The real and surreal blend as ‘Trio’ makes its world premiere in Austin

Much of playwright Sheila Cowley’s recent work has been an exploration of theatrical forms that combine traditional, dialogue-based drama with dance and movement. The first play she began this process with, “Trio,” has finally received its world premiere here in Austin, after a seven-year development process.

“Trio,” from Filigree Theatre, runs through May 6 at the Santa Cruz Theatre. Contributed

The play, which is the concluding production of the Filigree Theatre’s inaugural season of work, is about two actors, Leslie and Tim, who are developing a new play for children about slaying monsters. As the story unfolds, we learn that Leslie’s personal monster is the specter of her hospitalized mother’s potential death, while Tim’s is his own inability to face reality. Their already strained dynamic is put further on edge when Tim’s old college roommate (and possibly former lover) Fletcher arrives to help fix the lighting in the old garage where they are rehearsing.

The heart of “Trio” is the conflict between Leslie’s grounding in the extreme reality of her mother’s illness and Tim’s refusal to accept any form of reality, even the nature of their own relationship. Fletcher seems to flit back and forth between both worlds, creating a love triangle that is based less on personal attraction and more on shared worldview.

As this love triangle develops, another trinity remains constantly on stage — a group of silent performers who move, dance, clown, react and sometimes even summon major changes in lighting, mood and tone.

It is unclear whether the trio of silent performers is actually a part of  Leslie, Tim and Fletcher’s world or just a subconscious manifestation of their desires, but “Trio” fully leans into these confusions and contradictions to explore an emotional reality more than a naturalist one.

RELATED: Planning, artistic vision guide Filigree Theatre through first season

Director Elizabeth V. Newman’s previous work for Filigree Theatre has been more realistic in nature, whereas “Trio” veers much more into the realm of the surreal and utilizes a variety of tried-and-true theatrical magic tricks to turn masks, wooden swords and ordinary pieces of fabric into conduits of wild creative energy. It is easily the most kinetic and visually impressive production of Filigree’s season, serving as a welcome display of the diverse types of works that the fledgling company is prepared to produce.

Just as Tim and Leslie provide the core conflict in the play, in this production Ben Gibson (as Tim) and Chelsea Beth (as Leslie) serve as the show’s heart. Gibson’s manic performance deliberately jumps between moods from beat to beat, creating a man-child obsessed with make-believe and joy who would rather escape into a world of monsters than face the scarier truths of the real world. He is perfectly counterbalanced by Beth’s neurotic portrayal of Leslie as somebody trying desperately to escape from that real world but constantly pulled back into it.

The production doesn’t ultimately quite strike the balance between the real and the surreal that the play demands and that could truly make it soar — there’s a little too much logic applied to dreamlike situations at some points, as well as some confusing tonal shifts that lead to nagging questions rather than suspension of disbelief. But it serves as an excellent proof of concept for both Cowley’s exploration of form and Filigree’s expansion of the types of works they want to produce. Austin audiences should look forward to more from both parties in the future.

‘TRIO’
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through May 6
Where: Santa Cruz Studio Theatre, 1805 E. Seventh St.
Cost: $20-$30
Information: 512-496-5208, artful.ly/store/events/14703