Review: “Come from Away” is a powerful reminder of the best in humanity

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.

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Review: “Single Black Female” is a seriously funny look at black womanhood today

Here’s another blog-exclusive review—the newest production of Single Black Female, by Austin’s own Lisa B. Thompson.

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.

Valoneecia Tolbert & Michelle Alexander (photo by Dave Hawks).

The 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 poverty line.

As 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 nightly news.

What’s 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.

Director 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.

Though 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.

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Review: The Hidden Room’s “Arden of Faversham” shows that bawdy raucousness plays in any era

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.

Beth 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.

From 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.

A 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.

The 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.

Arden 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.

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Review: ‘A Night with Janis Joplin’ is a spectacular concert but a so-so musical

Here’s my latest review for the Austin American-StatesmanZACH Theatre’s “A Night with Janis Joplin.”

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Review: The Filigree Theatre’s The Turn of the Screw is a cozy bit of spookiness

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.

Somewhat 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 imagination.

Newman takes 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 or outdated.

With an 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 locales.

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Review: National Tour of Hello, Dolly!

As the blog post title suggests, here’s my review of the National Tour of Hello, Dolly!

(The title of the review isn’t mine.)

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New year, new update

Heck, new decade even (sort of; we all know it technically doesn’t start until 2021)!

But still the same old delays in updating this blog. Here’s my most recent articles/reviews from throughout December and January (so far):

10 favorite Austin theater moments from 2019

‘Dear Evan Hansen’ in Austin review: This is the vital show you needed as a teen

Based on Cheryl Strayed’s column, ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ is a letter to the heart

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Review: The Butcher of Baraboo is a bloody good time

Here’s this week’s second blog-only review—Street Corner Arts’ production of The Butcher of Baraboo.

Street Corner 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.

Though the 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 cleaver.

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Review: Austin Playhouse’s She Loves Me is a charming romance that shines most when the pace slows

I’ve got a two-fer of blog-original reviews this week! This is the first—She Loves Me at Austin Playhouse.

Before getting 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 pen pals.

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.

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Q&A: Local playwright Christine Hoang hopes to see her screenplay Fly Girl soar

Many 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, about?

Christine Hoang: Set 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).

Linh 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 screenplay?

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 Austin, Texas. 

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 dreams. 

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 final round. 

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! 

Be 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.

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