Street Corner Arts’ ‘Grounded’ is a harrowing journey into the dark corners of the human mind

Over the past few seasons, Street Corner Arts has made a name for themselves with topical and emotionally riveting productions,  winning acclaim and awards in the process. Their latest may be their most on-the-pulse production yet, an examination of the people at the heart of the military industrial complex, and the effects violence and war can have on the human psyche. Featuring a star-making turn from Sarah Danko, George Brant’s Grounded is a powerful journey into an emotional maelstrom, that, while not quite sticking its landing, takes its audience on a devastating trip.

When we first meet Grounded’s main character, she is a hot shot fighter pilot in Iraq, but after a weekend rendezvous with a sweet young man, her life is changed. She soon finds herself a new kind of a pilot, a member of the “chair force”, leaving the gorgeous blue skies behind for the domestic life of a mother, and the endless gray screen of a drone camera. What follows is an emotionally complex downward slide, as we see how constant contact to war and violence can leave permanent wounds on the soul.

Sarah Danko grabs our attention the moment she walks out on stage as The Pilot, all pride and swagger, and  she never lets us go. As the play is told almost entirely through narration, it could become endlessly dull in the wrong hands, and so we’re lucky that Danko tackles the role with confidence and dynamism. In the play’s early stages, one feels like they’ve started up a particularly interesting conversation at a party, and it’s this believability that makes the play’s eventually climax carry so much weight. Grounded takes its main character, and it’s audience, through a cavalcade of emotions, but with Danko’s thoughtful performance, these conflicting emotions never feel overblown or stilted, but instead are handled with subtlety, making the final downfall that inevitably grips out heroine feel honest, and the audience’s emotions earned.

Though Danko does much of the heavy lifting, there’s no denying the impact that the production team has on Grounded‘s effectiveness. Much of the play hinges on the sea of grey into which our protagonist stares for hours on end, and thanks to media designer Lowell Bartholomee and lighting designer Chris Conard, the audience is taken along on this ride, gazing into that gray ourselves. Conard’s clever use of color, along with the bizarre soundscapes created by Paul Feinstein, also helps the audience to get into the pilot’s head space, with subtle changes helping denote location, time of day, and, most importantly, emotional state.

Though the character’s arc is well handled through most the play, the ending, unfortunately, rings hollow. Though it doesn’t tarnish what came before, one can’t help but feel the soft touch that ran through so much of the play was replaced with a pummeling fist, as nuance gets thrown out the window and the play’s themes are spoken to us aloud. It could be seen as the a dour final destination for our heroine, but one can’t help but think it could have been handled in a more insightful way.

After the play, the director Benjamin Summers came on to the stage to invite us to the after party, stating that we didn’t have to go away sad. As I thought on this, I realized it wasn’t sadness that gripped me, but something more akin to a slowly creeping dread. It stayed in the back of my head for quite some time, all through my train ride home, in my evening whiskey, leaving me to wonder as I closed my eyes to sleep: will I be dreaming in gray tonight?

“Grounded” runs 80 minutes, and is playing through April 21st at Hyde Park Theatre. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit streetcornerarts.org.

‘Pocatello’ is a devastating look at small town life in 2010s America

Some of the best pieces of media are those that use specific situations to tell universal truths. Through these stories, you not only see part of yourself in the character, but see your world in the one in which these character’s live. Samuel D. Hunter has created one such world through his latest play, in the small, failing, titular town of Pocatello. Through the struggles of our our sensitive main character to keep his restaurant afloat in a town falling apart at the seams, Hunter gives us a look at the struggles we all face in the crumbling world, and how a little concern and consideration can make life better for everyone.

Throughout the runtime of “Pocatello”, we’re introduced to just under a dozen characters, and in the wrong hands this could become a mess. Indeed, lesser writes have attempted huge casts and failed miserably. Luckily, Hunter is skilled enough writer to balance these characters, and most of them get real moments to shine, no matter how short. We’re reminded just how bad this could go as the play begins, where all of the character’s share the stage and overlapping dialog is constant, but as suddenly as it begins, Hunter slowly zooms in on his characters, taking us from the broad world into the microcosm of Pocatello, and into the lives of these broken characters. True credit should be given to director Benjamin Summers for making this balance work on stage, especially as the audience has been seated at every angle of the action, meaning that the emotional arc of each character much be evidence from four different directions. It helps that the cast is all game, leaving their hearts on the stage as they take their final bows.

