‘Rub A Duck’ is a daring, experimental masterstroke

There are few things more exciting than seeing the birth of something truly unique. With just a handful of performances under their belt, Frank Wo/Men Collective has firmly planted their flag into the Austin arts landscape with their bizarre, bold, and brazen experimental performances, and with their latest, they’ve created one of the most audacious performance pieces the city has seen in years. A stunning slide in a waterlogged wonderland, Rub A Duck is an opening salvo, waking audiences up to just what this fledgling company has to offer.

At this point, you may asking, what’s this piece about? Honestly, even if I could tell you, it still wouldn’t capture the dark magic that Frank Wo/Men Collective casts in this wet, wild, and unflinching masterstroke. Taking place in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Rub A Duck transports us into the Transformation House, a home for those seeking a better identity for themselves, as we follow the grueling, moist journey of five participants, each with their own desires, goals, and personalities. What happens within the walls of this place is nothing short of jaw-dropping, as the participants perform in increasingly bizarre tasks, some of them so wild I’m not sure I could write them down without being flagged (one particular sequence involving a speculum may be the most daring act I’ve ever seen on stage). One thing they all have in common is that they present a collection of performers who are as brave as they are brash.

Part dance performance, part musical, part experimental art piece, one thing that’s for certain is that I’ve seen few things like Rub A Duck. Not since Rude Mechanicals’ Dionysus in 69 have a I felt so shaken by a performance, and if I’m comparing a company to the Rude Mechs, you know we’re talking about something special. Every performer is at the top of their game, showing rare bravery and skill, going the extra limit to leave every bit of blood, sweat, and tears on the floor. Of particular note is Kelsey Oliver as Participant 4, whose ferocious fervor kept the audience spellbound, especially as things spun into pure madness in the play’s later moments, showing full control of every inch of her body throughout, contorting them to horrifying levels.

As I left the performance, it hit me that I didn’t quite know how to review this piece. One of my companions left absolutely inspired, waiting with baited breath for the next Frank Wo/Men show; the other left completely traumatized. One thing that’s for sure, everyone left the show a changed person, and isn’t that what we’re all looking for in art? I for one will be first in line for the next production.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Bradford.

‘Hamilton’: Historic hip hop Broadway mainstay gets powerful, poignant production

It’s been over a decade since Lin-Manuel Miranda stood before the president to perform a hip hop song about the life of Alexander Hamilton. Little did he know that one day that simple song would lead to one of the most celebrated pieces of media of the 21st Century, the record-breaking Tony, Grammy, and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Hamilton, which netted upwards of thousands of dollars a seat in its prime. After nearly a decade, this musical wonder has finally made its way to Austin audiences thanks to Broadway in Austin, who bring in a talented cast of Broadway vets along with other talented touring players, to create a polished, powerful production that will take audiences on an emotional, engaging journey through the life of one of the most underappreciated founding fathers, full of witty, raw, and well-written tunes, clever, subtle choreography, and smart direction that’s sure to satisfy even the most ardent Hamilton fan.

Even with the best tunes and finest supporting cast, the piece would fall apart without a steady force at its center, and thankfully Joseph Morales imbues the titular protagonist with a sensitivity that makes him likable, even in his darkest moments, all leveled out with a cocky confidence that makes him a believable Lothario. His soulful voice also gives his songs a different flavor than fans may be familiar with, a style that keeps the flair of Miranda’s delivery, while injecting a touch of extra heart into some of the more emotional moments. Morales makes smart choices throughout, creating a performance something distinctive, effervescent, and riveting.

Of course, Hamilton’s gonna need his right hand men (and women), and the major actors with whom he surrounds himself all bring something brilliant and unique to the table. Though he lacks the powerful, belting prowess of Leslie Odom Jr (what actor doesn’t), what Nik Walker brings to the roll of Aaron Burr is an emotional verisimilitude, a staunch confidence of character that helps the audience connect with his spirit. In many ways the musical Hamilton paints Burr as a very sympathetic character, and through his vulnerable performance, Walker helps the audience see into Burr’s heart and soul. Speaking of vulnerability, Erin Clemons brings tears of many shapes and sizes throughout, thanks to her sensitive performance as Hamilton’s wife Eliza. Her arc is one of the most heartbreaking in the show, and Clemons carries it with aplomb, selling each feeling as if it she’s ripping it from her own chest. When she belts out “Burn” in one of the show’s most gut-wrenching moments, prepare for the aisles to become flooded with the audience’s tears.

The production is also littered with several winning supporting performances. In particular, Fergie L. Phillipe, in the dual role of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison, steals most of the scenes he’s in, even if he’s only in them for a moment. He’s fantastic at bringing out the humor in every situation, even if it’s just a single word. Another show-stopper is Jon Patrick Walker as King George, who’s over-the-top personality is perfect for the haughty king, and every time he appears on stage one can’t help but smile. We also mustn’t forget Kyle Scatliffe, playing the dual role of the talented revolutionary Marquis de Lafayette, as well as the cocky Congressman Thomas Jefferson, and he flounces into both with a cock-of-the walk confidence that makes him instantly likable. He also has the talent to balance this cockiness with the believability, never straying into over-the-top caricature.

Hamilton has become a legend in its time, a modern masterpiece, beloved by people around the world, so this touring production has a lot to live up, but luckily Broadway in Austin has brought us a polished production of this Broadway wonder. Full of toe-tapping tunes, pitch-perfect performances, and some real heart, this production will surprise any audience, whether they’re super-fans who’ve memorized every word of the cast album, or newcomers who barely know the play’s historical backbone.

Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus.