Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sylvia, Austin Playhouse, November 21 - December 28

On first impression, A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia, now playing at the Austin Playhouse, comes across as brainless, harmless fun, mostly thanks to the gleeful, energetic actress Andrea Osborne, portraying Sylvia, the stray dog found in a New York City park.

Sylvia’s playful, adoring behavior completely captivates Greg (David Stahl), the middle-aged empty-nester who has relocated from the suburbs to the city, where he and his brainy wife Kate have found new jobs and a new life.

Greg takes the doggy home and obsesses over her, creating disorder and confusion in the couple’s new urban lifestyle. The piece becomes an extended farce over the unexpected ménage à trois. Greg cannot abandon either of the ladies – and in addition to being of different species, they appear to be creatures from different planets. Kate is a tidy, calm intellectual concentrating on the impossible challenge of teaching Shakespeare to urban middle schoolers; Sylvia is messy, sloppy, impetuous and fixated on Greg.

Add to that the fact that Sylvia talks.

Read More at . . .

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Upcoming: delta dandi, Rollins Theatre, January 9 - 10

UPDATE: January 11 review by Clare Croft on Statesman's Austin360 arts blog

UPDATE: Article on Sharon Bridgforth and delta dandi by Abe Louise Young, published in Austin Chronicle of January 8

Found on-line:

Women and Their Work and The National Performance Network
with support from allgo (Austin's Queer People of Color Organization) and The John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, University of Texas Austin


delta dandi

Written/Conducted by Sharon Bridgforth

Composer: Helga Davis

Choreographer: Baraka de Soleil
Technical Director: Tramaine Berryhill

: Jen Margulies

Featuring: Helga Davis, Baraka de Soleil, Florinda Bryant & Sonja Perryman
with Monique Cortez, Andrea Edgerson, Leigh Gaymon-Jones, Karla Legaspy, Azure D. Osborne-Lee and Leah Sellers.

January 9 & 10, 2009

at The Long Center Rollins Studio Theatre
701 W. Riverside Drive Austin, TX 78704

delta dandi is a living cacophony of monologues, chants, choral tellings, songs and dance, layered weavings of different time dimensions and contrasting rhythms that invoke the transmigration of one soul's journey as she walks through life times of collective grief and trauma towards personal transformation and love.

Tickets $15
Available now at: Women and Their Work, 512.477-1064 or click here to purchase on-line.

Click for extensive information, video and images from Sharon Bridgforth's website

Christmas Belles, Sam Bass Community Theatre, November

Christmas Belles is one of a trio of Fayro, Texas plays very recently written by three writers who had escaped from the big business of show business to take refuge in Asheville, North Carolina.

Co-writer Jesse Jones directed the premier of the first play, Dearly Beloved, at the Asheville Community Theatre in 2005. That opener centered around a wedding. Christmas Belles premiered in Asheville in 2006 and uses the device of the rivalries and intrigues around a Christmas pageant. The last of the trilogy, Southern Hospitality, which shows us the townspeople putting together a town festival to impress a visiting VIP, is now in the closing days of its premiere run, again in Asheville.

Christmas Belles is playing all over the place. The three versions here are in Round Rock, Austin and Wimberly. Just the start of an Internet check shows those same belles ringing in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in Port Huron, Michigan, in Macon, Georgia, at the Studio Theatre (Off Off Broadway), in Coshucton, Ohio, in Lindenhurst, New York, at the Kentucky Repertory Theatre, in Raleigh, North Carolina, in San Antonio, in Corbin, Kentucky, and in Lakeville, Minnesota.

In other words, with these “soon-to-be-classic” plays the refugees from Hollywood and New York have succeeded in tapping into a different mother lode.

Read More at . . .

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Upcoming: Still Fountains, A Diptych, Salvage Vanguard Theatre, November 29 - December 14

Update: Jeanne Claire van Ryzin's pre-openng piece in the Statesman's XL supplement, November 27

received November 19:

Still Fountains
at the Salvage Vanguard Theatre

Opening Nov 29 and playing through Dec 14, Still Fountains is 2 short plays (HIGHWAY HOME and THEM) about 8 people trapped in the circular logic of family. What happens when desire, love, homophobia, racism, and politics mix with a deep longing for home? A diptych of one-acts by Michael Mitchell, directed by Katie Pearl

4 people circle each other on the terrace of the family home playing a dangerous game of uncertain rules. When the barbed witticisms, sharp legalese, and emotional land mines mix with unwelcome vulnerability attempted honesty, match point becomes breaking point. The game ends and the players are as they began: a fractured family stuck on the terrace of a crumbling house with a fountain that hasn't worked for years.

"we don't use names at the fountain"
A hook-up at a public fountain turns from expected cat-and-mouse game into unexpected connection as two men accidentally uncover each other's deepest longing. are you one of them? do you like me? do you want to come home with me? do i want to go home with you? are you my home? could i finally have found family here, at the fountain, after all?

Benefiting the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the Fusebox Festival.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, UT Department of Theatre, November 14 - 23

UT calls the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre an "intimate space." They are speaking Texas institutional intimacy here -- only 200 seats, arrayed about three sides of a huge square playing space under 40-foot ceiling rigged with lights, catwalks, hoists and other machinery. And with a built-in audience from those 50,000 UT students and 16,500 faculty and staff.

When I arrived, all but breathless, 15 minutes before curtain time, I had to stand in a line of at least 30 persons in order to get one of the last seats. I hurried into the theatre, spotted a vacant seat or two on the far side of the playing space, and started to cut across the floor. That drew gasps and warnings from the crowd.

Hardly an auspicious arrival. I looked down and realized that the production staff had set out on the floor an intricate mosaic of thousands of paper scraps, and I had started to walk across their art.
Back I went, abashed, along the sidelines.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
is just about everybody's favorite of Shakespeare's light comedies. Director Paul Mullins, in his sound bite with KUT FM, speaks about the challenge of that -- half the audience will know the play extremely well and the other half will have no idea of the plot.

Advice for that second half of the audience: the stories are simple, the characters are easy to track, the comedy is broad and the magical convergence of the three worlds is satisfying. There's no real desperation here -- except for the set-up, in which the full-of-himself father, Egeus, demands that Duke Theseus allow him to put to death his child the fair Hermia if she refuses to accept as her husband the noble youth Demetrius.

Oh, Dad! Get a grip. Your Hermia is in love with Lysander, and your insistence is going to drive them both to elope, at night, via the enchanted forest where all those fairies hang out! And when Demetrius goes searching for her, he'll be followed by Helena, that ugly duckling who's in love with him.

Equally quarrelsome are fairy king Oberon and the fairy queen Titania. He commands his magic messenger Puck, known as Robin Goodfellow; she is attended by a swarm of lesser fairies.

And in this, the third corner, are the (original) rude mechanicals, the untutored group of skilled laborers who have decided to practice and put on a play to celebrate the Duke's wedding with Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons.

Lovers + Fairies + Rude Mechanicals = lots of quarreling, clowning, enchantments, love potions, and eventually a happy ending.

The action flowed smoothly and in spectacular fashion. The UT technical staff really knows its stuff -- costumes and makeup are superb, particularly for the magical beings, and the director and tech folks devised a sort of rolling scaffold that served variously as palace stairs, enchanted hillside, and fairy waystation. Fairy King Oberon and his minister Puck repeatedly flew down to us from the darkness above the catwalks. Abstract plastic draping behind the players transformed shape according to venue. The stage lighting, with rank on rank of gel-clad fresnels, floods, and spots, could nail our attention at will to any point in that wide, high space.

As action unfolds, that paper mosaic spread on the floor is gradually dispersed, converting our Athenian palace appropriately into a leaf-strewn forest at night.

We all had a good time. The actors were confident and funny, and the scrambles through the enchanted forest provided much laughter.

By far the most accomplished (accomplishéd?) in Shakespearean diction were the principals of the magic world. Tom Truss as fairy king Oberon, Kate deBuys as Titania his queen, and Shaun Patrick Tubbs (left) as Puck have the physical presence and assurance of gymnists or dancers, and in their fairy guise they're all very good looking. And they all knew how to wrap their mouths around Shakespeare's lines, to deliver meaning, character and poetry.

Their only equal in that regard was Xochitl Romero (right) as the fair eloper, Hermia. Romero, as Hermia, is angered, excited, eloping, prudish, abandoned, distraught, elated but then bewildered, finally triumphant, and then captivated by the actions of the play of the rude mechs. The action of the play turns upon Hermia, and Romero keeps her believable and fresh at every point in the progression.

Director Paul Mullins chose a cast entirely of actresses to portray the artisans -- Nick Bottom the weaver, Peter Quince, and the others who clownishly elaborate the play about tragic lovers of legend Pyramis and Thisbe.

It's hard to imagine that there might be a shortage of males to take those parts. Mullins may have found the big, jovial La Tasha Stephens (left) so much larger than life that he decided to cast her as Bottom and to build around her. She was highly successful with the audience, giving the hearty, bossy, prating Bottom a kind of "Big Momma" treatment.

A thought experiment -- what if Mullins had instead cast her as Puck and Shaun Patrick Tubbs as Bottom? That might have stretched each of them.

There's a silliness in some of the directing that seems to be aimed directly at amusing a relatively young audience. Lysander's come-on to Hermia when they sleep in the woods was a smirking frat boy's approach to a hot date. And when the four lovers quarrel -- both men are magically entranced by plain-Jane Helena and scornful of the fair Hermia -- do we really need to have them all spitefully pulling off one another's clothing? Mind you, they are all beautiful in their underwear, and there's a funny moment when they're discovered asleep in a pile by Duke Theseus, the ultimate R.A.

A special recognition, accompanied by a carnation, to Verity Branco (right) in her tiny role as Snug, the mechanical picked to play the Lion. Branco is really, really funny and really, really guilelessly attentive, every moment that she's onstage in that character.

Both halves of the audience were well entertained. And anyone else who makes the trip to 23rd and San Jacinto can have the same satisfactions!

Review in the Daily Texan by Aboubacar N'Diaye, November 19

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Upcoming: Bah, Humbug! A One-Man Version of Dickens' Christmas Carol, Dougherty Arts Center, December 22

The Company Theatre is gearing up for its sixth annual Christmas tour of Bah, Humbug throughout the state of Texas.

Award-winning actor and Artistic Director of The Company, Damian Gillen, presents his unique, one-man adaptation of Dickens classic A Christmas Carol during a 10-city statewide tour, which includes a December 22 performance at Austin's Dougherty Arts Center.

Bah, Humbug
is an imaginative adaptation of Charles Dickens’ tale of hope and compassion, but it has a unique twist. Gillen plays all the roles in this theatrical extravaganza that chronicles the story of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, who is challenged to open his heart after being confronted by three spirits during a one-night whirlwind journey of redemption. The play is supported by numerous costume changes, special effects and traditional Celtic Christmas tunes.

The Company Theatre is an independent, collaborative, touring theatre company dedicated to delivering high-quality, family-friendly productions that present live theatre as a viable entertainment option to inspire people of all ages. The Company Theatre’s critically acclaimed troupe of actors, audience-tested production capabilities and memorable adaptations of renowned works have been delighting Texas audiences since 1993. For more information visit:

Upcoming: Xmas unwrapped - A Holiday Burlesque, December 4- 20

Found November 18:

Shrewd Productions presents

Directed by Melissa Livingston

Opens December 4, 2008

Back by popular demand! Shrewd Productions is thrilled to celebrate the season with the return of your favorite holiday treat, X-Mas UnWrapped: A Holiday Burlesque!

We're bringing back a few of your favorites from years past, and we have a host of new numbers we can't wait to show you! X-Mas UnWrapped: A Holiday Burlesque Featuring The Jingle Belles: Kristen Bennett, Monika Bustamante, Alisha Golding, Shannon Grounds, Cassie Guard, T. Lynn Mikeska, Marisa Pisano and Sarah Skelton!


Thursdays - Saturdays, at 9:00p.m.
Hyde Park Theatre 511 W. 43rd St.
Tickets: $15 - $30, sliding scale

Upcoming: La Pastorela, Austin Latino Theatre at Mexican American Cultural Center, December 4 - 20

Found on November 18, an all-Spanish production:

La Pastorela, a production of the Austin Latin Theatre Alliance (ALTA)

Enjoy the 11th annual production of this delightful all-Spanish Christmas comedy which tells the story of a group of shepherds trying to reach Bethlehem while they fend off the obstacles placed before them by the savvy devils.

Directed by Luis Ordaz of Proyecto Teatro, Austin’s only all-Spanish theater company.

Of special interest: The December 12th presentation will be preceded by LUPE Arte’s annual event, Virgen de Guadalupe Art Festival. This year LUPE Arte will host a Posada followed by the presentations and exhibits of the art created by the students of their Niños y Arte program during the Fall Semester and as always, a traditional Mexican holiday meal will be served.

The Free Festival is open to the public at 6 p.m.
Mexican American Cultural Center 600 River Street Austin, TX 78701

Performances of La Pastorela at 8 p.m.

Upcoming: It's A Wonderful Life, Larry L. King Theatre of Austin Playhouse, December 5 - 21

Received November 18:

The second play in the King Theatre Season is inspired by the classic American film, It's a Wonderful Life.

It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is performed as a 1940s live radio broadcast in front of a studio audience. Six actors perform the dozens of characters in the radio play as well as produce the sound effects! It’s a Wonderful Life is family friendly fun for the holiday season. With only eleven performances we expect most shows will fill up, so call today to make your reservations!

It’s a Wonderful Life is directed by Lara Toner, and stars Rachel Dendy, Molly Karrasch, Michael Stuart, Benjamin Summers, Dirk van Allen, and Ben Wolfe.

Performances are Thursday - Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 5pm. Tickets are $20 each, $3 discount for subscribers and their guests. All students are half-price. Children 5 and up are welcome!

Call (512) 476-0084 for reservations.

Getting Married by George Bernard Shaw, Different Stages at the Vortex, November 14 - December 6

George Bernard Shaw wrote Getting Married exactly a century ago.

To my delight, I discovered that the New York Times makes available a copy of Catherine Welch’s 3800-word review of May 24, 1908, a full page of the paper, including sketches of GBS and two actors.

I haven’t read it yet, because with some difficulty I impose on myself the discipline of writing my own review before consulting others.

But I couldn’t avoid absorbing Mrs. Welch’s subtitles:
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW ON "GETTING MARRIED"; In His Singularly Unconventional Comedy He Tries Various Substitutes for Matrimony, but Finds No Good One. Incidentally He Thinks That Children Are a Kind of Wild Beast and That Old Maids Would Make Excellent Mothers.

There is a lot more to Shaw’s play than that, both in the printed version and in the lively interpretation being delivered by Different Stages at the Vortex.

Shaw was a man of ideas, a Fabian socialist from Ireland who delighted in goading the British upper classes. He was amazingly prolific (63 plays, 250,000 private letters, 5 novels) and prolix (he prefaced the printed text of Getting Married with a 30-page essay on matrimony, skewering conventional morality and asserting that the institution more resembled slavery than an access to "happiness"). Incidentally, he lived to the age of 94, dying in 1950 from complications of a fall out of a tree, and he is the only individual to have won both the Nobel prize and an Oscar (for the script of the first filmed version of "Pygmalion").

The simple interior of the Vortex, with the audience arrayed along two sides of a square playing space, gives us a generic interior. There’s a table and chairs in the middle, a fireplace upstage and exits upstage left and right. This could be anywhere – though a clumsy portrait of an ancestor hints at England.

The locale and atmosphere are established instead by the actors and their costumes. The women are all beautifully dressed; among the men, only the general could have used a bit more attention, with additional braid and a better quality of scarlet jacket.

GBS takes aim at the institution of matrimony by giving us mannered family chatter amongst the three Northbridge brothers, who are a general, a bishop, and a man about town, with their significant others and with the garrulous caterer/tradesman Mr. Collins. The characters are gathering for the wedding of the bishop’s youngest daughter Edith.

General Boxer Bridgenorth proposes for the tenth time in 20 years to Lesbia Grantham, his very much unmarried sister-in-law. Brother Reginald (Craig Kanne, left) is revealed to be obtaining a divorce from his perky young wife Leo (Lindsey Reeves, right), gallantly making way for her to pursue St. John Hotchkiss, a talkative, snobbish young ex-military man. Abruptly, today's scheduled wedding ceremony stalls because both Edith and prospective groom Cecil Sykes have become alarmed by tracts warning them of the legal pitfalls of matrimony.

Authoritatively bustling about is the matter-of-fact caterer Collins, reminiscent of Alfred Doolittle in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. Collins (Zac Crofford, having a good time), recounts cheerful stories about his sister-in-law the mayoress, Mrs. George – an impulsive libertine with a heart of gold, enduring love for her patient husband, and a gift of Delphic utterance.

Shaw delights in putting all sorts of contrarian observations into the mouths of his characters. For example, Reg’s soon-to-be-ex-wife Leo scandalizes the men when she declares that she would quite like to have several husbands: for example, Reg, St. John, some other young man with whom to be "quite wicked," and a saint, but just once a year. Sputtering, they call in their brother Alfred the bishop. Alfred listens patiently to her, including her complaint that Reg’s conversation had gotten boring. His rejoinder:

THE BISHOP. You see, my dear, you’ll exhaust St. John's conversation, too, in a week or so. A man is like a phonograph with half-a-dozen records. You soon get tired of them all; and yet you have to sit at table whilst he reels them off to every new visitor. In the end you have to be content with his common humanity; and when you come down to that, you find out about men what a great English poet of my acquaintance used to say about women: that they all taste alike. Marry whom you please: at the end of a month he'll be Reginald over again. It wasn’t worth changing: indeed it wasn’t.

LEO. Then it's a mistake to get married.

THE BISHOP. It is, my dear; but it's a much bigger mistake not to
get married.

As for the problem of the reluctant bridal pair, the bishop brings in the severely celibate church administrator and solicitor Father Anthony to help draw up a marriage contract. Suggestions criss-cross, debate and polemic fly apace, and the moral, legal, sentimental and religious grounds for the institution are thoroughly and wittily ventilated. Finally, at a loss, the bishop follows the counsel of caterer Collins and calls in the libertine Mayoress with the heart of gold to help explore the matter.