Samuel Hunter seems to enjoy exploring how those with sensitivity struggle is the harshness of the modern world. Eddie, the play’s protagonist, is one such sensitive soul, the manager of an Olive Garden in the small town of Pocatello, a reserved, gay man, struggling to make ends meet in this small, conservative town. Estranged from his mother and bother, and still suffering after the death of his father, Eddie lives in a state of extreme loneliness, trying had to make friends wherever he can, and failing at nearly every turn. Be this as it may, the play never makes the character feel too pathetic, thanks in large part to the nuanced performance of Carlo Lorenzo Garcia. Though the sadness and loneliness of the character is always evident from Garcia’s face, there’s often a brightness to his affect or voice that endears him to the audience. Between Hunter’s clever writing and Garcia’s emotive performance, Eddie becomes a kind of Greek hero, working his way through back-breaking feats to reach his goal, which is, in this case, finding some solace or understanding in another human being.

When Amber Quick’s Tammy first appears, swilling wine and berating her daughter, you can be forgiven for thinking you’ve seen this character before. The rude, overbearing, and sarcastic woman has so many traits you’d find in every “bad mom” character in so many forms of media, but as the play goes on, you find that, like so many of the play’s characters, she’s another person who’s been broken by this dying city. One of the first signs of this comes in a heart-wrenching scene early in the play, when, as a fight is going on in the background, we see Tammy falling apart before our eyes, as her fierce facade melts into a canvas of silent weeping. Without a word, Quick is able to tell us everything we need to know, as every pain of the last few decades flashes across of her sullen eyes, and tears stream down her face. It’s a powerful moment, and Quick carries it with indelible aplomb. After that moment, her harsh outbreaks take on a new light, not the rudeness of privilege, but as the lashing out of a wounded cat, the biting of a beast so worn down by the world around her that the only response she has is to hit back with all she has left. Quick’s ability to subtlety capture this internal struggle is a true testament to her skill, and one of the piece’s true highlights.

“Pocatello” is not an easy watch. Hunter has created a broken town full of broken people, where each of the nearly dozen characters has in some way been damaged by their lives in the town. It’s also a reminder how, even in a world falling apart around us (which will feel very familiar to those living in 2017), a little bit of consideration and kindness can make a difference in a person’s life. Street Corner Arts has once again created one of the most emotional productions of the year, and also one of its best, giving us an image of the struggle of living in the world today, through the specific story of one city, one man, and one failing Olive Garden.

Photo Courtesy of Street Corner Arts

‘Bull’ is a powerful, painful, but often humorous, look at modern society

Street Corner Arts has become a company to watch, producing many of the most important plays each year, and with Mike Bartlett’s “Bull”, they continue this in a very impactful way. This dark comedy of workplace politics is one of the most topical, relevant pieces on stages right now, and it’s given a tight, humorous, but heartbreaking production under the firm hand of Benjamin Summers.

“Bull” begins as a dark comedy about three co-workers under pressure, learning that one of them is going to be fired, and all of the zany, awkward situations they find themselves in in the process. How Mike Bartlett is able to slowly parse out information about the characters through these scenes is clever, as with a few small details, we learn some important elements about our three characters. We’re also never sure whether what these characters are saying is true, as there’s a level of distrust among all of them, sowing seeds to a few elements that will become wildly important later.

As the play reaches the end, the play transform into something much darker, and much more important. We’re always so used to stories where the hardworking underdog saves the day and gets one over on his bullies and tormentors, but “Bull” pulls an absolutely devastating, and ingenious move, of subverting that. The good guy loses. The bullies win. As we look back on this, of course, it was a foregone conclusion. Every word, every action, every scene in the play has been showing us, of course, that our romantic notions of underdog glories are just childhood daydreams in the end, and that it’s those unafraid to step on others, to use their looks to get ahead, to utilize every loophole and advantage they have to quash others’ ambitions, are the ones that will get ahead in the world. It’s a sobering theme, and one that hit this critic in a palpable way.

It’s to Suzanne Balling’s and Devin Finn’s credit that they make their characters so amiable, even as they’re doing the most despicable things. During the first part the play, they keep find new ways to humiliate their schlubby coworker, but thanks to a remarkable amount of charisma, it never feels intrinsically cruel, but instead feels like playful ribbing. In the later stages of the play, when the fired co-worker is literally being kicked while he’s down (you were warned, the play gets dark), you still feel a sense of true sympathy coming from Suzanne Balling as Isobel, even though there is obviously a sense of disgust there. The true horror can only come through if we can relate to it, if these people feel real, and thanks to some fine tuning by the actors, many of us will find these people all too recognizable.

