Play about Juarez murders – and how we react to such stories – challenges audiences at the Vortex

The Vortex Theatre is no stranger to producing provocative, confrontational works; they’ve been doing so for three decades now. Their latest production, Isaac Gomez’s “The Way She Spoke: A Docu-mythologia,” a part of their “30 Years of Truth & Thunder” celebration, pulls no punches in an interrogation of both the murders of thousands of women each year in Juarez, Mexico, and the ability of theater to address subjects of such horrific magnitude.

“The Way She Spoke” is a densely layered play, featuring a single, unnamed actress on an empty stage with a script she has never read, having a conversation with the unseen, off-stage playwright, Gomez himself. The script details Gomez’s research into his previous play, “The Women of Juarez,” and dramatizes his interviews with a variety of people throughout Juarez, all of whom held intimate connections to the murders. As the play continues, the actress comes to increasingly embody the people she’s reading about, to identify with the slaughtered and abused women, and to feel deeply disturbed by the nature of Gomez’s script.

As it unfolds, “The Way She Spoke” becomes less a relation of the stories of the women of Juarez and more an exploration of Gomez’s own guilt in writing a play that provides no direct help to those women. The actress embodies this guilt, taking both Gomez and the audience to task for feeling edified by simply watching a play about the topic when these women are still suffering so much. The actress’s response to the stories also ties those experiences to the objectification of women closer to home, and the ongoing threat posed by men who treat women as property in one form or another. This is underscored by the very nature of the performance itself, wherein a male playwright is asking a female actress to embody all this pain and suffering.

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This is not the first iteration of “The Way She Spoke” (it was previously produced in Chicago), and certain aspects of the text seem to still be a work in progress. Gomez hasn’t quite found the perfect balance between the stories of the women and the story of the actress, whose intensely personal reaction is only vaguely contextualized, which serves to weaken some of the play’s meta-textual commentary.

Despite these textual problems, the Vortex production is phenomenal. Karen Rodriguez, as the actress, fills in some of the missing gaps of her story through the magnetic strength of a visceral performance that plumbs the depths of her emotional and physical expressiveness. Director Rudy Ramirez’s simple but effective staging allows Rodriguez to initially charm with wit and warmth and then slowly but surely descend into moments of staggering psychological intensity.

Though hopefully this is not the play’s final draft, Gomez has nonetheless crafted a nuanced, challenging work of both emotional and intellectual depth. Rodriguez and Ramirez plumb those depths with great skill and empathy, crafting a performance that is powerful, thought-provoking, and a fundamentally resonant call to action for its audience.

“The Way She Spoke: A Docu-mythologia”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, 5 p.m. Saturday through Jan. 20
Where: The Vortex, 2307 Manor Road
Cost: $15-$35
Information: vortexrep.org

Austin Playhouse brings back timely, moving story of immigrant to small-town Texas

I am a Jewish transplant to Texas who married a shiksa (a non-Jewish woman) from small-town Texas. Just last month, I related to my mother-in-law the story of Hanukkah, after which she told me that she didn’t understand why there has been so much prejudice, historically, against the Jewish people. At the time, I had no answer, but in the weeks since I realized what I should have said: “For the same reason that there’s so much prejudice today against Muslims and immigrants; people are scared of the unfamiliar.”

Estrella Saldaña, Huck Huckaby, Cyndi Williams and Joseph Garlock in “The Immigrant.” Contributed by Austin Playhouse

Mark Harelik’s moving and nuanced play “The Immigrant” holds a much more poetic, if similarly shaded, answer to that same question, which makes Austin Playhouse’s new production of it so timely and important. After staging the same play 28 years ago, director Don Toner felt the time was right to remount it, explaining on the company’s website that, “With all the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming out of the White House these days, it is good to be reminded that this country was built by immigrants who came to the United States seeking a better life for themselves and their families.”

Although it certainly heralds these values, “The Immigrant” is far from anti-Trump agit-prop. Rather, it is the story of Harelik’s own grandfather, Haskell Harelik, a poor Russian immigrant who came to America in order to escape the pogroms that threatened the Jewish people there. Instead of entering the country through Ellis Island into the crowded tenements of New York City, Haskell came to the United States in 1909 through the port of Galveston, ending up in the small town of Hamilton.

