Review: Hang asks big probing questions, but provides few answers

Time for another blog-only review, this time of the premiere production from a new Austin-area company, Horizon Line Theatre!

Hang, by debbie tucker green, is an elliptical play that asks its audiences questions as much through what is left unsaid as through what is said. A new mounting of the play, the debut production from Horizon Line Theatre (and playing through October 19th at Ground Floor Theatre), is fortunately anchored in three strong performances that engage and probe the emotions as much as the intellect.

Any discussion of Hang must be somewhat vague, because the play itself is so deliberately vague throughout. It’s three-person cast are not given names (referred to only as One, Two, and Three in the program), and the locale is never made any clearer than some kind of office somewhere in England. A pair of employees in that office—One and Two, played here by Barbara Chisholm and Robert Faires—are meeting with a woman—Three, played by Nadine Mozon—who has come in to make a very difficult decision. Though we finally learn what that decision is, the broader context that surrounds it is never made explicit, but rather only hinted at.

Robert Faires, Nadine Mozon, & Barbara Chisholm (Photo by Cheri Prough DeVol)

Instead of telling a particular, individual story, then, Hang becomes in large part about the bigger forces of bureaucracy and power in our modern world. The power dynamics between the employees and the woman are made exquisitely, painfully clear through what starts as innocuous dialogue and later becomes a true point of anguish for the woman. Though the dialogue leaves issues of race and class as subtext, it is also impossible not to contrast the dowdy casualness of Mozon’s attire with the sharp business dress of Chisholm and Faires, nor to ignore the racial dynamics of two white people trying—and failing—to empathize with a black woman’s sorrow and angst.

As such, Mozon’s charged, weighty performance is at the heart of Hang, since the nuance of her reactions to Chisholm and Faires’ every word is the largest hook into the story’s context. All three actors are at the top of their game, fully recognizing that every moment needs to be as specific as possible in order to fill in the gaps of the story.

Though it raises some very important issues regarding power dynamics, the ability to empathize, and the cost of vengeance, much of Hang feels more like an essay than a narrative, even though the presentation is scrupulously realist (achieved through pitch-perfect scenic and costume design by Michelle Ney and lighting design by Chell Prough DeVol). The play itself is—perhaps deliberately—quite frustrating, with extraordinary amounts of vamping in order to keep the background vague, but it often comes across as just snappy patter for the sake of filling the silence.

Fortunately, director Chuck Ney recognizes the strength of his cast, and allows them to delve into the emotions of the scene even when the context for those emotions isn’t clear. Together, Chisholm, Faires, and especially Mozon are able to mine real pathos from what might otherwise be a solipsistic meditation, compensating for the lack of a narrative arc with a satisfying emotional through-line that buoys the production and allows for some sense of closure in the end.

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Zach’s bloodless ‘Dracula’ is sexy but lacks bite

I’ve just come from the premier of the 50th Anniversary National Tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, which is one of the greatest pieces of live theater I’ve ever seen.

But that review will run tomorrow, and I’ll post it soon after. For now, here’s a review of a less-spectacular production, ZACH Theatre’s new version of Dracula.

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A few STATESMAN Pieces

September and October are always busy times for Austin theater, so here’s a few more recent pieces (with still more to come in the next few weeks):

Theatre en Bloc’s Dance Nation

Theater Q&A: What a teen girl might feel watching ‘Dance Nation’

Hidden Room brings 1600s ‘Duchess of Malfi’ first to Austin, then to London

Zach Theatre’s ‘Jungalbook’ an immersive message of society’s ideals

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September Updates

Hello! In addition to the blog-original reviews I’ve been posting lately, I’m still continuing to write reviews and previews for the Austin American-Statesman. Here’s a roundup of the latest pieces:

(paper chairs’ Plano, courtesy of Dustin Willis)

Theater Q&A: ‘Admissions’ is a story straight from the headlines

New Austin theater company opens with tribute to Toni Morrison

Austin theater: A Texas town is a surreal place to be in ‘Plano’

Theater Q&A: ‘Holmes and Watson’ turns the great detective into the mystery

Review: Touring production of ‘Les Misérables’ is as stirring as ever

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Review: Shrewd Productions’ “Jump” is a Complex Look at Depression and Family

Welcome to another blog-only review, this time of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere of Charly Evon Simpson’s Jump, from Shrewd Productions (playing through September 29th at the Santa Cruz Theater).

Jump is a relatively simple play, taking place in only two locations—a family house within an unnamed big city, and the bridge which can be seen from afar through one of the house’s windows. Riding the line between these two spaces is Fay, a woman dealing with the aftermath of her mother’s death from cancer. The story moves back and forth between Fay cleaning out the family house with her sister Judy and their father, while simultaneously brooding on the bridge.

