‘The Afterparty’ is a dark, whimsical journey to a celestial dreamscape

The moment one steps into the Vortex Repertory Theatre, one knows they’re in for a magical evening. Most of the plays performed under its roof explode with life and originality, full of big ideas, and the talent to make those dreams a reality. The latest production calling the Vortex home is the newest from Shrewd Productions, one of the most unique voices in Austin theatre, a company with the habit of presenting offbeat theatrical wonders that you won’t find anywhere else. Written by the hyper-talented Reina Hardy, “The Afterparty” is as difficult to describe as it is mesmerizing to watch. Following a young woman named Claire over her thousands of years of existence, we see her first loves, both human and celestial, as well as her journey into the very heavens themselves, where she meets a cavalcade of historical figures and realizes just how important humanity can be. It’s the kind of high concept creation that could only come when minds like Hardy, Shrewds, and the Vortex come together, and it’s one unforgettable experience.

What does it sound like to talk to a star? What does it look like to see all the knowledge in the universe? These are just a few of the questions that the accomplished production team of “The Afterparty”, led by director Liz Fisher, were tasked with answering, and it’s a testament to their talents that such answers culminate in a true audio-visual feast. Patrick Anthony’s lighting design not only creates a haunting dreamscape, but also helps keep us captivated with quick light changes and flashes that almost hypnotize the audience, thanks in no small part to one of the hardest working strobe lights in town. Backing this all is music and sound design created by Nick Hart, whose eerie score sends pulses through the audience members’ bodies, creating the perfect soundscape for this dark, yet whimsical adventure. One can’t forget the work of Monica Pasut on costumes, who proves that costumes don’t need elaborate complexity to impress, as with a few clever fabric choices and a creative design sense she’s crafted outfits that not only look impressive, but help give unique personality to each of the play’s inhabitants. In the center of it all is one of the best designed props I’ve seen, a glowing book that captures the imagination as soon as it opens, that’s simply built but smartly used.

“The Afterparty” finds Claire in several moments throughout her life, so it is essential that she is performed by a dynamic actor. Claire is a creature of both youthful exuberance and a poet’s soulfulness, of strong resolve and sudden vulnerability. Shannon Grounds has proven herself to be a top-tier actress in the past, but “The Afterparty” may be her best performance in years, as she shows off impressive range while still maintaining genuineness, serving as an earnest anchor even as insanity swirls around her. Claire is a character forced to choose between the ethereal beauty of the cosmos and her own humanity, and its the grounded realness that Grounds brings to the role that truly makes the character, and the play, sing.

“The Afterparty” is the kind of play that only the Reina Hardy could create. Bursting with creativity, but wildly intelligent, its filled with magic and the music of the spheres. In the hands of Liz Fisher and the Shrewd Production crew, the experience becomes something otherworldly, a waking dream, a fleeting phantasmagoria that you won’t want to end. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience the like of which you’re not likely to find again, so make sure you grab a seat, before it’s too late.

“The Afterparty” is playing at Vortex Repertory Theatre through June 30th. For more information, and to purchase tickets,visit shrewdproductions.com

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.

Street Corner Arts’ ‘Grounded’ is a harrowing journey into the dark corners of the human mind

Over the past few seasons, Street Corner Arts has made a name for themselves with topical and emotionally riveting productions,  winning acclaim and awards in the process. Their latest may be their most on-the-pulse production yet, an examination of the people at the heart of the military industrial complex, and the effects violence and war can have on the human psyche. Featuring a star-making turn from Sarah Danko, George Brant’s Grounded is a powerful journey into an emotional maelstrom, that, while not quite sticking its landing, takes its audience on a devastating trip.

When we first meet Grounded’s main character, she is a hot shot fighter pilot in Iraq, but after a weekend rendezvous with a sweet young man, her life is changed. She soon finds herself a new kind of a pilot, a member of the “chair force”, leaving the gorgeous blue skies behind for the domestic life of a mother, and the endless gray screen of a drone camera. What follows is an emotionally complex downward slide, as we see how constant contact to war and violence can leave permanent wounds on the soul.

