‘Actually’ is an emotionally acute examination of race and sex in modern America

I have always been fond of plays performed in atypical places. I have seen plays in parks, bars, homes, and everything in between, and though the productions aren’t always better for it, when things go perfectly, the locale adds another dimension to the performance. As I walked into the lecture hall where Actually, the new production by fledgling company Workhound, was being produced, I was taken aback a second, as this was, indeed, a white board-clad, florescently-lit classroom, a strange place for a play to be performed. As the play went on, however, I realized just what this play provided: intimacy. Anna Ziegler’s words probably would have been effective behind a proscenium, but when the actors are just a few feet away, staring directly at you, you can help but feel the devastation, letting this tsunami of an experience wash over you with all the more ferocity.

Actually is a play about sexual assault. There are no two ways about it, and it’s what makes the play such a hard sit, and even more difficult sell. By its very nature, it’s a high barrier to entry for some people, as, though we of course never see the actions depicted on stage, there are scenes within that could be triggering. This is in no way meant to dissuade anyone from seeing the play, but I feel I would not being doing my due diligence if this was not brought up. The play tackles the subject with respect, clarity, and honesty, but even the director and actors acknowledge the nature of the subject at the heart of the play. 

Actually follows the relationship of Amber and Tom, two new college freshmen, both trying to break free from the boxes society has put them, who find themselves going to bed together after a night of drinking. Though hazy, when Amber awakes the next morning, she realizes the sex may have been something less than consensual. What follows is a well-balanced, thorough, and honest examination of what brought both of our characters to this point, bringing us through the racism, sexism, and other other biases that our societal structures place upon us, and how they can shape who we to become. Characters are never demonized, giving a clear-eyed view of each of their actions, even if those actions lead somewhere incredibly dark.

Though he’s shown solid work on stages all across town, few roles have given Kriston Woodreaux the ability to show off his range more than Actually. As the play begins, it’s easy to write off Woodreuax’s Thomas Anthony as a the typical macho alpha male, all swagger, good looks, and a sly smile. It doesn’t take long, though for us to see the layers beneath it all: the intelligence, the sensitivity, the tenderness.This is all aided greatly by the fact that Woodreaux is never afraid to be vulnerable. There were quite a few moments that had me nearly in tears, as Woodreaux was so connected to the role that you lose track of where he begins and Tom ends. There’s certainly anger there, but Woodreaux is sure to always show the pain beneath each outburst, whether stemming from his race, his upbringing, or even his attractiveness.

The play doesn’t have quite as meaty a role for Lauren Jacobs. By its nature, the role of Amber stands out much less, and so Jacob’s performance doesn’t reach the emotional extremes of Woodreaux’s. Amber is more reserved, withdrawn, almost the polar opposite to Tom’s charisma hurricane. What Jacobs does with the material, though, is not any less impressive than Woodreaux, as she sells the character through subtle cues: twitches, quick glances, vocal choices. In its own way, it’s even easier for certain members of the audience to relate to Jacob’s Amber, as her insecurities are constantly on display, brought out especially by the direct address style of the play, and Ziegler’s sharp writing.

In “Actually”, director Jeremy Lee Cudd has given audiences the chance to see two young actors rising to the top of their game, with a piece that could not be more timely. Though its subject matter may be tough to take at times, those able to experience the play are sure to leave changed people. Workhound is showing itself to be a company not afraid to tackle difficult subjects, and handle them with respect, all the while bringing passion and emotional honesty, and I for one hope to see much more from them in the future. 

Actually is playing in UT’s Winship Theatre Building through November 18th. For directions, tickets, and more information, visit their facebook at facebook.com/wrkhnd/.

Capital T’s ‘The Goat’ is a heartbreaking examination of family secrets

With so many theatre companies chasing the newest works, sometimes the classics don’t get the exposure they deserve on modern stages. Capital T seems to doing their part to alleviate this with their latest season, starting with one of the most acclaimed plays of the twenty-first century, Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize finalist, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia. An examination of the putrefying effect of family skeletons, it follows a successful family man whose life, and family, falls apart when a devastating, disgusting secret is revealed. Director Mark Pickell brings in some of Austin’s heaviest hitters to create all-star cast, who breathe new life into this classic, if under-performed, play.

