Timely (if less cheery than usual) Statesman pieces

I’ve been covering some of the impact of the COVID-19 virus on the local Austin theater scene in a couple of articles for the Austin American-Statesman, which you can access here:

Coronavirus in Austin: Theater company kept older patrons ‘as safe as possible’

‘We are resilient’: What will coronavirus mean for Austin theater?

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My guest spot on the Imaginary Worlds podcast

I absolutely love the Imaginary Worlds podcast, hosted by Eric Molinsky, which takes a deep dive into the nerdiest aspects of popular culture with a lens that is equal parts academic, journalistic, and philosophical. Most importantly, it’s still a lot of fun!

Which is why I was honored when Eric contacted me to ask me to be a guest on his episode on retconning (about which I know a thing or two). Hopefully this can be a nice distraction to enjoy amidst the craziness of the world right now.

Imaginary Worlds Episode 139: Retcon-apalooza

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Review: Shrewd Productions’ “Alabaster” showcases a quartet of Austin’s finest actresses

Another blog-exclusive review for you—the Rolling World Premier of Audrey Cefaly’s Alabaster, playing through March 7th at the Dougherty Arts Center.

The National New Play Network (NNPN) is one of the most important institutions of American theater in the past two decades. Self-described “an alliance of professional theaters that collaborate in innovative ways to develop, produce, and extend the life of new plays,” the NNPN is a vital force helping working playwrights find audiences across the country. Their flagship program to that end is the Rolling World Premiere, which they describe as, “shifting the new play paradigm of the one-and-done premiere to a diversified, traveling, multi-production premiere. The RWP program models a process for developing and producing new plays—one that results in a stronger work overall and the momentum needed for a play to join the repertoire of frequently produced new American works.”

Audrey Cefaly’s Alabaster, the newest RWP to come to Austin courtesy of Shrewd Productions (running through March 7th at the Dougherty Arts Center) is certainly riding high on that momentum. The show has broken the record of the number of cities in which an RWP is produced, with Austin serving as just one of eleven cities in which the play will “premiere” over the next year.

Alabaster centers around two women, June and Alice, the former of whom we immediately learn is terribly physically scarred from some kind of accident. Alice is a photographer who has come to visit June on her Alabama farm, in order to take her picture as part of a larger project to showcase the inner beauty of women with external scars. As the story progresses, though, we learn that the more important scars are the ones inside both women, and Cefaly focuses on the way their deepening relationship helps them to overcome their trauma by sharing it.

Such a setup can’t help but draw certain comparisons with The Bridges of Madison County, and Cefaly directly draws attention to that with the characters themselves commenting on it. Plot-wise, though, this also means that this is not the most original of creations, and much of the story development feels a bit rote. Fortunately, Cefaly’s capacity for witty dialogue and realistic-yet-revelatory monologues, along with a few narrative twists (such as June’s own artistry) and comedic flourishes (a talking goat who comments on the story as it unfurls, and with whom June is able to speak), raises the script above the level of its somewhat clichéd plot.

The secret to the success of Shrewd’s production of Alabaster is the quartet of actresses assembled by director Rudy Ramirez. As the talking goat, Weezy, Jennifer Jennings is sharp, hilarious, and ultimately perhaps the most human character in the show, while Jennie Underwood as Weezy’s dying mother, Bib, wrings true pathos out of what could otherwise be a rather one-note character. Shannon Grounds, as Alice, is a quiet, steady presence full of warmth, showing just enough glimpses into the great trauma in her own past to make her connection with June believable.

However, it is Liz Beckham, as June, who steals the show. Equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, Beckham manages to be both tough-as-nails and extremely fragile at the same time, throwing off jokes as easily as she does desperately dark revelations about the extent of her internal wounds. While all four actresses are excellent, Beckham provides an extraordinary performance that elevates the whole production.

Shrewd Production’s mounting of Alabaster definitely shows why the play has broken the RWP record—it is an accessible story, speaking to universal truths, that just so happens to feature a viciously funny talking goat. Most importantly, though, it provides a vehicle for talented actresses across America to show their full range of talent, just as this cast has done, and speaks to the power of women to help each other overcome trauma in a country that sometimes seem more dedicated than ever to creating that trauma.

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February 2020 Updates

Time for a catch-up! Here’s my most recent theatre pieces for the Austin American-Statesman!

Austin Shakespeare’s ‘Hedda’ is Ibsen for today’s America

Texas premiere of ‘Good Friday’ explores gun violence and #MeToo

UT Austin stages ‘Moonlight’ creator’s ‘unapologetically black’ love story

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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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