Theater review: “Everything is Established”

(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Cate Blouke.)

Part farce, part theater of the absurd, part ghost story, Hannah Kenah’s “Everything is Established,” playing now through Feb. 21 at the Off Center, will leave audiences both delighted and a little bit disturbed.

Anyone familiar with Kenah’s work, either as a company member of the Rude Mechanicals or from her devised work “Guest by Courtesy,” will recognize the artist’s signature intensity and humor in this show.

EverythingIsEstablished1
Jeffrey Mills, left, Michael Joplin, right, and Lee Eddy, front, start in “Everything Is Established.”

Produced by Physical Plant Theater and written and directed by Kenah, “Everything is Established” has a relatively simple premise: a wealthy megalomaniac with an enormous estate died before his mail-order bride arrived. Now, his two hapless and lonely servants await her arrival, desperately hoping she’ll stay and relieve the monotony.

With an outstanding ensemble of Austin’s comedic talent, the play explores the master-slave dialectic – probably in the sense of Hegelian philosophy, but that’s neither here nor there and certainly tangential to one’s enjoyment of the show.

What’s really important is that Jeffery Mills (Montgomery), Michael Joplin (Plaster), and Lee Eddy (Sally) are exceptional physical comedians and character actors, and together they form an unstoppable Juggernaut of hilarity.

Mills plays an adorably fastidious butler, whose charm shines through from the start (particularly in his awkward dancing at the top of the show). The poor Montgomery cares for his dimwitted compatriot, but he’s grown tired of letting the house fall to ruin and yearns for more stimulating companionship.

Eddy, as the baffled and blushing bride with nothing but a spatula to call her own, arrives in the midst of chaos and confusion, and she must try to make sense of the mess she’s walked herself into. Eddy’s shift into mastery over the staff and the situation is deftly accomplished, and her final moments in the spotlight are surprisingly sinister.

Joplin’s performance of an eye-bulging, manic agoraphobic footman holds traces of Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice and Heath Ledger’s Joker crossed with Zach Galifianakis’ sincere simpleton in “The Hangover.” As you might expect, that makes for a hilarious and frightening combination.

Not a moment is wasted in this one act performance.

Graham Reynolds’ music sets a deceptively upbeat tone to open the performance and the comic juxtapositions ensue from there. Even if the take-away is fuzzy, the delivery is thrilling.

“Everything is Established” continues 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through Feb. 1.

Review: Zach Theatre’s “Peter and The Starcatcher”

(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Cate Blouke.)

 

 

It’s a rare gem of a play that can delight audiences ages six to 60. Usually, when the show can charm a pre-adolescent, the ticket-buying adult is making some concessions regarding quality of entertainment.

But “Peter and The Starcatcher,” a fanciful backstory for Peter Pan playing now through March 1 at Zach Theatre, manages to make the experience engaging for all ages.

Zach Theatre's "Peter and the Starcatcher." Photo by Kirk Tuck.
Zach Theatre’s “Peter and the Starcatcher.” Photo by Kirk Tuck.

This is likely due in no small part to the source text: a young adult novel written by humorist Dave Barry and children’s adventure novelist Ridley Pearson.

Rick Elice’s adapted script is peppered with Barry’s witticisms but the show nevertheless caters to both crowds: pirates and magic for the kiddos paired with all sorts of delightful pop culture Easter eggs for adults. With references ranging from cell phone commercials to pop music to Ayn Rand, those jokes will fly over the heads of the youngsters but hit home for the adults in the crowd. And the malapropisms of Black Stache (J. Robert Moore) alone are almost worth the cost of tickets.

As the dastardly and flamboyant villain, Moore couldn’t be more fabulous. With a commanding stage presence and ridiculous lip foliage, he’s hilarious and charming. Toby Minor (Smee) serves as an excellent sidekick and comic foil, and Martin Burke (Mrs. Bumbrake) shines as always (even when they’ve got him in a dress).

Michael McDonald’s costuming has everyone on stage looking good, especially in the amazingly sparkly mermaid number that opens the second act. And Jamie Goodwin’s (Lord Leonard Aster) flowing locks are absolutely marvelous, as is the talented actor’s performance.

The ensemble is excellent, with everyone pitching in to fill narrative flashbacks by donning multiple personas. Luke Lindsteadt (Prentiss) stands out in spite of his minor role as a Lost Boy, and Sara Burke’s (Molly Aster) charisma is infectious as she takes command of the boys.

It’s easy to see why the show was a hit on Broadway and won a slew of Tony’s. It offers a lot of room for hilarity and pizazz even if it only has a handful of musical numbers.

