Thursday, May 04, 2000

Austin Theatre

Playing Around Austin (2000)
Austin, Texas

Review
I am going to be the great playwright of the next millennium. Well, at least I know I won't be the greatest of this one after watching a weekend's worth of Austin plays. I'm just a simple country boy with no formal training, but I've got a lot of things to say. So I came to Austin to get educated.

Well, I did. I saw some things that were just special. There was the Russian soldier getting her belt caught in the hair of another soldier and managing to get unbelted without losing a beat, and a psychotic wife slamming to the ground hard and using it to deliver the punchiest lines of the play, and those were just the unscripted parts. What I really got from Austin was an incredible range of youth talent, dazzling local writing, and local directors putting their touch on the work of the big 'uns.

Here was the plan, see as many plays as possible in a weekend jaunt to the big city. For an old country boy that meant 24 hours roughly. I stretched it a bit to 29 hours, but after that I was in playshock. I used to do this regularly with friends, but with music which we wrote about for various nobody papers. See how many bands we could take in in 24 hours, starting Friday night, ending Saturday in the wee ones. Course, even then we stretched it to 30 hours or so. The trick was to find festivals or events where the music started early Saturday morning. That's where you build up the numbers. You can see why this wasn't a Saturday-Sunday plan (unless the object was gospel -- and it never was).

Anyway that was in the music review days, now I'm writing plays. At least I thought I was. How better to learn about staging, blocking, lighting, movement and all the little details than to study, study, study. So I waded through all the publicity I could find and set up a schedule (knowing that something would change of course, that's half the fun). Friday and Saturday, May 1-2, looked opportune, partly because it was closing weekend for many shows, partly because there were readings of new plays going on. I set my sights, adjusted my budget and went after it.

Let me do the disclaimer thing and say I am no theatre critic, not being current on the artistic state of theatre, BUT I am a good audience and know what keeps me in my seat. I left only one production mid-stream, and then only because I stretched to include it under my definition, and two, because I had to get to another that I'd decided was a must see. That says enough about Austin theatre that weekend, it was uniformly enthralling. So let me take you on my adventure, event by event.

Angels in America (Tony Kushner), directed by Dave Steakley @ Zachary Scott Theatre, 7:30 p.m., Friday

Okay, you expect great stuff from a Tony award-winning play. You don't expect to get slapped around, yelled at, and have your two-bit WASP libido squeezed into a thimble. At least I didn't. Now this little piece is strong stuff, not the kind of stuff straight America will sit around and just take without a little ruffling of the feathers . . . but I guess that could be the whole point, huh.
What a set! The light design was just right. Me? I was shocked by Martin Burke as Louis Ironson. That boy can scream and cry and yank on his hair, and generally make you feel like you ought to find him a new mom somewhere (and stay out of that park boy). And Jason Phelps. Honey we don't got that here in the country. How can this guy be so, so multi-talented? Now I got to tell you about Patrick Amos. I don't know where he came from but you need to hang on to that one. If he could be that suave Mr. Lies, and that tender Belize all in one play, maybe he could play all the parts and save you a lot of money. And he'd probably be a real good mom for that Louis guy. So now, that's the good stuff. I'll tell you though I didn't buy that Rabbi in drag or that Mr. Heller, just not buying it. And you guys need a little WD-40 up there in the rafters on that feather thing. I got a little left in the garage if you need it.

What's best? I understood the whole thing. I think. I was so busy being slapped around and gnawed on that I left drained and had to spend the rest of the night undraining. I think even old Billy Bob would say check it out.

Durang3 (Christopher Durang) @ Hyde Park Theatre, 11 p.m.
Okay the first snafu in the Big Plan. Number one, I was mentally napalmed after I walked out of Zachary Scott. Number two, it was questionable I could get to this show before the doors closed. Number three, I didn't even know where Hyde Park Theatre was. Number four, three reasons ought to be enough, but I was, after all, on a quest. So I tried. But it was well after the announced start time of 11 p.m. when I found the place and I didn't bother to stop. At least I knew where the theatre was because I'd need to get there Saturday. Home to El Bed.

Scriptworks Ahead, Austin Scriptworks @ Hyde Park Theatre, 11 a.m., Saturday
Catty-cornered (Pat Fiske), directed by Constance Campbell
The Landscape (David Gunderson), directed by Christina J. Moore
The Cooling Room (Emily Ball Cicchini), directed by Shannon Mayers

In the first place, I guess these really aren't plays yet. They're staged readings (I'm learning the lingo, see). But they are the combined vision of writer, director and actors at this point and to get here they had to have been read a number of times. Rehearsals have been minimal, but not much of that showed. Settings were trivial and everyone read books in hand. I was impressed at how well some of the participants, volunteers all had take to their parts. So anyway, there were three of these things, the first two one-acts, the third was full length.

Catty-cornered starts out with tough subject matter (I really didn't explore that kind of thing when I set up my schedule, but suppressed orientation and social All-Star Wrestling permeated almost everything staged). Suzanne Vance, as Martha, is all shook up because she's discovered incest in her own house, and her only choice in the matter is to insist on an abortion which otherwise would never be considered (her obviously staid upbringing as a fine country lady set my old heart atwittering from the get-go). Anyway, she's forced to bring Princess to the vet for the delicate (and sensitive procedure) and is frantic with worry that someone would find out she forgot to have Princess' brother neutered to prevent such a tragedy. Her longtime sweetheart Clem is there, and it erupts into a real scene when she finds out Clem has got a new dog and she "Can't marry someone with a dog." Well old Clem ends up in a support group in Brady, which is about as close as support groups ought to be anyway, and finds himself, and ends the whole thing with "I hope we can still be friends." We never found out if Princess was lifted from her tramping ways.

David Gunderson, now there's a guy who's gonna light it up. It's a good thing he gave up basketball (which he must've, because I'm big and I was looking up at him). Anyway this was a slam dunk (usually you'd say he hit a home run, but a basketball metaphor seemed more appropriate). Anyway, the program says this was adapted from a Russian guy's story. I don't read any Russian, but old David must be pretty good at it, because all these people seemed downright Russian to me. Oh I forgot to tell you, the play was going on already when they opened the doors and let us in. At least I thought it was. And I thought it was really cool, too. Everyone in their place, this guy standing at an easel, painting. And only a couple of us in the audience caught on. Everyone else was gaggling on about whether cat incest was okay. So then someone steps up and makes some announcements and I thought bozo, this would have been so great to just let this go on until the audience figured it out and then start the old dialogue. Well, let me say this painter guy has a problem with purple. And with his young, very, very young, wink, wink, girlfriends sister, Lida. And Doug Taylor (that's Nikolaich in Russian, remember this play's Russian) he catches on to all this and is just pretty darn convincing about the value of his art, and how if everyone, even the rich people pitched in on the chores everyday, then the whole country would only have to work three hours a day, and could paint and sing (and probably get possum-eyed drunk) the rest of the time. I thought it was a great idea, then I heard someone whisper "communism" and I realized I better be against this idea even if it sounded like the answer to everything. Anyway I wouldn't buy this guy's art or hire him to paint my barn. He kept forgetting to dip the brush in the paint, and they tried shining this purple light on it to make it look like there was something there. Seems like a big storm to me.

Oh my God, then there was this very long play called The Cooling Room. Some sort of scatter-gendered Primary Colors. This loud and numbing barrel of cliches goes like this: President Garza is a hen, she's never been to the hot baths in the town she grew up in, it's a good thing too cause it may be polluted, it's even better because she was a pollution-deformed baby that was secretly murdered by her mother's lover who happens to be the Governor (and is a hen too), only she wasn't really murdered, who could do such a thing, instead she was just kind of in the way of the old double-hen relationship thing (and wasn't really even hole-in-the-head, brain-exposed deformed like they said she was), so they gave her to the Garzas (and beat that, she wasn't even the token minority in the play, cause she wasn't really a Garza), who raised her to be president even though you'd a thought there really WAS a hole in her head by the way she was bellyaching, and we don't even get to meet the old rooster, shame because he was probably loaded with baggage too, like the King of Bulgaria or something and why not since the whole international New World Order thing seems to have come from this one little town in, where was it, oh yeah, Arkansas, surprise, surprise, surprise.

Peter Pan & Other Tales Of Flight, Youth Ballet Theatre of Austin @ Helm Fine Arts Center, St. Stephens School, 3 p.m., Saturday

Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorgsky & Ravel), choreographed by Arletta Howard-Logan, Kerris Cockrell and Lydia Lunning
Peter Pan (Williams), choreographed by Arletta Howard-Logan
PG 13 (Orbital), choreographed by Tricia Gantt
Reggae Suite (Bob Marley), choreographed by Ann Mary Carney
Arabian Ritual (McKinnett), choreographed by Arletta Howard-Logan

Yes. It doesn't really fit the plan, but I knew I'd need a respite of some kind, and this is theatre and it sounded like more than dance. And, like watching Scriptworks Ahead, I like seeing not quite refined product. Maybe it's the work itself, maybe it's the talent. So student work fits well, and here I am watching Pictures At An Exhibition and Peter Pan (I missed the later short works so I could be in the door again at Hyde Park). What I know about ballet is this, these kids could dance. I guess it's Arletta Howard-Logan and Tricia Gantt and Ann Mary Carney that got these kids to dress up and fly around like this, I can't really tell from the program but if that's right, then you gals done one heck of a job.

Now I'm going to say I got a full plate of Russian stuff today. It's no secret the Russians were good at this, even in Rural County, Texas we grew up knowing that only those Russians could write symphonies or do ballet. Whew, they can too. Even old David Gunderson, the not-a-basketball-player guy, used that Chekhov "pictures at an exhibition" line in his painter piece at Hyde Park. So here's these youngsters all gussied up doing the paintings come to life. And there's a lot of purple too. Young Amy Tankard takes long looks at each of these pictures, spends a lot of time up on her toes gawking at soldiers and ox cart drivers and stuff. You want to know what I liked -- was those chickens that weren't hatched out yet, looked just like 'em, and those girls danced about perfect far as I could tell. Since they sold tickets I figure it was supposed to be entertainment, and it sure was. Those girls can dance. And Ami Davis and Patrick Moore, who-weee. They're supposed to be Tristan and Isolde, which I guess they were, what I do know is they did the love scenes the way love are supposed to be done. Cheesy. See, that's the way love is, like cheese. The first bite is sublime, but after that you figure out it's full of holes. Then it's not long before it sticks to your teeth and you'd die for a toothbrush. So Ami and Patrick you were great, bravo. I was also smitten by the girls in the Great Gate at Kiev, that whole thing was smooth as cream pie, even through the hair thing.

Peter Pan, well that's a different story, and a good one. You got to be impressed by someone taking a bunch of kids and teaching them this stuff when Nine Inch Nails seems to have cornered the market on theatricality. All I know is I could have watched Melissa Parsons as Peter Pan, and Brita McKinnon as Tinkerbell dance forever. Instead I'll be fighting Tinkerbell the nannygoat for the feedbucket every morning.

Blood Pudding (Sharon Bridgforth), directed by Laurie Carlos and Sharon Bridgforth, Frontera @ Hyde Park Theatre, 5 p.m., Saturday

I had something else scheduled for this time slot, but after looking over the promotional stuff at Hyde Park I changed to accomodate this. What I could tell you about this piece might take months, or I could say it all in "Wow!" Now don't get me wrong, Angels in America is a great work of art. But when it was over I just wanted to get out of there, breathe some real air, find a People Magazine, drink a milkshake. Blood Pudding is a whole different definition of Wow. I wanted to see it again as soon as it was over. In fact, had I not been on The Quest, I would have. I guess it's a shame it's over because I'd like to take everyone I know to see it. Wow. How do you explain this. Let me say that earlier in the day I thought Hyde Park was maybe too weird for me because it looked like they had a fetish for urine specimens. There was an archway with a bunch of glasses of orange liquid that you had to pass through. Okay, so it's part of the set. So I'm that stupid. But you don't know that until they start leaving the building and showing up in odd places and sometimes coming in the front door and starting all over again.

Okay, I admit it. I was in love with Melissa Etheridge. Story of my life. Now I'm in love with this play and turns out it's the same story, everybody loving who and it don't matter anyway. It just don't. What am I going to tell Aunt Bea. So this thing was choreographed, not blocked. It's sung, not spoken. It's William Goyen in Louisiana. It stomps and cries and yells out. One moment it snaps your neck, the next it's beckoning you from the audience for things you can't have. I wish I knew who was who in this play, but I don't, got a feeling that's how they want it, but to Djola Banner, Renita Martin, Stacey Robinson, Florinda Bryant, and Zell Miller III, Wow. To Sharon Bridgforth you have created a heartbeat. Thanks. To Billy Bob, check it out.

