‘The Afterparty’ is a dark, whimsical journey to a celestial dreamscape

The moment one steps into the Vortex Repertory Theatre, one knows they’re in for a magical evening. Most of the plays performed under its roof explode with life and originality, full of big ideas, and the talent to make those dreams a reality. The latest production calling the Vortex home is the newest from Shrewd Productions, one of the most unique voices in Austin theatre, a company with the habit of presenting offbeat theatrical wonders that you won’t find anywhere else. Written by the hyper-talented Reina Hardy, “The Afterparty” is as difficult to describe as it is mesmerizing to watch. Following a young woman named Claire over her thousands of years of existence, we see her first loves, both human and celestial, as well as her journey into the very heavens themselves, where she meets a cavalcade of historical figures and realizes just how important humanity can be. It’s the kind of high concept creation that could only come when minds like Hardy, Shrewds, and the Vortex come together, and it’s one unforgettable experience.

What does it sound like to talk to a star? What does it look like to see all the knowledge in the universe? These are just a few of the questions that the accomplished production team of “The Afterparty”, led by director Liz Fisher, were tasked with answering, and it’s a testament to their talents that such answers culminate in a true audio-visual feast. Patrick Anthony’s lighting design not only creates a haunting dreamscape, but also helps keep us captivated with quick light changes and flashes that almost hypnotize the audience, thanks in no small part to one of the hardest working strobe lights in town. Backing this all is music and sound design created by Nick Hart, whose eerie score sends pulses through the audience members’ bodies, creating the perfect soundscape for this dark, yet whimsical adventure. One can’t forget the work of Monica Pasut on costumes, who proves that costumes don’t need elaborate complexity to impress, as with a few clever fabric choices and a creative design sense she’s crafted outfits that not only look impressive, but help give unique personality to each of the play’s inhabitants. In the center of it all is one of the best designed props I’ve seen, a glowing book that captures the imagination as soon as it opens, that’s simply built but smartly used.

“The Afterparty” finds Claire in several moments throughout her life, so it is essential that she is performed by a dynamic actor. Claire is a creature of both youthful exuberance and a poet’s soulfulness, of strong resolve and sudden vulnerability. Shannon Grounds has proven herself to be a top-tier actress in the past, but “The Afterparty” may be her best performance in years, as she shows off impressive range while still maintaining genuineness, serving as an earnest anchor even as insanity swirls around her. Claire is a character forced to choose between the ethereal beauty of the cosmos and her own humanity, and its the grounded realness that Grounds brings to the role that truly makes the character, and the play, sing.

“The Afterparty” is the kind of play that only the Reina Hardy could create. Bursting with creativity, but wildly intelligent, its filled with magic and the music of the spheres. In the hands of Liz Fisher and the Shrewd Production crew, the experience becomes something otherworldly, a waking dream, a fleeting phantasmagoria that you won’t want to end. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience the like of which you’re not likely to find again, so make sure you grab a seat, before it’s too late.

“The Afterparty” is playing at Vortex Repertory Theatre through June 30th. For more information, and to purchase tickets,visit shrewdproductions.com

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

‘Emma When You Need Her’: An enrapturous romp through the life of Emma Goldman

There are some plays where, the moment you step into the theatre, there’s an enthralling energy that grabs you immediately. When you first walk into the Vortex Theatre for “Emma When You Need Her”, and you’re literally greeted by the cast, dancing to eighties music, the audience writing their hopes for the future on the wall, you know you’re in for something special. Director Rudy Ramirez, along with the rest of the cast, has come together to create a celebration of the life of famous anarchist protestor Emma Goldman, based mostly on her memoir “Living My Life”, while also pulling from other writers of the time to give a briskly-paced, post-modern look at one of the most troubling periods in US, and World, history.

We first meet Emma Goldman as she is arriving in Russia, during a quite tumultuous period, where anarchists and protestors are being sent to the gulag. From here, we flash back to several different, pivotal parts of her life, during which we see the many sides to this complex figure. We see her from her first arrival in New York, through her time in prison, through her many world tours, and during this time we see her grow and change into the infamous figure we recognize today. This is never a dull experience, thanks to Ramirez keeping the action constantly moving. Even during the many speeches that populate the piece, we see the story presented in a fast-paced, riveting way that keeps us rapt. The proceedings are underlined with a bevy of dance tunes, mostly pulling from the eighties and nineties, shaking the audience and keeping them on their toes. Even as the play ends, the dance party doesn’t end, as the cast invites the audience themselves to join in.

Emma Goldman is presented in many different ways throughout the play, and as such is portrayed by several different actresses (and one actor). The Emma we see here is not just the stalwart defender of rights, but also a woman, with her own desires and needs. We follow her through her several loves and lusts, and see how they shape the way she lives, and even protests. She’s never shown as the perfect paragon, either, as we see several moments of weakness, as her methods, and her very ideals, are allowed to be tested, and there are moments we don’t see her win.

All of the performers bring something special to their performances as Emma, whether it be her youthful innocence, her fiery protesting, or her righteous anger, but the most paramount and important of these performances is Shannon Grounds, who plays Emma during her time in Russia. It’s here that we see each of the sides of Emma we’re shown in her past, her joyful brightness, her furious anger, her dejection in the face of injustice, and Grounds carries it all with remarkable skill. In the past, Grounds has also shown a high degree of versatility, and here she puts these chops to the test and comes out with a strong performance.

“Emma When You Need Her” is a piece bursting with energy and fire, a piece of dynamite and dance, celebrating the life of this history-making revolutionary, while always reminding us of the harsh things she went through, and the hard times our nation, and the world, were facing. It’s also a ringing reminder of how far we have yet to go, especially in its clever “Speech” scenes, in which the cast members pull from their pocket actual messages from everyday people, and it’s startling how far we are from a truly free society. It’s one of the most powerful pieces I’ve seen in some time, and one that I cannot recommend enough.

“Emma When You Need Her” is playing at the Vortex Theatre through May 16th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit the Vortex Repertory website at vortexrep.org

Photo Courtesy of Shrewd Productions