Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Producers, Georgetown Palace Theatre, September 26- November 2

This zany musical comedy comes bursting out of the Georgetown Palace stage like fireworks on the 4th of July.

Yes, we all know the story. After all, the Mel Brooks film about fraudsters producing a Broadway musical was released in 1968, forty years ago.

Brooks and co-writer Thomas Meehan turned it into a real Broadway musical in 2001, with musical numbers by Brooks, where it won an unprecedented 12 Tony awards and ran for 2500 performances. The London production ran for three years.

And in 2005 Sony Pictures made a movie of it – a movie about a musical about producing a musical, drawn from a movie about producing a musical.

But who cares? The Georgetown Palace production is terrific fun and its big- voiced glittering cast of 24 could have filled with music and laughter a hall ten times as large as the 300-seat Palace.

It’s gaudy, vulgar, suggestive, happy and filled with as many comics and Girls Girls Girls as any Ziegfield show.

you’ll recognize almost every bit from the movie(s) or the Broadway show – the fretful, mendacious Max Bialystock, his reluctant partner the nervous young CPA Leopold Bloom, Ulla the Swedish knockout with all those names, Otto the Nazi, flaming homosexuals, and the little old ladies enamored of Max. Mel Brooks spares no one, and that’s part of the fun of it.

When Jewish comedian Mel Brooks came up with the concept for The Producers and the musical number “Springtime for Hitler” back in 1968 it was a dazzling piece of audacity. For gosh sake, World War II had ended less than twenty-five years before that, and the “Greatest Generation,” contemporaries with Brooks, were in the spring of middle age.

Brooks was God’s fool, dancing on the rawest catastrophe of the western world and daring to laugh at the guilty, long and hard, while mocking the business of show business.

The Palace scrupulously advises its patrons,
Rated PG-13 for sexual humor and references and is intended for mature audiences.

The shock value is mostly gone today, although I wonder what conversations parents had after opening night with the various ten- to twelve-year-olds dressed in their best and seated in the front rows. In fact, those youngsters were probably unshockable - - but maybe apprehensive about discussing sex jokes and flowering queens with their parents.

Stars Matt Gauck as Max Bialystock and Larry Frier as the worried young Leo Bloom are a great pair of song-and-dance comedians.

Gauck must have been stifling under the stage lights with that padded belly and an elaborate bald wig with comb-over; the ageing effect of his makeup was a bit too sharp in the opening scenes but the fast pace and relentless clowning got it properly blended in.

Bialystock is the epitome of an unscrupulous egotist, and the ongoing gag of his instruction of the naïve Bloom on Broadway ethics and morals was comic and cautionary.

A quick summary, in case you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last 40 years: Bialystock is on his way down, reduced to seducing a stable of little old ladies for funds. Visiting him, the grandma type nicknamed “Hold Me,Touch Me” suggests coyly, ”Let’s play the virgin milkmaid and the well hung stable boy!”

Bloom, the quiet, worried accountant, comments to Bialystock in passing that if backers lost money in a show, it would be easy to conceal contributions and keep excess financing. Bialystock leaps on the idea and pushes Bloom to become his partner in crime.

Bloom declines, but back at the Dickensean accounting office, he succumbs to visions of glamor, success and showgirls.

So B&B set out to find the worst possible script, the worst possible director, and the worst possible actors. And they succeed!

The script is “Springtime for Hitler” by unrepentent Nazi Franz Liebkind (Bill Lindstrom, also a fine hoofer, with accent, helmet and mad-eyed devotion).
[German: "Liebkind" = English "Love Child."]

The director is Roger DeBris (Matt Connely), as wildly, extravagantly queer as one could imagine, shown here being coiffed by his sidekick Carmen Ghia (played with wicked, pouting, hip-swiveling delight by Palace regular Matthew Burnett). ["Bris" is the Jewish ritual of circumcision, carried out on a Jewish male child the 8th day after birth; the "Carmen Ghia" was a nifty sport car from the 1950s.]

And for the actors, Nazi Liebkind and the luscious Swedish cupcake Ulla Inga Hansen Bensen Yonsen Tallen-Hallen Svaden-Svanson. Bialystock explains to Bloom, “There’s always a part for the producer’s girlfriend!”

Nicole Pritchard as Ulla can act, sing, and dance, and she’s as tasty a bit of eye-candy as you’re likely to see. Pritchard has just gotten to Austin after playing Disney characters at Orlando for three years. Texans are clear winners by the change.