In the early stages of the play, the theatre is full of, perhaps at times, uneasy, laughter, but as it reaches its final stretch, a stone-faced silence grips the audience. This is thanks to an emotional honesty that Albee brings to the material, which Pickell and company bring out with aplomb.  On a surface level, the material at the heart of The Goat is the stuff of classic farce, the idea of a man confessing a bestial affair to his wife being a pretty solid idea for a dark comedy. Albee knows this method is too easy, however, and prefers to explore the metaphor, to really dig deep into the deepest, darkest parts of the hearts of its characters, creating something much more devastating, and the play is that much better for it.

Rebecca Robinson was an actress born to play a role like Stevie. She’s an actress in touch her emotions, whose sensitivity helps to bring a verisimilitude to some scenes that would seem over-the-top if performed by another actress. When storms through her apartment, breaking expensive vases, we don’t see it as an overreaction, but as an information character choice. We feel  her anger, thanks in no small part to her emotive, expressive face. She forms a quick and early chemistry with Robert Pierson’s Martin, which makes her more impassioned moments later in the play hit with that much more weight, especially as the emotions become more muddled in the play’s late stages.

The play, of course, would not work without a solid actor in the role of Martin, the patriarch and goat-lover of the family, and Robert Pierson attacks the role with a mixture of ardor and vulnerability that helps the audience sympathize with his plight, as sordid as it is. His performance is more often than not subdued, even as the world explodes around him, and he acts a gentle, loving hand among the other characters who are splitting at the seams. His calmness can be infuriating, as we see how his actions are effecting his family, but he acts as a nice counterbalance to some of the more extreme emotions on display, especially when his son, Billy, enters the picture, played with fervent spirit by Preston Russ, as he handles the confusing feelings on display with a refreshing gentleness. It’s still difficult to truly side with Martin, but Pierson shows his love as pure and unselfish.

“The Goat, or Who is Sylvia” is one of those plays that could fall apart at so many stages, but thanks to a smart script, an emotionally honest cast, and a director who knows just how to perfectly pitch the action, the result is a poignant portrait of a family in crisis. Here’s hoping other companies take Capital T’s lead and dig up some of the more well-hidden treasure buried in years past, so that we can see what these talented casts and crews can do with real classics.

Photo courtesy of Capital T Theatre. 

Hyde Park’s ‘The Antipodes’ is a witty, foreboding, look inside the writers’ room

Writers have been exploring the creative process for almost the entire history of the medium, so when a playwright sits down to write about how writers write, it can be difficult to find something new and interesting to say. With her latest play, The Antipodes, Pulitzer-Prize winner Annie Baker, acclaimed creator of hits like Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens and The Flick, takes a look at not only writing, but storytelling itself, and the ways in which time has changed, and held fast, to the art form. Director Ken Webster has called in some of the best talents in town to bring this story to life, including Hyde Park mainstays, on-the-rise stars, and some gifted younger talents, all coming together to create an ensemble of witty wordsmiths.

As Antipodes begin, one can be forgiven for wondering if they’ve just stumbled in on the filming of the newest HBO pilot. The joke-heavy writers room seems torn from a kind of prestige comedy format that’s grown somewhat familiar, though it’s always brimming with Baker’s signature spark. As the play goes on, however, its shadowy corners begin to reveal themselves, as the struggle of these nine writer to create the great new idea take on more bizarre, even foreboding forms. Indeed, the play takes turns into the surreal that would be more at home in a Will Eno play, but what Baker brings is a groundedness that always makes the characters feel alive and real, even as they’re barking out made up words or telling ghastly fairy tales. While the play takes deep dives into the some dark, even cultish landscapes, most of characters never lose their authenticity, which is a testament not only to Baker’s talents, but also to the adept actors that inhabit this play.

Taking on a cast this large can be daunting task. Though there have been some major hits in the past, such as Hyde Park’s own award-winning The Wolves or Capital T’s much-heralded Spirits to Enforce, in many cases such productions can lead to either an unbalanced slog or a confused mess. Luckily, Ken Webster and company carry “Antipodes” with a careful touch, making sure each of the characters is compelling, without any taking too much attention away from the others. It certainly helps that the group has such winning chemistry, working together as if they had known each other forever. Much credit must indeed go the performers, who to a person create credible personas, even as their actions get more outrageous as the play progresses.

With a cast this large, full of actors this talented, its difficult to pick outstanding performers, as a large part of of the fun of The Antipodes is how the actors interact. Still, one can’t deny that Dave Yakubik, with his deep, sonorous, yet joyful voice and sad eyes was a perfect fit for the shy, but sweet Danny M2, and one hopes we see him back on stage sooner rather than later. One also would be remiss if they did not mention Shanon Weaver, the only man to have auditioned for BOTH extant productions of the play, who utilizes his charisma and swagger to breathe no small amount of hilarious bluster to the role. Lowell Bartholemee proves that there are few things in theatre he is not good at, coming off a Austin Critics’ Table wins for best sound design and digital design, and stealing every scene he’s in as the cocksure, witty Danny M1. Maria Latiolais, fresh off an impressive performances in Hyde Park’s The Wolves, also shows herself to be a star on the rise, with a peppy and bright performance, that perhaps belies something darker as the play progresses. Another one to watch is Saurabh Pradhan, whose comedic timing is undeniable, bringing some of the biggest laughs of the piece, who also is able to carry one of the play’s more bizarre stretches of writing with gusto.

Annie Baker and Hyde Park Theatre have always been a marriage made in heaven, and The Antipodes certainly continues to prove this. Ken Webster is able to capture the spirit and rhythm of Baker’s language, while taking some of the wilder moments and expanding them to create something truly jaw-dropping. It’s a play that’s incredibly demanding of its actors, going places where few actors are brave enough to go (there’s one monologue given by Lowell Bartholemee that’s absolute stomach-turning), showing the cast to be full of professional, polished performers. The play isn’t full of pounding action or a single gripping narrative, but the relatable characters and bizarre escalation make for  intriguing, if a tad intellectual, experience, that patient viewers will find quite enrapturing.

Antipodes is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through August 4th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit http://www.hydeparktheatre.org.

Photo courtesy of Bret Brookshire.

‘The Afterparty’ is a dark, whimsical journey to a celestial dreamscape

The moment one steps into the Vortex Repertory Theatre, one knows they’re in for a magical evening. Most of the plays performed under its roof explode with life and originality, full of big ideas, and the talent to make those dreams a reality. The latest production calling the Vortex home is the newest from Shrewd Productions, one of the most unique voices in Austin theatre, a company with the habit of presenting offbeat theatrical wonders that you won’t find anywhere else. Written by the hyper-talented Reina Hardy, “The Afterparty” is as difficult to describe as it is mesmerizing to watch. Following a young woman named Claire over her thousands of years of existence, we see her first loves, both human and celestial, as well as her journey into the very heavens themselves, where she meets a cavalcade of historical figures and realizes just how important humanity can be. It’s the kind of high concept creation that could only come when minds like Hardy, Shrewds, and the Vortex come together, and it’s one unforgettable experience.

What does it sound like to talk to a star? What does it look like to see all the knowledge in the universe? These are just a few of the questions that the accomplished production team of “The Afterparty”, led by director Liz Fisher, were tasked with answering, and it’s a testament to their talents that such answers culminate in a true audio-visual feast. Patrick Anthony’s lighting design not only creates a haunting dreamscape, but also helps keep us captivated with quick light changes and flashes that almost hypnotize the audience, thanks in no small part to one of the hardest working strobe lights in town. Backing this all is music and sound design created by Nick Hart, whose eerie score sends pulses through the audience members’ bodies, creating the perfect soundscape for this dark, yet whimsical adventure. One can’t forget the work of Monica Pasut on costumes, who proves that costumes don’t need elaborate complexity to impress, as with a few clever fabric choices and a creative design sense she’s crafted outfits that not only look impressive, but help give unique personality to each of the play’s inhabitants. In the center of it all is one of the best designed props I’ve seen, a glowing book that captures the imagination as soon as it opens, that’s simply built but smartly used.

“The Afterparty” finds Claire in several moments throughout her life, so it is essential that she is performed by a dynamic actor. Claire is a creature of both youthful exuberance and a poet’s soulfulness, of strong resolve and sudden vulnerability. Shannon Grounds has proven herself to be a top-tier actress in the past, but “The Afterparty” may be her best performance in years, as she shows off impressive range while still maintaining genuineness, serving as an earnest anchor even as insanity swirls around her. Claire is a character forced to choose between the ethereal beauty of the cosmos and her own humanity, and its the grounded realness that Grounds brings to the role that truly makes the character, and the play, sing.

“The Afterparty” is the kind of play that only the Reina Hardy could create. Bursting with creativity, but wildly intelligent, its filled with magic and the music of the spheres. In the hands of Liz Fisher and the Shrewd Production crew, the experience becomes something otherworldly, a waking dream, a fleeting phantasmagoria that you won’t want to end. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience the like of which you’re not likely to find again, so make sure you grab a seat, before it’s too late.

“The Afterparty” is playing at Vortex Repertory Theatre through June 30th. For more information, and to purchase tickets,visit shrewdproductions.com

Jarrott Productions’ ‘Seminar’ is a witty, affective peek into the inner workings of the literati

David Jarrott’s Jarrott Productions may only be three seasons old, but in that time it has become one of the city’s most acclaimed companies, thanks to an intelligent choice of plays and professional productions. The company seems to be continuing this trend with their latest, a perfectly cast and thoughtfully produced presentation of Theresa Rebeck’s Broadway hit, Seminar. This tale of five very different writers coming together under the tutelage of a washed up author is full of surprising emotion and rigorous intellectual energy, and director Bryan Bradford brings this to vivid life thanks to a talented cast and crew.

The danger of filling a play with intellectuals is that it can quickly become stuffy or esoteric, but Rebeck has a clever way around this, by showing these characters’ vulnerabilities. In the process of watching each of these writers get their work picked apart, we get to see that part of themselves they hate most, as if each of their hearts were laid bare. Near the end of the play, not even the teacher, Leonard, is safe, as his own faults are brought to the fore. This is greatly aided by the casts’ sensitive performances, which never stray too far into stereotype or easy caricature. It’s surprising just how affecting the play is, as in the wrong hands this kind of material could quickly become insufferable.

When casting the role of Leonard, performed on Broadway by such luminaries as Jeff Goldblum and the late Alan Rickman, it’s paramount that the actor be a bastion of charisma. The character is often so cavalier, cut-throat, and even reprehensible, that without inherent charm the character could become intolerable. It’s to our benefit, then, that they brought in Colum Parke Morgan for the role, a ball of pure charm, who practically stole the show in Austin Shakespeare’s production of Much Ado About Nothing. When he lambastes the other characters’ writing, he’s somehow able to make us both hate him, understand him, and at times even believe him. He has the ability to deliver an insult as if it’s a compliment, with even his most cutting critiques coming off more as tough love than out-and-out harassment. Part of this stems from Rebeck’s intelligent writing for the character, but Morgan certainly brings his own attitude to the role, able to seem both carefree and delicate simultaneously throughout.

A lot of media has a certain way of writing promiscuous characters. They are often shown as vapid or unintelligent, and we’re often not meant to take them seriously. Early on, both Rebeck and actress Regan Goins make it clear that Izzy is going to be neither of these things. Though she comes on to most of the male cast, we see that her writing is just as  good, if not better, than that of the other writers, in no small part because she’s so confident in her sexuality, and brazen with her urges. Goins tackles the role with a self-assurance and unabashedness that’s both enthralling and refreshing, demanding our attention with every scene.

The secret star of the piece, however, may be Brooks Laney as Martin. While early on he seems jaded and cynical, it quickly comes to light that this is only to mask his own insecurity, and that he cares more about his writing than anyone there. He believes writing a sacred expression of one’s soul, and so therefore showing anyone his writing is like sheathing his own life’s blood to the reader. His hang dog demeanor belies a joyful inner light, and a intellectually fierceness that is simply exhilarating to watch, especially in the play’s last act. Laney is the kind of actor who can portray so much in a simple facial expression, or in the way he tackles a line, and he’s not afraid to show vulnerability and weakness to get to the raw, emotional core of the character.

It’s obvious that director Bryan Bradford and his team have put quite a bit of thought into every element of this production. Whether it’s Michael Krauss’s simple bleak white set, which acts a empty canvas for the power of Rebeck’s smart writing and complicated characters, backed by subtle but effective lighting by Chris Conard; Colleen PowerGriffin’s thoughtful, modular costume design, which instantly gives us helpful pieces of information on the character without seeming overdone or cliche, and even evolves with the characters; to the clever staging, which speaks to the characters’ relationships without those characters speaking one word. When you combine all this, along with the impressive performances from these young actors, you create a night of insightful, polished theatre from a promising young theatre.

Seminar is playing through June 3rd at the Trinity Street Theatre. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit their website at jarrottproductions.com.

Photo courtesy of Steve Williams. 

Tears fall, voices soar, and hearts flutter in Austin Opera’s ‘La Traviata’

Guiseppe Verdi’s La Traviata is a near-perfect opera. It comes out of the gate with a bang, with one of the most famous songs in the opera canon, “Labiamo”, energizing the audience for the love story to come, slowly decrescendoing to more quiet love songs in the First Act’s back half. Just when it’s in danger of losing its audience, the piece brings the party, complete with matadors and fortune tellers, before descending into a heartbreaking finale. It moves naturally, and is all backed by Verdi’s gorgeous music, creating one of the most poignant and powerful pieces in the canon. Austin Opera’s production of the work, led by the skilled hands of stage director David Lefkowich and his crew, only helps cement this reputation, creating a production that allows the opera to speak for itself, with its own powerful voice, not resorting to tricks of radical staing, but still bringing all the lusciousness and luxury that makes the piece such a delight.

When played well, Verdi’s music feels like falling in love. Something about the grand, rich strings and softly flowing phrasing sets the heart aflutter, and when its coming out the mouths of singers like Marina Costa-Jackson and Michael Chioldi, it becomes something of a transcendent experience. There were many moments I found myself in awe, closed-eyed and mouth agape from the splendor of it all (surely missing important dialog or plot points in the process). The Austin Opera Orchestra, led skillfully by conductor Steve White, has never sounded better, carrying the Verdi’s moving passages with depth and grace.

At its heart, this production is a showcase of immense talent of Marina Costa-Jackson, who plays the iconic role of courtesan Violetta Valery. Though the opera gives her plenty of opportunities for vocal pyrotechnics, La Traviata is at its best when its using Costa-Jackson’s astounding vocal skills for emotional effect. In the quieter, more romantic moments in the play’s first act, she sings as if she is casting a spell upon her audience, making it nigh impossible to look away. As the play enters its second act, her voice weaves  mesmerically into Verdi’s gorgeous music, giving the sensation of floating out of one’s chair. Though the piece is sung entirely in Italian, dialog becomes secondary, as as Costa-Jackson’s emotive face tells a story all its own. Her wily, seductive smile and bewitching eyes make us fall in love easily early on, but it’s when Violetta’s forced into her more sorrowful moments where the singer truly shines. Her performance here is a study in the downward spiral, as we watch this bright-eyed wonder become sullen and sickly by the production’s end, and that Costa-Jackson is able to sell every moment, from the vibrant opening stanzas to her final, heartbreaking moments, is a powerful testament to her abilities as an actress.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing work being done by Michael Chioldi as Germont, whose all too brief moments on stage make up some of the most stunning passages of the work. The entire opera turns on his actions, so it’s essential that his performance is powerful, but it’s the tenderness he brings to the character that’s most refreshing. Even as he’s breaking Violetta’s heart, Chioldi’s shows a softness to Germont that belies just how much he cares for those affected. In addition, his full, powerful voice harmonizes surprisingly well with Costa-Jackson’s, adding another level to the cornucopia of mellifluousness on display, keeping the audience rapt.

