Saturday, August 30, 2008

Alice in Wonderland, City Theatre, Aug. 21- September 14

The City Theatre gives us a rollicking musical good time with Alice in Wonderland and at the same time avoids the deadliest sin of adaptations – dumbifying (cf., the discussion between the Gryphon and Alice concerning “uglifying”).

Those of us who met our most cherished heroes of childhood not in cartoons but rather in words on the page or in tales read aloud have strong feelings about them. Certain precious books of childhood stand to lose most subtleties and many secret delights at the hands of an adapter.

Just remember what Disney did to Alice - - and worse, to Winnie the Pooh!

Andy Berkovsky and Stacey Glazer do NOT dumb down the wonderful text of Lewis Carroll. In fact, they go in the opposite direction – they take “Alice in Wonderland” almost verbatim, start to finish.

They do steal the irresistible Tweedledum and Tweedledee from “Through The Looking Glass,” but one can forgive them that because they and the actors do that two-ness so well.

Many 21st century creatures, and especially the very youngest, who were very much in evidence on Friday night, cannot possibly capture all of Carroll’s 19th century whimsy and pedantry. For example, the lengthy lecture on the kings of England offered as a “dry” text to the soaking-wet Alice and friends probably sounds like real nonsense to our young.

But the City Theatre compensates with sight gags, vivid costumes, song, dance and a hilarious klatch of creatures certain to keep everyone entertained.

And bravo to Nicole Sykes as Alice! She’s spunky, droll, animated and enchanting, with the élan and appeal of the young Judy Garland, whom she strongly resembles. She can sing and dance and carry on with the best of them. And her meticulous attention to the details of childhood behavior was lovely: the wide eyes of surprise, for example, the distracted moment of attempting to balance along the edge of the steps, or the unselfconscious scratching of an unexplained itch.

Her spontaneous bursts, alternating with her self-reprimands in the voice of an unseen governess or other adult, emphasize Carroll’s key message – that children are delightful in large part because they are such changlings. They grow, they become self-aware and self-critical, and then, one day, those amazing creatures are quite transformed. And not, Carroll would imply, necessarily for the better.

Here’s a Baedecker for this special journey, which travels through a space as intimate as your living room:

Diego Flores as the White Rabbit:

A fine collection of birds (Lory, dodo, and duck -- whose names play on those of Alice and her sisters) (Sarah Bannister Wilson, Elizabeth Rast and Jenny Keto)

Stacey Glazer as the Duchess, a spitting image of the Tenniel illustration

Casey McAuliffe as the Cheshire Cat, whose serenity, smile and casual body confidence made one yearn to be feline

Tweedledum and Tweedledee (or, actually, Liz Roark as Tweedledee and Jacob Safari as Tweedledum)

The tea party, complete with Alice, the March Hare (Austin Rausch) , the somniferous Dormouse (John Kelly), and the Mad Hatter
(Nathan Brockett)

Dale Herbert as the Queen of Hearts, towering over everyone except the White Rabbit

and Tyler Steph as the King (who has trouble, unfortunately, in differentiating between “important” and “unimportant”).

Other striking characters and costumes not captured in this collection are, among others, Fiona Rene as the many-handed caterpillar, Rachel McGinnis as the French mouse (spot-on accent, and that's from someone who knows), the froggy footman (Verity Branco), Sarah Tufts as the pepper-obsessed singing cook, the 2 and 5 of spades (Sebastian Garcia and Verity Branco), the Knave of Hearts (Robert Burkhalter), the cockney Gryphon (Kate Lefave) and the melancholy Mock Turtle (Daniel Lefave).

The eleven musical numbers put together by Walter Pohmeyer fit nicely into the action and dance. Some were slightly derivative. I think I recognized tunes approximating “Satin Doll,” the monkeys’ number in Disney’s Jungle Book, and “Hava Nagila.” But the score used full-band orchestrations, nicely modulated so that we could follow the actors as they sang.

I had some misgivings about the pre-curtain use in the theatre of Gershwin’s orchestral scoring for “An American in Paris” (Gene Kelly kept appearing in my mind). But for those without that baggage, Gershwin’s savvy syncopation is as good as softening-up as anything.

In sum: see it! Alice in Wonderland is a colorful and charming evening with zany friends, a happy adventure of music and absurdity.

The play left the children with sparkling eyes and the adults with some of the feelings that Carroll attributes to Alice’s sister at the end of the narrative, as Alice runs off, thinking what a wonderful dream it had been:

“First, she dreamed about little Alice herself: once again, the tiny hands were clasped upon her knee, and the bright eager eyes were looking up into hers – she could hear the very tones of her voice, and see that queer little toss of her head to keep back the wandering hair that would always get into her eyes. . . .

“So she sat on with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality. . . .

“Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.”

Click for Hannah Kenah's review in the Austin Chronicle, September 4

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Positively Serene Death of Sir Ritter Hans von Wittenstein zu Wittenstein, The Blue Theatre

Aggressive Muse productions lives up to its name with this disturbing production of The Positively Serene Death of Sir Ritter Hans von Wittenstein zu Wittenstein. Under the direction of playwright/adapter Josie Collier, assisted by Kate Meehan, the company transforms a translation of Jean Giraudoux’s piece of 1939 Ondine, turning it into a far darker and more confused tale than the original.

Collier and Meehan first adapted Ondine in 2004. This further adapation, according to the program, intends“to explore the Jungian archetypes within the context of the fairytale. They forged new relationships between characters, increasing the stakes and forging new twists within the plot.”

Last year with the assistance of Tamara Jolaine, leading actress in this production, they added music and further revised the script.
The Aggressive Muse publicity proposes a “rock fantasy . . . through modern language and poignant music[;] . . a tragic story of a man trapped between two powerful women's desires. . . . played against a minimalist set and ethereal lighting.”

There’s lots of imagination on display here. Some of the actors are superb, while others offer us characters that are engagingly grotesque. Some, including some of the principals, don’t really understand theatrical diction. Those cast members appear to hit all the words in their lines while speaking them as if mumbling into a cell phone. The unevenness of expression obliges the audience to work that much harder to piece together the intentions of actors, director, and playwrights.