The show goes on, complete with that signature number, “Springtime for Hitler.”

Ulla plays a sort of Miss Rhinegold walk-on (a concept straight out of Ziegfield).

The show is a disaster. But only for Bialystock and Bloom. At the last minute they must substitute director DeBris for Nazi Liebkind in the role of Hitler, and a campy, crowd-loving Adolf makes the show a smash hit.

Max Bialystock gets arrested while Bloom and Ulla abscond to Brazil. Max waxes indignant in jail, recounting in fragmentary fashion the whole plot to that point, getting one of the biggest laughs in the show.

Bloom returns. Both go to prison, where they put on a wildly successful prison revue and get pardons. They celebrate with a fine bit of hoofing at the end.

Before the show, director Mary Ellen Butler greeted the opening night audience and invited them to the on-stage post-production party. She warned us that because technical director Ron Watson had just sprained an ankle, his substitute working the twelve sets of flies (hoistable scenery) might be shaky from time to time. And by the way, Austin’s Paramount theatre is equipped with only ten sets of flies.

So what’s not to like, already? This show has energy, glitter, comedy and class; it’s an insouciant salute to the big kid in all of us. It makes us say, like Leopold Bloom, I wanna be a producer, too.

Congratulations to cast, director, and crew. This was a huge, complicated piece to produce. Mary Ellen says that 2000 hours of volunteer labor went into construction of the sets. Ensemble members had up to 9 costume changes and pitched in to keep those scene changes running smoothly. They all appeared to be having the time of their lives. They certainly deserved that enthusiastic applause at the curtain call.

And congratulations once again to the Georgetown Palace Theatre for its vaulting ambition and the high quality of its entertainment!

Warren & Derrick's on-line favorable comments about this production, October 20

Ronnisrants comments, October 25

New York Times rave review of the Broadway production, April 20, 2001 - - “A Scam That’ll Knock ‘em Dead”

Wikipedia on The Producers (Musical)

The 1968 movie at Internet Movie Database (IMDB.com), with a 42-image slide show

IMDB memorable quotes (lots of them!) from The Producers, 2005 movie version

Monday, September 29, 2008

Free Night of Theatre, Various Venues, October 16 - November 13

List now available on-line, with links for reservations live from noon on Monday, October 13. Austin region shows announced so far are listed below. More may be added.

3 Mo' Divas
410 [Gone]
Annual Hispanic Heritage Month Concert
Ballet Austin Season Openers
Caroline or Change
Drving Miss Daisy
Glengary, Glen Ross
The Laramie Project
Night of the Living Dead
The Refraction Arts Project
The Shocker Haunted House
The Souls of Our Feet II: An Introduction to American Tap Dance
The Taming of the Shrew

Cloud 9, Mary Moody Northern Theatre, St. Edwards Unversity, September 25- October 5

You must see this production. It plays only four more times, this coming weekend.

Unless you’re uneasy with frank sexual language.

Unless you get disoriented by anachronism, gender bending and actors morphing character, sex, time and intention.

Unless you are frightened by vulnerability, farce, celebration or intimacy.

Unless you prefer to miss breath taking range and versatility in acting by students and professionals alike.

“Cloud 9,” the title, is a metaphor for sexual ecstasy. UK playwright Caryl Churchill worked with an improvisational theatre group in 1978, then reworked the ideas into this piece, which opened in 1979.

It plays today as fresh as a daisy, because the attractions and confusions of sex do not date.

That, in fact, is one premise of the play.

Act I shows us a group of pukkah sahib Brits somewhere in 1870 in colonial Africa, full of imperial certainties and sexual yearnings blooming in the dangerous dead air of foreign menace. Act II gives us the same seven actors and some of the same characters but played by different members in the cast, transposed to 1979 London. They are searching for love and sexual fulfillment in a post-imperial Britain where freedoms offer greater dangers, more confusions and new opportunities.

Raising the ante, Churchill specifies that certain key roles are to be played by actors of the opposite sex.

Undergrad theatre students at St. Edwards seize this opportunity to show an astonishing range.
Guest artists Babs George and Matt Radford further strengthen the cast.

Ms. George surely should be nominated for a B. Iden Payne award for her performance in a duo and then solo scene at the finale as a fragile older woman belatedly awakening to sexuality.

Oh, for the certainties of Victorian times! Playwright Churchill does a fine job on the neuroses of those bearing the White Man’s Burden.

Jacob Trussell as explorer Harry Bagley (left) and Radford as administrator Clive (right) are blustering and adamant in their Duty beyond the reach of civilization. Behind that façade, though, they are boiling with frustration and passion (and not for one another).

The intimate, claustrophobic circle of society on the frontier includes their family members – Clive’s wife Betty (Christopher Smith,'10, right) and her mother Maud (Babs George, left). Smith is absolutely convincing in his depiction of the delicate Betty, stifled by circumstance, intimidated by the hypocritical, dogmatic Clive, and plaintively wishing for escape with explorer Harry. This is an entrancing performance.

As her mother, Babs George is sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued.

But we, the audience, are certainly not stifled. Act I is a happily wicked, fast-moving farce. Clive frantically pursues a widow brandishing a riding crop; and his wife Betty unwittingly attracts the passionate interest of the family governess (both roles by Helyn Rain Messenger, a graduating senior, played with such panache that I didn’t realize they were done in alternation by the same actress, in the same act).

Son Edward (Sarah Burkhalter, '10) prefers, instead of hunting and playing sport, playing with dolls.

African houseboy Joshua is at Churchill’s specification, played by a white (Jon Wayne Martin, ‘11). Joshua serves impassively amidst this madness, his anger growing as danger brews in the dark beyond the stage.

Act II, set in contemporaneous 1979, is equally fast moving, with the shock of recognizing those same actors in entirely different characters. Language is direct, dramatic, sometimes crude. The same uncertainties and desires are driving, but in the confusion and indulgence of contemporary society they take far different forms.

Take, for instance, the transformation of Smith from repressed colonial housewife to self-confident, cruising homosexual. And that of Martin from trusted servant to his gay lover Edward who would really prefer to be a woman, or maybe, if the opportunity arose, a lesbian.

Babs George hovers in genteel nervousness over the act, seeking to support her confused family – Edward the homosexual, daughter Victoria (Messenger) who is massively frustrated with her husband Martin (Radford) and their impossible daughter Cathy (another wondrous cross-gender performance, by Trussell, '10, formerly macho explorer Harry Bagley).

Sexes blur, sex blurs. In a dark wood there occurs an evocation of dark powers and an almost orgy, an apparition from beyond the grave, and a scandalized spouse. The comedy comes hard and fast, interspersed with scenes of a tenderness and intimacy that give you awe and make you squirm.

All of this builds into an explosion of light, color and music.

Thanks to the administration at St. Ed’s for a lack of prudery and to the theatre staff there for taking on this play. Director David Long keeps his characters smoothly in motion so as to minimize the disadvantages of this vast theatre-in-the-square. The pace of the action is varied and finely tuned.

And this cast offers us a memorable evening, one that reminds us of the wonder and opportunity of passion.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Romeo and Juliet, Sam Bass Community Theatre, Round Rock, September 19 - October 11

The Romeo and Juliet now playing at the Sam Bass Community Theatre in Round Rock is a slim, silvery production that clocks in at just about two hours.

Thanks to director Lynn Beaver for taking on the challenge of doing tragedy with this group of dedicated community players, many of whom have taken on multiple management roles to keep this theatre vital. Housed in a simple structure that once served as a Union Pacific depot for the town, the SBTC has been active since the 1970s, operating on the shoestring provided by volunteers, modest business sponsorship and grants such as the $5000 that the Union Pacific provided recently for fixing up the structure.

Director Beaver chose a text prepared and adapted in 2004 by David Hundsness.
This is no Reader’s Digest edition. The adapter did a scrupulous, ethical job of fileting the original text, preserving the story line and the essentials of the characters. Almost all of the most memorable lines of verse were retained.

Purists would certainly object to his reducing the text by 30 to 40 percent, adroitly stitching together scenes while adhering to original texts and crafting both a brief marriage scene in Friar Laurence’s chambers and a funeral for Juliet.
But none of this diminishes a whit the power of Shakespeare’s language or plot. The adaptation is directly in the centuries-old tradition of moving the bard to the audience.

The company’s effort is all the more laudable because director and actors have paid a great deal of attention to the meaning and syntax of the text as used. Without the brilliant verbosity and extra incident so familiar to readers and playgoers, the actors surprise us with the nuance and directness of Shakespeare’s dialogues.

And the pauses! This cast shows us their feelings and evolving thoughts by using pauses for thought and silent communication, an art all too rare among actors playing the unabridged texts.

Trey Deason as Romeo and CiCi Barone as Juliet are perfectly cast. He joins the awkward angularity of a boy who is almost a man with the moody focus, resolution and edge of desperation of a man wrestling with an impossible love. CiCi Barone moves from sweet simplicity in early scenes to a teasing self-confidence with her suitor Romeo; dismay with her father’s decision to marry her off estranges her from mother and nurse. They see her as a petulant child; Barone’s command of Shakespeare’s text makes it clear to us that she has made choices that determine her destiny.

The company locates the action in an imagined contemporary Verona that is closer to Venice, California. The Montague clan wear black and a junior member enters on a skateboard; Capulets, probably from the better side of the tracks, wear white. This easy color coding may help younger audiences and does not obstruct the action.

It does provide a potential difficulty at the Capulet party, where the unwelcome Montagues could hardly be disguised by masks, but we can forgive that. Old Capulet (the gallant and nattily clad Richard Dodwell) is affable enough to overlook a bit of riffraff on the periphery of his party.

Special recognition to some of my other favorites:

Errich Peterson as Benvolio, Romeo’s companion, delivers himself as the voice of reason and counsel. He speaks well and is always an impressive presence.

Deletions in the Hundsness text greatly reduce the role of Juliet’s nurse in exposition and comedy. Hundsness elimates, for example, her lengthy, mawkish tales of Juliet’s upbringing and her lamentation at having only four teeth left in her mouth. Even so, Susan Poe Dickson’s characterization is a gift to us. Instead of a crone, we enjoy a hopeful matchmaker, almost an older sister to Juliet. She sparkles with anticipation of successful romance, teases Juliet to distraction by withholding news of Friar Laurence’s marriage scheme, and becomes distract when calamities begin to pile up. In the original there is much rushing around and consternation after Juliet is found lifeless in her bed; in the Hundsness adaptation all of that is replaced as a smiling Dickson comes to awaken her charge, realizes the situation and cries out, in anguish, “Juliet!!”

Some casting decisions may have been affected by the availability in this group of female talent. The casting of Amy Lewis as Mercutio provides an unexpected bonus and possibilities. Like any Mercutio she is larger than life, full of humors and quarrelsomeness. But her role as the third wheel while Benvolio seeks to distract Romeo from the stand-offish Rosaline gives extra bite to her mockery of lovers’ dreams of Queen Mab and her dissolute carousing. Mercutio is pulpy, good-looking but not pretty-pretty, but she is completely ignored by Romeo. We can speculate at a back story here.

In this streamlined version the role of Friar Lawrence (Andy Brown) is necessarily more prominent. At crucial moments in the staging, including at the wedding and the funeral, he looms center stage in his distinctive purple shirt and clerical collar. Brown plays the friar as direct and matter-of-fact, rather than as the well-intentioned fumbler often seen. In this version, there is no plague to delay the transport of his letters to Romeo; rather, his messenger simply fails to deliver. Though Hundsness cut Lawrence’s recounting in the final scene of actions gone awry, the director restores enough of it to provide closure and to provide the good friar a moment of confession.

In the final scene the black-white dichotomy of Montague vs. Capulet breaks down. Costuming reinforces the message of reconciliation.

This was an intimate setting for a favorite play.
The approachable presentation was accompanied by a warm and personable greeting afterwards, when the cast made it more special still by lining up outside to greet the departing audience members.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Caroline, or Change, Zach Scott Theatre, September 18 - November 9

Zack Theatre staff probably know that they have a marketing problem with this production, which runs pretty fiercely against the grain of the happy rock ‘n’ roll that thrums through many productions at the Kleberg stage.

The print ad appearing in this morning’s XL supplement to the Austin Statesman is just going to make things worse.

Tuck and Ebert’s handsome depiction of Janis Stinson in the title role of Caroline (right) implies an uplifting experience (eyes to heaven, smile of hope) and the teaser above that image reads Filled with Stirring Music that Pulses with the Beat of the 1960s! Live! Now on Stage!

Well, not exactly. The only beat of the 1960s is on the sound system before the show and during the intermission.

Three rock ‘n’ roll spirits collectively known as “radio” are indeed evocations of the Supremes or Martha Reeve and the Vandellas, but they aren’t doing R&B for us.

Caroline or Change is not musical comedy. Athough most of the dialogue is sung, its closest template might be the “Singspiel,” a form popular in Germany in the 19th century. Singspiele, mostly comic, were evanescent. Those that remain in the canon are tragedies (Fidelio, Der Freischütz and, perhaps, Die Zauberflöte). Wikipedia comments that Singspiele “frequently include elements of magic, fantastical creatures, and comically exaggerated characterizations of good and evil.”

Roger that. In the fantastical category we have actors playing the spirits of the washing machine (a purple diva), the dryer (a portly devil with a Little Richard ‘do), the radio (those Supremes), and the moon (serenissima). They’re vividly costumed apparitions tied to popular imagination both black and white, and they prompt our smiles and anticipation.

Caroline is a maid in Lake Charles, Louisiana, a stolid, diligent, unsmiling woman afflicted with poverty and responsibilities. Janis Stinson in this role has tremendous presence and a huge voice, but she does not smile once. Except at the curtain call.

She has every reason in the world to be dour. Her employers the Gellmans are a dysfunctional, disconnected family of losers so wrapped in their own preoccupations that they are on another planet.

The father of the family (Adam Smith), a musician, is still so distracted with grief at the death to cancer of his wife that he can do nothing but practice his clarinet throughout the day. He was sentient long enough sometime in the past to marry his wife’s best friend Rose (Meredith McCall). Son Noah (Matthew Moore) rejects his stepmother, clings to his cuddly toy, and worships Caroline the maid, the only sane presence in his world.

Grandparents Gellman (Robert Faires and Linda Nenno) appear as a chorus. Stepmom’s dad Mr. Stopnick (Ben Prager) joins to deliver a socialist harrangue and a lecture to the boy on money as theft while presenting him with his Hanukah gelt.

The family’s Hanukah dinner and celebration, complete with a frantic horah fueled by dad’s clarinet, are a grotesque caricature of Jewish life.

The theme of the play is “change” (the word that appears as the alternate title to the piece). Not “THE change,” which would suggest an evolution, a reassessment, or an awakening, appropriate to the mid-1960s. No, it’s “change” as in pennies, nickles, dimes and quarters.

Neurotic stepmom finds son Noah completely irresponsible with his pocket change. Noah is always leaving money in his pockets when he tosses them in the laundry. So after due warning and dire admonition, stepmom takes the drastic step of telling Noah and the maid that Carolline has the right to keep any money that she finds in pockets when doing the daily laundry.

Noah seizes the opportunity secretly to finance Caroline and her family. Caroline struggles with the temptation but begins taking the money. Stepmom doesn’t dream of giving the maid a raise, of course, and dad cannot deal with much of anything.

And guess what happens with the twenty-dollar bill that Noah receives at Hanukah?

We get some exposition of Caroline’s background at the opening of the second act – 22 years of maid’s work, divorce from an abusive, disappeared husband and the struggle to maintain her family of three children on a derisory wage.

Her oldest, Emmie (Shavana Calder), is a young teen indifferent to the assassination of Kennedy (“some white guy”), entranced by pop music, and involved in the prank of “kidnapping” the statue from the monument to Confederate war heroes. Calder is confident, talented and a pleasure to watch. She, Stinson and Sarah Yvonne Jones as Caroline’s friend Dotty are the only adult characters of believable depth in the piece.

Stage design and lighting are strong points, as you can see from some of the images currently posted at Zach’s website. Here's one of the core set, staggered levels with the picket-fence motif to remind us of the small town setting and the august Moon over all.

Here’s the opening scene, with Caroline doing laundry, Jones as the spirit of the new electric washing machine, and the radio three.

And then Caroline’s long wait after work at the bus stop, with Dotty, on November 22, 1963, when the author would have us believe that news traveled so slow in Louisiana that they knew nothing of the Kennedy assassination, ten hours later. The news is broken by the bus driver (Frank Viveros).

I hesitate to offer an opinion on the music. Like your typical Austin theatregoer, I don’t have much background in opera or contemporary formal musical staging. I’m willing to welcome the idiom of the play, even though I couldn’t identify the musical tradition and didn’t come out humming any of the songs.

It was really loud, though. I was sitting in the front row in a fairly compact theatre, ten feet away from performers who were mic’d up and amplified as if they were singing to a crowd stretching all the way to Lamar Boulevard. One got used to it in a stunned sort of way; I suppose that may be standard for the musical theatre here.

So let’s classify this one as an artist’s experiment. Tony Kushner, author of the book and lyrics, acknowledges that he was only one year older than the son, Noah, when his musician parents took him from Manhattan to live in Lake Charles. This piece is probably about Tony Kushner trying to deal with the cultural divide he found in Louisiana, especially the African-American society descended from slaves and still routinely mistreated.

It is curious that not a single white Southerner appears in the play.

In creating this fictionalized world Tony Kushner appears to have been transmuting his own guilts and misgivings into art. There is much here to praise, particularly the talent of the singers and the designers of the Zach Theatre production. But try as I might, I’m not happy about witnessing his catharsis.

Even so, congratulations to the Zach for not settling into the groove, so to speak, of easy happy rock 'n' roll musicals. Theatre goers can appreciate the chance to look at something knottier from time to time. This show deserves your serious consideration.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Winter's Tale, Actors from the London Stage, October 1-4

Actors from the London Stage returns to The University of Texas at Austin for the 10th consecutive year. This year's troupe will be performing Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale.

Performances at the B. Iden Payne Theatre Oct 1, 2 & 3 at 8 PM.

Call 512-477-6060 or visit www.TexasBoxOffice.com for tickets.
Winedale performance Oct 4 at 7 PM.

Visit www.Shakespeare-Winedale.org for ticket information.

Tickets are $10 UT ID holders; $20 for others. For more information contact Matt Harvey at mnh@mail.utexas.edu.

Mute Point, A Tejano Tragedy AND House of Several Stories, Texas State and The Search Party at the Blue Theatre, Sep 25-27 AND Oct 2-4

Found at KUT's community calendar:

mute point

a new play written by michael pape
directed by chuck ney

september 25th 26th and 27th at 7:30pm

$10 for students/seniors
$15 for adults

the blue theatre 916 springdale road - austin, texas 78702

reservations at 512.796.3429

cash checks only please

Click for more info in XL Best Pick, Austin Statesman, September 24

house of several stories

written by a. john boulanger
directed by jeremy o. torres

october 1st 2nd and 3rd at 7:30pm

$10 for students/seniors
$15 for adults

the blue theatre, 916 springdale road, austin, texas 78702

reservations call 512.796.3429 cash checks only please

Monday, September 22, 2008

Third by Wendy Wasserstein, Paradox Players at the Unitarian Universalist Church, September 19 - October 5

Thanks to Paradox Players for giving us the opportunity to see this 2005 piece by the late Wendy Wasserstein, acknowledged by the New York Times as “a chronicler of women’s identity crises.”

To be honest, I hated it.

Not the production, which is a good effort, but the play itself.

First let me explain the concept of a “visceral twinge.”

When I began work involving lengthy assignments abroad, the single most useful bit of counseling was provided by an animated, red-bearded actor whose subject was the difficulties of confronting cultural differences and working through them.

Yes, you can learn to eat teff and njera or bulgogi or tieboujin and you can learn to communicate in a foreign language. But there will come that moment when you face something commonplace in a foreign culture that literally makes your insides ball up in a knot. Not necessarily food. It could be the obsessive closeness of foreigners, their toilet habits, their enthusiasms or their treatment of one another. Something, somewhere, sometime is going to get you and give you a visceral twinge so hard that it will make you aware for the first time of cultural holy precepts that you absorbed while growing up.

This play gave me that visceral twinge. The twinge was so profound and unexpected that I perhaps I have to trace it back to my own decision once upon a time to abandon a Ph.D. program in comparative literature.

Part of the twinge is certainly due to the opening scene set at an unnamed elite liberal arts college. Radical feminist scholar Professor Laurie Jameson explains with condescending pedantry that King Lear is really the story of how the dominant male culture oppressed Lear’s older daughters Goneril and Regan.

Boy, did that ever get up my nose.

The play, in brief, gives us the midlife crisis of Professor Jameson during the very specific period September 2002 to May 2003, as the country rolled into the war in Iraq. She is in danger of crumpling from pressure.

She is an obsessive watcher of television news; her daughter drops out from Swarthmore to live with a bank teller and wait tables; her best friend Professor Nancy Gordon faces a recurrence of breast cancer, deep depression and chemotherapy. Her father, living with the family, is deep in the absences of senile dementia and we learn that somehow, somewhere, he probably abused her when she was young. We never see her husband, a political science professor, and the only evidence that unnamed man exists is the sound of barbells hitting the floor in the attic. And there is the teaching schedule, eviscerating Shakespeare, and preparing to take over her friend’s spring course in the letters of 19th century female English authors.

These are complex tribulations and they allow Bobbie Oliver as Jameson to draw a vivid portrait of this petulant, detail-obsessed, whining self-righteous academic. I did not like the character but I found her fully, convincingly defined.

But the crux of the play, the confrontation on which it turns, is Jameson’s irrational, self-righteous (that word again!) dislike and then persecution of Woodson Bull the Third, known as “Third” (hence the title of the play). Handsome, frank, intelligent, and a varsity wrestler, “Third” is happy to take courses in feminist interpretation of Shakespeare and gay & lesbian studies, but his healthy gosh-gee-whiz attitude earns him only her contempt. Among other things, without any evidence she is convinced that he is a Republican. The boy is a sociology major with the dream of becoming an agent for a sports celebrity.

Jameson accuses “Third” of plagiarizing his paper on Lear, which offers a Freudian interpretation of the attraction between Lear and Cordelia. She persists, with no evidence, insisting that “Third” simply could not have produced such a coherent analysis on his own, and she insists on a quasi-judicial hearing before a faculty council. Single-handedly she obliges the faculty to put him on academic probation in the meantime.

He defends himself ably. She loses. Academic probation has ruined his reputation and left him ruefully amazed. He will later arrange a transfer to Ohio State.

Then in the second act Wasserstein stitches things up so they are nice and tidy.

Demented Daddy, when she finds him in a rainstorm, doesn’t recognize her but asks for her forgiveness. Her friend Professor Gordon defeats cancer and finds a boyfriend. Her daughter doesn’t return but appears to be happily forgotten. By the end, demented Daddy has conveniently died. Professor Jameson says she is getting out of the academic grind, perhaps for good.

And for gosh sake, she goes to visit “Third” as he is packing up and brings him the gift of an book autographed by a noted lesbian writer. She offers to try to pull strings to get him the scholarship money Stanford denied him because he was on academic probation.

“Third,” the good-natured future king of the world, declines the offer but forgives her and carries her bags out for her.

Now, remember the “visceral twinge”? Here we go: I cannot stand the indulgent depiction of academic dishonesty on the part of a professional, no matter how lunatic, and I cannot swallow the fact that Wasserstein makes happy at the end, letting her get away with it.

Congratulations to Bobbie Oliver for inhabiting this ignoble character and giving a good account of her fragilities.

I liked Jan Phillips as her brutally frank professor friend. A thought experiment: if Phillips had been cast as the lead, we might have had a different Laurie Jameson – someone even more cutting and outrageous, whom we could feel justified in hating.

Mason Stewart as “Third” is likeable and vivid. He projects matter-of-fact and non-arrogant assurance, perfectly appropriate for a young man who will flourish when he escapes this hothouse world. He projects his voice as well, effortlessly and naturally.

Michael Hankin as Jack the dad doesn’t look quite old enough to be lost in the fog of dementia, but he is a fine actor with a roguish twinkle at just the right moments. Holly Kwasny as the professor’s daughter Emily provides the appropriate amount of young indignation at her mom’s irrationality.

The Howson Hall Theatre at the Unitarian Universalist Church is not a particularly kind playing space. It is very broad and not very elevated above the ranks of movable chairs spread before it. The director and cast appear not to have taken the sightlines of this wide hall into consideration for blocking the action, because actors are often turning backs or profiles to the audience as they address other characters. Perhaps misled by the apparent intimacy of the hall, Oliver and Kwasny are speaking much of the time from the throat rather than projecting so that we might hear them properly.

Inexplicably, the play is almost always under-lit and much is enacted at the back of the playing space.

The final twist in my visceral twinge came in the last scene, with the very sentence that Wasserstein must have meant to sum up the play.

“Third” confides to Jameson his ambitions in sports management and she tells him with girlish rue that she was exactly his age in 1969. “You will spend your next years in hope; I spent them in irony.”

Gack. Jameson and I are contemporaries. I made the decision to abandon textual analysis and academic ambition. She embraced them.

You make your bed, you lie in it. And you don’t dirty it with dishonesty.

Wikipedia on Wendy Wasserstein

NYT obituary of Wendy Wasserstein by Christopher Isherwood, January 30, 2006: "Wendy Wasserstein Dies at 55; Her Plays Spoke to A Generation" with images and multimedia links "

Sunday, September 21, 2008

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, NxNW at the Hideout Theatre, September 19 - October 12

This cheery cabaret production is a strawberry parfait, a delicious concocoction highly appealing to the eye with lots of sugar and self-confident sophistication. The North by Northwest Theatre Company has enlisted four attractive and highly talented actor/singers to create in Austin the first presentation of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, a piece that played for 12 years off Broadway. Its 5000+ performances put the run of this simple musical second only to the Fantastiks.

ILYYPNC is playing for only four weekends here in Austin, Friday through Saturday through October 12 at the Hideout Theatre at 617 South Congress.

For non-initiates such as us, from the street the Hideout looks like an ordinary coffee shop & bar, conveniently located for a subsequent crawl of the bars and pubs along 6th street. But they deal in entertainment as well as coffee, beer, wine and snacks. On Saturday ILYYPNC was playing in the downstairs 100-seat “black box” while upstairs at the same time, the announcement read, “a crew of Austin's finest improvisers take the stage in full Federation uniform and, based on audience suggestions, create a wholly original ‘episode’ set in the Star Trek Universe.”

The ladies in the ticket office took one look at us and commented, “Nah – they’re not here for the Trekkies.”

We hated being so obvious, but then, we had in fact made an on-line reservation for ILYYPNC.

Our four actor/singers are accompanied by a keyboardist and violinist for a zippy evening of black-out sketches and songs, themed loosely on the lines of courtship, marriage, parenting and the pleasant puzzles of romance at middle age and later. Onstage for almost two hours with a 15-minute break halfway, Michelle Cheney, Joe Penrod, David Sray and Wendy Zavaleta deliver along with their rapid fire of very funny skits not fewer than 21 musical numbers, ranging from solos to a finale (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”) that starts with an a capello worthy of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

The show has the bright, derisive flash of New York – it is fun poked by sophisticate singles and the New York artist community at the dilemmas of the love life of bourgeois middle America. Most of the skits are silly, mugging cartoon send-ups of all too familiar life dilemmas, and the audience responds with hilarity at the send-ups.

In the first half the show has a merry time making fun of the insecurities of dating, sexual posturing, the lack of eligible beddable bachelors, guy behavior as opposed to girl behavior, well-intended parental interventions in romance, and the panic of proposals and weddings. The downtown audience howled and sometimes shouted out recognition and encouragement – most of those attending were of college age or in late 20s and early 30s, and they were clearly getting happy shocks of recognition.

So imagine this scene: superb actors, clowning and singing their hearts out with midtown Manhattan sophistication, and a youngish audience that was drinking beer as if it were going out of style. Again and again, spectators descended the center stairs and crossed in front of half the stage on their way out and back to the bar and the bathroom. Early on, they usually waited for the blackouts, but as the evening wore on and the alcohol level rose, occasionally someone would cross in front of an actor/singer hard at work.

Too bad there wasn’t a rear stair for those folks. Or a trap door.

But with everyone so well launched, the second half was equally successful.

Leaving aside that growsing, what talented and attractive actors these are!

Chameleons all, they appeared in constantly changing relationships to one another.

Above, David plays the oblivious self-centered engineer blathering on as Wendy wonders whether all available single men are all such losers. Below left, Joe delivers a quiet, wondering paean to the wonder of staying in love with the same woman for more than thirty years. Below right, Michelle is captivated by a “chic flic” (while the guy at her side struggles unsuccessfully to remain manfully indifferent).

The music is mostly up tempo, the lyrics witty and the melodies engaging but ultimately forgettable. The magic is in the actors themselves. For example they take four swivel chairs and turn them into a family car, complete with obnoxious kids in the back seat:

That one is an anthem marking the lasting love affair between Joe, father of the family -- and his vehicle.

Examples of other transformations, quickly:

Michelle, singing of the miseries of serving always as a bridesmaid, never as a bride – and assembling a collection of never-reusable bridesmaid’s outfits.

David on the superhero fantasies of geeks and nerds.

The whole company, when Michelle and Joe as the parents learn at Thanksgiving that after two years of living together son David and fiancée Wendy have decided to break up:

After trouncing Joe yet again on a fourth date, Wendy maneuvers him out of his gentlemanly distance and persuades him to come over for lasagna (“and you’ll bring the wine and the condoms, right?”) She closes that scene with an inspired little jump of glee.

And my personal favorite is a solo turn by Wendy, with not a note of music. She plays a woman recently divorced, still hurt and angry, who is reluctantly recording a video for a dating service -- and impulsively lays it all out, not giving a damn about masquerading as younger, more accessible or invulnerable.

So open your browser or pick up your telephone, and make your reservations now. If we are lucky, North by Northwest might get this show extended or repeated. But for now, you have your choice of only three remaining weekends, Friday to Sunday, to schedule this delightful dessert.

Producer's comments on opening night, including a reviewer in the front row (not me!)

Lambert, Hendricks and Ross doing "Swingin' the Blues"