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. 

‘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.

‘Trevor’ is a surprisingly sensitive, often hilarious story of a Hollywood ape

Capital T Theatre has a very successful history of producing comedies that are still able to strike an emotional cord with audiences, and with their production of “Trevor”, Nick Jones’ fictionalized tale of the latter days of the famed Hollywood ape, they’ve created one of their most surprising, emotionally satisfying works. Much like last years’ “Year of the Rooster”, director Mark Pickell, leading a group of Austin best comedic talents, makes us care for the plight of a simple animal.

Almost by its very nature, “Trevor” provides plenty of room for comedy, so it would easy for the play to take the lazy route and create a simple, funny ape story. The true wonder in Jones’s play is the intelligence of its writing. Even though his main character is a chimpanzee, he’s not played wholly for laughs. Instead, Jones is interested in exploring Trevor as a well-rounded individual, showing us his desires, his processes, his habits, his dreams. This is paramount in creating something special from the work, from elevating it above so much farce, pulling true emotion from the life of such a simple creature.

This isn’t to say “Trevor” isn’t funny: it certainly is. Whether it’s the way our titular character interacts with the human characters, or the human characters’ misinterpretations of Trevor’s actions, there’s plenty of humor mined throughout. Jason Newman draws out plenty of hilarious moment as Trevor, truly becoming one with the Hollywood ape, taking on his physicality and mannerisms with aplomb, without making anything feel forced. Though one can’t say they forget they’re watching an actor on stage and not a chimp, by play’s end, he’s taken on Trevor’s identity as best as an actor could. The laughs only intensify when Judd Farris appears, playing Trevor’s idol, friend, and fellow Hollywood chimp, Oliver. Farris finds the perfect measure of intellectual goofiness to play off Newman’s charming naivete, creating a gut-busting dynamic whenever the two share a scene.

The laughs were expected in “Trevor”, but what was truly surprising is the heart contained within the play. Thanks to the combination of sharp, surprisingly deep writing, and sensitive performances from its leads, we begin to deeply care about Trevor and his keeper, and as the play reaches its conclusion, and we see the relationship between the two could be torn asunder, you can’t help but tear up a bit. Rebecca Robinson, in particular, plays Trevor’s harried keeper, Sandra, with remarkable sensitivity, a sensitivity she has shown audiences before in plays as recent as Hyde Park’s “Realistic Jones”, which here sharpens to a fine point, digging deep into the heart of the audience and striking it with a palpable sorrow.

When I went into “Trevor”, I never expected I would be in tears at play about a Hollywood ape, but “Trevor” is a surprising show in many ways. While from the premise, one would expect a broad comedy, what writer Jones has created is something more personal, closer to a humorous tragedy than the expected farce. The play still provides plenty of laughs, however, and director Pickell does a fine job keeping the tone at such a pitch that keeps the audience laughing, while still leaving them with something to think about.

Photo Courtesy of of Wes Raiit

‘Year of the Rooster’: Dark comedy rules the day in Capital T’s funniest in ages

“Year of the Rooster” is, in many ways, a hard sell. The moment you tell someone that it’s a black comedy about cock fighting, you can expect some eye-rolling and shocked looks. Thanks to fast-hitting humor, energetic performances, and sharp direction from Mark Pickell, Capital T has created gold from his concept, taking audiences on a hilarious, engaging journey through the dark parts of rural Oklahoma, presenting an almost Shakespearean portrait of the epic rise and fall of one of an up-and-coming cock fighter, played with sensitive humor by Jason Newman.

Jason Liebrecht jumps out of the gate swinging (at times literally), and doesn’t decrease his energy throughout. His twitchy, angry, and often psychotic performance as young, but promising, fighting rooster Odysseus Rex is truly original, and Liebrecht gives his whole to create an intriguing character. Some of the best laughs of the piece come from his interactions with various others, including the motionless dog as played by disheveled mop-head. His adventures are the stuff of Greek tragedy, and makes for an excellent backbone to the play.

From chick and a dude’s “Brass Ring”, to Capital T’s “Killer Joe”, to Hyde Park’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” and Street Corner Arts’ “Men From Tortuga”, Kenneth Wayne Bradley always feels like he’s at his best when he’s treading the boards of the Hyde Park Theatre, so when he first appears as the slick, but imposing Dickie Thimble, it feels like the first rain after a grueling drought. Despite spending time away from live theatre, Bradley proves he’s just as sharp as ever, bringing his unique sense of intensity and charisma that makes him infinitely watchable.

Julia Bauer’s Philipa is a potent morsel of pure spunk, a compact package bursting at the seams with sass and attitude. The moment she bursts on to the scene in the first act, she becomes a shining point of every scene she’s in. Her repartee with Jason Newman is delightful, her brash, aggressive attitude scraping against his antisocial standoffishness to create sparkling moments of bizarre chemistry. Bauer never plays it one note, however, injecting authentic pathos into the later stages of the production. Her surprise second role is also performed with aplomb, but to say more is to give away one of the play’s more humorous surprises.

In a year of intense and thoughtful theatrical experiences, “Year of the Rooster” sets itself apart by being pure fun. It’s also a star-making vehicle for Julia Bauer, a triumphant return to Hyde Park stage for Kenneth Wayne Bradley, and, indeed, Capital T’s best production in years. Pointed, dark, and original “Year of the Rooster” is sure to delight fans of Capital T’s past productions, and may even create some converts with its cutting, chuckle-worthy presentation.

Photo Courtesy of Capital T Theatre

‘The Strangerer’ is a heady, hilarious look at politics and death

Sometimes, a company and a writer just click. Hyde Park has done wonders with the work of Conor McPherson and Annie Baker, Maksym Kurochkin and Breaking String are a marriage made in heaven, and Capital T makes Mickle Maher’s work sing like no other, creating glittering wonders from the writer’s unique gems, including award-winning productions of “Spirits to Enforce” and “There is a Happiness That Morning Is”. With “The Strangerer”, the latest marriage of Maher and Capital T, we find a stripped down, more focused story at the heart of the play, following what happens when the philosophies of Albert Camus and the turbulent days of 2004 politics are thrown into an aging blender. It’s a lumpy, bizarre mash, but always a compelling watch.

To truly appreciate Mickle Maher’s “The Strangerer”, it’s important that one first has a basic understanding of the work of Albert Camus. Themes, ideas, and even plot lines from Camus’ books bob and weave through Maher’s piece, and though there is some information is the playbill’s foreword, it would be greatly beneficial for an audience member to at least familiarize themselves with The Stranger, the Plague, and the Fall. Even the most ardent fan of Camus may find themselves at a loss, however, if they don’t remember the political climate of 2004. It was a time of heavy doubt and fear, making it oddly fertile soil for Camus’ ideas to germinate in.

Though he shares the stage with some fine actors, “The Strangerer” is truly a testament to the talent of Robert Pierson. The role demands that the actor walk a fine line, bringing out the humorous personality and foibles of our 43rd president, while never playing him off as simply a joke. After all, there is some very cerebral material coming out of the mouth of Bush here, and it has to be believable, despite the constant spoonerisms, pauses, and vocal stumbles. Pierson is able to play up the buffoonery and bring the laughs in droves, while also selling the more potent passages, creating something textured and prismatic, and riveting to watch.

On the other side of the spectrum, Ken Webster utilizes his ability to portray subtle emotion with skillful nuance in his taciturn performance as John Kerry, who is not prone to the wild fits of fancy of his opponent, keeping his emotions more locked in. Throughout the play, Webster barely moves a muscle, but there is often a tumult behind his eyes, a cadence of speech belies a multitude of emotions. Through it all, there’s an icy coldness to the performance, a creeping dread that we just can’t shake as his sad, motionless eyes stare out at something on the horizon.

“The Strangerer” is a bizarre piece, and could at times even be considered difficult, but it never strays too far into intellectualism that it forgets it’s a comedy. It tempers its ideas with real laughs, and the setting makes that perfect, whether it be Bush’s constant stumbles or Kerry’s tendency to fall asleep standing up. Indeed, under the firm, intelligent hand of director Mark Pickell, “The Strangerer” hits a nice balance of intelligence and wit, leaving you with a few belly laughs, a lot to think about, and plenty to talk about over the days that follow. It may take a little research to truly appreciate, and it may help to bring your thinking cap, but for those coming into this production with open minds, they’ll find a wildly original piece performed with polished precision by a trio of Austin’s best.

Photo Courtesy of Capital T Theatre

‘Fool for Love’ is an impeccably acted piece of theatrical intensity

The folks at Capital T Theatre have a rare talent for picking the right scripts, finding works with a certain dark comedy mode, containing a certain enrapturing intensity. With their latest, they’ve selected Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love”, a fast-paced and shocking play from one of the nation’s greatest writers, and pulled in a pair of performers with engrossing chemistry, all kept moving under the strict, sturdy hand of director Mark Pickell.

As the past has shown, Capital T and Sam Sheppard are a marriage made in heaven, so we can be assured an exciting prospect with “Fool for Love”. In the play, Sheppard shows his talent for keeping the audience on their toes, throwing us into the middle of an already fiery situation, as two estranged lovers come together under mysterious circumstances. Director Mark Pickell keeps the action constantly moving, never slowing down to let the audience take a breath, keeping his foot planted firmly on the gas. This constant assault of action is at times exhausting, but it keeps the audience rapt, tied to every word. As the play turns to monologue in the later stages, the strength of both the actors’ presentation and Sheppard’s writing shine through, , as the writer doles out his fascinating tale of dark family secrets. As the play reaches its final moments, we find ourselves in shock at what just came to pass, Patrick Anthony’s stellar lighting helping to cast a disturbing hellscape.

As many audiences discovered in “Exit, Pursued By Bear” a few years back, Molly Karrasch and Joey Hood play incredibly well off each other, and in “Fool for Love”, the electricity between them turns incendiary They keep in even step, meeting and matching intensities, taking us on a harrowing emotional journey in the process. Molly Karrasch plays tarnished innocent more than just about any actress in town, and here the sorrow is palpable from the moment she hits the stage. Hood meets this sorrow with a sense of power and bravado, a shell of masculinity and anger that shows the actor has a fine psychological understanding of the character hes taking on, as he masks his own jealousy and pain. When joined together, these two emotionally tortured souls create crystalline moments of escalating action, which keep the audience breathless.

In a year of several intense plays, Capital T has thrown their hat into the ring with this dark chamber drama, featuring a pair of eviscerating performances and crisp, sharp direction from Mark Pickell. The pairing of Sam Sheppard once again strikes gold, and we can only hope that the two forces come together again sooner rather than later.

“Fool for Love” run around 75 minutes with no intermission, and is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through November 22. For more information, and to purchase ticket, visit CapitalT.org.