Immersive, interactive ‘Performance Park’ is unlike anything else in Austin theater

Bonnie Cullum, producing artistic director of the Vortex Theatre, calls the company’s newest endeavor, “Performance Park,” “a once-in- a-lifetime, extraordinary piece — unlike anything else we have ever made or experienced.”

As it turns out, this is not just hyperbole. “Performance Park” is a totally unique experience in Austin theater, a community event that bursts past the boundaries of the Vortex’s stage to dominate its entire complex and create a must-visit destination.

But what, exactly, is “Performance Park”?

The Queen of Cups (Jennifer Coy Jennings, left) and the Queen of Wands (Annie Kim Hedrick, right) guide two visitors to the Vortex’s “Performance Park.” Contributed by Errich Petersen

Ultimately, it’s many things. It’s the culmination of the Vortex’s “30 Years of Truth and Thunder,” celebrating the company’s 30th season. It’s an eight-week festival so that patrons of the Butterfly Bar and Patrizi’s food truck become more aware that there’s also a dynamic theater at the Vortex complex. And it’s an immersive combination of games, scavenger hunts, interactive theater and sing-alongs within a carnivalesque atmosphere that relates a timely narrative of matriarchal empowerment.

Listen to Cullum, who conceived and directed the entire piece, describe it: “A complex hybrid of interactive game, original musical, art installation, and magical divination, ‘Performance Park’s’ immersive scavenger hunt features the major arcana of the tarot. Like an amusement park, national park, or museum, we explore as much or as little as we wish. We choose our own adventure! As we work together to disrupt hierarchies of power and restore balance, we engage in a once-in-a-lifetime world.”

It is, indeed, easy to lose oneself in the world of “Performance Park.” Upon arrival, audience members — called “citizens,” to help differentiate those participating from people present for food or drinks but not part of the games — are greeted by the Fool, who sends them on a quest to seek wisdom. Each citizen chooses a tarot suit at random and is introduced to the queen of that suit, who will aid them on their quest throughout the evening.

However, before getting their tarot suit, all citizens must don a suit of another kind — a mask and costume. This tiny gesture goes a long way toward creating a sense of immersive involvement. Immediately, participants feel like they are in a different world from the people around them who are not costumed, and through this mask they are given a bit of protection from their vulnerabilities.

Trey Deason portrays the Devil in the Chariot’s Lounge at the Vortex’s “Performance Park.” Contributed by Errich Petersen

Indeed, “Performance Park” demands a lot of vulnerability from its audience. Participation is required, and if the thought of that terrifies you, then you may want to come for a bite to eat and simply observe as an outsider rather than a citizen. But if you want to lose yourself in a magical carnival, made up of exploration and a personal philosophical journey couched in metaphorical games and quests, then it is truly something to experience.

Be prepared, though, to surrender to the fact that you won’t be able to experience everything. At least not in one visit. “Because so many things are happening at once, it may take more than one time to experience all 28 characters and solve the game,” Cullum says. It is certainly possible, though, to enjoy the overarching story in just one visit, a story that features a power-mad emperor growing increasingly erratic and demanding loyalty from every citizen he encounters.

“As we wrote and shaped ‘Performance Park’ last year,” Cullum says, “we watched the unraveling of protections for the wild, the erosion of human rights, the acceptance of racist and exclusionary values, and so much more in the alarmingly rapid decay of our democracy. The Emperor’s inappropriate use of power was directly shaped by the ‘lock her up’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ horrors that we were experiencing on a daily basis. ‘Performance Park’ rose up as a call for justice and balance. It raises the voices of resistance as a troubled American regime fundamentally challenges feminist, racial, environmental and artistic identities and principles.”

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There is another, quieter story to “Performance Park,” though, and that’s embodied in each citizen’s individual quest for wisdom and love. This is the game aspect of the piece, featuring 28 performers at various locations across the grounds, each of whom works to create an individual experience for every citizen.