In this play of ideas the repartee is sharp and comic. But the piece is not only talk. Shaw includes some clever plot twists, including a come-uppance for the snob St. John, a truth-telling trance for the Mayoress, and the resolution of the dilemma of the young couple.

Lampooning of sexual mores of the very early 20th century is fun, particularly when one remembers the later liberties of the Bloomsbury set in London and of the roaring twenties in the United States. But the debate doesn’t target our own day very precisely – given today’s 50% termination rate for marriages, in the United States at least, and the long established variety of possibilities of escape from stifled, abusive or barren relationships.

Sex doesn’t have much to do with the discussions of Getting Married. It is hardly mentioned., Leo’s proposed polyandry is a search after diverting conversation. And despite Miss Lesbia Grantham’s first name, she professes no strong affections for other women – rather, she objects to the messiness, intrusion and tobacco smell of men in general. She appears to be, by preference, an abstainer from all carnal relations. (The Victorian attitude toward lesbianism is indicated by their commonplace interpretation that the Greek lesbian poet Sappho was, in fact, the governess of a girls’ school.)

Under Norman Blumensaadt's assured direction the cast has a fine time with Shaw’s zingers. My favorite was Emily Erington as Mrs. George, who appears, finally, as the voice of reasonable unreason, but only in the last act. Her small-boned vivacity, toughness and openness could seduce any reasonable man.

The Mayoress is nicely matched in a battle with Tyler Jones as the well-spoken, whimsical snob (but not cad) St. John Hotchkiss. I kept expecting that sporty mustache to fall off his upper lip, but it defied us and rode triumphantly through his ups and downs.

Craig Kanne as brother Reginald has a decisiveness, exuberance and comic timing very much like those of American actor/writer Wallace Shawn, whom he somewhat resembles. And he has a fine way of flapping the tail of his morning coat to emphasize his pique.

Alfred Bridgenorth, the bishop, could have been the slip-knot at the center of the matrimonial dilemma, and GBS certainly meant the gently doubting bishop to carry his humanitarian message. Randall Lorenz captures the genteel nature of the cleric, but in an atmosphere of assertive, cadenced talk by others, his relatively quiet delivery is overshadowed and loses some of its comedy. He comes across as simply too nice a guy. As his foil Father Anthony, Steven Fay is agreeably grumpy, bristle-browed and believable.

The pace is lively, but the director chose to follow the example of Shaw's 1908 production by inserting two brief intermissions in a text that Shaw wrote as an uninterrupted action. This allowed spectators access to the comfortable, well-stocked Vortex café, but it ran an already lengthy play to an elapsed playing time of three hours.

During the closing scenes I noted a shifting and possible impatience among some of the spectators. Perhaps, I thought, the piece was too long? (Who was I to say? Recalling Hamlet’s exasperated reply to Polonius: "It shall to the barber’s, with your beard. Prithee say on: He's for a jig, or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps.")

The next day I downloaded the text from Project Gutenberg and read it with pleasure – and discovered that in fact, Shaw wraps up his plot with fine flourishes by page 77, when St. John Hotchkiss jovially refers to the impulsive Leo as "She Who Must Be Obeyed" (a tag used in our own day by John Mortimer’s comic character Rumpole of the Old Bailey, in reference to his wife).

But GBS couldn’t let go of the polemic – from that point forward he holds St. John and the Mayoress on stage for another five long pages with the severely celibate Father Anthony, on the pretext that because of her high office she must wait for a sufficient crowd to gather offstage. They further debate the meaning and usefulness of matrimony with the annoyed and dismissive priest/solicitor, The exchange yields not very much entertainment, even though it is full of pithy observations (a bit like that 30-page preface that Shaw printed with the play).

As a director, I probably would not have the audacity to cut the text of the redoubtable George Bernard Shaw. But as a spectator, I wish that GBS had done so, himself!

Michael Barnes' review in the Austin Statesman's on-line entertainment site Austin 360, November 24

Elizabeth Cobbe's review in the Austin Chronicle of November 28

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Opening: House of Blue Leaves, Texas State at San Marcos, November 18 - 23

Found on-line:

The Department of Theatre and Dance at Texas State University-San Marcos presents John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves.

Performances will be Nov. 18-22 at 7:30 p.m. with a 2 p.m. matinee performance on Nov. 23 in the University Performing Arts Center.

The House of Blue Leaves is an outrageous comedy about Artie, a zoo keeper who dreams of becoming a famous songwriter. In this ode to the American Dream, Artie’s quest for fame and fortune is thwarted by his crazy wife, an overbearing girlfriend, and a menagerie of other characters.

The production is directed by Jay Jennings.

Admission is $10 for the general public and $7 for students with a Texas State ID. Tickets can be purchased at the University Box Office in the Theatre Center, located at the corner of Moon Street and University Drive and available by phone at (512) 245-2204.
For additional information, call (512) 245-2147.

By Lauren A. Lamb University News Service November 14, 2008

Monday, November 17, 2008

Upcoming: Sylvia, Austin Playhouse, November 21 - December 28

received November 17:

Austin Playhouse presents Sylvia by A.R. Gurney, November 21 - December 28, 2008

Austin Playhouse’s main stage season continues with this heartwarming comedy where an unlikely romantic triangle forms between a man, his wife, and a mutt named Sylvia. Greg and Kate have moved to Manhattan after raising their children in the Connecticut countryside.

Their comfortable lives are thrown into chaos when Greg brings home a street-smart dog. Kate fears the dog will disturb their urban bliss. Greg however, is instantly enamored with the pooch and refuses to give her up. The resulting conflict will test their marriage and determine which bonds, marital or to man’s best friend, are really stronger!

Sylvia stars an all star cast of Austin Playhouse Acting Company members including David Stahl as Greg, Bernadette Nason, as Kate, Zach Thompson, and Andrea Osborn as Sylvia.

Sylvia is directed by Michael Stuart with costumes designed by Buffy Manners, lighting designed by Don Day, and sound designed by the Gunn Brothers.

