TexArts tries to take some of the nastiness out of ‘Trailer Park Musical’

When it premiered off-Broadway in 2005, “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” was intended as a lighthearted piece of intentionally offensive satire in the vein of “South Park” or “Family Guy.” In our current era, though, with soul-searching about the fate of poor, white America in books like “Hillbilly Elegy” and shows like “Roseanne,” it’s difficult to not see the extremely problematic side of this text.

Contributed by TexArts

TexArts’ new production of the play is a high-spirited, rollicking rendition that attempts to overcome those textual failings by focusing on the female empowerment aspects of the plot. But it is still somewhat mired in a troubling caricature of a subset of Americans brimming with deep resentment and simmering class and racial tensions.

All of this, of course, is a very rarified way to talk about a goofy show that features an up-tempo song called “Road Kill,” but the structure of “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” — with a book by Betsy Kelso and music and lyrics by David Nehls — does trade in some very classical allusions. As much as it is a satire of trailer park life, it also has fun with the structure of Greek comedy, featuring a singing chorus of three female “Fates” and a plot with some passing similarities to that of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

In their portrayal of these three narrators, Boni Hester as Betty, Cara Statham Serber as Lin and Alyssa Malgeri as Pickles are all manic wit, assaying a variety of personalities and emphasizing the numerous ways in which clever, driven women are able to get one over on dull-witted men. The plot, on the other hand, revolves around the lives of four characters — hapless toll collector Norbert (Jarret Mallon), his agoraphobic wife Jeannie (Julie Foster), his “stripper-on-the-run” mistress Pippi (Emily Villarreal), and Pippi’s violent ex-boyfriend Duke (Zach Thompson).

Mallon, Foster and Villarreal wring some real pathos out of the story, with sympathetic, nuanced performances that often give more respect to the characters than does the text. Thompson, meanwhile, provides the most over-the-top performance, and gets some of the biggest laughs; this is aided in no small part by the fact that the jokes at Duke’s expense constitute some of the few times that the text is “punching up,” at an abuser, rather than punching down at the poverty-stricken.

Director Sarah Gay does her utmost to downplay the more offensive “white trash” elements of the show; her vision of “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” is clearly one that focuses on the ways in which women overcome hardship (often caused by men) in order to, as one lyric goes, “like a nail, press on.” And though this is, indeed, the laudable side of the text, there is still an inherent elitist nastiness to much of the humor that is impossible to overlook.

It is unlikely that “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” has mean-spirited intentions, either when it was written or in TexArts’ newest incarnation of the play. However, the text fundamentally lacks a necessary layer of irony that would make its humor productive, rather than at the expense of an entire class and community. Though TexArts’ production adds in a great deal of sympathetic nuance, in the end that complexity is frequently overwhelmed by the simplistic, mocking nature of so much of the musical.

“The Great American Trailer Park Musical”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, with 7:30 p.m. Aug. 29 performance, through Sept. 1
Where: TexArts, 2300 Lohman’s Spur
Cost: 43-$60
Information: tex-arts.org

Play about professor with cancer is a moving look at death and how we live

The 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Wit” was the first and only play written by Margaret Edson, who has otherwise spent her career working as an elementary school teacher. That educational drive shines through in “Wit”, a moving meditation on death, and is a driving force behind the Austin Scottish Rite Theater’s new production of the drama, playing through Aug. 25 and co-produced by the Final Acts Project.

“Wit” at Scottish Rite Theater. Contributed

The play follows the final months of English professor Vivian Bearing as she undergoes treatment for ovarian cancer, in particular focusing on her relationship with Jason, a young doctor (and former student) obsessed with research rather than treatment; and Susie, a caring nurse who provides the only warmth in Vivian’s life. It’s no spoiler to mention that Vivian dies at the end; she says as much in her opening monologue, a direct address to the audience that forms the narrative spine of the play, weaving together her memories and fantasies with her real-life experiences in the hospital.