When it’s at its best, there are few forms of art that portray emotion better than Opera. From the exaggerated characterizations to reliance on constant music, the feelings are forced to come to the fore, and when the right cast finds the right material, it can create a truly moving experience.  Austin Opera has done just this with La Traviata, transporting its audience into a world of richness, luxury, and wonder, and enveloping them in all of the romance, effervescence, and despair that an amazing tale like that of courtesan Violetta can deliver.

Street Corner Arts’ ‘Grounded’ is a harrowing journey into the dark corners of the human mind

Over the past few seasons, Street Corner Arts has made a name for themselves with topical and emotionally riveting productions,  winning acclaim and awards in the process. Their latest may be their most on-the-pulse production yet, an examination of the people at the heart of the military industrial complex, and the effects violence and war can have on the human psyche. Featuring a star-making turn from Sarah Danko, George Brant’s Grounded is a powerful journey into an emotional maelstrom, that, while not quite sticking its landing, takes its audience on a devastating trip.

When we first meet Grounded’s main character, she is a hot shot fighter pilot in Iraq, but after a weekend rendezvous with a sweet young man, her life is changed. She soon finds herself a new kind of a pilot, a member of the “chair force”, leaving the gorgeous blue skies behind for the domestic life of a mother, and the endless gray screen of a drone camera. What follows is an emotionally complex downward slide, as we see how constant contact to war and violence can leave permanent wounds on the soul.

Sarah Danko grabs our attention the moment she walks out on stage as The Pilot, all pride and swagger, and  she never lets us go. As the play is told almost entirely through narration, it could become endlessly dull in the wrong hands, and so we’re lucky that Danko tackles the role with confidence and dynamism. In the play’s early stages, one feels like they’ve started up a particularly interesting conversation at a party, and it’s this believability that makes the play’s eventually climax carry so much weight. Grounded takes its main character, and it’s audience, through a cavalcade of emotions, but with Danko’s thoughtful performance, these conflicting emotions never feel overblown or stilted, but instead are handled with subtlety, making the final downfall that inevitably grips out heroine feel honest, and the audience’s emotions earned.

Though Danko does much of the heavy lifting, there’s no denying the impact that the production team has on Grounded‘s effectiveness. Much of the play hinges on the sea of grey into which our protagonist stares for hours on end, and thanks to media designer Lowell Bartholomee and lighting designer Chris Conard, the audience is taken along on this ride, gazing into that gray ourselves. Conard’s clever use of color, along with the bizarre soundscapes created by Paul Feinstein, also helps the audience to get into the pilot’s head space, with subtle changes helping denote location, time of day, and, most importantly, emotional state.

Though the character’s arc is well handled through most the play, the ending, unfortunately, rings hollow. Though it doesn’t tarnish what came before, one can’t help but feel the soft touch that ran through so much of the play was replaced with a pummeling fist, as nuance gets thrown out the window and the play’s themes are spoken to us aloud. It could be seen as the a dour final destination for our heroine, but one can’t help but think it could have been handled in a more insightful way.

After the play, the director Benjamin Summers came on to the stage to invite us to the after party, stating that we didn’t have to go away sad. As I thought on this, I realized it wasn’t sadness that gripped me, but something more akin to a slowly creeping dread. It stayed in the back of my head for quite some time, all through my train ride home, in my evening whiskey, leaving me to wonder as I closed my eyes to sleep: will I be dreaming in gray tonight?

“Grounded” runs 80 minutes, and is playing through April 21st at Hyde Park Theatre. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit streetcornerarts.org.