Performances: Thursday – Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 5pm
No Performances on Thanksgiving and Christmas Austin Playhouse Address: 3601 S. Congress, Bldg. C

Tickets: $26 Thursday, Friday, $30 Saturday, Sunday
All student tickets are half-price.

Box office/information (512) 476-0084 or
Austin Playhouse proudly presents Sylvia by A.R. Gurney.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bacchae, Austin Community College Rio Grande Campus, November 14 - 23

Powerful, mythic, pagan and frightening –ACC’s Bacchae, directed by Arthur Adair and presented by a cast that is dedicated, haunting, and decisive, is no easy evening of theatre. This profound experience grabs you by the throat and opens your eyes to a world of danger and excess.

Take a look at the letters of the title. That glistening, dripping red-orange color is uncomfortably close to smeared blood. Think about that if you’re vaguely attracted to a play that offers some nudity.

Adair and his cast have taken key conventions of the classic Greek theatre, including the use of masks and the use of the multi-person chorus speaking and chanting as a single individual. But unlike the static presentations of antiquity, their piece surges out of the frame. The first row of seats is prohibited to the public, for they are used as points of attack for the actors. Entrances and scenes play out along the center aisle and sides. Actors speak and chant from the rear. The fascinating, harrowing action of this play can come at you from any direction, up close and personal.

Few in the audience will know the story. The program handed out at the door is diverting in itself, with information about Euripides, some rambling director’s notes, an acknowledgement that the text is pulled from several sources, the technical info and bios of the players and staff. But it doesn’t summarize the plot, and spectators may be confused about the names and the story at the same time that their senses are being overfilled with spectacle.

Briefly and without much erudition, then, a summary of the action:

Dionysius, also known as Bacchus, is the god of wine, altered states, frenzy and ecstasy – in this case, etymologically, ec + stasis, which means “removal to someplace completely different.” He is the child of the great god Zeus, who mated with the mortal woman Semele. Her body was consumed as if by lightning; Zeus saved the engendered child and sealed it within his thigh for the period of gestation. As the play opens, Cadmus the retired king of Thebes and the blind prophet Tiresias lament the disorder in the city-kingdom; women have disappeared from the city into the forests, where they are indulging in rites to honor Dionysus (dionysian revels are also known as bacchanals, so the celebrants are the “bacchae,” – singular, “bacchante”). Cadmus’ daughter Agave is leading the rites; the bare-breasted celebrants chant verse that is rhythmic, poetic and menacing.

Agave’s son Pentheus, now exercising kingly authority, is having none of it. Pentheus does not believe in Dionysus and scorns the cult. His soldiers captured and imprisoned bacchae, and he sends his men off to arrest a fresh-faced young foreigner reported to be encouraging these excesses.

Pentheus’s arrogance (hubris) means that he will inevitably and literally get the shaft by the end of the play. His men bring in the foreigner, eerily embodied by three shaven-headed young men speaking simultaneously in the same voice. Pentheus, who sees only a single individual, challenges this Dionysian missionary on his faith but gets no satisfactory answers. Soldiers pack the three-in-one offstage to prison, where the chains and locks on him and his celebrants give way. The women escape again to the woods.

Infuriated, Pentheus has the stranger brought back to court. Messenger-soldiers report on the ecstatic rituals of the escaped women. The men chant from the rear of the auditorium; before us, onstage, bathed in floods of light, blood-red and ice-blue, the bacchae carry out their rituals. Pentheus’ reason is numbed by Dionysus’ words. Hypnotised, he avows his desire to see the bacchic rites. He agrees to Dionysus’ suggestion to disguise himself in a woman’s robe, lifted without his knowledge from his mother’s body. Pentheus situates himself in the top of a pine tree, the better to peek upon the ceremonies. His mother and the other bacchae tear him to pieces.

(And maybe you thought that the classics were boring?)

Agave returns to the court, proclaiming to her father Cadmus (grandfather to King Pentheus, remember) that the women have captured a fine lion. She carries Pentheus’ head and her followers dump a sack of body parts at her feet. The solemn, grieving tones of Cadmus (Roberto Riggio) bring her out of her rapture and she realizes that through her Dionysus has taken revenge.

At this point the single extant Greek text is missing pages. Director and cast elected to stop the action so the dramaturg Ryan Manning could explain. After a few lame jokes from the dramaturg and a couple of false starts, director Adair instructs Cadmus and Agave to cut to the end – a desolate dialogue about loss and change.

The cast in this production achieve an elevated, almost hallucinatory intensity in their lines, establishing the action in an imaginary sphere far from the merely representative drama with which American audiences are so familiar. It is coherent and compelling. The multiplication of Dionysus, the throb and drone of music, the use of partial and then total nudity, the eerie and highly effective use of light and space – all of this induces in the spectators feelings resembling those of the enraptured bacchae. There is a severe and unpleasant jolt when this style is interrupted – early on, for example, when the ancients Cadmus and Tiresias are briefly played as clowns, with asides to the audience and even a trill from Tiresias from West Side Story (“I feel pretty. . . .”). In contrast, the jolt works in positive fashion at the missing pages toward the end, which probably contained an injunction to the city of Thebes from cloud-borne Dionysus (a “deus ex machina” not for magic resolution but rather for judgment and admonition). Even there, however, a sobre, even puzzled tone might have worked better than jokiness.

Triplifying Dionysus was an inspired stroke – first, as Adair explained in the post-production Q&A, because it establishes him as an immortal beyond human comprehension. But also because it gives three closely tied but nevertheless differentiated views of that godhead. Patrick Byers, John Montoya and J.R. Zambrano impress not only with their crisp, multiplied diction, but also in the odd and intimidating choreography of their movement.

Josh McGlasson, as Pentheus the tragic hero of the piece, is authoritative and eloquent at every moment – becoming even more so as he is gradually unsexed and sent into plaintive narcotic helplessness. Following the symbolic murder he remains kneeling, stunned, as the bacchantes caress the swaths of crimson gauze representing his torn tissues and Ashley Monical as his mother Agave exults and lifts a replica of his head.

Soldiers Carlos Lujan, Thomas Moore, John Osborne showed agility and discipline; their chanted account of the bacchic rituals instilled a hypnotic counterpart to the visual enactment onstage.

