisions. We could not be happier.

The following individuals and groups were honored Monday night at Cap City Comedy Club. (If I missed any, let me know.)

CRITICS TABLE AWARDS 2018

THEATER

Production (tie)

“Henry IV,” The Hidden Room Theatre

“Ragtime,” Texas State University Department of Theatre and Dance

RELATED: “Ragtime” is an American classic.

Direction

Jason Phelps, “The Brothers Size”

David Mark Cohen New Play Award

“Wild Horses,” Allison Gregory

Performance by an Individual

John Christopher, “The Brothers Size”/”Fixing Troilus and Cressida”

Chanel, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”

Jennifer Coy Jennings, “Wild Horses”

Sarah Danko, “The Effect”/”Grounded”

Judd Farris, “Henry IV”/”The Repentance of Saint Joan”

Joseph Garlock, “The Immigrant”

Performance by an Ensemble

“The Wolves,” Hyde Park Theatre

Periphery Company

“Wimberley Players,” Wimberley

Improvised Production
“Orphans!,” The Hideout Theatre
“Speak No More,” Golden

DESIGN

Set (tie)

Stephanie Busing, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”

Chris Conard/Zac Thomas, “Pocatello”

Costume

Buffy Manners, “Shakespeare in Love”

Lighting

Rachel Atkinson, “Scheherazade”/”Twenty-Eight”/”Catalina de Erauso”/”The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”/”Con Flama”

Sound

Lowell Bartholomee, “Grounded”

Digital (tie)

Lowell Bartholomee, “The Effect/Wakey Wakey”/”The Repentance of Saint Joan”/”Grounded”

Robert Mallin, “Enron”

DANCE

Concert

(“Re)current Unrest”, Charles O. Anderson/Fusebox Festival

Short Work

“Four Mortal Men,” Ballet Austin

Choreographer

Jennifer Hart, “Fellow Travelers”/“Murmuration”

Dancer

Anika Jones, “Belonging, Part One”

Rosalyn Nasky, “Come In!!!”/”Pod”/”There’s No Such Thing as a Single Stripe”

Jun Shen, “Belonging, Part One”

Ensemble

“Exit Wounds”/”Masters of Dance,” Ballet Austin

RELATED: Ballet Austin aims for the heart with “Exit Wounds.”

CLASSICAL MUSIC

Concert/Opera

“Southwest Voices,” Chorus Austin

Chamber Performance

Golden Hornet Young Composers Concert, Golden Hornet

Original Composition/Score

“I/We,” Joseph V. Williams II

Singer

Marina Costa-Jackson, “La Traviata”

Jenifer Thyssen, “An Early Christmas”/”It’s About Time: Companions”/”Complaints Through the Ages”

Veronica Williams, “Songs of Remembrance and Resistance”

Ensemble

“Invoke, Beerthoven”/Golden Hornet Smackdown IV

Instrumentalist (tie)

Bruce Colson, “It’s About Time: Companions”

Artina McCain, “Black Composers Concert: The Black Female Composer”

VISUAL ART

Solo Gallery Exhibition

“Claude van Lingen: Timekeeper,” Co-Lab Projects

Group Gallery Exhibition

“Yo soy aqui / I am here,” ICOSA

Museum Exhibition

“The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip,” Blanton Museum of Art

Independent Project

2017 Texas Biennial

Gallery, Body of Work

Co-Lab Projects

Artist

Michael Anthony Garcia

SPECIAL CITATIONS

John Bustin Award for Conspicuous Versaility: Mary Agen Cox, Jeff Mills

Deacon Crain Award for Outstanding Student Work: Connor Barr, Kat Lozano, UT; Ben Toomer, Texas State

Outstanding Music Direction: Austin Haller for “Ragtime”

Outstanding Choreography: Natasha Davison for “The Drowsy Chaperone”

Horn of Plenty Award: Benjamin Taylor Ridgeway & Jennifer Rose Davis for the masks in “Rhinoceros”

Jurassic Spark Award: The Hatchery for creating the raptors in “Enron”

One Singular Sensation Award: Kaitlin Hopkins for the Texas State University Musical Theatre Program

RELATED: Kaitlin Hopkins takes Texas State to the top.

Always a Safe Flight Award: Barry Wilson & Team for Rigging Design & Execution in “Belonging, Part One”

Outstanding Touring Show, Dance: Johnny Cruise Mercer and Fusebox Festival for “Plunge In/To 534”

Architecture is Art Award: Blanton Museum of Art for Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin”

Mount Everest Award: Vortex Repertory Theatre for “Performance Park”

Flip the Table Award: David Wyatt and John Riedie for meritorious service to the Austin Critics Table

AUSTIN ARTS HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES

Norman Blumensaadt (Different Stages) – company founder, artistic director, director, actor

Kathy Dunn Hamrick (Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company, Cafe Dance) – company founder, artistic director, choreographer, dancer, educator

Michael and Jeanne Klein (Blanton Museum of Art, The Contemporary Austin, Ransom Center, et al.) – patrons, board members, civic leaders, arts advocates

Anuradha Naimpally (Austin Dance India, Cafe Dance) – company founder, artistic director, dancer, choreographer, educator

Zach’s ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ is as colorful as the art that inspired the musical

As a headline in the Guardian newspaper once noted, Stephen Sondheim might just be the Shakespeare of musical theater. But of his many works — ranging from “Company” to “Sweeney Todd” to “Into the Woods” — only one show earned him (along with collaborator James Lapine) a Pulitzer Prize in drama: “Sunday in the Park with George.” Zach Theatre’s new production of the classic musical is a fitting, complex and deceptively straightforward rendition of the show that fully exploits the many notes and colors of this layered, engaging text.

Jill Blackwood and Cecil Washington star in “Sunday in the Park with George.”
RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

An in-depth exploration of “the art of making art,” “Sunday in the Park with George” tells the fictionalized story of French pointillist painter Georges Seurat (called George in the show) and the creation of his most famous work, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” as well as the effect of that work on the life of his great-grandson, also named George. Both versions of George try to master their world, their relationships and themselves through their artistic work, making sacrifices and compromises along the way.

Through both its songs (by Sondheim) and dialogue (by Lapine), “Sunday in the Park with George” shows the ways in which the life of an artist freely intermingles with his work, and vice versa. With numerous overlapping themes and motifs, this is Sondheim at his best, exploring issues that are clearly personal to his own artistic experience and expression.

RELATED: Jill Blackwood is an Austin star for all reasons

Zach’s production, directed by the company’s producing artistic director, Dave Steakley, is fully aware of the strength of Sondheim’s work and takes great pains never to overshadow it. From the large-scale set pieces (designed by Cliff Simon), to the costumes and hair/makeup (by Susan Branch Towne and Serrett Jensen, respectively) that bring Seurat’s painting to life, and the sumptuous and moving orchestra under the direction of Allen Robertson, each element of the production works intricately with every other piece to create a greater whole, much like Seurat’s pointillist method itself.

The standout exception is the lighting design by Sarah EC Maines, assisted by Carlos Nine, which is a character in its own right, creating paintings on the stage while interacting and collaborating with the performers. Some of the most breathtaking moments in the play, in fact, feature an actor or actress summoning and controlling light and imagery through the power of their voice.

Though the entire company is quite strong, the two leads of this production are truly remarkable. Jill Blackwood’s performance as the first George’s muse/lover, Dot, shines with a strength that is equally passionate and compassionate, imbuing a figure from a painting with inner life and light. Even more stunning, though, is Cecil Washington Jr.’s transformative portrayal of both versions of George — the stolid, outwardly unemotional elder, who inwardly roils with artistic furor, and the far more temperamental younger man who is artistically adrift at sea. Both versions feel effortlessly genuine.

“Sunday in the Park with George” is one of the greatest works from one of the masters of musical theater, a serious and soulful meditation on the nature of art and life. Zach Theatre’s production is a gorgeous, colorful and uplifting performance that takes the play’s most crucial elements and beautifully puts them together.

‘Sunday in the Park With George’
When: Various times through June 24
Where: The Topfer at Zach Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd.
Cost: $20-$150
Information: 512-476-0541, zachtheatre.org

Little-known musical ‘Lucky Stiff’ comes alive with comedic bits

The team of writer/lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty have together produced some classics of musical theater over the past three decades, including shows such as “Ragtime,” “Once on this Island” and the current Broadway production of “Anastasia.” Their first collaboration, though, came in 1988, in the form of an off-Broadway adaptation of Michael Butterworth’s 1983 novel “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.”

Molly Karrasch, Huck Huckaby and Scott Shipman in “Lucky Stiff.” Contributed by Christopher Loveless

That musical, “Lucky Stiff,” never reached the same heights of success as the duo’s later works, and it’s easy to see why. It is a very light, zany romp that’s lacking in depth and abounding with clichés. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be quite fun, as proved by Austin Playhouse’s new production of the overlooked musical.

“Lucky Stiff” tells the story of an uptight English shoe salesman named Harry Witherspoon who is given a life-changing opportunity when he stands to inherit $6 million from his recently deceased uncle. All he has to do to obtain his inheritance is take his uncle’s taxidermied corpse on the vacation of a lifetime to Monte Carlo. He encounters a series of wacky, outlandish people along the way, most notably a woman named Annabel Glick who represents the charity that stands to inherit the money should he fail to scrupulously follow the terms of his uncle’s will.

