Austin Playhouse’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ a lively, joyful adaptation of the Austen classic

When I first walked in to Austin Playhouse’s Sense and Sensibility, I expected a pleasant, if dry, evening of Austen-esque wit. When the actors burst on to the scene, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” blaring through the theater and chairs wheeling around the stage, I knew this was something truly different. Playwright Kate Hammill’s Sense and Sensibility has taken the heart of the original novel and given it a bright, shiny coat of paint, emphasizing the humor and amping up some of the more ridiculous moments. Director Lara Toner Haddock takes this and runs with it, creating a effervescent journey through the English countryside as we follow the Dashwood sisters through their loves, their losses, and all their misadventures, all with a lithe, lively, and energetic tone.

Everything from the Haddock’s fast-paced direction, Mike Toner’s modular set design, to Don Day’s clever lighting cues is in service of keeping the action moving, and the result is peppy journey through the Austen classic that never feels rushed, but also never feels staid or boring. The actors are constantly in motion, with even simple conversations in the foreground being underlined by action in the background. There are very few still scenes in the production, but those few slow moments gain much more importance, such as the handful important conversations held between the two elder Dashwood sisters. It all comes together for an incredibly fun time, that still never strays too far from the source material.

Few performances capture the vivacious spirit of the piece than that of Marie Fahlgren as Marianne Dashwood. At first blush, she seems to be tackling the role with an Emma Watson precociousness. As the play wears on, however, and her actions become more over-the-top, she shows an astounding skill for for comedic physicality, reaching Harold Lloyd levels of mugging, but without ever losing the sweetness and charm that make Marianne such a delightful character to watch. Even as we see her wailing on the floor in sorrow, Fahlgren never loses her sense of humor, her actions so exaggerated that you can’t help but crack up.

Through her past productions, Jess Hughes has shown a very modern aesthetic that works incredibly well in contemporary works, and as such I wondered how these skills would serve her in a piece from the regency period. Luckily, her talents translate perfect to Elinor Dashwood, with her strength, sensitivity, and economy of expression creating a well-rounded everywoman, the perfect straight women to the mad folks who inhabit the play. Elinor acts as the emotional backbone to the play in many ways, and Hughes’ subtle, but confident choices make her the perfect choice for the role.

Few actresses light up a stage as vividly as Katie Kohler. Whether she’s playing the ebullient youngest Dashwood sister, Margaret, or the haughty Lucy Steele, Kohler brings a boundless energy to the role. Her experience in mime and clowning through her silent improv troupe “The Back Pack” is on full display here, as her every movement and mannerism can leave the audience in stitches. Something as simple as jumping over a puddle becomes a laugh riot in the hands of Kohler, and when she gets to take center stage, it’s a delight to behold. Though her roles may be smaller than many of the other actors, she makes the most of every moment, and I for one found may attention drifting to her during certain stretches, to see what shenanigans she might be getting up to. Costume designer Buffy Manners’ choice to clothe her in bright yellow was an ingenious one, further exaggerating the exuberance of the performer, and making her practically glow on stage.

The actresses portraying the Dashwoods aren’t the only stellar performances here, but to list out everything I love would take up another few pages, so a quick rundown: Lara Wright shines in her handful of performances, including a pitch-perfect scene in which she has a conversation, then a brawl, with herself; Joey Banks brings waves of laughter playing double duty as both the bumbling, but charming Edward Ferrars, as well as his arrogant blowhard of a brother, Robert Ferrars; Huck Huckaby is at his taciturn best as Colonel Brandon, showing a softness of heart beneath a stony exterior; and Stephen Mercantel is undeniably charismatic as the handsome, but conniving John Willoughby.

Austin Playhouse’s Sense and Sensibility may be the most fun you’ll ever have with an Austen adaptation, with clever and hilarious choices being made all the way down the line. There’s not a performer out of place, the action is well-paced and vibrant, and the production design, while admittedly basic, does quite a lot with very little. Whether you’re an Austen fan, or one who balks at the very thought of the author, there’s plenty to love here, and it’s hard to think of anyone who would not enjoy this spirited, candy-coated classic.

Sense and Sensibility is playing through April 30th at Austin Playhouse. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit AustinPlayhouse.com.

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.

“Nevermore” is a polished, professional night of gothic wonder

Those who know Edgar Allen Poe probably know him for two things: for being one of the greatest writers in American history, and for having an incredibly depressing life. With their latest production, Nevermore, madcap musical mavens Doctuh Mistuh productions, led by their fearless leader Michael McKelvey, combine these two elements to create a beautiful work, dripping with melancholy, while at the same time, bursting with energy. The catchy tunes, created by Johnathan Christenson, are brought to life beautifully by a group of talented performers, to create a darkly whimsical journey into the darkest corners of the poet’s life.

Nevermore presents almost the totality of Poe’s life, which in the wrong hands could be unwieldy. In many cases where a creator tries to tell the entire tale of a person’s life, the narrative can become muddy, and the pace can move too quickly. Christenson has found a healthy balance, shining light on to the most important details, while never staying too long in one place. It helps that our lead, Tyler Jones, is excellent at playing all of Poe’s facets, whether it be the optimistic youngster or the raving drunk at the end of his life.

At first, the play’s staging may seem shockingly simplistic, but by stripping away the lavish sets and extravagant lighting, McKelvey and company have allowed the story they’re telling to take center stage. The audience is allowed to use their imagination, letting us set these dusty hallways and gloomy cemeteries in any way we see fit. It opens up the narrative, allowing each audience member to take these words, songs, and characters, and set them in a world of our own. After all, what’s more frightening or magical than what we see in our imaginations?

One production element that is far from absent is the costumes, produced with careful thought by Glenda Wolfe. Capturing a sense of the time and place, while at the same time flirting with a touch of Burtonesque dark whimsy, the costumes help to present an image of each of the characters before they say their first words. The way each piece plays with Sam Chesney’s lighting and Rocker Verastique’s subtle, but impressive, choreography, helps to create the gothic atmosphere that so permeates so much of the action.

With every performance, Jess Hughes shows us new dimensions to her talent, and in Nevermore, she has a full gamut on display. Playing everything from Poe’s child bride to his beloved foster mother, Hughes ability to transform is nearly unparalleled in the city, and with just a slight tonal shift and a difference of posture, she becomes someone completely different.Not only are each of these character distinct, they also have an emotional honesty to them, with Hughes bringing her trademark sensitivity to each of these fragile characters.

Doctuh Mistuh regular Matt Connely hits the stage with the fury of a thunderstorm as he makes his first entrance, and he carries this intensity with him throughout. The stage explodes anytime he appears, and it’s a delight to see him every time. His performance as Poe’s foster father Jock Allen is of particular quality, as he casts a towering, intimidating figure, making the strained relationship between the man and his son feel believable. Though he’s had small roles over the years, it’s wonderful to see him take so large a role in a production, and one hopes other directors can find a place for this bold performer.

The perfect musical for the season, Doctuh Mistuh have created another hit with Nevermore, the kind of dark, bizarre, and original musicals that have made Doctuh Mistuh such a respected name in Austin theatre. McKelvey and company show no signs of stopping, and one can only imagine the kind of wild productions that the company has on the horizon. I, for one, will be waiting with baited breath.

Nevermore is playing through November 5th at Austin Playhouse. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit Doctuh Mistuh’s website at doctuhmistuh.org.

Picture Courtesy of Doctuh Mistuh productions.

‘Lungs’ is an emotionally honest, intimate night of theatre

Much of theatre is chasing intimacy, that feeling of climbing into a character’s skin and letting their feelings wash over you. Intimacy is a hard thing to manufacture, however, as if you go too specific, you’ll end up alienating many audience members, while if you go too broad,  the emotions and message get diluted. Hyde Park has threaded the needle perfectly with their latest, “Lungs”, where somewhere in the mix of Duncan Macmillan’s finely tuned script, the actors’ authentic performances, and  the wise guiding hand of director Lily Wolff, they have found a balance that creates the kind of tactile emotion that one can only find in the best works of art.

