Austin arts organizations, poets, awarded NEA monies

The National Endowment for the Arts awarded grants to 12 Austin cultural organizations and three area poets in its most recent round of funding for 2014, announced Tuesday.

"It's Like a Sculpture, but with More Breakdancing" Sergio Garcia. "Young Latino Artists 18: Con/Juntos," Mexic-Arte Museum, 2013
“It’s Like a Sculpture, but with More Breakdancing” Sergio Garcia. “Young Latino Artists 18: Con/Juntos,” Mexic-Arte Museum, 2013

Organization receiving grants are:

  • Austin Film Society: $34,000, for several curated film and video series.
  • Austin Independent School District: $80,000 for its Creative Learning Initiative.
  • Austin Lyric Opera: $20,000 for a new production of Carlisle Floyd’s “Of Mice and Men,” the organization’s first new American opera production since 2007.
  • Cine Las Americas: $10,000 for its Cine Las Americas International Film Festival.
  • Contemporary Austin: $35,000 for an exhibit exploring multi-sensory, immersive contemporary art.
  • Fusebox Festival: $25,000 for three new performance art productions
  • Great Promise for American Indians: $10,000 for the  Texas American Indian Heritage Festival and Austin Powwow
  • Mexic-Arte Museum: $25,000 for its Young Latino Artists annual exhibit.
  • Puerto Rican Folkloric Dance: $25,000 to support visiting master artists.
  • Tapestry Dance Company: $10,000 for its 15th annual Soul to Sole Tap Festival
  • Women & Their Work: $20,000 for its series of solo exhibitions by Texas women.
  • Zach Theatre: $40,000 for the  premiere production of Anna Deavere Smith’s “On Grace.”

Austin poets who received $25,000 grants were Sam Sax, Susan Somers-Willett and Laura Saurborn Young.

 

Review: Austin Shakespeare’s “Cyrano de Bergerac”

(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance critic Claire Canavan.)

The legend of Cyrano de Bergerac looms as large as the poetic hero’s famous nose. 15196044293_f9da0adade_k

Austin Shakespeare launches its own spirited version of the tale with a new staging of French dramatist Edmund Rostand’s play, “Cyrano de Bergerac.” Ann Ciccolella directs the show (translated by Brian Hooker), which runs through December 7th at the Long Center’s Rollins Studio Theater.

“Cyrano de Bergerac” takes place in a romantic version of 17th century France, a world of duels, feathered hats, and wigs galore. Cyrano (Marc Pouhé), a well-respected poet and swordsman, believes he could never win the love of his cousin Roxanne (Amber Quick) due to his absurdly large nose.

When Roxanne confesses her affection for a handsome but foolish soldier named Christian (Keith Paxton), Cyrano agrees to help Christian woo Roxanne through the power of beautiful language, writing passionate letters that win her heart on another man’s behalf.

Austin Shakespeare’s production hits the perfect balance between comedy and tragedy. Director Ciccolella keeps the show running at a swift pace and the actors handle the expressive language of the script with apparent ease. Though some of the staging is stiff due to set constraints, the show still brims with life due to the excellent lead actors.

As Cyrano, Marc Pouhé captivates the audience with his strong presence and resonant voice. The brilliance of Pouhé’s portrayal is that he captures Cyrano’s emotional vulnerability just as convincingly as the character’s confidence and eloquence. As his love interest, Roxanne, Amber Quick is equally compelling. She turns Roxanne into an intelligent, strong-willed woman full of compassion and charm.

“Cyrano de Bergerac” is a classic story for a reason. The bittersweet tale reminds us of the power of words, and the enduring nature of true love.

 “Cyrano de Bergerac” continues through December 7, Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. Rollins Studio Theater at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Dr. Tickets $22-39. Tickets at http://www.longcenter.org or call (512-474-LONG).

Review: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Texas State University

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

The magic of Shakespeare’s verse has provided centuries of directors the opportunity to make each play their own. Down at Texas State University this week, director Chuck Ney makes his mark on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (playing through Sunday the 23rd) with the addition of a meta-theatrical framing device and an anachronistic, hybrid classic-contemporary aesthetic.

The show opens on the bare set of the new Patti Strickel Harrison Theatre. Our contemporary fairy guides enter, meeting for a romantic liaison in the empty theater. In Ney’s playful vision, Puck (Kailyr Frazier) glides across the stage on a skateboard (with impressive control on Frazier’s part). He and his First Fairy playmate (Tori Gresham) romp around the space, donning discarded costume pieces and discovering an ability to transform the set with the snap of a finger. These two Theatre Spirits call forth the play, and we get to watch the space come to life.

Texas State’s production draws on the exciting technical potential of their new performing arts center. Set pieces float gracefully down from the flies, characters emerge from trapdoors, and the surround-sound audio system creates mischief and magic in the space.

The cast is clearly having a great time in this show, and even the supporting characters with a tiny number of lines add rich humor to the piece. Andres Regalado (Philostrate) is hilarious even in silent protest, Kurt Engh (Peter Quince) is delightful in his directorial angst, and Thomas Miller (Francis Flute) proves a charmingly reluctant Thisbe.

The physical comedy in this production is great, with a wonderfully rambunctious scene between the star-crossed lovers (Taylor Scorse, Andrew McVay, Evan Davies, and Roberta Ahrens) opening the second half. Similarly, Drake Shrader deftly takes on the absurd hubris of Nick Bottom, throwing himself vigorously into the role and often onto the ground.

As a teaching institution, Texas State’s productions make a point of providing students with opportunities to learn and grow into well-rounded theater practitioners. In this production, that manifests via several additions of choreographed dances and a careful attention to the ancillary characters.

Some of the unspoken flourishes slow the play down, however, adding a lot of space to an already long play (the run time is close to three hours). Michelle Ney’s costumes are idiosyncratic and often distracting, and the show feels rather choppy overall. In spite of the many charming student performances, I wish I could say I enjoyed watching the show as much as they enjoyed putting it on.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” continues 7:30 p.m. through Nov. 22 and at 2 p.m. Nov. 23. Tickets $15 for adults, $8 for students. Patti Strickel Harrison Theatre, Texas State Univ.. 405 Moon St. San Marcos

 

Review: “Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage”

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

Comeback tours are normally the purview of fading musicians, but the more than twenty-five years since “Dirty Dancing” hit the big screen has left the story ripe for re-visiting. Playing through this Nov. 16, Broadway Across America brings the classic story to the Bass Concert Hall stage, and it’s just as sexy as ever, even if it’s a bit silly, too (because, after all, it was the ‘80s).

Jillian Mueller (Baby) and Samuel Pergande (Johnny) star in the North American tour of “Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage.”
Jillian Mueller (Baby) and Samuel Pergande (Johnny) star in the North American tour of “Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage.”

Devoted fans will be pleased to know the show takes great pains to stay true to the original in all the particulars: dialogue, choreography, and even setting. This occasionally results in speeding through some plot points that don’t make much sense to unfamiliar viewers, but let’s be honest, there aren’t likely to be many of those in the crowd.

Most musicals are driven by the songs or the plot, but this one puts dancing at the forefront. And dancing is always better live, no matter how much we loved Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze back in the day.

Jillian Mueller (Frances “Baby” Houseman) and Samuel Pergande (Johnny Castle) step into that legacy with grace and plenty of sex appeal. When Pergande pulls Mueller close for the couple’s first round of hip grinding gyration, we get a glimpse of what it might have been like to see Elvis swing his hips for the first time – with all the ensuing audience titillation.

In his role of the rough and troubled dance instructor, Pergande is just as sexy as we could have hoped. And the seduction scene that comes at the end of act one is one of the spiciest moments Bass Concert Hall has probably ever witnessed.

Mueller deserves particular praise for the control with which the obviously skilled dancer restrains herself – making us believe she’s learning to dance before our eyes.

But the romantic leads aren’t the only ones that make this show delightful – Jenny Winton is breathtaking as Penny Johnson, Johnny’s original dance partner. The early numbers showcase Winton’s ballet training right along with her miles of leg.

The few times the show provides vocal accompaniment leave us eager for more. Jennlee Shallow (Elizabeth/Singer) commands attention both with her elegant stage presence and voluptuous singing voice. Jerome Harmann-Hardeman is also delightful as the band-leader Tito-Suarez, especially when he shakes his stuff early in the show.

Thankfully, the show doesn’t take itself too seriously, so you don’t have to feel guilty if you come down with a case of the giggles mid-way through.

“Dirty Dancing” continues through Nov. 16 at Bass Concert Hall. www.texasperformingarts.org.

Review: Zach Theatre’s ‘A Year With Frog and Toad’

(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance critic Claire Canavan.)

A smile from a friend can make even the worst days seem a little brighter.

Friendship is at the heart of Arnold Lobel’s popular children’s series, Frog and Toad, which Willie and Robert Reale adapt for the stage in a charming musical called “A Year With Frog and Toad.” Nat Miller directs Zach Theatre’s production of this family-friendly romp, now running through November 29.

