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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Review: “The Vineyard” is an ambitious, if flawed, mix of science fiction and spirituality

I’m particularly excited to present this new blog-only review of The Vineyard, the latest production from the Heartland Theatre Collective. Heartland is a relatively young company—this is only their third production in as many years, following late 2016’s Dust and last year’s Little Bird—but they’ve made a name for themselves creating powerful, nuanced plays that explore the stories and lives of Texas women.

The Vineyard comes from the same creative team and co-producers as the prior two Heartland shows—playwright Nicole Oglesby, director Marian Kansas, and dramaturg Katy Matz—and feels like the continuation of an arc that began with the sometimes brutal realism of Dust and continued into the ghostly magical realism of Little Bird. In The Vineyard, even though Kansas maintains a generally realistic presentation, Oglesby has moved further into the realm of the metaphysical with a story that takes on the dimensions of both science fiction and ethereal spirituality.

The titular vineyard, we learn very soon into the play, is the home to a transhumanist group—that might be a cult—of “bio-hackers” who are altering their bodies and DNA to become something more than human. We discover the group through the eyes of newcomer Joan, played by a very grounded Rosalind Faires, who quickly finds herself enmeshed in the lives (and loves) of the group. The members include Georgia (the very sardonic Brooke Ashley Eden), a cynic who refuses to be experimented on, and the over-eager, PTSD-suffering Leo, portrayed with simple sweetness by Brennan Patrick.

At the heart of the group, though, is the duo of Kevin, the scientist performing all of the experiments, and Susanna, the ultimate realization of the manic pixie dream girl (complete with her own surgically added, possibly functional wings). Whereas Kevin is driven by the science fiction-inspired quest to alter the human body to survive a changing climate via his transhumanist treatments, Susanna burns with a kind of new age spiritualism that leads her to believe she is—or is at least becoming—an actual angel.

The two are perfectly embodied by the angsty nerdiness of Will Gibson Douglas as Kevin, and the whimsy-mixed-with-danger of Khali McDuff-Sykes’ Susanna. The arc that McDuff-Sykes takes, moving from the manic pixie of the play’s early scenes to an increasingly disillusioned, embittered monster of the id, is in fact the standout performance of the play.

The tension at the heart of The Vineyard, then, is not so much the more sensational aspects of body transformation and cult behavior, but rather the conflict between Kevin’s biological perspective and Susanna’s emotional psychology. Though this is a truly ambitious subject, unfortunately the play doesn’t quite pull it off. The science fiction concepts are thrown off a bit too easily, and many of the spiritual questions ignore those ideas when they could probe greater emotional and philosophical quandaries by diving deeper into the strange reality of the play’s world.

The concepts that The Vineyard undertake are ambitious and intriguing, but the play itself does not ultimately explore them in a fully engaging manner, as it relies on high-level philosophical musings rather than the specifics of these particular characters. Nonetheless, it is a thoroughly accomplished production with solid performances that leaves me eager to see what’s next from the Heartland Theatre Collective.

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Review: Capital T Theatre’s It Is Magic is, well, magic

Here’s another blog-only review—It is Magic, the latest offering from Capital T Theatre which, despite initial appearances, is a perfect Halloween treat.

“It Is Magic” (playing through November 24th at Hyde Park Theatre) is the latest work by playwright Mickle Maher to be taken on by director Mark Pickell and Capital T, and it is a strange, fierce, funny ode to the sometimes sinister magic of the theater.

The black box that is Hyde Park Theatre is the perfect setting for “It Is Magic,” which takes place in the basement of a community theater somewhere in middle America. Sisters Deb and Sandy are holding an audition for a new play written by Deb, an “adult interpretation” of the story of the three little pigs, focusing on the character of the wolf. Meanwhile, a production of Macbeth is premiering in the theater upstairs, leading artistic director Ken to come downstairs and pontificate on what he sees as the banality of theater itself.

What begins, then, as a parody of the pretensions and self-aggrandizement of small-scale theater slowly transforms into a comedic, chaotic, surrealist interrogation of the intersection of live performance with both real and imagined magic. The stories of the three little pigs and Macbeth soon converge within the lives of the characters, and director Pickell (along with lighting designer Patrick Anthony and sound designer Lowell Bartholomee) create some convincing bits of theatrical magic of their own that transport us from a bare basement to a place full of wonder and witchcraft.

This description is, of necessity, elliptically vague, as the play very much revolves around a narrative reveal about half-way through the script, at which point the more supernatural side of Mickle’s text becomes clear. Katherine Catmull, as Deb, and Rebecca Robinson, as Sandy, do an excellent job of riding the line between these two halves, equally inhabiting both the satire and the savageness demanded by the script. 

Similarly, Robert Pierson as artistic director Ken smoothly moves between humorous pomposity and controlling rage, while Jill Blackwood’s confused and vaguely menacing presence as a strange woman named Liz is an intense and wickedly fun departure from much of the actress’ more recent, stately work. Finally, John Christopher, as the amiable local actor Tim, rounds out the cast by truly hamming up the stage with a delightful, over-the-top energy that moves from funny to frightening as the play progresses.

“It Is Magic” is a fun, ferocious, and (after a few slow-paced opening scenes) fast-moving ode to the power and potency of theatrical magic, which is as spooky as it is unsparing in its parody of the pretensions of theater that sometimes—just sometimes—are well warranted.

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October Updates

It’s been quite a busy October for me on several levels, so here’s one of my increasingly-frequent catch-up blogs with recent pieces for the Austin American-Statesman and Austin360, including one of the biggest raves I’ve ever written!

Why this ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ is one of the great revivals in musical theater history

Find somewhere that’s green at Austin-area ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ production

Salvage Vanguard’s Three Headed Festival celebrates new ideas, identities

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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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