Zach Theatre’s ‘Ann’ is a laugh-a-minute look at a Texas icon

It takes a special kind of talent to create a one-person show, to strip everything down to the barest of bones, until it’s just you, and the audience. Holland Taylor takes this challenge one step further with her one-woman show, “Ann”, as she presents the life of one of Texas’s most famous politicians, Ann Richards, the spitfire Democrat who somehow rose through the ranks to become Texas’s head honcho. Taylor pulls double duty here, both writing and performing this humorous piece of historical hilarity, taking us from Richards’ earliest days on the farm to her final days in New York, all while bringing charm, wit, and wisdom.

“Ann” follows the life of Ann Richards, focusing mostly on a single day in the middle of her tenure as Texas Governor, when she’s left with the decision of whether or not to offer a stay of execution for a young man. This story is told through an interesting framing device, where Richards is giving the Graduation Address to a group of a graduates from a nameless college. Through this, we see not only her years in office, but also her days as a child, recalling days of her kind father, and harsh mother, through her relationship with her whip-smart husband, her time running campaigns, and, finally to her own campaign. Some elements are not dealt with as deeply as one would wish, but Taylor does a fine job showing us the breadth of the icon’s life.

As “All the Way” did last year with the Texas in the sixties, one thing that “Ann” does beautifully is tell us not only the story of Ann Richards, but in its way, the story of Texas in the nineties. Throughout her conversations with various figures, we get an image of the shape the state was taking under her tutelage, and how indelible a presence she was during her time in office. The omission of anything involving the Bushes is a bit disappointing, as anyone who knows Richards’ history know she always had some fiery words to throw in the direction of one Bush or another, but we still get great interactions between Richards and many figures of the day, including several hilarious scenes involving phone calls with president Bill Clinton.

From the moment the play begins, we never truly see Holland Taylor, as she’s absolutely transformed into Ann Richards. Everything, from her dialect, to her gait, to her mannerisms, feel true to the character, and nothing ever feels forced. It’s obvious that Taylor has done her research, as it feels like the woman herself is visiting us throughout the play. One thing that Taylor captures best is Richards’ humor, with her many witticisms bringing about waves of riotous laughter. She’s candid, she’s tough, and she’s smart, and as we leave theatre, we can’t help but think that, in a way, it feels like we’ve just spent two hours with the former governor herself.

Though segments don’t reach quite as deeply as we could hope, it’s hard to find fault with the way Holland Taylor presents the life of Ann Richards. There is not a moment in the piece that feels inauthentic, and Taylor’s performance is nothing short of miraculous. She captures the humor, the bite, and the heart of the woman who so shaped Texas politics, and one would think the woman herself would be honored to see such a polished tribute.

“Ann” is playing at Zach’s Topfer Theatre through May 15. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit Zach’s website at zachtheatre.org.

Photo Courtesy of Ave Bonar

‘Bull’ is a powerful, painful, but often humorous, look at modern society

Street Corner Arts has become a company to watch, producing many of the most important plays each year, and with Mike Bartlett’s “Bull”, they continue this in a very impactful way. This dark comedy of workplace politics is one of the most topical, relevant pieces on stages right now, and it’s given a tight, humorous, but heartbreaking production under the firm hand of Benjamin Summers.

“Bull” begins as a dark comedy about three co-workers under pressure, learning that one of them is going to be fired, and all of the zany, awkward situations they find themselves in in the process. How Mike Bartlett is able to slowly parse out information about the characters through these scenes is clever, as with a few small details, we learn some important elements about our three characters. We’re also never sure whether what these characters are saying is true, as there’s a level of distrust among all of them, sowing seeds to a few elements that will become wildly important later.

As the play reaches the end, the play transform into something much darker, and much more important. We’re always so used to stories where the hardworking underdog saves the day and gets one over on his bullies and tormentors, but “Bull” pulls an absolutely devastating, and ingenious move, of subverting that. The good guy loses. The bullies win. As we look back on this, of course, it was a foregone conclusion. Every word, every action, every scene in the play has been showing us, of course, that our romantic notions of underdog glories are just childhood daydreams in the end, and that it’s those unafraid to step on others, to use their looks to get ahead, to utilize every loophole and advantage they have to quash others’ ambitions, are the ones that will get ahead in the world. It’s a sobering theme, and one that hit this critic in a palpable way.

It’s to Suzanne Balling’s and Devin Finn’s credit that they make their characters so amiable, even as they’re doing the most despicable things. During the first part the play, they keep find new ways to humiliate their schlubby coworker, but thanks to a remarkable amount of charisma, it never feels intrinsically cruel, but instead feels like playful ribbing. In the later stages of the play, when the fired co-worker is literally being kicked while he’s down (you were warned, the play gets dark), you still feel a sense of true sympathy coming from Suzanne Balling as Isobel, even though there is obviously a sense of disgust there. The true horror can only come through if we can relate to it, if these people feel real, and thanks to some fine tuning by the actors, many of us will find these people all too recognizable.

Thomas, the sympathetic character at the heart of the play, is the kind hardworking try-hard that keeps getting one-upped by those who are more attractive or more outgoing, and Anders Nerheim has taken this burden on to his shoulders with gusto. Though many of his actions are played for humor, as the play goes on, Nerheim begins to show a sensitive sorrow beneath a hard outer shell, particularly when he begins getting beaten down near the piece’s end. Through his pathos-laden portrayal, we are able to take a deeper look at what seems to be the message that Bartlett is going for in the play: no matter how hard we work, how long we’ve stayed around, how much we care, those that are more attractive, more outgoing, more willing to step on others to get on top are more likely to get ahead.

The best pieces of theatre are tools for beginning a conversation, and “Bull” creates an amazing one. The author shows us several sides of the argument: Thomas is a pushover: badly dressed, high strung, and it’s implied he makes his clients uncomfortable. It’s understandable where he would be the odd man out in a client-facing job; however, his two co-workers are obviously bullies, torturing him to no end, making his life a living Hell. Mike Bartlett doesn’t provide easy answers, and that’s what makes “Bull” such an amazing work, and with the finely tuned performances from the actors, and an obviously firm guiding hand from director Benjamin Summer, this piece blitzes from comedy to tragedy with remarkable accuracy.

Street Corner Arts’ “Bull” is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through April 23rd. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit streetcornerarts.org

Photo Courtesy of Street Corner Arts

‘The Explorer’s Club’ is a zany, but smartly written, farce

Theatre can be a serious tool for tackling serious subjects in an intriguing and thought-provoking way, and it’s at its best when it’s turning its eye on our society and showing us a mirror of ourselves. However, there are times when all you need is a good laugh. Luckily, Austin Playhouse is giving us just that, with “The Explorer’s Club”, Nell Benjamin’s smart and pitch-perfect farce, which is given a polished production under director Lara Toner, thanks in no small part to an uber-talented cast, made up of the some of the best comedic talent the city has to offer.

As “The Explorer’s Club” begins, we find them ready to bring in a new member, who’s just discovered a hither-to unknown tribe of natives. The only problem, is, she’s a women. With two of them ready to give presentations to the queen, and their bartender out of the commission, the Club is under a lot of pressure, and soon the Club finds themselves with the palace guards, Irish rebels, and a gang of angry monks on their doorstep. The way the play keeps elevating the action to a higher and higher pitch is its greatest strength, and when it reaches its peak, the laughs just don’t stop coming.

“The Explorer’s Club” is buoyed in no small way by the mass of braggadocio that is Brian Coughlin as Harry Percy. From the moment he appears on stage, Coughlin is difficult to keep your eyes off of, as his timber, his delivery, and especially his movement, all serve the humor. The way he reacts to the world around him, whether it’s showing off his masculinity or belittling those smarter than he is, creates one hilarious moment after another. Though in the wrong hands this character could become villainous, Coughlin brings such huge charm that it’s impossible to dislike him, even as he shows us his cowardice or vanity.