On opening weekend, however, the cast struggled somewhat to catch their stride in terms of comedic timing. The early parts of the show dragged a bit when the audience wasn’t quite in sync with the humor, but things began to mesh just before intermission, and the second act was absolutely stellar in spite of some microphone mishaps.

“Peter and the Starcatcher” continues through March 1 at Zach Theatre. Tickets $25-$73. www.zachtheatre.org

Review: “100 Heartbreaks”

Charlane Tucker’s got dreams alright. And she’s pretty sure she figured out a sure fire way to make them come true.

If she simply gets her heartbroken 100 times she’ll surely have earned the credibility as a country singer for Nashville to take her seriously and make her star.

It’s just that the problems with dreams (and their attendant plans) is that very often cloud your view of the happiness that’s right in front of you.

Joanna Garner’s charming and utterly enjoyable musical play “100 Heartbreaks,” through Feb. 14 at the Sahara Lounge, delightfully spins Charlane’s story. (Read a story about Garner’s creation of the play.)

Cleverly staged at the Sahara much like it’s an actual gig, “100 Heartbreaks” finds Charlane back in a small town Montana club, a year after she left behind Mark Larson (Heath Allyn), man number 52 of her 100 man heartbreak journey, and her one-time opening act.

Garner, who penned the songs as well as the script, has a pretty and rich-sounding voice and is superbly backed by guitarist Eric Roach, bassist Alexander Villarreal and drummer Robert Vignisson who themselves do a great turn playing the characters of the house band.

Joanna Garner and in "100 Heartbreaks." (Steve Rogers Photography)
Joanna Garner and Heath Allyn in “100 Heartbreaks.” (Steve Rogers Photography)

Garner and Allyn have a convincing chemistry as the stumbling lovers.

And the Saraha does a fine job of being the friendly dive club that it is, the strings of Christmas lights draping from the low ceilings and odd decorations are all authentic beyond question.

Director Jess Hutchinson makes great use of the site-specific staging and the action is fluid whether it’s the band playing and teasing each other on stage or Charlane and the play’s bartender (Sean Moran) are chatting it up over a whisky offstage.

If the story trajectory in “100 Heartbreaks” is expected, that doesn’t make the show any less enjoyable. With clever songs and a sweet story “100 Heartbreaks” is a sheer honky-tonk charm to watch.

Continues 7:30 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday; Feb. 8, 10 and 7 p.m. Feb. 14, Sahara Lounge, 1413 Webberville Road. $15. http://www.100heartbreaks.com

Review: “Three Zisters” at Salvage Vanguard Theater

(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Cate Blouke.)

 

Theater practitioners and scholars delight in dredging up the vestiges of times gone by, rehashing the classics and keeping them alive through incessant repetition.

But it can be taboo to question why in the world anyone needs another production of Chekhov.

"Three Zisters" at Salvage Vanguard Theater
“Three Zisters” at Salvage Vanguard Theater

“Three Zisters” by Lola Pierson, playing through Feb. 14 at Salvage Vanguard Theater, asks that very question by turning Chekhov’s original into a mash up of every imaginable taboo (from necrophilia to self-flagellation) set in stark contrast to the polite society of 19th-century Russia.

And the sisters are zombies. And it’s seriously amazing whether you like Chekhov or not.

The show is a beautifully holistic piece of theater. director Yury Urnov draws on all the available production elements to create an ominous world for the play that delights and startles at every turn.

Designer Iä Enstera brings us another amazing (and dynamic) set and Natalie George’s lighting gives it additional life.

Robert Fisher’s sound design casts the creepy overtones that plunge us into the haunted house aesthetic, and Jessica Gilzow’s costumes offer just the right amount of weird and threatening (surgical masks and latex gloves are inherently sinister on stage).

The show starts on a mischievous  note when Robert Matney (Andrei) appears on stage to tell us the back story – using a series of vegetables, kitchen utensils and nesting matryoshka dolls to illustrate the tale of Checkhov’s melancholy characters.

It’s a whirlwind of information, but that doesn’t matter much since this isn’t (in any way) a standard re-telling of Chekov’s play. Especially if you know enough about the original to dislike it, you’ll love this show, as it seems to be both an homage and a send up of the canonical work.A3Zisters-6328

Heather Hanna (Olga), Jenny Larson (Irina), and Caroline Reck (Masha) are fabulously creepy as the bedraggled trio, brought to life yet again to be hauled through the motions of Chekhov’s tragedy.