Far the best in the cast is Tamara Jolaine as Ondine, the water nymph whose insistent intrusions into the realm of mankind overturn emotions and relationships at court. She is energetic, alluring, vulnerable and emotive. With her articulate speech, taffy-colored mane and long-legged gait, she could squeeze the heart of any mere mortal.

To understand this production, one must know Giraudoux’s original script and see how Collier and Meehan have altered it.

Jean Giraudoux was one of many who constituted that French archetype, the man of letters as man of state. While serving as a diplomat for France in the early 20th century, he penned a series of clever plays, adroitly exploiting legends and stories familiar to anyone with a traditional French classical education. La guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu (Tiger at the Gates) in 1935, for example, was his pacifist’s pessimistic retelling of Homer’s epic on the war with Troy.

His original Ondine, produced in 1939, is a witty, talky piece in which Giraudoux contrasts the water nymph’s sparkling innocence and magic with the stiff, structured and self-conscious world of a foolish royal court.

In Act I, knight errant Hans while on an obligatory quest through the forests comes across a fisher family with custody of Ondine. In the form of an immortal 15-year-old, she is a magical free-spirited water creature. Ondine falls instantly for Hans and wraps herself about him, enchanting him, to the dismay of her simple stepparents. (Stepfather Auguste: “But my Lord, it’s wrong!” - - because the knight is already betrothed to the king’s ward, Bertha.)

Act II, set in the castle, features the King of the water creatures, disguised as a magician, who titillates the court folk by showing them future scenes of Hans, dismayed by Ondine’s devotion and tactless behavior, gradually reconciling with his abandoned fiancée Bertha.

Act III, set years later, is on the morning of the wedding of Hans and Bertha. Ondine, who abandoned him months earlier, is captured and brought back for trial by two witch-hunting magistrates. Ondine insists she has been unfaithful with court retainer Bertram. Through clever comic questioning the judges establish that she loves Hans still. Knight errant Hans becomes increasingly disoriented, for his betrayal of Ondine has invoked a curse that kills him. Ondine and Hans swear eternal love, but as soon as he dies, her memory is wiped clean.

Giraudoux sets up the magic world against the humdrum of everyday life. As Hans says, “They’ll call this story Ondine, and I’ll keep cropping up in it like a great clown, just a stupid. . . man. Not that I had much part in it, really. I loved Ondine because she wanted me to, I deceived her because I had to. You see, I was born to live for my horses and hounds; and instead, I was trapped like a rat between nature and destiny.”

The charm of Giraudoux’s story is the absolute innocence and enthusiasm of Ondine throughout the story. She is all impulse, unable to lie even for politeness’ sake, stormy in emotion but quick to forgive and to reconcile.

In Freudian terms, Ondine is the Id, or the “I,” volatile and forever untamed. Many of the laughs come from her attempts to deal with the arch manners and customs of the court. As in Freudian psychology, the Id is opposed by the mechanisms of the Superego – never in this case internalized, but rather represented by the rules-sayers in court (the chamberlain, the master of spectacles, advisors, stepfather August, the King of the Sea, and even, reluctantly, Hans). Hans, the ordinary man, dies, but Ondine as the essence of enchantment and femininity, lives on.

So much for the background and the lecture.

The playwrights changed this Freudian lark into a Jungian orgy. First came blood letting among the characters: the bumbling King disappears entirely, as does the perceptive, wise mother Queen. Bertha is no longer a foundling adoptee but is now the Queen, and Bertram the hapless retainer becomes her brother, the vice-ridden rival to power. The rustic fisherfolk step parents August and Eugénie become a murderous werewolf and his wife. The ondines of Giraudoux become a collection of bizarros, though not without their own charm - - a wolf boy, a hulking bearded smoker, and a silver lipped succubus.

One clever transformation is carried out upon two self-important court officials, the Chamberlain (Alex Pippard in high-heeled boots, left) and the Superintendent of the Royal Theatres (mustachioed co-author Kate Meehan, right). These are fine actors, concentrated and convincing every moment they are on stage. Too bad that the playwright has Ondine murder the two of them, oops, by impulsive, thoughtless use of magic, and then immediately resurrects them as scary undead judges for the finale. The casting and mannerisms, by reversing genders, remind us of Jung's exploration of the hidden side of personality, the anima (or female) in men and the animus (or male) in women.

The authors saturate this text with weirdness, decadent carousing, and violent striving for power. Hans' knight errantry turns into an arbitrary errand to go and live in the decadent city for thirty days "to test his love." Bertram and Bertha, brother and sister,wind up hacking at one another with swords. I've already mentioned the murder of the comic relief.

It's as if they took the gossamer fabric of Giradoux and wrapped it around the Weird Sisters and the murderers from Macbeth, then gave them a couple of hard kicks to get the action started.

In this vision, Ondine is ambiguous, unpredictable, and vengeful. Gone is the sweet simplicity of Giradoux's wraith. Ondine is ready to encourage treachery and apparently to engage in unfaithfulness herself.

It's a fantasy, but not a rock fantasy. Tamara Jolaine's music, available on MySpace, is lovely on its own but usually slows down the action. Actors appear to be lip-syncing most of the time, and the
instruments, mostly guitar and percussion, override the lyrics. Most successful is the dread-filled number "All Is Well," by Queen Bertha (Lindsey Reeves), joined subsequently by the company in this chant of rapidly failing hope. Jolaine provides a number for Hans (cherub-faced muscle man Jake Kern, right), which captures some intensity in the final act. The same music would have been better served in different orchestration, run much farther up-tempo and better coordinated with the action.

Random jottings:

The lighting was far too dim for my taste. Ethereal, okay, but less murky would have been better.

Abby Jones (left) was strikingly effective in the minor role of Henrietta, a lady in waiting traumatized by Ondine.

It sounded pretty strange in this rarefied atmosphere for the costumed other worldly characters to be asking one another, repeatedly, "Are you okay?"

My ears twitched at some funny pronunciation: "chamberlain" as if it were the name of a French pop star and Bertha as "burta," as if it were a truncated "Roberta."

Some fine facial hair! Frank Rios as the mer-person "smoke," Kate Meehan's confidently sported mustache, and, of course that stacked beard row on Timothy McKinney (left) as the Sea King. McKinney brought a moody conviction to his role as the eventual bad guy who magicked Ondine back to her rightful place.

