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.

‘Storm Still’ is a dynamic look at grief through the lens of a Shakespeare classic

Grief has become a popular theme in media. We’ve all seen the story of a family getting together after the death of one of its members, and every plot point along the way has quickly become cliché. Therefore, its with some trepidation that I came into “Storm Still”, the latest production from the Vortex Rep, the story of three sisters coming together after the death of their father, though the fact that these sisters were named Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia was undeniably intriguing. The play quickly put any fears to rest, however, as the play presents us with a naturalistic, raw look at life post-trauma, with all the familiar wound-picking, dib-calling, and remembrance of things past that so many of us know so well. That the play also contains within it a shortened version of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” is only icing on the cake, even as the events of the play seem to coincide with the sisters’ own lives with a unique clarity.

“Storm Still” takes complex emotions and, with the help of one of the bard’s most famous tales, helps to clarify them and work through them. Watching the play, we feel we’ve been through own catharsis in the process. The process of mourning someone who was cruel to us is an absurdly difficult exercise, as anger, sadness, regret, and spite all dance in tandem, and its a credit to all of the actors in the piece that they’re able to take on this emotional minefield in a true and earnest way. Writer Gabrielle Reisman and director Rudy Ramirez also deserve accolades for sculpting such a fervent portrayal of grief, and shifting it all through the lens of King Lear.

There’s a smooth naturalism to “Storm Still” that’s refreshing to see, especially in something so tightly linked to a Shakespeare adaptation, and much of this freshness stems from the trio of performances at its core. In particular, Andreá Smith gives a very grounded and believable performance as the eldest sister Goneril, portraying a woman who has gone through years of abuse and struggle, and who wears those years on her sleeve. There’s an obvious love between her and her sisters, but it welded tightly within a shell of spite and sorrow, towards a sister who ran off at the first sign of danger, who never went through the pain she had to experience. Jennifer Coy Jennings’ middle sister Regan has been touched by the past traumas, in her own unique way, shutting off the outside world and becoming hardened. The way Jennings plays the cool but closed off Regan is in turns humorous and crushing, as she seems more stable than her sisters, but at the same time tougher, and rougher. The interactions between the three sisters are electric, especially in the play’s later stages, as the differences between the three begin to take form and create an atmosphere that feels all too relatable.

In recent months, I have noticed that some of the most talented actors in town are those who study in clowning and mime, and Amelia Turner shows us the exact reason why here. This training, as well as her own raw talent, has brought out all the expressiveness and physicality that truly makes a performance such as that of the youngest daughter Cordelia explode, especially here, as performers are constantly taking on other guises. With a certain way she sets her eyes, or turns her mouth, or a method in which she stoops or holds a prop, she becomes another person, who we could see even without the colorful costumes, thoughtfully chosen by Indigo Rael. The performance is more than just expressive motion, however, as Turner seems deeply in touch with her feelings, creating some of the most powerful moments in the play.

A sudden loss is, by its very nature, a chaotic event. Like a tsunami crashing upon land, it spreads and destroys, its digs up things long thought buried. “Storm Still” is very adept at showcasing this, as we see a family hanging tightly to loose strands tempting to fall apart at any moment. By throwing this thrown the prism of King Lear, it also changes in some small way the way we see the bard’s original tale, helping to show us different sides to Goneril and Regan, and in some way empathize with them. It’s a remarkable achievement, and a powerful night of theatre. Don’t miss it.

“Storm Still” is playing through September 24th at The Vortex’s outdoor stage. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit Vortex Rep’s site at vortexrep.org.

Photo courtesy of Errich Petersen

Gothic romance gets a feminist twist in Hyde Park’s ‘The Moors’

A gloomy mansion on the moors, two mysterious sisters, a hidden relative in the attic, deceit in the air: these are all elements of good gothic horror, and it’s from this skeleton that writer Jen Silverman builds her bizarre feminist fable, The Moors, now given a bold, intelligent production at Hyde Park Theatre. Part of Hyde Park’s season of female playwrights, director Ken Webster and company have brought in some of their heaviest hitters to play the women at the heart of the work,  including mainstays such as Jess Hughes and Katie Kohler, as well as talented a handful of talented newcomers, coming together for a tale of intrigue, murder, and dog-chicken romance.