Jay Byrd (Tusenbach), Zac Crofford (Vershenin), and Noel Gaulin (Soleny) round out the cast and put up with an amazing amount of abuse in this raunchy revision.

The short 65-minute show keeps you on the edge of your seat, though if you’re sitting in the front row, you might want to watch your toes as they’re just on the edge of the splatter zone.

It may be Chekhov (sort of), but it’s Chekhov with zombies, so of course there’s going to be blood. And it’s great.

“Three Zisters” continues through Feb. 14 at Salvage Vanguard Theater. www.salvagevanguard.org

Review: “The King of Texas” at Frontera Fest

(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Cate Blouke.)

Beth Webster wants us to get to know Sam Houston in a way that reading about him just can’t accomplish. She’s waited more than a decade to get his story told, and although it didn’t make it onto the big screen, her two-man play, “The King of Texas,” offers a charming glimpse into the character of a Texas legend.

 Kenneth Wayne Bradley and Zac Thomas in "The King of Texas." Photo by Melissa Livingston-Weaver
Kenneth Wayne Bradley and Zac Thomas in “The King of Texas.” Photo by Melissa Livingston-Weaver

Playing as part of this year’s Frontera Festival Long Fringe through Feb. 1, “The King of Texas” introduces us to Houston (Kenneth Wayne Bradley) via a lesser known figure in the story of the Lonestar State: Alphonse de Saligny (Zac Thomas).

A quirky character in real life, de Saligny was a French diplomat sent to the Republic of Texas in 1840 to negotiate the Franco-Texian Bill. Pompous, punctilious, and prey to a never-ending stream of culture shock, de Saligny is a hilarious counterpoint to the stoic Houston.

We meet de Saligny in his salon as he reflects on his Texas experiences in a letter to the French king. Under the direction of Ken Webster, Zac Thomas’ rendition of the mincing French ambassador is admirably accented and entirely hilarious. Funny from his very first lines, Thomas’ performance becomes increasingly charming as the hapless diplomat gets himself into all sorts of trouble with the Texas natives.

As the hyper-masculine and unceremonious Houston, Kenneth Wayne Bradley is clearly in his element and offsets de Saligny’s superciliousness by just being himself.

“The King of Texas” (along with all of the Long Fringe shows) is being performed in Austin’s newest theater space: Ground Floor Theater, just up the street from the old Blue Theater location and even trickier to find. (Tip: you have to drive around to the back of the building complex to find the space).

Ground Floor opened its doors just this week, in fact, after a Kickstarter campaign to help it get it, well, off the ground. The space is a bit cavernous and echo-y at present, but it has a lot of promise, and it’s exciting to see a new space for Austin artists to put on their work.

“The King Of Texas” continues 9:15 p.m. Jan. 30, 6 p.m. Feb. 1 Ground Floor Theater. 979 Springdale Road. www.fronterafest.org

We get letters

We get letters.

On Dec. 14, editorial page editor Tara Trower Doolittle wrote a column entitled “Austin stages are ready for more authentic multiculutralism” in response to Zach Theatre’s current production of “A Christmas Carol.”

You can read Doolittle’s column here: http://shar.es/13EU1C (This and all following links are subscription-free.)

Also on Dec. 14,  I devoted my arts column to the same topic. Read “Zach Theatre’s ‘Christmas Carol’ too reductive” here: http://shar.es/13EOSm

Readers and theater professionals responded.

We published two Letters to the Editor from Zach Theatre supporters on Dec. 16 who wrote in response http://shar.es/13ER0e  photo(15)

Next, Rupert Reyes, artistic director of Teatro Vivo, sent a letter which we published in our Dec. 17 Letters to the Editor,

Reyes wrote: “Presenting stereotypes creates obstacles to communication that could help bring our communities together.”

Read Reyes’ entire letter here: http://shar.es/13EUde

 

 

Review: Tapestry Dance Company’s “Of Mice and Music”

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

As I approached the Long Center via the South First Street bridge, my eyes lingered on the candy cane-striped columns adorning the performing arts center’s downtown-facing patio, good advertisement for the complex’s hosting of not one, but two “Nutcrackers” that weekend: Ballet Austin’s classical version in Dell Hall, and local dance academy and professional tap troupe Tapestry Dance Company’s anything-but-traditional “Of Mice and Music: A Jazz Nutcracker” in the Rollins. Of-Mice

On Friday evening, I was there to see “Of Mice and Music” (running through Sunday Dec. 21), a holiday tradition for Tapestry that gives the academy’s dancers, age 4 through adults, the opportunity to participate in a professional-level theatrical experience, complete with live music.