Sarah Danko grabs our attention the moment she walks out on stage as The Pilot, all pride and swagger, and  she never lets us go. As the play is told almost entirely through narration, it could become endlessly dull in the wrong hands, and so we’re lucky that Danko tackles the role with confidence and dynamism. In the play’s early stages, one feels like they’ve started up a particularly interesting conversation at a party, and it’s this believability that makes the play’s eventually climax carry so much weight. Grounded takes its main character, and it’s audience, through a cavalcade of emotions, but with Danko’s thoughtful performance, these conflicting emotions never feel overblown or stilted, but instead are handled with subtlety, making the final downfall that inevitably grips out heroine feel honest, and the audience’s emotions earned.

Though Danko does much of the heavy lifting, there’s no denying the impact that the production team has on Grounded‘s effectiveness. Much of the play hinges on the sea of grey into which our protagonist stares for hours on end, and thanks to media designer Lowell Bartholomee and lighting designer Chris Conard, the audience is taken along on this ride, gazing into that gray ourselves. Conard’s clever use of color, along with the bizarre soundscapes created by Paul Feinstein, also helps the audience to get into the pilot’s head space, with subtle changes helping denote location, time of day, and, most importantly, emotional state.

Though the character’s arc is well handled through most the play, the ending, unfortunately, rings hollow. Though it doesn’t tarnish what came before, one can’t help but feel the soft touch that ran through so much of the play was replaced with a pummeling fist, as nuance gets thrown out the window and the play’s themes are spoken to us aloud. It could be seen as the a dour final destination for our heroine, but one can’t help but think it could have been handled in a more insightful way.

After the play, the director Benjamin Summers came on to the stage to invite us to the after party, stating that we didn’t have to go away sad. As I thought on this, I realized it wasn’t sadness that gripped me, but something more akin to a slowly creeping dread. It stayed in the back of my head for quite some time, all through my train ride home, in my evening whiskey, leaving me to wonder as I closed my eyes to sleep: will I be dreaming in gray tonight?

“Grounded” runs 80 minutes, and is playing through April 21st at Hyde Park Theatre. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit streetcornerarts.org.

Webster brings empathy, and energy, in Hyde Park’s ‘Wakey Wakey’

A truly great play is one that stays with you. Sure, theatre can often be a fun way to spend an evening with whimsical entertainment, grabbing a few beers and a few laughs, but the plays that you remember, the ones that you still look back on fondly ten years later, are the ones that shake you emotionally, that stick to your ribs for hours, days, or weeks. These are a rare find, but Hyde Park Theatre has had their fair share, and they can add to that number the skillfully performed, impeccably written pseudo-one-man show, Wakey Wakey by Will Eno. With a basic set, a projector, and a pair of performers, Webster and company have created one of the most deceptively powerful plays of the year, full of wry, sarcastic humor, heart, and an ever-present, but slyly obscured sense of sorrow.

To say too much about Wakey Wakey’s plot is not only a difficult task, but it also takes away from the joy of watching it unfurl in front of  you. Suffice it to say, it follows a mysterious man, giving us a presentation about life, death, and everything in between. Along the way, we’re presented with Youtube videos, word puzzles, and ambient music, along with several other layers of craziness that shouldn’t work in the confines of such a play, but is presented with a delicate balance that somehow works towards the piece’s emotional core, instead of against it. It’s an experience that’s as stunning to witness as it is impossible to describe.

Though it features a short appearance from Rebecca Robinson (and any chance to see Robinson is a joy), it’s undeniable that Wakey Wakey belongs to Webster. He’s made a name for himself with his solo pieces, and here he shows exactly what made productions like House and St. Nicholas so amazing. With the wrong performer, a one-man show can be interminable, but Webster has a rare skill in taking a basic text and spinning it, transforming it into something enrapturing. He’s helped here by Eno’s droll script, which packs quite a few laughs, and some truly pathos-laden moments, into its sixty minutes. Webster takes this text and injects it with real empathy, taking these pages of words and making them his own, at times even making us forget we’re watching a play, but instead simply enjoying an evening of entertainment with a close friend.

It’s not just Webster’s ability to shape a phrase, or the way his warm baritone can spin a series of words to grab the audience’s attention, that makes him such an amazing solo performer: It’s his eyes. In the early sections of the play, there’s a brightness and joy in Webster’s eyes, the eyes of a friendly father, or a fun uncle, that makes you feel welcome, unjudged. His eyes light up in his joyful moments, his confused furrowed brows bringing laughs all on their own. The true skill, however, comes to light in the play’s later moments. Those eyes once filled with joy grow darker, glassier. We see tears growing there, mixed with fear, and perhaps even anger. Confusion flashes across them. We’re taken on an emotional whirlwind ride simply through the feeling behind his eyes, indicative of the soulfulness and thoughtfulness that Webster has put into this virtuoso performance.