"A Year With Frog and Toad" at Zach Theatre. AxelB. Photography.
“A Year With Frog and Toad” at Zach Theatre. AxelB. Photography.

“A Year With Frog and Toad” draws on scenes from different books in the series and takes place over the course of a year. It’s a simple tale of Frog (Nicholas Kier) and Toad (Chase Brewer) enjoying the seasons together—planting flowers in spring, swimming in the summer, raking leaves in the fall—while learning about the benefits of having a good friend. Other forest creatures make cameos, including a very slow moving snail and a trio of migrating birds.

Zach Theatre’s production is thoroughly professional in both performance and design. The actors give high-energy performances and their voices blend in harmony. The school group audience was particularly delighted by the big moments of physical comedy—Frog trying to wake a reluctant Toad up from hibernation—as well as by the bold visuals, such as cookies falling from the sky.

Design elements really shine in “A Year With Frog and Toad.” Set designer Aaron Bell has created a versatile set that evokes the play’s cozy forest world. Costume designer Christina Montgomery shows fresh vision with her costumes for the animal characters. Rather than creating literal costumes, she instead outfits the actors in colorful human clothes that gently suggest the animals. The birds wear gorgeous jewel-toned ponchos with a quilted, handmade look, making them the most fashionable feathered friends in town.

During the week, the show plays to enthusiastic crowds of AISD students, while tickets for families are available on the weekends. Children will enjoy the lively action and adults might leave the show wanting to call their best friend, just to say hello.

A Year With Frog and Toad’ continues through November 29, Saturdays at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Zach’s Kleberg Theatre, 1510 Toomey Rd. $15-$20.  www.zachtheatre.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

Saturday arts pick: Capital T Theatre’s “Fool for Love”

Capital T Theatre brings Sam Shepard’s best-known work to the stage in a new production starring Joey Hood and Molly Karrasch.

Funny, urgent and tender, “Fool for Love” finds Eddie returning after a long absence to reclaim May, his lover since high school. Though she determined to make a fresh start, May’s efforts  are undermined by Eddie’s attempts to drag her back into the life from which she has escaped.

In a bleak motel on the edge of the Mojave desert the lovers long to be together — but the sorted truth of their past is more than they can overcome.

“Fool for Love” 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through Nov. 22, Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd St. www.capitalt.org

Joey Hood stars in "Fool for Love"
Joey Hood stars in “Fool for Love”

Thursday arts pick: Trouble Puppet Theater’s “The Strange Case of Edward Hyde and Dr. Jekyll”

Trouble Puppet Theater Company brings its imaginative irreverence to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic horror story “Jekyll & Hyde.”

Using tabletop-style puppets that require three puppeteers each, the troupe, led by artistic director Connor Hopkins creates a visual spectacle to tell its spooky, clever, darkly funny story.

Music by Justin Sherburn of Okkervil River.

Note: The show is not suitable for children — it is Trouble Puppet, after all.

“The Strange Case of Edward Hyde and Dr. Jekyll”

8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 6 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 23

Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Road. $12-$20. www.troublepuppet.com

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Friday arts picks: Two Shakespeare plays and one possible Shakespeare play

You have options to see the Bard this weekend, including one play that may or may not have been written by William Shakespeare.

  • As part of their residency at UT, Actors from the London Stage perform their five-actor version of “Much Ado About Nothing” Oct. 22-44 at the B. Iden Payne Theater. Find info on the show here
  • Present Company Theater stages “The Tempest” outdoors at Rain Lily Farm through Nov. 1. http://www.presentcompanytheatre.com/
  • And Hidden Room Theatre offers “Shakespeare Apocrypha Project” three plays that have all been attributed to Shakespeare at one time or the other. Though they were extremely popular during the Elizabethan era, “Arden of Favorsham,” “Mucedorus” and “The Merry Devil of Edmonton” are mostly forgotten nowadays. Hidden Room presents them as staged and costumed readings through Nov. 2. Read a story about the “Apocrypha Project” here.
Hidden Room Theatre’s “Apocrypha Project: A Sampling of Suspected Shakespeare” features three plays, one of which is “Mucedorus” with Joseph Garlock (Prince Mucedorus) and Isto Barton (Princess Amadine).
Hidden Room Theatre’s “Apocrypha Project: A Sampling of Suspected Shakespeare” features three plays, one of which is “Mucedorus” with Joseph Garlock (Prince Mucedorus) and Isto Barton (Princess Amadine).

 

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