Conceived and directed by Tapestry artistic director Acia Gray, the production offers a modern take on a classic. The two-act ballet is whittled down to a one-act, one-hour version that includes tap and lyrical choreography, all set to a jazz-quartet score by Blue J, a reinterpretation of Tchaikovsky’s classical score.

In Tapestry’s production, Clara (danced by academy student Sydney Gallagher) is a modern-day teenager, complete with cell phone; her mother is a woman who shrieks at the sight of giant mice (can’t we all relate?).

Tapestry’s academy dancers make up several groups: the Rhythm Boys, an all-boys tap ensemble taught exclusively by men; Visions in Rhythm, for young dancers who spend at least 10 hours a week training across dance styles; and Visions in Motion, reserved for adult dance students. Then, of course, there is the professional tap company, North America’s only full-time professional tap troupe.

Moms and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers, sisters and brothers, families and friends — all were at the show to support Tapestry’s students. The audience was littered with video cameras and congratulatory bouquets of flowers stashed under chairs and in laps, awaiting the inevitable post-performance clutch of the performers.

Before the performance had even started, the jazz quartet was already playing such holiday favorites as “Jingle Bells” and the “Jingle Bell Rock.” The visual centerpiece onstage was a 20-foot Christmas tree.

“Of Mice and Music” is filled with all the usual characters, but presents them with a twist, from the tacky-Christmas-sweater-donning party-goers, to the Nutcracker and the Rat King, who do battle not with canons and swords, but via a dance-off.

Aww-ing over the sweet innocence of the pink-leotard-and-tights baby mice, who traipse behind the Rat King (played by professional company member Tony Merriwether), gives way to ooh-ing at the tuxedo-donning rats — the older children who clearly have tap chops to demonstrate.

The production is also an opportunity to check out Tapestry’s new professional company dancers (the only returning member this season is Siobhan Cook). As the Russian toy, Jeremy Arnold popped around the stage self-assuredly; Michael Love’s interpretation of the Spanish toy involved lightening-quick footwork with handclaps for accents; and special guest Rebecca Whitehurst’s Marzipan doll was an over-the-top French coquette who elicited much laughter from the audience.

With its mix of professional and amateur performances, “Of Mice and Music” has an appeal to audiences beyond the family and friends of the performers. If you’re looking for something Christmas-y with a touch of modern this season, look no further than Tapestry’s production.

“Of Mice and Music” continues through Sunday. www.thelongcenter.org

Review: “Feast of My Heart”

(This review was written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Cate Blouke.)

December tends to be a time of reflection and giving. It can also bring out the best and the worst in people. So a performance dedicated to compassion seems particularly fitting for this time of year.

“Feast of my Heart,” playing through Saturday at Salvage Vanguard Theater, interrogates what it means to engage in an act of compassion.

The one-man show, deftly performed by Jason Phelps, features eight short pieces written and directed by more than a dozen contemporary theater artists. The short pieces range from narrative monologue to video installation to performance art and will (understandably) suit some tastes more than others.

With pieces from playwrights such as Lisa D’Amour, Zell Miller, and Kirk Lynn, the show offers an array of theatrical styles from talented artists. And with each piece guided by a different director (such as Jenny Larson, Shawn Sides, and Ken Webster), we witness a panoply of tone and movement.

Stephen Pruitt’s lovely set design, paired with Natalie George’s gorgeous saturated lighting, creates a beautiful and lively backdrop for Phelps’ performances.

The first piece, “No Direction, Only Action” by Lisa D’Amour, starts us off slowly and intriguingly. Phelps seems to silently fill himself with joy that he wishes to share with the audience. He chants a sort of song. He does a couple of dances. Then we’re transported elsewhere in the shift to the next piece and we have to quickly assimilate a new world of the play just when we were getting the hang of the last one.

This pattern continues as we move through the eight pieces of the show, and I wish I had felt more sense of continuity. Some of the pieces are narratives or monologues, while others feel like something you might call a choreopoem.

Abstract art works for a lot of people. Museums are filled with Rothko’s and Pollock’s work, and I respect the aesthetic preferences of those that enjoy such work — I’m just not one of them.

Similarly, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the many artists involved in “Feast of My Heart,” and I can appreciate and honor the work that they’ve done, even if I can’t say I enjoyed all that much of it.

Taken individually, the pieces likely have a lot to offer, but pressed together as they are, there was simply too much high concept to wrap my head around.

“Feast of My Heart” continues through Sat. at Salvage Vanguard Theater. www.salvagevanguard.org

Review: “Anything Goes” national tour

(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Cate Blouke.)

