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

 

Tenderness and brutality war on stage in “Let the Right One In”

Cristian Ortega and Lucy Mangan star in "Let the Right One In." Contributed by Lawrence Peart
Cristian Ortega and Lucy Mangan star in “Let the Right One In.” Contributed by Lawrence Peart

This review written by freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal

The National Theatre of Scotland’s production of “Let The Right One In” (playing through Jan. 29 at the McCullough Theatre at the University of Texas, as part of the Texas Performing Arts Essential Series) packs quite a bit of weight behind a vampire love story. This is no small feat for a Scottish adaptation of a popular Swedish book and movie, now touring the United States.

“Let the Right One In” succeeds in so many different forms because of the headiness and humanity underneath the surface-level horror narrative. Indeed, to call it horror is to do it a disservice, as it is also equal parts romance, Bildungsroman and complex exploration of gender and sexuality. This carefully balanced narrative can be found in the original Swedish novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist as well as the film of the same name written by Lindqvist and directed by Tomas Alfredson. (There’s also an Americanized remake, “Let Me In.”)

RELATED: National Theatre of Scotland brings blood-soaked love story to Austin

In adapting “Let the Right One In” to the stage, playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany emphasize the essential humanity at the core of its two protagonists — shy, bullied 12-year-old Oskar and the ageless vampire Eli, who physically appears to be a young girl of about Oskar’s age. The two form an unlikely pair and soon develop feelings for one another, which are complicated by the people in Oskar’s life (separated, dysfunctional parents and a set of merciless bullies) and the older man, Hakan, who kills for Eli in order to obtain blood for her.

As this might suggest, there are moments of gory violence and a few scares in “Let the Right One In,” from which Tiffany does not shy away. The extreme brutality of both bullies and vampires is staged through equal parts bloody special effects and heavily stylized movement. These moments of dance-like presentation are also used to portray the intimacies of the characters, providing a level of emotional insight that might otherwise be lost in moving from the pages of a novel to the stage. It’s no wonder, with this level of theatrical magic, clever staging and simple solutions to complex visuals that Thorne and Tiffany have gone on to pair with J.K. Rowling in creating “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

Here, as with “Harry Potter,” children are at the heart of the narrative. Cristian Ortega, as Oskar, gets to the core of the boy’s inherent innocence, as well as its slow erosion, with a good dash of both sadness and sweetness. Lucy Mangan, as Eli, is much bolder in her performance, befitting the character, and proves to be deliberately, and delightfully, off-putting in both style and delivery throughout the show. Also of note is Ewan Stewart, as Hakan, whose disturbing love for Eli manages to be endearing at the same time as it is frightening.

In addition to the strong performances, the play boasts a top-notch design team. Composer Ólafur Arnald’s energetic, classical-meets-rock-and-electronic score, along with Gareth Fry’s sound design, create a cinematic scope to the entire production. That sonic-scape is interestingly counterpoised to the bare, minimalist set and costume design of Christine Jones and atmospheric lighting of Chahine Yavroyan.

The overall sparseness of the production allows the moments of special effects (designed by Jeremy Chernick) to shine through all the more, every bit as stunning as they are terrifying. That mixture of awe with terror, of the heart-breaking and the pulse-quickening, is what gives “Let the Right One In” its fierce, unique energy.

This dark, moody, moving meditation about young love, complex sexuality and self-identity, beautifully staged and acted, is not to be missed while it is still in Austin.

“Let the Right One In”

When: 8 p.m. Jan 18-21, 24-28 and 2 p.m. Jan 21-22, 29

Where: McCullough Theatre, 2375 Robert Dedman Drive

Cost: $10-$40

Information: 512-477-6060, texasperformingarts.org

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.