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

Shrewd Productions’ ‘As You Like It’ shows new sides of a Shakespeare classic

To see a Shrewd Productions performance is to be ready for a surprise. Throughout the years, they have provided excellent productions of unique modern plays, and now they’re bringing this creative spark to the works of the bard, with their production of “As You Like It”. Not often heralded as one of Shakespeare’s better works, Shrewd Productions, and director Lily Wolff, have given it a life and spark rarely found in productions of the bard, utilizing bold techniques to elevate the play to new levels. The directors’ choices add surprising twists and turns to this classic story of a pair of exiled nobles finding love in the forests of Arden, creating one of the most original productions of Shakespeare in some time.

One element that may shock audiences early on is also one of the works’ greatest methods of success: completely blind casting. Women play men, men play women, and actors of all ages and ethnicities play roles independent of their station. What this does is allow the actors to give new dimensions to the characters, to add a certain spark of femininity or masculinity to a role that was once more typical, creating new dynamics between characters in the process. As one of play’s biggest problem is it’s plethora of characters, helping to show us these characters in new ways, taking the play in very different directions.

This casting creates great opportunities for their actors. Indeed, Jacques has never been better than in the hands of Molly Fonseca, who brings out a sensitivity in him that few versions reach. We find the sadness of his history in her stance, the way she looks at characters, in the way she speaks to others. In particular, the cynicism she brings beats so wonderfully against the gentle romanticism that Kriston Woodreaux brings to Orlando, turning gender norms on their heads.

Speaking of gender norms, no one plays with them more successfully than Julie Moore as Touchstone. Slick, sly, and constantly hilarious, her interactions with the other folks in the play are a highlight, especially once David Boss appears as Audrey. The moments between Moore’s Touchstone and Boss’s Audrey play on female-male interactions with remarkable wit, with her forceful masculinity playing against Boss’s comedic femininity to create some of the piece’s funniest moments.

With all the gender-defying theatrics, the most delightful relationship is the one between Robin Grace Thompson’s Celia and Shannon Grounds’ Rosalind. There’s a playful spark between the two, with Thompson’s sunny disposition and adorableness linking perfectly with Grounds’ more grounded charisma. Indeed, the two exhibit some of the best chemistry I’ve seen in ages, and with the sad look Thompson wears anytime Orlando, the object of Rosalind’s true affection, is mentioned, one can’t help but think that the director wanted to see these two together. It adds an entirely new element to a play that so many know backwards and forwards, and creates a classic romance that’s told as much through intonation and cadence as the text itself.

Shrewd’s production of “As You Like It” is pure addictive entertainment. Like “Hamilton” or “Firefly”, it’s composed of such a fresh collection of light, frothy, and seductive elements that, even as the play ends, you know you want to start the whole thing over again. With bold casting choices, great directorial decisions, and a cast of a lifetime, they’ve breathed sparkling new life into one of Shakespeare’s most staid plays, as well as creating one of the most entertaining theatrical experiences this critic’s had in years.

“As You Like It” is playing at the Trinity Street Theatre at First Austin Baptist Church through March 6. For more information, please visit Shrewd Productions’ website at shrewdproductions.com

Hidden Room gives us a new look at a Shakespeare staple in Tate’s ‘Lear’

“King Lear” is one of Shakespeare’s most well-known tragedies, but during the Restoration, it had fallen out of fashion, so writer Nahum Tate took the piece and turned it into something audiences would find more palatable. Along the way, he eliminates characters, combines parts, and even gives the piece a happy ending, creating what would be considered heresy to many in today’s society. Though popular for several decades, today Tate’s “Lear” is very rarely performed, but Austin audiences are in luck, as Hidden Room has chosen this classic piece for their next production. Bringing a talented cast and fantastic designers, Hidden Room takes a piece that many have written off over the years, and gives it life and color.

Starting from the ground up, Beth Burns has compiled a talented group of professionals to bring the world of Tate’s “Lear” to life. To truly give audiences the feel of Restoration theatre, Karim Cooper, from The Globe Theatre, has been brought in to implement Restoration gesture to the proceedings, as taught by Jennifer Rose Davis here in Austin. Though at first a tad jarring, the gesture and physicality soon add to the drama, and help to truly transport audiences to a different time, and to help make physical the high drama of the priece. Also helping to transport audiences are the gorgeous costumes designed by Jenny McNee and Jennifer Rose Davis. Extravagant and grandiose, the flowing gowns and robes are impeccably designed, showing a sense of regality and aristocracy that helps gives a better understanding of the characters on stage.

The cast is also giving it their all here, as, from the smallest of parts, to the main performers, there doesn’t seem a person out of place. Of particular note is Ryan Crowder as Lear who, despite lacking the usual age to play the part, balances both the gravitas and madness of the character with aplomb. Crowder never lets the exaggerated gesture or speech become an excuse to go over-the-top, but instead keeps the character grounded, even as he’s roaring in madness. He’s joined in madness by Judd Farris as Edgar, who truly commits to his lunacy, crawling and yowling, making us believe his every emotion. His transformation from nobleman to madman is believable, even if the piece drives us to this point without much explanation.

One thing the piece does is wrench some surprising amount of humor from the piece, and much of this comes from the role of Edmund. Whether through the writing of the piece itself, or from Nathan Jerkins’ performance, the character’s devious monologues come off as darkly humorous, especially in the early stages of the piece. Though this does soften the character’s fangs at times, it creates almost a humanizing element, helping us, if not sympathize with the character, then at least enjoy our time with him.

