Hyde Park’s ‘The Antipodes’ is a witty, foreboding, look inside the writers’ room

Writers have been exploring the creative process for almost the entire history of the medium, so when a playwright sits down to write about how writers write, it can be difficult to find something new and interesting to say. With her latest play, The Antipodes, Pulitzer-Prize winner Annie Baker, acclaimed creator of hits like Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens and The Flick, takes a look at not only writing, but storytelling itself, and the ways in which time has changed, and held fast, to the art form. Director Ken Webster has called in some of the best talents in town to bring this story to life, including Hyde Park mainstays, on-the-rise stars, and some gifted younger talents, all coming together to create an ensemble of witty wordsmiths.

As Antipodes begin, one can be forgiven for wondering if they’ve just stumbled in on the filming of the newest HBO pilot. The joke-heavy writers room seems torn from a kind of prestige comedy format that’s grown somewhat familiar, though it’s always brimming with Baker’s signature spark. As the play goes on, however, its shadowy corners begin to reveal themselves, as the struggle of these nine writer to create the great new idea take on more bizarre, even foreboding forms. Indeed, the play takes turns into the surreal that would be more at home in a Will Eno play, but what Baker brings is a groundedness that always makes the characters feel alive and real, even as they’re barking out made up words or telling ghastly fairy tales. While the play takes deep dives into the some dark, even cultish landscapes, most of characters never lose their authenticity, which is a testament not only to Baker’s talents, but also to the adept actors that inhabit this play.

Taking on a cast this large can be daunting task. Though there have been some major hits in the past, such as Hyde Park’s own award-winning The Wolves or Capital T’s much-heralded Spirits to Enforce, in many cases such productions can lead to either an unbalanced slog or a confused mess. Luckily, Ken Webster and company carry “Antipodes” with a careful touch, making sure each of the characters is compelling, without any taking too much attention away from the others. It certainly helps that the group has such winning chemistry, working together as if they had known each other forever. Much credit must indeed go the performers, who to a person create credible personas, even as their actions get more outrageous as the play progresses.

With a cast this large, full of actors this talented, its difficult to pick outstanding performers, as a large part of of the fun of The Antipodes is how the actors interact. Still, one can’t deny that Dave Yakubik, with his deep, sonorous, yet joyful voice and sad eyes was a perfect fit for the shy, but sweet Danny M2, and one hopes we see him back on stage sooner rather than later. One also would be remiss if they did not mention Shanon Weaver, the only man to have auditioned for BOTH extant productions of the play, who utilizes his charisma and swagger to breathe no small amount of hilarious bluster to the role. Lowell Bartholemee proves that there are few things in theatre he is not good at, coming off a Austin Critics’ Table wins for best sound design and digital design, and stealing every scene he’s in as the cocksure, witty Danny M1. Maria Latiolais, fresh off an impressive performances in Hyde Park’s The Wolves, also shows herself to be a star on the rise, with a peppy and bright performance, that perhaps belies something darker as the play progresses. Another one to watch is Saurabh Pradhan, whose comedic timing is undeniable, bringing some of the biggest laughs of the piece, who also is able to carry one of the play’s more bizarre stretches of writing with gusto.

Annie Baker and Hyde Park Theatre have always been a marriage made in heaven, and The Antipodes certainly continues to prove this. Ken Webster is able to capture the spirit and rhythm of Baker’s language, while taking some of the wilder moments and expanding them to create something truly jaw-dropping. It’s a play that’s incredibly demanding of its actors, going places where few actors are brave enough to go (there’s one monologue given by Lowell Bartholemee that’s absolute stomach-turning), showing the cast to be full of professional, polished performers. The play isn’t full of pounding action or a single gripping narrative, but the relatable characters and bizarre escalation make for  intriguing, if a tad intellectual, experience, that patient viewers will find quite enrapturing.

Antipodes is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through August 4th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit http://www.hydeparktheatre.org.

Photo courtesy of Bret Brookshire.

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.