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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Seasons: Zach Scott Theatre

Zach Scott Theatre, one of Austin’s oldest companies, has just announced their latest season, and it has the potential to be one of their most interesting in years. Mixing upbeat musical fair with deep, thoughtful contemporary dramas, Zach seems to reaching out to a wide stretch of audiences. Here’s a rundown of just what Zach’s bringing to the table for their 18-19 Season:

 

Once

September 19 – October 28, 2018

Directed by Dave Steakley

Musical Direction by Allen Robertson

Scenic Design by Donald Eastman

Winner of eight Tonys, including Best Musical, Once will be making its regional premiere when it hits Zach stages this September, and Zach’s going all out to transport you to the rustic streets of Dublin. The lobby will be transformed into an Irish pub, which will surely get you in the right mood for the intricate music and heartbreaking story of this piece, based upon the Oscar-award winning film. This story of two ill-fated lovers has become one of the most celebrating romances of the twenty-first century, and I for one can’t wait to be swept away to the streets of Dublin by by Glen Hasard and Markéta Irglová’s stunning songs (played live on stage by the actors themselves!) It has all the potential to be one of the most memorable musicals of the season.

 

NOTES FROM THE FIELD

February 27 – March 31, 2019

 

Directed by Dave Steakley

With Smith’s “Notes From the Field”, Zach is producing one of its provocative pieces in ages, an in depth look at a segment of society caught in a system that’s dooming them to failure. Culled from interviewing from over 250 sources, this one-woman show presents the story of 18 different individuals, who each tell the story of incarcerated youth, and the broken systems that put them where they are today. Through “Notes From the Field”, Smith brings into into the lives of young men and women, from their own mouths, as well as those of their parents, teachers, and administrators. It’s a powerful play, soon airing on HBO, that will surely have people long after the curtain falls.

 

MATILDA THE MUSICAL
April 3 – May 12, 2019

 

Directed by Abe Reybold and Nat Miller

Musical Direction by Allen Robertson

On the lighter side of things, directors Abe Reybold and Nat Miller are bringing one of Broadway’s most joyful shows to the Austin stage with Matilda. Based on the Roald Dahl book, this story of the trials and tribulations of a precocious psychic is a perfect piece for people of all ages. Running for 1,555 performances on Broadway, as well as making a splash at the West End and on tour, this wildly popular musical featuring music by awardd-winner Tim Minchin may be one of the biggest shows Zach’s produced, so one doesn’t want to miss the grandeur or spectacle on display come next year.

 

THE BALLAD OF KLOOK AND VINETTE

April 24 – May 26, 2019

This soulful, world-premiere chamber musical by Che Walker, Anoushka Lucas and Omar Lyefook, looks to be a complete 180 from the lavish, upbeat nature of Matilda. A tender story of two drifters hoping to find understanding in each other, The Ballad of Klook and Vinette has the potential the be one of the most poignant moments of Zach’s season, especially as it’s using the intimacy of Zach’s Kleberg stage to help sell its emotional tale. It’s an interesting choice for Zach, showing they’re willilng to take chances, and with the right cast, this could be the highlight of the season.

 

FIRE AND AIR
June 12 – July 14, 2019

Coming off its world premiere on the New York stage, the latest from the legendary Terrence McNally follows the infamous Ballets Russes, and its creator, Sergei Diaghilev, as well Diaghilev’s tempestuous relationship with dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Receving raves from its early performances, this could create some powerful, exciting moments on the Topfer stage, and with dance such a built-in part of the play, we can only expect some fine footwork and gorgeous costumes on display, two things at which Zach has always excelled.

 

HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH

July 31 – September 8, 2019

Directed by Dave Steakley

The Broadway favorite makes its way back to Austin stages to close out Zach’s 18-19 Season with hard-rocking energy. This simple tale of a German rock siren trying to make her way in America has become one of the most popular musicals of the century, making a star out of its creator John Cameron Mitchell, and its just the type of weird, punk performance that Austinites will go crazy for. Its a bold stroke in a season full of wide swings, and one that’s sure to bring in the crowds.

 

With their latest season, Zach looks to be taking quite a few chances, and I certainly can’t wait to see if those chances pay off in the coming year. Be sure to visit Zach’s website at zachtheatre.org  for more information, and maybe even pick up some season tickets starting in May, so you won’t miss any of the wildness.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dammit Eno. Dammit Webster. You got me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Courtesy of Street Corner Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos Courtesy of Errich Petersen Photography

Hyde Park’s ‘The Wolves’ is a warm and witty wonder

For many of us, our teenage years are frightening, hormone-filled affairs, full of desperation and insecurity. This time of life is a common subject for media, but it’s surprising how much of this media fails to capture the actual teenage experience. So much of it is imbued with sunny, nostalgic optimism, saccharine sentimentality, or sexy misadventure, that it fails to capture the dirt and awkwardness of it all. It’s always a joy, therefore, to find a creator who truly captures the tense, sweaty high-wire act that is adolescence. Sarah DeLappe proves to be one such writer with her play “The Wolves”, playing at Hyde Park theatre under the skilled hands of Ken Webster and assistant director Rosalind Faires. The play follows the girls of the titular soccer team, and follows them over the course of a series of important games. Along the way, through a series of conversation with topics as broad as the Khmer Rouge and ovulation, we learn more about these girls, their relationships to each other, and every painful teenage incident they experience along the way.

The conversations throughout “The Wolves” are comfortable, easy affairs, taking us back the conversations of our own youths, dancing from the major politics of the day, to Lord of the Rings, to bodily functions, and it rarely ever feels staged or stilted. Much of this smoothness is thanks to DeLappe’s intuitive writing, but credit must be given to this cast. With nine different young women on stage constantly, there’s real danger of the play’s voice becoming muddled, but each actress does her part to make their character unique. Whether it’s through speaking patterns, vocal inflection, or physicality, they each take on personalities of their own, helping to form the group into a realistic unit.

As the play goes on, it’s easy to think that these conversations are frivolous or meaningless, but when the third act hits, all of these small moments take on monumental importance. DeLappe’s trick here is nothing short of awe-inspiring, as, through one simple event, she changes everything we have seen before, turning simple conversations into emotional time bombs. Webster and Faires do their part, keeping the action simple, allowing these casual conversations, and the talented women who have them, to take center stage, in the process, allowing us to empathize with these young women, making their trials near play’s end hit all the harder.

Though some of the best performances are those that are given time to grow and change over the course of play, there are those rare cases where an actor comes out and, in just a few moments, takes the audience on a poignant journey. Such is the performance given by Rebecca Robinson, though to speak too much of specifics is to give away the power of “The Wolves”. Suffice it to say, Robinson presents one of the play’s most powerfully affecting moments, plucking deep to the nerve, leaving us shaking, and in the process changing the course of the play.

With “The Wolves”, Hyde Park Theatre has created their most accessible production in years, while never losing the edge for which Hyde Park is known. Still present are the moments of emotional truth and examination of the dark side of humanity, but its couched in a sense of hopefulness that’s refreshing in comparison to much of contemporary theatre. “The Wolves” is a play that appeals to people of most ages, and though there is some language and talk of women’s issues, there’s plenty that everyone from 16 to 70 can glean from this hilarious, intelligent work.

“The Wolves” runs roughly 90 minutes, and is running through October 21 at Hyde Park Theatre. For more information, to purchase tickets, visit hydeparktheatre.org

Image courtesy of Hyde Park Theatre.