“The Immigrant” tells the story of Haskell’s experience in Hamilton as he grew from an itinerant banana salesman to a dry goods merchant who was a pillar of the community. This transformation was possible because of the help of banker Milton Perry and his wife, Ima, and Haskell’s relationship with the couple — as well as with his own wife, Leah, whom he was eventually able to afford to bring over to America — forms the heart of the play.

“The Immigrant” is a rather simple text, with no stylistic flourishes to hide behind. It relies entirely upon the honesty of its performers, and Austin Playhouse’s production is blessed with a dynamite foursome. Playhouse company members Huck Huckaby and Cyndi Williams are as strong as ever in the roles of Milton and Ima, mixing Texas charm and openness with a dash of conservatism that makes each of them believable. Estrella Saldaña, as Leah, is equally adept at playing the newcomer to America, scared of losing her culture, as she is at depicting the established matron pushing her husband towards the forgiveness of his grievances.

As the titular immigrant, Joseph Garlock gives a breathtaking performance. His nuanced portrayal of Haskell undergoes an endless series of permutations throughout the play, and the kindness, humor and heart with which he imbues the character brings the audience along on his emotional journey from Yiddish-speaking banana-peddler to anxious and forcefully opinionated family man. Garlock evokes mythic resonance that speaks to the immigrant histories in all of our family trees, summoning the universal through his attention to the particular.

Although it is a small, contained story about one man’s journey, the play’s implications about the nature and essence of American community and family (both biological and chosen) speak volumes in today’s world. It is a vital contribution to one of the most important contemporary public conversations, and one that makes its case through sympathy and humanity rather than virulence. It is, in short, not to be missed.

‘THE IMMIGRANT’
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Jan. 28
Where: ACC’s Highland Campus, 6001 Airport Blvd.
Cost: $32-$36
Information: austinplayhouse.com

Austin gets to know classic musical ‘The King and I’

If you look up the definition of “musical theater,” chances are you’ll see the pictures of two men — composer Richard Rodgers and writer/lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. In just the past few years, Austin has seen major touring productions of multiple Rodgers & Hammerstein works, including “The Sound of Music” and “Cinderella.” Now, Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts present another classic work from the pair, “The King and I,” playing through Dec. 17 at Bass Concert Hall.

Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly star as the King of Siam and Anna in “The King and I.” Contributed by Matthew Murphy

Based on the novel “Anna and the King of Siam” by Margaret Landon, “The King and I” follows English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens as she is brought to Siam in order to modernize the royal court by serving as teacher and tutor to the King’s many wives and children. In the process, she teaches him about the modern world as well, and learns quite a few things herself. As the lyrics to one the show’s most famous numbers, “Getting to Know You,” remind us, “It’s a very ancient saying, but a true and honest thought, that if you become a teacher by your pupils you’ll be taught.”

This touring production of “The King and I” originated at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York, directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Kelli O’Hara as Anna and Ken Watanabe as the King. Because of his two powerhouse leads, Sher created a somewhat understated production that focused on character study rather than a lot of style over substance. Fortunately, the leads of the touring production are strong enough to pull it off as well as the original cast members did.

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As Anna, Laura Michelle Kelly is beautifully subtle and contained, in contrast to the rather delightfully outré performance of Jose Llana as the King. As made famous by Yul Brynner, the role of the King is often played as frighteningly and imposingly domineering, but Llana approaches the character with a charming, frequently undercut swagger. He is a roguish sort, rather than the more stolidly tragic figure created by Brynner. There is as much John Stamos in Llana’s performance as there is Brynner, which makes for a version of “The King and I” where the King is much more likable than usual. As such, the strange attraction that grows between Anna and the King is entirely due to character and thankfully loses some of the overtones of imperialism that frequently haunt the text.

Indeed, there are parts of “The King and I” that don’t age all that well. The way the story equates all that is Western with being modern and correct while all that is Eastern is either backwards or exotic is Orientalism of the most direct kind, as embodied by the ballet-within-a-play, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” That said, the ballet is extremely engaging, an explosion of color and kinetic energy that contrasts with the more contained numbers that precede it.