The costumes were brilliant in color and generally captivating in conception. I didn't care for those crimson tunics worn by the officers, including Hans, but otherwise the wardrobe was appropriate and attractive. Ondine's garb and makeup were particularly appropriate.

So where is the Jung? In its Jung-for-Dummies version, Wikipedia comments:
". . . in Jungian psychology the shadow or "shadow aspect" is a part of the unconscious mind consisting of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings, and instincts. . . . 'Everyone carries a shadow,' Jung wrote, 'and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.' "

This version of Ondine maybe was intended to be a walk on the wild side. In a shadow land.

That impression was further reinforced by the sepia-colored video running in endless loop in the lobby beforehand, showing barren expanses of water, actors mouthing silently at one another, wrestling, or rising from the lake..

Hannah Kenah's review panning this production, Austin Chronicle, August 28 (published the same day as this staging)

Reader comments on Kenah's review (12 and counting)

Monday, August 25, 2008

Nunsense, Georgetown Palace, August 1 - 31

“How do you make holy water?”

“I don’t know, how DO you make holy water?”

“You boil the hell out of it!”

Cornball, right? But funny, especially when the dialogue is between a couple of wisecracking nuns on either side of the audience.

, a (very) musical (very goofy) comedy at the Georgetown Palace Theatre in Georgetown, Texas is playing to packed houses of very amused Georgetownians. And Austinites will have a helluva a good time if they join them.

I lived mostly outside the United States over the past 30 years, so when we relocated to Austin last year I had no idea either of Georgetown (Texas) or of the Nunsense phenomenon. I spotted an ad for the Palace’s Lend Me A Tenor, a play our son had done in high school. After studying some maps we took him and a buddy to see it. For a while, I thought we were going to be driving up I-35 all the way to Killeen (wherever that might be). But we found it, and we were impressed both by the play and by the restored movie palace just off courthouse square in Georgetown. Plus the restaurants and shops around the square.

By the way, arriving from Austin on I-35, take exit 259, 260 (Leander Road) or 261, go east for up to half a mile, then turn left (north) on Austin Avenue. The Palace will be on your left, half a block short of the Georgetown courthouse dome.

And be advised: out there near Sun City retirement community, the Palace raises its curtain at 7:30 p.m., getting them in early and home at a reasonable hour.

As for Nunsense, turns out that it debuted in New York City in 1985 and ran 3,672 performances. Translated to date into 26 languages, the show has been produced by 6,000 companies over that time. The original show -- this text -- gave rise to six more nun-themed musical comedies. An idea that originated as a series of funny greeting cards must have earned its creator Dan Goggin a pile of royalties.

Nuns as hoofers? Nuns as jokesters? Nuns as raucous story tellers? This company of five wonderfully cast actresses does it all, backed by keyboardist Kevin Oliver and friends thinly disguised as nuns, themselves (ever seen a nun with a beard?).

Playwright/composer Goggin has recreated vaudeville for us, that art form in which the multi-talented artists are happily complicit with the audience.

The over-the-top premise: a mistake by the cook for the Little Sisters of Hoboken (NJ) resulted in a poisoned vichyssoise that did away with 52 of the sisters, leaving only five, tonight’s crew of habit-wearing hoofers. The cook, by the way, had as her convent name Julia, Child of God (nudge, nudge – Julia Child, get it?).

So our doughty nuns are putting on a show to raise enough funds to plant the last of their sisters and to finance a big-screen TV.

You’d have to be very stuffy indeed not to be charmed by this extremely well chosen cast of performers (clockwise, from top left):

Cathie Sheridan as Sister Mary Hubert, gently scandalized by the goings-on but having the time of her life;

Melita McAtee as Mother Superior Sister Mary Regina, as friendly and brassy as you can be when dressed in black and white -- with a hilarious slapstick turn after curiosity prompts her to sniff (and sniff again) some curious powder found in the ladies’ room;

Samantha Ricker Watson as Sister Mary Amnesia, of simple mind and baby voice, who goes from giggles to a rip-roaring Loretta Lynn delivery when needed;

Sara Burke as Sister Mary Leo the aspiring ballerina, quivering with sweet ambition (in the Palace’s production of Cats last year she and her partner tore up the stage when she danced as Rumpleteazer); and

Arden Baxter as Sister Robert Anne, pugnacious funny Bronx girl longing to be a star, who does a side-splitting set of imitations simply by manipulating her wimple.

Imagine the sight of these sober-clad ladies grinning, wearing bright-colored tap shoes and stomping up a storm, and you’ll get an idea of the absurdly wonderful entertainment they provide.

The Georgetown Palace specializes in musicals and popular entertainment, and they shovel out this high quality stuff at a tremendous rate. For 2008-2009 they’ll be offering another 8 shows: The Producers; The Gifts of the Magi; Love, Sex and the IRS; God’s Man in Texas; Grease; The Little Shop of Horrors; The Odd Couple, and Big River.

Shows run from three to six weekends, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m.

The Palace is a serious rival to the Zach Scott Theatre in Austin in quality and variety, without Zach’s advantages or location.

Unlike the Zach, it is a real “community theatre,” depending on contributions of many volunteers, business support, and non-equity artists. They apparently don’t place commercial ads in either the Austin Statesman or the Austin Chronicle. Their glossy program carries no fewer than 54 ads from local businesses, 12 of these full-page.

Management of the ticketing function has progressed so much that next season, at no extra charge, you will be able to use an on-line seating chart to claim a specific seat when you purchase tickets by Internet. (I wish that they’d complete the website by loading it with the promised photo albums of recent productions.)

The Palace is a non-profit 503(c)(3) corporation, always eager to receive contributions. With grant funds and donated labor the group renovated the theatre in 1999-2001 and in 2007 acquired the “Tin Barn,” adjacent to it, to serve when fully renovated as shops, rehearsal spaces and dressing rooms. This year the City of Georgetown officially renamed the space between the two “Tin Barn Alley.”

And I didn't mention -- for what you get, the tickets are really, really inexpensive! Twenty bucks a seat general admission season ticket, but only eighteen for those over 55 years of age. Those are the per-ticket prices for this year’s Nunsense, and a student can get in for only $8. For a $5 premium this year you can pick your designated seat.