“Lungs” is incredibly skillful in its simplicity. At the end of the day, it’s about one couple trying to decide whether to have a baby and where that discussion takes them in their lives. By keeping the storyline basic, Macmillan has allowed small moments to take center stage, giving more weight to things that might seem meaningless in other plays. Frivolous conversations, jokes, intimate encounters: all become shining, crystalline moments, molded into jewels by the pair of pitch-perfect performances at the heart of the piece, shaped by Wolff’s insightful staging. With these small events carrying so much importance, when major story beats do show their face, they hit with the emotional power of a freight train.

Wolff transforms the usual black box of Hyde Park into a true theatre-in-the-round, keeping the action tight, with actors often inches away from our faces. Indeed, I found myself sitting right next to the male lead during several sections of the play, and, while admittedly awkward, it helps the audience feel more immersed in the action. Wolff is very particular about where she wants her actors, and their physical interplay is at times just as, if not more important than their dialogue. Wolff makes many intelligent choices with the work, helping to elevate what was already an impressive production.

Much in the same way that the focus on smaller moments helps to create the authenticity of the piece, it’s the small choices these actors make that make them feel so believable. It’s the way Liz Beckham’s voice goes up at the end of her phrases, showing a sense of doubt or tension, or the awkward way she holds arms. Entire stories are told simply in the way she manipulates a cardigan, which tells us more about the character than any lengthy speech ever could. It’s Michael Joplin’s expressive eyes. He doesn’t have to move a muscle on his face for the audience to truly feel his emotion, as the gleam of his eyes, their depth and clarity tell us all we need to know. There’s a sensitivity to his portrayal that’s refreshing, as we see a man not afraid to wear his feelings on his sleeves for the all the world to see.

The way these two actors relate to each other also helps the play feel alive. From moment one, the chemistry is evident. There’s no easing into it, or ramping up, the two feel like a true couple within seconds of their time on stage. They bounce words off each other like old friends, and when they fight, the words sting all the harder because they feel like they’re coming from such an honest place. Their actions never feel feigned or forced, and you never once doubt the connection between them.

As I watched “Lungs”, there was a moment in which I felt something within me change. I was no longer only watching these people, I could feel them. Every thrust and riposte, every jab and right hook, every caress or whispered word, I could feel along with them. These performers, along with Wolf, and the well-chosen words of Macmillan, had created an experience so emotionally honest, so intimate, that I couldn’t help but feel as if I was living in their world. It’s a rare experience, and one I won’t soon forget. “Lungs” is not a flashy play, it’s not what one would call “action-packed”, but it’s bursting with such authenticity that it would be a true shame if anyone reading this were to pass it up. Just be sure to pack some tissues.

“Lungs” is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through October 22nd. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit hydeparktheatre.org.

‘Hand to God’ is a crude, but hopeful, comedy about grief and dirty puppets

Capital T Theatre has never been a company afraid to push the boundaries of “decency”, but with their latest production, they may have made their boldest choice yet, with the dirty puppet dramedy, Hand to God.  With dirty puppets, rough sex, and in one scene a combination of both, this production is not one for the weak of heart, but for those willing to take the plunge and take a walk on the wild side, they’ll walk away changed for the better.

Hand to God drops us into a church basement somewhere in small-town Texas. There, a woman and her son, along with a pair of fellow teens, are creating puppets, and preparing to present a show their congregation. From these roots grows a madcap ride, as puppets become possessed, dark desires are revealed, and the church basement gets torn apart several times. It’s a raucous experience, but also an undeniably memorable one.

