Contemporary Austin gets $100,000 grant from Warhol Foundation

The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts has awarded the Contemporary Austin a $100,000 grant for the Austin museum’s fall 2019 exhibition, “The Sorcerer’s Burden.” The grant is part of $3.6 million that the foundation gave out to 42 cultural organizations across the country earlier this week; 224 nonprofit arts groups had applied for the awards.

The Contemporary Austin, Jones Center. Contributed

“The Sorcerer’s Burden” will include work by “emerging and mid-career artists from around the globe,” the Contemporary says; the foundation grant will help fund new, site-specific works at both the downtown Jones Center and Laguna Gloria as well as an exhibition catalogue. Heather Pesanti, chief curator and director of curatorial affairs at the Contemporary, is curating “The Sorcerer’s Burden.”

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“We are honored to receive support from the Andy Warhol Foundation for Pesanti’s fascinating exploration of art and anthropology, ‘The Sorcerer’s Burden,'” said Louis Grachos, executive director and CEO of the Contemporary.

The Warhol Foundation also awarded the Contemporary a grant in 2015 for its “Strange Pilgrims” exhibition.

Hyde Park Theater does compelling job with a frustrating text

In a recent episode of Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast, actor Paul Rudd spoke about his admiration for comedian Andy Kaufman’s mixture of provocative performance art and stand-up comedy, including early routines in which Kaufman would come out on stage, eat potatoes and go to sleep as his entire act. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s brilliant,'” Rudd said. This prompted Maron to reply, sardonically, “Unless you’re there.”

Contributed by Bret Brookshire

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Bakers newest work, “The Antipodes,” is a bit like that Andy Kaufman routine. It is, in theory and on the page, conceptually brilliant; in performance, it’s something one reacts to with (to quote Rudd on Kaufman) “an intellectual appreciation and an emotional annoyance.”

Hyde Park Theatre’s new production of “The Antipodes” is only the second staging of the play in the United States, following the original off-Broadway run in New York last year. Obtaining the rights for this show is a triumphant coup for Hyde Park Theatre, and director Ken Webster, a first-class design team and engaging cast of actors absolutely make the most of it. There are certainly moments of great hilarity and heartbreak within this staging “The Antipodes,” and much of that comes from the production choices more than the text itself.

The play is, essentially, plotless, and intentionally so. It follows a team of writers brainstorming ideas for a vague “project” (structured in the form of a TV writer’s room), sharing inappropriate stories of their lives as they attempt to do so. This is where Baker’s play is conceptually brilliant — it is a meditation on the nature of story that conscientiously resists becoming a story in and of itself, instead taunting the audience with crumbs to a wider narrative that never quite coheres. Even the tales that the writers tell to one another about their lives tend to be unsatisfying anecdotes or comedic riffs rather than actual stories, and they rarely have an impact upon their interrelationships as people.

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Although this is an intellectually fascinating exploration of the nature of story itself, the problem with a two-hour play about people telling bad stories is that ultimately the audience is sitting in a room for two hours listening to people tell bad stories.

Fortunately, in Hyde Park Theatre’s case, the storytellers are brilliant. The top-notch cast members, many of whom never leave the stage, consistently milk the text for every iota of entertainment and make remarkable use of Baker’s famous silent pauses to tell worlds of stories about their characters between the words. The slow-burning rage of Shanon Weaver’s Dave, for example, the sensitivity of Dave Yakubik’s Danny, the terrifying emotional vacancy of Blake Robbins’ Brian, or the resigned acceptance of the sexism Anne Hulsman’s Eleanor faces as the only woman in the room all create a more cohesive narrative arc than the play itself does.

Webster’s pitch-perfect casting, rapid-fire transitions and absolute trust in his actors ultimately results in a solid production of an unstable text that remains compelling even as it frustrates.

In many ways, “The Antipodes” feels like an unfinished play, both in and of itself and within Baker’s larger body of work. Between the abstract and absurdist elements of this text and the haunted trappings of her previous play, “John,” she is clearly interested in transitioning out of the extreme realism of her earlier, acclaimed work (such as “The Flick,” for which she won the Pulitzer). Where she ends up will, hopefully, be as brilliant as those previous plays, but “The Antipodes” feels like a bit of a transitory bump on the road between two periods, one that drama students in the future will love reading but not feel a burning desire to produce.

“The Antipodes”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Aug. 4
Where: 511 W. 43rd St.
Cost: $22-$26
Information: hydeparktheatre.org

Bernstein’s ‘Mass’ is nothing less than an Austin triumph

Leonard Bernstein‘s “Mass” is about nothing less than a profound loss of faith, Not just personal, but also national, even universal.

Premiering in 1971 during some of the most grim days of the Vietnam War, the great composer’s theatrical take on the traditional Mass structure was to deconstruct it and put it back together.

In this case, last week’s cover of Austin360 predicted the triumphant outcome.

He poses a saintly Celebrant against competing masses of singers, dancers and instrumentalists.

First one group, then others, and ultimately the Celebrant himself lose the comforts of faith and peace and smash the religious images that adorn the altar at the center of the stage. If this spirtual chaos can seem heart-rending today — and at the Long Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, it was — one can only imagine the effect on buttoned-up audiences right after the 1960s, a decade that tore apart conventional social norms on so many fronts.

No wonder its debut at the Kennedy Center was so controversial. Not only that, the two-hour spectacle that begins with Broadway-Bernstein’s “Simple Song” — sung too softly here — ricochets musically among Copland-Bernstein, Stravinsky-Bernstein and the sometimes unsettling High-Modernist-Bernstein.

RELATED: In a coup, Austin lands Leonard Bernstein marvel.

All this added up to an evening of almost overwhelming sensation, thanks primarily to Peter Bay, who has dreamed of conducting this towering piece since he witnessed the Kennedy Center premiere 47 years ago.

Let’s break it down:

  • Children’s choirs: The combined troupes, led by multiple directors, provided moments of joyful respite from the the heavier drama of “Mass.” Their brightly-clad innocence and sweet harmonies elicited an audible “aw” from the audience every time they appeared. Despite Michael Krauss‘s large, never crowded and gorgeously sacred set, the kids were by default and musical necessity required to cluster downstage. While stationed there, they were the stars of the show.
  • Bernstein100Austin Chorus: Placed upstage of the altar, this formidable group of singers, dressed for most of the action in dark robes, provided a sort of solemn anchor for everything else. Led primarily by Craig Hella Johnson of Conspirare, their sound was rock-solid and responded to whatever challenge Bernstein and Bay threw at them. It would be interesting to hear some of their sections done separately in concert. They would hold up.
  • Street Chorus: While the upstage choir blended into a whole, this group of two dozen or so singer-actors — dressed in street clothes and semi-seated to the side — injected particularized humanity into their roles. While they clearly represented some of the social subsets from the early 1970s, the performers made each part their own, thanks in part to stage director Josh Miller‘s efforts to distinguish each individual’s profile. Their solo meditations on faith and doubt really got the show’s near-operatic project rolling.
  • Dancers and Acolytes: Not having seen a stage version of “Mass” before, I could only imagine — or rather, struggle to imagine — the function of these mostly silent figures dressed in plain black-and-white cassocks. Yet, choreographed by Jennifer Hart, they kept the show in almost constant motion, delineating sections and amplifying the major themes. Included onstage were some of Ballet Austin‘s finest dancers, who know how to make movement into theater. If you don’t have the dancers, you don’t have “Mass.”
  • Celebrant: At first, baritone Jubilant Sykes provided the warm, soulful heart of the show. Wearing his vestments lightly and employing the full range of his stunning voice, Sykes tried to reach out and mend the rips in the social-sacramental fabric around him, not easy to do when there are 300 other performers around you. Yet when it came time for the Celebrant to break down and lose his personal connection to God, Sykes, defrocked in a solo spotlight, gave us a raw psychological study that could have been drawn from the most terrifying Greek tragedy.
  • Austin Symphony Orchestra+: Austin’s primary classical ensemble was supported by rock, jazz and marching band musicians. Yet they carried the preponderance of the musical weight triumphantly under Bay’s baton and, let’s be plain, they have never sounded more urgent or imperative. Especially during the interludes, they shed any mundane notion of constraints or equivocation. And as the audience made abundantly clear during the curtain calls, this was pinnacle so far in the career of conductor Bay. That’s not to say it’s downhill from here, but with this monumental “Mass,” all the participating Austin performing arts groups proved our city can aspire to almost anything. (And it made profit that will go back to the arts groups, says co-producer Mela Sarajane Dailey.)

In a play about uncertainty, one thing is certain: These actors are fantastic

“We hold very different perspectives on experiences we imagine we’re sharing.” So speaks Alex, one of two characters in Simon Stephens’ “Heisenberg.” It’s a line that serves as the perfect summation of the play’s themes, and Zach Theatre’s new production plays off those differing perspectives to create a dynamic performance with two astonishing leads.

Zach Theatre’s newest summer production, “Heisenberg,” tells the story of an unlikely pair who meet at a London train station. Contributed by Kirk Tuck

“Heisenberg” begins with the incidental meeting between Alex, a 75-year-old London butcher, and Georgie, a 42-year-old American expatriate whose 19-year-old son has abandoned her. The unlikely courtship between the pair is at the heart of the play, which explores the uncertainty in all relationships as well as the vague ways in which we influence others without even realizing it.

Plays with only two actors live and die on the chemistry of their performers, and in Harvey Guion and Liz Beckham, “Heisenberg” has an engaging, charming, heartbreaking pair. Beckham’s manic externalization of every passing thought is the perfect counter to Guion’s quiet insularity, and when the two meet in the middle, the result is nothing short of magical. Indeed, their remarkable pairing — guided by the deft directorial hand of Nat Miller, who very effectively uses staging in the round to highlight the couples’ varying perspectives — might just exceed the source material.

Stephens’ text is deft and subtle, featuring some unexpected narrative twists and deeply romantic moments. However, its ending is a bit abrupt, leaving some of the themes (as well as the plot-line) unsatisfyingly unresolved, and not in a meaningful way.

“Heisenberg” is, to be fair, a very good play; Beckham and Guion, however, are more than very good: They are excellent.

Zach is known in Austin for its large-scale productions on the massive Topfer Stage, so it is a welcome and refreshing change of pace to see them produce a smaller-scale piece on the Kleberg Stage that focuses less on spectacle and more on some truly remarkable performances. Beckham, Guion and Miller have proved that there is room for such subtlety even in Austin’s biggest theater company.

‘HEISENBERG’
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through July 22
Where: 202 S. Lamar Blvd.
Cost: $30-$58
Information: zachtheatre.org

Have some cheesy good fun with ‘The Book of Liz’

Siblings Amy and David Sedaris may not be best known as playwrights, but writing together as “The Talent Family” they have co-authored several comedic scripts, including “The Book of Liz,” which is running through June 30 at Trinity Street Theatre, courtesy of Different Stages.

“The Book of Liz.” Contributed by Bret Brookshire

“The Book of Liz” is, more than anything else, a very silly play, and this is not an insult — silliness is clearly the intended goal of both the playwright and the production. It tells the story of Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, a member of the “Squeamish” religious order (picture a food-obsessed parody of the Amish) and the creator of the signature, wildly popular cheese balls that the order sells in order to remain financially afloat. When she begins to chafe under the order’s male domination, Liz decides to run away and finds herself facing the modern world (and an eclectic array of contemporary characters) for the first time in her life.

The Sedaris’ comedy here is of a gentle kind, more akin to the NPR-friendly humor of David’s writings than the off-the-wall zaniness characterized by Amy’s television work. It is very much like an extended sketch one might hear or see on “A Prairie Home Companion”; none of the jokes are particularly sharp or mean-spirited, but they elicit more than a few wry chuckles and deeper laughs at the pure goofiness of it all.

Different Stages’ production is entirely in on the joke; it highlights this good-natured silliness at every opportunity, ranging from broad characterizations and pantomimed props to over-the-top fake beards. Director Robert Tolaro is not trying to push the envelope here, or to produce searing social commentary, but rather just to get the audience to smile, and in that he wholly succeeds.

The cast, as well, is completely in tune with the text’s gentle humor. Miriam Rubin, as the put-upon Liz, is sweetly and smartly charming, a wonderful juxtaposition to the zanier antics of the rest of the cast. Robert L. Berry’s sonorous voice is put to great use in the dual role of the head of the Squeamish order, Reverend Tollhouse, and the manager at the restaurant where Liz ends up working. Katherine Schroeder, as both a sister in the order and a recovering alcoholic doctor whom Liz visits, provides a slow, subtle comedic burn that ramps up into some of the deepest belly laughs of the play.

The younger members of the cast — Sunshine Garrison, Christian Huey and Beau Paul — all show their comedic chops in their ability to shift between a variety of different character types. In a surprise appearance as the narrator of the play, Different Stages producer (and recent Austin Arts Hall of Fame inductee) Norman Blumensaadt also provides an unexpected highlight, moving the story along with dapper charm and bouncy feet.

If “The Book of Liz” could be described in one word, it would be “cute,” and there’s nothing wrong with that. It is also, though, surprisingly sweet and tender in its final few moments, providing a bit of insight about the roles of both tradition and change in our contemporary world. And, of course, it is at all times willfully, lightheartedly and unselfconsciously cheesy.

“THE BOOK OF LIZ”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through June 30
Where: Black Box Theater, 901 Trinity St.
Cost: $15-$30
Information: differentstagestheatre.org

What is love? ‘The Afterparty’ looks at how art and science influence our deepest questions

When the universe ends, is it also the end of love? Is being taken up into the stars by the gods a reward or a punishment? How do science, poetry and the cosmos interweave meaningfully in human lives?

These are the questions raised by playwright Reina Hardy in the world premiere of “The Afterparty,” produced by Shrewd Productions and playing through June 30th at the Vortex.

“The Afterparty” is a mixture of science fiction, magical realism and memory play, told through the eyes of Claire, a poet whose favorite topics include the stars, science and mythology. She ruminates over her long-dead first love, a young boy named Devon, before being taken into the stars for a semi-mystical party where historical figures Aristophanes, Johannes Kepler and Henrietta Swan Leavitt greet her.

The text mixes poetry, comedy and surrealism to explore the ways in which human narratives interweave science and mythology in order to come to a greater understanding of the human condition, particularly the most mysterious part of that condition: love. The layered investigation of these issues is interesting and nuanced, but at times Hardy exchanges the exploration of her metaphors for grounded character interactions, creating a narrative that is told to us as much as it is shown. In addition, the story starts off rather slow and runs somewhat longer than a play focused more on ideas than on characters can sustain.

Where Hardy excels, however, is at creating moments in the text for visual and physical exploration, which director Liz Fisher choreographs beautifully. Ann Marie Gordon’s set, Patrick Anthony’s lights, Nick Hart’s music and sound design and Andrew McIntyre’s projections all combine organically to create an atmospheric space that truly feels cosmic at times. The relatively small black box theater of the Vortex becomes infinite and expansive thanks to the clockwork synchronicity of these technical elements.

“The Afterparty” also sports a talented cast, headed by Shannon Grounds as Claire. Grounds is able to sell both the poetic and comedic sides of the character, particularly when playing off Ja’Michael Darnell’s lovably innocent portrayal of Devon. As Aristophanes, Kepler and Leavitt, respectively, Rommel Sulit, Trey Deason and Valoneecia Tolbert bring vivacious life to the second act, imbuing it with a comic zing that is somewhat lacking in the first half.