Jen Silverman’s play takes place in a house at the edge of the titular moors, where a new Governess has to come to work. Soon after she arrives, this newcomer begins to suspect something is amiss,  as the master of the house, who wrote her glowing, romantic letters, hasn’t been seen since her arrival, and the child she is to govern is nowhere to be found. Add to this the eccentric nature of the sisters who run the house, and the bizarre behavior of their house keeper, and we begin see the roots of an intriguing mystery.  What springs forth from these humble beginnings, however, is beyond our imaginings, as schemes are hatched, murders are planned, and romance blooms from both woman and animal alike. It’s an unpredictable journey, that would be a narrative labyrinth if not held steady by the talents of director Ken Webster, and a cast that has a thorough understanding of each bizarre story beat.

Though the play begins to take some strange turns early on, it truly takes off with the arrival of Lindsay Hearn Brustein as the Moorhen. It takes a rare kind of talent to add pathos to the plight of a literal wild chicken, but this actress is able to pull it off. There’s something wonderfully precocious about how Brustein takes on her role, with everything from her slight frame, her large eyes, and her clever wardrobe helping to sell the careful naivete of her character. There’s an air of spring breeze in her performance, a delightful airyness and lightness to her movement and affect that helps to truly sell her interpretation.  She works well against David Yakubik’s Mastiff, whose dopey adoration and optimism, which turns to obsession in the play’s later stages, works as an excellent counterbalance to Brustein’s wide-eyed search for freedom.

Crystal Bird Caviel’s performance is far from airy, but it’s not any less entrancing. Caviel gives off a powerful presence as soon she arrives as the sisters’ housekeeper Marjory (or Mallory, depending on her location), emanating attitude while hardly saying a word. It’s an intimating presence, but one that creates plenty of laughs as she bounces off her fellow actresses. Her character truly comes alive in the play’s later stages, as her deviousness creeps out, and the fun truly begins. Marjory/Mallory makes for a hilarious villain, and Caviel is careful to play up both the character’s sinister qualities as well as her humorous ones, to create a balance that extenuates both sides.

Catherine Grady has been climbing in notoriety in the Austin theatre scene, and with “The Moors”, she may have given her most interesting performance. Acting as the taciturn cold Agathy, she’s sly and no-nonsense, and Grady is able to sell this with aplomb, while never seeming like a caricature. Her best moments come when her relationship with Katie Kohler’s Emily is allowed to blossom, and some of her softer sides are able to peek through, brought out by the sly charm Kohler brings to her role. In the wrong hands this kind of character could come off as flat and colorless, but Grady gives us just enough to savor Agatha’s harshness.

Silverman’s play is a multifaceted one, taking the traditional narrative of the Gothic romance and, through it, giving us as story of the destructive nature of obsession and unfettered masculinity.  It’s not an easy night of theatre, or one that will be for every taste, but for those seeking to intellectually stimulated and taken on a wild ride into the dark back country, there’s plenty to love in Hyde Park’s latest offering.

The Moors is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through August 1st. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit hydeparktheatre.org.

Zach’s ‘In the Heights’ is a lively, sizzling start to the summer season

Thanks the world phenomenon that was Hamilton, and an Oscar nomination for his work on Disney’s Moana, Lin-Manuel Miranda has quickly become a household name, but before he was treading the boards as a founding father or singing for the president, he was winning over musicals fans with his vibrant, joyous look at life in the one of the most colorful parts of Manhattan with In the Heights. Zach Theatre is now bringing this hit musical to Austin, with a production that would make Miranda proud, full of fire, passion, and the sweltering heat of the New York summer.