In many ways, Hand to God acts as a showcase for the astonishing talents of Chase Brewer. Not only does he play the kindhearted church boy Jason, but he also plays the psychotic puppet Tyrone, and this dynamic creates some of the most hilarious moments in the play. Brewer’s ability to move from shy sweetness to explosive anger is nothing short of amazing, as he takes on new physicality and facial expression with each transformation, and tears across the stage destroying everything in his wake. He’s infinitely watchable, balancing intensity, humor, and pathos in equal measure, without ever feeling stilted, bringing a sense of vulnerability to the proceedings. It’s a performance that’s sure to live on as one of the best this year, and one that should propel Brewer to even greater stages.

Rebecca Robinson has a rare talent for reaching the emotional reality of a particular work, but here we find her at her most raw and intense. She scrapes the very ventricles of your heart, grabbing tight, creating truly arresting moments. In the wrong hands, her character could become over-the-top or unbearably intense, but Robinson is smart to temper her boldness with a sense of sorrow, adding depth and truth to the role. We know her actions are wrong, and at times indeed frightening, but her performance makes it clear that she feels every bit of the pain she inflicts. It’s perhaps her most accomplished performance, which is saying something for a performer of her caliber.

For a play heavily featuring foul-mouthed puppet and rough sex, Hand to God is a surprisingly heartfelt and hopeful work. Though it’s often sacrilegious, and always uncouth, at its core it is a touching tale of grief and family. It helps that the cast doesn’t ever play this as straight farce, allowing each character to reach into their emotional honesty, while still bringing plenty of laughs.

Hand to God is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through September 17th. To find more information, and to purchase tickets, visit Capital T’s website at capitalt.org.

‘Addams Family’ is a polished, if corny, musical comedy

Over its decade-spanning existence, Summer Stock Austin has become a city institution, creating some of the most memorial music moments in Austin theatre history, and it has given birth to many skilled performers in Austin, and throughout the country. It’s a fantastic showcase for young performers, giving them a chance to perform for large audiences without paying a dime, and in the process enriching the Austin theatre experience. With the departure of their previous director, Michael McKelvey, there was some concern that the quality of their productions might dip, but with their latest production, the campy, creepy, corny The Addams Family: The Musical, one can see the organization is still in good hands.

The Addams Family follows the Addams as they prepare to meet Wednesday’s new boyfriend, whom the young woman met while hunting birds in Central Park. Of course, this revelation sits poorly with her family, particular her mother, and this feeling is only exacerbated when the boy’s family sends a ghastly gift: flowers! Secrets are kept, lies are told, loves are gained and lost, and Gomez is put in the precarious situation of being stuck between letting down his daughter and lying to his wife, which are, as one musical number states “Two Things He Could Never Do”. This explodes in a riotous night of music and mayhem that only the Addams could provide, as old school meets ghoul school in a beautifully chaotic way.

Coming into Addams Family is like being reintroduced to old friends, but know that these characters share more in common with their original comic strip counterparts than their film versions.  Fester and Grandma are goofier than in the TV and film versions, and everything, on the whole, is raised to a higher camp level. Unfortunately, Gomez also loses much of his suaveness, here replaced by a level of cheesy comedy that while refreshing, takes him all the further from the dashing figure Raul Julia presents in the films. This all makes things much funnier, on the whole, but can be disorienting for those who are only familiar with the Addams Family films.

The true showstopper here is Mariel Ardila as Morticia. Though she turned heads last year in Summer Stock’s Footloose, her turn as the sultry yet sassy matriarch of the Addams clan is nothing short of star-making. Not only does she cut a fine figure in the gorgeous, if incredibly revealing, costumes by Rachel Koske, she proves more than a pretty face with a stern and polished affect that you can’t help but admire. Her voice is one of the best in the cast, and there are few other performers that slip so easily into Ginger Morris’s complex choreography. Despite being many years his senior, she forms a fast chemistry with Benjamin Roberts’ Gomez, and the couple’s playful banter is one of the play’s highlights. There’s a bright future ahead for this college Junior, and one can only hope she finds her way back to Austin stages in the near future.

