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

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

Juneteenth performance of ex-slave testaments to honor Billy Harden

Spectrum Theatre Company, the African-American troupe that the late Billy Harden co-founded, will commemorate the Austin actor, musician, educator and leader on June 16-17 with “Juneteenth Chronicles.”

Billy Harden was an actor, producer, musician and educator. Larry Kolvoord/American-Statesman.

The show, created by Austin playwright Abena Edwards, pulls together passages from more than 250 interviews with former slaves, originally collected in the 1930s by the WPA. Directed by Crystal Bird Caviel, the cast will include standouts such as Roderick Sanford and John Christopher.

MORE: Producer, actor, educator Billy Harden dies.

Look forward to the staged reading, which is presented in partnership with the Austin Convention Center, at the AISD Performing Arts Center on Barbara Jordan Boulevard in the Mueller Development. Suggested donation: $10. Find out more at spectrumatx.com.

MORE: Billy Harden opened doors, brought passion to stage.

UPDATE: The playwright sent us a sample of the ex-slave narratives with an image of the man interviewed in 1937.

Felix Haywood
Felix Haywood, born in Bexar County, interviewed in San Antonio in 1937 at the age of 92. Contributed by Spectrum Theatre Company

“War didn’t change nothin’. We saw guns and soldiers, and one member of master’s family, Coleman, was gone fightin’ somewhere, but he didn’t get shot no place but in the big toe. Sometimes folks come ‘long and try to get us to run up North and be free. We used to laugh at that! Wasn’t no reason to run up North. All we had to do was to walk, but walk South. We’d be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande. In Mexico you could be free. They don’t care what color you was.” — Felix Haywood, born in Bexar County, interviewed in San Antonio in 1937 at the age of 92.