"So why did Moses wander around in the Sinai Desert for 40 years?

"I don’t know, why DID Moses wander around in the Sinai Desert for 40 years?

"It’s obvious! He was a man, and men don’t like to ask for directions!

Click for an on-line review, August 10, from Ronni's Rants

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Brass Ring, Hyde Park Theatre, August 8 - 30

Okay, we’ve been here before. The small house at the Hyde Park Theatre wraps around a set that could represent an anonymous, nearly vacant apartment in a half-demolished tenement building. Tom Waits is growling “Dead and Lovely” on the sound system in full derelict mode, followed by some country music phantasmagoria about facing the electric chair.

Down-market Harold Pinter, maybe, or Sam Shepard. Danger, barren stage and threat.

In Brass Ring, playwright Shanon Weaver of “A Chick and A Dude Productions” picks up again two menacing hit-men from his much applauded 2003 drama Hit, which scooped three of Austin’s B. Iden Payne Awards: outstanding director of a drama, outstanding cast performance, and outstanding original script. The company recruited the same formidable actors for those principal roles, Kenneth Wayne Bradley as Ervin (second from left) and Joel Citty (right) as Wyatt.

The action starts with a blackout, a tableau of an execution about to take place, another blackout and a bang. We didn’t know the man on his knees, stolidly facing death, or the young-looking man engaged in some cryptic dialogue with him.

In the blackness we hear a man musing about his work and its difficulties. When the lights come up again, we find ourselves in the company of the lean bald-shaven Ervin and his partner Wyatt, who is happily reporting factoids from a book he might have picked up in a bus station. They are killers on retainer.

They are waiting.
Ervin and Wyatt spend most of the performance time waiting, for one thing or another. So much for the glamorous life of hit men working for the anonymous “Old Man.”

Ervin is on a fierce slow burn throughout while Wyatt is usually willing to have small amusements to pass the time.

They dialogue with abrupt, vulgar familiarity; the door flies open and their pistols come out to confront a figure hidden behind an umbrella.
It’s Jasmine (now known as “Jazz”). We quickly grasp that there is a deep history between the grim Ervin and the woman who announces herself as the newest emissary of the “Old Man.”

Time splits for us. We follow the back story of Ervin and Jasmine’s first encounter in a bar, where she fingers his next hit and then their developing involvement. These scenes are intercut with the ongoing nervy wait in the tenement.

Along the way we meet the 17-year-old Asher (the playwright, Shanon Weaver), a taciturn youth adopted by the hit men after they blew away his abusing foster father; Asher becomes not quite a son and yet not quite a trainee hit man, either.

The snarling tenement dialogue between Ervin and Jasmine/Jazz quickly reveals that they had married and then split, in part because she could not have children. Armed with that knowledge, we witness the earlier days’ meetings and courtship with a growing sense of doom.

And doom it is, too, with a failed assassination, multiple betrayals, and a fatal shooting.

First things first: this duo of actors is good enough to take your breath away. You can believe that they have worked together as hit men for years. Bradley and Citty certainly had the advantage of lots of material and psychological “build” from the 2003 play, but they wear their characters as if they’d been tattooed in their souls. As Ervin, Bradley is brimming with hair-trigger anger but insistent on “the rules,” a numbered set of precepts setting the parameters for their deadly business. His ability to shift between deadly, still concentration and violent action is terrifying.

His partner Wyatt (Citty, left), as his buddy and the only person one he trusts, accommodates Ervin’s near-nuclear energy while not hesitating to disagree or counter him. This is a scary variant on bad cop/good cop, one that keeps us always on the edge of our seats. Wyatt may be a murderer, but he is perceptive, vulnerable and deeply human.

Lynn Mikeska as the time-split Jasmine/Jazz has a hard role. As Jasmine (then) she must give us an ingenue, awakening to the possibilities of the mutual attraction with a killer; as Jazz (now) she must meet the hit men’s anger and uncertainty with cold assurance, maneuvering to master the situation. Mikeska meets the challenges.

But what a shame about the script. Minor quibbles: playwright Weaver would have us believe that the anonymous “Old Man,” depending entirely upon these two for his "wet work," is dealing duplicitously and simultaneously with the Yakuza and with at least one major Italian American crime family. Weaver tosses us a fast and not very clear explanation of the job our guys will be expected to perform. He gives us voice-overs in the darkness between scenes that sometimes don’t make much sense, either in the action or of themselves. He (or director Melissa Livingston) inexplicably shifts the music at intermission and for the second act from menace-pop to funk.

But the major problem undermining all that really brilliant, character-revealing dialogue is the series of “gotcha” plot revelations in the concluding minutes. They assert that all of the action from “back then” was carried out in a tissue of untruths and impossibilities, justifying the hellish end of the play. Deus ex machina meets Philo Vance.

And who the heck was getting shot in that opening scene? Was that real or not? And if not, why not?

Click for Ryan Johnson's (promotional?) review on

Click for Barry Pineo's perceptive review in the Austin Chronicle, August 15

Friday, August 22, 2008

Voces de Vivo, Teatro Vivo

The sense of community at Austin’s Teatro Vivo is tangible and reinforces the appeal of the consort. One has a warm, expectant feeling, much like the anticipation of attending a school production where one knows many of the actors. At a high school or college play, one is additionally disposed to forgive occasional slips or stumbles because one likes the participants so much. Teatro Vivo’s familiar participants don’t require that indulgence. They are credible, creative and thoroughly at home on the stage.

The change of venue from the Long Center to the humble 200-seat theatre at the nearby Dougherty Arts Center reinforced that sense of community.

With my June review of Petra’s Sueño by Rubert Reyes I expressed some apprehension about the “new approach” announced for this evening of four one-act plays, each written by principal company members – in the order framed below, Michael Mendoza, Natalie Marlena Goodnow, Celeste Guzman Mendoza, and founder Rupert Reyes.

Their new approach is the gentlest possible change of course. The four one-act plays were generally crafted to appeal to all, including those who are not bilingual, and the four authors produced stories and meditations that focused on inclusiveness. Their reading of the Latino community in Austin and in Texas was a positive one.

