‘Storm Still’ explores family dynamics through one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies

As one of Shakespeare’s most popular — and most performed — plays,  the tragedy “King Lear” is familiar to many theater patrons, at least the broad outlines. An elderly king asks his daughters how much each of them loves him, banishes the only daughter to speak truthfully and is destroyed by the power-grabbing machinations of the other two daughters and their husbands. To summarize the theme of the play in one sentence, plucked from Lear’s own dialogue, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!”

“Storm Still” gives a different take on “King Lear.” Contributed by Errich Petersen

Just who the thankless child is, and how sharp she can be, is explored in Gabrielle Reisman’s “Storm Still,” playing through Sept. 24 at the Vortex Theatre.

When Lear makes his claim, early in the play, he is referring to Cordelia, the one daughter to refuse to flatter him and state that she can’t compare her love for him to anything else. As the text unfolds, though, we come to view the other two daughters — Goneril and Regan — as the truly thankless children. In “Storm Still,” though, we are given a reinvented “King Lear” that asks us to see the story through the eyes of Goneril and Regan.

Three sisters, in the aftermath of their father’s slow senility and death, are cleaning up his backyard while, at the same time, playing out an abridged, modernized version of “King Lear,” something they used to do with their father before he became ill. We come to learn that the sisters are, themselves, named Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, and their lives hold an eerie resonance to the play.

As we discover more of the sisters’ history with each other and with their father, their play-acting of “Lear” gains greater resonance. This forces us to reconsider who should receive our pity — the daughter who fled from an abusive father or the two who remained behind to care for him the best they could, even as he grew increasingly difficult to handle.

Director Rudy Ramirez has mounted the Vortex’ production of “Storm Still” in the venue’s Outdoor Stage, creating the sensibility of an actual backyard. Though this doesn’t do wonders for the show’s sound quality, it allows scenic designer Ann Marie Gordon and prop/costume designer Indigo Rael to go wild with creativity, creating an immersive outdoor environment that deliberately blends the line between on-stage and off.

The three talented actresses at the heart of the production — Andreá Smith as Goneril, Jennifer Coy Jennings as Regan and Amelia Turner as Cordelia — revel in the opportunities this environment creates, utilizing small changes of space, props and costume to contort themselves into the entire cast of “King Lear.” What is most impressive, though, is how, even while in Shakespearean character (speaking in modernized dialogue), they remain true to the core of the sister they portray, creating layers of performative nuance that further blur the distinction between reality and fantasy.

This blurring of lines lies at the heart of “Storm Still,” as the three sisters find the boundary of their lives and those of Shakespeare’s characters to be a porous one. What bleeds through, they discover, is the thankless love that ultimately binds them together.

When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through Sept. 24
Where: 2307 Manor Road
Cost: $15-$35
Information: 512-478-5282, vortexrep.org.

Big art news from Texas Biennial, Pop Austin and UT Landmarks

In this case, important art news comes in threes.

The Texas Biennial comes Sept. 30-Nov. 11. Contributed by Martha Hughes.

Big Medium, which produces EAST and WEST, has confirmed the dates and other details for the next Texas Biennial. The group survey exhibition, which features artists living and working in the state, will appear at 211 E. Alpine Road in Austin, Sept. 30-Nov. 11. The final list of artists selected by curator and artistic director Leslie Moody Castro will be announced Aug. 30

The work of Aaron de la Cruz appears at Pop Austin in November. Contributed

Pop Austin, which stages annual exhibitons of art one might not normally see in Austin, announces that this year the monumental event will take place Nov. 9-12 at Fair Market. It kicks off with an opening party Nov. 9. General admission will take place Nov. 10-12. Among the artists featured will be Aaron de la CruzJon One and Yang Na. Tickets go on sale Aug. 30. The show is also a part of Big Medium’s EAST.