The emotional truths of Wakey Wakey don’t come all at once, but instead grow within you. You may not cry in the moment. Indeed, the play’s charm and wit are incredibly winning, and will have you smiling and laughing throughout. But when you’re sitting with the play’s final moments, you may find something small being born in your stomach. It’s the kind of feeling that finds you sitting on a train ride home, tears streaming down your face, looking out the windows, thinking “Dammit, you got me.” Many plays can get an audience crying, but Wakey Wakey is one of the few that come on slowly, making you see the world in a different light, makings you hold tight to the things you still have, and perhaps even helping you learn to let go of the things you’re forced to lose.

Dammit Eno. Dammit Webster. You got me.

Wakey Wakey runs approximately 60 minutes, and is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through March 31st. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit hydeparktheatre.org

Austin Opera’s ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’ is a piece of postmodern perfection

There can be certain preconceptions that come with experiencing opera. One need only watch a Bugs Bunny cartoon to see how much the style is parodied and lambasted, thanks to its grandiose feelings and esoteric drama. With the opening production of their latest season, Kelley Rourke’s audacious translation of Strauss’s “Ariade Auf Naxos”, Austin Opera is  attempting to change all that. Gone are the language barrier, the ancient setting, and the over-the-top emotions, as they’ve been replaced by genuine humor and a wild, adventurous spirit.

The piece begins at a ranch in Naxos, TX, where, of all people, the Austin Chronicle’s Robert Faires, as the ranch’s manager, welcomes the cast and crew of the opera “Ariadne”, as well as a rambunctious group of comedy performers. It’s here we discover the issue at the heart of the play: Both the opera and the raunchy comedy are to be performed on the same night, all before a fireworks show (that must be performed at ten o’clock sharp!). With these snobs and slobs already at each other’s throats, another wrench is thrown into the proceedings when its discovered they must perform their piece simultaneously. As the worlds of High Art and Low Art are forced to perform in tandem, what follows is the best combination of both, a Mystery Science Theatre Style send-up of opera, that brings with it plenty of ribald thrills and raucous laughs, while still reminding audiences of the emotional fulfillment and joy that a night of the opera can bring.

Though there are many great performances in the piece, this production belongs to Jeni Houser as Zerbinetta. When she arrives, it’s as if she has wandered in from another production, and she brings such a thrilling vitality to the proceedings that keeps the action moving and the audience rapt. From her styling to her attitude, she seems to take her notes from Bettie Page, and Houser’s sassy spirit and outrageous, naughty demeanor is such a departure from what we’ve seen in opera before, especially when her English dialog mixes with the traditional German of the opera-within-an-opera itself. Even when she’s not taking center stage, her mannerism and stance never waiver; she’s living out this character at every moment.

We mustn’t forget, however, the authentic skill on display in the titular Ariadne, Alexandra LoBianco, who can belt with the best of them and adds an authenticity to the opera-within-an-opera at the piece’s heart. After all, it would be no fun to poke fun at an opera if the opera itself wasn’t worth its salt. She can still ham it up with the best of them, however, as her expressions and reactions are the stuff of legends. By the end, she finds herself in perfect harmony with the opera’s unique voice, creating moments of real beauty. Credit must also be made to her hilarious group of back-up performers, a trio of nymphs played in perfect balance by Sara Ann Mitchell, Claudia Chapa, and Megan Pachecano.

Though she loses much of the attention in the second act (and the play is lesser for it), for much of the production, the Composer, played with sensitivity by Aleks Romano, acts as the play’s heart, an up-and-coming opera writer who believes in truth and love of her art over anything else, causing her to constantly butt heads with Zerbinetta’s  free love philosophies. One of the best elements of the play is the relationship that forms between the Composer and Zerbinetta, as the two come to understand each other through their contrasting arts, creating a refreshing and rare moment of LGBT awareness.