The turnout was good for the Thursday “pay-what-you want” audience, which filled about half of the seats. Both Latinos and “Anglos” (gringos?) attended, with a good mix of ages.

The pieces were very different from one another. In order:

Munti” means both “tree” and “human being” in a southern African language, a fact that Natalie Goodnow cheerfully footnoted as coming from Barbara Kingsolver’s book (“as all of you Oprah fans know!”). Natalie offered us a solo piece of reflections and personal anecdote, a sort of biography/confessional tied to trees - - both real ones and trees as allegories for human experience. She lifted lightly into describing the progression of her own feelings about her bicultural origins, about rootedness and the appeal of relocation, travel, and finding one’s rightful place. This was a light, eloquent flight of fancy, artfully and delicately accompanied on cello and percussion by musicians Tavis Jeffords and Josh Casiano. Her stage persona seemed very close to her own – after all, in the program she calls herself “a teatrista and educator who believes in the power of performance as sacred, as healing, and as transformative.” She must be a great motivator for young persons participating in the workshops she mentioned. In closing, Natalie invited audience members to use the pencils and paper distributed before the performance to communicate thoughts about these themes, to be left on a table in the lobby with similar contributions from earlier spectators.

Celeste Mendoza structured Adela's Altar very much along the lines of the Petra plays – the aged semi-lunatic Adela is in the church sanctuary for hours every day, cleaning ineffectually and carrying on a continual dialogue with God. As portrayed by Yesenia García, Adela is a cartoon -–a very funny and lively one, to be sure, with a bright red wig, thick glasses, and a continual stream of observations both in Spanish and in English. Adela reveals herself as something of a “sacred fool,” frustrating her stiff supervisor Martiza (Vanessa Alvarado), distracting her own thoroughly acculturated daughter, ragging Ipod-wearing custodian Chuy (Rob Rowland), and offering God’s advice to an “illegal” mother seeking asylum with her U.S. citizen child (Karen Alvarado and Alma Ixhchel Flores-Pérez). This last generous-hearted response earns her an overnight stay in jail and gets her fired from her volunteer job at the church. Adela’s garrulous relationship with God prompts her supervisor to speak with Him, too, in a private moment, so that we share in the pain, loss and confusion of her repeated miscarriages. The piece ends with unexpected abruptness, as Adela’s daughter in matter-of-fact fashion thanks her supervisor for barring the church to her; we were caught up a bit short, feeling that perhaps a coda was required, to deal with the feelings either of the banished Adela or with the deep despair of her supervisor. Though we all enjoyed the characterisation of Adela, I wonder whether we might have benefited from a less farcical approach to her; placing her closer to our own experience of the distracted elderly might have deepened our feelings for her, making the final scene a sharper commentary on family and frustration.

Las Amandas is the most difficult and most rewarding piece of this set. Michael Mendoza has authored a text that is directly in the tradition of the Latin American “cuento.” Mario Ramírez delivers his lengthy, lyrical account of two Amandas, mother and daughter, who were abandoned by the guitar-playing dandy “Jucho” (for Jesús). In contrast to other Teatro Vivo pieces, this narrative is really bilingual – in order to appreciate it fully, one needs both languages. The narrative line is certainly available to monolingual English-speakers, but the full effect of this cross-generational, cross-border story, bound deeply with loss and longing, arrives when one can traverse the mental and linguistic boundaries.

The young-looking Ramírez initiates the story with a book in hand, as if he were reading or remembering passages from the text. Director J.T. Bundick chose to have him walk onstage in a place of memory, where the uncredited actress playing both Amandas is the mother, dreamily cleaning house and carrying for her cages and cages of songbirds. At stage left, throughout the piece, the neatly dressed“Jucho” strums his guitar. At times during the recital of the story, Ramírez becomes the momentary avatar of young Juncho, dancing with Amanda. At times striking black-and-white family photos appear on the back wall and Ramírez comments upon them. The older Amanda loses “Jucho” as he first seduces her younger sister and then disappears, supposedly to the Great North. The younger Amanda, living in the United States, later returns to search for her roots and sees, briefly, a courtly figure who might be her father. There is no crisis or dramatic unraveling of plot; the story is unrolled as a skein of memory with no hint of future. It is profoundly moving.

The scenic presentation of the place of memory is effective but eventually becomes distracting. My imagining of the presentation would have lowered the general lighting most of the time and left the Amandas immobile or offstage more; and I would have reduced “Jucho”’s quiet crooning to his guitar by about half. Because the real feat was that of Ramírez as narrator, delivering to us a vividly written and intimate text. His mastery of image and narrative was impressive, and he delivered it as if there were no periods but only semi-colons, a rushing remembrance that would have profited from occasional pauses for recollection or emphasis.

With 2 Souls and A Promise, veteran Rupert Reyes offers us a meditation that starts in whimsy and finishes with reflections on social equality. Young lovers Joe (Mateo Barrera) and Lisa (Audrey Rose Pérez) cuddle at night on a mountaintop beneath the stars and exchange romantic promises for their souls to search out one another, should they ever be separated. Uh-oh! And yes, when Lisa immediately insists on going alone to get the car, she hits the wrong gear and precipitates it over a cliff, leaving Joe alone in life. We see Lisa as a departing soul, cross-shaped in a choir robe, confused and then really angry at this turn of events before she whisks away into the darkness. In the distance, one hears the birth of a child.

So far, so good, and in line with Reyes’ most recent Petra frolic on the comic machinations of the supernatural. Two scenes follow, echoing dialogue and some movement. In the first, Joe, aged and infirm, is surprised when his son Pablo brings home a new classmate, Lily (Pérez), with an uncanny resemblance to Joe’s young love Lisa. The comedy arises as son Pablo seeks Dad’s advice on wooing the young lady, who is feeling eerily attracted to the older man.

The second modulation of the idea delivers us the aged Joe with Pérez this time as his daughter. Again, the offspring unexpectedly brings home a classmate for dinner, and Joe and the visitor feel a strange affinity. Visitor Albert is handsome, deferential and enthusiastic about their shared class in Chicano lit. Only hitch: he is black. Reyes has fun playing Joe’s ill-concealed hostility with the growing awareness of supernatural bonds between them. With this second skit Reyes deepens the piece considerably, moving from a comedy of identities to one of social reconciliation. His premise recalls that of influential American 20th century philospher John Rawls, who elaborated a theory of social justice from the concept of the “original position” and the “veil of ignorance.” In briefest summary, Rawls argued that those not knowing conditions and attributes awaiting them after birth would prefer a society that maximizes liberty, cooperation and mutual respect.

