Tenderness and brutality war on stage in “Let the Right One In”

Cristian Ortega and Lucy Mangan star in "Let the Right One In." Contributed by Lawrence Peart
Cristian Ortega and Lucy Mangan star in “Let the Right One In.” Contributed by Lawrence Peart

This review written by freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal

The National Theatre of Scotland’s production of “Let The Right One In” (playing through Jan. 29 at the McCullough Theatre at the University of Texas, as part of the Texas Performing Arts Essential Series) packs quite a bit of weight behind a vampire love story. This is no small feat for a Scottish adaptation of a popular Swedish book and movie, now touring the United States.

“Let the Right One In” succeeds in so many different forms because of the headiness and humanity underneath the surface-level horror narrative. Indeed, to call it horror is to do it a disservice, as it is also equal parts romance, Bildungsroman and complex exploration of gender and sexuality. This carefully balanced narrative can be found in the original Swedish novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist as well as the film of the same name written by Lindqvist and directed by Tomas Alfredson. (There’s also an Americanized remake, “Let Me In.”)

RELATED: National Theatre of Scotland brings blood-soaked love story to Austin

In adapting “Let the Right One In” to the stage, playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany emphasize the essential humanity at the core of its two protagonists — shy, bullied 12-year-old Oskar and the ageless vampire Eli, who physically appears to be a young girl of about Oskar’s age. The two form an unlikely pair and soon develop feelings for one another, which are complicated by the people in Oskar’s life (separated, dysfunctional parents and a set of merciless bullies) and the older man, Hakan, who kills for Eli in order to obtain blood for her.

As this might suggest, there are moments of gory violence and a few scares in “Let the Right One In,” from which Tiffany does not shy away. The extreme brutality of both bullies and vampires is staged through equal parts bloody special effects and heavily stylized movement. These moments of dance-like presentation are also used to portray the intimacies of the characters, providing a level of emotional insight that might otherwise be lost in moving from the pages of a novel to the stage. It’s no wonder, with this level of theatrical magic, clever staging and simple solutions to complex visuals that Thorne and Tiffany have gone on to pair with J.K. Rowling in creating “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

Here, as with “Harry Potter,” children are at the heart of the narrative. Cristian Ortega, as Oskar, gets to the core of the boy’s inherent innocence, as well as its slow erosion, with a good dash of both sadness and sweetness. Lucy Mangan, as Eli, is much bolder in her performance, befitting the character, and proves to be deliberately, and delightfully, off-putting in both style and delivery throughout the show. Also of note is Ewan Stewart, as Hakan, whose disturbing love for Eli manages to be endearing at the same time as it is frightening.

In addition to the strong performances, the play boasts a top-notch design team. Composer Ólafur Arnald’s energetic, classical-meets-rock-and-electronic score, along with Gareth Fry’s sound design, create a cinematic scope to the entire production. That sonic-scape is interestingly counterpoised to the bare, minimalist set and costume design of Christine Jones and atmospheric lighting of Chahine Yavroyan.

The overall sparseness of the production allows the moments of special effects (designed by Jeremy Chernick) to shine through all the more, every bit as stunning as they are terrifying. That mixture of awe with terror, of the heart-breaking and the pulse-quickening, is what gives “Let the Right One In” its fierce, unique energy.

This dark, moody, moving meditation about young love, complex sexuality and self-identity, beautifully staged and acted, is not to be missed while it is still in Austin.

“Let the Right One In”

When: 8 p.m. Jan 18-21, 24-28 and 2 p.m. Jan 21-22, 29

Where: McCullough Theatre, 2375 Robert Dedman Drive

Cost: $10-$40

Information: 512-477-6060, texasperformingarts.org

Quiet romanticism of ‘Bloomsday’ charms at Austin Playhouse

Huck Huckaby and Cyndi Williams in "Bloomsday." Contributed by Austin Playhouse
Huck Huckaby and Cyndi Williams in “Bloomsday.” Contributed by Austin Playhouse

This review was written by freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal

Austin playwright Stephen Dietz’s new play “Bloomsday,” receiving its Texas premiere production at Austin Playhouse through Feb. 5, is a lyrical, intriguing drama that belongs to the somewhat unique genre of “time-travel romance.” Some works have used this genre to great success (Audrey Niffenegger’s novel “The Time Traveler’s Wife”) and others to a lesser degree (Richard Curtis’ film “About Time”); “Bloomsday” fortunately falls into the former category.

Despite the time-traveling motif, “Bloomsday” is far from a work of science fiction. Indeed, it is left open to interpretation whether we are witnessing time travel, memory, fantasy or an intermingling of all three; this is, in many ways, the point of the play. Nevertheless, with its interactions between two temporal sets of a single pair of lovers, in both their younger and older incarnations, “Bloomsday” plays with the tropes and traditions of time-travel romance, but it does so in order to tease out the poetry of such encounters rather than the mechanical consequences of plot.