Clearly, such an endeavor took an immense amount of effort and planning. Cullum describes this lengthy process, crediting her collaborators along the way:

“Last summer, with my notes and ideas, I teamed up with Sarah Saltwick, Lorella Loftus and Teresa Cruz to hammer out the mythology of ‘Performance Park’ and write scenes, monologues and lyrics that created the initial foundation of the script. Lorella and Sarah wrote most of the non-improvised text spoken in the show. Over several months, I compiled and tweaked the material into an initial outline for all of the areas and a rough timeline of how it would unfold. I had to create a way that time and space intersect in the story as it unfolds all around the park and plan how the games would be woven into it.

“In November and December, we had workshops to explore the material and finalize the casting. We began rehearsals in January and developed the scenes and material for each area of the park in small groups. Toni Bravo added the movement vocabulary. Chad Salvata, David DeMaris and Sergio R. Samayoa created original music. Tyler Mabry wrote songs with lyrics. We devised additional material. We had a few full ensemble rehearsals, but honestly, lack of rehearsal space for such a large group was challenging. As it came together in March, we finally worked as a full ensemble around the whole compound.”

Melissa Vogt portrays Baba Yaga, and Tiffany Nicely-Williams is the Empress in the Vortex’s “Performance Park.” Contributed by Errich Petersen

A large part of this was enabled by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, allowing Cullum and her collaborators to fully create and explore the vision that initially came to her, quite literally, in a dream.

This dreamlike atmosphere has remained a part of “Performance Park” through to the final product. Each citizen’s quest features moments of collaborative fun and frenzy alongside moments of quiet contemplation and serious philosophical questioning. Within this giant puzzle of a game, framed inside the larger narrative of the arcana, are instances of emotional connection that can move one to tears of sorrow or laughter.

“Performance Park” is large; it contains multitudes.

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Though certainly unique to Austin, the production is not entirely sui generis. Much of its concept seems inspired by “Sleep No More,” the site-specific work of immersive theater that’s been running in New York for over half a decade now, and there’s more than a little bit of LARP-ing (live action roleplaying) to the experience, as well.

Nor is “Performance Park” flawless. Early performances have, as one might expect, encountered a few technical snags, including long wait times for specific experiences as well as confusion over some elements of the game. And to experience the entire story, both the macro-narrative and the personalized micro-journey, takes the entire evening, which can run quite late into the night.

All of these are small complaints amidst a splendor of play, in multiple senses of that word.

“Performance Park” is a piece of magic — the metaphorical magic of the tarot deck, the philosophical magic of self-discovery, and, most importantly, the very real magic of the stage brought out beyond the confines of a theater’s four walls.

Future events in Austin theater will be be measured against the magic of this moment.

“PERFORMANCE PARK”
When: Various times Thursday-Sunday through May 12
Where: 2307 Manor Road
Cost: $15-$35
Information: 512-478-5282, vortexrep.org

If you loved ‘Shakespeare in Love,’ the movie, you’ll probably like ‘Shakespeare in Love’ on stage

A famous movie about a famous historical playwright co-written by a famous contemporary playwright is now a play adapted from that screenplay by a playwright best known for a screenplay. Which is perhaps only fitting for a play about a woman pretending to be a man so that she can act in a play written by the man she loves.

Contributed by Austin Playhouse

“Shakespeare in Love” is a 1998 film (the year’s Oscar winner for best picture) about the imaginary Viola de Lesseps’ love affair with the very real William Shakespeare. Perhaps best described as a historical romantic dramedy, the movie was directed by John Madden and co-written by screenwriter Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard. It became both a box office success and a critical darling, so perhaps it’s no surprise that in today’s world of cross-media pollination it was ripe for a stage adaptation.

Written by Lee Hall, a playwright best known for writing the screenplay to “Billy Elliott,” the stage adaptation of “Shakespeare in Love” premiered in London in 2014. Now that adaptation graces the stage at Austin Playhouse in a new production playing through April 22.

Hall’s play is remarkably faithful to the original screenplay, and it contains most of the film’s memorable scenes and lines. The script is so faithful, in fact, that it begs the question why there was a need to turn the film into a play in the first place.

Some of the film’s strongest aspects — the comparison of contemporary film acting with traditional Shakespearean acting, the faithful re-creation of Shakespeare’s London, the revelation of the seamier side of Elizabethan morals and mores, etc. — are unique to the filmic medium, and don’t make the leap onto the stage. Normally, when a popular film is adapted for a stage production, it is turned into a musical, rather than left as a straight drama, and Hall’s script sadly shows why this is the case.

Austin Playhouse’s production, though, helmed by director Don Toner and assistant director Lara Toner Haddock, is stylish and charming. Performed in the manner of a Shakespearean work — with actors taking on multiple roles, moving the set pieces themselves and singing a transitional chorus or two — it seamlessly melds poetic textual homage with the story’s more farcical, humorous side. The epic-sized cast of 20 performers does a good job walking this line between the classic and the contemporary, ably led by Stephen Mercantel as a lovesick, longing Shakespeare and Claire Grasso as an adventurous, vivacious Viola.

“Shakespeare in Love” is certainly not a play that redefines the ways in which theater and film can influence one another, but it is a perfectly lovely and faithful adaptation of the movie that die-hard fans should enjoy.

“SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through April 22
Where: 6001 Airport Blvd.
Cost: $20-$42
Information: austinplayhouse.com

Conspiracy and paranoia take center stage in 9/11-themed ‘Yankee Tavern’

For better or worse, we live in a time filled with conspiracy theories. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, there are outlandish stories dominating social media to suit your darkest beliefs about the secret masters pulling the strings behind our fraught, tenacious moment.

Contributed

But ours is not the first period in which conspiracy theories have ruled the roost. Think of the JFK assassination. TWA Flight 800. Or the mother of all 21st century conspiracy theories, 9/11.

This is the context behind Steven Dietz’s play “Yankee Tavern,” now receiving a new Austin production courtesy of Different Stages. The story is entirely set in a New York City bar, the titular Yankee Tavern, a down-on-its-luck dive that has seen better days. The bar and the abandoned hotel above it are owned by Adam, a young man who inherited the establishment from his father. He is helped by his fiancé, Janet, and his father’s best friend, Ray, though the entire building is scheduled to be demolished soon.

Ray dominates the first act of the play, staggering across the stage, opining about a variety of conspiracy theories both new and familiar, particularly those relating to 9/11. In their discussion of these conspiracies, all three characters reveal their own hidden doubts, insecurities and inabilities to leave certain mysteries unsolved. It is very much a character-driven drama that revolves around these conspiratorial debates.

The second act, though, takes a drastic narrative turn and becomes a straight-out thriller, as Adam and Janet find themselves wrapped up in a 9/11 conspiracy themselves, embodied by a threatening stranger who sat at the bar, mostly silent, throughout the first act. This sudden shift is a bit jarring and might work better if the intermission didn’t interrupt the dramatic buildup between acts, but both halves are interesting in their own right.

Director Norman Blumensaadt takes a very spare, realistic approach to the text, allowing the oddities of the conspiracies to create a weird atmosphere without any bells or whistles added. This works well, as it allows the cast to shine. Bill Karnovsky is particularly strong as Ray, embodying an old-school type of New Yorker who is equally as charming as he is off-putting, while Kelsey Mazak, as Janet, embodies the play’s dramatic arc with her slow unraveling and descent into paranoia. Will Douglas’ tightly wound Adam and Greg Ginther’s imposing Palmer (the stranger at the bar) both add to the tension, though the text gives them a bit less to work with.

Despite being uneven in its dramatic tonal shift, “Yankee Tavern” is a thoroughly engaging thriller that, in addition to telling a good story, also raises important questions about the things we question, why we question them and whether it’s more dangerous to ourselves (and to society) to get answers or not.

“YANKEE TAVERN”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through April 14, with no performance on April 1 and added performance April 11
Where: Santa Cruz Theater, 1805 E. Seventh St.
Cost: $15-$30
Information: differentstagestheatre.org.

Strong all-female cast delivers timely and clever satire about gun control debate

Gun control is, understandably, a hot-button issue in America at the moment. There are a lot of ways to approach the topic, and you can see pretty much all of them on display at any given moment on a number of news channels. Anger. Vitriol. Sympathy.

Comedy?

Contributed by Errich Petersen

That’s the approach taken by “The Secretary,” a new play by Kyle John Schmidt that’s getting its world premiere this month courtesy of Theatre en Bloc.

“The Secretary” tells the story of a gun manufacturer somewhere in small-town America that decides to name its newest weapon after a secretary at a local school who used her own gun to stop a school shooter. As the play progresses, we learn more about the details of that encounter, as well as the tendency of the new gun to “go off by itself,” in a high-energy satire that takes aim at all sides of the gun control issue.

The strength of the social commentary in “The Secretary” lies in the script. It pokes fun at both gun enthusiasts and gun control activists in equal measure. In the process of making the excesses of both sides look ridiculous, the play makes strong arguments for both sides, with a middle ground implied as the only solution. Because all of this is couched in satire (with, to be sure, a very dark edge), the commentary never comes off as preachy.

Schmidt creates razor-sharp characters, from the motherly owner of the company, to the “heroic” secretary with a dark secret, to the prospective employee who almost graduated from college with a degree in social justice. The characters all tread a very thin line between realistic depth and cartoony bluster.

It is the extremely strong cast, under the precise and controlled direction of Jenny Lavery, that keeps the play from ever teetering too far over that line in either direction. This all-female cast is one of most talented assemblages of performers ever gathered on the Austin stage, with one knockout performance after another.

Austin mainstays Babs George, Amber Quick and Liz Beckham are joined by relative newcomers Regan Goins and Susan Myburgh, as well as the venerable actress Elise Ogden. Each of the women is given her time to shine by the script, showing us both the darker nuances of their characters as well as their more sympathetic sides, thus creating a true ensemble piece that rightfully puts its faith in the strengths of these actresses’ performances (each of which is embodied in pitch-perfect costume choices by designer Jenna Hanna-Chambers).

The issue of gun control is, without a doubt, deadly serious. In “The Secretary,” though, we remember that amid the cacophony of yelling, sometimes laughter and sympathy can be extremely powerful tools in any reasonable argument.

“THE SECRETARY”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through April 8
Where: The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive
Cost: $15-$34
Information: 512-474-5664, thelongcenter.org

City Theatre’s ‘Bad Jews’ questions tradition and incites debate

In her director’s notes to City Theatre’s new production of Joshua Harmon’s play “Bad Jews,” Stacey Glazer explains, “What does it mean to be Jewish? Ask 12 Jews, you’ll get 45 answers. We are a people who question and debate everything.” It is this kind of debate, particularly within families, that is at the heart of “Bad Jews,” making it at times uproariously funny and existentially sorrowful.

“Bad Jews” from City Theatre Austin. Contributed by Aleks Ortynski

Both a comedic tragedy and a tragic comedy, “Bad Jews” presents one evening in the lives of three cousins — brothers Liam and Jonah and their cousin Daphna — whose beloved grandfather has recently passed away. While Daphna is a fervent believer in upholding Jewish religious and cultural traditions, Liam is the epitome of a modern agnostic Jew who eschews such things, and Jonah vacillates between the two while mostly trying to avoid getting caught in the middle. Thrown into the midst of all this is Liam’s girlfriend, Melody, a shiksa from Delaware with a naïve optimism born of privilege.

Glazer, both the director and designer of the show, has created a naturalistic stage picture for the ensuing drama, all taking place in real time in a studio apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The room is cramped and crowded, with the characters constantly on top of one another, a visual representation of the ways in which their arguments compile as the story unfolds.

At the core of “Bad Jews” is, indeed, a series of arguments between Daphna and Liam, each representing two extremely different takes on modern Judaism. Though they are sometimes taken to extremes, both characters as crafted by Harmon are believably opinionated and empathetically flawed. Neither Harmon nor this production sides with one of the other in their debates about the meaning of Judaism in their lives, leaving that conclusion up to the audience, and it is to the credit of the talented cast that both characters have moments of great strength and devastating weakness.