A detail of the promised José Parlá mural at UT. Contributed

The Landmarks program, which provides the high-quality public art for the University of Texas, let us know about a big new mural in the works. The 4,000 square-foot-piece by José Parlá will grace Rowling Hall, the new home of the McCombs School of Business graduate program. The unveiling will take place at a big bash in January 2018.

Science fiction tale deliver powerful real-life messages about race

In the wake of the Charlottesville, Va., white supremacist rally and the subsequent attack on peaceful counterprotesters, the firm belief that black lives matter is perhaps more important than it has ever been. As such, the long-term work being done at the Vortex Theatre to bring diversity to the Austin stage, and to provide a voice and a venue to artists of color, is more important than ever.

Contributed by by Errich Petersen.

The latest show at the Vortex, produced by Gale Theatre Co., is Tyler English-Beckwith’s new play “Twentyeight.” Though ostensibly an Afrofuturist science fiction story about six black people forced to build the very spaceship that will take them to their promised utopia of the Liberian Space Station, “Twentyeight” is also a trenchant commentary about contemporary state and racial violence against the black community.

Set in either a dystopian near-future or an alternate present, “Twentyeight” embodies the struggle for survival and freedom faced by black Americans in the form of forced labor to build a new starship. In exchange for this labor — which is overseen by mysterious “Enforcers” who make themselves known in the form of loud klaxon alarms — the individuals building the starship will be allowed to board it when it launches for the space station.

The bulk of the play portrays the struggles faced by the six characters as they work on the spaceship, arguing among themselves about the roles of freedom, yearning and expectation. The talented ensemble — consisting of Kenah Benefield, Jeremy Rashad Brown, Mae Rose Hill, Delanté Keys, Taji Senior-Gipson and Oktavea Williams — embody the various sides of debates about whether it is necessary for minorities to crouch before they are allowed to fly, and the well-realized desires and beliefs of each character keep that from ever becoming simply intellectual.

Though the ideas (and ideology) of “Twentyeight” are part of the show’s great strength, some of the science fiction concepts are a bit muddled and confusing, perhaps intentionally so. Nevertheless, the staging of the action by co-directors English-Beckwith and Matrix Kilgore (aided by the work of lighting designer Rachel Atkinson, sound designer Alyssa Dillard and scenic designer Ann Marie Gordon) grounds each scene in a physical reality that expresses the emotional truth of the characters, even if the precise location of the action is unclear.

“Twentyeight,” like much of the work at the Vortex, is a necessary show for our contemporary moment, giving voice to ideas that need to be heard by more people if our society is ever to find its way to the stars.

When: 8 p.m. Aug. 16-19
Where: The Vortex, 2307 Manor Road
Cost: $15-$35
Information: 512-478-5282, vortexrep.org.

Summer Stock Austin’s ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ brings young stars to stage

Every year, Summer Stock Austin presents repertory productions of several musicals, classic and new, starring and crewed by the best and brightest of Texas’ young performers from throughout the state’s high schools and colleges. This summer, the series includes “Annie Get Your Gun,” a charming production that introduces a bright new star to the Austin stage, running through Aug. 12 at the Long Center.

“Annie Get Your Gun” is loosely based on the true story of sharpshooter Annie Oakley, a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West traveling show in the late 1800s alongside her husband, fellow sharpshooter Frank Butler. Oakley and Butler first met when she defeated him in a traveling-show shooting match, and this meeting becomes the inciting incident in the musical, as created in the 1940s by Dorothy and Herbert Fields, who wrote the book, and songwriting legend Irving Berlin, who wrote the music and lyrics.

The Summer Stock Austin production of “Annie Get Your Gun” wisely uses some of the revisions created by Peter Stone for the 1999 Broadway revival of the show, which eliminates some of the most insensitive and racist caricatures of American Indians that were originally part of the show (though a few wince-worthy moments do remain).

As with most of Summer Stock Austin’s fair, the production most potently serves as a performance vehicle for Texas’ rising musical theater stars, and director/choreographer Scott Thompson puts his vibrant, talented cast center stage with few frills to get in the way of their direct, energetic engagement with the audience. The entire ensemble helps to create a dynamic performance that moves at a rapid pace, with some notable standouts.

Ben Roberts, as Charlie Davenport, is pitch-perfect and hilarious in a thankless role that switches hastily between exposition and sarcasm. David Peña treats the role of Chief Sitting Bull with enough respect, dignity and good-heartedness that he manages to overcome some of the outdated humor. Brian Corkum and Kate Brimmer, meanwhile, as the young lovers Tommy Keeler and Winnie Tate, shine with innocence, charm and great chemistry as both scene and dance partners.

The standout of the show, though, is its leading lady, Trinity Adams, as Annie Oakley. With a vocal acuity that covers both the comedic and romantic sides of the Berlin score and a remarkably expressive face that is able to simultaneously connote comedy and elegance, Adams is a dynamo of musical theater talent, and hopefully we haven’t seen the last of her in Austin. She is aided and abetted in her talent by her leading man, Max Carney, as Frank Butler, whose smooth charm keeps the character likable despite the play’s skewed and sometimes troubling gender dynamics.

RELATED: Trinity Adams wows as Annie Oakley for Summer Stock Austin

Though a classic of the American musical theater, aspects of “Annie Get Your Gun” may not have aged very well. Fortunately, the prodigious strength of its young cast helps Summer Stock Austin’s production overcome this hurdle and create a fun, quick-moving, family-friendly show with a leading lady whose name we should expect to someday see in lights.

‘Annie, Get Your Gun’
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive
Cost: $20-$47
Information: 512-474-5664, thelongcenter.org


Activism and the AIDS epidemic: ‘The Normal Heart’ still resonates

When it first debuted in 1985, Larry Kramer’s play “The Normal Heart,” about the beginnings of the AIDS crisis in New York, was described by New York Times reviewer Frank Rich as “the most outspoken play around,” with “a subject that justifies its author’s unflagging, at times even hysterical, sense of urgency.”

The City Theatre is producing “The Normal Heart,” Larry Kramer’s searing drama about the world’s initial indifference to the AIDS plague. Contributed by Andy Berkovsky


Over two decades later, “The Normal Heart” has lost none of its fierceness, its power, nor, sadly, its urgency, as the City Theatre’s current production shows. Though we now live in an age where an HIV diagnosis is not necessarily a death sentence, as it was in the early 1980s, the play is less about the virus itself than it is about the political action it spurred in New York’s LGBTQ+ community. As such, City Theatre’s production feels as timely as ever, given that we live in an era of renewed interest in political activism.

Directors Carl Gonzales and Lacey Cannon Gonzales certainly don’t shy away from the text’s anger. The story follows the lives of several AIDS activists, and as they go ignored by the government and see the epidemic only grow worse, their righteous fury grows from scene to scene. The ensemble cast does not pull back from these outbursts, most notably McArthur Moore as Mickey Marcus (whose slow-burn joviality early in the play lends true ferocity to his later anger), and Laura Ray as Emma Brookner, who is given the show’s most overtly political monologue.

What lends “The Normal Heart” much of its power, 20 years on, is that it isn’t merely an easy narrative of us-against-them activism. Rather, it explores the different shades of response to the AIDS crisis by different members of New York’s gay male community. In the debates between sex positivity and absolute abstinence (to prevent transmission), between compromising with government officials and excoriating them in the public, and between being in or out of the closet, each of Kramer’s characters is right, even when they are diametrically opposed. Activism is no easy feat, even in the face of biological annihilation, and today’s crop of young activists could learn much from the story told in “The Normal Heart.”

City Theatre’s production of the play is both timely (coming on the heels of Pride celebrations across the world and in terms of our current national political climate) and simple, with an elegant, multi-purpose set that keeps the focus on the characters and the politics rather than the specific setting of each scene. By the end of the play, the detritus of props from previous scenes bleeds into the following ones, creating a literal representation of the way the ghosts of the departed haunt those who remain alive.

