Viceroys present a compelling, jovial production of ‘Topdog/Underdog’

Suzan Lori-Parks’ Pulitzer-Prize winner “Topdog/Underdog” is one of the most celebrated plays of the 21st century, and a powerful comment on being African American in America, making it a rather daunting mount for even a veteran theatre troupe. That “Viceroys”, a fledgling company without a single production under their belts, would take it on shows courage. Luckily, they bring in two amazing performers, one, one of Austin’s best unsung talents, and one, a fresh young star from New York, and bring in the steady hand of Jason Phelps to create something powerful, yet fun.

“Topdog/Underdog” tells the tale of two African-American brothers, Lincoln and Booth, trying to make their way in a rough side of the city. Abandoned by their parents, the two live off what little inheritance their parents left, as well as the small pittance Lincoln makes as a Lincoln impersonator at a nearby arcade. Booth wants to become a master of Three-card Monte, as his brother once was, but, since his brother has given up the game, he lacks the skills to make it. The duo’s attempts to make their way honestly down a road which leads only to hustle and violence is the stuff of pure drama, and something that the directors weave into a highly important piece of theatre.

Jarret King is a performer who wears his heart on his sleeve. Even at his toughest, he’s a performer who brings light and innocence to his performances, an actor who experiences his feelings with great intensity. What this creates in a character is a sense of emotional intelligence, a sense that the emotions on display feel authentic. In “Top Dog/Underdog”, Jarret’s character Lincoln is pulled in many different directions emotionally, and it’s this emotional intelligence that makes each of these hit hard. Lincoln puts up a tough front, but it only takes the slightest hint of provocation for him to show his hand, showing his emotions boldly, whether it be his sadness, his joy, or his fear. In previous productions, we have learned that King has a real talent for comedy, so it’s fantastic here to see that he also carries his talent for emotional truth into drama as well.

While Jarret King is an actor who puts his emotions on display, his co-star, Matthew Frazier, prefers to keep things tight to the chest. Throughout the play, he stays cool, suave, gliding around the stage and boasting about everything he has. There’s something dangerous behind Booth, and we see this early on, as the literal Chekov’s gun of the play is pulled out as we barely into act one. It’s to the actors credit that Booth comes off so likable, however, as there’s something in the smoothness of Frazier’s delivery throughout that makes him endlessly charming, even as he’s pulling out hundreds in stolen goods, or committing far worse crimes. One hopes the actors stays around town, because the scene could only benefit from such a charismatic presence on stage.

Viceroys may be a jagged, newborn company, rough around the edges, but they show amazing potential in their early stages. Suzan Lori-Park’s deceptively important text is kept in capable hands, as the two leads provide charismatic, yet emotionally stirring, performances, keeping the feeling jovial and light, until the play’s final, searing moments. This production has a tragically short run, so make sure to head to the theatre to see it TODAY.

“Top Dog/Underdog” is playing at Salvage Vanguard Theatre through January 31st, so be sure to grab your tickets now at tdudaustin.com.

Photo Courtesy of Viceroys

‘Disgraced’ is a brave and powerful look at race and religion in America

One of the biggest current tragedies in Austin theatre right now is the disappearance of performance spaces. What this leads to is artists converting atypical spaces into theatres, meaning you can find great talent in the strangest places. One of these places, buried in the heart of what was once Highland Mall, among blank storefronts and the silence of empty tile floors, is Austin Playhouse. Don’t let the surroundings fool you, however, because inside this peculiar space is a bold and brave company, who takes on one of the most daring and powerful plays of the season with “Disgraced”, the story of Middle Eastern-American apostate who must come to terms with what it means to be Muslim in America.

As “Disgraced” begins, we’re introduced to Amir, a former Muslim from Pakistan who is a successful lawyer at a prestigious law firm. Though ardently against the Muslim faith, his white, artist wife is heavily into Islam, utilizing its history and techniques in her art. Over the course of the play, we’re introduced to characters and situations that force Amir to come to terms with his Islamic heritage, and the weight it carries, which culminates in one of a violent, fiery climax.

“Disgraced” is a play full of escalation, with emotions reaching their boiling points before blowing over, so it’s very important that the actors handle their emotions with a clear balance. If they don’t go far enough, the actors lose believability, but if they let their emotions out too quickly, the performances could come off as one note, so hitting the right middle ground is paramount. Luckily, the actors here are well up to task, pleasant to spend time with in the early stages, raising the emotional intensity throughout the play, reaching their height during the dinner party in the heart of the piece. As the action is left to rise naturally, more intense moments hit with that much more power, adding to the unsettling quality of the text to create something truly moving.

