See another powerful work from ‘Moonlight’ writer on stage in ‘The Brothers Size’

Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney should be a familiar name to Austin audiences, between winning last year’s Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for “Moonlight” (based on his play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”) and a moving production of his play “In the Red and Brown Water” by the University of Texas Department of Theatre and Dance last October. The latter is the first part of a triptych of related works, called “The Brother/Sister Plays,” and now Capital T Theatre brings us the second, “The Brothers Size.”

“The Brothers Size” follows up on the lives of two supporting characters from “In the Red and Brown Water,” Ogun and Elegba, while introducing us to Ogun’s brother Oshoosi. The play stands completely on its own, though audiences familiar with the first play will see connections between the story and themes of both works. The story follows Oshoosi shortly after his release from prison as he struggles to live a life on the straight-and-narrow under Ogun’s hardworking influence. At the same time, he yearns for a more carefree life with his former prison friend Elegba.

Capital T Theatre is usually known for its productions of incisive, and sometimes savage, black comedies, which makes this lyrical, dream-filled family drama something of a departure for the company. Jason Phelps, who usually appears on stage in Capital T productions, helms this show as director, bringing a unique, poetic sensibility that contrasts nicely with artistic director Mark Pickell’s more gritty, earthbound style. This change of pace perfectly suits the text and makes for a strong production that serves to better diversify the range of voices heard on Austin’s stages.

The three men at the heart of “The Brothers Size” each have emotionally and physically demanding roles to play — portraying varying shades of masculine identity and expressing the unique and trying demands of brotherhood, in all its mutable forms. As Ogun Size, John Christopher portrays a gentle giant whose outbursts of anger at his brother barely disguise the deep, heartfelt love underneath the surface. Sean Christopher, as Oshoosi, is dreamy and indeterminate, without ever crossing the line into becoming insufferable. The chemistry that the two men have as brothers is palpable, and the scenes they share together crackle with electricity as they move from anger to joy to sorrow. The always reliable Delanté Keys, as Elegba, is the perfect foil to Ogun and siren song to Oshoosi, providing the crucible that brings to life the brothers’ relationship.

McCraney’s poetic style in “The Brother/Sister Plays” is unique, and “The Brothers Size” is no exception. The actors state their stage directions (sometimes conspiratorially to the audience), and scenes often dissolve into dreams or chants. It can be difficult at first to fall into the play’s rhythm, but the deliberate pacing and lack of an intermission allow the words and the actors to slowly weave their hypnotic spell on the audience.

As assistant director and dramaturge, Crystal Bird Caviel explains in the program notes, “McCraney has revealed that he is intentionally trying to create a drum-like cadence and rhythm in the speech of the actors using beats, pivots, and inflection to create the unique poetic dialogue of ‘The Brothers Size.’” Phelps, Caviel and their powerful cast quite effectively capture this rhythm on the stage, making McCraney’s evocative work into a timely and potent piece of theatrical magic.

“THE BROTHERS SIZE”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Nov. 18
Where: Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd St.
Cost: $20-$30
Information: capitalt.org

Six reasons to attend this weekend’s International Quilt Festival in Houston

Think quilts are boring?

“Million to One” and “Samuelsaurus Rex” by Susan Carlson, on display at the 2016 Houston Quilt Festival. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

Think again, arts lovers.

Unless you’ve attended a show like this weekend’s Houston International Quilt Festival, you probably haven’t seen what modern day quilt makers can do with fabric and thread.

This weekend, hundreds of the most amazing quilts you’ve ever seen will be on display at Houston’s quilt show, one of the largest gatherings of its kind in the world. I attended for the first time last year and was blown away by the pieces on display. We met quilters from all over the world who were creating some seriously jaw-dropping pieces of art.

“Crocodylus Smylus” by Susan Carlson was one of the biggest hits at last year’s Houston Quilt Festival. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

Just in case you need an excuse to head to Houston this weekend for the festival, here are six of them:

1) Quilts are amazing. No really. Quilts. Are. Amazing. If you think you have a notion of what a quilt is, this show will redefine whatever that definition is.

“Lone Star Explores Space” by Peter Hayward  Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

2) Quilts are modern art. Modern and contemporary quilts were what hooked me on quilts in the first place, and although this is a show that encompasses many different quilting styles, you’ll find plenty of pieces that belong in the Houston Museum of Fine Art.

“Polychromatic Predilection” by Judy Coates Perez will be on display at this year’s Houston Quilt Festival. Contributed by the Houston Quilt Festival.

3) Quilts are old. For as long as America has been a country, Americans have been sewing together scrapes of fabric to make quilts. Quilt historians will tell you that you can learn a lot about the country through these pieces of folk art, and the Houston quilt show always has a historical exhibit. This year, one of them is called “Quilts 1650-1850: From ‘Broderie’ to ‘Broderie Perse’.” Last year, we saw giant quilts from the 1800s that made you wonder how people sewed such large pieces by hand.

“I Am the Face of Rescue” by Michelle Jackson Contributed by the Houston Quilt Festival.

4) Quilts are activism. Every quilt show I’ve ever been to has at least one shocker. I’ve seen quilts that say “(Expletive) cancer” and another that was an American flag made out of guns. This year, the Houston Quilt Festival will feature Jeanne Hewell-Chambers’ THE 70,273 PROJECT, which refers to the number of disabled people killed by the Nazi regime.

’Murica” by Kristin La Flamme. This quilt stood out at last year’s Houston Quilt Festival. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

5) Support Houston after Harvey. Even with the Astros in the World Series, it’s been a tough year for Houston, but that won’t stop thousands of people from around the world from attending this quilt show and spending money in a city that could use the bump in tourism.

Hillary Bas made this quilt that will be on display at the 2017 Houston Quilt Festival. Contributed by the Houston Quilt Festival.

6) Find other fabric arts nerds. Maybe you like to knit or crochet or sew baby clothes. Maybe you’re into batik or tie dye. The market area of the Houston Quilt Festival abounds with fabric and craft vendors, as well as people who specialize in vintage fabrics and quilts, and it’s fun to stroll through the aisles to find the new ways that people are making cool stuff from fabric and thread.

Can’t make it to Houston this weekend? The folks who put on the quilt show also run the Texas Quilt Museum in La Grange, which is open year round. They rotate the quilts on display several times a year, and every time I’ve been, I find quilts so stunning them stop me in my tracks.

“Twelve Dozen” by Timna Tarr was a highlight of last year’s Houston Quilt Festival. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman
“The Pearl Hunter” by Elizabeth Budd was featured at the 2016 Houston Quilt Festival. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

 

 

Today’s hires, fires, gifts and honors in Austin arts

We lied. This post reports on no firings. You can relax.

Yet “hires, fires, gifts and honors” sounds like a good catch-all headline. We might use it again.

Zilker Theatre Productions makes two key hires

The group that has staged the Zilker Summer Musical for 60 years has taken on J. Robert “Jimmy” Moore as artistic director. Moore, remembered recently for “Buyer and Cellar” at Zach Theatre, will work alongside Executive Director Kate Hix, already in place. Also, one of those beloved behind-the-scenes heroes, Shannon Richey, has been drafted as director of production. Moore and Richey are trusted veterans who will undoubtedly bolster this free and singularly Austin tradition. No word on next summer’s selection.

J. Robert Moore is now artistic director for Zilker Theatre Productions. Contributed

RELATED: Moore joins the Brotherhood of Barbra.

Austin Opera elects new board chairman

Arts benefactors Gail and Jeff Kodosky. Contributed by Becky Delgado

Austin Opera‘s board of trustees has designated Jeff Kodosky, founder of National Instruments and inveterate arts lovers, as its next chairman. He takes over the position from Elisabeth Waltz, who has served as chairwoman 2016. Kodosky has been with the board and the company through thick and thin since 1996. I’m sure this quiet, smiling man could tell some tales about the group that almost went away at least twice, but also has triumphed repeatedly. Next up is “Carmen’ in November.

Huston-Tillotson is now an all-Steinway school. Contributed

Huston-Tillotson is now an all-Steinway school

Following a gift of $800,000, Huston-Tillotson University will become the only institution of higher learning in Central Texas, the fourth historically black college or university in the country, and the 196th college or university to join the All-Steinway School club. University officials will unveil the Steinway pianos during their Charter Day Convocation 10 a.m. Oct. 27, 2017 in the King-Seabrook Chapel on the campus at 900 Chicon Street. In addition, Steinway artist Marcus Roberts and the Marcus Roberts Trio will headline a special concert.

Tracy Bonfitto is the Ransom Center’s new curator of art. Contributed by Pete Smith

Ransom Center selects new curator of art

Austinites generally think of the Ransom Center as a literary treasure trove with out-of this-world strengths in modern literature, movies, performing arts and photography. And, oh yes, the Watergate papers. Yet is also houses, preserves and exhibits a lot of excellent visual art, too. Over the summer, Tracy Bonfitto was named curator of art. She comes with sterling credentials from Getty Research Institute, the Fowler Museum at UCLA and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She’s also a University of Texas grad.

I’m sure she will meld partnerships with the other distinguished and closely related cultural spots in that area of Austin, including the Blanton Museum of Art, LBJ Presidential Library, Briscoe Center for American History and Bullock Texas State History Museum as well as UT’s highly regarded Landmarks public arts program and its Visual Arts Center. Maybe the new Ellsworth Kelly house will help point the way visually and viscerally for more of a interrelated cultural campus.

‘Woman in Black’ offers classic scares for Halloween

“Woman in Black” has quite a pedigree behind it. Stephen Mallatratt’s play, based on the 1983 Gothic horror novella of the same name by writer Susan Hill, has been playing in London since 1987, making it the second longest-running play in West End (London’s version of Broadway) history (only beaten by “The Mousetrap”).

Penfold Theatre is getting spooky for its Halloween season production, the hair-raising ghost story “Woman in Black.”

This Halloween, Penfold Theatre, 7 Towers Theatre and the Austin Scottish Rite Theater have joined forces to bring the spooky story to local audiences.

In Hill’s original novella, the story of “The Woman in Black” is structured around the reminiscences of a London solicitor named Arthur Kipps, who faced both supernatural horror and devastating personal loss as a young man when he was assigned to handle the estate of a reclusive woman in the small town of Crythin Gifford. Mallatratt’s play cleverly creates a theatrical framework around this story by having Kipps enlist the help of an unnamed actor in order to portray on stage the events of his haunted experience. The actor ends up playing Kipps, while the real Kipps assumes every other role. In the process, both men come to discover that sometimes the past doesn’t stay hidden and that stories can be dangerous to both the teller and the listener.

The Scottish Rite Theatre is the perfect venue for this spine-tingler as it allows director Emily Rankin and scenic designer Christopher Conard to play with a cavernously large stage that has an eerie, “Inferno”-sequel mural looming in the background. Lighting designer Patrick Anthony makes fantastic use of this space and manages to create a variety of scenic changes and dramatic effects through lighting alone (something incredibly important for a play that relies on shadows and light as an integral part of the story).

RELATED: The Vortex’s bloody “Vampyress” is an adults-only Halloween treat

Stephen Price as Kipps and Kareem Bader as the actor are both solid in their roles, convincingly shifting between multiple character layers throughout the tale’s meta-theatrical unweaving. Bader is particularly good at creating a compelling aura of unease that helps boost the play’s uncanny atmosphere.

“Woman in Black” has had such a successful run in London for a reason: It is a classic piece of entertaining, imaginative theater that has the ability to enthrall audiences when it is at its most potent. Despite a very slow start, the Penfold/7 Towers/Scottish Rite production builds up to that atmosphere, thanks to Price’s and Bader’s performances, Anthony’s innovative lighting and Rankin’s creative staging conceits. It’s not the flashiest or most cutting-edge of shows, but it effectively tells Mallatratt’s and Hill’s eerie story, a perfect fit for the Halloween season.

“WOMAN IN BLACK”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 29, with no performance Oct. 21 and additional performance Oct. 30
Where: Scottish Rite Theater, 207 W. 18th St.
Cost: $18-$25
Information: penfoldtheatre.org

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Catching a bit of culture on the University of Texas jumbotron

The jumbotron at Darrell K. Royal Texas Memorial Stadium. Contributed by Wikipedia

The 2017 Longhorns football team seems to be the real deal. Its three losses were close and two of those were against highly ranked teams. The next home game is Oct. 21 against Oklahoma State University. At times at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, all eyes will be on the jumbotron, which will run three Roy Spence-inspired promos for three top cultural attractions on the University of Texas campus.

Using UT’s patented “What Starts Here Changes the World” slogan, the short videos tout the wonders of the Blanton Museum of Art, Harry Ransom Center, and LBJ Presidential Library.

“UT is renowned for its academics, athletics and vibrant pace of life,” Spence, cofounder of GSD&M creative agency, says. “We also wanted to shine a light on the rich culture that makes UT so extraordinary: its arts and their historical positive impact on society. Within walking distance to the football stadium, UT’s cultural and history-making treasures are a special part of the campus and its legacy. This was an opportunity to showcase those in a big way to both students on campus and nationally to our football fans.”