The standout here, though, outside of Crowder’s performance, is Julia Lorenz-Olson. In a play full of giant characters, madness, and roaring storms, we find Lorenz-Olson, who brings a touching sensitivity to the role. It’s a refreshing depth of a feeling, and injection of subtle and lovely emotion, among so much darkness and sorrow. It’s all underlined by McNee and Rose Davis’s gorgeous costume design, who create stunning dresses for her to wear throughout, only highlighting the internal, and external, beauty the actress brings to the role.

While doing a production of a piece as reviled as Nahum Tate’s “The History of King Lear”, it can be too easy to play it off as a joke, but what’s remarkable is Hidden Room’s conviction to creating the best production they can. This version of “Lear” is lighter, more fun, and often more exciting than its Shakespearean counterpart, even if the ending can’t help but leave a sour taste in one’s mouth. It’s impeccably produced and researched, expertly acted, and driven with unique precision by director Beth Burns, and continues Hidden Room’s tradition of producing some of the best work in Austin.

Photo Courtesy of Kimberly Mead

Ballet Austin’s ‘Hamlet’ is a dark, surreal wonder

Ballet, by its very nature, is dramatic. It’s pure emotion given form through movement, light, and music. This makes “Hamlet”, perhaps the most dramatic of Shakespeare’s plays, a perfect choice for a ballet, as Stephen Mills has proven through his world-renowned production. Ballet Austin’s “Hamlet” is a dark, sumptuous journey through Shakespeare’s tale, bending and at times breaking the original narrative to create moments of intriguing texture and fiery emotion.

A certain knowledge of “Hamlet” is in many ways essential for true enjoyment of this ballet. The action is loose, symbolic, and esoteric, straying from the path of the original play in places, so a general grounding on the actual story is paramount to following the narrative. There’s still plenty of dark wonder on display here for those who aren’t “Hamlet” experts, but those with knowledge of the bard’s piece will have a much better appreciation for the performance.

Any performance of this play hinges upon the strength of the actor playing “Hamlet”. Indeed, many performances have been led astray due to the performance not having the right charisma or presence to take on the lead character. Luckily, dancer Frank Shott is more than up to the task, bringing a boldness and flair to the role, as well as some of the best technical skill in the piece. He has amazing chemistry with most of the other performers, in particular Ashley Lynn Sherman, with whom he creates a bevvy of beautiful moments.

One performer who truly captures the surreal qualities of Stephen’s direction and choreography is Ashley Lynn Sherman, who takes the role of Ophelia to bold levels. The scene of her death is one of the most shocking, disturbing, and awe-inspiring moments of the ballet, and perhaps of the season. Mills and Sherman take those symbols that so signify Ophelia (water, flowers), and magnify them to stunning extremes, creating a darkly beautiful display that ends in the body of our lead actress hovering over the rest of the cast, cast in the beautiful flair of light, courtesy of the inspired lighting design of Tony Tucci. It’s the highlight of the piece, and the fact that it’s presented after a curtain fall makes it all the more surprising and powerful.

Ballet Austin continues to be one of the most adventurous and unique companies in town, thanks in no small part to the dark genius of Stephen Mills. Gorgeous and dreamlike, Ballet Austin’s “Hamlet” is a thrilling journey through Shakespeare’s story, given frenzied, fractured treatment that heightens the emotion, even as it shortens and intensifies the narrative. It’s one of the most original takes on Shakespeare’s play, and a stunning example of what Austin’s ballet community has to offer.

Photo Courtesy of Anne Marie Bloodgood

‘Romeo and Juliet’: A Romantic and thrilling performance of the Gounod Classic

Romeo and Juliet is one of the most enduring love stories in the English language, to the point where you’d be hard-pressed to find a man on the street who hasn’t heard of the play, but few sources tell the story of star-crossed lovers quite as grandly or beautifully as Goudon in his French-language opera. Given a polished and glowing presentation by Austin Opera, Romeo and Juliet is a grandiose, gallant, and beautifully staged telling of Shakespeare’s most well-known tale

The opera opens with a surprising bit of action, which will be the first of many intervening styles and tones throughout the piece. There are moments for guffaws, tears, and gasps as the play unfolds, and the show never loses sight of its emotional heart. Indeed, every decision made it towards bringing out the most emotion from each scene, and the clear, soaring voices of all the actors involve help to truly create a sonic landscape that sweeps the audience away.

One of the delightful characteristics of Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” is that it gives Juliet some time to shine, and here our Juliet gleams brightly thanks to the performance by Joyce El-Khoury. El-Khourny plays the role as a kind of celebration of the joys of youth, full of awkwardness and innocence, but also bursting with youthful exuberance, giving her scenes a vibrancy and honesty that make them true highlights, in particular her joyful song after the grad fete in Act I.

We mustn’t forget the large role played by Stephen Costello’s Romeo, whose brave and dashing rendition is tempered nicely with moments of real pathos. With its extended final scenes, this opera can become a drag in the wrong hands, but Costello’s Romeo keeps the scenes moving well thanks to his very rich voice and sensitive performance. His chemistry with El-Khoury is undeniable, as the couple bring real light to several scenes, in particular the play’s famous balcony scene, where it’s hard not to fall in love with the couple yourself.

Romance and Daring are on fine display in this rendition of Gounod’s famous opera, with skilled actors bringing real chemistry to the main roles, and the supporting cast doing their part to keep the action fun and thrilling. All this is underscored wonderfully by the orchestra, led with a deft hand by long-time conductor Richard Buckley. It’s the perfect play for getting you into the romantic spirit, just in time for Valentine’s Day, and the perfect treat for a young couple in love.

Austin Opera’s production of Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” runs roughly 3 hours, and is playing through February 1st, 2015 at the Long Center. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please visit Austin Opera’s website at austinopera.org

Photo Courtesy of Lynn Lane Photography