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For decades, Willy Loman — the titular protagonist from Arthur Miller’s acclaimed play “Death of a Salesman” — has been seen as the American everyman, the average working stiff whose tragic flaw was buying into the false presence of an American Dream that was never truly available to him.
What, though, are we to make of Loman in a world where the anger over the unfulfilled American Dream has radically overturned so many notions and promises of what America could and should be? Austin Playhouse, in a production of “Death of a Salesman” directed by Peter Sheridan (playing through March 12), makes pointed use of that question, even adding on an extra layer by casting the Loman family as African-American.
As Willy Loman, the titular salesman, Austin theater heavyweight Marc Pouhé is at the top of his game. His version of Loman is angrier than some, and certainly more physically imposing. He plays to the contrast between Loman’s obsession with his own hardened masculinity and an increasingly fragmented psyche and softening mental capacity. Playing Willy’s eldest son, Biff, Patrick Gathron provides the perfect foil to this, with a version of Biff that is quick to recognize his own limitations and who longs for something different.
In Gathron’s hands, Biff becomes the character we root for in this production of “Salesman,” while Willy becomes somebody we are frightened of, even as he is enabled by his long-suffering wife, Linda (played with quiet depth by Carla Nickerson), and his glad-handing younger son, Happy (who Sean Christopher imbues with an almost sinister charm).
In his director’s notes, Sheridan explains that, “In making the Lomans an African-American family, the play taps into the struggles of the black community who did not buy into consumerism until much later. But when they did, the result was just as hollow as it had been for their white neighbors.”
The racial dynamics of this production are generally not as played up as they might be, but they work most strongly in the play’s final moments, when Biff and Charley, the Lomans’ white neighbor, argue over whether Willy ever truly knew himself. While Biff thinks Willy was a man who should have spent his life outdoors, working with his hands, Charley insists that Willy was a salesman through and through. In this moment, it’s impossible not to hear the echoes of countless African-American families who have been forced into misery and poverty by attempting to live up to the false expectations of white America.
In 1949, Arthur Miller showed the country that, for many, America was not great. It was, in fact, deadly. Austin Playhouse’s production of “Death of a Salesman” serves as a timely reminder that there is no perfect era to return to, but rather only a generational cycle of anger, resentment and violence that has been killing the American working man (whatever the color of his skin) for two-thirds of a century and which does not yet seem satiated by all that blood.
“Death of a Salesman”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through March 12
Supposedly, while starring in a 1984 production of the Harold Pinter play “Old Times,” Anthony Hopkins asked the playwright what the play’s ending meant. Pinter’s reply? “I don’t know. Just do it.”
This anecdote is a fairly good summation of Pinter’s writing, which is at turns provocative, elliptical, off-putting and confusing. It is also poetic, precise and very, very good, which is part of the reason why Austin Shakespeare’s production of “Old Times” (originally produced in 1971) feels so fresh and contemporary.
The other reason, of course, is the high talents of the team behind this production, beginning with its performers.
The play features three character — married couple, Kate and Deeley, and Kate’s old friend, Anna, who has come to visit them. It very quickly becomes clear that Kate and Anna were more than just friends, and Deeley spars with Anna for his wife’s affections, while at the same time finding himself increasingly attracted to her. The tension between the three characters is emotional, psychological and dangerously erotic, a balancing act that all three performers excel at.
As Deeley, Ben Wolfe’s increasing frustrations with both Anna and his own wife provide the play with its emotional arc. His confusion, anger and fear drive the action forward in a cohesive line, even as the plot and characterizations begin to deliberately crumble into surrealist territory. Jill Blackwood’s Anna is sleek, sexy and poised, a constant straight line standing between the curved, crooked figures of both the set and the married couple.
Nancy Eyermann, as Kate, gives a standout performance, vacillating between placid mutability and steely control, even as Deeley and Anna fight for/over her. The intimacy of the playing space, which is entirely in the round, allows for her subdued style to shine.
Rather than trying to clarify an intentionally vague and poetic plot, director Ann Ciccolella has leaned into the mounting sense of menace that “Old Times” develops as it goes on, particularly by embracing the full-on eeriness of the second act. The set, designed by Patrick W. Anthony, is a simple living room (and later a bedroom) with bare furniture, but one that is deliberately crooked and off-center, with far too much space inside, evoking both the distance between the characters and the existential gulf that the play creeps towards.
Anthony’s lighting, alongside sound design by Lowell Bartholomee, also plays a crucial role in the production, creating both tension and mood. It is, in fact, these design elements that get the final, powerful word, even after the actors have said their last lines. The light and sound fill up some of the famous “Pinter pauses” and imbue them with a power that differentiates them from those pauses merely filled by silence.