Though uneven in places, “The Afterparty” is an aesthetically pleasing exploration of the overlap between art and science that poetically focuses on the cosmic questions we ask when we look up at the stars.

“THE AFTERPARTY”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through June 30
Where: The Vortex, 2307 Manor Road
Cost: $15-$35
Information: vortexrep.org

Austin Shakespeare drafts a Cleopatra for the ages

The blazing news that stands out from the recently announced Austin Shakespeare season is the return of beloved actor and University of Texas professor Fran Dorn in a staged reading of “Antony and Cleopatra” in October (dates to be announced).

Erik Mathew and Fran Dorn in Austin Shakespeare’s production of “Medea,” 2016. Contributed by Bret Brookshire

Otherwise, the mid-sized theater company splits its main season between the Bard and other classically inspired dramatic literature.

The free Shakespeare in the Park option will be “The Merchant of Venice” in May 2019 at Zilker Park. The Young Shakespeare selection is “Macbeth” in June 2019 at the Curtain, the Elizabethan-style theater out on Lake Austin.

The 20th-century choices are Tennessee Williams‘ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (November-December) and Tom Stoppard‘s “Indian Ink” (February 2019). Luckily, much can be found about both playwrights in the archives of the Ransom Center.

RELATED: Standing ovations for “Vaudeville” at the Ransom Center.

Austin Shakespeare also plans a collaboration with the Austin Chamber Music Festival in the summer of 2019.

Still left on the 2017-2018 docket are the chamber music joint effort over scenes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (July 22); “Shakespeare and All That Jazz” at Parker Jazz Club (July 8); and the remaining run of its Young Shakespeare “Hamlet” at the Curtain (through June 24).

 

Austin theater alum Tyler Mount wins Tony Award

Tyler Mount, who studied at St. Edward’s University and developed a popular vlog for Playbill.com, took home a Tony Award on Sunday. Mount recently returned to town to emcee the Greater Austin High School Musical Theatre Awards.

RELATED: Tyler Mount returns to Austin for musical theater awards.

Although it was hard to pick him out in the acceptance crowd onstage, Mount’s honor came as a named producer for “Once on This Island,” which won Best Revival of a Musical. Austinites Marc and Carolyn Seriff also invested as producers in two winning shows this Broadway season, but their names did not appear above the title, so they were ineligible. They actually were named producers last season for “Anastasia,” which comes through town via the Broadway in Austin series at Bass Concert Hall next season.

RELATED: Broadway smash “Hamilton” in Austin 2018-2019 season.

Mount made a fantastic emcee for Austin’s closest entertainment equivalent to the Tony Awards. He even joked about his possible Tony status during the ceremony. And while we are on the subject, this year’s Tonys were, with one jarring exception, tone perfect. The students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who sang “Seasons of Love” from “Rent,” had me weeping from the first first piano chords.

RELATED: Winning the Austin High School Musical Awards.

‘Little Bird’ looks at ways young women are looked at by men

“Little Bird,” a new play by Nicole Oglesby now playing at the Dougherty Arts Center, is only the second production from one of Austin’s newest theater companies, the Heartland Theatre Collective. Formed by Oglesby and Marian Kansas (who directs “Little Bird”) after they graduated from the University of Texas, Heartland describes its mission as telling “rich, powerful stories of Texan women of the past, present, and future that feature female artists working in Austin.”

Franny Harold and Laney Neumann in “Little Bird.” Contributed by Daniel Ellsworth

Like the company’s first production, “Dust” (also an Oglesby/Kansas collaboration), “Little Bird” weaves a rich, emotionally nuanced tapestry around a story that is vital to women. While “Dust” was a period piece, “Little Bird” is much more contemporary. Set in an East Texas bayou, it tells the story of two teenage girls, best friends Willa and Peg, as they find themselves on the cusp of womanhood and suddenly under the gaze of predatory men.

Though a world premiere, this is clearly a play that has undergone a lot of thought and revision, thanks in part to dramaturg (and, with Oglesby and Kansas, co-producer) Katy Matz. Oglesby’s text is complex, layered and emotionally difficult at times, dealing as it does with issues of abuse and pedophilia. Underneath the darkness, though, shines the light of the girls’ friendship, a beacon to pull them through the dark swampland of their troubles. The relationship between the two women is the heart of the show, and the two actresses portraying the girls in this production keep that heart beating fervently.

RELATED: ‘Dust’ announces a powerful new theater company

Kenzie Stewart’s exuberant, innocent Peg is a stark and powerful contrast to the more reserved Willa, played by Franny Harold with a kind of uncomfortable wisdom that a girl Willa’s age should not have. From the first scene, it is clear that Willa has been traumatized in her past, and the play hints that she will not be spared further trauma in the future. Laney Neumann plays Margot, a ghost whom only Willa can see and who was murdered by her own abuser. Her poised performance, undergirded by childlike, kinetic playfulness, serves as a commentary on the ways in which society sexualizes young women, often with tragic results.

Kenzie Stewart and Keith Paxton in “Little Bird.” Contributed by Daniel Ellsworth

Rounding out the cast is Keith Adam Paxton as “The Hunter,” a shorthand title for the transmutation role he takes on as all the men in the play. Oglesby deliberately keeps the story free of noble or protective males, showcasing instead how different types of men — from family members, to strangers, to boyfriends — can be predatory towards young women. Paxton’s strength here is in the subtle differentiation he shows between different types of abusers, some of whom are merely creepy while others are violently dangerous, raising important questions about contemporary male culpability.

“Little Bird” is a play of relationships and small character moments, and Kansas wisely puts all the focus on her quartet of performers. She takes advantage of the enormous depth of the Dougherty Arts Center’s stage, creating power dynamics out of negative space and crafting instant transitions on Amanda Perry’s transformative set design, with the aid of Lindsey McGowan’s lush, saturated lighting and Christabel Lin’s somber violin score (played live by the composer herself).

With both “Dust” and “Little Bird” making vital contributions to important conversations surrounding the lives of Texas women, the Heartland Theatre Collective promises to be an important voice in Austin theater in the years to come, and Oglesby and Kansas a creative collaboration to watch out for.

“LITTLE BIRD”
When: 7:30 p.m. June 14-16
Where: Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Road
Cost: $15-$25
Information: heartlandtheatrecollective.com

Summer Stock Austin is a-comin’ down the street

Before you know it, Summer Stock Austin will be packing folks into the air-conditioned Rollins Studio Theatre for three shows at the Long Center for the Performing Arts.

Last year, we were bowled over by “Annie Get Your Gun” and mightily amused by “Monty Python’s Spamalot” as performed by students and young pros.

TheMusicMan_1200x628

The three selections this year:

“The Music Man” (July 20-Aug. 11) Meredith Wilson‘s classic about a con man selling the idea of a marching band to small-town Iowa is an ideal match to the Summer Stock project. Bonus: Top teacher Ginger Morris directs and choreographs.

DirtyRottenScoundrels_1200x628

“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (Aug. 1-11) This adaptation of the Steve Martin-Michael Caine movie — also about swindlers — is not revived often enough. We admired the David Yazbek-Jeffrey Lane show on Broadway but haven’t seen it since. Dustin Gooch directs.

ROB1N_1200x628

“Rob1n” (July 24-Aug.11) Every year, Austin national treasure Allen Robertson contributes a new show to the Summer stock season. He worked with Damon Brown on the book for this family-friendly version of the Robin Hood tales — hey, another lovable criminal?).

Robertson’s job? He only wrote the music and lyrics, co-wrote the book and serves as the show’s director and music director.

Ticket info:

Tickets are available at TheLongCenter.org or by calling (512) 474.LONG (5664). Also available at the Long Center’s 3M Box Office located at 701 West Riverside Drive at South First Street. For groups of 10 and more, please call 512-457-5161 orgroupsales@thelongcenter.org.