One of the major issues with Addams Family the Musical is just how corny it is, and it takes a true comedic talent to cut through such heavy layers of cheese. Benjamin Roberts is one such performer. While still in high school, the actor proves to have better timing than many working comedians, and brightens every scene he’s in. He still falls prey to just how lame the jokes become in some stages, but he tries to sell the material as best he can, and never loses his thick Spanish accent.

Summer Stock Austin has once again kicked off its season with a rollicking crowd-favorite, a corny, yet humorous, comedy that serves as a talent show for a handful of skilled performers. It may not have the flash or polish of some of Summer Stock’s best, like Sweeney Todd, Legally Blonde, or Little Shop of Horrors, but Addams Family: The Musical is still a fun, sweet, and energetic take on these classic characters, given a fine production by these talented young actors.

The Addams Family: The Musical is playing at the Long Center’s Rollins Stage through August 13th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please visit Summer Stock Austin’s site at summerstockaustin.org.

Photo courtesy of Summer Stock Austin

‘The Flick’ is an authentic, humorous love-letter to a dying art

In recent years, Hyde Park Theatre, and director Ken Webster, have been at their best when producing the works of Annie Baker, with pieces like Body Awareness, Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens becoming some of their most successful and popular pieces to date. It was only a matter of time, then, before they picked up Baker’s most recent hit, the Pulitzer-Prize winning dark comedy The Flick. Following the three-person crew of one of America’s last film-only movie theaters, The Flick acts as a celebration, and wake, for a the dying art of film, and in the process explores themes of love, sex, and race in modern America.

Hyde Park Theatre as a rare gift for finding budding young talent, and Delante G. Keys may be one of their best finds in recent memory. He completely becomes the neurotic, film-loving Avery with every fiber of his being, with everything from his expression to his gait acting in service to the character. Avery is the newest worker at The Flick, and, though he loves film, is uncomfortable around people, to such an extreme extent that he simply doesn’t have any friends. So many times this kind of character is played purely for laughs, but one of the true wonders of The Flick is how deeply we delve into the emotional complexity of the character. Avery is a loner, and the connections he attempts with his fellow coworkers are both delightful and heartbreaking to watch, as, thanks to his social anxiety attempts to ruin any chance of friendship he may have.

The Flick’s lone female, Rose, is one of the more well-written female characters this critic has come across in recent memory. She’s a strong woman who’s risen to one of the top spots of of the cinema, acting as projectionist, reaching the post sooner than either of her male coworkes. She expresses her sexuality openly, while never being completely defined by it, and her opinions are just as treated as just as valid as those of her male coworkers. Baker is also not afraid to show her more damaged sides, however, and its this side of the character that Hyde Park veteran Katie Kohler plays so well. Kohler excels at reaching deep and finding the emotional core of her character, here bringing a surprising balance of sorrow and spunk to the role. She’s an effervescent presence on stage, but the actress never lets us forget the darkness at the core of her character, letting all the character’s shadows and angles get equal coverage.

Shanon Weaver has a talent for balancing cynicism and vulnerability, and The Flick allows him to further hone this ability, playing the down-on-his luck, hopeless romantic Sam. Senior member of the crew, but also the one who keeps getting passed over, Sam is more of an everyman than his fellow workers, who skew more into movie snob stereotypes. Despite loving mainstream films such as The Bourne Ultimatum and Avatar, Sam is never shown as a boorish plebian, but instead stands as a common point between the two extremes of his coworkers, a calming presence in between Avery’s stoicism and Rose’s exuberance. His tough exterior hides a remarkable sensitivity, which Weaver is able to draw out with gusto near the play’s climax, as a single moment’s revelation changes the way we look at the character. Throughout, Weaver shows remarkable restraint and nuance, allowing the audience to see his character slowly begin to get comfortable with his fellow coworkers.