As Joe the teenager Mateo Barrera is a bit stiff, but as the two versions of the older Joe, he provides a full portrait of the staid, conservative and lonely father. His timing is perfect. Audrey Rose Pérez is appealing in each of her triple roles, which are close variants of the same fresh-faced young lady. Daniel Antonio Cardoza serves well as the lanky, bashful son Pablo in skit 1; and Aaron D. Alexander as the unexpected dinner guest Albert gives us the picture of a bright young man who is unthreatened and engaged even in the face of suspicion. He is the embodiment of Reyes’ idea of Latino social solidarity across classes, races and even cultures.

Click for Robert Fairles' review from the Austin Chronicle

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Austin Live Theatre: 15 Seconds of Fame

ALT review of The Imaginary Invalid

15 Seconds of Fame

The Washington DC Shakespeare Company has its own blog, hosted (as is Austin Live Theatre) by I was surprised and pleased to find Austin Live Theatre the first of several blogs quoted there on The Imaginary Invalid, back on July 3. Returning the compliment:

Thursday, July 03, 2008
What People Are Saying...

The Imaginary Invalid runs at the Lansburgh Theatre until July 27, 2008.

Photo of Nancy Robinette and Rene Auberjonois by Carol Rosegg.

Read what some bloggers are saying:

Austin Live Theatre
says, "Rubber-faced René Auberjonois is a self-mocking delight as Molière playing one of his most famous characters. The actors’ diction is uniformly superb throughout, mime and business are subtle and so manifold that one could attend three nights in a row and not catch all the physical jokes."

"The production is a hoot," says Wheat and Weeds.

Photo of the cast of The Imaginary Invalid by Carol Rosegg.

IdealistDC raves, "There is singing, there is dancing, laughter throughout and bits of dark and raunchy adult humor that makes going to the theatre fun and exciting!"

"Helmed by a wonderfully expressive Rene Auberjonois and a sparkling Nancy Robinette, this is one of the strongest ensembles I’ve seen at STC in a long time," exclaims DC Metblogs.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Twelfth Night, Scottish Rite Theatre

Twelfth Night, just opened at the convenient downtown location close to the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum, is a graceful, sprightly production of Shakespeare's comedy of parted twins, mistaken identities, and the merciless mocking of overweening ambition. This is the one in which the dour Malvolio, steward to Lady Olivia, is duped by two roysters into smiling, making love overtures to his lady, and appearing in yellow stockings, all cross gartered. And Viola, shipwrecked, masquerades as a boy in order to enter the service of Duke Orsino -- and falls in love with same.

Shannon Grounds as Olivia/"Cesario" (left) carries the action deftly. She undertakes her masquerade in a spirit of adventure but encounters earnest confusion as she falls for Orsino but Lady Olivia (Suzanne Balling, right) falls for her as "Cesario." Balling is diminutive, lively and a delight -- her growing fascination of Orsino's comely messenger "Cesario" moves her out of long mourning into hope and demure flirting.

This being a romantic comedy, Shakespeare gives her the ultimate chance for joy: the eventual just-in-time appearance of the male twin to "Cesario," the eligible bachelor Sebastian (Ryan Crowder). The sparkle in Olivia's eyes here is a hint of the sly delights of her performance. Outcome: Orsino and Olivia each wed a twin. The one of the opposite sex, of course.

Director (yclept "Master of Play" in the program) Beth Burns has just relocated to Austin from Los Angeles. She achieves with this talented and attractive ensemble a quick-paced, highly entertaining and almost too short evening of entertainment.

The evening takes as guidance the opening words of Orsino, If music be the food of love, play on. A four-member musical consort welcomes the public into the lobby with renaissance and pseudo-renaissance music. The group accompanies song and dance during the play and provides the jubilation for a curtain call done in dance.

The Scottish Rite theatre itself seemed to me a relatively strange performance space. On the one hand, the company had the use of beautifully painted backdrops and legs that created wonderfully detailed scenes. I am guessing that these were created over a long period for use by the Scottish Rite Children’s theatre. The multiple levels and the detailed tromp l’oeuil painting offer us enchanting perspectives within the proscenium. They recall the intricate mysteries of Victorian-era puppet shows. For example, before the action began:

The beach after the shipwreck:

The forest, as Maria the servant regales Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek:

and the Duke's chambers:

A wide flight of wooden steps connects that magic proscenium-framed world with the auditorium. The movable seating in the forefront of the 200-seat theatre was arranged so as to provide a wide, deep open space in the midst of the seating. This was the equivalent of a “thrust” stage – but it meant that those of us seated in front row, center, found ourselves at least thirty feet from the stage. The views above are all taken from front row, center.

I prefer to sit as close to the acting as possible. Can’t help it; it’s the addiction of an actor. In Shakespeare’s day, if I’d had the means, I probably would have been one of those lace-handkerchief would-be dandies leaning back on a chair at the edge of the stage itself. So I was disappointed to find that only rarely did director Beth Burns put the action out into that big empty space fronted and flanked by the audience. The most typical use of that thrust space was that signaled in the text by Exit (singular) or Exeunt (plural). Given the disposition of the seats, the actors always had to hustle – added to thirty feet of thrust was another thirty feet of aisle.

Twelfth Night offers a richness of fools. The official fool, Feste, is the least foolish of them. As personified by Justin Scalise, Feste is a sober, witty wraith with a fine singing voice. Far more farcical are Michael Mergin (right) playing rapscallion knight Sir Toby Belch and Judd Farris (left) as the earnest, stupid suitor Andrew Aguecheek (a fine study in slowly firing synapses).

And then there is Malvolio, the self-important steward who is so cruelly misled by Maria the serving woman (bravo to Jill K. Swanson for her twinkling mischief). She counterfeits the letter to Malvolio that prompts him to put on ridiculous attire, paint his face, and put on a smile almost painful to observe. The baiting and humiliation of Malvolio is the dark side of this comedy. It occurs relatively late in the action; the castle force and jester Feste imprison Malvolio and mock him further; and at the happy resolution of everyone else’s quandaries, the lovely Olivia perceives and explains the cruel trick. Shakespeare gives Malvolio a horrible exit line: “I will be revenged on the whole pack of you.”

So how does a company play that dark vein in this otherwise frothy, colorful confection? In Shakespeare’s day, Malvolio was probably a haughty, hissing horrible guy. After all, “mal voglio” in Italian is, roughly, “ill will.”

In this presentation, director Burns and actor Robert Matney are very delicate with Malvolio. He comes across as thoughtful and gently deluded, that sort of nice guy who is just, well, clueless. When he has no streak of mean, how do you handle his defeat? In this presentation, he kneels to Lady Olivia and tenders in resignation the chain that is his emblem of office. And you choreograph your curtain call as a sort of Morris dance, with Malvolio taking part, as if he didn’t really mean it with that final imprecation. This doesn’t really resolve the problem, but it does remind us that the evening is all in fun.

Elizabeth Cobbe's review in the Austin Chronicle, August 15

Spike Gillespie's review in the, August 14

Joey Seiler's comment (far short of a review) in the Austin Statesman, August 11

NOTE: Thanks and a tip of the hat to Gordon Kelso, Executive Director at the Scottish Rite Theatre, who kindly provided further information about the theatre and its scenery:

"The scenery you enjoyed throughout the production was painted in 1882...and installed in our space in 1910... Our old theatre was built in 1869 (3 years after Scholz's Garten) by the German community as the Turn Verein...a German opera house and activity center [locally referred to in those days as Turner Hall]...naturally, there was beer served...lots of it, because the entire block qualified as the beer garten. The Sangerunde Singers were formed there and, believing they needed their own space for rehearsal and entertainment, they moved down the hill to Scholz's, purchased the adjacent property and built their space along with a bowling alley (the lintel still reads 1879), too, is still in use!...a tribute to Austin's early German influence."

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Merry Wives of Windsor by the Weird Sisters Collective

Turnabout is fair play might be the theme for The Merry Wives of Windsor. Penurious, lascivious Sir John Falstaff is out for “cony catching” throughout the play but he just can’t learn his lesson. Falstaff (Courtney Brown) aims to trick and seduce the merry wives of the title: Mistress Margaret Page (Leslie Guerrero, left) and Mistress Alice Ford (Christa French, right).

Highly amused by his presumptions, the good ladies entice the lecher to assignations three times, and each time they set him up. Hiding in a clothes basket, Falstaff is carried offstage to be dumped into the muck; cowering before discovery by a maddened husband, he disguises himself and flees as a witchy old crone; and finally, in an apparently enchanted glade, Sir Jack is pinched and pursued by townspeople disguised as fairies.

In fact, you could imagine Turnabout is fair play would be a pretty good heraldic device for the Weird Sisters Women’s Theatre Collective. This is the fourth full-length presentation by a group of women whose manifesto celebrates “the company of powerful, adventurous, wise women, with whom we foster strong, deep relationships.” They use the collective to express themselves, free of gender oppression.

As in their earlier presentations, the Sisters assemble an all-female cast. After all, Shakespeare’s company was all male, wasn’t it? This casting strategy works perfectly well in theatrical space, where the audience is happily complicit in the willing suspension of disbelief.

This is not one of Shakespeare’s better comedies, but theatrical legend excuses that in part by asserting that he wrote it in a rush at the request of Queen Elizabeth I, who wanted to see the hugely comic Falstaff in a romantic comedy.

Falstaff here has none of the canny skills of his pickled, cajoling, irate persona in the Henry IV plays. Out in Windsor, he is a clown and slave to all his appetites, fit to be gull’d and mocked. Sir Jack is a bigger, bolder, caricature version of the merry wives’ own husbands (and by implication, a stand-in for all that’s gross about the male gender).

No wonder the cast takes such enthusiastic delight in the bawdy allusions to cocks, erections, horns and cuckoos.

Director Susan Todd sets the play in the fictional town of Windsor, Texas in the mid-1950’s. She and the collective must have had fun assembling the slide show of ads and snapshots from that time, which amuses us 21st century folk with the gender stereotypes from back then. Before the action begins, we hear Elvis, Patsy Cline, and contemporary recordings of ads and music from a radio station in Midland.

The costumes for female characters are a colorful, corny gala of middle class fashion of the time (love those Capri pants, Anne Page!).

Shakespeare’s language in broad Texas accents? It works! That makes it all the funnier. As the aged Justice Shallow, Chris Humphrey is a cantankerous Texas justice of the peace to the life. Loquacious and brassy in the person of Mistress Quickly, Hollie Baker is part Dolly Parton, part Goldie Hawn.

Courtney Brown is a hoot as Jack Falstaff, visiting star of a broken down rock band. Wrapped in Elvis pompadour and sideburns, she delivers her role with shameless assurance.

This troupe has good fun addressing the audience. Silly quarrels between silly prospective suitors to young Anne Page entertain us. The rivalries of the inept make them foils to Falstaff’s less scrupulous intentions of seduction.

Shakespeare was showcasing Falstaff, in a sort of Fat Jack III. But in this presentation, with the original text essentially intact, director Todd succeeds in focusing instead on the journey of Frank Ford, husband to one of the merry wives.

Ford’s counterpart Page (Penny Smith) is not at all discomfited when they learn of the curious, identical love letters Falstaff has sent to the ladies. But Ford (Vicki Yoder) torments himself with jealousy and uncertainty over the virtue of his wife.

So of course, he makes things worse. He insinuates himself into Falstaff’s company under the guise of “Master Brook” (Brook – Ford – get it?) and suborns the knight with a packet of cash to seduce Mistress Ford so as to make her available for conquest. Sir Jack is happy to take money for the job he’s already got underway.

Falstaff’s succeeding accounts and assurances drive Ford further around the bend, so that he grows more disturbed and more comic with each succeeding incident.But at the finale, with doubt resolved and virtue rewarded, Ford reveals that his alter ego “Brook” does, after all, have the prospect of sleeping with Mistress Ford.