With a powerful message that still sadly resonates today, “The Normal Heart” remains a crucial piece of American drama, and the City Theatre is to be applauded for bringing it back to the stage.

“The Normal Heart”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through July 16
Where: 3823 Airport Blvd.
Cost: $10-$25
Information: 512-524-2870, citytheatreaustin.org

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New to Gilbert & Sullivan? ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ is the show for you

Gilbert & Sullivan Austin are taking on Gilbert & Sullivan’s classic “The Pirates of Penzance.” Contributed

I have a confession to make. One that is somewhat shameful for a theater critic to admit.

I’d never seen a Gilbert & Sullivan production.

My interest in live theater has always skewed towards the performative, experimental and experiential, with a love for actors, poetry and subtle emotions. Gilbert & Sullivan, with their deliberately over-the-top comic operas, never appealed to me, and their production today seems to appeal to fans of classical music and opera more than followers of musical theater.

It was consequently an eye-opener to see Gilbert & Sullivan Austin’s new production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” playing through June 25 in the Worley Barton Theater at Brentwood Christian School. Overcoming my prejudices and experiencing the work of librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan first-hand showed me which aspects of my suppositions were right and which were wrong.

The focus of Gilbert & Sullivan Austin’s “The Pirates of Penzance” is, to be sure, the music. Most of the performers are classically trained musicians, rather than trained actors and actresses, and the entire cast, from the impressive soprano of Suzanne Lis as Mabel to the rich baritone of Russell Gregory as the Sergeant of Police, sounds wonderful, even if they falter a bit during the dialogue sequences (though the richly baroque comedy of Sam Johnson as the Pirate King is a strong exception to this). The impressive Gillman Light Opera Orchestra, under the baton of music director Jeffrey Jones-Ragona, is also to be praised.

However, within that musical emphasis, there is an extraordinary amount of poetry to be found, from Sullivan’s rich score, to Gilbert’s complicated rhymes and still-punchy comedic patter, to the vocal nuances of the talented singers.

Director/choreographer Ralph MacPhail Jr. puts the full emphasis of the production on those singers, whose mellifluous tones capture the satirical whimsy of a plot full of deliberately silly twists and turns, focusing on a group of not-so-terrible pirates, virginal young women and cowardly policemen.

If you’re a Gilbert & Sullivan virgin yourself, you’ll find that Gilbert & Sullivan Austin’s “Pirates of Penzance” is an excellent primer for their work. If you’re already a fan, this production is right up your alley.

“The Pirates of Penzance”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through June 25, with additional matinee 2 p.m. June 24
Where: Worley Barton Theater at Brentwood Christian School, 11908 N. Lamar Blvd.
Cost: $8-$27
Information: gilbertsullivan.org/SummerProduction


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Austin Shakespeare’s intimate “Old Times” baffles, disturbs and moves

Jill Blackwood, Nancy Eyermann and Ben Wolfe in "Old Times." Contributed by Bret Brookshire
Jill Blackwood, Nancy Eyermann and Ben Wolfe in “Old Times.” Contributed by Bret Brookshire

Supposedly, while starring in a 1984 production of the Harold Pinter play “Old Times,” Anthony Hopkins asked the playwright what the play’s ending meant. Pinter’s reply? “I don’t know. Just do it.”

This anecdote is a fairly good summation of Pinter’s writing, which is at turns provocative, elliptical, off-putting and confusing. It is also poetic, precise and very, very good, which is part of the reason why Austin Shakespeare’s production of “Old Times” (originally produced in 1971) feels so fresh and contemporary.

The other reason, of course, is the high talents of the team behind this production, beginning with its performers.

The play features three character —  married couple, Kate and Deeley, and Kate’s old friend, Anna, who has come to visit them. It very quickly becomes clear that Kate and Anna were more than just friends, and Deeley spars with Anna for his wife’s affections, while at the same time finding himself increasingly attracted to her. The tension between the three characters is emotional, psychological and dangerously erotic, a balancing act that all three performers excel at.

