‘Actually’ is an emotionally acute examination of race and sex in modern America

I have always been fond of plays performed in atypical places. I have seen plays in parks, bars, homes, and everything in between, and though the productions aren’t always better for it, when things go perfectly, the locale adds another dimension to the performance. As I walked into the lecture hall where Actually, the new production by fledgling company Workhound, was being produced, I was taken aback a second, as this was, indeed, a white board-clad, florescently-lit classroom, a strange place for a play to be performed. As the play went on, however, I realized just what this play provided: intimacy. Anna Ziegler’s words probably would have been effective behind a proscenium, but when the actors are just a few feet away, staring directly at you, you can help but feel the devastation, letting this tsunami of an experience wash over you with all the more ferocity.

Actually is a play about sexual assault. There are no two ways about it, and it’s what makes the play such a hard sit, and even more difficult sell. By its very nature, it’s a high barrier to entry for some people, as, though we of course never see the actions depicted on stage, there are scenes within that could be triggering. This is in no way meant to dissuade anyone from seeing the play, but I feel I would not being doing my due diligence if this was not brought up. The play tackles the subject with respect, clarity, and honesty, but even the director and actors acknowledge the nature of the subject at the heart of the play. 

Actually follows the relationship of Amber and Tom, two new college freshmen, both trying to break free from the boxes society has put them, who find themselves going to bed together after a night of drinking. Though hazy, when Amber awakes the next morning, she realizes the sex may have been something less than consensual. What follows is a well-balanced, thorough, and honest examination of what brought both of our characters to this point, bringing us through the racism, sexism, and other other biases that our societal structures place upon us, and how they can shape who we to become. Characters are never demonized, giving a clear-eyed view of each of their actions, even if those actions lead somewhere incredibly dark.

Though he’s shown solid work on stages all across town, few roles have given Kriston Woodreaux the ability to show off his range more than Actually. As the play begins, it’s easy to write off Woodreuax’s Thomas Anthony as a the typical macho alpha male, all swagger, good looks, and a sly smile. It doesn’t take long, though for us to see the layers beneath it all: the intelligence, the sensitivity, the tenderness.This is all aided greatly by the fact that Woodreaux is never afraid to be vulnerable. There were quite a few moments that had me nearly in tears, as Woodreaux was so connected to the role that you lose track of where he begins and Tom ends. There’s certainly anger there, but Woodreaux is sure to always show the pain beneath each outburst, whether stemming from his race, his upbringing, or even his attractiveness.

The play doesn’t have quite as meaty a role for Lauren Jacobs. By its nature, the role of Amber stands out much less, and so Jacob’s performance doesn’t reach the emotional extremes of Woodreaux’s. Amber is more reserved, withdrawn, almost the polar opposite to Tom’s charisma hurricane. What Jacobs does with the material, though, is not any less impressive than Woodreaux, as she sells the character through subtle cues: twitches, quick glances, vocal choices. In its own way, it’s even easier for certain members of the audience to relate to Jacob’s Amber, as her insecurities are constantly on display, brought out especially by the direct address style of the play, and Ziegler’s sharp writing.

In “Actually”, director Jeremy Lee Cudd has given audiences the chance to see two young actors rising to the top of their game, with a piece that could not be more timely. Though its subject matter may be tough to take at times, those able to experience the play are sure to leave changed people. Workhound is showing itself to be a company not afraid to tackle difficult subjects, and handle them with respect, all the while bringing passion and emotional honesty, and I for one hope to see much more from them in the future. 

Actually is playing in UT’s Winship Theatre Building through November 18th. For directions, tickets, and more information, visit their facebook at facebook.com/wrkhnd/.

Capital T’s ‘The Goat’ is a heartbreaking examination of family secrets

With so many theatre companies chasing the newest works, sometimes the classics don’t get the exposure they deserve on modern stages. Capital T seems to doing their part to alleviate this with their latest season, starting with one of the most acclaimed plays of the twenty-first century, Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize finalist, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia. An examination of the putrefying effect of family skeletons, it follows a successful family man whose life, and family, falls apart when a devastating, disgusting secret is revealed. Director Mark Pickell brings in some of Austin’s heaviest hitters to create all-star cast, who breathe new life into this classic, if under-performed, play.

In the early stages of the play, the theatre is full of, perhaps at times, uneasy, laughter, but as it reaches its final stretch, a stone-faced silence grips the audience. This is thanks to an emotional honesty that Albee brings to the material, which Pickell and company bring out with aplomb.  On a surface level, the material at the heart of The Goat is the stuff of classic farce, the idea of a man confessing a bestial affair to his wife being a pretty solid idea for a dark comedy. Albee knows this method is too easy, however, and prefers to explore the metaphor, to really dig deep into the deepest, darkest parts of the hearts of its characters, creating something much more devastating, and the play is that much better for it.

Rebecca Robinson was an actress born to play a role like Stevie. She’s an actress in touch her emotions, whose sensitivity helps to bring a verisimilitude to some scenes that would seem over-the-top if performed by another actress. When storms through her apartment, breaking expensive vases, we don’t see it as an overreaction, but as an information character choice. We feel  her anger, thanks in no small part to her emotive, expressive face. She forms a quick and early chemistry with Robert Pierson’s Martin, which makes her more impassioned moments later in the play hit with that much more weight, especially as the emotions become more muddled in the play’s late stages.

The play, of course, would not work without a solid actor in the role of Martin, the patriarch and goat-lover of the family, and Robert Pierson attacks the role with a mixture of ardor and vulnerability that helps the audience sympathize with his plight, as sordid as it is. His performance is more often than not subdued, even as the world explodes around him, and he acts a gentle, loving hand among the other characters who are splitting at the seams. His calmness can be infuriating, as we see how his actions are effecting his family, but he acts as a nice counterbalance to some of the more extreme emotions on display, especially when his son, Billy, enters the picture, played with fervent spirit by Preston Russ, as he handles the confusing feelings on display with a refreshing gentleness. It’s still difficult to truly side with Martin, but Pierson shows his love as pure and unselfish.

“The Goat, or Who is Sylvia” is one of those plays that could fall apart at so many stages, but thanks to a smart script, an emotionally honest cast, and a director who knows just how to perfectly pitch the action, the result is a poignant portrait of a family in crisis. Here’s hoping other companies take Capital T’s lead and dig up some of the more well-hidden treasure buried in years past, so that we can see what these talented casts and crews can do with real classics.

Photo courtesy of Capital T Theatre. 

‘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