Vicki Yoder is so impressive in the role of Ford/Brook that during the intermission I was wondering whether she might have been better cast as Falstaff, the lord of misrule. She has the presence, expression and physical stature to have handled that interpretation.

But then, this is the Weird Sisters Collective. It is appropriate that Sir Jack remain smooth and mostly unrepentant, because would-be seducers are always out there. The better choice was to invest an actor/actress of Yoder's depth in a character who comes to redemption.

There is a lovely non-Shakespeare moment in the second half when Miss Anne Page (Johnson) is dancing in a darkened hall with her true beloved, Master Fenton (Martina Ohlhauser). She snuggles close, surprising the awkward Fenton, and kisses him. Then as they rotate in dreamland, that self-assured daughter reaches down and with one hand takes possession of his rump. Fade out. We know that there will be no one else in her future, once the plots get untangled.

Most of the other characters are silly quarrelers with impossibly funny accents or henchmen (henchpersons). But in passing, a couple of special tips of the hat: to Aména Moïnfar as the unsurprised servant to the French physician and to Brooks Louton as servant Peter Simple, stammeringly intimidated.

No curtain call for this cast! They exited from the dénouement straight out to the Vortex café, where they received friends and supporters streaming out from the theatre.

Bio and background of Director Susan Todd
posted alphabetically at UT's program for
"Performance in Public Practice"

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Taming of the Shrew, City Theatre

This presentation of Taming of the Shrew is a gem.

So I was baffled to find that on Friday night this company of a dozen talented and attractive actors
was performing before an audience totaling only 16 persons.

Why hasn't the word gone out? This is the second weekend of five, and given the quality of the show, the place should be packed. I spent $25 for the "reserved' seats, even though tix are regularly $15 and $20 (only $12 for students). And I was embarrassed to find that our two seats in the middle of the second row were the only ones with the "reserved" hoods on them. Made me feel like a Viceroy or Bwana Jim.

This is only the group's second season, granted. And they're not easy to find -- we were driving around for a while in the vicinity of Manor Road and Airport Road before we finally spotted them, in that obscure little row of storefronts up behind the Shell station. And maybe that photo of the muzzled Kate is suggesting not a good time, but a rather a scary film.

No matter. If you like Shakespeare, if you enjoy a knockabout farce with personable young actors, if you want to see new opportunities for this promising company, GO. See this show!

The Taming of the Shrew, with its 400-year-old attitudes toward conflicts between the sexes, arranged marriages, and humilliation by slapstick, can be a guilty pleasure.

As early as 1897, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “No man with any decency of feeling can sit [The Taming of the Shrew] out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed of the lord-of-creation moral implied in the wager and the speech put into the woman’s own mouth.”

The City Theatre acknowledges this in the stage notes: ". . .modern interpretation of the play is sometimes complicated by the centrality to the play of issues that are hotly debated in our own time -- in particular, the question of what roles men and women can and should play in society and in relation to each other. Is Petruchio a loving husband who teaches his maladjusted bride to find happiness in marriage, or is he a clever bully who forces her to bow to his will?" [Three more rhetorical questions follow.]"Our own answers to these questions may have less to do with the play iteself than with our attiudes towards the issues and ideas it explores."

End of discussion. Talk about begging the question!

So director Jeff Hinkle of Concordia University and his cast make no apology for giving us a bang-up comedy that avoids the politically correct. They offer us a vividly credible curs'd Kate (Dawn Erin) and her tamer Petruchio (David Meissner), set off by straight romantics sister Bianca (Kristen Bowden) and her suitor-disguised-as-tutor Lucentio (Benjamin Right). They are accompanied by a full gallery of cartoonish characters.

For example, totally over the top: Petruchio's man Grumio (Jason Marlett) bounds in, making nutty martial arts moves that recall Keito, the madcap manservant of Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther. Rival suitors to Bianca are Gremio (Marcus Lorenzo) as a dimwitted sincere "homeboy" and Hortensio (Marco Bazan), lean, mobile-faced and pouty -- much of the time in a Rapunzel-blonde wig.

We can go with the concept, especially since Petruchio (Meissner) comes across not as a lout, but as a cheery, talkative muscular guy who could be a college quarterback. He employs
against Kate primarily his wit, charm and decisiveness, rather than violence. His restraint with her is underlined by his very physical cartoon-style mistreatment of serving man Grumio.

The cast brings us very close to the action. When themembers of the audience take their seats, they find themselves in the courtyard of "Baptista's Burgers," with a five-star menu tucked in the program. The sisters, as yet undifferentiated for us, ask us for our orders, informing us that despite the elaborate menu, only cheeseburgers are available. Some of us begged off ("just ate, sorry") and others took the bait.

"Cheeseburger!" call out the sisters. "Cheeseburger! Cheeseburger!" Through a window in the set the portly Baptista (Robert Dietz) yells back, "Cheeseburger!" each time. He produces, one after another, saucers with silver-dollar sized cheeseburgers. The tattooed Kate and the demure Bianca deliver them to the audience. This clever gambit breaks down the separation between actor and audience. It leaves us momentarily disconcerted and then very amused, even before the action begins.

What terrific mastery of language these players give us! They speak the speeches with clarity, precision and ease. Without an exception they deliver their lines with whip-sharp timing. The comedy bounds and rebounds.

Special recognition goes to Robert Deike as Baptista the father, a monument of befuddled calm amid all this movement.

Dawn Erin as Katerina is a pleasure throughout. She is tough, angry, distrustful, frustrated, and
ultimately triumphant. Though she bends to Petruchio's will, we have no sense that her spirit has been subdued. She sizzles. . . initially with anger and later with passion for her husband Petruchio.

Perfectly understandable for an actress whose resume lists under special skills, "English and Western horseback riding, professional saddleseat horse show groom, Ashtanga yoga, registered Massage Therapist, blues and torch singer, drive stick shift, beginner level pistol shooting."

Austin Chronicle review by Avimaan Syan, August 7

Elizabeth Cobbe's summary of City Theatre's first season, 2006-2007

NOTE. The Shakespeare Company in Washington DC presented The Taming of the Shrew in late 2007. Their website includes several articles relevant for consideration of that presentation and this one, as well as a podcast: