‘Wars of Heaven: Smackdown’ is a intriguing, bold look at modern morality

When Trouble Puppet’s “Wars of Heaven: Part I” hit last year, audiences were not sure what to expect. So many of Trouble Puppet’s previous shows had their basis in literature or history, and even if they veered off in different directions, there’s always a stabilizing backbone behind it all. With “Wars of Heaven”, they let their imaginations run wild, and the result was a unique piece of artistic beauty. Their follow up “Wars of Heaven: Smackdown”, feels less like a sequel and more of a concurrent storyline, taking us to another corner of this twisted universe, as two high-ranking hosts of heaven and Hell match wits in theological debate, with the lives of innocents one the line.

“Wars of Heaven: Smackdown” brings audiences to a world that’s at once familiar, and yet wholly original. Taking its inspiration from Professional Wrestling (if the title “Smackdown” wasn’t clue enough), everything from commentators to huge personas speaks a language that will be familiar to anyone versed in the wrestling world. However, these battles are not fought on the canvas. Instead, the two challengers (one a high-rankng angel, the other a high-ranking demon) engage in a battle of wits, given horrifying personification in the form of innocent souls, forced to fight according to which side is winning the argument (and the arguments tend to be very one-sided, leading to a bit of a bloodbath). The sadly short piece builds to a shocking, soul-crushing twist ending that will stay with its viewer for some time.

The first thing you notice as you walk into “Wars of Heaven: Smackdown” is the scale. Most of Trouble Puppet’s previous plays happened on miniature sets, but here, we’re treated to one of the largest pieces of scenery in the company’s history, a large arena, complete with background puppets and a flat-screen TV. The main puppets follow suit, as they tower over the other puppets and characters, proving to be two of the most impressive pieces of work I’ve seen from the company. It all comes together to make the piece feel more epic, even as the shortened running time and the more straightforward plot make for a less intriguing experience than its predecessor.

After several years, Trouble Puppet Theatre, one of the boldest and most original companies in Austin, is losing its home, making their latest production, “Wars of Heaven: Smackdown” their final production for some time. It’s very telling that they chose this play to be their last in the space, as its no a somber, melancholy affair, but instead bursting with life, opening with opera, and taking its structure from Professional Wrestling. If it fails to meet some of the highs of some of the company’s previous efforts, it’s only because they left such a high benchmark. If Trouble Puppet has to leave the building, they’re going out with a bang, and taking he building down with them.

Courtesy of Trouble Puppet Theatre

‘The Barber of Seville’ is a funny, finely produced production of a true classic

When it comes to opera, there will always be certain barriers to entry. One of the major ones is, of course, is our own preconceptions, that operas are so often hyper-serious, stuffy affairs. There are other more serious ones, such as length (most operas do run 3 hours or more), and the language barrier (the best operas are also often in a language other than English). However, as I’ve learned through the past few years, to miss out on an opera for either of these reasons is to miss out on something truly awe-inspiring, and Austin Opera is currently providing a great entry-point, with their absolutely hilarious, beautifully choreographed production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”.

“The Barber of Seville” is a simple story, told beautifully. As the play begins we meet the Count Almaviva, who has become enraptured by the beautiful, young Rosina. Standing in his way, however, is Dr. Bartolo, Guardian of Rosina, who is making plans to marry his ward for her inheritance. Luckily for Almaviva, the titular, well-to-do barber, Figaro, has plans to help the Count out (for a price). What follows is the stuff of high farce, as Almaviva and Figaro come up with numerous plans to whisk Rosina away from her harsh guardian, though their plans always seem to fall apart.

From word one, “Barber of Seville” transports us to the streets of Spain, and much of this is due to the spectacular production design. Whether the streets of the city, to the cushy, well-detailed interiors of the doctor’s chateau, it’s obvious scenic designer Peter Dean Beck has put a lot of thought into making sure that each element of the design helps to give the feel of the period, as well as making each part seem lived-in, authentic. Also helping to make the piece feel more authentic are the gorgeous costumes designed by Susan Memmott Allred. Polished, well-designed, and stunningly detailed, the costumes make a true artistic statement in their own right, without ever feeling gaudy or over-touched. It all comes together to create a cohesive, engaging world in which our characters can weave their wondrous tale.

One surprising element of the play is how strong a character Rosina seems, especially for the period. True, she spends much of her time in the piece waiting to be rescued, but the amount of vim and venom she exhibits is admirable. Indeed, she gives as good as she gets more often than not when confronted by her Guardian, taking her own steps to plan her escape. As we learn later in the play, she’s also a woman well in touch with her sexuality, putting the moves on the disguised count throughout in very hilarious ways, adding in a refreshingly bawdy element that this critic was truly not expecting. Jennifer Rivera’s talent for expression truly makes the character, as she gives a sharp, well-nuanced performance that truly adds interesting dimension to Rosina.

Of course, this opera would be nothing without a powerful actors in the lead role, and luckily, Troy Cook cuts a fine Figaro. He first pops on to the scene with energy and bravado, and doesn’t drop a bit of it as the piece progresses. He’s one of those rare characters that’s never quite in the hero’s camp, but who we can’t help but love, his clever, conniving plans always seeming to blow up in the others’ faces. He also carries out some amazing vocal feats, as he, and the other characters, are often forced to sing overlapping verses, as well as lightning quick vocals, and Cook never skips a beat. It’s a remarkable performance, and one can only hope this amazing actor can grace Austin theaters again sooner, rather than later.

Surprisingly fun, gorgeously designed, and impeccably acted, “The Barber of Seville” is a great starting point for anyone looking to get into opera. Austin Opera continues to get better with every show, and so one can only imagine how good they will become going into their next season. I, for one, will be sure to grab a seat at their next production.

Photo Courtesy of Austin Opera