As Deeley, Ben Wolfe’s increasing frustrations with both Anna and his own wife provide the play with its emotional arc. His confusion, anger and fear drive the action forward in a cohesive line, even as the plot and characterizations begin to deliberately crumble into surrealist territory. Jill Blackwood’s Anna is sleek, sexy and poised, a constant straight line standing between the curved, crooked figures of both the set and the married couple.

Nancy Eyermann, as Kate, gives a standout performance, vacillating between placid mutability and steely control, even as Deeley and Anna fight for/over her. The intimacy of the playing space, which is entirely in the round, allows for her subdued style to shine.old_times_cropped-3229

Rather than trying to clarify an intentionally vague and poetic plot, director Ann Ciccolella has leaned into the mounting sense of menace that “Old Times” develops as it goes on, particularly by embracing the full-on eeriness of the second act. The set, designed by Patrick W. Anthony, is a simple living room (and later a bedroom) with bare furniture, but one that is deliberately crooked and off-center, with far too much space inside, evoking both the distance between the characters and the existential gulf that the play creeps towards.

Anthony’s lighting, alongside sound design by Lowell Bartholomee, also plays a crucial role in the production, creating both tension and mood. It is, in fact, these design elements that get the final, powerful word, even after the actors have said their last lines. The light and sound fill up some of the famous “Pinter pauses” and imbue them with a power that differentiates them from those pauses merely filled by silence.

Old Times is a forceful and emotional play, even if it is one that lends itself to multiple interpretations, all or none of which may be correct. Austin Shakespeare’s production plays up the text’s most visceral and disturbing elements, making for a powerful evening of theater that may confuse your intellect while still ringing crystal clear to your senses and emotions.

“Old Times”

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through March 5

Where: The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive

Cost: $18-$44

Info: 512-474-5664, thelongcenter.org


Review: Line Upon Line Percussion pushes boundaries of art and music

Line Upon Line Percussion. Contributed by Renelle Bedell
Line Upon Line Percussion. Contributed by Renelle Bedell

This review written by freelance arts critic Luke Quinton
A blue light glowed on a pillar at the center. We were inside the gallery at Canopy, where Line Upon Line Percussion was hosting its February show, part of their ongoing series, blending the music and art worlds. This program featured three newly commissioned pieces.

The crowd circled the room’s perimeter in chairs, while metal cables fell from the ceiling pillar, attached to a rope that draped across to the music stands and percussion instruments below. An arresting visual, and more than a prop, as the ensemble would explain.

“When we play the piece, we are reading off the ropes,” Line Upon Line’s Matt Teodori said.

They had commissioned UK composer Claudia Molitor for a new piece, “and she sent us these” — he paused — “ropes.”

The crowd gave a quick laugh. This is the sort of playfulness people seek out at these shows. Ingeniously, it turned out that the ropes contained information, knots tied into the rope that could be read as music.

“Entangled” was a piece that had as much in common with music as it did with experimental theater. The trio grabbed the ends of the ropes, and that’s when you realized that the ropes weren’t just hanging in a straight line from the ceiling but were draped like a messy spiderweb throughout the music stands, cymbals and vibraphone.

The performers started from the loose end and felt the rope with their hands. They would stop to perform the action indicated by the knots and then move on to the next knot. The lines crossed, hanging over other ropes, making obstacles as the three players walked over and under the strands.

The performance consisted of whispered sentences and short rhythms played on a sort of leafy dried palm (surely there is a name for this instrument, but internet searches for experimental percussion can be rather inscrutable) and tapped prescribed rhythms on their bellies or forearms like bored teenagers.

As they went forward, the trio wrapped the rope around their bodies. Finally, at the end, they reach the pillar and the carabiner holding each strand. On cue, they released.

They whispered phrases like “intangible places of reference” and “ceases to exist” — words, the program notes, that come from George Perec, the late French member of the literary experiments group Oulipo.