Jem Goulding, as Daphna, perfectly portrays a certain kind of overbearing woman whose entire identity is wrapped up in her faith. David Barrera’s Liam, meanwhile, is the perfect foil to this, disdainful of much of his own culture but who nonetheless embodies it in his own mannerisms and neuroses. Both are initially quite unlikable — particularly in contrast to Brooks Laney’s sweet-natured, conflict-averse Jonah and Keaton Patterson’s bubbly-if-oblivious Melody — but as we learn more about the two cousins, we come to sympathize with each of them more and more.

Their conflict is an expression of the types of long-simmering feuds that develop among all families. One need not be Jewish to appreciate “Bad Jews” (though it doesn’t hurt), or to be moved by the deeply felt conflict between holding firm to tradition and assimilating into the modern world.

In that sense, “Bad Jews” is the timeless story of the American family, in the tradition of O’Neill, Williams and Miller. City Theatre’s production is a nuanced, layered exploration of these family dynamics, one that ultimately doesn’t come to any easy conclusions. If you ask 12 audience members which character was in the right and which one was in the wrong, you’ll get 45 answers. “Bad Jews” is a play that questions and debates everything.

“Bad Jews”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through April 8
Where: 3823 Airport Blvd.
Cost: $15-$25
Information: citytheatreaustin.org

In this comic musical, the bad guys always win

[cmg_anvato video=”4345776″ autoplay=”true”]

If Edward Gorey and Stephen Sondheim ever teamed up to write a Broadway musical, it would look a lot like “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”

From left, Briana Gantsweg as Miss Barley, Blake Price as Monty Navarro and James Taylor Odom as Asquith D’Ysquith Jr. in a scene from “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.” Contributed by Jeremy Daniel

Based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal” (which was also turned into the 1949 black comedy “Kind Hearts and Coronets”), “A Gentleman’s Guide” won the 2014 Tony Award for best musical. The show’s national tour will be playing at Bass Concert Hall through March 25, courtesy of Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts.

The overriding sensibility of “A Gentleman’s Guide” is a macabre type of satire, poking fun at the comedy of manners tradition while also casting askance glances at the wealth inequality of today’s world. The witty, whimsical book by Robert L. Freedman doesn’t fall into the trap of becoming sentimental or attempting to wrap up the story with some heavy-handed moralizing. Rather, the satire carries throughout the entire play, in both the dialogue and the songs, co-written by Freedman and composer Steven Lutvak.

To pull off this kind of satire, though, requires two things — inventive direction/design and a sterling cast. Fortunately, “A Gentleman’s Guide” has both.

RELATED: One actor tackles multiple roles in ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’

With a stage-within-the-stage format complimented by footlights, voice-overs, projections and exquisite costuming, this production is heavily stylized, to an almost Brechtian degree. The scenery is often reminiscent of the kind of intricate, morbidly tongue-in-cheek design work found in Disney’s Haunted Mansion, creating a playground for the actors to deliberately chew the scenery.

Blake Price plays protagonist Monty Navarro, a young British man of the lower classes who learns that he is ninth in line to inherit an earldom from his mother’s family, the D’Ysquiths. Price is pitch-perfect in the role, which subverts the musical theater trope of the plucky, go-getting young protagonist, as Monty decides the best way to inherit his family’s money is to kill the eight people ahead of him in the line of succession. Despite his ghastly deeds, Monty remains likable, thanks to Price’s energetic performance. As his romantic foils, Colleen McLaughlin and Erin McIntyre also delight, with sly takes on the tropes of the bad girlfriend and the naïve ingénue, respectively.

The most demanding, enchanting and delightful performance, though, comes from James Taylor Odom as the entire D’Ysquith family. Remarkably, each family member has his or her own unique physicality and vocality, showcasing Odom’s range and his ability to create richly comedic characters in just a few scenes (and sometimes less than that). He provides a master class in comedy acting that keeps up the momentum of the show even during some of the relative lulls in the narrative.

“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” has all the bells and whistles of splashy Broadway musicals, but they are used to tell a wicked story where the bad guys win (because there are no good guys). In this, it is a dark, funny satire that truly speaks to our contemporary world.

“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”
When: 8 p.m. March 21-24, 2 p.m. March 24, 1 and 7 p.m. March 25
Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive
Cost: $30-$125
Information: texasperformingarts.org

Ground Floor Theatre’s ‘White Rabbit Red Rabbit’ weds script, spontaneity and sassiness

Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” is a unique theatrical experiment, requiring that a different actor perform it every night and that the actor must not see the script prior to reading and performing it on stage. As such, the play serves in some ways as a three-way dialogue between Soleimanpour, the actor and the audience, featuring a serious of metatextual games that grow increasingly serious, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Zell Miller III, left, performs the lead role in “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” on March 16. Contributed by Lisa Scheps

At its core, “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” is a kind of theatrical version of the infamous Milgram Experiment: It asks both actor and audience how much they’re willing to obey words on a page created years in the past by a writer half a world away. Because of this focus, though, it is equally about spontaneity; each production will be different from the last, as will each individual performance. Depending upon how it is staged, formatted, advertised and so forth, different producers can create entirely unique atmospheres surrounding a production of the play, ranging from the darkly serious to the ebulliently comedic.

Ground Floor Theatre’s new production of the text veers more towards the latter, with a who’s who of Austin performing arts talent taking on the main role (see the group’s website for details on who is performing each night). By presenting a 10-minute stand-up comedy act as an opener for the play, the Ground Floor Theatre producers create an atmosphere that undercuts some of the darker suspense of the performance, which has the effect of allowing the focus to fall instead on the issues of identity hiding behind the questions of obedience.

MORE ARTS IN AUSTIN: Exhibit at Contemporary explores architecture and politics of race

“White Rabbit Red Rabbit” constantly questions the very meaning of the words “me” and “I,” as the actor performing the role is giving direct voice to Soleimanpour, who sometimes speaks directly to the actor. This took on special resonance during the wonderful opening night performance by Paul Soileau, in his persona of Rebecca Havemeyer. The question of gender identity — presented as a binary in the text — was met with a shrug and a laugh before a winking acceptance of “girl” as acceptable. Every time the text discussed the unnamed actor performing in a role there was added nuance, likely unintended by the playwright.

This is the great strength of “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” — each performance will be unique. It brings together the poetry of scripted theater with the immediacy of improv comedy and asks as much from the audience as it does from the performer. While one evening’s performance may be lacking in suspense and focused more on metatextual, philosophical and linguistic play, another evening might take a much more serious and darker tone, depending upon the particular actor and particular audience.

Because of this, it is difficult to easily sum up “White Rabbit Red Rabbit.” Ground Floor Theatre’s production of the work taps into its inherent instability and spontaneity, creating a unique, one-of-a-kind theatrical experience that lives and dies each time a new actor opens to the first page of the script.

“White Rabbit Red Rabbit”
When: Various times Thursday-Sunday through March 31
Where: 979 Springdale Road, Suite 122
Cost: $25 suggested price
Information: groundfloortheatre.org

 

Rude Mechs modernizes another Shakespeare play, with dynamic results

It’s easy to see why “Troilus and Cressida” is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” Tonally, it shifts wildly between witty comedy, brooding violence and sensual bawdiness, while its characters’ personalities are often enigmatically difficult to understand.

Though these issues might be a problem for a classical repertory theater that wants to stage the tragedy, they serve as nothing but an opportunity for Austin’s experimental theater collective the Rude Mechs. “Fixing Troilus & Cressida,” their latest work, takes “Troilus and Cressida” and turns it into a high-energy, accessible production for modern audiences.

This is the third production in the Rude Mechs’ Fixing Shakespeare Series, following “King John” and “Timon of Athens.” The idea behind the series, as the program explains, is to “take Shakespeare’s least produced plays, translate them line by line into contemporary English, including the cursing and vulgarity, cutting the number of characters down to about 10, gender screwing them towards parity, and editing the whole thing for joy with no fidelity to the original text.”

So does “Fixing Troilus & Cressida” actually “fix” Shakespeare? If the goal is to create a nuanced, exciting, darkly hilarious play that showcases the modern complexities of these characters, then it absolutely does.

