“Neva” is a fine farce with a powerful message

One of the greatest wonders of theatre is being surprised. When I first heard of “Neva”, the story of a group of actors, including Chekhov’s widow, rehearsing against the background of the Russian Revolution, I expected something polished, staid. Instead, Theatre en Bloc’s production is full of power and humor in equal measure, drawing us in with comedy and charm, before grabbing us with its potent final message. It’s a fiercely political play, drawing on the fury and fervor of early 20th Century Russia to show us something about the times in which we now live.

“Neva” opens at a theatre in St. Petersburg, right in the heart of a rebellion. As the people  outside their doors are being gunned down, a trio of actors go about their lives of narcissistic worry, going through rehearsal for their production of the the Cherry Orchard. Among their number is the widow of Anton Chekhov, Olga Knipper, who been unable to act well since the death of her husband, and who’s insecurity is on full display. She has her fellow actors act out her husband’s death ad nauseum, a love letter to her own ego. Joining her is a forceful aristocrat with a commanding presence, and an ever put-on commoner who’s the butt of most of the jokes in the play, but who dreams of joining her people outside and burning down the proletariat.

Though Liz Beckham has shown her dramatic chops in previous productions, she surprises here by showing amazing comedic timing. From her twitchy stance to her expressive face, she brings out the laughs with most of her lines. Her physicality is mannered and controlled, with every movement being performed in service of the character and the comedy, and she sells her combination of narcissism and awkwardness with skill. Her discomfort is joined in equal but opposite measure by Kriston Woodreaux’s imposing confidence. He uses his booming baritone and athletic physique to create an overpowering figure, whose charm is matched only by his bravado.

When Lori Navarret first comes on stage, she seems like the meekest of the performers. She brings comedic moments with the rest of them, but it’s not until the final moments of the play that she really gets to shine. The last minutes of the play are taken up entirely by a scathing monologue, reciting entirely by Navarette’s character, putting a lot of pressure on her shoulders. Luckily, she has just the power to carry these last moments of righteous anger, her fury filling the stadium. She never feel preachy, forming the clay of her monologue into intriguing shapes to keeps the audience’s attention. It transports us away from the simple forty-seat black box, on to the blood-stained streets of revolution.

Despite what certain political figures may think, it is the job of successful theatre to not only entertain, but to enrich, to leave its audience changed by the final applause. With “Neva”, Theatre en Bloc has created a work that is not only riotously funny, but also turns a mirror to its audience, making them rethink their place in the world. It’s a delicate balance to hit, but the company pulls it off incredibly well, thanks in no small part by the rounded, determined performances of its cast. It’s a moving and hilarious work, and with the current political climate, its message is more important than ever.

“Neva” runs through March 5th at Santa Cruz Center for Culture. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please visit theatreenbloc.com.

‘Bright Half Life’ is an intimate, heartfelt look at modern love

Imagine a theatre production. Now, remove the stage: the proscenium, the elevation, everything. Take away the costumes, the sets, the large cast. Now, finally, take away the theatre itself, until all that’s left is two actresses, and an audience. It’s here we find a kind of truth in intimacy, and it’s here that we begin with “Bright Half Life”, the latest production from Theatre en Bloc, the fractured story of one relationship told over the course of an all-too-short hour. During that time, however, we get a huge panoramic view of these people’s lives, starting from the first days of the relationship, all the way to these two women’s final days.

As the play begins, a handful of audience members sit in a tiny horse shed in the side yard of the Vortex theatre. Quarters are tight, the room at most 10 feet by 10 feet, with the audience seated along the walls, our two actresses sitting on the far side. As the play goes forward, these two actress use every inch of the space to show us, without sets, costumes, or make up changes, the lives of these two characters, a pair of lesbian lovers named Vicky and Erica. In the wrong hands, this entire exercise could be disastrous, but luckily, these two are charming and courageous, carrying out their fractured narrative with assured confidence, under the talented hand of director Jenny Lavery.

Writer Tanya Barfield has attempted in “Bright Half Life” to show us an entire relationship in the course of a but a blink of time. To do this, she fractures its narrative, placing the events of their lives in a non-linear order. This allows difference aspects of characters to unfold in intriguing ways, as time itself peels away at the characters’ layers, letting us, by the end, get an unflinching look at each aching pain and softness that the characters have to offer. These people may be strangers at the beginning of the story, but by the play’s end, the audience feels an intimacy with these characters that they wouldn’t have with their best friends.

Of course, our actresses certain help to tighten this relationship. The play depends entirely on the chemistry and Krysta Gonazales and Marina DeYoe-Pedraza, and luckily the two fit together like perfect molds. They give off a warmth and a charm that helps one relate to them early, and as we begin to see some of the darker sides of each of these characters, the two keep things grounded, never taking us out of the action. Sitting in such close proximity to the actresses tightens the bond, showing that director Jenny Lavery was smart in her staging, knowing that if the audience is forced to face the action head on, in close quarters, that its themes will resonate that much more palpably.

As spaces diminish for artistic expression in Austin, Theatre en Bloc proves that you need neither a big budget nor a huge space to produce true art, showing that an emotionally satisfying experience can be found, even in a room hardly bigger than the average bathroom. As long as we have companies like Theatre en Bloc blazing a trail in utilizing atypical spaces, there is hope that this community can survive its lack of space.