As an artistic exercise, “Entangled” was worthwhile, though, as it’s largely silent, it’s also an exercise in audience patience.

“Alchemy Test,” by Central Texas composer Brett Kroening, was more typically musical and a little more satisfying. At its center was an eerie, rapidly punctuated interplay between a vibraphone and glockenspiel. It seemed straightforward, until this meshing was interrupted by loud tom toms that banged in out of left field. It could conjure up the oddball machinery in a chemist’s studio.

More experimental again was “Engraving on Bronze” by Pablo Vergara, which took the idea of engraving seriously. Teodori, in his introduction, linked this piece to the famed cymbal company Zildjian, a company that has made cymbals for 300 years.

The musicians were scribbling madly on these cymbals as if they were paper. It sounded like the act of creation. Like cymbals being born. Smoothing over everything was the occasional booming gong, seeming to symbolize the rough dawn of … something.

A fourth piece came as a surprise, as it wasn’t listed on the program. Turned out it was a preview of a soon-to-be-premiered work at the Brown Symposium, in March, at Southwestern University in Georgetown.

This work was a bit of an odyssey for the listener. The symposium’s theme is “Art and Revolution,” so this work, “Revolve/Retract” by Jason Hoogerhyde, “revolves” around key changes. At times it sounds as though there are three unique players that each sound like they’re tumbling down Alice’s rabbit hole at the same time. It moves from frantic to thoughtful and even has a bit of a humorous intrusion when a comical section brings deadened mallets to play. It all ends in a moment of calm and chill, when a bowed vibraphone returns. If you make your way to Georgetown for this event in March, it will be worth your time.

This isn’t the meat and potatoes show that we are sometimes spoiled by when it comes to percussion music; the big, pulsing works with shifty rhythms and addicting arpeggios. These more experimental concerts are opportunities to push out boundaries, shake off the doldrums and try new things.


‘Hir’ upends conventions of gender and family with dark hilarity

From left, Roxy Becker, Jay Byrd, and Nate Jackson star in "Hir" by Taylor Mac, at the Off Center through Jan. 22.  Contributed by Capital T Theatre
From left, Roxy Becker, Jay Byrd and Nate Jackson star in “Hir.” Contributed by Capital T Theatre

This review was written by freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal

I’m a big fan of the black comedies that seem to be the stock in trade for Austin’s Capital T Theatre company. I leave most of their productions a little out of breath from having laughed so hard, and sometimes from my choked sorrow at their tragic endings. Much of the company’s work in recent years— “Year of the Rooster,” “Trevor” and “Hand to God,” for example — have been big, muscular, athletic character pieces that focus on physicality as much as philosophy.

Capital T’s current production—Taylor Mac’s “Hir,” directed by Delanté G. Keys and playing at the Off Center through Jan. 22 — is something of a departure in this regard. Not that it isn’t funny, nor are the performances anything less than physically demanding, but “Hir” is ultimately a comedy of ideas as much as it is a comedy of characters, where the philosophical and sociopolitical ideologies on stage are as important as the relationships being explored.

“Hir” begins with Isaac, a young man who has been working in the Marines mortuary division in the Middle East, returning home to his family’s run-down, lower middle class suburban house. Far from receiving a hero’s welcome, however, Isaac finds that the entire house and family have been upended in the years that he’s been gone.

His abusive father, Arnold, suffered a debilitating stroke and is now subject to the whims of his mother, Paige, who has liberated herself from his control by treating him like a pet and doing everything around the house the exact opposite as he used to (thus keeping it freezing cold and covered in clutter and mess). Meanwhile, Isaac’s teenage sister, Max, has begun transitioning into a boy who prefers the pronouns “ze” and “hir” instead of “he” and “him.”