As Austin Playhouse has shown in the past, there’s not a better two-man team in town than David Stahl and Michael Stuart. They’re like a vaudevillian duo who have been brought forward through time to delight modern audiences. Here, they play a pair of zany zoologists, one who studies snakes, and one who studies guinea pigs (“they all said people who study snakes and people who study prey could never be friends!”). The two play off each perfectly, just as they have so many times before, perhaps to best affect in Austin Playhouse’s “The 39 Steps”. Stahl in particular plays the perfect straight man to many of Stuart’s over-the-top reactions, and whenever they’re on stage we can’t help but smile.

The real power of this play does not come from a single performance, however, but instead from how they play with each other. In particular, a few scenes involving the service of drinks brings some of the biggest laughs, as it involves acrobatic ability that impresses every time. Whether it’s J. Ben Wolfe’s native interacting with the stuffy British folks around him, the charming chemistry between lovebirds Claire Grasso and Aaron JOhnson, or the battle between monks, the Irish, and the British army, this play is full of such amazing moments that the cast just carries to greatness.

In the culinary diet that is the theatrical experience, sometimes you just want something sweet, light, and fun, and Austin Playhouse has provided just the bowl of chocolate mousse you need. Witty, frivolous, undeniably funny, yet also smartly observed, “The Explorer’s Club” is a fine farce expertly choreographed by director Toner, who brings together a whizzbang cast, who are giving their all to bring out the hilarity of Benjamin’s text. It’s far and away the funniest play I’ve seen this year, and a great way to continue a fine season for Austin Playhouse.

“The Explorer’s Club” is playing through May 1st at Austin Playhouse. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit: austinplayhouse.com

Photo Courtesy of Jess Hughes

‘Bright Half Life’ is an intimate, heartfelt look at modern love

Imagine a theatre production. Now, remove the stage: the proscenium, the elevation, everything. Take away the costumes, the sets, the large cast. Now, finally, take away the theatre itself, until all that’s left is two actresses, and an audience. It’s here we find a kind of truth in intimacy, and it’s here that we begin with “Bright Half Life”, the latest production from Theatre en Bloc, the fractured story of one relationship told over the course of an all-too-short hour. During that time, however, we get a huge panoramic view of these people’s lives, starting from the first days of the relationship, all the way to these two women’s final days.

As the play begins, a handful of audience members sit in a tiny horse shed in the side yard of the Vortex theatre. Quarters are tight, the room at most 10 feet by 10 feet, with the audience seated along the walls, our two actresses sitting on the far side. As the play goes forward, these two actress use every inch of the space to show us, without sets, costumes, or make up changes, the lives of these two characters, a pair of lesbian lovers named Vicky and Erica. In the wrong hands, this entire exercise could be disastrous, but luckily, these two are charming and courageous, carrying out their fractured narrative with assured confidence, under the talented hand of director Jenny Lavery.

Writer Tanya Barfield has attempted in “Bright Half Life” to show us an entire relationship in the course of a but a blink of time. To do this, she fractures its narrative, placing the events of their lives in a non-linear order. This allows difference aspects of characters to unfold in intriguing ways, as time itself peels away at the characters’ layers, letting us, by the end, get an unflinching look at each aching pain and softness that the characters have to offer. These people may be strangers at the beginning of the story, but by the play’s end, the audience feels an intimacy with these characters that they wouldn’t have with their best friends.

Of course, our actresses certain help to tighten this relationship. The play depends entirely on the chemistry and Krysta Gonazales and Marina DeYoe-Pedraza, and luckily the two fit together like perfect molds. They give off a warmth and a charm that helps one relate to them early, and as we begin to see some of the darker sides of each of these characters, the two keep things grounded, never taking us out of the action. Sitting in such close proximity to the actresses tightens the bond, showing that director Jenny Lavery was smart in her staging, knowing that if the audience is forced to face the action head on, in close quarters, that its themes will resonate that much more palpably.

As spaces diminish for artistic expression in Austin, Theatre en Bloc proves that you need neither a big budget nor a huge space to produce true art, showing that an emotionally satisfying experience can be found, even in a room hardly bigger than the average bathroom. As long as we have companies like Theatre en Bloc blazing a trail in utilizing atypical spaces, there is hope that this community can survive its lack of space.

“Bright Half Life” runs through April 9th at Vortex Theatre. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit theatreenbloc.org.

Photo Courtesy of Theatre en Bloc