“Bright Half Life” runs through April 9th at Vortex Theatre. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit theatreenbloc.org.

Photo Courtesy of Theatre en Bloc

‘Jacob’s Ladder’ is a powerful historical look at the war at home

On today’s stage, the historical play is somewhat of a rare beast, especially in a town like Austin, where the modern pieces tend to reign. Writers David Mixner and Dennis Bailey look to buck this trend with “Jacob’s Ladder” a journey into the heart of World War II, where we meet a group of people touched hugely by the war in different, but nonetheless important, ways. Derek Kolluri takes this clever little script and gives it a lush, period-perfect production, thanks in part to his wonderful production team, who help to take us back the days of the 1940s, where big band and paranoia ruled in equal measure.

“Jacob’s Ladder” drops us right in the heart of the World War II White House, as we follow newly-hired Oval Office aid Jacob, as he comes to terms with being Jewish in a time where his people were being burned alive in Europe. His struggles to keep his composure and do his job while his people go through so much turmoil half a world away creating a fascinating tension, and Zach Kleinsmith plays him as a fine window character for our audience, injecting a nice sense of everyman empathy into the role that makes his plight that much more harrowing.

One of the the real stars of the show here is Johanna Whitmore as Patsy, a brassy, sarcastic she-devil, whose quips and snark make for some of the best moments of the piece. She walks on to the stage like the magical lovechild of Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis, playing off her cast like an old hand. Since she slings the sarcasm with such ease, when her emotional moments come to call, they hit with that much more power, her tears creating a crack in our very hearts. It’s a star turn by Whitmore, which should prove a great stepping stone for the rest of her career.

Also turning in amazing work is Jay Fraley as the stern and sturdy military man Welles. Always the taciturn stoneface, it’s a delight to see Fraley’s interactions with Whitemore, as their tete-a-tetes play like the most intriguing matches of tennis. Welles is a character of principles, and there is never a moment, despite his bluster, that we doubt his authenticity. He makes an excellent foil to the glad-handing Morganthau, played with classy charisma by Tom Byrne, as his fierce determination to keep his principles balances well with Byrne’s secretive nature.

Most of the plays in Theatre En Bloc’s canon try to touch on something importat, and “Jacob’s Ladder” is no different. Taking us into a world that now seems to foreign to us, we are thrust headfirst into the life of a persecuted people fighting a fierce battle for their rights, something that will ring true as much to people in today’s culture as did in the 1940s. It’s more than just its message however, as the writers package their play with plenty of laughs as well as a pathos, giving its audience a good time while sending them home with plenty to think about, and Derek Kolluri and company are able to keep this balance well.

“Jacob’s Ladder” is playing though April 19th at the Boyd Vance Theatre at the George Washington Carver Museum. For more information, visit Theatre En Bloc’s website at theatreenbloc.org

Photo Courtesy of Theatre en Bloc

Exhilirating acting takes center stage in Theatre en Bloc’s ‘Cock’

Jenny Lavery and Derek Kolluri are two of the most fresh and original talents in Austin theatre. Throughout the years, they have continued to pull off startlingly original works, and though they haven’t always hit the highest mark, they have all always been definitively theirs. With their latest production, a thrilling four-hander with the provocative title of “Cock”, they’ve created their greatest work, a fiercely-paced and tightly directed tale of a man with the daunting task of having to choose between his haughty, charming boyfriend, and his new, bright girlfriend.

Playing the everyman can be trying. Playing the dashing charmer or the bright-eyed ingenue is bound to grab attention, but sometimes it can be hard for the man in the middle to steal the show. Zac Carr takes on this task with a natural rhythm, tackling his fear of loss and his struggle to choose between his two loves with a earnestness that touches your heart. We’re never left to wonder why this duo would find him attractive, as he is never short of engaging, but at the same time he feels like a character who walked in right off the street. His chemistry is undeniable with all of the cast, especially in one of the erotically charged scenes I’ve seen on stage this year, between himself and Jenny Lavery’s “Woman”.

Ryan Hamilton has always shown good skills as an actor, but in “Cock” he takes those skills to a new level. Besides being endlessly charming and distractingly handsome here, he seems be channeling a young Tom Hardy as he strikes us with an acerbic but enthralling performance. He’s constantly cutting and almost overbearingly pretentious, but at the same time there’s something irresistible about him. That our lead is so taken by him is hardly surprising, as Hamilton, as well as the play’s writer, Mike Bartlett, and director Derek Kolluri has crafted a charming beast that we simply can’t help but love.

Though all of the actors perform quite well on their own, the real sparks fly when they all have the chance to come together. In the last third, the play becomes an explosive war of emotions, with scenes practically knocking the audience out of their chairs with pure intensity of the proceedings. The small stage becomes a battlefield, with each actor pushing themselves to the absolutely limit, while never straying too far into over-the-top territory. Each piece of wordplay or banter, each sly look steals our attention, keeping us rapt throughout. It’s only when we reach the end, and find our hero lying on the floor, tears forming in his eyes, that we have time to catch our breaths, looking down in awe at what we’ve just seen.

It seems with every play Theatre En Bloc has been elevating their work, but it will be hard to top the absolutely brilliant performances, intricate directing, and sharp script of “Cock”. By keeping things simple, and letting the acting take center stage, the company has created what could be their calling card in years to come, and we only hope that their next work is able to live up to the atmospheric level that “Cock” was able to reach.