As the founder of Doctuh Mistuh productions, which specializes in strange and unique musicals, director/musical director Michael McKelvey is the perfect fit for “Lucky Stiff.” Though some of the comedy of the text is more than a little aged, and none of the songs are particularly memorable, the delightful flourishes of clever staging, quiet visual gags and tiny character bits are what make this production come to life. It is, in short, a very good production of a fun-but-corny musical that features plenty of verve and charm.

The production is at its most charming in the moments of interaction between Witherspoon and Glick, played by Scott Shipman and Molly Karrasch, respectively. Both actors are relatively subdued and unassuming, particularly in comparison to the enjoyable extremes to which the rest of the cast go. The developing relationship between them is sold far more by the performances than by the text, providing an emotional core to what can at times feel like a somewhat directionless procession of comedic bits.

Those comedic bits, though, can be very funny, indeed. The entire cast fully commits to the world of the play with a reckless abandon that makes each moment a delight, even if the whole is lesser than the sum of those moments. Of particular note are the background shenanigans of Chase Brewer, Jess Hughes, Stephen Mercantel and Bernadette Nason (who each take on a variety of ever-shifting side characters), as well as Jerreme Rodriguez’s nebbishy, Jerry Lewis-like take on Vincent di Ruzzio, a bedraggled optometrist pulled into a wacky caper by his insensitive sister.

Although there’s a reason that “Lucky Stiff” is something of a forgotten musical, Austin Playhouse’s production is still a great deal of escapist fun with plenty of laughs, charm and life.

“Lucky Stiff”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through June 24
Where: 6001 Airport Blvd.
Cost: $17-$40
Information: austinplayhouse.com/lucky-stiff

Broadway in Austin’s ‘An American in Paris’ is a spectacular production of a dated story

The 1951 movie musical “An American in Paris” — starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, with music and songs by George and Ira Gershwin — is a film classic that was adapted into a Broadway musical just a few years ago. Though the show closed in 2016, it lives on in the form of a national tour, playing now at Bass Concert Hall courtesy of Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts.

“An American in Paris” is the final show in Broadway in Austin’s 2017-2018 season. Contributed by Matthew Murphy

“An American in Paris” follows several artists living in Paris immediately after the Nazi occupation of France has ended — Americans Jerry Mulligan and Adam Hochberg, and Frenchman Henri Barrel. Though the three become fast friends, they suffer the misfortune of all falling in love with the same woman, ballet dancer Lise Dassi. Romantic entanglements ensue as all involved work towards the production of a new ballet, funded by Henri’s parents along with American heiress Milo Davenport, whom Jerry begins dating.

Though these convoluted love triangles are classic elements of stage and screen storytelling, it’s impossible to ignore how painfully dated much of the script feels. Adapted by Craig Lucas from the motion picture, the dialogue gives Lise virtually no agency whatsoever; she never expresses her own feelings, but rather has them told to the audience by the men who wish to possess her. Jerry, ostensibly the hero of the story, is the worst of all, coming across less as a young romantic and more as the kind of possessive man who would tell a woman he doesn’t know to smile. From the moment that he refuses to call Lise by her name, and instead dubs her Liza, the script makes it almost impossible to root for Jerry’s romantic overtures.

Fortunately, the production of “An American in Paris” — majestically directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, with a sumptuous adaptation and arrangement of the Gershwins’ music and songs by Rob Fisher — far exceeds the borderline misogynist script.

If one were to eliminate the text entirely, and allow the dancing and mise en scène to tell the whole story, then the courtship between Jerry and Lise becomes infinitely more believable. Wheeldon excels at creating a romantic chemistry between the pair through the melding of their two dance styles.

RELATED: For this musical, the feet are as important as the beat

McGee Maddox, as Jerry, and Allison Walsh, as Lise, are especially strong given that they create likable characters despite the limitations of the script. Also of note are Ben Michael’s delightfully good-natured Henri, Matthew Scott’s sweetly sad-sack Adam and, particularly, Kirsten Scott’s commanding show of strength, nuance and charm as Milo.

Ultimately, despite the limitations of its story, “An American in Paris” is a visual and auditory feast. With kinetic projections from 59 Productions that actually enhance the storytelling (a rarity for such tools on the stage); angular, jutting set pieces (designed by Bob Crowley) that serve in deliberate contrast to the rounded, fluid movements of the dancers; and, of course, the sensuous choreography carried out by world-class dancers and the gorgeous Gershwin music intoned by an astounding orchestra and lush vocalists, there’s not a moment of the production that isn’t a delight to behold, even if the script is more than a little tone-deaf.