“Hir” is a play of identity politics, and the ways in which we, as the audience, identify and sympathize with the various characters is in constant flux throughout the performance. Isaac’s ostensible normality is quickly stripped away as we discover the extent of his post-traumatic stress disorder, while Paige’s overbearing nonconformity gets viewed through the lens of her own anguish. Their struggle with each other — which pulls in Arnold and Max as pawns—becomes the conflict of the play, and its dark heart.

All four performers in “Hir” turn in solid work. Nate Jackson’s Isaac simmers with anger and trauma, while Roxy Becker, as Paige, is deliberately and delightfully off-putting with her abrasive cheerfulness covering up an inner darkness. Dillon Uriegas, as Max, is wonderful at portraying the ambiguities and confusion that plague a transitioning youth (as well as any listless teenager, regardless of gender). Jay Byrd, though, delivers a tour de force performance as Arnold, fully committing to the physical and mental debilitation of the character while still imbuing him with equal parts nobility and monstrosity.

Capped off with the usual top-notch Capital T design and production value, the intellectual script, dark conflicts, layered performances and unflinchingly intimate direction of “Hir” make for a powerful, if far from uplifting, evening of theater.


When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through Jan. 22

Where: The Off Center, 2211 Hidalgo St.

Cost: $20-$30

Information: capitalt.org

Theater review: “A Wolverine Walks Into a Bar” offers character sketches of aging misfits

Jaston Williams in "A Wolverine Walks Into A Bar."
Jaston Williams in “A Wolverine Walks Into A Bar.”

By Wes Eichenwald

Special to the American-Statesman

How you’ll likely feel about “A Wolverine Walks Into a Bar,” the latest show from playwright/actor Jaston Williams, co-creator of the “Tuna” plays, depends on how much affinity you have for his unique mix of cowboy poetry, throwaway one-liners, social satire and plenty of local flavor (especially with regard to West Texas, Oklahoma and San Antonio). The play, which runs 90 minutes with no intermission, is a series of six character sketches set in an unnamed bar. Though the set doesn’t change, it’s unclear whether it’s supposed to be the same bar from one sketch to the other. Three of the on-stage tables are occupied by audience members, who paid a handsome premium to be an arm’s length from the action.

Aside from the bar, the vignettes’ connecting thread is what happens to misfits and square pegs as they age into the country of the elderly. Williams switches off with Lauren Lane, a veteran Texas-bred actress (known for a featured role on “The Nanny,” among other things) and long-time Austinite. Trademark Williams zingers fly frequently, such as “We’re polite here in Texas, but it doesn’t come natural.” Although three directors are credited in the show, one sketch flows seamlessly into the next.

From the first vignette, with Lane as an aged, bent hippie reflecting on her life as she cadges a glass of water from the invisible bartender, to Williams’ drag turn as a red-hatted diva spinning tales of gadding about in Venice, to Lane’s paranoid flight attendant turned wedding planner, the monologues meander until they hit – not always a bullseye, but a decent enough percentage.

When Williams manifests in fringed buckskin jacket as an alcoholic Anglo drawn to Mexican culture and cursing in Spanish (he’s married to a Latina who turns her back on her heritage and insists on being called Mary instead of Maria), railing against Ayn Rand, the show finally fires on all cylinders as he taps into sentiments he may not have anticipated as being quite so relevant as now. Ditto for the final playlet, in which Williams and Lane finally interact onstage as an aging gay man who meets up with a lesbian he knew decades ago. They reminisce about the good old bad old days of repression and illegality. Again, more topical than he might have expected, and hugely entertaining. 

The duo’s talents and styles mesh well. Some of the sketches could use some tightening and focus – less attention on the throwaway one-liners, more on character study and social commentary, since the motley bunch of outsiders in “Wolverine” provide fertile ground for both – but as it stands, Williams, Lane and company have come up with a diverting evening that should delight and engage old fans and curious newcomers alike.

“A Wolverine Walks Into A Bar” continues Fridays through Sundays through Nov. 20 at Stateside at the Paramount, 719 Congress Ave.; shows Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday 2 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.; 512-472-5470; austintheatre.org