Old Times is a forceful and emotional play, even if it is one that lends itself to multiple interpretations, all or none of which may be correct. Austin Shakespeare’s production plays up the text’s most visceral and disturbing elements, making for a powerful evening of theater that may confuse your intellect while still ringing crystal clear to your senses and emotions.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through March 5
At the height of the Harlem Renaissance nearly a century ago, the famed Cotton Club featured some of the era’s best blues and jazz performers. The venue, which featured African-American entertainers, had a whites-only clientele.
Singers, dancers and musicians weren’t allowed to mix with the club’s audience. And their families couldn’t watch loved ones take the stage.
But on Saturday, Austin’s Ballet Afrique imagines a different history inside the 1920s New York City hot spot. What if, despite rising racial tensions at the time, the Cotton Club had, for at least one night, opened its doors to an integrated audience? What if Duke Ellington, one of the venue’s signature artists, had threatened to walk out if it didn’t happen?
“Echoes of Harlem: A Night at the Cotton Club” examines the cultural complexities of the period while taking audiences back in time. To immerse in the swanky club experience of yesteryear, ticket holders will be asked to dress in roaring 1920s attire and no cellphones will be allowed at the show, which will be 8 p.m. Saturday at the Sterling Event Center in Northeast Austin.
We’re bringing the Austin Arts blog up to date by teasing to recent and still relevant arts stories on other American-Statesman and Austin360 pages. This snip was taken from Nancy Flores story on Ballet Afrique.
In 1975, composer Larry Grossman and lyricist Hal Hackady premiered “Snoopy: The Musical,” a sequel to the hit show “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown.” Similarly based on the Charles M. Schulz comic strip “Peanuts,” “Snoopy” (with a book by Warren Lockhart, Arthur Whitelaw and Michael L. Grace) never quite achieved the level of success that “Charlie Brown” did.
After a successful workshop production in 2015, “The World According to Snoopy” will receive its full premiere at Texas State’s Performing Arts Center this week (produced by the Department of Theatre and Dance and running from Feb. 14-19) before moving on to a two-week run in Houston for Theatre Under the Stars. Not only does this provide a great opportunity for the talented young cast of performers, but it also creates a delightful chance for Austin/San Marcos-area families and lovers of musical theater alike to view a lost classic as it strives for a second chance at success.
The most striking aspect of “The World According to Snoopy,” at least at first, is the high-tech and modernist timbre of the set design by Michelle Ney. Fiberglass lightboxes abound, some hanging from a tree and some ported around by the cast to create props and scenery, while projection screens fill up the back wall. Snoopy’s famous doghouse dominates the stage with its own sleek, lightbox siding. This is in immediate and striking contrast to Sally Rath’s costume design, which features cartoonish, oversized dresses and shorts evoking the childlike nature of the source material.
Though a bit jarring at first, these two aspects of the production ultimately do work together nicely, hinting at an important contrast in the text itself between the innocent, childish surface level and the darker emotions hiding beneath many of the punchlines and songs (a tension that was also at the heart of Schulz’s strips). Though definitely family fare, with plenty of broad humor that will play to younger audiences, “The World According to Snoopy” isn’t afraid to flirt with the darker side of human nature as revealed in the depressions and anxieties of its juvenile protagonists.
Those characters are expertly portrayed by the accomplished cast of Texas State students, especially Maggie Bera’s simmering Lucy, Ryne Nardecchia’s lovably arrogant Snoopy and Nick Eibler’s manic, acrobatic Woodstock (with the latter pair teaming up to form a vaudevillian comedic dance duo throughout the course of the show). There isn’t a single weak performance among the entire cast, who allow the show’s complex simplicity to shine through in a way that will speak to kids and adults alike.
Hopkins has assembled a mightily talented team to fulfill her shared vision of “The World According to Snoopy,” and if Texas State’s production is any prediction of the future, the world will soon be singing along with Snoopy once more.
“The World According to Snoopy”
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14-19
Where: Patti Strickel Harrison Theatre, 405 Moon St., San Marcos
This review written by freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal
The current political climate in the United States is tense, perhaps the worst it’s been in recent memory, but Robert Schenkkan’s “The Great Society,” playing through March 5 at Zach Theatre, reminds us that our country’s political history has seen many periods of great regression.
In “The Great Society,” Schenkkan covers a great deal of ground, from LBJ’s re-election in 1964 through his decision not to run for another term — and the subsequent victory of Richard Nixon — in 1968. As a result, the play is quite long and does tend to meander some, veering between a character study of Johnson, a taut political thriller about the confluence of Johnson’s progressive domestic politics and his increasingly hawkish stance on Vietnam, and a look at the split in the civil rights movement between the pacifism of Martin Luther King Jr. and the rise of the more militant Black Power movement.
Not all these threads come together in a satisfying conclusion, but “The Great Society” is less about story structure than about revealing the tragic downfall of LBJ’s policies and the movement from “All the way with LBJ!” to “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” It’s in the dramatic re-creation of these historical and political events where Schenkkan’s writing shines as he crafts potent drama out of the many compromises that LBJ makes and the lies he tells in order to get his policies through, slowly betraying many of his most fervent allies and becoming increasingly paranoid about whom he can trust.
The tension of these moments would be impossible without the tour de force performance given by Vinovich, whose LBJ charms as much as he dismays, drawing as much sympathy and approbation as he does criticism. A large, top-notch ensemble, in an assortment of roles, provides varying degrees of counterbalance to the larger-than-life Southernism of Vinovich’s LBJ.
Of special note here is Cecil Washington Jr., who portrays civil rights icon King with strength, dignity and lyricism while simultaneously portraying a vulnerability that lets us see into the far-from-flawless man at the heart of the icon.
It should come as no surprise that “The Great Society” has particular resonance to contemporary politics, and the final scene (which does feel a bit tacked on) directly tackles this issue, pulling the audience right into current day fears of corruption and autocracy following in the footsteps of a noble attempt at progressivism. This is not an uplifting play, but it is a necessary one, and it is a vital study for all those who wish to learn from the past in order to gain some idea of what we might do in the present.
“The Great Society”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through March 5
This review written by freelance arts critic Luke Quinton
A blue light glowed on a pillar at the center. We were inside the gallery at Canopy, where Line Upon Line Percussion was hosting its February show, part of their ongoing series, blending the music and art worlds. This program featured three newly commissioned pieces.
The crowd circled the room’s perimeter in chairs, while metal cables fell from the ceiling pillar, attached to a rope that draped across to the music stands and percussion instruments below. An arresting visual, and more than a prop, as the ensemble would explain.
“When we play the piece, we are reading off the ropes,” Line Upon Line’s Matt Teodori said.
They had commissioned UK composer Claudia Molitor for a new piece, “and she sent us these” — he paused — “ropes.”
The crowd gave a quick laugh. This is the sort of playfulness people seek out at these shows. Ingeniously, it turned out that the ropes contained information, knots tied into the rope that could be read as music.
“Entangled” was a piece that had as much in common with music as it did with experimental theater. The trio grabbed the ends of the ropes, and that’s when you realized that the ropes weren’t just hanging in a straight line from the ceiling but were draped like a messy spiderweb throughout the music stands, cymbals and vibraphone.
The performers started from the loose end and felt the rope with their hands. They would stop to perform the action indicated by the knots and then move on to the next knot. The lines crossed, hanging over other ropes, making obstacles as the three players walked over and under the strands.
The performance consisted of whispered sentences and short rhythms played on a sort of leafy dried palm (surely there is a name for this instrument, but internet searches for experimental percussion can be rather inscrutable) and tapped prescribed rhythms on their bellies or forearms like bored teenagers.
As they went forward, the trio wrapped the rope around their bodies. Finally, at the end, they reach the pillar and the carabiner holding each strand. On cue, they released.
They whispered phrases like “intangible places of reference” and “ceases to exist” — words, the program notes, that come from George Perec, the late French member of the literary experiments group Oulipo.
As an artistic exercise, “Entangled” was worthwhile, though, as it’s largely silent, it’s also an exercise in audience patience.
“Alchemy Test,” by Central Texas composer Brett Kroening, was more typically musical and a little more satisfying. At its center was an eerie, rapidly punctuated interplay between a vibraphone and glockenspiel. It seemed straightforward, until this meshing was interrupted by loud tom toms that banged in out of left field. It could conjure up the oddball machinery in a chemist’s studio.
More experimental again was “Engraving on Bronze” by Pablo Vergara, which took the idea of engraving seriously. Teodori, in his introduction, linked this piece to the famed cymbal company Zildjian, a company that has made cymbals for 300 years.
The musicians were scribbling madly on these cymbals as if they were paper. It sounded like the act of creation. Like cymbals being born. Smoothing over everything was the occasional booming gong, seeming to symbolize the rough dawn of … something.
A fourth piece came as a surprise, as it wasn’t listed on the program. Turned out it was a preview of a soon-to-be-premiered work at the Brown Symposium, in March, at Southwestern University in Georgetown.
This work was a bit of an odyssey for the listener. The symposium’s theme is “Art and Revolution,” so this work, “Revolve/Retract” by Jason Hoogerhyde, “revolves” around key changes. At times it sounds as though there are three unique players that each sound like they’re tumbling down Alice’s rabbit hole at the same time. It moves from frantic to thoughtful and even has a bit of a humorous intrusion when a comical section brings deadened mallets to play. It all ends in a moment of calm and chill, when a bowed vibraphone returns. If you make your way to Georgetown for this event in March, it will be worth your time.
This isn’t the meat and potatoes show that we are sometimes spoiled by when it comes to percussion music; the big, pulsing works with shifty rhythms and addicting arpeggios. These more experimental concerts are opportunities to push out boundaries, shake off the doldrums and try new things.