Austin Playhouse’s ‘This Random World’ reveals the hidden ties that bind us

Austin Playhouse has started its new season with, fittingly, a new work by playwright Steven Dietz. “This Random World” receives its local premiere at the venerable company under the direction of producing artistic director Don Toner, with a cast of some of Austin Playhouse’s best actors.

J. Ben Wolfe and Molly Karrasch are two of the actors in Austin Playhouse’s local premiere of Steven Dietz’s “This Random World.” Contributed

After producing Dietz’s lyrical, intimately focused “Bloomsday” last season, is is interesting to see Toner take on such a tonally different work from the playwright. A true ensemble piece, “This Random World” loosely revolves around the Ward family (mother Scottie, daughter Beth and son Tim), a morbid but jovial trio who face down a familial obsession with death both humorously and secretively.

“This Random World” is not bleak in its outlook, and despite moments of devastating sadness (undercut a bit by an unfortunately timed intermission) it is ultimately, like “Bloomsday,” wistfully optimistic. Along with mortality, it tackles topics as diverse as travel, breakups, mental health, and even how to write a proper obituary. Dietz takes on each of these subjects with a unique blend of humor and pathos, borne out by a talented cast.

Austin Playhouse mainstays Babs George, as Scottie, and Molly Karrasch, as Beth, are each uniquely quirky and soulful, and it is a delight to see Joey Banks, as Tim, given room to show his talents after a series of smaller roles in shows last season. Jacqui Cross and Carla Nickerson join them as sisters Bernadette and Rhonda, who are unfortunately given somewhat short shrift by the text but play their more stereotyped roles to the best extent possible. Finally, Jess Hughes and J. Ben Wolfe round out the cast as Claire and Gary (a couple in the midst of a breakup who each have, or end up having, ties to the Wards), imbuing their roles with depth and nuance.

“This Random World” is a complex text in terms of the interconnected relationships it keeps simmering just below the surface, revealed to the audience with a heaping of dramatic irony while the characters themselves remain unaware. However, it is relatively straightforward in its execution, with a series of simple scenes that continually mix and match the characters.

Toner follows this simple style in his direction, avoiding cluttering the stage with business outside of the actors’ interactions. Set designer Mike Toner keeps the trappings to a minimum, with each setting created through a few simple, iconic objects, allowing lighting designers Don Day and Chris Conard, along with sound designer Joel Mercado-See, to set the ambience and mood.

Taking a cue from such films as “Short Cuts” and “Magnolia” (and, more classically, the interconnectivity of plot and character in Shakespeare and Dickens), “This Random World” is a charming, funny, accessible play about the connections that we all miss amid our own self-obsessions.

“THIS RANDOM WORLD”
When: 8 p.m Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 1
Where: 6001 Airport Blvd.
Cost: $16-$36
Information: 512-476-0084, austinplayhouse.ticketleap.com/this-random-world/.

Theater review: ‘W.’ serves as vehicle for amazing one-man performance

 

This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal

Joey Hood stars in "W." Photo by Jared Slack.
Joey Hood stars in “W.” Photo by Jared Slack.

 

Georg Büchner’s “Woyzeck” is famously an unfinished play, left in fragments when the German playwright died in 1837 at the age of 23. It has been performed and adapted many times in the centuries since, becoming a standard of the German – and (in translation) American – stage.

Now, the Austin Jewish Repertory Theater presents “W.,” an adaptation by playwright Zachary Christman that stars Joey Hood in an intense one-man show. “W.,” playing through Aug. 27 at the Trinity Street Players’ black box theater, puts Hood through his paces as he takes on a variety of characters and personas to depict Büchner’s dark classic.

“Woyzeck” tells the story of its titular protagonist, a young man used and abused by both the military and the medical establishment. His harassment at the hands of superiors, doctors and his own wife slowly take a toll, drawing him into a web of jealousy and anger that ends violently and decisively.

Christman’s adaptation is serviceable, if not remarkable, but it succeeds in providing a vehicle for a staggering performance. Throughout the intense hourlong show, Hood portrays seven characters, as well as a few animals for good measure. With minimal costuming, he clearly evokes the differing – and often conflicting – personalities and desires of these individuals, relying upon voice, physicality and full mental embodiment to make each character distinct and unique.

Scott Ferguson’s scenic design and Jenny Lavery’s lighting effectively serve as Hood’s scene partners, allowing for the creation of specific locations through simple set pieces and clear lighting choices, while composer Tyler Mabry’s original score underlines the entire performance. Director Adam Roberts pulls these threads together to weave a cohesive tapestry that keeps Hood forever at its center, showcasing his prodigious talent.

“W.” is not the strongest adaptation of “Woyzeck” ever put on the stage, but ultimately the script is less important than the production and the actor performing it. Austin Jewish Repertory has both a strong production and, in the phenomenally adaptable Hood, an amazing actor giving a muscular, energetic and heart-wrenching performance, making “W.” a show worth seeing.

“W.” continues through Aug. 27; austinjewishrep.org.