Jarrott Productions’ ‘Seminar’ is a witty, affective peek into the inner workings of the literati

David Jarrott’s Jarrott Productions may only be three seasons old, but in that time it has become one of the city’s most acclaimed companies, thanks to an intelligent choice of plays and professional productions. The company seems to be continuing this trend with their latest, a perfectly cast and thoughtfully produced presentation of Theresa Rebeck’s Broadway hit, Seminar. This tale of five very different writers coming together under the tutelage of a washed up author is full of surprising emotion and rigorous intellectual energy, and director Bryan Bradford brings this to vivid life thanks to a talented cast and crew.

The danger of filling a play with intellectuals is that it can quickly become stuffy or esoteric, but Rebeck has a clever way around this, by showing these characters’ vulnerabilities. In the process of watching each of these writers get their work picked apart, we get to see that part of themselves they hate most, as if each of their hearts were laid bare. Near the end of the play, not even the teacher, Leonard, is safe, as his own faults are brought to the fore. This is greatly aided by the casts’ sensitive performances, which never stray too far into stereotype or easy caricature. It’s surprising just how affecting the play is, as in the wrong hands this kind of material could quickly become insufferable.

When casting the role of Leonard, performed on Broadway by such luminaries as Jeff Goldblum and the late Alan Rickman, it’s paramount that the actor be a bastion of charisma. The character is often so cavalier, cut-throat, and even reprehensible, that without inherent charm the character could become intolerable. It’s to our benefit, then, that they brought in Colum Parke Morgan for the role, a ball of pure charm, who practically stole the show in Austin Shakespeare’s production of Much Ado About Nothing. When he lambastes the other characters’ writing, he’s somehow able to make us both hate him, understand him, and at times even believe him. He has the ability to deliver an insult as if it’s a compliment, with even his most cutting critiques coming off more as tough love than out-and-out harassment. Part of this stems from Rebeck’s intelligent writing for the character, but Morgan certainly brings his own attitude to the role, able to seem both carefree and delicate simultaneously throughout.

A lot of media has a certain way of writing promiscuous characters. They are often shown as vapid or unintelligent, and we’re often not meant to take them seriously. Early on, both Rebeck and actress Regan Goins make it clear that Izzy is going to be neither of these things. Though she comes on to most of the male cast, we see that her writing is just as  good, if not better, than that of the other writers, in no small part because she’s so confident in her sexuality, and brazen with her urges. Goins tackles the role with a self-assurance and unabashedness that’s both enthralling and refreshing, demanding our attention with every scene.

The secret star of the piece, however, may be Brooks Laney as Martin. While early on he seems jaded and cynical, it quickly comes to light that this is only to mask his own insecurity, and that he cares more about his writing than anyone there. He believes writing a sacred expression of one’s soul, and so therefore showing anyone his writing is like sheathing his own life’s blood to the reader. His hang dog demeanor belies a joyful inner light, and a intellectually fierceness that is simply exhilarating to watch, especially in the play’s last act. Laney is the kind of actor who can portray so much in a simple facial expression, or in the way he tackles a line, and he’s not afraid to show vulnerability and weakness to get to the raw, emotional core of the character.

It’s obvious that director Bryan Bradford and his team have put quite a bit of thought into every element of this production. Whether it’s Michael Krauss’s simple bleak white set, which acts a empty canvas for the power of Rebeck’s smart writing and complicated characters, backed by subtle but effective lighting by Chris Conard; Colleen PowerGriffin’s thoughtful, modular costume design, which instantly gives us helpful pieces of information on the character without seeming overdone or cliche, and even evolves with the characters; to the clever staging, which speaks to the characters’ relationships without those characters speaking one word. When you combine all this, along with the impressive performances from these young actors, you create a night of insightful, polished theatre from a promising young theatre.

Seminar is playing through June 3rd at the Trinity Street Theatre. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit their website at jarrottproductions.com.

Photo courtesy of Steve Williams. 

Tears fall, voices soar, and hearts flutter in Austin Opera’s ‘La Traviata’

Guiseppe Verdi’s La Traviata is a near-perfect opera. It comes out of the gate with a bang, with one of the most famous songs in the opera canon, “Labiamo”, energizing the audience for the love story to come, slowly decrescendoing to more quiet love songs in the First Act’s back half. Just when it’s in danger of losing its audience, the piece brings the party, complete with matadors and fortune tellers, before descending into a heartbreaking finale. It moves naturally, and is all backed by Verdi’s gorgeous music, creating one of the most poignant and powerful pieces in the canon. Austin Opera’s production of the work, led by the skilled hands of stage director David Lefkowich and his crew, only helps cement this reputation, creating a production that allows the opera to speak for itself, with its own powerful voice, not resorting to tricks of radical staing, but still bringing all the lusciousness and luxury that makes the piece such a delight.

When played well, Verdi’s music feels like falling in love. Something about the grand, rich strings and softly flowing phrasing sets the heart aflutter, and when its coming out the mouths of singers like Marina Costa-Jackson and Michael Chioldi, it becomes something of a transcendent experience. There were many moments I found myself in awe, closed-eyed and mouth agape from the splendor of it all (surely missing important dialog or plot points in the process). The Austin Opera Orchestra, led skillfully by conductor Steve White, has never sounded better, carrying the Verdi’s moving passages with depth and grace.

At its heart, this production is a showcase of immense talent of Marina Costa-Jackson, who plays the iconic role of courtesan Violetta Valery. Though the opera gives her plenty of opportunities for vocal pyrotechnics, La Traviata is at its best when its using Costa-Jackson’s astounding vocal skills for emotional effect. In the quieter, more romantic moments in the play’s first act, she sings as if she is casting a spell upon her audience, making it nigh impossible to look away. As the play enters its second act, her voice weaves  mesmerically into Verdi’s gorgeous music, giving the sensation of floating out of one’s chair. Though the piece is sung entirely in Italian, dialog becomes secondary, as as Costa-Jackson’s emotive face tells a story all its own. Her wily, seductive smile and bewitching eyes make us fall in love easily early on, but it’s when Violetta’s forced into her more sorrowful moments where the singer truly shines. Her performance here is a study in the downward spiral, as we watch this bright-eyed wonder become sullen and sickly by the production’s end, and that Costa-Jackson is able to sell every moment, from the vibrant opening stanzas to her final, heartbreaking moments, is a powerful testament to her abilities as an actress.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing work being done by Michael Chioldi as Germont, whose all too brief moments on stage make up some of the most stunning passages of the work. The entire opera turns on his actions, so it’s essential that his performance is powerful, but it’s the tenderness he brings to the character that’s most refreshing. Even as he’s breaking Violetta’s heart, Chioldi’s shows a softness to Germont that belies just how much he cares for those affected. In addition, his full, powerful voice harmonizes surprisingly well with Costa-Jackson’s, adding another level to the cornucopia of mellifluousness on display, keeping the audience rapt.

When it’s at its best, there are few forms of art that portray emotion better than Opera. From the exaggerated characterizations to reliance on constant music, the feelings are forced to come to the fore, and when the right cast finds the right material, it can create a truly moving experience.  Austin Opera has done just this with La Traviata, transporting its audience into a world of richness, luxury, and wonder, and enveloping them in all of the romance, effervescence, and despair that an amazing tale like that of courtesan Violetta can deliver.