To begin with, Kirk Lynn’s writing is sharply on point, updating Shakespeare’s language, especially the extended metaphors and smutty jokes, with a crackling vitality that is at turns downright hilarious and poignantly heartbreaking. Director Alexandra Bassiakuou Shaw — aided by the work of costume/properties designer Aaron Flynn, lighting designer Stephen Pruitt, composer/sound designer Peter Stopschinski, scenic designer Amanda Perry and stage manager Madison Scott — has taken that complex text and turned it into an immersive experience, where the line between actors and audience is frequently erased. The intimate staging, for example, gives new energy to Shakespeare’s frequent asides; it’s hard not to see these in a new light when an actor is giving this speech while looking directly into your eyes.

The cast, for their part, seem to revel in the opportunities provided by playing such linguistically nimble and athletically energetic parts in a uniquely interactive setting. By conflating Shakespeare’s large cast down to only ten parts, the text gives each character a variety of different levels to explore, ranging from snarky comedy to jealous rage.

The sharp divide between the more broadly humorous first act and the bloodily tragic second act starkly turns characters that had been comic relief in the first half into downright frightening figures in the second. Lauren Lane, for example, plays Agamomenem, a gender-switched version of Greek general Agamemnon, and effortlessly switches from a character whose every line elicits uproarious laughter to a vengeful leader in the midst of bloody warfare.

After the production, I overheard Jeff Mills, who plays Ulysses, say to a friend, “Everybody loves the villain.” To Mills’ credit (as well as Lynn and Shaw’s credit), not once during the production did I actually view Ulysses as a villain. Rather, he was a complex, if at times buffoonish, warrior with motivations that put him at odds with some of the other characters.

This is emblematic of what “Fixing Troilus & Cressida” does so well. It takes what is seen as a “problem” in the original Shakespearean text — the contradictions of characters from a playwright who is known for white-hatted heroes and black-capped villains — and turns it into a complicated exploration of decidedly modern characters.

You needn’t be a Shakespeare fan to enjoy “Fixing Troilus & Cressida”; you need only be a fan of interesting, dynamic theater.

“Fixing Troilus & Cressida”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday through March 31
Where: Nowlin Rehearsal Hall, Zach Theatre, 1426 Toomey Road
Cost: $5-$100
Information: rudemechs.com

Hyde Park Theatre’s latest offers message on life, death and what gives us meaning

Playwright Will Eno’s works are never what one would call straightforward dramas. They tend to meld lyrical dialogue, witty philosophizing and vague, elliptical plot points to create a modern-day Theatre of the Absurd. Picture something of a mixture between Samuel Beckett and the dialogue of “Gilmore Girls.”

Ken Webster stars in Hyde Park Theatre’s “Wakey Wakey.” Contributed by Rebecca Robinson

As a company dedicated to producing the most challenging and cutting-edge of contemporary works, Hyde Park Theatre seems to have a special affinity for Eno’s plays, having produced several in the past. The latest HPT production is of Eno’s newest work, “Wakey, Wakey,” a two-person dramatic comedy that embraces surrealist wit in order to present a life-affirming message.

At the heart of “Wakey, Wakey” is one man, noted in the program as “Guy.” Whether that is his name or merely a descriptor is up to the audience’s interpretation. Just as Guy is the core of the text, he is also the heart of HPT’s production. The company’s artistic director, Ken Webster, takes on the role himself while also directing the play.

Webster’s clearly personal stake in “Wakey, Wakey,” whether intentionally or not, becomes an integral part of the production. The majority of the show features Guy sitting in a wheelchair, talking directly to the audience while occasionally presenting sound clips, images and videos that are projected directly onto the wall behind him. In this context, it’s hard not to see a bit of Webster within Guy, speaking out to a familiar audience in the black box theater that has been his artistic home for so many years. This makes Guy’s probing search of his own past, his thoughts and musings and bon mots, even more deeply moving.

Late in the play, Guy is joined onstage by Lisa, played with a subdued sense of kindness and joy by HPT mainstay, and frequent Webster collaborator, Rebecca Robinson. When Lisa enters from the door marked EXIT, which has been open behind Guy for the entire play, we begin to see the play’s deeper plot machinations and understand the meanings behind Guy’s existential ramblings.

The appeal of “Wakey, Wakey” isn’t the plot, though; it’s the warm, witty, charming, resigned performance that Webster provides to an intimate audience. Through his choices as both an actor and a director, he turns the play into an outright celebration of what it means to live a worthwhile life that leaves an impact on other people.

In such divided times, the ultimate message of “Wakey, Wakey” feels radical rather than trite — share yourself with others, and take care of them, and they’ll do the same for you. Otherwise, we might as well all simply go through life asleep.

‘WAKEY, WAKEY’
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through March 31
Where: 511 W. 43rd St.
Cost: $20-$24
Information: 512-479-7529, hydeparktheatre.org

UT production of ‘Enron’ takes on toxic masculinity of American corporate culture

In the early years of the 21st century, no company was more synonymous with corporate corruption than Enron. The shady accounting and outright fraud of many of the Houston-based energy company’s dealings led to a massive bankruptcy, congressional investigation and decades of jail time for some of the business’ top executives.

Annemarie Alaniz as Jeff Skilling in “Enron.” Contributed by Lawrence Peart, courtesy of the University of Texas

Though certainly a dramatic story, the tale of Enron’s downfall would at first blush seem to be an unusual topic for British playwright Lucy Prebble, whose other major works focus on weighty personal issues like pedophilia (“The Sugar Syndrome”) and the nature of love in the age of psychopharmacology (“The Effect”). However, in the story of Enron’s downfall, Prebble sees not just a tale of corporate greed but also one of toxic masculinity run rampant. Her play, “Enron,” focuses on two of the men at the heart of the scandal in order to explore how “boys being boys” plays out in contemporary capitalism.

The University of Texas Department of Theatre and Dance’s new production of “Enron,” running through March 4, takes Prebble’s critique of business culture even further through the clever conceit of casting only female and nonbinary actors in the roles of men who tie their own sense of masculinity with their corporate success. In so doing, director Hannah Wolf has crafted a nuanced, satirical, enraging piece of theater that is more timely in the era of “Me, Too” than ever before.

“Enron” is an ensemble piece, with 20 performers taking on 50 different roles. Their words and movements glide across the stage kinetically, mixing the Shakespearean drama of private offices with the dance-like choreography of the trading floor. All of the production’s various design elements — from Cait Graham’s costumes, to Roxy Mojica’s set and Robert Mallin’s projections — work in perfect sync with the performers to create a theatrical “gesamtkunstwerk,” the German term for a piece of art that makes use of multiple other media and forms to create a more potent whole.

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Throughout the show, it is a pleasure to watch these young women and nonbinary performers work through their portrayals of different types of men with different sorts of masculinities. Annemarie Alaniz’s Jeff Skilling, Enron’s CEO and the protagonist of the story, is a fully realized portrait of the toxic masculinity of fragile men. She channels Skilling’s underlying geeky insecurity as it manifests in alpha-male posturing about his intelligence. This is counterbalanced by Caroline Beagles’ performance as Andy Fastow, the company’s CFO, who continually prostrates himself before Skilling in an intimate, yet off-putting, surrogate father/son relationship; as well as by Kayla Johnson’s portrayal of company founder and chairman Ken Lay with some Texas “good ol’ boy” macho swagger.

Bella Medina, meanwhile, provides the story with its feminine perspective through the lens of Claudia Roe, a fictional amalgamation of various women at Enron. Medina walks a razor-thin line in her performance, simultaneously making Roe the most sympathetic character as well as the most physically imposing, providing a glimpse at the ways in which corporate culture castigates women for being too soft as well as too hard-edged.

Though the topic it ostensibly covers relates to American corporate culture in the 1990s, “Enron” is ultimately about much more than this. In its excoriating critique of both toxic masculinity and corporate greed, this production by UT’s Department of Theatre and Dance is a complex, thrilling and extremely contemporary look at the ways in which today’s American men are destroying their country because of their own fragile egos.

“ENRON”
When: 7:30 p.m. March 2-3,  2 p.m. March 4
Where: Oscar G. Brockett Theatre, 300 E. 23rd St.
Cost: $5-$26
Information: theatredance.utexas.edu