Cast chemistry shines in Hyde Park’s ‘John’

From the first time they staged “Body Awareness”, Annie Baker plays have become a regular event at Hyde Park Theatre, and each time they’re one of the highlights of the season. To see Ken Webster direct a Baker play is to watch a master at his best, and now audiences get a chance to do just that, with their latest production, “John”, a simple but satisfying tale of a couple’s experience at a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, PA. After their acclaimed production of the Pulitzer-prize winning “The Flick”, Webster and company return with another insightful look at modern society, this time taking a look at relationships, and how this generation relates to the ones that came before. It features a fine cast of Hyde Park newcomers and regulars alike, whose skills meld into a lovely tapestry or humor and pathos.

There are few writers working in the medium that capture the voice of the modern generation better than Pulitzer-prize winner Annie Baker. As she’s shown in masterpieces such as “Aliens”, “Circle Mirror Transformation”, and the award-winning “The Flick”, her characters’ dialogue seems particularly contemporary, while never feeling stilted or stage. The flow and ebb of conversations play out in ways they would in real-world situations, but they still serve the piece dramatically, a tight-wire act of writing that very few can hit. In “John”, she may have succeeded in this more than any of her pieces before, as each of the characters feel rounded, real, thanks in major part to Baker’s sharp, intelligent writing, that shows us how the three generations we see on stage are very different, but in their way, shockingly similar.

As “John” settles into its second act, a delight comes over one as you realize what Baker has given the audience: a chance to experience the lives of three generations of women. As the three women talk, there’s no judgement, no shame, just three powerful women talking about past loves, lives, and their place in the universe. It’s carried with gusto by the three performers, with Lana Dietrich in particular utilizing her amazing gift for reactive comedy. It’s simple, and it feels real, and there’s a comfort between the actors that’s evident from word one.

The true accomplishment in “John” doesn’t come from any particular performance, but instead in the way each performer works together. Zac Thomas and Catherine Grady feel like a real couple from the moment they walk on stage, with their eccentricities and squabbles coming off as the result of years together, and not forced character choices. In much the same way, the friendship between Katherine Catmull’s Kitty and Lana Dietrich’s Genevieve is instantly believable, with the two bouncing off each other with aplomb, with Catmull treating Dietrich’s loonyness with the kind of charm you reserve for your closest loved ones. Each character introduced adds to each scene, providing different dimensions with each conversation, all coming together to create a whole that comes together beautifully by the time we reach play’s end.

Hyde Park Theatre is one of Austin’s most consistent companies, and when they’re producing the works of Annie Baker, even more so. It’s no surprise, then, that their latest “John”, is yet another hit, a smartly directed look at several generations of women brought together at a bed and breakfast, which combines a modern, active script, and a cast with amazing chemistry. It obvious that director Ken Webster has a lot of affection for the works of Annie Baker, and it’s a relationship that works wonders. “John” may have a two and a half hour running time, but you’ll barely feel a minute of it, thanks in equal measure to the authenticity of Baker’s work, and Webster’s smooth direction of his game cast.

Austin Playhouse provides a smartly directed, boldly performed ‘Salesman’

There are certain plays that hold a special place not just in the world of theatre, but in the public conscience. Tartuffe, Romeo and Juliet, The Cherry Orchard, A Doll’s House: all of these have become cultural touchstones as much as performance pieces.. With this esteem also comes a challenge for anyone daring to put on one of these pieces, but Austin Playhouse is doing just this last with their latest production, Arthur Miller’s seminal masterwork, Death of a Salesman. It’s a classic tale of the hard-working but put-upon salesman Willy Loman, his attempt to provide a good life for his family, and the ruin that befalls him in the process. It’s been parodied, it’s been referenced, it even became a hit movie, and now Austin Playhouse is bringing it to the Austin stage. The move is undeniably bold on Austin Playhouse’s part, as how does bring any kind of freshness to a tale as oft-told as this one? With smart, stylish directing, and a strong, but sensitive performance at its core, Austin Playhouse’s production shows that Miller’s classic play still has a lot of life left in it, as they create a Death of a Salesman that feels as relevant and alive today as it was nearly seventy years ago.