Thomas, the sympathetic character at the heart of the play, is the kind hardworking try-hard that keeps getting one-upped by those who are more attractive or more outgoing, and Anders Nerheim has taken this burden on to his shoulders with gusto. Though many of his actions are played for humor, as the play goes on, Nerheim begins to show a sensitive sorrow beneath a hard outer shell, particularly when he begins getting beaten down near the piece’s end. Through his pathos-laden portrayal, we are able to take a deeper look at what seems to be the message that Bartlett is going for in the play: no matter how hard we work, how long we’ve stayed around, how much we care, those that are more attractive, more outgoing, more willing to step on others to get on top are more likely to get ahead.

The best pieces of theatre are tools for beginning a conversation, and “Bull” creates an amazing one. The author shows us several sides of the argument: Thomas is a pushover: badly dressed, high strung, and it’s implied he makes his clients uncomfortable. It’s understandable where he would be the odd man out in a client-facing job; however, his two co-workers are obviously bullies, torturing him to no end, making his life a living Hell. Mike Bartlett doesn’t provide easy answers, and that’s what makes “Bull” such an amazing work, and with the finely tuned performances from the actors, and an obviously firm guiding hand from director Benjamin Summer, this piece blitzes from comedy to tragedy with remarkable accuracy.

Street Corner Arts’ “Bull” is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through April 23rd. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit streetcornerarts.org

Photo Courtesy of Street Corner Arts

‘Skylight’ is an authentic, emotionally raw look at modern relationships

David Hare’s “Skylight” has had its profile raised recently, thanks to an award-winning production on the West End starring Carey Mulligan and Billy Nighy, and the scene is better for it. The wordy, political, and authentic piece tells the story of two former lovers reuniting after a terrible event, and the truths and histories that are dug up in the process. It’s a refreshingly honest look at modern relationships, which was wildly ahead of its time when it was written in 1995. Street Corner Arts has given the piece a riveting production, full of raw, palpable emotion and realistic relationships, with a pair of very charismatic leads.

There’s something almost voyeuristic about “Skylight”. David Hare has created dialog and interactions that feel so real to life, that the audience feels like they’re peeking into the life of two ordinary people. It helps in no small part that the actors here are at the top of their game, giving life to these character with earnestness and charm. There’s rarely a false note in the piece, even though the actors’ British accents at can slip at times.

Joe Penrod is one of the unsung heroes of Austin theatre. Perhaps most well-known for playing character and supporting roles in several productions, here he takes center stage. In the wrong hands, the character of Tom would become difficult to take, but luckily Penrod brings his undeniable charisma to the role. He creates a quick chemistry with Claire Grasso’s Kyra, finding a comfort, while at the same time showing a slight animosity. His movement and posture evidence his statue and standing, while at the same time, show the history between the couple, and his baritone British demands our attention. He projects authority, while still allowing us to sympathize, a difficult balance that he pulls off flawlessly.

“Skylight” is a bit of a marathon for its lead actress, as she never truly leaves the stage throughout, so it’s to the Grasso’s credit that she carries the role with such aplomb. There’s a finesse and naturalism to her performance, a sunny warmth that shines through even as she’s shouting or crying. She’s the girl next door, and the writer was smart enough to write in moments of weakness, cracks in her veneer, so that we can see her as a well-rounded human being. There are moments where we wonder if she, and indeed Tom, are not just a mouthpiece for the author’s political ideals, but these actors are careful to ground the characters so clearly to the real world that these play off more as personal manipulations than political rants.

A well-realized two-hander, “Skylight” is an engaging mixture of love and politics, which, despite its two and a half hour run time, flows naturally and smoothly. Its leads play off each other in perfect step, with each bringing out the best in the other. It’s a play that depends on its dialog more than its action, but with a piece this well-written, featuring performers of this caliber, dialog is really all one needs.

Photo Courtesy of Street Corner Arts

‘Great God Pan’ is a grounded and poignant Texas premier

treet Corner Arts has only been around for a few years now, but they have made an amazing statement in the meantime. They’ve brought in some of Austin’s best actors and gave them challenging, unique scripts, always bringing about some of the year’s best plays. With Amy Herzog’s “The Great God Pan”, they bring Austin the Texas premier of a piece of sensitivity and weight, which brings out something special in each of its skilled actors.

“The Great God Pan” shows what happens when secrets from our pasts come in contact with our current lives. We follow young journalist Jamie, played with affective sensitivity by Devin Finn, who has a charming girlfriend, loving parents, and a new, well-paying job, which all begin to ebb and change when a figure from his past, the meek actor Frank, returns to his life, bringing a startling revelation from their childhood. We watch, almost in real time, the ramifications of these revelations, and its against this emotional backdrop that we find much of the rich tension of the play.

When watching “The Great God Pan”, there’s almost a sense of voyeurism that occurs. The performances are so naturalistic, and the action flows so gracefully, that one feels like they’re sitting in the living rooms of strangers, listening to conversations that we were never meant to hear. Part of this stems from the clear quality of Amy Herzog’s writing, which seems to be pulled straight from the street, and much of it stems from the actors themselves, who carry this text without a hint of over-acting, keeping the action grounded and earthly. It can, at times, be a double-edged sword, as this realistic feel can affect the dramatic effectiveness of certain scenes, but it also helps support a sense of emotive clarity, helping us to relate to the many characters who call this world home.

Addie Alexander perhaps performs best in the realistic style as Jamie’ mom Cath,, letting her lightness and sarcasm play well against the dourness that lives within so much of the play. Her physicality and cadence always feels so incredibly natural that it lights up the stage, especially when she’s joined by Joe Penrod, an actor who bring amazing charisma to his role as Doug. Her emotions never feel tacked on or acted, but instead seem to grow organically from the action around her, making them feel all the more realistic.

Molly Fonseca attacks every role she takes with an incredible intensity, and “Great God Pan” is no different. This isn’t to mean that she’s ever over-emotional, or overwhelming, but that, with whatever role she takes on, she live in it with such passion that you can’t help but be glued to the edge of your chair. As Paige, she plays the role often with an awkward smile, where, even at her happiest, there’s a sadness behind her eyes. Her scenes with Katie Kohler, who brings her unique sensitivity to her short time on stage as bulimic young adult Joelle, show Fonseca going through an intense series of emotions in just a few moments, showing her amazing range and control all at once.

“The Great God Pan’s” realistic nature helps its poignancy hit with more power, and its actors are able to portray this with sensitivity and skill. It’s a small play, full of personal and idealistic complications, but it’s also incredibly powerful, and another shining jewel in Street Corner Arts’ crown.

“The Great God Pan” is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through April 18th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit their website at streetcornerarts.org.

Photo Courtesy of Crystal Vassef

‘Waiting for Lefty’: 16 powerful performers bring life to Odets’ classic

When Clifford Odets wrote “Waiting for Lefty”, what would become one of his most famous works, the world was a very different place, but when we see it today, it’s obvious a few things still hold true. It’s with this belief in mind that director Benjamin Summers, and the fine crew at Street Corner Arts, bring Austin audiences this classic work, along with sixteen actors, a boatload of righteous anger, and a powerful message about the power of the worker. Though the piece runs a lean hour, there are moments that stick with you long after, seeping into your very person.

“Waiting for Lefty” takes us to 1935, in the midst of the depression, where a group of workers, ranging from doctors to cab drivers, are meeting up to discuss whether or not they should strike. Along the way, we’re given glimpses into the lives of several of the people in the meeting, from a surgeon forced out of a job when his clinic is closed down, to a cab driver on the verge of losing his wife and kids when the money doesn’t come. Odets has given a wide spectrum of workers and lifestyles here, and we get a glimpse of just how diverse the problems were in that age, and how any of those problems still exist today.

A cast of 16 can be a beast to wrangle, but it’s amazing not just how well some actors are able to step up to the plate for their individual performances, but how well they work together. Since the play is based around a Labor meeting, the group dynamic is paramount, and throughout the play it feels like a lively ruckus, roaring with energy. Watching the actors react to each other is one of the highlights of the piece, and when all 16 actors take the stage come play’s end, you might just be dumbstruck at the sheer powerful presence on display.

Most Austinites are familiar with Michael Stuart in more quiet, low-key roles, so when he comes out in “Waiting for Lefty”, bolting on to the scene like a bullet from a gun, he’s almost unrecognizable. He carries himself with a bravura and passion that’s such a surprise, showing just how versatile an actor he really is. Even when he’s not taking center stage, he disappears into his character, his disapproving sneer never leaving is face, until it’s replaced by his look of rage and shock in later stages. It’s another page in the impressive catalog of Michael Stuart performances, and one that will stick me for some time.

Though the men hold their own throughout, the woman make a serious statement of their own in “Waiting for Lefty.” Katie Kohler, who comes off a revelatory introductory performance in Hyde Park Theatre’s “Bright New Boise”, gives a nuanced, but emotionally satisfying performance as a woman stuck on the horns of a major ethical dilemma forced to make a touch decision. Molly Fonseca brings her trademark power and gravitas to her small, but memorable performance as the wife of a cab driver forced in a corner by the difficult of the depression.

“Waiting for Lefty” may present the largest number of actors ever to grace an Austin stage, and the fact they perform so admirably is truly a testament to the skill of director Benjamin Summers. Though this may still be the early stages of Street Corner Arts life cycle, one can tell they have a promising road in front of them, and a track record that even some of the larger companies would die for.

“Waiting for Lefty” runs roughly an hour with no intermission, and is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through December 20. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit streetcornerarts.org