(Performance photo by Tia Boyd.)

For the majority of the play, Simpson is deliberately elliptical as to the temporal relationship between the two settings. Is Fay on the bridge remembering the house, or in the house remembering the bridge? As the story unfolds, the relationship in time, space, and narrative between both settings becomes much clearer, slowly revealing a complex, heartfelt emotional depth that pays off the weird instances of Deja vu that Fay experiences from the start of the play.

At the heart of this production—and its greatest strength—is the completely natural, unaffected, desperately loving portrayal of Fay by Chelsea Manasseri. A regular player at the Vortex as well as a company member at Shrewd Productions, Manasseri is often cast in experimental or avant-garde works, so it is a treat to see her in a much more realist mode of psychological verisimilitude.

The same is true of Trey Deason (another actor who frequently crosses over between the Vortex and Shrewd) as Hopkins, a depressive whose encounters with Fay on the bridge becomes a lifeline that prevents him from jumping. It is through Hopkins that we initially encounter the play’s larger themes of depression, despair, and their genetic linkage. 

Both Deason and Manasseri evoke different external images of depression, from mopiness to manic energy, in an examination of how what’s beneath the surface of a person is often at odds with what they portray to the rest of the world. This theme is further explored in Fay’s relationships with Judy, portrayed with charm and energy by Allegra Jade Fox, and their dad, a run down, beleaguered Kyron M. Hayes.

Shannon Grounds and her creative team (particularly set designer Indigo Rael and lighting designers Patrick Anthony and Emily Scott) effectively reinforce Simpson’s themes with a design sensibility—driven by a careful color palette—that plays off of the ways that the narrative twists of the story reveal themselves. Of special note is the sound design by Nick Hart, a near-constant bed of cityscape noises that create a sense of place while also highlighting crucial moments by suddenly pulling back to create eerie silence.

The weakness of this production, though, is its very slow pace, one that is almost plodding in the first act. This is a combination of elements that could be tightened up in both the text (several scenes feel repetitive of moments we’ve already viewed and concepts that have already been discussed) and the production (long moments of silence that needn’t stretch on quite as much as they do). What is a two-act play could, with some editing, easily become a much more powerful piece with no intermission that, unfortunately, pulls the audience out of the emotional build-up of the story, creating a second act that is richer in ideas than in feelings.

Jump is a powerful exploration of depression that, in some ways, speaks more to the head than the heart. It is, nevertheless, an important statement about what depression looks like, and with some tightening up it could provide a look into this vital issue with the same kind of depth, emotionally, that its intellectual vigor possesses.

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Review: Alchemy Theatre’ Company’s “The Waverly Gallery” Features a Stunning Central Performance in a Very Emotional Play

Welcome to the second original review to appear on this blog! This time around, I’m looking at the second outing in the premier season of a company that’s new to Austin theater, The Alchemy Theatre Company, and its production of Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery (running through October 5th at the Mastrogeorge Theater).

Though the play itself is twenty years old at this point (it was a finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize), The Waverly Gallery has reentered public consciousness in recent years thanks to a 2018 Broadway revival that featured an all-star cast and garnered a Tony Award for Best Actress for Elaine May. When it comes time for awards season in Austin, the same role may prove bountiful for the beating heart of this production, local treasure Babs George.

The Waverly Gallery is a memory play, focusing on a young man’s reminiscence of his grandmother’s final few years of life as she descends further and further into dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease. Though we see the story through the eyes of the grandson, Daniel (played here with a delightfully dry sense of warmth and growing frustration by Ruben Caballero), it is his grandmother’s story that carries the momentum of the play.

As Gladys Green, Babs George transforms over the course of the play. From the opening scene, when we see a slightly befuddled, but still smart and funny, older woman whose lapses might be due as much to a faulty hearing aid as a faulty memory, through to her final descent into horrified hallucinations and total confusion, George never handles the character than anything less than full love, sympathy, and understanding. She gives us a glimpse into the indomitable lawyer and crusader for progress who Gladys once was, making her current state of decreasing functionality even more deeply tragic.

Lonergan’s text rides the line between a philosophical look at ageing and death, a naturalist presentation of family dynamics, and a deeply felt love letter to those suffering from Alzheimer’s and similar diseases. Ms. George is the most adept performer at carrying the emotional weight of the text, but the rest of the cast are equally at home in recreating the natural nuances of both conversation and heartbreak. Kim Jackson Davis, as Ellen—Gladys’ daughter and Daniel’s mother—is particularly notable for showing how a façade of strength is often a razor-thin mask for explosive turmoil and sadness within.