 

Despite it’s fame, Death of a Salesman can be a difficult play to stage. Throughout the play, events from the past and future occur almost simultaneously, and in the wrong hands, this could end up as a confusing mess. Luckily, Austin Playhouse brought in acclaimed director Peter Sheridan to take the reins, and with clever staging techniques and firm grip on his vision, he’s created a way to make the action flow naturally, and, most impressively, he’s made it affecting. By cordoning off the moments that occur in the past from those that happen in the present, he’s created a visual metaphor, a physical disconnect between Loman’s two worlds. He’s aided greatly in this task by his lighting director, Playhouse regular Don Day, who’s provided some of his best work here, with lighting cues that provide even more separation, keeping color pallets and hues separate between the bygone days and Loman’s current grind. Of course, one can’t deny the part our lead, Marc Pouhe, plays in all this, as his vocal inflection, physicality, and even facial tics change between his two timelines to make a clear delineation.

 

Anyone who has seen Marc Pouhe perform knows he brings a presence. The moment he walks on stage, it’s nearly impossible to look away. His combination of bold charm and commanding confidence make him a force of nature, and here he allows the audience to see new depths to his talent. Willy Loman is a character of many different facets, and it can be a task to play each of those facets believably, but by imbuing Loman with charm in the early stages, his emotional arc throughout the play becomes that much more believable. In a bad production, Loman becomes a shouting monster by play’s end, but with Pouhe, we see the fury slowly seep in throughout, like storm clouds gathering before a roaring tempest. Even in his most furious moments, there’s a sorrow in the back of his voice, a real pathos to his performance. Pouhe is an actor who’s given many great performances, but his Willy Loman should be remembered as one of his best.

 

The Death of a Salesman that Austin Playhouse provides this month is a piece reinvigorated, reminding us that its themes are as relevant as ever. Some of the supporting performances may not live up to the high level set by Pouhe, but there’s no denying that this production is an enlightening, enjoyable, and enriching experience. If you haven’t seen Death of a Salesman before, this is a great introduction, and for those who have seen it, Austin Playhouse’s version may show you sides to the play you may not have seen before.

 

Death of a Salesman plays through March 12th at Austin Playhouse. For more information, and purchase tickets, visit AustinPlayhouse.com.

 

Image courtesy of Austin Playhouse.

“Neva” is a fine farce with a powerful message

One of the greatest wonders of theatre is being surprised. When I first heard of “Neva”, the story of a group of actors, including Chekhov’s widow, rehearsing against the background of the Russian Revolution, I expected something polished, staid. Instead, Theatre en Bloc’s production is full of power and humor in equal measure, drawing us in with comedy and charm, before grabbing us with its potent final message. It’s a fiercely political play, drawing on the fury and fervor of early 20th Century Russia to show us something about the times in which we now live.

“Neva” opens at a theatre in St. Petersburg, right in the heart of a rebellion. As the people  outside their doors are being gunned down, a trio of actors go about their lives of narcissistic worry, going through rehearsal for their production of the the Cherry Orchard. Among their number is the widow of Anton Chekhov, Olga Knipper, who been unable to act well since the death of her husband, and who’s insecurity is on full display. She has her fellow actors act out her husband’s death ad nauseum, a love letter to her own ego. Joining her is a forceful aristocrat with a commanding presence, and an ever put-on commoner who’s the butt of most of the jokes in the play, but who dreams of joining her people outside and burning down the proletariat.

Though Liz Beckham has shown her dramatic chops in previous productions, she surprises here by showing amazing comedic timing. From her twitchy stance to her expressive face, she brings out the laughs with most of her lines. Her physicality is mannered and controlled, with every movement being performed in service of the character and the comedy, and she sells her combination of narcissism and awkwardness with skill. Her discomfort is joined in equal but opposite measure by Kriston Woodreaux’s imposing confidence. He uses his booming baritone and athletic physique to create an overpowering figure, whose charm is matched only by his bravado.

When Lori Navarret first comes on stage, she seems like the meekest of the performers. She brings comedic moments with the rest of them, but it’s not until the final moments of the play that she really gets to shine. The last minutes of the play are taken up entirely by a scathing monologue, reciting entirely by Navarette’s character, putting a lot of pressure on her shoulders. Luckily, she has just the power to carry these last moments of righteous anger, her fury filling the stadium. She never feel preachy, forming the clay of her monologue into intriguing shapes to keeps the audience’s attention. It transports us away from the simple forty-seat black box, on to the blood-stained streets of revolution.

Despite what certain political figures may think, it is the job of successful theatre to not only entertain, but to enrich, to leave its audience changed by the final applause. With “Neva”, Theatre en Bloc has created a work that is not only riotously funny, but also turns a mirror to its audience, making them rethink their place in the world. It’s a delicate balance to hit, but the company pulls it off incredibly well, thanks in no small part by the rounded, determined performances of its cast. It’s a moving and hilarious work, and with the current political climate, its message is more important than ever.

“Neva” runs through March 5th at Santa Cruz Center for Culture. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please visit theatreenbloc.com.