Though The Flick, on the surface, is about the death of film, it could be seen as a piece analyzing the death of theatre itself. Much in the same way the recent generation cares little about the death of celluloid film, there’s a similar ambivalence towards the theatrical arts, especially in smaller-to-medium sized markets. Those passionate enough to support the arts try their hardest to keep it going, but they’re forced into smaller, boutique experiences, much like the kind of film events Avery mentions at the end of the play. The play becomes incredibly topical to Austinites, whose city is seeing a destruction of the arts communities on an alarming scale, and hopefully will open audience’s eyes to the pressures and strains being put upon this community to this day.

The destruction of the arts is just one of the many subjects that Annie Baker packs into her The Flick. The generational divide, racism, asexuality, homosexuality, slut-shaming, and more hot-button issues in today’s society get their moments in Baker’s piece, and Webster guides the action with a firm hand, ensuring that these messages make it through, while still creating an entertaining, thought-provoking experience. Hyde Park and Annie Baker are once again a match made in Heaven, as together they create one of the company’s best productions in years.

The Flick is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through August sixth, and runs roughly 2 hours and 45 minutes. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit hydeparktheatre.org.

Photo Courtesy of Hyde Park Theatre

‘Trevor’ is a surprisingly sensitive, often hilarious story of a Hollywood ape

Capital T Theatre has a very successful history of producing comedies that are still able to strike an emotional cord with audiences, and with their production of “Trevor”, Nick Jones’ fictionalized tale of the latter days of the famed Hollywood ape, they’ve created one of their most surprising, emotionally satisfying works. Much like last years’ “Year of the Rooster”, director Mark Pickell, leading a group of Austin best comedic talents, makes us care for the plight of a simple animal.

Almost by its very nature, “Trevor” provides plenty of room for comedy, so it would easy for the play to take the lazy route and create a simple, funny ape story. The true wonder in Jones’s play is the intelligence of its writing. Even though his main character is a chimpanzee, he’s not played wholly for laughs. Instead, Jones is interested in exploring Trevor as a well-rounded individual, showing us his desires, his processes, his habits, his dreams. This is paramount in creating something special from the work, from elevating it above so much farce, pulling true emotion from the life of such a simple creature.

This isn’t to say “Trevor” isn’t funny: it certainly is. Whether it’s the way our titular character interacts with the human characters, or the human characters’ misinterpretations of Trevor’s actions, there’s plenty of humor mined throughout. Jason Newman draws out plenty of hilarious moment as Trevor, truly becoming one with the Hollywood ape, taking on his physicality and mannerisms with aplomb, without making anything feel forced. Though one can’t say they forget they’re watching an actor on stage and not a chimp, by play’s end, he’s taken on Trevor’s identity as best as an actor could. The laughs only intensify when Judd Farris appears, playing Trevor’s idol, friend, and fellow Hollywood chimp, Oliver. Farris finds the perfect measure of intellectual goofiness to play off Newman’s charming naivete, creating a gut-busting dynamic whenever the two share a scene.

The laughs were expected in “Trevor”, but what was truly surprising is the heart contained within the play. Thanks to the combination of sharp, surprisingly deep writing, and sensitive performances from its leads, we begin to deeply care about Trevor and his keeper, and as the play reaches its conclusion, and we see the relationship between the two could be torn asunder, you can’t help but tear up a bit. Rebecca Robinson, in particular, plays Trevor’s harried keeper, Sandra, with remarkable sensitivity, a sensitivity she has shown audiences before in plays as recent as Hyde Park’s “Realistic Jones”, which here sharpens to a fine point, digging deep into the heart of the audience and striking it with a palpable sorrow.

When I went into “Trevor”, I never expected I would be in tears at play about a Hollywood ape, but “Trevor” is a surprising show in many ways. While from the premise, one would expect a broad comedy, what writer Jones has created is something more personal, closer to a humorous tragedy than the expected farce. The play still provides plenty of laughs, however, and director Pickell does a fine job keeping the tone at such a pitch that keeps the audience laughing, while still leaving them with something to think about.

Photo Courtesy of of Wes Raiit