Director Susan Gayle Todd’s vision of “Wit” heavily implies that we are immersed within Vivian’s mind in her final moments, and that what we are seeing is her attempt to turn the physical, bodily experience of her death into one last lecture, akin to her career-defining exegeses of the metaphysical poems of John Donne. Todd and her design team (including lighting designer Deanna Belardinelli, costume designer Desiree Humphries, sound designer Chris Humphrey and scenic designers Leilah Stewart and Vicki Yoder) take advantage of the fact that the Scottish Rite Theater highly resembles a high school auditorium and create a fever dream-like melding of an academic setting and busy hospital.

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The result is an off-putting yet immersive experience that re-creates Vivian’s conflict between giving up control of her own body and her obsession with being a respected academic and commanding teacher. Kristin Fern Johnson’s masterful performance perfectly rides the line between strength and despair, switching on a dime from a version of Vivian suffering in her hospital bed, begging for comfort, and an inner lecturer who wants to commandeer her final performances and refuses to stoop to maudlin sentimentality or needless humor.

This conflict is underscored by the study in contrasts provided by Delanté Keys’ Jason and Megan Ortiz’s Susie. While Keys matches Johnson’s poetic, philosophical musings in his awe over the majesty of cancer, Ortiz connects with her baser, more human moments, providing the caring succor that Vivian refuses to even acknowledge that she needs. Both relationships are developed in part thanks to an almost invisible added scene partner, the live music composed and performed by Darrel Mayers that provides a backing of emotional depth and resonance to a text that frequently elides such cathartic closure.

“Wit” is a complex text, addressing themes about control, academia, palliative care and the ways in which doctors sometimes treat patients with no more care than a professor taking apart the grammar of a poem. Austin Scottish Rite Theater faithfully captures all the nuance and intricacy of the play in a production that is, itself, full of a mixture of both heady intellectual wit and, in the end, simple human kindness.

‘WIT’
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Aug. 25
Where: 207 W. 18th St.
Cost: $15-$25
Information: brownpapertickets.com/event/3520845

‘There and Back’ looks at history of immigration through one woman’s life

Any narrative of the history of U.S. immigration that culminates in 2018 seemingly must, by necessity, end in heartbreak and tragedy.

The world premiere of Austinite Raul Garza’s new play “There and Back” at Ground Floor Theatre, though, paints an intimate portrait of the issue that chooses a different sort of conclusion.

 

Ground Floor Theatre is staging the premiere of Austin playwright Raul Garza’s new work, “There and Back.” Contributed by Kenneth Gall

“There and Back,” playing through Aug. 25, tells the story of Gloria, a Mexican woman who immigrated to an American work camp in the 1960s as a part of the Bracero Program in order to join her husband, Victor. It follows Gloria’s life over a broad swath of time, focusing on the ’60s, ’80s and today, thanks to some magical time-hopping courtesy of Gloria’s guardian angel, of sorts, the Virgen de Guadalupe.

Along the way, Garza provides a brief account of the history of immigration to the United States in the latter half of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. Much of that history is one of betrayal and dashed hopes, spurred on by false promises offered from politicians on the left as well as the right (with particular emphasis placed on the policies of John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and, of course, Donald Trump).

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Garza resists the urge to idealize Gloria and her family, though, and indeed is frequently as critical of issues involving the immigrant community — gender relations, intergenerational political clashes, labor relations, etc. — as he is of U.S. policy. What results is a very human narrative about one woman’s struggle to live a simple life of human dignity in a country that continually tries to rob her of it.

Gloria, as portrayed with sympathetic depth and nuance by Karina Dominguez, is a pillar of quiet yet intense strength. In her relationship with the Virgen (played with divine wit and self-awareness by Giselle Marie Muñoz) we see a journey of self-empowerment that evades and counters much of the hopelessness, hateful rhetoric and violence of our contemporary moment. Though the half-imaginary relationship between the two women serves as the heart of the play, much of the historical breadth of the narrative comes from Mical Trejo’s assaying of three unique generations of Gloria’s family, showcasing the generational nature of the immigrant experience.

Director Patti Neff-Tiven’s production of Garza’s text is elegantly simple, relying largely on the counterplay of a generally realistic set from Ia Ensterä against evocative lighting and sound design from Natalie George and Lowell Bartholomee, respectively, that bring forth the more magical moments.

