In the mood for a rom-com? ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ still charms

There are a lot of shows opening in Austin the next few weeks specifically themed for the holiday season, but if you’re looking for a fun, cozy comedy full of warmth and cheer, Austin Shakespeare has an option that might fit the bill without a hint of tinsel in sight — their new production of “Much Ado about Nothing,” running through Dec. 3 in the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center.

Max Green, Susan Myburgh, Toby Minor and Colum Morgan in Austin Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Contributed by Errich Petersen Photography

“Much Ado” is one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, in large part because of how influential it has been over the entire genre of the romantic comedy as we know it today. The bickering between romantic leads Beatrice and Benedick, full of sarcastic jabs, evolves over the course of the play into loving jests just as in modern rom-coms.

The story of the younger lovers, Claudio and Hero, doesn’t age quite as well, defined as it is by men taking the false word of other men over the protestations of women they supposedly love. But this production does its best to mitigate the text’s inherent misogyny through strong character work. Joseph Banks, as Claudio, is delightfully charming and soft-spoken in the show’s first half, focusing more on the character’s feeling of betrayal than his rage upon learning of Hero’s “unfaithfulness.” Corinna Browning, meanwhile, showcases Hero’s quote strength and self-assurance rather than allowing her to simply become a punching bag and victim to the schemes of the play’s villains.

Gwendolyn Kelso and Marc Pouhé in “Much Ado About Nothing.” Contributed by Errich Petersen Photography

Gwendolyn Kelso and Marc Pouhé, as Beatrice and Benedick, are no slouches, either. They have some of the wittiest and silliest moments of the play, milking both types of comedy for big laughs from the audience. Indeed, the entire production is silly, in a truly endearing way. Gifted physical comedians Toby Minor and Susan Myburgh, as the chief of the city’s citizen-police and his partner Verges, respectively, bring the show its moment of broadest humor as well as the few times that the humor gets a bit over-the-top.

The decision by director Ann Ciccolella to place this production in the Belle Époque, to the saucy rhythms of bossa nova music (with original compositions by Greg Bolin), works beautifully with Shakespeare’s text, turning the setting of Messina, Sicily, into a swinging beachside resort that provides a delightful backdrop for love and hijinks. Scenic and lighting designer Patrick Anthony’s all-white set, evocatively illuminated by a variety of clever lighting schemes, work with Benjamin Taylor Ridgway’s costumes to further develop this atmosphere that’s ripe for a romp.

Though not as soul-searching as Shakespeare’s tragedies, and certainly filled with gender politics that are particularly painful and abrasive in the culture of today’s world, “Much Ado About Nothing” still stands up as an endearing love story filled with wacky situations, clever jokes and, of course, a happy ending.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 3
Where: The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive
Cost: $22

H-E-B names popular Long Center City Terrace

It’s one of the most charismatic spots in the city — the Long Center City Terrace.

Bubblepalooza is among the countless events staged at what will be the H-E-B Terrace at the Long Center. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman

From the day that the performing arts center opened in 2008 — that’s right, almost 10 years ago — the semi-circular procession of columns left over from the old Palmer Auditorium made a powerful people magnet.

The view of the downtown skyline is priceless, even after the addition of some south shore buildings that cut off the view to the east. Instantly, everyone needed portraits on that terrace. Festivals and concerts followed. Pre-show, intermission and after-show crowds lingered there above a grassy hill.

At certain points, the whole area around it has been transformed into the Statesman Skyline Theater.

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So a naming opportunity for the terrace, right? H-E-B, one of the most munificent corporate citizens in Texas, has stepped up to the plate with five-year naming agreement for an undisclosed amount of money. Say hello to the H-E-B Terrace.

The name change will be made official at 9:30 a.m. Nov. 24, to be followed from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.  by a free holiday event dubbed “Santa on the Terrace.”

“Our collaboration with  H-E-B has been very valuable to the Long Center and the city of Austin,” says Cory Baker, president and CEO of the center. “Their dedication to the community and to providing access to the arts is something we both feel passionately about.”

The H-E-B Terrace comes with an arc of columns, a broad plaza, a grassy hill and unbeatable views of downtown Austin. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman

“We are thrilled to be able to strengthen our partnership with the Long Center as we share in the belief that arts are an integral part of building a strong community, understanding our diversity, preserving our history, and building our future,” says Jeff Thomas, H-E-B senior vice-president and general manager for the Central Texas region. “The H-E-B Terrace is the ideal community gathering place for these beliefs to intersect – it is the heart of the Austin arts district and welcomes everyone to experience art in a public way.”

(This post has been updated to correct a date.)


Young cast shines in somewhat updated, still problematic ‘Crucible’

Arthur Miller’s classic work of modernist drama, “The Crucible,” has been in vogue of late, thanks to its resonance with what many people (especially those in the theatrical community) view as the resurgence of an oppressive, authoritative theocracy in our country. This renewed interest has certainly been true in Austin. Earlier this fall, Austin Shakespeare produced a staged reading of the play, and now the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Theatre & Dance has mounted a full production, running through Nov. 19 at the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre on the UT campus.

From left: Audrey Gerthoffer stars as Abigail Williams, Mireya Luna as Susanna Walcott and Darlesia Carter as Mercy Lewis in the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Theatre & Dance’s production of “The Crucible.” CONTRIBUTED

“The Crucible,” a re-creation of the infamous Salem witch trials of the late 1600s, has long been associated with the McCarthy hearings and attendant Red Scare of the 1950s, viewed as an allegory for Miller’s feelings about those who “named names” in order to escape persecution. Indeed, “The Crucible” is often seen as the ultimate expression of Miller’s modernist sensibility of absolute rights and wrongs, embodied by fierce moral standards and righteousness.

Though it’s easy to see why such an absolutist statement appeals in today’s world of “alternate facts” and “fake news,” some aspects of Miller’s work don’t age as well. The play’s vicious condemnation of the young girls accusing their neighbors of witchcraft reads as dangerously dismissive of women’s voices in a time where we’re only beginning to get the full grasp of just how much sexual abuse that kind of dismissal has allowed for over time. When we realize that the play’s moral center is a grown man who has had an affair with a teenage girl, we begin to see that Miller’s gender politics are problematic, to say the least.

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To the credit of co-directors Michael Fry, Robert Ramirez and Jess Shoemaker, the production attempts to avert some of these problems by gender-swapping a few of the characters, casting females in the roles of Reverend Hale and Judge Hathorne. Unfortunately, these changes don’t quite work in a play where gender is such a crucial part of the text and subtext. Kat Lozano gives one of the play’s strongest performances as Reverend Hale, but the open acceptance of a female reverend in 1692 colonial Massachusetts stretches the suspension of disbelief a bit far.

These issues aside, this is a solid production of Miller’s text, one that highlights an array of talented student performers alongside guest artist and acclaimed voice actor Luke Daniels as a wonderfully frightening and infuriating Deputy Governor Danforth. Particular standouts, in addition to Lozano and Daniels, include Audrey Gerthoffer’s connivingly wicked Abigail Williams, Nyles Washington’s fiercely resistant and persistent John Proctor, and Rama Tcheunte’s quietly dignified Elizabeth Proctor (who, to this critic, shines as the play’s true moral core). Some of the play’s stronger moments are the scenes of intimacy between the Proctors, which are then wonderfully counterpoised by the loud, surrealist clamor of the trial scene.

Whatever one thinks of the politics of “The Crucible,” it has become a classic of the American stage because it works as a good, solid (if somewhat lengthy) drama. UT Theatre and Dance’s production of the play brings out the show’s strengths while eliding its flaws, creating a powerful venue for many of the department’s students to highlight their great talents.

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‘Dry Land’ is a gripping first production from a new Austin theater company

Autumn 2017 has been a very good season for powerful female performances on the Austin stage, from “Vampyress” and “Storm Still” at the Vortex Theatre to “The Wolves” at Hyde Park Theatre. Now, the inaugural performance from a new company joins that list with Permanent Record’s production of Ruby Rae Spiegel’s “Dry Land,” playing through Dec. 2 at the Mastrogeorge Theatre.

Contributed by Josh Staring

“Dry Land” follows Amy and Ester, two members of a high school swim team, and looks at the highs and lows of their friendship through both typical high school melodrama and the more serious concern of Amy’s attempts to have an abortion without her mother finding out. The majority of the play takes place between the girls in the locker room of their local pool, an intimate environment that underscores the girls’ growing rapport and the very bodily nature of Amy’s problem.

The female leads of “Dry Land” are pitch-perfect in their roles. Lindsey Markham (who is also Permanent Record’s artistic director and the show’s producer) is at turns cynical and silly as Amy, with a deeply brooding and increasingly frantic and angry response to her unwanted pregnancy. As Ester, Brandi Gist starts out with puppy dog loyalty to Amy but gradually sheds her hesitancy as the story unfolds. Both actresses are given meaty roles to play, with Gist transitioning from a girl who makes every sentence a question into a confident young woman, while Markham plumbs the depths of mental (and ultimately physical) pain to explore Amy’s deep suffering.

In supporting roles, Alani Rose Chock and Brennan Patrick also shine. Chock’s Reba is a counterpoint to Amy and Ester, a phone-obsessed girl dealing with much more typical teenage problems (and whose own long-standing friendship with Amy creates a rift between the other two girls). Though only appearing in one scene, Patrick brings nuance, sympathy and sadness to college boy Victor, whom Ester meets while trying out for his school’s swim team.

Behind the scenes of this production is director Marian Kansas, who does a masterful job of focusing on the surface-level simplicity of the text in order to allow its more subtle strengths and darkness to come through. The production eschews any bells and whistles in order to highlight the actresses and their story, with character work grounded at the center of it all. Kansas, who also directed last year’s “Dust” for her own Heartland Theatre Collective, is quickly becoming a director to watch.

“Dry Land” is a dark, bitingly funny, vicious, tender, ultimately empowering narrative about both the intensity and the mundanity of the lives of contemporary teenage girls. It is a vital, necessary show that hopefully predicts future great productions from Permanent Record Theatre.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Dec. 2.
Where: Mastrogeorge Theater, 130 Pedernales St. Suite 318B
Cost: $12-$25