Director Michael Cooper knows that he’s dealing with heavy material here, and thus never fails to highlight a moment of warmth or humor within the story, while lighting designer Kelsi Bodin creates a brightly lit world that emphasizes the emotional shadows within the characters. The only downside, production-wise, is the frequent and lengthy scene transitions that cut harshly into the narrative momentum, working against the free flow of memories that the text is trying to evoke.

Fortunately, Ms. George’s performance is so bravura that she is able to pull the audience right back into any scene that features her. And therein lies the key to Alchemy Theatre’s production of The Waverly Gallery—an amazing lead performance that is so strong that it more than makes up for any failings.

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An interview with . . . me!

My graduate school alma mater – the Department of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin – just posted an interview with me on the department blog, AMS::ATX.

Check it out and get a bit more information about my book, plus learn my advice to current grad students!

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Review: The Mamalogues

Today I’m excited to start a brand new feature on this blog! Because there’s so much amazing, dynamic theater out there in Austin, and understandably the Austin American-Statesman can only send me to cover so much, I’m going to be doing some occasional theater reviews that are unique to this site!

The first of these is the world premiere of a brand new play by “the play doctor,” Austin’s own Lisa B. Thompson, called The Mamalogues.

Photo by Steve Rogers Photography

Co-produced by Color Arc Productions and The VORTEX (and playing through September 7th at the VORTEX), The Mamalogues is a moving, funny, inspiring exploration of black motherhood in today’s America.

Unlike some of Thompson’s recent work to grace the Austin stage, The Mamalogues is not a straight-forward realist drama, but rather (as the title might suggest) a series of deep dives into varying aspects of motherhood. While some of these are universal (like the physical nature of labor pains), others are specific to single black mothers, such as how to talk to their children about racism or what it’s like developing friendships with white mothers who can never fully understand their experience.

The moral force of the play, then, is aimed in two directions. First, Thompson clearly wants to create a work that sees and is seen by black women, representing their experiences and struggles in a way that we don’t often find in our mainstream art and media. She mines equally the moments of joy, wonder, heartbreak, and sorrow that are a part of being a mother (or even a parent in general), but then ties those specifically into experiences that are unique to black women, finding the universal in both the quotidian and the particular.

In doing so, though, the secondary power of the text shines through, creating a vehicle for non-black audiences to understand just how difficult and worrisome it is to be the parent of a black child in today’s America. After all, as Thompson reminds us, the paranoia that every parent feels about the world wanting to hurt their child is natural; but for black parents, that paranoia is real and justified.

Of course, this message wouldn’t land were it not for powerful performances by the three leading ladies–Yvonne Oaks, Valoneecia Tolbert, and Melody Ann Fullylove. Representing motherhood in three different stages, each woman speaks to the specific experiences of her character while at the same time transforming into a variety of roles as called for by the melange of memory and fantasy. They work remarkably well as an ensemble, with director Rudy Ramirez helping them create a full world on the stage with no more than their bodies and three chairs. Tolbert, especially, excels at tapping into the play’s most heartbreaking moments, and delivering some of its most hilarious witticisms.

The Mamalogues is a vibrant and vital piece of theater that will speak to all audience members, whether they are mothers or not, and serves as a potent reminder–just when we need it the most–that sometimes the most heroic thing we can do as humans is to stand up to a cruel world and protect those around us.

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Late August Updates

It’s been a busy, busy summer in my day job as a copywriter, so I’ve had to go a little light on the reviewing. Fortunately, the summer tends to be a slower time, so I haven’t completely abandoned my duties!

Here’s a quick round-up of my last few reviews and preview stories of Austin theater:

Q&A: Trans and nonbinary lives take center stage in ‘Transom’

Review: ‘Ann’ at Zach Theatre is a moving antidote to political despair

‘American Blood Song’ tells the story of the Donner Party with puppets and song

Summer Stock Austin finds the fun in a not-quite-timeless story

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Reviews/Previews Catch-Up!

It’s been a busy kick-off to the summer, so I’ve once more gotten lax about posting updates.

Better late than never, here’s a complete list of all the reviews (and a few preview interviews!) I’ve written for the Austin American-Statesman since my last post:

Terrence McNally’s ‘Immortal Longings’ dances with beauty and agony

Talking ‘Lady Macbeth and Her Pal, Megan,’ female anger and comedy

On prophetic lines, power of money in Hyde Park Theatre’s ‘Death Tax’

‘Dry Land’ takes on the issue of abortion with nuance and sympathy

GenEnCo’s ‘Black Girl Love’ is about seeing, being seen

‘The Book of Will’ is a charming historical love letter

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