These characters wouldn’t hit the same heights without an intriguing space to play, and luckily the design team, lead with assured skill by scenic designer Troy Hourie, has created such a place. The sturdy wood structures give the scenery an authentic, lived-in feel, while evoking the sense of rural Texas. Also in top form is costume designer Erik Teague, who combines cabaret sensuality and steampunk whimsy to evoke a very particular feel to the more ribald set of performers, while still finding lush styles to give its more operatic characters their own sense of grandeur. When combined with James Sale’s clever lighting work, they create a vibrant word that combines rusticity with ostentatiousness, as high art meets low art to create a thrilling dichotomy.

“Independent, inscrutable, and strange”, sings Zerbinetta in the play’s midsection, and though at the time she’s singing of all women’s hearts, the words could not better describe the Opera she inhabits. What Austin Opera has created with their latest production is an opera that is authentically Austin, full of a youthful energy and a independent spirit. As a few grumbling spectators could tell you, Ariadane in Naxos is not a play for everyone, but if you can tap into its zestful vigor and unique energy, you’ll find a piece of postmodern perfection.

‘Pocatello’ is a devastating look at small town life in 2010s America

Some of the best pieces of media are those that use specific situations to tell universal truths. Through these stories, you not only see part of yourself in the character, but see your world in the one in which these character’s live. Samuel D. Hunter has created one such world through his latest play, in the small, failing, titular town of Pocatello. Through the struggles of our our sensitive main character to keep his restaurant afloat in a town falling apart at the seams, Hunter gives us a look at the struggles we all face in the crumbling world, and how a little concern and consideration can make life better for everyone.

Throughout the runtime of “Pocatello”, we’re introduced to just under a dozen characters, and in the wrong hands this could become a mess. Indeed, lesser writes have attempted huge casts and failed miserably. Luckily, Hunter is skilled enough writer to balance these characters, and most of them get real moments to shine, no matter how short. We’re reminded just how bad this could go as the play begins, where all of the character’s share the stage and overlapping dialog is constant, but as suddenly as it begins, Hunter slowly zooms in on his characters, taking us from the broad world into the microcosm of Pocatello, and into the lives of these broken characters. True credit should be given to director Benjamin Summers for making this balance work on stage, especially as the audience has been seated at every angle of the action, meaning that the emotional arc of each character much be evidence from four different directions. It helps that the cast is all game, leaving their hearts on the stage as they take their final bows.

Samuel Hunter seems to enjoy exploring how those with sensitivity struggle is the harshness of the modern world. Eddie, the play’s protagonist, is one such sensitive soul, the manager of an Olive Garden in the small town of Pocatello, a reserved, gay man, struggling to make ends meet in this small, conservative town. Estranged from his mother and bother, and still suffering after the death of his father, Eddie lives in a state of extreme loneliness, trying had to make friends wherever he can, and failing at nearly every turn. Be this as it may, the play never makes the character feel too pathetic, thanks in large part to the nuanced performance of Carlo Lorenzo Garcia. Though the sadness and loneliness of the character is always evident from Garcia’s face, there’s often a brightness to his affect or voice that endears him to the audience. Between Hunter’s clever writing and Garcia’s emotive performance, Eddie becomes a kind of Greek hero, working his way through back-breaking feats to reach his goal, which is, in this case, finding some solace or understanding in another human being.

When Amber Quick’s Tammy first appears, swilling wine and berating her daughter, you can be forgiven for thinking you’ve seen this character before. The rude, overbearing, and sarcastic woman has so many traits you’d find in every “bad mom” character in so many forms of media, but as the play goes on, you find that, like so many of the play’s characters, she’s another person who’s been broken by this dying city. One of the first signs of this comes in a heart-wrenching scene early in the play, when, as a fight is going on in the background, we see Tammy falling apart before our eyes, as her fierce facade melts into a canvas of silent weeping. Without a word, Quick is able to tell us everything we need to know, as every pain of the last few decades flashes across of her sullen eyes, and tears stream down her face. It’s a powerful moment, and Quick carries it with indelible aplomb. After that moment, her harsh outbreaks take on a new light, not the rudeness of privilege, but as the lashing out of a wounded cat, the biting of a beast so worn down by the world around her that the only response she has is to hit back with all she has left. Quick’s ability to subtlety capture this internal struggle is a true testament to her skill, and one of the piece’s true highlights.