Although its politics may be dated, the universal truths at the core of the characters in “The King and I” remain true. Wisely, this production focuses much more heavily on those characters rather than on the politics, thereby creating a truly classic version of the musical that highlights the enduring strength of those masters of the stage, Rodgers & Hammerstein.

‘THE KING AND I’
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 12-16, 2 p.m. Dec. 16, 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Dec. 17
Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive
Cost: $30-$140
Information: 512-477-6060, broadwayinaustin.com

 

‘People of Color Christmas’ a witty and aware holiday tradition

Christine Hoang is something of a rarity among Austin playwrights: a creator of modernist, narrative dramas in the tradition of O’Neil, Miller and Williams. Her work eschews postmodern tricks and instead focuses on slow character-building and nuanced relationships, with a slam poem or musical number occasionally thrown in here and there to liven things up. Her “A Girl Named Sue” won the Austin Critics Table Award for best new play, and this holiday season she’s bringing back an older work, “People of Color Christmas,” that takes a woke look at Christmas through the lens of a truly multicultural cast of characters.

The first thing that makes “People of Color Christmas” unique is its producing partner. The show is a co-production between Color Arc Productions and City of Austin Parks and Recreation, Museums and Cultural Programs Division, meaning that it is actually a city of Austin event. As a result, each weekend the play has been presented at a different cultural center. Thus far it has appeared at the Asian American Resource Center and the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center. In its final weekend it will be at the Dougherty Arts Center. Tickets are free; though most performances are currently listed as sold out throughout the final weekend, organizers say that thus far everyone who has come to the show on the wait-list has been admitted to the performance.

Beyond the interesting production partnership, “People of Color Christmas” is also notable for being a remounting. Originally produced at Ground Floor Theatre in 2015 as “People of Color Christmas: The White Elephant in the Room,” it was Hoang’s first play. Now, with a few years’ more experience, she has rewritten about half of the dialogue and worked with dramaturg Ashley Jernigan and director Rudy Ramireze to tighten and heighten the play’s theatrical experience.

In its current form, “People of Color Christmas” feels like a television sitcom Christmas special whose well-drawn cast of comedic characters are culturally sensitive about how being a person of color impacts their lives even during the holiday season. Of particular note are Allegra Jade Fox as Sasha and Lillie Lopez as Gabby, whose duel emotional arcs provide the show’s loose narrative structure, and Ryan Darbonne as Daniel, a gay black man who eschews all stereotypes to exist as a unique, individual character (complete with show-stopping original hip-hop number). The cast members are almost all seasoned improv performers, which adds an element of spontaneity to the show, as ad-libs foster legitimate laughs from castmates that help to consolidate the characters’ friendships.

The play is very funny at the same time as it is culturally aware, and both of these aspects work best when they are in harmony with one another. Hoang’s sense of humor in the writing is strongest when it is addressing particularly difficult issues, like cultural appropriation and the linguistic nuances of political correctness. Similarly, she handles these thorny issues the most powerfully through her wit. When the two diverge is when the play hits its lower points, either becoming overly silly or overly preachy.

Even in these few moments, though, “People of Color Christmas” retains its most important characteristic — its heart. This is one feel-good holiday special that doesn’t rely on tired clichés about “good will towards man” and instead embraces everyone in the audience, regardless of gender, sexuality, color, ethnicity, or religion.

“People of Color Christmas”
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Road
Cost: Free; registration required at pocchristmas.eventbrite.com
Information: 512-974-3772, austintexas.gov/event/people-color-christmas

In Street Corner Arts’ latest play, when you’re here, you’re family

Theater has the power to transport us to any place or time imaginable, from Elizabethan London to the wilds of the Arctic or the far distant future. Sometimes, though, it takes you to a failing Olive Garden in a stifling Midwestern town in order to reveal the truth about what it means to be a family.

Contributed by Benjamin Summers

Such is the case, at least, in Samuel D. Hunter’s “Pocatello,” which Street Corner Arts presents at Hyde Park Theatre in a new production running through Dec. 16. Though only mentioned passingly by name, the setting of “Pocatello” is dazzlingly unique — all the action takes place in the dining area of a mid-level Italian chain restaurant. In a last-ditch attempt to save the business, the store’s manager, Eddie, has come up with the idea of “Famiglia Week,” though it’s never quite clear what that actually means in practice.

Thematically, though, “Pocatello” is all about family — the families we’re born into, the families we choose, and the families we’re thrust into as part of our jobs. The ensemble cast of 10 includes Eddie and his family; waiter Troy and his family; and the restaurant’s staff of misfits. Everyone in “Pocatello” is a misfit in one way or another, though, as the play comments pointedly on how large chains are erasing any sense of location or home in towns and cities across America, an erasure that inevitably seeps into American families as well.

“Pocatello” is a blackly comedic drama of interactions and reactions. The first scene introduces 10 ten characters during a busy lunchtime, where their multiple conversations fade in and out of each other, fugue-like. As the play progresses, we see different variations of these characters in scenes with one another, with pairings both expected and surprising. What the talented cast of the show excels at is listening and responding; as the plot ticks along, we see how each new encounter lands and how each relationship features its own unstated dynamics. Standouts include Carlo Lorenzo Garcia as the put-upon, neurotic Eddie; Amber Quick as the desperately unhappy Tammy; and David Scott’s delightful comedic timing as the somewhat meat-headed Max.

Hunter’s text does a fine job of riding the line between the comedic bits and the deeper tragedies at the heart of the play, never getting either too bleak or too over-the-top. Director Benjamin Summers is equally adept at this difficult task and has managed to help his actors find a unique voice for each of the 10 characters. Summers and his design team have created an almost immersive experience. As audience members, we feel like we are patrons inside this restaurant, watching as the business, and the families, fall apart.

Despite its somewhat depressing setting, and its cutting commentary on the senses of place and self in contemporary America, “Pocatello” is ultimately a play of hopefulness, in that it is as much about families pulling together as falling apart. In Street Corner Arts’ focus on getting this production just right, the scrappy Austin company has proven to be its own artistic family, one that is full of hospitaliano.

“POCATELLO”
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 8-9 and Dec. 13-16
Where: Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd St.
Cost: $15-$22
Information: streetcornerarts.org/pocatello

‘A Miracle on 34th Street Classic Radiocast’ is charming, if old-fashioned, Christmas treat

Writer/director George Seaton’s “A Miracle on 34th Street” (based on a story by Valentine Davies) was hardly destined to become a Christmas classic when it was released in June 1947. For one thing, it was, well, released in June, and the advertising tried to hide the fact that it was a Christmas movie about a nice old man who plays Santa Claus for Macy’s and who just might be the actual Kris Kringle. However, the movie’s naïve charm and strong performances by Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn and a young Natalie Wood won over audiences, and it became a perennial holiday favorite.

Contributed by Kimberley Mead

Round Rock’s Penfold Theatre has taken this Christmas classic and turned it into a unique performance that’s part stage play and part radio show, calling the hybrid “A Miracle on 34th Street Classic Radiocast.” The adaptation by Penfold co-founder Nathan Jerkins (with a prologue and spoofy commercials added by director Monica Ballard) turns the story into a radio show performed live before the audience’s eyes at the fictional station KPNF.

The strength of this production lies in its old-fashioned charm. The show is very well cast, with an array of actors whose voices adapt to the various characters they portray. While Sarah Marie Curry, Nathan Jerkins, Julie Linnard and Isto Barton take on a number of different roles that play to their vocal talents in a number of amusing ways, the strongest performance comes from Robert L. Berry, who only serves as one character throughout — Kris Kringle himself. In the spirit of Edmund Gwenn and Richard Attenborough, who played Kringle in the two film versions of the story, Berry’s warmth and charm embody the heart of the character, creating a realistic Kringle who doesn’t veer into a parody of our traditional ideas about Santa.

The entire show plays into the nostalgic aspect of the story and its evocation of the classic film. From the location itself, in the agreeably communal Old Settler’s Hall, to the sumptuous look of the set and costumes (designed by Desi Roybal and Glenda Wolfe, respectively), everything about “Miracle” screams of a simpler era.

The weaknesses of the show, however, also stem from this nostalgia. The play is a little too faithful to the screenplay, leading to a lot of expository dialogue and not enough use of the unique format (which features live sound effects). In addition, the story’s message — summed up by the line that “faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to” — may work in the context of a 1947 Christmas film, but in an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” it feels hopelessly outdated at best and downright dangerous at worst. There is certainly value to the concept of faith, but it would have been nice to see it updated to reflect modern concerns that also recognize the necessity of a dash of common sense, even within the most faithful.

“A Miracle on 34th Street” is, in a phrase, “old time-y,” which is at the core of both its charm and its failings. If you’re looking for a pleasant holiday escape into a rose-tinted vision of nostalgic white Christmases past, though, it will hit the spot.

“A Miracle on 34th Street Classic Radiocast”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Dec. 23
Where: Old Settler’s Hall, 3300 E. Palm Valley Blvd., Round Rock
Cost: $23-$25
Information: penfoldtheatre.com

Jane Austen meets charming Christmas comedy in latest from Austin Playhouse

If Jane Austen and Richard Curtis (writer/director of “Love Actually”) were to collaborate on an original story, it would look an awful lot like Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.”

Jess Hughes and Stephen Mercantel star in “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.” Contributed by Austin Playhouse

Playing through Dec. 23 at Austin Playhouse, “Miss Bennet” is an utterly charming unofficial sequel to “Pride and Prejudice” that takes place a few years after the conclusion of the classic novel. Because it is written specifically for the stage, though, it takes the form of a drawing room comedy of manners that is entirely contained within an actual drawing room.

The story follows the Bennet sisters as they spend Christmas at Pemberley, the estate of Mr. Darcy, the novel’s romantic lead. While older sisters Elizabeth and Jane are both now happily married, their middle sister, the brainy and well-read Mary, remains single and resigned to her future life as a spinster. Enter Lord Arthur de Bourgh, a cousin of Mr. Darcy who has recently come into his own estate and whose own bookwormish tendencies quickly endear him to Mary, and vice versa.

Traditional romantic comedy antics soon follow, with Mary and Arthur needing to overcome both Mary’s flirtatious younger sister Lydia and a designing woman from Arthur’s past. Though the plot is extremely predictable, that actually adds to its charm. The play delights from start to finish with warm, heartfelt comedy that never gets too dark nor too serious, thanks in large part to the cast of Austin Playhouse regulars.

Jenny Lavery, Stephen Mercantel and Marie Fahlgren in “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.” Contributed by Austin Playhouse

Jess Hughes, as the titular Miss Mary Bennet, is pitch-perfect as the somewhat dour heroine who remains utterly likeable even within her deepest doldrums, and her chemistry with Stephen Mercantel’s shy and bumbling Arthur de Bourgh is adorable without becoming cloying. As Mary’s three sisters, Jenny Lavery, Marie Fahlgren and Maria Latiolais all shine with varying degrees of sororal bickering and affection.

Perhaps the unexpected highlight of the production is the comedic interplay of Samuel Knowlton as Mr. Darcy and Zac Thomas as Charles Bingley, two of the Bennet sisters’ husbands, whose scenes together take on an almost vaudevillian shine. Though somewhat removed from the heart of the narrative, the pair steal quite a few scenes as they play the Victorian vision of gentlemanhood against contemporary notions of masculinity.

Director Lara Toner Haddock and her design team — costume designer Buffy Manners, lighting designer Don Day, sound designer Joel Mercado-See and set designer Mike Toner — focus on realism here, with rich period costumes and a sumptuous set, accentuated by bright pops of color and mood-setting music and sound cues.

“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” is a sweet, good-natured piece of escapism, and it just may provide the little bit of warm holiday cheer you might find yourself needing during a very hectic month.

 

“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 23
Where: 6001 Airport Blvd.
Cost: $16-$36
Information: austinplayhouse.ticketleap.com/miss-bennet

 

In the mood for a rom-com? ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ still charms

There are a lot of shows opening in Austin the next few weeks specifically themed for the holiday season, but if you’re looking for a fun, cozy comedy full of warmth and cheer, Austin Shakespeare has an option that might fit the bill without a hint of tinsel in sight — their new production of “Much Ado about Nothing,” running through Dec. 3 in the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center.

Max Green, Susan Myburgh, Toby Minor and Colum Morgan in Austin Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Contributed by Errich Petersen Photography

“Much Ado” is one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, in large part because of how influential it has been over the entire genre of the romantic comedy as we know it today. The bickering between romantic leads Beatrice and Benedick, full of sarcastic jabs, evolves over the course of the play into loving jests just as in modern rom-coms.

The story of the younger lovers, Claudio and Hero, doesn’t age quite as well, defined as it is by men taking the false word of other men over the protestations of women they supposedly love. But this production does its best to mitigate the text’s inherent misogyny through strong character work. Joseph Banks, as Claudio, is delightfully charming and soft-spoken in the show’s first half, focusing more on the character’s feeling of betrayal than his rage upon learning of Hero’s “unfaithfulness.” Corinna Browning, meanwhile, showcases Hero’s quote strength and self-assurance rather than allowing her to simply become a punching bag and victim to the schemes of the play’s villains.

Gwendolyn Kelso and Marc Pouhé in “Much Ado About Nothing.” Contributed by Errich Petersen Photography

Gwendolyn Kelso and Marc Pouhé, as Beatrice and Benedick, are no slouches, either. They have some of the wittiest and silliest moments of the play, milking both types of comedy for big laughs from the audience. Indeed, the entire production is silly, in a truly endearing way. Gifted physical comedians Toby Minor and Susan Myburgh, as the chief of the city’s citizen-police and his partner Verges, respectively, bring the show its moment of broadest humor as well as the few times that the humor gets a bit over-the-top.

The decision by director Ann Ciccolella to place this production in the Belle Époque, to the saucy rhythms of bossa nova music (with original compositions by Greg Bolin), works beautifully with Shakespeare’s text, turning the setting of Messina, Sicily, into a swinging beachside resort that provides a delightful backdrop for love and hijinks. Scenic and lighting designer Patrick Anthony’s all-white set, evocatively illuminated by a variety of clever lighting schemes, work with Benjamin Taylor Ridgway’s costumes to further develop this atmosphere that’s ripe for a romp.

Though not as soul-searching as Shakespeare’s tragedies, and certainly filled with gender politics that are particularly painful and abrasive in the culture of today’s world, “Much Ado About Nothing” still stands up as an endearing love story filled with wacky situations, clever jokes and, of course, a happy ending.

“MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 3
Where: The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive
Cost: $22
Information: austinshakespeare.org

‘Dry Land’ is a gripping first production from a new Austin theater company

Autumn 2017 has been a very good season for powerful female performances on the Austin stage, from “Vampyress” and “Storm Still” at the Vortex Theatre to “The Wolves” at Hyde Park Theatre. Now, the inaugural performance from a new company joins that list with Permanent Record’s production of Ruby Rae Spiegel’s “Dry Land,” playing through Dec. 2 at the Mastrogeorge Theatre.

Contributed by Josh Staring

“Dry Land” follows Amy and Ester, two members of a high school swim team, and looks at the highs and lows of their friendship through both typical high school melodrama and the more serious concern of Amy’s attempts to have an abortion without her mother finding out. The majority of the play takes place between the girls in the locker room of their local pool, an intimate environment that underscores the girls’ growing rapport and the very bodily nature of Amy’s problem.

The female leads of “Dry Land” are pitch-perfect in their roles. Lindsey Markham (who is also Permanent Record’s artistic director and the show’s producer) is at turns cynical and silly as Amy, with a deeply brooding and increasingly frantic and angry response to her unwanted pregnancy. As Ester, Brandi Gist starts out with puppy dog loyalty to Amy but gradually sheds her hesitancy as the story unfolds. Both actresses are given meaty roles to play, with Gist transitioning from a girl who makes every sentence a question into a confident young woman, while Markham plumbs the depths of mental (and ultimately physical) pain to explore Amy’s deep suffering.

