‘The Revolutionists’ is a funny, but ferocious, feminist fable

Marie Antoinette, Charlotte Corday, and Marianne Angelle meet in the salon of celebrated feminist writer Olympe de Gouges, each of them wanting some piece of writing that will change, or perhaps, end their lives. This is the story behind Lauren Gunderson’s original and bold new play, The Revolutionists, given an all-too relevant production by the talented minds of Shrewd Productions, led by the incredibly skilled hand of Rudy Ramirez. Following the final days of several of the French Revolution’s strongest women, we see how their fights and struggles are far too similar to the ones women are still fighting today.

One of the smartest moves Lauren Gunderson makes in The Revolutionists is to take these famous historical women, and present them with all of their insecurities, foibles, doubts and emotions. She turns them from figureheads of the revolution, into, simply, women. These people were no different than you and I, and yet, they had the resolve to change the world. As we live in a world today where smart, powerful women are often chastised or ridiculed, if for no other reason than being female, it’s inspiring to see these strong women fighting the fight, despite knowing, in many cases, it will mean a meeting with Madame Guillotine.

Taking on the multi-dimensional qualities of these women is no small feet, so these four performers have a lot on their shoulders. Luckily, the four women chosen bring in a combination of charisma, comedic timing, and emotional honesty that truly helps to breathe life into these historical figures. Each of these famous women, in their own way, did their part to define the revolution, and the quadriptych these actors create is a fine piece to behold.

At the heart of the piece is the friendship between playwright Olympe De Gouges, one of the only feminist writers in Revolutionary-era France, and Marianne Angelle, one of the era’s most famous Haitian freedom fighters. Having lived through a slave rebellion on a foreign shore, Angelle is a character who has gone through Hell, and Valoneecia Tolbert plays this through a sense of sardonic guardedness. She’s a serious, tough woman, who doesn’t take guff from anyone, a trait which beats perfectly against de Gouges’ manic sarcasm. It’s be far too easy to paint Angelle as simply a hard-as-nails revolutionary, but the play smartly gives Angelle moments of real heart, which Tolbert truly makes sing.

Sarah Marie Curry’s Olympe de Gouges is a staunch feminists, a warrior for the rights of women and slaves, but she’s also a bundle of insecurities. Curry, utilizing her fantastic comedic skill, plays up Olympe’s sarcastic attitude, bringing some of the funniest moments of the piece as she bounces off the play’s bizarre cast of character. It’s obvious, however, that under all the self-deprecating humor, there’s plenty of sensitivity and doubt. Her final moments are heartbreaking, and these moments hit so hard, in no small part, because of the journey Curry takes us on, bringing us into the heart of the character with her multifaceted turn.

Making up the final pieces of this fine feminist puzzle are two actors who may not spend as much time on stage, but who make the most of each moment. Gricelda Silva has an amazing ability to elicit emotion from the smallest of movements, so it’s no surprise that when she lets loose as Charlotte Corday, her energy bursts all throughout the theatre. She’s perfectly cast as the adorable young assassin, her small stature and precocious personality hiding the maliciousness underneath it all. There’s a quirky naivete she brings to the role that fits splendidly with Corday, as, even in her final moments, she shows undeniable spunk and fire. Shannon Grounds also brings plenty of energy to her performance as Marie Antoinette, but hers is more grounded in the ditzy cluelessness of the ruined princess. In many plays, a character like this would be played exclusively as a clown, but Gunderson recognizes that Antoinette was so much more: a mother, a lover, and a grieving wife. Indeed, one of the play’s most heartbreaking moments stems from Marie finding common ground with another character, who finds herself a sudden widow, where Marie says the simple, but tear-inducing words “it’s never going to be all right…but sometimes it feels good to hear someone say it.” Grounds finds the complexity beneath Marie’s goofiness, creating, by the end, one of the play’s most endearing characters.

Despite the action of the play being several centuries removed from our own, it couldn’t be more relevant to the world today.  As Olympe de Gouges stands before a gathering throng of men near the play’s midpoint, asking for equality for women, we’re reminded of the marches and meetings today fighting for those same rights, drowned out once again by the gathering mass of male ego and fragility. It’s just one of the many elements that make “The Revolutionists” such a strong feminist statement, a statement that deserves to be seen by as large an audience as possible.

Shrewd Productions’ The Revolutionists is playing at the Santa Cruz Center for Culture through June 25th. To find more information, and to purchase tickets, please visit Shrew Productions’ website at shrewdproductions.com.

Photo courtesy of Errich Petersen.

Clever direction and a sharp script make for a wild ride in Capital T’s ‘The Effect’

If chemicals can alter our emotions, how do we know if the things we feel are actually real? This is the question in the heart of  Lucy Prebble’s “The Effect”, the latest from stalwarts Capital T Theatre, whose string of effective, relevant plays continues, this time with the help of one of Austin’s most original directors, and recent Austin Critics Table Award winner, Lily Wolff.

“The Effect” takes us into a research facility, in a near-future that could begin anytime now, or could be happening right now, under our own noses. Here, two young people are testing out a new anti-depressant that may have some strange side effects, side effects that could change their lives for the better, or the worse. Humor, passion, anger, violence, all dance in a vigorous tango to create a wild ride, but with firm hands on the reins, and a set of skilled actors at its center, its a ride that’s exhilarating to experience.

One of director Lily Wolff’s strongest talents lies in her ability to create dynamic situations from simple materials. Though her work in “The Effect” may not quite reach the heights of originality evident when she turned a stairwell into an arena, or a blackbox into a magical forest, as she did in her stunning production of “As You Like It”, she still transport us through space and time effortlessly here. Utilizing little more than a white backdrop and two beds, she creates everything from a testing facility, to an abandoned asylum, to a convention stage, making each scene believable along the way. She’s aided greatly in this by Austin’s king of projection design, Lowell Bartholomee, who’s modern, but subtle work helps to add to the near-future aesthetic, while never seeming too overwhelming. It’s all built upon nicely by Patrick Anthony’s lighting, whose nuanced use of cookies and gels creates intriguing landscapes, while never straying too far from the reality of the situation.

There’s something in the marriage of Prebble’s fluid writing and Rebecca Robinson’s casual delivery that makes every scene she’s in pop, which, in the process, creates one of Robinson’s best performances. Robinson has always had a unique skill in connecting to the emotional truth of a piece, and here, the wavelengths meet at a near perfect level, as character and performer mesh into one from her earliest scenes. Her movements flow naturally, her interactions with the other characters move effortlessly, and as the play explores her character in more depth, Robinson finds new ways to add dimension to her acting. It all seems so simple as we watch it on stage, but it takes a major talent to create such natural delivery.

“Energetic” is one of the those common phrases you hear bandied about to describe performances, but one actor who embodies the very concept of “energy” is Delante G. Keys in his performance as Tristan. He’s lively, bubbly, and incredibly expressive (especially in his face), but the energy he brings is something more than just exuberance. What’s really fascinating to watch is how he uses this energy in his darker moments, when he turns it to explosive anger and violence. Keys’ is not a prismatic energy, flying off into all directions, but instead a honed energy, that Keys utilizes with laser precision. His anger, his humor, his passion, is direct, precise, utilized in the most effective ways to make each scene sing. He creates some of the funniest moments in the play, but also some of the most heartbreaking, and even some of the hardest to watch. Tristan is a character who experiences his emotions in a very big way, and its a testament to Keys’ ability that he can play this hugeness with earnestness and verisimilitude.

Clever direction, a sharp script, and a game cast come together create a piece that’s in equal turns powerful, emotional, and humorous. The actors give measured, but strong performances throughout, creating undeniable chemistry with each other, molded under the strong guiding hands of Wolff, who here continues to climb the ranks of Austin directors. Capital T has a winning streak going back several years at this point, and if they have more like “The Effect” in the barrel, I don’t see that streak ending anytime soon.

“The Effect” is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through June 17th. For more information, to purchase tickets, visit capitalt.org.

Photo courtesy of Capital T Theatre.

Humor and spectacle take center stage in Broadway Across America’s ‘Something Rotten’

It’s becoming increasingly rare to find a true musical comedy on stage. Sure, there’s plenty of satire, plenty of serious musicals with funny moments, but the true goofy, ribald, laugh-em-ups are a dying breed. Luckily, Something Rotten! provides just the laughs you’re looking for, with a comical look at 1590s England, and two men making a musical about eggs. It’s grand spectacle, featuring a skilled cast and some toe-tapping tunes, that, while never exploring major themes, also never takes itself too seriously.

As Something Rotten! begins, we’re transported to Renaissance England, where several playwrights of the era are doing their best work, but none more so than the talk of town, William Shakespeare. The bard’s shadow looms large over all these writers, and our play follows two of them, Nick and Nigel Bottom, who have the talent and gumption, just never the opportunity to create the next big thing. To find the way to one-up Shakespeare, they enlist the help of a wacky sooth-Sayer named Thomas Nostradamus (who declares he “has just as much talent as his famous uncle”), to discover the next big thing in theatre. What they discover is the strange form of art known as “The Musical”, and from there we’re taken on a wild ride through the history of musical history, in a daffy downward spiral through songs about the Black Death and eggs, all culminating in a climactic production of “Omelet: The Musical!”.

Something Rotten! truly excels with its sense of spectacle. Though at first the play keeps things simple, with quick wit, humor, and goofy pratfalls, but by the time we reach the show-stopping number “A Musical”, a wild ride through the history of musical theatre, things ramp to eleven, and we’re presented with everything from tap dance to chorus lines to elaborate set changes. This is taken to an even higher level as the show reaches is climax, the absolutely jaw-dropping titular song, which gives us even more references to famous musicals, as well as dancing eggs, cowboys, chimney sweeps, and even an actual recipe for omelets. The energy is kept at high throughout, keeping the audience enthralled through the final ovation.

In the play’s early stages, we see Rob McClure’s Nick Bottom as a lovable jerk, with his skill for humor on full display, but it’s not until the play reached the latter parts of the first act that we truly get to see the talents that made this man a Tony award nominee. When he’s allowed to let loose his skills, we find him an incredible tap dancer, a skilled vocalist, and hilarious physical actor, showing him to be a true Renaissance man. The choreography throughout is on point, but McClure’s skills cannot be denied, pulling off intricate sequences that most comedic actors wouldn’t even attempt. His over-the-top personality fits in perfectly with the rest of the cast, making him the perfect foil to his John Grisetti’s softer, more romantic Nigel Bottom, and the perfect companion to the lovably energetic performance by Maggie Lakis as Bea.

We cannot, of course, talk about this production of Something Rotten! without mentioning the star at its center. It was a smart choice to cast a marquee name such as Adam Pascale, a well-known name throughout the world thanks to his performance as Roger in most original productions of “Rent”, as the bigger-than-life William Shakespeare. His chops are on full display here, with his singing and dancing second-to-none, but what truly surprises here is his talent for humor. The character he plays is so haughty and grandiose that it requires that the actor give their 200%  to it just to make it believable, and Pascal is more than up to the task. He pushes so much energy into his performance at Shakespeare that he bursts at the seams with it, each gesture and phrasing eliciting torrents of giggles throughout the theatre, and when he takes on a disguise to infiltrate the Bottom Brothers’ production, things only get more fun. It’s a well measured performance, that fits perfectly within the loom of the show to create a colorful piece of the rich tapestry that is Something Rotten!

With so many big names and personalities taking center stage in Something Rotten!, we mustn’t forget the fine work being done by its supporting cast. In particular, Blake Hammond as Thomas Nostradamus, the nephew of the real Nostradamus, whose talent for broad humor cannot be understated. He arrives on the scene with the amazing number “A Musical”, and brings major laughs with every future appearance, whether it be from his slapstick physicality, or from his frequent non-sequiturs on musical history. Also pulling out nice work is Jeff Brooks as Shylock, who wants to be remembered by Shakespeare as “the really nice Jew”, and who brings an equal sense of sarcasm and sweetness that we don’t find in many places in the piece, making his appearance in his handfuls of scenes a delight. We should also take a moment to appreciate the work being pulled off by Maggie Lakis as Nick’s wife Bea, who wows with her first number “Right Hand Man”, and only gets better from there, as she dons male disguises in order to get work in the male-dominated culture in which she lived, creating many comical situations.

There’s nothing especially deep or meaningful in Something Rotten!, and that’s okay. There’s space in every diet for a little fluff and sweetness, and Something Rotten! is that big piece of chocolate cake. A laugh riot, this goofy, shiny, and highly entertaining journey into a wildly inaccurate Elizabethan England brings a talented cast together to care a fine slice of sweet, sweet theatrical pleasure.

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.