“Pocatello” is not an easy watch. Hunter has created a broken town full of broken people, where each of the nearly dozen characters has in some way been damaged by their lives in the town. It’s also a reminder how, even in a world falling apart around us (which will feel very familiar to those living in 2017), a little bit of consideration and kindness can make a difference in a person’s life. Street Corner Arts has once again created one of the most emotional productions of the year, and also one of its best, giving us an image of the struggle of living in the world today, through the specific story of one city, one man, and one failing Olive Garden.

Photo Courtesy of Street Corner Arts

Austin Shakespeare serves up some of the biggest laughs of the year with “Much Ado”

There are few artists that get as much space on stages in Austin, and around the world, as William Shakespeare, and as such, it can be difficult to determine which of these productions is worth your time. When it comes to Austin Shakespeare productions, it’s an easy choice, however, as they’re sure to bring an knowledgeable and clever take to any adaptation of the bard, and also fill the cast with the some of the most talented folks in the city. They’ve pulled out all the stops with their production of Much Ado About Nothing bringing in recent Austin Chronicle award-winner Marc Pouhe, and the ever-impressive Gwendolyn Kelso, as well as a talented supporting cast, to this Bossa Nova-soaked interpretation of Shakespeare’s greatest comedy.

Due warning must be given here, Much Ado About Nothing can be a deceptively complex play. Despite all the lightness and humor that permeates the work, the plot is a tangle of hidden identities, double crosses, and harmful secrets, and if you miss the wrong line of dialog, the entire play could become a confusing mess. As with most Shakespeare, it’s a good idea to come with some idea of the basic plot outline, which will then let you enjoy the performances and the interpretation all the more, however,  between the brisk direction and fine acting on display in this production, you should have very few issues keeping up with the action.

With every performance he gives, Marc Pouhe shows off another dimension to his talent. Building upon the leading man charisma that has made him such a popular figure in the Austin theatre scene, he proves he’s not afraid to make a fool of himself here, as he takes on the sharp, and sharp-tongue Benedick. Whether he’s trading barbs with Gwendolyn Kelso’s Beatrice, or showing off his skills at slapstick, he’s sure to have the audience in the aisles. Throughout the play, he shows that keeping the audience entertained is paramount, and the play is better for it. This is never more evident than in one scene, near the middle of the play, when he pulls off a physical comedy sequence that spans nearly the entirety of the theatre, from the back of the audience to behind the scenery, interacting with audience members along the way, leaving them all crying with laughter by scene’s end. It’s obvious we have somehow still not seen the limits of Pouhe’s talent, and I’m doubtful we ever will.

Pouhe is met in nearly equal measure by the effortlessly charming Gwendolyn Kelso, who spits out biting wit with the best of them as Beatrice, one of Shakespeare’s most delightful characters. Much like Benedick, Beatrice is a character who is more than she seems at first blush, using her sarcasm and cynicism as a guard of her inner pain, and the way Kelso is able to communicate this with just a gesture or expression is really quite remarkable. Her affect is so delightful, that during certain sequences I would find myself paying more attention to her facial expressions and reactions than major pieces of action or dialogue going on elsewhere on stage. In other hands it could fall to mugging, but Kelso knows the exact line to ride when it comes to keeping the audience entertained while never feeling disconnected from the action of the play.

Two more kudos must go out to Toby Minor and Susan Myburgh, who play the two bumbling officers who bring the play to its climax. One part Keystone Cops and one part Laurel and Hardy, the two bring some of the biggest laughs in the piece, selling even the corniest of Shakespeare’s jokes. Myburgh is quite a find, showing a real talent for clowning, her bright eyes and a huge smile creating an upbeat atmosphere that’s infectious. One can only hope that she graces more Austin stages in the near future, as even with her small role here, she’s shown a rare talent.  As Dogberry, Minor has weaponized his excellent stage present, grabbing the audience’s attention and holding it fast, as he creates moments of pure pleasure that leave the audience in stitches.

Research from over the last several years has recently shown that Much Ado About Nothing is one of the most performed plays in Austin, so one can be forgiven for being hesitant to pick up a ticket to such a well-worn play, but by bringing in an ace cast, and underscoring the whole thing with the ambiance of the Grand Epoch and the energy of the Bossa Nova, Austin Shakespeare has proven that there’s still a lot of life left in this classic. Director Ann Ciccolella and her crew keep the action light and brisk, helping the audience to navigate through some of the more convoluted, confusing portions of the text, serving up an enticing slice of comedy goodness.

Photos Courtesy of Errich Petersen Photography