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.

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.

“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.

‘The Explorer’s Club’ is a zany, but smartly written, farce

Theatre can be a serious tool for tackling serious subjects in an intriguing and thought-provoking way, and it’s at its best when it’s turning its eye on our society and showing us a mirror of ourselves. However, there are times when all you need is a good laugh. Luckily, Austin Playhouse is giving us just that, with “The Explorer’s Club”, Nell Benjamin’s smart and pitch-perfect farce, which is given a polished production under director Lara Toner, thanks in no small part to an uber-talented cast, made up of the some of the best comedic talent the city has to offer.

As “The Explorer’s Club” begins, we find them ready to bring in a new member, who’s just discovered a hither-to unknown tribe of natives. The only problem, is, she’s a women. With two of them ready to give presentations to the queen, and their bartender out of the commission, the Club is under a lot of pressure, and soon the Club finds themselves with the palace guards, Irish rebels, and a gang of angry monks on their doorstep. The way the play keeps elevating the action to a higher and higher pitch is its greatest strength, and when it reaches its peak, the laughs just don’t stop coming.

“The Explorer’s Club” is buoyed in no small way by the mass of braggadocio that is Brian Coughlin as Harry Percy. From the moment he appears on stage, Coughlin is difficult to keep your eyes off of, as his timber, his delivery, and especially his movement, all serve the humor. The way he reacts to the world around him, whether it’s showing off his masculinity or belittling those smarter than he is, creates one hilarious moment after another. Though in the wrong hands this character could become villainous, Coughlin brings such huge charm that it’s impossible to dislike him, even as he shows us his cowardice or vanity.

As Austin Playhouse has shown in the past, there’s not a better two-man team in town than David Stahl and Michael Stuart. They’re like a vaudevillian duo who have been brought forward through time to delight modern audiences. Here, they play a pair of zany zoologists, one who studies snakes, and one who studies guinea pigs (“they all said people who study snakes and people who study prey could never be friends!”). The two play off each perfectly, just as they have so many times before, perhaps to best affect in Austin Playhouse’s “The 39 Steps”. Stahl in particular plays the perfect straight man to many of Stuart’s over-the-top reactions, and whenever they’re on stage we can’t help but smile.

The real power of this play does not come from a single performance, however, but instead from how they play with each other. In particular, a few scenes involving the service of drinks brings some of the biggest laughs, as it involves acrobatic ability that impresses every time. Whether it’s J. Ben Wolfe’s native interacting with the stuffy British folks around him, the charming chemistry between lovebirds Claire Grasso and Aaron JOhnson, or the battle between monks, the Irish, and the British army, this play is full of such amazing moments that the cast just carries to greatness.

In the culinary diet that is the theatrical experience, sometimes you just want something sweet, light, and fun, and Austin Playhouse has provided just the bowl of chocolate mousse you need. Witty, frivolous, undeniably funny, yet also smartly observed, “The Explorer’s Club” is a fine farce expertly choreographed by director Toner, who brings together a whizzbang cast, who are giving their all to bring out the hilarity of Benjamin’s text. It’s far and away the funniest play I’ve seen this year, and a great way to continue a fine season for Austin Playhouse.

“The Explorer’s Club” is playing through May 1st at Austin Playhouse. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit: austinplayhouse.com

Photo Courtesy of Jess Hughes

‘Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing’ is a lively historical drama

‘Disgraced’ is a brave and powerful look at race and religion in America

One of the biggest current tragedies in Austin theatre right now is the disappearance of performance spaces. What this leads to is artists converting atypical spaces into theatres, meaning you can find great talent in the strangest places. One of these places, buried in the heart of what was once Highland Mall, among blank storefronts and the silence of empty tile floors, is Austin Playhouse. Don’t let the surroundings fool you, however, because inside this peculiar space is a bold and brave company, who takes on one of the most daring and powerful plays of the season with “Disgraced”, the story of Middle Eastern-American apostate who must come to terms with what it means to be Muslim in America.

As “Disgraced” begins, we’re introduced to Amir, a former Muslim from Pakistan who is a successful lawyer at a prestigious law firm. Though ardently against the Muslim faith, his white, artist wife is heavily into Islam, utilizing its history and techniques in her art. Over the course of the play, we’re introduced to characters and situations that force Amir to come to terms with his Islamic heritage, and the weight it carries, which culminates in one of a violent, fiery climax.

“Disgraced” is a play full of escalation, with emotions reaching their boiling points before blowing over, so it’s very important that the actors handle their emotions with a clear balance. If they don’t go far enough, the actors lose believability, but if they let their emotions out too quickly, the performances could come off as one note, so hitting the right middle ground is paramount. Luckily, the actors here are well up to task, pleasant to spend time with in the early stages, raising the emotional intensity throughout the play, reaching their height during the dinner party in the heart of the piece. As the action is left to rise naturally, more intense moments hit with that much more power, adding to the unsettling quality of the text to create something truly moving.

From the first moment we see him, J. Ben Wolfe brings with him plenty of stage presence, but it’s his vulnerability that makes him shine brightest here. Though clad in a hard outer shell, there is something soft inside Wolfe’s Amir that comes out when he feels he’s under attack. During the play’s climax, when Amir flies off the handle and starts saying horrifying things, we can hear, even in his rage, a sorrow, a feeling of alienation. He’s removed himself from Islamic community, but is also separated from the outside world thanks to the “otherness” of being Middle Eastern, which puts him in a difficult place, a man alone, stuck between two worlds. When this bashes against other strong beliefs, such as the strong Islamic beliefs of his wife and nephew, or the Jewish beliefs of Michael Miller’s Isaac, sparks fly, and we get amazing moments of theatrical fireworks. Wolfe is able to control these feelings, however, creating a controlled burn that keeps the audience’s attention without setting the stage ablaze.

Though Wolfe carries much of the weight of the play, his supporting cast doesn’t shy away from shining out when the moment strikes. Michael Miller in particular gives one of his most daring performances, sharpening his usual well-honed neurosis into something more intriguing, a slow-burning anger that hides behind his usual cheerful awkwardness until it rips out in a fiery tirade. Also bringing the heat is Crystal Bird Caviel, whose mixture of brashness and sensitivity is a delight, as she gives one of the most authentic performances in the piece. Finally, we have the always spectacular Molly Karrasch as Amir’s wife, Emily, who is never less than believable as the white Muslim wife of an apostate, and who brings her unique brand of emotional intelligence to the role, playing off each of her co-stars with skill.

“Disgraced” is a brave play, tackling taboo subjects of Islamophobia and national pride, and Austin Playhouse produces one of their most daring productions from it. It shows Austin Playhouse as a company unafraid to take risks and push the limits of what Austin theatre-goers can expect, showing that, even in a theatre buried in a rundown old mall, wonders can be found.

Austin Playhouse’s “Disgraced” runs through January 31st. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit austinplayhouse.com.

Photo Courtesy of Christopher Loveless

‘The Mountaintop’ is a soulful, human look at Martin Luther King

As Martin Luther King Day has just passed, we find ourselves in the middle of a time when race has come to the forefront, making it the perfect time for Austin Playhouse to present their latest work, Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop”, a look at the final hours in the life of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King. A fictionalized account of his final night at the Lorraine Motel, we follow King and a charismatic but mysterious maid named Carrie Mae as they smoke, drink, and experience an evening of camaraderie and surprises.

From the very first moments of “The Mountaintop”, it’s obvious that the King that writer Katori Hall presents isn’t the heralded statesman for peace that the history class has taught us. After all, the first things we see King do is call out for smokes, and urinate. Here, we find King with all his humanity intact, with all his weakness and pride. We see him in tears, we see him pleading, we see his rare moments of selfishness. This isn’t to say that the play paints King in a bad light, as even at his worst moments, there’s still a sense of righteousness to him, that even if he’s lecherous, or vain, he is always working to change humanity for the better. It’s this dichotomy that makes the play work so well, as it helps us relate to someone who is often painted as a higher being, and helps shows us that he is, in the end, just a man.

Though obviously a tough role , Marc Pouhe plays the dichotomy of the character well. He’s lecherous, he smokes, he drinks, and he curses, and Pouhe brings relaxed style to his performance, but even in his most casual moments, there’s still a sense of command, of authority. When he gets moments to show raw emotion, the stage explodes, as Pouhe turns on a startling dynamism that leaves one breathless. He flies from furious anger to abject sorrow with not a moment’s hesitation, and makes everything believable. He may not necessarily look the part of Dr. King, but through his cadence, through his gestures, and through his presence, you almost get the feeling of having the man himself grace the stage.

Acting alongside Pouhe is Carla Nickerson, as Carrie Mae, who comes in as a maid, but is soon shown to be something different entirely. Nickerson has shown Austin audiences her talent for comedy throughout the years, including a noteworthy performance in Zach’s “Sonia and Vanya and Masha and Spike”, and here she proves just what wonderful timing she has. She carries herself with a rare confidence, meeting Pouhe beat for beat in most scenes, and when she turns on her charm is difficult to look away. She has her fair share of heartfelt moments as well, which she caries with similar aplomb.

The play may not always balance its comedy and drama as well as it could, but as the final bows are taken in Austin Playhouse’s production of “The Mountaintop”, director Don Toner and company have given us an emotionally fulfilling look at the life of one of history’s most loved figures. Pouhe gives his performance a rich humanity, that helps us see the many facets of King, and alongside the quick wit of Nickerson, the performances help to present us with a clear picture of both the man, and his legacy.

“The Mountaintop” runs just around 90 minutes with no intermission, and plays at Austin Playhouse’s Highland Mall stage through January 25. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit the Austin Playhouse site at austinplayhouse.com

Photo Courtesy of Christopher Loveless