Sincere thanks to bacchae Esther Jimena Garcia, Anna McConnell, Aisa Palomares, and Sally Anne Marie Ziegler, as well as to Ashley Monical as Agave, for their courage and accomplishment in carrying out this challenging action. Their mastery of the text was superb. They were alluring, vulnerable, and profoundly unsettling for us – as I sat in the second row on opening night, at one point early in the spectacle a bacchante loomed over us in the eerie half-light of the public space. The rapture and fierce living certainty of her chant left me crouching low, as if any false move would unleash catastrophe.

The Bacchae is memorable, otherworldly and a triumph for Arthur Adair, for his cast, and for Austin Community College. Not to be missed!

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Three Sisters, Chekhov, Mary Moody Northern Theatre, November 13 - 23

St Edward’s Mary Moody Northern Theatre with its current production of The Three Sisters of Chekhov has again realized a fine synergy by adding two professional actors to an admirable cast of undergraduates.

The quality and success of university productions in the Austin area is almost depressing – so much talent and energy! This is a great boon for those of us who take the time to explore it, but it seems strange to have all that star power flaring hot out there and yet largely unrecognized.

The three Prozorov sisters and their brother Andrei reside in a distant Russian province but cherish memories of life in Moscow with their late father, a brigadier general. Their yearning for escape from the stifling provinces is much discussed, and a common interpretation of the play is that the entire movement is the effort to get to Moscow, a half-imagined magic circle of sophistication and light.

This lyric production is anchored by Marc Pouhé as a talkative middle-aged lieutenant colonel, saddled with an unbalanced termagant wife but wistfully in love with the only married sister, Masha, and by Ev Lunning, Jr., as the 60ish bibulous military doctor Chebutykin, regretful, ill-educated and gone to seed but deeply attached to the Prozorovs.

Cribbing from my own recent comments about the Nina Variations: “Chekhov’s plays always give us a large cast of characters. Family members, friends, local officials, servants and others spend much of their time in desultory talk with and about one another. The trivial mixes with the transcendent. There is a slow overall movement through his plays, but just as in real life, the present moment is the most important. And the present moment is often filled with longing, with banter, with philosophizing, with small absurdities.”

Or, better, quoting the author himself as cited by Robert Brustein, “Let the things that happen onstage be just as complex and yet just as simple as they are in life. For instance, people are having a meal at table, just having a meal, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being smashed up."

Act I of The Three Sisters gives us the celebration for the youngest sister, Irina, on her saint’s day, much of which takes place about a central table. Lt. Col. Vershinin (Pouhé) makes his first call; the vulgar local girl Natasha attends as well and captures the attention of the brother, Andrei. Act II, 18 months later, shows us Natasha, now married to Andrei, inexorably extending her influence over the household, as the same group of military officers young and old gathers to socialize and to court the sisters; Natasha puts an end to the evening by prohibiting the scheduled visit of Mardi Gras musicians.

Act III, two years further along, is set late during a summer night as all are dealing with the aftermath of a catastrophic fire in the village. And Act IV, that autumn, gives us the definitive reassignment of the artillery brigade, Irina’s decision to marry, and an offstage quarrel and duel.

Throughout the play the vulgar Natasha extends her influence and expropriates the sisters; the sisters seek work, affection and pleasure that is never completed; and Dr. Chebutykin hums, grumbles, resumes his drinking, and mutters again and again, “It’s all one. . . .”
Moscow and the dream of escape fade into impossibility.

In the midst of disaster, in the closing lines Olga tries to reassure her sisters: ”Oh, dear sisters, our life is not over yet. We shall live! The music is so gay, so joyous, it seems as if just a little more and we shall know why we live, why we suffer. . . If only we knew, if only we knew!”

Sounds like a downer, doesn’t it? But no, it isn’t at all – Chekhov draws each of the characters vividly and director Sheila Gordon keeps her actors bouncing off one another, taking the greatest possible advantage of the remarkable, large “theatre in a square” that is the Mary Moody Northern Theatre. At one point the dinner party at stage center goes into silent, animated slow motion as the thoughtful and sincere first lieutenant Baron Tuzenbach (Nathan Osburn) relentlessly courts Irina, who keeps backing away from him.

The pace of the first two acts is intense and in fact almost too fast – for example, as Irina, Steffanie Ngo-Hatchie is charming and expressive but moves and speaks with the accelerated metabolism of a bird trying to escape from a cage. Act II and the first half of the production conclude with an unscripted, choreographed house invasion by the Mardi Gras musicians, who swirl around Irina and sweep her away.

It would not be fair to pick favorites, since this is such an ensemble piece and each character and actor achieves at least one intensely memorable scene. Guest artists Pouhé and Lunning are sympathetic and give fully realized portraits of decent men in impossible situations. Masha (Dorothy Ann Bond), the unhappily married sister who falls for Lt. Col. Vershinin, is sharp tongued, trapped and eloquent. Her brief, intense farewell to him shows both hearts breaking.

Olga (Julia Trinidad), who gives way to the inevitability of becoming a school teacher, has to listen to her brother’s rambling confession and complaints late at night after the fire in Act III. Her silent reaction to him, sitting stock still, speaks a world of emotion and meaning, far more than his blathering.

The eccentric, snarky Captain Solyony (Nathan Brockett) is in turns generous, offensive, pitiable, and threatening. . . . Et j’en passe, as the French say – there’s too much for me to recount.
This Three Sisters is a memorable evening, one with characters and actors who will stay with you.

Hannah Kenah's strongly positive review in the Austin Chronicle, November 19

Leila Bela's review on

Driving Miss Daisy, Hill Country Community Theatre, November 13 - 23

It’s a good thing that the Hill Country Community Players out near Marble Falls post a map on their website. When I keyed in “4003 FM 2147 West, Marble Falls, TX 78654,” Google Maps gave me a location that was a tortuous ten miles away from their locale. Google would have sent me way east of US 281, when in fact the HCCT is located on the road running by Cottonwood Shores in route to Lake LBJ. That’s about six miles west of Marble Falls. Driving west along FM 2147, it’s just after the Esso station.

Driving is, after all, a major theme of the second play of HCCT’s season. But not the principal one – this three-person piece is also a deft, humorous examination of cultural differences, employers and employees, and ageing. As much as anything else, it is a look at friendship – and love.

There’s no way to escape the fact that the 1990 film of Driving Miss Daisy was a huge success. It won 4 Oscars including Best Actress for the 81-year-old Jessica Tandy and recognized with Oscar nominations for Morgan Freeman (best actor) and for Dan Ackroyd (best supporting actor as Booley, the son). HCCT, programming like any sensible community theatre, chose this title because it was likely to attract an audience looking for comedy and a warm feeling. To put “rears on seats,” to paraphrase the British expression, and it appears to be working – 24 hours before the Thursday night opening the staff had about 120 reservations for the modest 134-seat theatre.

This production works well, on its own merits, thanks to excellent casting and capable direction by Glen Bird.

As the stern Miss Daisy, removed from driving after crashing a three-week-old car, Sally Stemac is all straight lines and angles, terse and dismissive; as the chauffeur Hoke, Robert King, Jr., is round, happy, simple of heart and straightforward. Miss Daisy resents his presence but eventually gives way to her need for transportation to get to the market and to the synagogue in Atlanta.

The two acts of the piece encompass 25 years of change, including most tellingly the rise of the civil rights movement, hate crime reactions and a testimonial to Martin Luther King.

This is a comedy of character, not one of farce. The pace is deliberate, and the relationship builds gradually before our eyes. Robert King, Jr., gives us Hoke as an uncomplicated man, eager to help, easy to laugh and gently insistent on his own dignity. As he drives, his chin is uplifted – in part to watch his passenger in the rear-view mirror, in part as a sign of his consciousness of his responsibilities. Sally Stemac in the rear seat is always precisely folded and rigorously attentive. There’s a great moment that shows that she has relaxed into the relationship with Hoke -- making comments on the awful singing voice of one of her women friends, she breaks suddenly into a caterwauling Alleluia, all the funnier because she doesn’t crack a smile, herself. Hoke takes it in stride.

Anson Hahn is the earnest and occasionally harassed son Boolie – an impressive presence in his own right, mediating as necessary but as unfailingly firm, fair and courteous as any good Southern gentleman.

Actors’ accents captured the gentle roll of the Southeast. I felt entirely at home with these characters, in large part because I come from the same region of the country. (I swear to God, I really did hear relatives saying, “She’ll snatch you bald-headed!”)

This was a far more believable depiction of relations both across cultures and across religions in the 1950s/1960s South than, for example, the neurotic Carolyn or Change, which has just concluded its run at Austin’s Zach Theatre.

Despite this, the piece is not saccharine. Outside events intrude on the close but well-defined relationship between Hoke and Daisy. She is taken aback to find that the synagogue has been bombed; Hoke is matter of fact about the haters who committed the act. He tells her of seeing the dead body of a childhood friend, lynched and left hanging from a tree with hands tied behind him.

The one serious difference between them comes when he is offended that she seeks at the very last minute to give him her tickets for a dinner honoring Martin Luther King. Not because of the gift – rather, because under pressure from her son she is trying to discharge her responsibility by shoving them off on him.

By the end, age has brought Miss Daisy to hospital care and failing eyesight has removed Hoke from behind the wheel. The final scene and blackout show us that the bond between them remains strong. Perhaps even stronger than blood ties.

HCCT is a relaxed and welcoming venue. On the “sneak peek” Wednesday, the stage manager, the director and Executive Director Jim McDermott came around to greet all of us in the relatively sparse “Free Night of Theatre” crowd. Both before the performance and at intermission we could hear backstage conversations between actors and production staff, and after the curtain call the actors moved quickly out to the lobby to greet us. With that kind of reception and that quality of entertainment, we’ll have every reason to go back.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Ophelia, Tutto Theatre Company at the Blue Theatre, November 7 - 23

The Ophelia – or Ophelias – of Tutto Theatre Company appearing currently at the Blue Theatre in east Austin is a puzzle and a frustration.

The more deceiv’d Ophelia of Shakespeare has deep resonance in our tradition. She is the enamoured, disappointed, dutiful daughter who returns her lover’s tokens per her father’s instructions and in complying with filial and social obligation becomes the pawn and victim of both sides.

Trapped in an impossible situation, powerless and then bereft of lover, father and brother, she departs from reality entirely. Ophelia sings, babbles of lost maidenhood, dispenses flowers redolent with symbolism and rebuke, then dies unseen, pulled to the depths of a pond as her garments absorb the dark water that pulls her down.

Ophelia was a favorite subject of late 19th and early 20th century painters and writers, including the pre-Raphelite brotherhood in England, a group of mostly male painters and writers given inter alia to swooning over the innocence and vulnerability of young girls. Take these visions, for example (click on image for larger version):

In our own day, psychologist Mary Piper employed the character in Ophelia Revived, a popularized 1994 study of social dilemmas and character changes of adolescent girls. A sample, implying her thesis: “Something dramatic happens to girls in early adolescence. Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves. They crash and burn in a social and developmental Bermuda Triangle. In early adolescence, studies show that girls’ IQ scores drop and their math and science scores plummet. They lose their resiliency and optimism and become less curious and inclined to take risks. They lose their assertive, energetic and “tomboyish” personalities and become more deferential, self-critical and depressed. They report great unhappiness with their own bodies.”

So there you are – the alluring character from Shakespeare, made eternal in plot, verse, and image, interpreted variously, including by gentle lechers and by concerned psychologists, fraught with possibilities for our own day.

No wonder director/author Dustin Wills selected Ophelia for his project – including a UT workshop with staged readings in 2005, and now, after his
villeggiatura in Italy, for this first production of a rechristened theatre company.

It just didn’t work for me.

Wills chose to split Ophelia into five personae – Ophelias “in love,” “impassioned,” “on edge,” “undone,” and “in water.” Designer Lisa Laratta and lighting designer Megan M. Reilly create a haunting nowhere for them to co-exist. Upon entering the theatre we find a rectangular space defined by chalk-white rafters with a teardrop pond at the back of it. The five Ophelias gather dreamily around the water.