Robbi and Caithleen (or, as they’re known in their older versions, Robert and Cait) are the young couple at the heart of the play, meeting in Dublin, Ireland, on a Bloomsday walking tour that covers the parts of the city traveled by the character Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” The novel itself takes on a large role in the play, with its themes, characters and language recurring throughout and its famous modernist structure mirroring the achronological flow of events in “Bloomsday.”

Claire Grasso and Aaron Johnson in "Bloomsday." Contributed by Austin Playhouse
Claire Grasso and Aaron Johnson in “Bloomsday.” Contributed by Austin Playhouse

Because of this, the exact plot of the play remains ultimately vague, but it revolves around Robert and Cait revisiting their thirty-years-younger selves’ brief moment of romance. Though the specifics of the events (and the revisitation) are somewhat muddled, the emotional resonance is never lost.

Much of that resonance comes not just from a script with beautiful language but also from four performers who have a deft hand at expressing those words. Aaron Johnson and Claire Grasso, as the young Robbie and Caithleen, are pure charm, embodying youthful romance tinged with the fears and anxieties of an unknown, unsteady future. Huck Huckaby and Cyndi Williams are far more reserved and philosophical in their portrayal of the couple’s later days and express the text’s deep melancholy just as the younger actors do its hopefulness.

Director Don Toner and his design crew have wisely gone with a very bare, stripped-down production, with just a few set pieces, props and projections to create Dietz’s (and Joyce’s) Dublin. The minimalist approach allows for the actors to fill the stage with their own emotive strength, a move that best serves the text.

“Bloomsday” is a bittersweet love story awash in a sentiment that is equal parts American and Irish, and Austin Playhouse’s production, with four talented actors at its heart, does that story quiet, poetic justice.

“BLOOMSDAY”

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 5.

Where: Austin Playhouse, 6001 Airport Blvd.

Cost: $14-$36

austinplayhouse.com

‘Hir’ upends conventions of gender and family with dark hilarity

From left, Roxy Becker, Jay Byrd, and Nate Jackson star in "Hir" by Taylor Mac, at the Off Center through Jan. 22.  Contributed by Capital T Theatre
From left, Roxy Becker, Jay Byrd and Nate Jackson star in “Hir.” Contributed by Capital T Theatre

This review was written by freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal

I’m a big fan of the black comedies that seem to be the stock in trade for Austin’s Capital T Theatre company. I leave most of their productions a little out of breath from having laughed so hard, and sometimes from my choked sorrow at their tragic endings. Much of the company’s work in recent years— “Year of the Rooster,” “Trevor” and “Hand to God,” for example — have been big, muscular, athletic character pieces that focus on physicality as much as philosophy.

Capital T’s current production—Taylor Mac’s “Hir,” directed by Delanté G. Keys and playing at the Off Center through Jan. 22 — is something of a departure in this regard. Not that it isn’t funny, nor are the performances anything less than physically demanding, but “Hir” is ultimately a comedy of ideas as much as it is a comedy of characters, where the philosophical and sociopolitical ideologies on stage are as important as the relationships being explored.

“Hir” begins with Isaac, a young man who has been working in the Marines mortuary division in the Middle East, returning home to his family’s run-down, lower middle class suburban house. Far from receiving a hero’s welcome, however, Isaac finds that the entire house and family have been upended in the years that he’s been gone.

His abusive father, Arnold, suffered a debilitating stroke and is now subject to the whims of his mother, Paige, who has liberated herself from his control by treating him like a pet and doing everything around the house the exact opposite as he used to (thus keeping it freezing cold and covered in clutter and mess). Meanwhile, Isaac’s teenage sister, Max, has begun transitioning into a boy who prefers the pronouns “ze” and “hir” instead of “he” and “him.”

“Hir” is a play of identity politics, and the ways in which we, as the audience, identify and sympathize with the various characters is in constant flux throughout the performance. Isaac’s ostensible normality is quickly stripped away as we discover the extent of his post-traumatic stress disorder, while Paige’s overbearing nonconformity gets viewed through the lens of her own anguish. Their struggle with each other — which pulls in Arnold and Max as pawns—becomes the conflict of the play, and its dark heart.

All four performers in “Hir” turn in solid work. Nate Jackson’s Isaac simmers with anger and trauma, while Roxy Becker, as Paige, is deliberately and delightfully off-putting with her abrasive cheerfulness covering up an inner darkness. Dillon Uriegas, as Max, is wonderful at portraying the ambiguities and confusion that plague a transitioning youth (as well as any listless teenager, regardless of gender). Jay Byrd, though, delivers a tour de force performance as Arnold, fully committing to the physical and mental debilitation of the character while still imbuing him with equal parts nobility and monstrosity.

Capped off with the usual top-notch Capital T design and production value, the intellectual script, dark conflicts, layered performances and unflinchingly intimate direction of “Hir” make for a powerful, if far from uplifting, evening of theater.

‘HIR’

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through Jan. 22

Where: The Off Center, 2211 Hidalgo St.

Cost: $20-$30

Information: capitalt.org