In addition to running on the jumbotron prompts, the Longhorn Network will air the ads. I hope the creators in coming years expand the program to include the Briscoe Center for American HistoryTexas Performing ArtsBenson Latin American Collection and other UT easily accessible to the general public.

Classical guitarist Matthew Hinsley named Texas Citizen of the Year

Earlier this month in Galveston, Matthew Hinsley, executive director of the Austin Classical Guitar, accepted the Texas Citizen of the Year Award from the National Association of Social Workers. Later that week at the AISD Performing Arts Center, Hinsley gave a brief pre-concert talk about what makes his nonprofit a nationwide model for arts-based community service.

Matthew Hinsley, executive director of Austin Classical Guitar, has been named Texas Citizen of the Year. Contributed by Austin Classical Guitar

We asked him to share his thoughts about the intersection of music and activities that many usually ascribe to the domain of social workers.

RELATED: Austin Classical Guitar honors the plight of refugees.

“In music school, in the most wonderful ways, I was taught to refine my musicianship,” Hinsley says. “Most everything at my core today — my work ethic, my sense of authenticity, my appreciation for individual strengths and weaknesses, my tenacity — has its roots in my relationship to guitar and the mentors who shaped me.”

His journey as a public servant through music began 21 years ago in Austin.

“In some ways — the obvious ones — that service grew directly out of my training,” Hinsley says. In other ways — perhaps less obvious — work in service stretched me from the very beginning and has never stopped. Because the myth for many young artists is that if you just get good enough at what you do, the world will come to you and watch you do it. But that notion is rooted in fallacy — because it is rooted in a model of the universe with oneself at the center. And that is not how the universe works.”

He believes that, as a public servant, he most constantly look at his community and ask who is being served and how can they be served better?

“It demands flexibility in every aspect,” he says. “It has led us to realizations that music can heal and engage so many people in such profound ways — but not perhaps the ways we thought we knew. So if it’s developing classroom-based systems for guitar education, or a Braille-adapted curriculum for students at Texas School for the Blind & Visually Impaired, or the Lullaby Project at Travis County Jail, or musical puppet shows for kids in Austin Public Library branches — we live and flourish in this irony that while the world may not revolve around that which we have, it most certainly can interact in beautiful and mysterious ways with that which we can be.”

So an award from the National Association of Social Workers makes some special sense.

“It represents a vote of confidence that we have at least begun to leverage the great art we are so fortunate to have roots in, toward something that is reaching diverse people in unexpected ways,” Hinsley says. “What excites me most, is that each day when something new happens, we are made aware of just how many more opportunities for meaningful connection there are yet to explore.”

 

Zach Theatre’s ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ has snazzy special effects but somewhat soggy story

Since its release in 1952, the film “Singin’ in the Rain” has gradually gained cultural prestige as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) movie musicals of all time. Its mid-1980s adaptation to the Broadway stage is slightly less heralded but is also perhaps one of the most obvious and effortless translations of a film into a stage musical. Zach Theatre’s new production of the musical is a fun and frolicsome, if somewhat bland, presentation of the classic story.

Contributed by Kirk Tuck

That story follows the silent film-era screen couple Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont as they face the many challenges of transitioning to the talkies, including Lina’s one-sided love for Don, Don’s desire to be taken more seriously as an actor, and Lina’s painfully pitched voice. Into this mix comes Kathy Selden, a young ingénue whom Don quickly falls for and who dubs in for Lina’s voice, invoking the vengeful starlet’s wrath.

The stage version of “Singin’ in the Rain” skews so closely to the original movie that its book is wholly credited to the original screenwriters, Betty Camden and Adolph Green, and its songs to the film’s composer Nacio Herb Brown and lyricist Arthur Freed. Several scenes that were cut from the final film have been added back in to pad the show for time.

RELATED: Bring on the tap dancing for ‘Singin’ in the Rain’

The problem with this is that “Singin’ in the Rain” works so perfectly on film that it can only lose strength in translation. The 103-minute movie, when stretched into a two-act musical, becomes less compactly charming, and the show has a significantly hard time living up to the iconic screen performances of Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor.

Sasha Hutchings and Luke Hawkins star in “Singin’ in the Rain” at Zach Theatre. Contributed by Kirk Tuck

Zach’s production suffers from these unfortunate pitfalls, though not from lack of effort or talent. Luke Hawkins is perfectly charming as Don, and Sasha Hutchings is effervescent as Kathy, but together they don’t quite have the chemistry to make their passion for one another fully believable. Hawkins’ duets with Blake Spellacy, as Don’s best friend and former vaudeville partner Cosmo Brown, have much greater vibrancy.

Fortunately, each of the three leads has their moments to shine. Hutchings’ voice is as gorgeous as her charm is infectious, while Spellacy’s comedic magnetism steals every scene he’s in (and impressively allows him to get big laughs out of jokes that are over a half-century old). Keri Safran, as Lamont, also has some moments of great humor, though she is hobbled by the rather one-note joke of her grating voice. Hawkins, meanwhile, is a prodigiously talented tap dancer, and his performance of the title song is the highlight of the show.

Director Abe Reybold and his design and technical teams create stage magic by making it not only rain on stage but pour down enough to create puddles that choreographer Dominique Kelley has Hawkins play with, in and around. In taking a uniquely filmic moment and translating it to the stage, the team puts together a show-stopping number that closes the first act with a bang (or, as it were, a splash). The complete drying of the stage during intermission is a testament to stage manager Catherine Ann Tucker, assistant stage managers Megan Barrett and Megan Smith, and the rest of the hard-working stage crew.

However, the rest of “Singin’ in the Rain” ends up feeling rather muted compared to this spectacular number. The remainder of the show lacks in excitement even as it remains high in charm and spirit. Though a 65-year-old script holds up well as a classic movie, when translated to the present-day musical stage, it becomes a bit of a drip.

“Singin’ in the Rain”
When: 7:30 Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 29
Where: 202 S. Lamar Blvd.
Cost: $30-$150
Information: 512-476-0541, zachtheatre.org

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Here’s how you can get a great deal to see ‘Rent’ in Austin

Broadway hit “Rent” is coming to Bass Concert Hall for a short run Oct. 13-15, and you can score a great ticket for not a lot of dough. Seats in the first two rows of the orchestra section of every performance will be available for $25.

Contributed by Carol Rosegg, 2016

Now, you do have to work a bit to get that deal: Tickets can only be purchased in-person on the day of performance, two hours before each show, at the Bass  ticket office, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive. These sales are cash only, and there’s a limit of two tickets per person. Performances are 8 p.m. Oct. 13-14, 2 p.m. Oct. 14 and 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Oct. 15.

According to Broadway in Austin: “The tradition of $25 tickets began in 1996 in New York when the show moved to Broadway after a sold-out run in a small downtown theater. The producers of the show are committed to continuing the tradition of offering orchestra seats for $25 in each city the show will play.”

Freelance arts critic Andrew Friedenthal talked with national tour director Evan Ensign about the show for Austin360; here’s a little peek:

Long before people were lining up around the block in hopes of getting a ticket to “Hamilton,” a very different kind of show was praised for reinvigorating Broadway with its appeal to younger, more diverse audiences — Jonathan Larson’s “Rent.”

Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Bohème,” “Rent” tells the story of a group of 20-something New Yorkers living in Manhattan’s Alphabet City neighborhood while dealing with the hassles of adult responsibilities and the deadly specter of the then-rampant AIDS disease. The show was a massive critical and commercial success in its original run, winning multiple Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize (issued posthumously to writer and composer Larson, who died the night before the show’s off-Broadway premiere), and it became one of the first Broadway shows to feature an affordable lottery system for sold-out performances.

With such a distinguished pedigree, you would think that Evan Ensign, the director of the show’s new national tour, might feel some pressure to live up to audience expectations. Ensign, though, is confident in the strength of the material. “I don’t feel that much pressure because I think the show stands up for itself,” he says.

You can read the full interview at mystatesman.com.

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The Vortex’s bloody ‘Vampyress’ is an adults-only Halloween treat

According to Guinness World Records, the most prodigious female serial killer of all time was Countess Erzsebet Bathori, who lived in Hungary in the 15th and 16th centuries, where she is said to have tortured and murdered hundreds of young women. The dark, bloody story of Bathori is hardly fodder for light musical comedy, but it is the inspiration for a different kind of stage musical — writer and composer Chad Salvata’s “Vampyress.”

Melissa Vogt and Hayley Armstrong star in “Vampyress” at the Vortex Theatre. Contributed by Kimberley Mead

Co-produced by Ethos and the Vortex Theater, “Vampyress” is a gothic opera tinged with chords of modern and electronic music that brings an element of dark magic to Bathori’s violent story. The Vortex has mounted the show several times before, to much audience acclaim, and they bring it back now as a dark treat for the Halloween season.