In supporting roles, Alani Rose Chock and Brennan Patrick also shine. Chock’s Reba is a counterpoint to Amy and Ester, a phone-obsessed girl dealing with much more typical teenage problems (and whose own long-standing friendship with Amy creates a rift between the other two girls). Though only appearing in one scene, Patrick brings nuance, sympathy and sadness to college boy Victor, whom Ester meets while trying out for his school’s swim team.

Behind the scenes of this production is director Marian Kansas, who does a masterful job of focusing on the surface-level simplicity of the text in order to allow its more subtle strengths and darkness to come through. The production eschews any bells and whistles in order to highlight the actresses and their story, with character work grounded at the center of it all. Kansas, who also directed last year’s “Dust” for her own Heartland Theatre Collective, is quickly becoming a director to watch.

“Dry Land” is a dark, bitingly funny, vicious, tender, ultimately empowering narrative about both the intensity and the mundanity of the lives of contemporary teenage girls. It is a vital, necessary show that hopefully predicts future great productions from Permanent Record Theatre.

“DRY LAND”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Dec. 2.
Where: Mastrogeorge Theater, 130 Pedernales St. Suite 318B
Cost: $12-$25
Information: permanentrecordtheatre.org

See another powerful work from ‘Moonlight’ writer on stage in ‘The Brothers Size’

Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney should be a familiar name to Austin audiences, between winning last year’s Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for “Moonlight” (based on his play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”) and a moving production of his play “In the Red and Brown Water” by the University of Texas Department of Theatre and Dance last October. The latter is the first part of a triptych of related works, called “The Brother/Sister Plays,” and now Capital T Theatre brings us the second, “The Brothers Size.”

“The Brothers Size” follows up on the lives of two supporting characters from “In the Red and Brown Water,” Ogun and Elegba, while introducing us to Ogun’s brother Oshoosi. The play stands completely on its own, though audiences familiar with the first play will see connections between the story and themes of both works. The story follows Oshoosi shortly after his release from prison as he struggles to live a life on the straight-and-narrow under Ogun’s hardworking influence. At the same time, he yearns for a more carefree life with his former prison friend Elegba.

Capital T Theatre is usually known for its productions of incisive, and sometimes savage, black comedies, which makes this lyrical, dream-filled family drama something of a departure for the company. Jason Phelps, who usually appears on stage in Capital T productions, helms this show as director, bringing a unique, poetic sensibility that contrasts nicely with artistic director Mark Pickell’s more gritty, earthbound style. This change of pace perfectly suits the text and makes for a strong production that serves to better diversify the range of voices heard on Austin’s stages.

The three men at the heart of “The Brothers Size” each have emotionally and physically demanding roles to play — portraying varying shades of masculine identity and expressing the unique and trying demands of brotherhood, in all its mutable forms. As Ogun Size, John Christopher portrays a gentle giant whose outbursts of anger at his brother barely disguise the deep, heartfelt love underneath the surface. Sean Christopher, as Oshoosi, is dreamy and indeterminate, without ever crossing the line into becoming insufferable. The chemistry that the two men have as brothers is palpable, and the scenes they share together crackle with electricity as they move from anger to joy to sorrow. The always reliable Delanté Keys, as Elegba, is the perfect foil to Ogun and siren song to Oshoosi, providing the crucible that brings to life the brothers’ relationship.

McCraney’s poetic style in “The Brother/Sister Plays” is unique, and “The Brothers Size” is no exception. The actors state their stage directions (sometimes conspiratorially to the audience), and scenes often dissolve into dreams or chants. It can be difficult at first to fall into the play’s rhythm, but the deliberate pacing and lack of an intermission allow the words and the actors to slowly weave their hypnotic spell on the audience.

As assistant director and dramaturge, Crystal Bird Caviel explains in the program notes, “McCraney has revealed that he is intentionally trying to create a drum-like cadence and rhythm in the speech of the actors using beats, pivots, and inflection to create the unique poetic dialogue of ‘The Brothers Size.’” Phelps, Caviel and their powerful cast quite effectively capture this rhythm on the stage, making McCraney’s evocative work into a timely and potent piece of theatrical magic.

“THE BROTHERS SIZE”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Nov. 18
Where: Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd St.
Cost: $20-$30
Information: capitalt.org