“An American in Paris”
When: 8 p.m. May 30-June 2, 2 p.m. June 2, and 1 and 7 p.m. June 3
Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive
Cost: $30-$125
Information: texasperformingarts.org

RELATED:
New Austin subscribers must wait for “Hamilton” season tickets
Look ahead to the next Austin season of Texas Performing Arts

With science fiction and sexy one-liners, this puppet show is not for kids

At first blush, the concept for “Polly Mermaid: Apocalypse Wow” seems like a joke — a mutant mermaid created out of humanity’s trash lives in a post-apocalyptic plastic kingdom under the sea where her best friends are puppets made from the detritus of mankind. When a scientist who has created a matter-transmitter device discovers that she may be responsible for this plastic realm, she teams up with Polly to try and save both humanity and Polly’s plastic friends.

Contributed by Caroline Reck

Such is the concept behind Glass Half Full Theatre’s latest production. And, yes, it is a comedy, but there are also elements of surprising beauty and engaging storytelling.

The script for “Polly Mermaid: Apocalypse Wow,” written by Indigo Rael (who stars as Polly) and Caroline Reck (who also directs), establishes its semi-absurdist concept early on and then makes an odd, interesting choice — it treats the concept seriously. Though the first few scenes may feel a bit like a smutty, adult-oriented “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” soon the play convinces us of its world in which trash can talk and a port-a-potty can allow for travel across time and space. Like all good science fiction, once those rules are demonstrated, the rest of the story unfolds based on following through with the premise.

In this way, “Polly Mermaid” is simultaneously a fun romp, filled with double entendres and puppets made out of trash, and a serious piece of science fiction. Both strands come together in a message of acceptance and environmentalism (with some jabs at the current administration’s policies on both as an added bonus), though in some ways the absorbing story almost outshines that message.

The play’s strength isn’t just in its script, though. It also features beautiful stagecraft, with exquisitely clever puppets (designed by Rael and Reck) masterfully handled by the show’s “Scubuki” puppeteers — Gricelda Silva, Marina De-Yoe Pedraza, Karina Dominguez, Kelly Hasandras and Sarah Danko. The human performances by Rael as Polly and Katy Taylor as scientist Debora Déguderè are both standouts as well, mixing explicit jokes and sly winks to the audience with serious bits of exposition and philosophical musings. All of this is underscored by evocative music from Austin’s own Mother Falcon, with a mix of lighting from Rachel Atkinson and sound design from K. Eliot Haynes that creates a convincing underwater atmosphere.

“Polly Mermaid: Apocalypse Wow” is more than just an adult puppet show. Hidden underneath the sexy one-liners and beautiful-but-silly trash puppets is a fascinating piece of science fiction, and the show should appeal to audiences looking for either half of this engaging equation.

“Polly Mermaid: Apocalypse Wow”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through June 9
Where: The Vortex, 2307 Manor Road
Cost: $15-$35
Information: 512-478-5282, glasshalffulltheatre.com

Theater company gives look ‘Back/Stage’ at life with special needs

Tilt Performance Group is unlike other theater companies in Austin. Their mission statement states they are committed to “providing adults with special needs and unique abilities the opportunity to participate in the creation and performance of professional theater” as well as “providing audiences the opportunity to enhance their understanding of those with unique abilities.” The company’s latest production, “Back/Stage,” tackles that part of their mission head-on, with a play that explores the meaning of stories, and of performing, to the show’s cast members.

Contributed by Dave Hawks

As director Nick Mayo explains in his curtain speech, “Back/Stage” evolved out of a workshop that exposed company members to the rehearsal process of a Broadway show. From there, Mayo worked with the cast through extensive discussions and rehearsals in order to put together an all-new play that explores company members’ tragedies and triumphs as adults living with special needs. The result is an inspiring cabaret that is filled with humor, warmth and insight.

The center point of “Back/Stage”is a discussion of why stories are important. As the show progresses, that exploration goes from the most general, such as the narrative experiences of enjoying sports, to the most specific, as the cast members get to explain why they enjoy telling stories on stage and the ways in which doing so interacts with their needs and disabilities. Along the way, cast members engage in comedic skits, musical performances and toasts of support for one another.

But “Back/Stage” is not a saccharine talent show. The most moving moments come when the entire cast assembles on stage in order to frankly discuss what it’s like living with special needs and how frequently they feel misunderstood or unheard. “Back/Stage” gives them the opportunity to be listened to; to share their stories, both their joy and their pain, with an audience that wants to hear what they have to say. It is a direct, honest, firsthand look at living with a disability, and how those disabilities do not hinder creativity, artistry or a desire to bring joy to audiences.

It is easy to see why Tilt has received funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Texas Commission on the Arts. The work they create, as embodied by “Back/Stage,” is a vital part of an important national conversation, and there is nothing else like it on the Austin stage.

“Back/Stage”
When: 7:30 p.m. May 31-June 2
Where: Highland Park Baptist Church, 5206 Balcones Drive
Cost: $10-$15
Information: tiltperformance.org