In some ways, “Vampyress” is a departure from the Vortex’s typical fair. The company has become known, and acclaimed, for timely, topical works that speak deeply and directly to contemporary issues of social justice, providing a sorely needed platform for minority voices amid the Austin theatrical scene. Some of that work tends to be relatively bare bones, focusing on actors and ideas over large-scale production values.

RELATED: Don’t boo-crastinate — how to have Halloween fun all month long

“Vampyress,” on the other hand, is a much more timeless tale of sex, death and passion (in the sense of both passionate sensuality and passionate suffering) presented with extravagant music, lights, costuming, props and special effects. Ann Marie Gordon’s set combines with Jason Amato’s eerie, flickering lighting design and Salvata and Stephanie Dunbar’s ornate, intricate costuming (complimented by Amelia Turner’s makeup design), turning the small theater into an anteroom of hell and physicalizing Salvata’s gothic score.

Special note should be given to stage manager Tamara L. Farley, who keeps an entire show full of complicated lighting, sound and effects cues running smoothly, all to the extremely specific timing of an operatic score.

Directed by the Vortex’s artistic director Bonnie Cullum, “Vampyress” is something of an ode to female empowerment, even when taken to the extremes of brutality practiced by Bathori. As such, the entire cast is female, which surely made for an easier rehearsal process given the copious amounts of nudity present in the show. Though at times excessive, the nudity is never exploitative and in fact comes to have potent meaning in the show’s final moments.

Related: Scares on stage — five spooky performances to see before Halloween

Although the entire cast is highly talented (a necessity to simply pull off an opera filled with nudity, blood-letting and choreographed torture), Melissa Vogt’s star turn as Bathori is truly a standout, carrying the countess’ story from regal aloofness all the way through to crimson-stained feral breakdown. Hayley Armstrong, as the sorceress Davila, also provides a noteworthy performance, bringing an ethereal, otherworldly sense to the character that gives the opera some of its most frightening moments.

Full of nudity, violence and literally buckets of blood, “Vampyress” is a Halloween treat for adults only, a macabre evening of excess slightly in the vein of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. Amid that cruelty, though, there is a seed of dark and violent beauty, and Salvata’s opera leaves its audience disturbed, aroused and more than a little afraid.

“VAMPYRESS”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Oct. 28
Where: The Vortex, 2307 Manor Road
Cost: $15-$35
Information: 512-478-5282, vortexrep.org

Trouble Puppet Theater ties history to today’s politics

On May 4, 1886, a labor protest rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square turned deadly when somebody threw a bomb at the police officers assembled to disperse the crowd. The resulting Haymarket Square Riot led to the deaths of several people, as well as a railroading of justice that punished activists and speakers at the rally without any evidence directly connecting them to the outbreak of violence.

Trouble Puppet Theater is known for its intricate puppets. Contributed

Trouble Puppet Theater’s new production, “The Bomb in Haymarket Square” retells that story with a contemporary eye that relates it to current events and the present-day fight for social justice and equality. To do so, the company employs a variety of theatrical techniques, from direct address to projections, live music and, of course, puppetry.

“The Bomb in Haymarket Square” is the brainchild of Trouble Puppet founder Connor Hopkins, who also wrote, directed and stars in the show, alongside four other actors/puppeteers — Rob Jacques, Laura Ray, Gricelda Silva and Heath Thompson — and two musicians, Justin Sherburn (who also serves as a delightful musical warm-up act) and Bryan Crowell.

The show tells the story of several of the activists who were held responsible for the bombing, both in the time leading up to the riot and in the days of judicial injustice that followed. Represented by small, intricate yet wholly effective puppets, we get a brief glimpse into the personalities and philosophies of each man, grounded within a larger context of labor unrest and immigrant persecution.

As a piece of agitprop, “The Bomb in Haymarket Square” can be very effective at times. Ironically, it achieves its peak political impact when the text allows the story and the characters to take over in the second half. The first part of the show is dedicated more to revealing the philosophical underpinnings of each activists’ radical labor beliefs, featuring some of their most impassioned arguments. Though these speeches are clearly important to the political project of the show — tying in the history of radical labor in the U.S. with the fight against fascism, corporate overreach, police brutality and a biased justice system in the country today — they lack the dramatic force to be found in the more character-driven scenes of the show’s second half.

Unapologetically political, “The Bomb in Haymarket Square” features some solid performances, beautiful puppetry and a powerful message that speaks to our times through the voice of history.

“THE BOMB IN HAYMARKET SQUARE”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 15
Where: Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Road
Cost: $15-$25
Information: troublepuppet.com