As a joint persona, these five Ophelias are musical, lively and giggly, with the mischievous mutual confidence of high schoolers – they are high on life and thick as thieves. I half-expected one or another to whip out a cell phone and start text messaging.

There’s much movement here. For example, they perch on the five ladders ranged like trellises against the framework.
The choreography of these early scenes is novel and appealing, reinforcing the message of untouched innocence. Chanting, singing, and repetition are devices that emphasize the shared identity of the five.

The action of the piece consists of the sequential exploration of these five. Each steps forward to interact with father Polonius or with the hot Hamlet (both roles played by Gabriel Luna).

Ophelia in love (Sofia Ruiz) is the first on deck. After her unsuccessful interactions with the father/lover, she winds up dead on her back in the water, where she gets to stay for the next hour.

Ophelia impassioned (Chase Crossno) has the next go. She is strong, daring, flirtatious and determined, with an amusing “will she – won’t she – what does she want?” scene, but she gets no farther. Off to the pond.

Ophelia on edge (Lizzi Biggers) is more successful in seductive arts, but she betrays alarm and anguish at her deed. Hamlet just laughs; Polonius goes into righteous rage when he finds Hamlet’s discarded trousers in the playing space.

Off to the pond.

And then there were two.

At about that point I seriously lost interest.

Maybe because Wills’ script is a dog’s breakfast of texts, mixing contemporary adolescent slang (“Oh, shit!”) with pseudo-Elizabethan talk with Shakespeare’s 24-carat verse from other characters or other plays jammed unexpectedly into the mouths of the Ophelias.

I found the text tiresome and pretentious, like the quotes from Chaucer, Kafka and Peter Brook in the program and the “Hamlet, in brief” summary found there (c’mon – if some idiot doesn’t know the plot or Ophelia’s part in it, how can he possibly absorb it from a 26-line summary that includes everything, down to the kitchen sink of Fortinbras – who, by the way, did not “arrive from the conquest of England”).

This is not meant to take away from the zeal or attention of the actors in the piece. All five Ophelias, in their, oh, dear, pre-Raphelite stereotypical dresses, are earnest, vulnerable and convincing in their efforts to deliver that much afflicted child/woman. Gabriel Luna makes a good foil to them, though he speeds through some of the real Shakespeare bits without adequately parsing or delivering the meanings.

So -- good try, guys. Maybe next time the show would benefit from a dramaturg or a session with a script doctor.

Click for JustFo's approving review on

Click for Joey Seiler's review on Austin360, November 17

Click for Avimaan Syam's strongly positive review in the Austin Chronicle, November 19

Statesman "Best Bets" Clare Croft's brief interview with director Dustin Wills, November 4

Hannah Kenah's pre-production article in the Austin Chronicle of November 6

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Upcoming: A Profusion of Christmas Belles, November 21- December 21

The Austin Metro Area (if there is such a thing) will have THREE productions of the holiday comedy Christmas Belles, premiering at different companies:

Christmas Belles, City Theatre, December 4-21

Christmas Belles, Sam Bass Community Theatre, November 21 - December 13

Wimberly Players, November 28 - December 14

On some weekend nights in early December the shows will be running simultaneously!

See the Austin Live Theatre calendar or click on the companies above for ticket information.

Christmas Belles is the middle piece of a trilogy featuring the Futrelle family of the mythical town of Fayro, Texas. The first play was Dearly Beloved; the last is Southern Hospitality. Judging from the number of times they've been produced on the community theatre circuit across the United States, they must be making a mint for their trio of authors.

Here, courtesy of City Theatre Austin, is a summary of Christmas Belles and a description of the authors:

It's Christmas-time in the small town of Fayro, Texas, and the Futrelle Sisters—
Frankie, Twink and Honey Raye - are not exactly in a festive mood. A cranky Frankie is weeks overdue with her second set of twins. Twink, recently jilted and bitter about it, is in jail for inadvertently burning down half the town. And hot-flash-suffering Honey Raye is desperately trying to keep the Tabernacle of the Lamb's Christmas Program from spiraling into chaos. But things are not looking too promising: Miss Geneva, the ousted director of the previous twenty-seven productions, is ruthless in her attempts to take over the show. The celebrity guest Santa Claus—played by Frankie's long-suffering husband, Dub—is passing a kidney stone. One of the shepherds refuses to watch over his flock by night without pulling his little red wagon behind him, the entire cast is dropping like flies due to food poisoning from the Band Boosters' Pancake Supper and, of course, the pageant will be shown live on cable access television for the first time ever. And when Frankie lets slip a family secret that has been carefully guarded for decades, all hope for a successful Christmas program seems lost, even with an Elvis impersonator at the manger. But in true Futrelle fashion, the feuding sisters find a way to pull together in order to present a Christmas program the citizens of Fayro will never forget. Their hilarious holiday journey through a misadventure-filled Christmas Eve is guaranteed to bring joy to your world!

About the authors.

Jessie Jones co-authored the play Dearly Departed as well as its screen adaptation, Kingdom Come, which was released by Fox Searchlight Films in 2002. She has had several short stories published and has written for television sitcoms and an animated series for Walt Disney Productions. Jessie was also a character actor for many years, performing in New York and numerous regional theaters, as well as in TV (Murphy Brown, Designing Women, and Night Court) and film.

Nicholas Hope won the Texas New Playwrights Festival for his first play, A Friend of the Family. He has written for the TV series For Your Love and Teacher’s Pet. For many years, he was also director of casting for Theatre Communications Group in New York and ABC Television in Los Angeles.

Jamie Wooten has written and produced nearly 400 episodes of network television, including four seasons on the classic series The Golden Girls, as well as on the sitcoms For Your Love and Half & Half. He was a recipient of the Writers Guild of America Award for The Earth Day Special. Jamie is also an award-winning BMI songwriter.

“We are all Southerners,” Jones says. (Both she and Hope are Texans, Wooten is from Fremont, N.C.) “We write about Southern characters. We know what they eat for breakfast.”

In Christmas Belles, they’re careful not to make the characters into clichéd hillbillies, Jones says. “This is something that each of us has run into,” she says. “In New York, I was treated as the family pet because I was Southern. This is not Li’l Abner. We cherish these people.”