‘The Quarry’ is a unique, textured play with a powerful lead performance

Hyde Park has always gone to great lengths to bring Austin new, original works, introducing Austin to artists like Will Eno and Annie Baker, and this tradition continues with latest, a unique little piece following a woman whose suicide attempts are sidetracked by strange goings-on at a nearby quarry. This is only the beginning to the strange, but enthralling, experience that is Greg Pierce’s “The Quarry”, and Ken Webster and company bring this strange piece to vivid wondrous life, thanks in no small part to a bravura lead performance by Hyde Park regular Katherine Catmull.

At times “The Quarry” seems to become a New English Murakami, a kind of Lynchian dreamscape, complete with strange stairs, missing girls, and bizarre town hall meetings, with characters’, and, by play’s end, actors’ personalities bobbing and weaving into each other. It takes a strong hand to keep us from getting lost in these thorny woods, but luckily, we have Ken Webster at the reins, who keeps us clearly on the right path, focusing on character within all the strangeness, helping to let the personality and emotions of the play come to the fore.

The most impressive emotive presence in “The Quarry” is Katherine Catmull, who plays the central character Jean. In many ways, “The Quarry” plays out like a one-woman show, with Catmull carrying most of the play on her able shoulders. She’s an astonishing presence on stage, carrying herself with confidence and character, showing a remarkable number of dimensions throughout. She hits her humor points with splendid timing, while also bringing the necessary pathos to the more sorrowful scenes. Her chemistry with Webster in undeniable, and when the real life couple appears on stage you can’t help but crack a smile.

Judging on versatility alone, Jess Hughes easily takes the day. Already nominated for her work earlier this year in “The Christians”, Hughes here shows her range by playing characters that range from 16 to 30, each of them feeling thought-out and unique. Her vulnerability is remarkable as lost girl, but one can’t ignore her humorous, but impressive, physicality as a hippie neighbor, and the way she’s able to switch back and forth shows she’ a rare breed of actress.

There’s something boldly original about “The Quarry”, which hides strange events and ideas under the surface, while presenting us with characters who could come from our own neighborhoods. It’s reminiscent of the work of Haruki Murakami or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which means that it would take a smart, steady director and cast to make the material connect to the audience. Luckily, the folks at Hyde Park Theatre are up to the task, creating a textured, emotional, and unique theatrical experience, led by a tour-de-force performance from Katherine Catmull. It shows an interesting direction for Hyde Park to take, and one hopes that they continue to keep choosing such unique works to share with Austin audiences.

‘The Little Mermaid’: First act flounders, but talent bubbles to the surface

Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” is one of the most celebrated and loved animated films in history, so it was only a matter of time before it made its way to the Broadway Stage. Now, Broadway Across America has brought the Broadway hit to Austin, along with everyone’s favorite characters, scenes, and song. It also brings with it new story lines and songs, with diminishing returns, some of which turn out to be home runs, and some don’t quite rise to reach classic status.

Where the piece falls apartment, more than anything is on the production side of things. Compared to the spectacle of the other Disney musicals, “The Little Mermaid” falls short, especially in its first half. Numbers like “Under the Sea”, the show’s most well-known number, could be much more powerful if given the same treatment as the Lion King’s “Circle of Life”, but as it’s presented on stage, it lacks a certain energy or verve. It doesn’t help that “The Little Mermaid” is the one of the vibrant and lively of Disney’s creations, which has the added limitation of taking place mostly under the water, but one can’t help but think steps could have been taken to make the numbers more energetic or original. It’s endemic of most the plays problems, as scenes with take place against blank backgrounds, when they could have been given much more dynamic environments.

The play is at its best when its characters are in motion, during the various dancing moments, and in particular swimming scenes, and no performer is more in touch with their body than Allison Wood as Ariel. Graceful, lithe, and compact, each movement she makes speaks to her character, with each little swirl, each sway of her hips or flutter of her feet creating meaning and purpose. Her crystal-clear voice also helps to sell her childish innocence, as do her wide, expressive eyes. It all comes together to create one of the most memorable characters in the piece.

Though its romantic leads do a fine job, the real star of this show s Melvin Abston as Sebastian. Playing the jittery, but still caring confidante, he brings an exuberance to the role that’s practically contagious. Vocally, he also carries his songs well, his textured baritone becoming the best parts of numbers like “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl”, which lose steam on the production side of things. The stage always becomes a little brighter when he’s on stage, and he saves many moments that simply wouldn’t stand without the power of his performance.

There’s plenty to love in Broadway Across America’s “The Little Mermaid”, especially for anyone who comes with their childlike whimsy intact and their nostalgia goggles firmly planted. In particular, several of the performances are truly accomplished, especially that of our leads and Melvin Abston as Sebastian. However, the play fails to rise to the level of Broadway spectacle present in productions like “The Lion King” or “Beauty and the Beast”, and makes lazy choices in many sections. In the end, it’s not quite worth it for the investment, though classic Disney fans will find plenty to love.

Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars