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

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.

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.

‘The Flick’ is an authentic, humorous love-letter to a dying art

In recent years, Hyde Park Theatre, and director Ken Webster, have been at their best when producing the works of Annie Baker, with pieces like Body Awareness, Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens becoming some of their most successful and popular pieces to date. It was only a matter of time, then, before they picked up Baker’s most recent hit, the Pulitzer-Prize winning dark comedy The Flick. Following the three-person crew of one of America’s last film-only movie theaters, The Flick acts as a celebration, and wake, for a the dying art of film, and in the process explores themes of love, sex, and race in modern America.

Hyde Park Theatre as a rare gift for finding budding young talent, and Delante G. Keys may be one of their best finds in recent memory. He completely becomes the neurotic, film-loving Avery with every fiber of his being, with everything from his expression to his gait acting in service to the character. Avery is the newest worker at The Flick, and, though he loves film, is uncomfortable around people, to such an extreme extent that he simply doesn’t have any friends. So many times this kind of character is played purely for laughs, but one of the true wonders of The Flick is how deeply we delve into the emotional complexity of the character. Avery is a loner, and the connections he attempts with his fellow coworkers are both delightful and heartbreaking to watch, as, thanks to his social anxiety attempts to ruin any chance of friendship he may have.

The Flick’s lone female, Rose, is one of the more well-written female characters this critic has come across in recent memory. She’s a strong woman who’s risen to one of the top spots of of the cinema, acting as projectionist, reaching the post sooner than either of her male coworkes. She expresses her sexuality openly, while never being completely defined by it, and her opinions are just as treated as just as valid as those of her male coworkers. Baker is also not afraid to show her more damaged sides, however, and its this side of the character that Hyde Park veteran Katie Kohler plays so well. Kohler excels at reaching deep and finding the emotional core of her character, here bringing a surprising balance of sorrow and spunk to the role. She’s an effervescent presence on stage, but the actress never lets us forget the darkness at the core of her character, letting all the character’s shadows and angles get equal coverage.

Shanon Weaver has a talent for balancing cynicism and vulnerability, and The Flick allows him to further hone this ability, playing the down-on-his luck, hopeless romantic Sam. Senior member of the crew, but also the one who keeps getting passed over, Sam is more of an everyman than his fellow workers, who skew more into movie snob stereotypes. Despite loving mainstream films such as The Bourne Ultimatum and Avatar, Sam is never shown as a boorish plebian, but instead stands as a common point between the two extremes of his coworkers, a calming presence in between Avery’s stoicism and Rose’s exuberance. His tough exterior hides a remarkable sensitivity, which Weaver is able to draw out with gusto near the play’s climax, as a single moment’s revelation changes the way we look at the character. Throughout, Weaver shows remarkable restraint and nuance, allowing the audience to see his character slowly begin to get comfortable with his fellow coworkers.

Though The Flick, on the surface, is about the death of film, it could be seen as a piece analyzing the death of theatre itself. Much in the same way the recent generation cares little about the death of celluloid film, there’s a similar ambivalence towards the theatrical arts, especially in smaller-to-medium sized markets. Those passionate enough to support the arts try their hardest to keep it going, but they’re forced into smaller, boutique experiences, much like the kind of film events Avery mentions at the end of the play. The play becomes incredibly topical to Austinites, whose city is seeing a destruction of the arts communities on an alarming scale, and hopefully will open audience’s eyes to the pressures and strains being put upon this community to this day.

The destruction of the arts is just one of the many subjects that Annie Baker packs into her The Flick. The generational divide, racism, asexuality, homosexuality, slut-shaming, and more hot-button issues in today’s society get their moments in Baker’s piece, and Webster guides the action with a firm hand, ensuring that these messages make it through, while still creating an entertaining, thought-provoking experience. Hyde Park and Annie Baker are once again a match made in Heaven, as together they create one of the company’s best productions in years.

The Flick is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through August sixth, and runs roughly 2 hours and 45 minutes. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit hydeparktheatre.org.

Photo Courtesy of Hyde Park Theatre

‘The Realistic Joneses’ is a challenging but intriguing postmodern comedy

The marriage of Hyde Park Theatre and the work of Will Eno is a marriage made in heaven. The deceptively deep, darkly comic plays that Eno writes are the perfect fit for a theatre like Ken Webster’s, as they’re the kind of offbeat contemporary comedies that have been their bread and butter for years. With their latest, Eno’s intriguing look at suburban life, “The Realistic Joneses” Hyde Park has created their most interesting production in ages, bringing some of their best of their performers together to form a rock-solid ensemble, that shape this play into something that nearly reaches theatrical nirvana.

“The Realistic Joneses” kicks off like so many other plays. Bob and and Jennifer Jones are relaxing in their backyard when they’re introduced to their new neighbors, Pony and John Jones. From the very first moment, we all know that these two are a bit off, shown through their lack of social skills and their bizarre methods of communications. As the play progresses, and we get to know these characters more, we slowly start to see the chasm between the bizarre and commonplace slowly start to close, as these four characters begin to intertwine themselves in more and more compromising ways.

Will Eno’s writing can be difficult to perform. It’s particular and precise, and in the wrong hands, it can become confusing, even nonsensical. An actor must not only find the emotional connection with the text, but also garner a healthy chemistry with his or her fellow actors, to make sure that they create the right cadence and rhythm. Fortunately, director Ken Webster and the folks at Hyde Park Theatre have a history of finding just the right actors for their roles, culling from from both their own stable of talent and from across the city. Here they have selected a solid quartet to play off each another in orchestral perfection.

Few actresses seem to fit Will Eno’s writing style better than Jess Hughes. Her particular brand of slanted and offbeat acting is a perfect fit for the nuanced, peculiar dialog that Will Eno gives her character, Pony. Her odd mannerisms and facial expressions only helps to inject an element of otherworldlyness to the character. She never loses grasp of the reality of her character, however, as the character never veers too far off into the fantastical.

As has been proven in many previous plays, Jess Hughes is at her best when playing off Ken Webster who here plays the genial, but ailing, Bob. Her peculiarity joins well with Webster’s everyman charisma, highlighting the strange elements of her performance. Webster also finds a fine balance between himself and Benjamin Summers, who plays John, whose lackadaisical anti-social nature works as the perfect counterbalance, the perfect anti-Bob, and it makes those rare moments where the two find, or at least attempt to find, a common ground all the more powerful.

The beating of the heart of the piece, however, is Rebecca Robinson as Jennifer Jones. While so much strangeness and sickness swirl around her, Robinson shows her true talent for emotional expression, helping us to sympathize with these, at times, strange characters with whom she shares the stage. Her scenes with Webster’s Bob are a delight, acting as seas of calm and normality in the often unusual goings-on of the work, and when things become fraught between the couple, we get some of the most heartfelt and honest moments of the entire piece, thanks in no small part to the emotional honesty that Robinson exudes so expertly.

As difficult as “The Realistic Joneses” may be to perform, it can also be challenging to watch, with an ending in particular that could leave some audience members scratching their heads. Things happen subtly, and the action comes on slowly, making this one for those seeking something a little more intellectual to sink their teeth in to. What Will Eno strived to tell us about our culture on a macro-level in “Middletown” is here narrowed to the micro-level, showing us certain painful honesties about how we interact with each other. It may seem like a simple narrative on the surface, but there are true depths to be explored here, and few other companies could plumb them so successfully.

“The Realistic Joneses” is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through March 26th. For more information, to purchase tickets, visit hydeparktheatre.org.

Photo Courtesy of Hyde Park Theatre

‘The Quarry’ is a unique, textured play with a powerful lead performance

Hyde Park has always gone to great lengths to bring Austin new, original works, introducing Austin to artists like Will Eno and Annie Baker, and this tradition continues with latest, a unique little piece following a woman whose suicide attempts are sidetracked by strange goings-on at a nearby quarry. This is only the beginning to the strange, but enthralling, experience that is Greg Pierce’s “The Quarry”, and Ken Webster and company bring this strange piece to vivid wondrous life, thanks in no small part to a bravura lead performance by Hyde Park regular Katherine Catmull.

At times “The Quarry” seems to become a New English Murakami, a kind of Lynchian dreamscape, complete with strange stairs, missing girls, and bizarre town hall meetings, with characters’, and, by play’s end, actors’ personalities bobbing and weaving into each other. It takes a strong hand to keep us from getting lost in these thorny woods, but luckily, we have Ken Webster at the reins, who keeps us clearly on the right path, focusing on character within all the strangeness, helping to let the personality and emotions of the play come to the fore.

The most impressive emotive presence in “The Quarry” is Katherine Catmull, who plays the central character Jean. In many ways, “The Quarry” plays out like a one-woman show, with Catmull carrying most of the play on her able shoulders. She’s an astonishing presence on stage, carrying herself with confidence and character, showing a remarkable number of dimensions throughout. She hits her humor points with splendid timing, while also bringing the necessary pathos to the more sorrowful scenes. Her chemistry with Webster in undeniable, and when the real life couple appears on stage you can’t help but crack a smile.

Judging on versatility alone, Jess Hughes easily takes the day. Already nominated for her work earlier this year in “The Christians”, Hughes here shows her range by playing characters that range from 16 to 30, each of them feeling thought-out and unique. Her vulnerability is remarkable as lost girl, but one can’t ignore her humorous, but impressive, physicality as a hippie neighbor, and the way she’s able to switch back and forth shows she’ a rare breed of actress.

There’s something boldly original about “The Quarry”, which hides strange events and ideas under the surface, while presenting us with characters who could come from our own neighborhoods. It’s reminiscent of the work of Haruki Murakami or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which means that it would take a smart, steady director and cast to make the material connect to the audience. Luckily, the folks at Hyde Park Theatre are up to the task, creating a textured, emotional, and unique theatrical experience, led by a tour-de-force performance from Katherine Catmull. It shows an interesting direction for Hyde Park to take, and one hopes that they continue to keep choosing such unique works to share with Austin audiences.

Sensitive performances take center stage in Hyde Park’s ‘The Night Alive’

Conor McPherson’s plays provide fascinating snapshots from the darkest sides of Ireland, and they burst with life and energy. Hyde Park has been taking these plays and turning them into gold for some time now, and with their latest, they bring out one of the most grounded and honest of these productions, in “The Night Alive”. Following a down-on-his-luck Irishman who takes in a mysterious woman after saving her from an altercation, the action in “The Night Alive” seems to grow forth organically from its fully-formed world, brought to life with intricate detail by scenic designer Mark Pickell, with moments of the pain, frivolity, and intimacy that strike hard against the nerves.

It’s hardly rare to see Ken Webster star in a Hyde Park show, but yet, it’s always a delight to see him appear on stage. He has such a presence, bringing such charisma to each performance, and “The Night Alive” is no different. Webster brings a breezy firmness to the role, akin to a “Apartment”-era Fred McMurray, showing an easy charm and warmth while still hiding something more sinister beneath it all. You don’t doubt the authenticity on display, and he carries his brogue better than many of the others. While his performance may never reach the heights they did in his one-man shows, such as “House” or “Saint Nicholas”, he still provides a fine point for the plot to pivot upon.

Hyde Park has found something special in Jess Hughes, who practically stole Hyde Park’s previous production of “The Christians”, winning a Austin Critics’ Table Award for her efforts. Here, we see more of the remarkable sensitivity that made her so captivating in “The Christians”, supplemented this time with a hardened edge. Her character, the mysterious Aimee, comes on the scene with trouble, and Hughes wears it like a glove. The way she holds the tension in her mouth, the way her eyes are cast, a brief chirp or tremble in her brogue, all veil storm clouds on the horizon, heavy water beating against the levy. Even in scenes where she’s letting loose, as in the refreshingly casual scene in which the cast grooves to classic dance tunes, there’s still something guarded about her, which keeps the audience connected in a very palpable way.

“The Night Alive” is not McPherson’s best work, lacking he poetry of “St. Nicholas” or “Port Authority”, but thanks to nuanced, sensitive, and often quite humorous performances from its cast, it’s buoyed into something truly stirring. McPherson and Hyde Park make an amazing fit, and one can only hope that they continue their relationship for many seasons to come.

Photo Courtesy of Bret Brookshire