Poetic License (A Thousand Tongues) @ Batts Auditorium, UT, 8 p.m., Saturday
What Can You Say In Eleven Syllables? (Matt Valentine from Charles Bukowski)
My Question (Kate Vieira from Margaret Atwood)
Morris (Michael Cohn from John Keats)
John and Liesl (Jennifer Valentino from e e cummings)
The Mouse Princess (Carolina Jimenez-Marcos from Rita Dove)
Robin Blue (Melanie Saberian from Mother Goose)
Lemon Tree Very Pretty (Emily Abrams from Stephen Crane)
Brushstrokes (Amy Gentry from William Carlos Williams)
40 Shots of Espresso (Drew Harris from Humbert Wolfe)

Works like this. Students take a poem (some went with the biggies, some settled for the guys who turn teapots into squirrels) and the write an interpretive act. Finding the poem's probably the easy part. Step away from the genius of Sharon Bridgforth and David Gunderson for a moment and what you'll find is a load of young talent waiting to blossom. Here it is. A fair crowd watched this but like those Hyde Park things, this needed a bigger audience. I got to say I was entertained by all of them, but three in particular knocked me over, so I'm going to tell you about those. First was Carolina Jimenez-Marcos' The Mouse Princess. You got this girl in a coma, you got this girl pissed at the world, you got the mother. This clever crafting stuff, I'm gonna have to learn this. See, you go through several minutes of this play thinking that ol' mom there is so into it/out of it over coma-daughter, that she's being totally indifferent to ranting/raving daughter. It about pisses you off. Then you snap. The daughters are the same. Mom is talking to coma-daughter who can't answer, but you hear the answers. Whoa. Take this and run with it Carolina. Even the old Mouse Princess story, which could be a kind of AIDs allegory, is a story worth telling.

Then you got the soliloquy Lemon Tree Very Pretty by Emily Abrams. This solo performance by Amy Gentry was downright riveting. She's a mom too, but she's in prison, and tells about her young son why she can't be a good mother and in the process shows why through cliches and maxims, she knows them all. Best of all she tells him, at school there' going to be bullies "so you might as well be one." Here's admission time again. Group, sit down. I cried at that one. In 29 hours of emotional tug-of-war, including some fantastic works, that's the only moment that brought tears to my eyes. Not the bully thing, stupid, the whole piece. Watch those girls.

Then there was 40 Shots of Espresso. Drew Harris is a funny guy, I can feel it, and I don't even have ESP, and had to look up Tai Chi to spell it for you here. See this one guy is experimenting on his friend who owes him a favor. Every fifteen minutes he must gulp a shot of espresso while buddy-old-pal records his behavior for a research paper in psych or something. We're allowed in at about shot #37. Now Jay Bernardo who plays the guy snorting caffeine does a great job in the role, I suspect old Drew had the humor part pretty well figured out. Let's just say that kind of funny doesn't come along very often.

The Life Of Galileo (Bertolt Brecht), directed by Robi Polgar, @ Public Domain, 8 p.m., Saturday

Okay, I stumbled onto the last act of this play while seeking out Flame failure. It really wasn't a planned thing. Galileo is arguing with some French dude about science. The Gaul is ticked because Gal had the gall to retract his observations on the gall-shape of the world. Finally Galileo breaks down, "I was afraid of physical pain." Well, the son-of-a-gun could juggle, I'll tell you that. At least he had that going for him. In fact, if he'd a juggled women like he did those fluorescent pins he'd of known all too well about physical pain and we'd probably have gone to the moon in the 19th century. Instead, I know some people who still have rotary phones.

Flame Failure: The Silent War, Episode 12: Theoretical Cauterization (Dan Bonfitto), directed by Dan Bonfitto @ Public Domain, 11 p.m., Saturday

I knew going in that this was the last installment of some science fiction soap opera of the stage. That's all I knew. The walls were covered with file folders describing the cast and plot development of each episode, but I was too tired to understand anything past the episode number. I figured either this would be so disconnected that I could brag about its other-worldliness or I just wouldn't get it and probably would say so. What I got instead was twenty minutes of darkness, thirty minutes of alternating red and blue cyborg face, followed by the old theoretical cauterization itself, a flash of light so bright that the audience members who had anticipated it and been watching for it couldn't find their feet to leave.

Cool, listening to the story develop in total darkness for the first third. Cool, the box they were in and Bernadette Nason's accent. Cool, the ending. Not so cool, all the explanation and the convenient plot twists. I wish I'd seen all twelve episodes though. It would have either let me laugh at all the inside jokes I missed, or would have saved me being blinded right before driving two and a half hours to home down hill country roads.


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