“There and Back” is not flashy, but in its straightforward earnestness it tells a powerfully important story that more than makes up for a somewhat slow start and ambiguous ending. Garza is a vital voice for our contemporary moment, and his new play is a necessary, humanist contribution to one of the most important conversations of our time.

“THERE AND BACK”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 25
Where: 979 Springdale Road
Cost: $5-$45
Information: groundfloortheatre.org

Gov. Ann Richards hit returns to Zach Theatre

Zach Theatre has added Holland Taylor‘s “Ann,” a hit Broadway treatment of late Gov. Ann Richards, to its already announced 2018-2019 season.

Apparently, however, without Taylor in the title role. Casting to be announced later.

Holland Taylor played Gov. Ann Richards in “Ann” at Zach Theatre in 2016.

Taylor made a big splash at Zach in 2016 after researching the biographical play here, then testing an earlier, longer version of “Ann” at the Paramount Theatre prior to its regional and Broadway runs. While in town, she seemed to meet everyone, everywhere. Taylor could have run for local office. And won!

It will be directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein, director of the Broadway version “Ann,” and associate director of “Carousel” on the Great White Way.

RELATED: Holland Taylor brings back spirit of Ann Richards.

The play nudges forward by a few months “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” from the late summer slot to the winter centerpiece. It will play Jan. 23-March 3, 2019 at the Topfer. Kevin Cahoon, who played Hedwig in the 1998 version, will direct.

“Hedwig,” of course played Zach after its off-Broadway premiere and before its run on Broadway, here starring future marquee actor Andrew Rannells, now back on the Strand in the revival of “The Boys in the Band,” as well as Cahoon.

“Ann” then plays July 31-Sept. 8, 2019, also at the Topfer. For more information, call 512-476-0541 x1 or go to zachtheatre.org.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this post mixed up the directors of the two shows.

Austin artist, musician Steve Parker wins $15K Tito’s Prize

Big Medium, which marshals some of the city’s most precious visual art resources, could not have chosen a more timely winner for its $15,000 Tito’s Prize.

Artist and musician Steve Parker has won the 2018 Tito’s Prize. Contributed

A musician, artist and curator, Steve Parker has been involved in some of the city’s outstanding collaborative projects, beloved by the public as well as critics and colleagues, including work on the city’s much-discussed grackle population.

The prize comes with a solo exhibition at the Big Medium Gallery, Oct. 19-Nov. 18, as well as a key spot on the East Austin Studio Tour (Nov. 10-18).

Parker’s public art is embraced by just about everyone. Contributed by Philip Rogers.

RELATED: Zack Ingram won 2017 Tito’s Prize.

Three judges — Andrea MellardDennis Nance and Veronica Roberts, all arts insiders — joined voices in picking Parker.

Parker is also part of the Austin community fascinated by grackles. Contributed

RELATED: Sex, race and grackles — Fusebox Festival covers many moods.

“Parker exemplifies the way contemporary artists push beyond the boundaries of genres and media towards the pursuit of creativity,” Mellard says. “His strong artistic practice in new music performance, in sites ranging from parks to parking lots, has expanded into public sound sculptures and more recently installations. His generous approach brings together groups of trained performers and even invites curious members of the public to participate in his scores.”

SOMEWHAT RELATED: More Grackle Week 2018.

Dates set for 2019 Texas Medal of Arts Awards

The Texas Cultural Trust, an advocacy group, has set the dates for its next celebrity-sated Texas Medal of Arts Awards ceremony. The multi-part fandango — which is also intended to update state leaders on cultural funding — will take place Feb. 26-27 at the Blanton Museum of ArtLong Center for the Performing Arts and elsewhere in Austin.

Texas Medal of Arts dates set. A-List/Austin360

The group has had no trouble attracting big names — from Willie Nelson and Eva Longoria to Walter Cronkite and Debbie Allen — to the event. The most recent blow-out at Bass Concert Hall in 2017 was a highlight of the social season.

RELATED: Soaking up the glamour of Texas Medal of Arts.

The new event co-chairs are Leslie Blanton from the world of cultural philanthropy and Leslie Ward from the corporate (AT&T) halls of external and legislative affairs.

The group, now overseen by Executive Director Heidi Marquez Smith, has given out 108 medals since 2001 when the initial class of honorees was assembled at the Paramount Theatre. The evolving list of categories: music, film, dance, visual arts, arts patron (corporate, foundation and individual), media/multimedia, television, architecture, theatre, arts education, literary arts, design, and lifetime achievement.

 

For the first time in 10 years, Blanton Museum of Art raises ticket prices

The home of Ellsworth Kelly‘s “Austin” and Vincent Valdez‘s “The City” will soon become more expensive for some guests to visit.


RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

As of Sept. 1, the adult ticket price at the Blanton Museum of Art will increase from $9 to $12 and the senior price will increase from $7 to $10.

RELATED: UT unveils large-scale painting of Klan members

In comparison, top ticket prices at the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston are $23; San Antonio Museum of Art are $20; Dallas Museum of Art are $16; Fort Worth’s The Modern are $16; Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum are $14; SMU’s Meadows Museum of Art are $12

The Menil Collection in Houston and Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston are free. Also, the Kimbell’s magnificent permanent collection, as opposed to its special exhibitions, is free.

Admission to the Blanton remains free on Thursdays and to certain subsets of visitors. It also remains closed on Mondays.

Vincent Valdez’s work “The City” is on display at the Blanton Museum of Art. In a forum on Tuesday for the unveiling, Valdez talked about the quiet ubiquity of white supremacy in American life. Rodolfo Gonzalez for American-Statesman

RELATED: Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin” worships light.

Complete price list as of Sept. 1:

Members: Free

UT Faculty/Students/Staff (with valid ID): Free

Adults: $12

Seniors (65+): $10

College Students (with valid ID): $5

Teachers (with valid school ID): Free

Youths (13-21): $5

Children 12 & under: Free

Active Military: Free

UPDATE: Added info about the Kimbell to this post.

‘Tuna’ actor, writer Jaston Williams wins award from national theater group

The folks who run America’s historic theaters were in Austin last week. They conferred their Marquee Award on Jaston Williams, the actor, writer and director whose plays have brightened the Paramount Theatre and State Theater for more than three decades.

Actor, writer and director Jaston Williams receives the Marquee Award from the League of Historic American Theatres. Contributed by Don Telford

The members of the League of Historic American Theatres do not just preserve hundreds of the country’s older venues, they keep them breathing and alive by producing and presenting all sorts of entertainment on their stages.

Among Austin’s main historic live theaters, the State and Paramount, along with the Scottish Rite Theater (originally Turn Verein), Scholz Hall (now known as Scholz Garten) and Hogg Auditorium, still see performances. The Millett Opera House stands but long ago lost its theatrical function; it now houses the Austin Club, which is reviving the memory of the building’s theatrical past. Among those lost to time: Hancock Opera HouseBrauss Hall, Peck’s Hall, Austin Opera HouseLong’s Opera House, Smith’s Opera HouseCasino Theater and Capitol Theater.

Austin’s Paramount served as host of the League’s annual summer conference and at a dinner on July 15, Williams, who often worked with collaborator Joe Sears on the “Greater Tuna” comedies, picked up the honor that has gone to Hal HolbrookGarrison Keillor and Vince Gill. The Marquee Award, established in 2012, goes to artists who inspire League members and also showcase the historic theaters where they perform.

Stars for Williams and Sears were planted under the Paramount’s marquee years ago. Three years ago, on its 100th birthday, the theater, built for vaudeville in 1915, regained it upright blade sign which once again graces Congress Avenue.

RELATED: A populist palace, the Paramount has hosted acts for 100 years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zach Theatre brings an animated favorite to life in a big way

The finale of Zach Theatre’s 2017-18 mainstage season is its splashiest show yet, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.” This stage adaptation of the 1991 Disney animated classic (the first animated film to be nominated for an Academy Award for best picture) has always been a bold, flashy venture; when it debuted on Broadway in 1994, Disney’s investment in Broadway was the cornerstone of a campaign to revitalize (and sanitize) New York City.

Contributed by Kirk Tuck

Zach’s new production is completely in line with the level of bombast — and expense! — that was a part of the musical’s initial staging. Every element of the show, from Court Watson’s epic, mutable scenery, to Susan Branch Towne’s playful costumes, to Michelle Habeck’s sumptuously muted lighting, comes from a place of artists given a budget with which to run free.

Fortunately, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” is not just a display of flash; it’s also quite fun. The epic, large-scale production impresses with visual splendor and also creates a family-friendly atmosphere that is sure to delight children while still engaging grown-ups.

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Contributed by Kirk Tuck

The story of the play follows Disney’s version of the classic fable, and as such it maintains a lot of the movie’s questionable politics, particularly when it comes to the Stockholm Syndrome-like relationship between Belle and the Beast and the class dynamics of the Beast’s relationship to his magically transformed servants (“Life is so unnerving to a servant who’s not serving” might just be the most insidious lyric ever to be found in a children’s movie). Like the movie, though, the play completely evades interrogating these questions; its story is entirely a surface-level one, without much nuance or depth.

The purpose of this production, though, is not to provide emotional realism. Rather, it is intended to be family-friendly fun, and at that it more than succeeds. The beatific singing of Briana Brooks as Belle and Alexander Mendoza as the Beast carries the main love story, while the comedic antics of the household servants-turned-objects (especially the rascally charming Martin Burke as Lumiere) and of the smugly villainous Gaston (Matthew Redden) and his sidekick LeFou (Kevin Pellicone) provide plenty of laughs and charm.

“Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” is a staggering display of the kind of spectacle that can be accomplished on a large budget, and it’s at that type of spectacle that both Disney and Zach Theatre excel. The production serves as a fun time for grown-ups and (perhaps more importantly) as a first introduction to the magic of the theater for children.

‘DISNEY’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 2
Where: 202 S. Lamar Blvd.
Cost: $25-$125
Information: zachtheatre.org

‘Grease’ is the word if you want a nostalgia-filled romp

TexArts is something of a unique animal among Austin theater companies — a nonprofit organization that focuses equally on training and education of young theater artists and on producing professional musical theater. With their newest show, “Grease,” the company has combined these two missions in a buoyant production that features several young performers who have been trained in TexArts’ academy.

Contributed by April Paine Photography

TexArts’ “Grease” takes full advantage of the key differences between the stage version of the musical and the famous film adaptation. While the movie focuses on the characters of Danny and Sandy, two high school lovers in the 1950s who come from very different backgrounds, the play is much more of an ensemble piece that tells a variety of stories about the students at Rydell High.

As such, the stage version of “Grease” avoids many parts of the movie’s narrative that have not aged well. Though, ultimately, the message of Danny and Sandy’s romance is still that, if a girl likes a boy, she should change everything about herself in order to be with him (and for a more positive take on relationships and gender dynamics, viewers should try the far superior “Grease 2”), this is counterbalanced by other relationships with healthier dynamics. A particularly inspired casting change regarding the song “Beauty School Dropout” also adds some contemporary commentary to the frankly dated text.

Part of what gives TexArts’ production a greater emphasis on these other characters is the strength of the cast. While Lauren DeFilippo and Ryan Alvarado as Sandy and Danny are charming leads, they are bolstered by memorable performances of characters given very minor roles in the film (Jessica Askey’s Jan, Maddie Reese’s Marty, Jackson Pant’s Roger, and Connor Barr’s Doody are particular standouts). In addition, Amy Nichols as Miss Lynch brings a hilariously witty vivaciousness to the show’s one teacher.

Bouncy, rowdy, ebullient ensemble pieces are TexArts’ sweet spot, and “Grease” fits well within this range. Director Kasey RT Graham and choreographer Christopher Shin are adept at creating energetic stage pictures out of a crowded cast, and the focus is always on fun. Graham seems to recognize that the play version of “Grease” is as much a nostalgic review of ’50s-themed music as it is an absorbing narrative, and this carries through in all the performances.

TexArts excels at staging musicals that are, first and foremost, a rollicking good time for its audiences, and “Grease” is certainly no exception. Though certainly out of sync with contemporary gender dynamics in many ways, this production’s pure charm and whimsy win out in the end to create a fast-paced, toe-tapping rendition of a well-known musical.

‘GREASE’
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through July 29
Where: TexArts, 2300 Lohman’s Spur, Suite 160
Cost: $43-$53
Information: tex-arts.org