I’m excited to present my first blog-exclusive review of a
national touring production, “Come from Away” (playing at Bass
Concert Hall through February 23rd, courtesy of Broadway in Austin
and Texas Performing Arts)!
In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, 38 planes were ordered to land at a mostly abandoned airport in the small Newfoundland town of Gander, instantly doubling the local population. The inspiring story of what happened on the several days those passengers were stuck in Gander has been told in many books and documentaries, but is perhaps most famous these days as the basis for the critically acclaimed musical Come from Away, with book, music, and lyrics written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein.
In order to explore the experiences of thousands of people in
the days following 9/11, Come from Away’s cast of twelve each take on a
variety of roles representing both the citizens of Gander and the stranded
passengers, pilots, and crew. Though the story follows along with several key
characters based on real people—amongst them pilot Beverly, mayor Claude, and flirtatious
strangers Nick and Diane—the cast never stop transitioning into other personas so
as to relate the large scope and scale of events.
Like a plane once it has taken off, Come from Away thus
never loses its momentum from the moment it begins, seamlessly transitioning
between scenes and songs as deftly as the performers transition between
characters. Director Christopher Ashley’ and scenic designer Beowulf Boritt’s
clever use of minimalist staging, defined by a group of chairs and tables on a rotating
platform, successfully relies on simple theatricality to create everything from
a crowded airplane to a scenic hillside.
The show’s songs, rooted in the English/Celtic folk and sea-shanty
sounds of Newfoundland’s own musical traditional, perfectly evoke the tone of
the entire production, which emphasize the sense of community that the
townspeople and “plane people” found in the days after 9/11. Though this might
risk becoming cloying or sentimental, Come From Away elegantly rides the
line of exploring the deep emotions of those days without descending into
anything maudlin, particularly by interrogating the ways in which that feeling
of community inevitably fell apart as the incident receded into the past.
Although originally staged in 2013, this is a show that has
only become more important in the years since it was first produced. At a time
when we are seeing Americans—and much of the rest of the world—at our worst, it
is inspiring to have a reminder of what we can be at our best (or at least of what
Canadians can be at their best) and to see how people of every kind of background
coming together can create a better world than one defined by the walls that we
build between each other.
In addition to being a Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at UT Austin, Thompson is also one of Austin’s most successful and prolific playwrights. Of those creative works, her most famous is probably Single Black Female, which has been produced all across the United States and Canada, with a published script coming out from Samuel French in 2012.
latest production of Single Black Female comes from Austin’s Ground
Floor Theatre (running through February 29th) and shows that the
play still has its finger on the plus of issues that are central to middle
class black women today. Indeed, at the very beginning of the play, the two
protagonists—known only as SBF1 and SBF2—clearly state that their goal is to
represent those middle class black women’s lives, making no pretense to exposing
the entire range of additional issues faced by black women who live beneath the
such, Single Black Female remains breezy and fun for most of the text,
exploring issues of love, friendship, family, sex, and even gynecology from a
witty, sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek perspective. While it doesn’t stray away from
issues of structural racism and classism, its focus is on interpersonal relationships,
exposing how those issues come out in daily microaggressions rather than in the
more dramatic (and frequently deadly) ways that we see far too often on the
more, Thompson doesn’t let the two women—who gradually transition from generic
stand-ins of “types” of middle class black women into fully realized (albeit
nameless) characters—simply be recipients of injustice, but also questions the
way that their success puts them, occasionally, on the problematic side of class
relations. In this production, Michelle Alexander and Valoneecia Tolbert excel
at portraying both sides of these women, mostly coming off as the kind of
chatty best friends that anybody would want to have, but also not shying away
from exploring the characters’ snobbish sides nor, more importantly, the
thoughts of depression and anxiety that are part and parcel of navigating the
world as a single black female.
Matrex Kilgore keeps up a rapid pace to the show, assisted by a utilitarian
scenic and lighting schema by Gary Thornsberry and Sydney Rhiannon Smith,
respectively, along with video projections designed by Lowell Bartholomee. Kilgore
and the design team know that this show is an actress’ vehicle, though, and
keep the bells and whistles to a minimum so as to focus on the extraordinary
job done by the two women as they take on various personas in short, skit-like
scenes throughout the show’s two acts.
Single Black Female does show its age in a few places—as a play written before
2016, it doesn’t discuss the ways in which women of color are at greater risk
of violence and hate crimes today than they have been for years up until now—the
general themes of middle class black women looking for love and fulfillment
still speak potently to today’s audiences. Rather than focusing entirely on the
pain of that struggle, though, Thompson allows the play to embrace the
restorative power of female friendship, creating a hopeful (and riotously funny)
vision of black womanhood that is, indeed, singular.
Welcome back to another blog-exclusive review, this time of The Hidden Room’s new production, Arden of Faversham (playing through March 1st), an anonymous Elizabethan drama from 1592 that just might have been written by Shakespeare.
Burns and her artistic team at The Hidden Room tend to have two modes with
which they approach the classic texts that they produce—explorations of historical
theatrical modes (such as specific gestures and accents), and contemporary
stagings crafted through the lens of a particular era or style. Personally, I
tend to find more excitement in the latter (like last year’s excellent glam
rock presentation of Aphra Behn’s The Rover), and that’s exactly what Arden
of Faversham is.
the moment that a rockabilly-style four-piece band plays “Are You Lonesome
Tonight,” we find ourselves inside of a late 50s/early 60s milieu, mixing mods,
beats, and greasers in a delightfully comedic dark romp. Though the original
playwright likely intended to create a domestic tragedy, dramatizing the
real-life murder of businessman Thomas Arden, Burns has clearly crafted this
production as a layered, ambiguous comedy with a bleakly humorous ending. The
dissonance between the comedy of the performers and the earnestness of the text
creates a delightfully hilarious frisson, and creates as a satire of the mores
and sensibilities of our own modern era.
true ensemble piece without any one central character, Arden of Faversham succeeds
on the strength of a diverse cast who know when to play it straight and when to
mug it up. Rommel Sulit (as Arden), Jill Swanson (as his wife, Alice), and Toby
Minor as Mosby (Alice’s lover) form the love triangle at the heart of the story,
and ground the events of the play—revolving around the attempts by various
parties to murder Arden—with a straightforward sincerity that allows the rest
of the colorful characters to shine, comedically.
scene-stealers throughout, though, are the duo of Jason Newman and Judd Farris
as Black Will and Shakebag, respectively, a pair of villainous ne’er-do-wells
hired to commit the murder. Between Newman’s Fonzie-esque greaser accent (which
never fails to elicit laughs when spitting out pitch-perfect Elizabethan
language) and Farris’ thick, threating Scottish brogue, the two actors take
what might otherwise be distracting side characters and turn them into the highlight
of the production.
of Faversham may be an old, lesser-known text, but The Hidden Room’s
production imbues it with a fierce, fresh comedic sensibility that will speak
to audiences who typically couldn’t care less about Elizabethan drama.
When people talk about the changes that have occurred in Austin over the past few decades, often they lament about the way so much of the city’s art scene has become corporatized and sublimated to the all-encroaching tech industry. What ever happened, they bemoan, to the days of shows staged in a living room or a parking lot?
The Filigree Theatre’s latest production—playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw—is a piece of old Austin-style intimate artistry. Playing through February 9th at the relatively tiny Romy Suskin Photography Studio, The Turn of the Screw is a one-act, two-actor show that takes place mere feet in front of the small audience, cramped together in a row of chairs with the sounds of traffic from South 1st Street providing a constant backing track.
What is most
remarkable is just how much this atmosphere serves the production, rather than
detracting from it. Director Elizabeth V. Newman is clearly aware how unconventional
the performance venue is, and she uses this to heighten the psychologically fraught,
close-to-the-vest ghost story.
famously, James’ The Turn of the Screw remains maddeningly ambiguous as
to whether the ghosts haunting a young governess charged with the care of two children
are real or merely a symbol of her own fraying sanity. Though a fully realized
visualization of such a story would, of necessity, have to choose to physically
represent the “ghosts” or not, Hatcher’s text cleverly relies on just two actors,
leaving several characters—and not just the ghosts—left to the audience’s
this concept and makes it even more ambiguous by staging the entire production
in near-darkness, lit only by candles and lanterns on the stage, with a bit of
help representing the few daylight scenes from a single lighting rig (an
ingenious lighting scheme from designer Alison Lewis). The shadowy actions of
both the governess and the eerie children become literalized by the darkened
stage, yet the emotional nuances of the two talented performers remain strong
thanks to the audience’s closeness to the action.
As the young
governess, Paulina Fricke-Fox smoothly rides the razor-thin line between clarity
of action and elliptical vagueness, crafting a character arc shot through with
fear, rage, wickedness, pride, and desire, all while leaving the ultimate
interpretation of the play’s events up to the viewer. Similarly, as he transitions,
chameleon-like, between a variety of roles—from the children’s uncle, to the
young boy Miles, and even the estate’s housekeeper—James Lindsley creates a consistently
eerie atmosphere that stops just short of providing the audience with easy
answers as to what is real and what is imagined. Both performers excel at
handling Hatcher’s adaptation of James’ often stilted dialogue, creating
semi-surrealist bits of comedy that heighten the uncanny nature of the tale
rather than just directly delivering lines that might otherwise feeling stale
evocative, spooky atmosphere and two dynamite performances, The Filigree Theatre’s
The Turn of the Screw is a wonderful mid-winter ghost story that serves
to remind audiences that theatrical magic can happen even in the strangest of
Here’s this week’s
second blog-only review—Street Corner Arts’ production of The Butcher of
Arts has been making a name for itself in recent years as an energetic company
focusing on witty, complicated texts that put actors front and center. The
company’s latest production, Marisa Wegrzyn’s The Butcher of Baraboo (playing
through December 21st at Hyde Park Theatere), is no different,
except that it may just be the funniest of the lot.
The comedy in The
Butcher of Baraboo, though, is of the blackest sort. What starts out in the
tradition of a working class sitcom—the afghan on the couch is even similar to
the one on Roseanne—quickly turns to talk of drugs, murder, and deep-seated
family resentments. Every time you think Wegrzyn has thrown the wildest plot
twist yet, it gets matched by an ever crazier turn just moments later.
What keeps this
from devolving entirely into parody or horror—a fine line that the text
constantly rides—is the amazing cast that director Carlo Lorenzo Garcia has
assembled and guided. At the heart of the story is the mother and daughter pair
of Valerie, played by Joy Cunningham, and Midge, played by Natalie Garcia. The
two have delightful chemistry together, pulling off both tense, combative
comedy as well as a few, rare scenes of maternal/filial love. Cunningham’s tense
combination of guilelessness and quiet rage plays perfectly off of Garcia’s dry
wit, and both of them pair hilariously with the seemingly more wholesome couple
next door, Donal (Greg Gunther) and Sevenly (Kelsey Mazak).
Although the entire cast is quite good, there is one standout performance that deserves special mention. We’ve long known that Amber Quick is one of Austin’s finest performers, but in this production she proves she is also one of its funniest, in a manic performance as Gail, Valerie’s sister-in-law. What begins as a portrayal of small-town cop in the mode of Marge Gunderson from Fargo quickly goes off the rails into a totally manic breakdown. Gail nevertheless remains sympathetic throughout thanks to Quick’s nuanced performance, and her acute knowledge of when to go over-the-top and when to pull back.
performances and the text are at the heart of The Butcher of Baraboo, Carlo
Lorenzo Garcia and his design team do a superb job creating a space in which those
actors can let loose. His and Zac Thomas’ ultra-realistic set, with a kitchen
and living room bleeding over into the audience, puts viewers inside of Valerie
and Midge’s house, evocatively lit by Alison Marie Lewis. Aaron Flynn’s
costumes, in the meantime, serve as excellent visual shorthand to evoke each
character’s state of mind, melding perfectly with the performances.
The Butcher of
Baraboo is not only one of the funniest shows
currently gracing the Austin stage, it also features one of the strongest ensembles,
creating a pitch-black comedy that plumbs some pretty extreme depths in order
to reveal universal truths about family, hypocrisy, and the many uses of a well-sharpened
I’ve got a
two-fer of blog-original reviews this week! This is the first—She Loves Me
at Austin Playhouse.
into the meat of this review, though, I have a bit of a confession to make: She
Loves Me is my favorite musical.
I know, I know,
it’s a slight romantic comedy that doesn’t hold a candle to true classics of
the stage—nor even to its composers’ more famous work, Fiddler on the Roof—but the heart wants what it wants, and my
Hallmark-Christmas-movie-loving heart wants charm, comedy, and light drama
wrapped up in a warm holiday-themed bow.
Which is exactly what Austin Playhouse’s new production of She Loves Me (playing through December 21st) provides.
With music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and a book by Joe
Masteroff (based on the Hungarian play Parfumerie by Miklós László), She
Loves Me is the story of
a small perfume shop in Budapest and the romantic lives of its various
employees during one Christmas season. In particular, the play follows the love
affair between Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash, two clerks who can’t stand each
other but, unbeknownst to either of them, are secretly falling in love as anonymous
If this story sounds familiar, you may know it from two classic film
adaptations of Parfumerie—1940’s delightful The Shop Around the Corner, with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, and the
lesser-known 1949 Judy Garland film In
the Good Old Summertime. More
recently, it was adapted for the digital era as the 1998 Nora Ephron film You’ve Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
The reason why this simple story has been adapted so many times is
because, quite frankly, it works as a fun piece of romantic comedy. And though
Austin Playhouse’s version of She
Loves Me—directed by
Scott Shipman, with musical direction by Lyn Koenning and choreography by Judy
Thompson-Price—is hilariously funny at times, it succeeds more at the romantic
half of the equation.
The small stakes of She
Loves Me might lead many
people to consider it a small-scale musical, but in actuality the comedic demands
of the text rely on a complex set, a large cast of extras, and pitch-perfect
pacing. The relatively small stage of Austin Playhouse is not well-suited to
that level of busy-ness, so a great deal of the mayhem of the first act feels
messy rather than manic, undercutting a lot of the comedy and subtle relationship-building.
However, when the pace slows down in the second act, and the story
relies more on individual performers rather than complex set pieces, this
production shines. When Shipman is given the room to breathe, and lets his
actors do so as well, the stage oozes with charm and delight.
Joey Banks has razor-sharp comic timing as Georg, making him simultaneously
obnoxious and yet an utterly likable hero for which the audience can root.
Similarly, Sarah Zeringue as Amalia combines a golden voice with an icy veneer
that slowly melts over the course of the play, creating a solid arc to the
growing romance between the pair. The supporting roles in the show are equally
as charming, particularly Marie Fahlgren’s sweetly lustful Ilona, Stephen Mercantel’s
attractively smarmy Kodaly, and Bryce Ray’s puckishly energetic Arpad.
Though uneven in its first half, Austin Playhouse’s She Loves Me ultimately pulls through on the strengths of its
cast, providing all the charm, wit, and whimsy that one could want from a piece
of holiday-themed romantic comedy.
playwrights have made the leap from stage to screen, either adapting their own
works or creating original new stories. Local award-winning writer (and producer/actress)
Christine Hoang aims to be the next artist to make this transition with her new
screenplay, Fly Girl, which will receive a staged reading this
weekend at the Asian American Resource Center, produced by Color Arc
Productions and directed by Jenny Lavery.
I caught up with Hoang in this blog-exclusive interview to learn more about the screenplay, the upcoming reading, and her participation in the Sundance Institute’s Development Track.
Andrew Friedenthal: What is your screenplay, Fly Girl,
in Austin, Texas, our story is centered on protagonist Linh Hoang Williams—a
42-year old, size 12 (or size 14 depending on that week’s carb intake),
Vietnamese American, recently-divorced, single mom. It’s her 42nd birthday
weekend, but Linh’s eight-year old biracial daughter Nini is spending it with
her father (Linh’s ex-husband).
can’t sleep when she learns that her ex-husband has started dating again. To
distract from her feelings of failure, Linh makes a birthday wish: get a hobby.
Her best friend takes her to a Twerkshop (yes, a workshop for twerking) where
Linh impresses the dance instructor, who casts
Linh in a 90s-inspired hip hop dance troupe called the Fly Girls. Linh soon
learns she’s the chubbiest and oldest dancer there—a 42-year old on Facebook in a room of 20-year olds on
Instagram. Imposter Syndrome sets in and she starts to lie. Linh tells them,
“I’m 30, no kids, never married.” She plugs these lies into her dating profile
and meets Isaac, the first Asian guy in her life who tells her, “You’re
beautiful,” instead of, “You’re fat.”
When Linh’s lies start to unravel, her alter ego begins to
crack. She must overcome her inner demons to find out who she really is.
Friedenthal: Is Fly Girl a romantic comedy?
Hoang: I wouldn’t call it a rom-com. Fly Girl is a love
story about the love you give yourself. I’d call it a second coming of age
story that happens when you’ve hit the midpoint of your life.
Friedenthal: What was the inspiration/impetus for writing this
Hoang: A year ago, my daughter asked me, “Mommy, can you write something
that I can be in with you?” One year later, and she is performing alongside me
in my staged reading of Fly Girl on Saturday, November 9th.
I am committed to telling stories where women feel seen, both on
stage and on screen. I especially believe that an Asian American woman (one who
is not glamorously young, beautiful, rich, and thin) can carry that lead story
to portray a whole, fully-realized person who grows into her strength.
Moreover, I am passionate about telling a story set in the American South with
authentic and diverse characters that reflect the unique community of Asian,
Latinx, Black, and LGTBQ voices in an otherwise predominantly white, cis hetero
Fly Girl is a comedy inspired by my true-life story. Much like Fly Girl’s main
character Linh, I am a Vietnamese American Gen X-er who grew up seeing Asian
American women portrayed as peasants or prostitutes in Vietnam war movies. Then
came Carrie Ann Inaba, the Asian Fly Girl in the 90s sketch comedy show In
Living Color by Keenan Ivory Wayans. Carrie Ann was the first
“cool” Asian I ever saw on television. As a teenager in the 90s, I
would tune in every week just to get a glimpse of her dancing on screen. I
wanted to dance just like Carrie Ann, and I would get that chance two decades
later when producer/director Adrienne Dawes and choreographer Carissa McAtee
cast me as a Fly Girl in Heckle Her’s 90’s-inspired sketch comedy show Doper
Than Dope. I was over the moon.
On the first day or rehearsal, however, I looked around and soon
realized I was the chubbiest and only Gen-Xer in
a hip-hop dance troupe of skinny Millennials. But after several rehearsals, I eventually
realized that these young women weren’t my competition; they were my
inspiration. They taught me how to text with both thumbs instead of my pointy
finger, how to listen to Spotify instead of Pandora, and how to Instagram. They
also helped me to get out of my own way, get out of my head, and get after my
I am so grateful that many folks who were on the Doper Than
Dope journey with me are now part of the Fly Girl staged reading.
Leslie Lozano (my fellow Fly Girl from both Doper Than Dope and Doper
Than Dope 2) is the choreographer, sound designer, and an actor/dancer in
our Fly Girl staged reading. Leslie plays the role of Ella. Moreover,
Austin’s powerhouse actor Jesus Valles is playing the role of Linh’s best
friend Ruben. Jesus was a writer in DTD and a writer/actor in DTD 2.
Furthermore, our Fly Girl narrator Deborah Sengupta Stith was in the
audience for DTD and DTD 2.
Friedenthal: Fly Girl has made it to the second round of
the Sundance Development Track for new feature films. How did that come about,
and what does it mean for further development of the screenplay?
My roots are in theatre as a playwright, theatre producer, and
theatre actor. In 2017, my indie film producer friend Andrew Lee and his wife
Brandy came to see me perform in my comedic play People of Color Christmas. He
told me my work should be on the big screen, and encouraged me to submit my
script to Sundance. I only had 48 hours to submit, and because I didn’t have
time to adapt my script into a screenplay, I just submitted the stage play.
Predictably, I was rejected. It wasn’t far enough along in the development
process. But because Sundance’s rejection letter was so nice and thoughtful, I
decided to try for it again this year. To better prepare myself, I enrolled in
Jill Chamberlain’s screenwriting class and 10 weeks later, I wrote my first
draft of Fly Girl, my very first screenplay. Seven drafts later, I am
now doing a staged reading directed by award-winning director Jenny Lavery and
choreographed by my ride-or-die Fly Girl Leslie Lozano.
Friedenthal: What’s the next step for Fly Girl, both at
Sundance and in general?
Hoang: Fly Girl advanced to the Second Round in the 2020 Sundance Development
track for Feature Films. I find out in late December whether I move on to the
In the meantime, I have applied to some grants in an effort to
build resources to make this movie. I’ve also aligned myself with a kick ass
producer and director, both of whom are Asian Americans and Texans.
Friedenthal: What’s the staged reading for Fly Girl going
to look like?
Hoang: I am so excited about this staged reading because of the talent
we’ve assembled to bring this to life. We will not be sitting behind music
stands. Although we will have scripts in our hands, the cast will most
definitely be moving, dancing (maybe even twerking), acting, and performing
under the direction of Jenny Lavery.
I have admired Jenny’s bold directorial work for some time. Based
on her fearless direction in the plays Drowning Girls, Severe Weather
Warning, and Dance Nation, it is undeniable that Jenny knows how to
tell a story where a flawed female character grows into her strength. Jenny
also has phenomenal understanding of body work, movement, and how to get a
writer’s vision on its feet—literally!
prepared to laugh, to cry, to fall in love, to get your heart broken, to
rejoice, and to soar. Fly Girl is a staged reading that you can see with
your tweenagers and your grandparents. And admission is free. Just RSVP at aarcatx.eventbrite.com. See y’all on
Saturday, November 9th at the Asian American Resource Center on Cameron Rd.
Doors open at 7:30pm.