From the first moment we see him, J. Ben Wolfe brings with him plenty of stage presence, but it’s his vulnerability that makes him shine brightest here. Though clad in a hard outer shell, there is something soft inside Wolfe’s Amir that comes out when he feels he’s under attack. During the play’s climax, when Amir flies off the handle and starts saying horrifying things, we can hear, even in his rage, a sorrow, a feeling of alienation. He’s removed himself from Islamic community, but is also separated from the outside world thanks to the “otherness” of being Middle Eastern, which puts him in a difficult place, a man alone, stuck between two worlds. When this bashes against other strong beliefs, such as the strong Islamic beliefs of his wife and nephew, or the Jewish beliefs of Michael Miller’s Isaac, sparks fly, and we get amazing moments of theatrical fireworks. Wolfe is able to control these feelings, however, creating a controlled burn that keeps the audience’s attention without setting the stage ablaze.

Though Wolfe carries much of the weight of the play, his supporting cast doesn’t shy away from shining out when the moment strikes. Michael Miller in particular gives one of his most daring performances, sharpening his usual well-honed neurosis into something more intriguing, a slow-burning anger that hides behind his usual cheerful awkwardness until it rips out in a fiery tirade. Also bringing the heat is Crystal Bird Caviel, whose mixture of brashness and sensitivity is a delight, as she gives one of the most authentic performances in the piece. Finally, we have the always spectacular Molly Karrasch as Amir’s wife, Emily, who is never less than believable as the white Muslim wife of an apostate, and who brings her unique brand of emotional intelligence to the role, playing off each of her co-stars with skill.

“Disgraced” is a brave play, tackling taboo subjects of Islamophobia and national pride, and Austin Playhouse produces one of their most daring productions from it. It shows Austin Playhouse as a company unafraid to take risks and push the limits of what Austin theatre-goers can expect, showing that, even in a theatre buried in a rundown old mall, wonders can be found.

Austin Playhouse’s “Disgraced” runs through January 31st. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit austinplayhouse.com.

Photo Courtesy of Christopher Loveless

‘Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical’ is a sassy, if slight, slice of musical camp

Doctuh Mistuh has never shied away from the audacious. They’ve presented musicals such as “Silence!”, the Silence of the Lambs Musical, “Reefer Madness: The Musical”, and “Evil Dead: The Musical”, but perhaps none of those has reached the level of audacity of their latest. With “Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical”, Doctuh Mistuh plumbs levels of boldness unmatched in town, by bringing the Off-Broadway musical of the infamous 70s porn to Austin audiences. The result is a campy, sassy, but slight, experience, full of plenty of hilarious moments and over-the-top characters to keep both the deviants and the innocents satisfied.

If I was to say “this production of “Debbie Does Dallas: the Musical” lacks depth”, I would perhaps be laughed out of the industry, and yet, I can’t help but express the sentiment. Even in productions of Doctuh Mistuh’s most frivolous and light musicals, such as “Silence!” or “Reefer Madness”, there was still a compelling narrative, a through line and development that kept you attached to the action. “Debbie Does Dallas” on the other hand often feels like it’s just going through the motion, stringing along just enough of a threadbare narrative to hang double entendres and awkward pseudo-sex scenes on. This isn’t to say the play it not full of notable moments, as the play is stuffed with wonderful morsels of humor, especially anytime two of the cheerleaders partake in their “Stretches”. One just wishes that there could have been something more to hold on to, a more thorough storyline to keep you interested when the constant humor and awkwardness gets tiring.

One department in which Doctuh Mistuh always succeeds is with its performers, and in this “Debbie Does Dallas” does not disappoint. Each actress provides the pluck and passion to make their part sing, as they each provide a confidence surprising for their age. They don’t shy away from any of the sexier moments, able to exude cheeky sensuality to create some notable cheesecake. Though there’s actually very little singing in the show, those few moments where there does come a moment to sing, the ensemble does not shy away from showing off their skills. The men join them in equal measure, each showing off a gift for humor and physicality, the play demanding a lot of these young actors. That each actor in the piece has the confidence and composure to take part in the lunacy and ribaldry is a testament to just how much talent they bring to the table, and to the skill director Michael McKelvey has in guiding them on their way.

“Debbie Does Dallas” is far from Doctuh Mistuh’s best production, especially since both director Michael McKelvey and Doctuh Mistuh have produced several amazing works throughout 2015, but it’s still a musical well worth your time. It’s full of plenty of ribald humor to keep audience’s in stitches, even if other moments can get a tad to awkward or loose. It’s light, it’s fun, and it’s campy as heck, and an entertaining way to spend an evening.

Photo Courtesy of Doctuh Mistuh Productions