When Cole Porter penned his classic tune “Anything Goes” in the 1930s, I doubt he could have imagined how far things would really go – both in terms of the cultural license his song describes and the longevity of the hit Broadway musical that takes the song as its title.

Brought to Austin by Broadway Across America this week, the 2011 revival of the 1934 “Anything Goes” playing at Bass Concert Hall through Sunday, is charming even if it inevitably feels rather dated at times.

"Anything Goes" national tour. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
“Anything Goes” national tour. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

A romantic comedy set aboard an ocean liner bound from New York to London, the show offers a lot of comic relief and some great dance numbers in addition to the Cole Porter classics: “You’re the Top” and “I Get a Kick Out of You.”

 

Billy Crocker (Brian Krinsky) is in love with an heiress, Hope Harcourt (Rachelle Rose Clark), but she’s engaged to a British nobleman, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Richard Lindenfelzer). Night club singer Reno Sweeney (Emma Stratton) is fond of Billy but willing to help him win over his lady fair. Since Billy has to stow away on the ship to try and break up the engagement, he needs all the help he can get.

The show is somewhat slow to start, but it builds to an outstanding crescendo with a huge tap number to close out the first act.  Act two is energetic and hilarious, making up for some lost time in the early parts of the performance. By the latter half of the show, the comedy turns truly campy in a delightful way, and it consequently ends the production on a high note.

Emma Stratton is fabulously sultry and adeptly carries the major musical numbers of the performance. Dennis Setteducati (Moonface Martin) is a surprise favorite, especially with his rendition of “Be Like the Blue Bird” in act two.

As the lascivious gangster girl (Erma), Mychal Phillips is adorable, and Richard Lindenfelzer proves his character isn’t the sop we thought he was when he bursts out of his shell with “The Gypsy in Me.”

The costumes in the show are unfortunately hit or miss – some fabulously full of pizzazz, while others are decidedly unflattering for the female characters. The same is somewhat true of the dance numbers, again, with a rather slow and static start to the production that eventually builds to an excellent finale.

“Anything Goes” continues through Dec. 14 at Bass Concert Hall. www.texasperformingarts.org

Review: Penfold Theatre’s “Miracle on 34th Street”

(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Cate Blouke.)

We all have our favorite holiday films, the ones we watch every year without fail to ring in the holiday season. But whether or not “Miracle on 34th Street” is a staple on your list, Penfold Theatre’s classic radiocast of the story cannot fail to plunge you into the Christmas spirit. 11299411805_5ce9aa0ee0_z

After three successful seasons of their “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live Radio Show,” Penfold continues to prove that you don’t need a fancy set or dramatic lighting to bring a show to life with this brand new holiday classic, playing through Dec. 27th at Old Settler’s Hall in Round Rock.

Nathan Jerkins has done an excellent job adapting the 1947 film and directing his five-person cast through a whirlwind of characters and sound effects.

Dirk van Allen is a dead ringer for Kris Kringle – the older gentleman who stumbles his way into playing Santa Clause for Macy’s on the day of the Thanksgiving Parade. Of course, the plot twist is that Kris really is Santa Clause, come to New York to investigate the flagging Christmas spirit.

Shenanigans ensue, and it falls to Fred Gailey (Brock England) to keep Kris out of an institution by proving in a court of law that he really is Santa Clause. England is enchanting in his unflagging holiday cheer, both as the savvy lawyer and the myriad bit roles he steps into. He certainly wins over the heart of Doris Walker (Sarah Marie Curry), a woman whose no-nonsense practicality has closed her off from wonder.

As the show’s announcer, Mr. Macy, and about a million other characters, Joe Hartman could charm even Ebenezer Scrooge’s cold heart into some serious Christmas cheer. And Julie Linnard similarly dazzles and delights with her versatility and comic timing.

Relying on the actor’s voices and Buzz Moran’s superb sound design to tell the story, the show nevertheless remains dynamic without a lot of moving around. Glenda Barnes costumes are icing on the cake, leaving the actors truly dressed for success.

To really get yourself a full dose of holiday cheer, drive up early and visit the 1.5 mile Round Rock Rock’N Lights Holiday Light Tour at the Old Settlers Association and Dell Diamond parking lot (right next door to the venue).

“Miracle on 34th Street: Live Radio Show” continues 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through December 27. (No performance Dec. 25), and 3 p.m. Dec. 20  $23-25. Old Settlers Association, 3300 East Palm Valley Blvd, Round Rock. www.penfoldtheatre.org