In the Heights follows the lives of those living in New York’s Washington Heights during one of the hottest parts of the summer. We’re first introduced to Bodega owner Usnavi, through whom we meet the myriad figures that call the Heights home, and who take us through one special sweltering New York summer, complete with blackouts, heartbreak, and even violence, but always with the latinx flair this neighborhood is known for. Zach has brought in the big guns to bring their work to life, led by director Michael Balderamma, who cut his teeth as dance captain and original cast member of the original Off-Broadway production, and who has numerous other Broadway hits to his name. He is currently the choreographer for the Chicago production of Hamilton, so having his hand guiding all the action of Zach’s In the Heights is a big win. Helping him along the way is musical director, and two-time Emmy award-winner, Allen Robertson, a mainstay of the Austin musical scene, and a well respected composer and producer in his own right. These two icons come together with a talented team to create a lively, powerful night of theatrical thrills.

The Washington Heights of Miranda’s In the Heights bursts with energy, full of snappy music and quick choreography, and Balderamma and company do their part to keep the action moving. His actors, and even sets, are in contact motion, never hitting a false step, and with blasts of trumpets and the toe-tapping beat of Latin percussion, the skilled orchestra works to keep the scene hopping. The cast do their part to keep the action moving as well, performing with a vibrant zeal that truly adds a soul and spirit to their lively neighborhood. Add it all up with the sunny lighting and the inspired costume choices, and you have one of the hottest shows Zach’s produced in years.

In addition to bringing in some big guns behind the scenes, Zach has called in talent from around the country to fill out its cast. In particular, Alicia Taylor Tomasko shows the skills that made her a New York theatre regular. Here she plays the lovely but harried Vanessa, a woman trying to make her way out of the heights, while always being pulled in by the culture and people of Heights.  It also doesn’t help that she has caught the eye of our protagonist, Usnavi. She’s a woman divided, and Tomasko plays the necessary combination of sassy and strong with aplomb. Her footwork is on point, showing off moves that I’ve rarely seen the likes of on Austin stages, and her voice is clear and strong, with plenty of passion and fire. A good Vanessa is essential to a good production of In the Heights, and the role is in good hands with Tomasko.

Taking on a role made famous by Lin-Manuel Miranda is no mean feat, so Chicago Theatre native Keith Contreras-McDonald had a lot to live up to. Luckily, thanks to his charm and goofiness, he becomes almost instantly endearing. The musical doesn’t give him the standout musical moments of some of his fellow performers, but he carries the piece thanks to his wonderful acting chops. His chemistry with Sarro’s Vanessa is always believable, and, in fact, his relationships with all of the cast is solid throughout. He’s at his best in the small, more emotion-laden moments, helping to sell the stakes and bring the tears in some of the play’s more sombre sequences.

Though the team behind Zach’s In the Heights have brought in several big talents to inhabit their characters, one of the play’s true delights is seeing how many talented locals fill out the cast. For instance, this critic has enjoyed watching actor Vincent Hooper make his way from background player in Summer Stock performances, to the starring on the big stages of Zach Theatre, and here he takes center stage, never feeling out of place among the more seasoned talent.  Indeed, his performance as Benny is one of the most emotionally honest in the piece, as he takes us on one of the most full character arcs in the piece. Whether bringing humor or pathos, Hooper proves himself a capable performer, and is living proof that Austin talent can stand toe-to-toe with the that of New York or Chicago.

A pleasant surprise came from another local performer, and California transplant, Christina Oeschger, who wows from her first notes, showcasing a voice like polished glass: smooth, clear, and full brilliance. She brings out the intelligence of her character,  a bright young girl having trouble facing the world outside Washington Heights, and sells this from her very stance and diction. This is combined with an innocence in her eyes that charms the audience quickly, which is only amplified once she belts her first note, putting her stunning voice on full display. It’s easy to see that there’s a bright future in front of Oeschger, and one hopes she finds herself on other Austin stages again soon.

With a clear vision and exuberant passion, Zach plunges audiences headfirst into the wild world of Washington Heights, given some real gravitas thanks to a game production team and an indefatigable group of talented young actors from around the country. It’s the perfect kind of crowd-pleasing entertainment that makes for a splendid intro to the summer season, that will have you humming the tunes the whole ride home.

In the Heights is playing at Zach’s Topfer Theatre through July 2nd. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit Zach’s website at zachtheatre.org.

Photo courtesy of Kirk Tuck.

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.

“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.

‘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.