Review: Line Upon Line Percussion pushes boundaries of art and music

Line Upon Line Percussion. Contributed by Renelle Bedell
Line Upon Line Percussion. Contributed by Renelle Bedell

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.

 

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

Theater review: “A Wolverine Walks Into a Bar” offers character sketches of aging misfits

Jaston Williams in "A Wolverine Walks Into A Bar."
Jaston Williams in “A Wolverine Walks Into A Bar.”

By Wes Eichenwald

Special to the American-Statesman

How you’ll likely feel about “A Wolverine Walks Into a Bar,” the latest show from playwright/actor Jaston Williams, co-creator of the “Tuna” plays, depends on how much affinity you have for his unique mix of cowboy poetry, throwaway one-liners, social satire and plenty of local flavor (especially with regard to West Texas, Oklahoma and San Antonio). The play, which runs 90 minutes with no intermission, is a series of six character sketches set in an unnamed bar. Though the set doesn’t change, it’s unclear whether it’s supposed to be the same bar from one sketch to the other. Three of the on-stage tables are occupied by audience members, who paid a handsome premium to be an arm’s length from the action.

Aside from the bar, the vignettes’ connecting thread is what happens to misfits and square pegs as they age into the country of the elderly. Williams switches off with Lauren Lane, a veteran Texas-bred actress (known for a featured role on “The Nanny,” among other things) and long-time Austinite. Trademark Williams zingers fly frequently, such as “We’re polite here in Texas, but it doesn’t come natural.” Although three directors are credited in the show, one sketch flows seamlessly into the next.

From the first vignette, with Lane as an aged, bent hippie reflecting on her life as she cadges a glass of water from the invisible bartender, to Williams’ drag turn as a red-hatted diva spinning tales of gadding about in Venice, to Lane’s paranoid flight attendant turned wedding planner, the monologues meander until they hit – not always a bullseye, but a decent enough percentage.

When Williams manifests in fringed buckskin jacket as an alcoholic Anglo drawn to Mexican culture and cursing in Spanish (he’s married to a Latina who turns her back on her heritage and insists on being called Mary instead of Maria), railing against Ayn Rand, the show finally fires on all cylinders as he taps into sentiments he may not have anticipated as being quite so relevant as now. Ditto for the final playlet, in which Williams and Lane finally interact onstage as an aging gay man who meets up with a lesbian he knew decades ago. They reminisce about the good old bad old days of repression and illegality. Again, more topical than he might have expected, and hugely entertaining. 

The duo’s talents and styles mesh well. Some of the sketches could use some tightening and focus – less attention on the throwaway one-liners, more on character study and social commentary, since the motley bunch of outsiders in “Wolverine” provide fertile ground for both – but as it stands, Williams, Lane and company have come up with a diverting evening that should delight and engage old fans and curious newcomers alike.

“A Wolverine Walks Into A Bar” continues Fridays through Sundays through Nov. 20 at Stateside at the Paramount, 719 Congress Ave.; shows Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday 2 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.; 512-472-5470; austintheatre.org

What to see at EAST: A map to the artist hives

Oh, we know.

Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start on the East Austin Studio Tour.

This year’s tour catalog lists 534 sights and events, the most in EAST’s 15 editions.

The East Austin Studio Tour group exhibition is on view in shipping containers at Canopy, 916 Springdale Road.

The East Austin Studio Tour group exhibition is on view in shipping containers at Canopy, 916 Springdale Road. Photo courtesy Big Medium.

READ: A guide to the ever-expanding East Austin Studio Tour

READ: What to see at EAST: 13 women artists

If the sheer number of tour stops overwhelms you, one strategy is to start with the warehouses or other co-working spaces that have multiple studios and galleries.

And we’ve got a map for that:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stagehand union battle plays out at Austin City Council

Simmering internal tension over potential union representation at Zach Theatre took the stage in Austin City Council chambers Thursday when council members proposed requiring arts organizations that want public money to work with labor unions.

The council passed the requirements — subject to being further hashed out between now and February — after two hours of back-and-forth arguments from theater leaders, Zach employees, union organizers and other community members.

The changes to the city’s cultural services agreement require organizations that take city money or use city property to recognize any labor organization designated via a card-check method and cooperate with it. If not, they could lose funding in future years.

A Zach stagehand, who said she was representing many too afraid to speak out, said employees there have long been trying to unionize. Katie Anderson said her hours had been cut and her uniform changed as retaliation for heading up the organization effort.

Later, the pro-union forces gasped when Zach Managing Director Elisbeth Challener denied those allegations. Anderson shouted back from the audience that a manager had told employees not to sign cards to organize.*

“There is not a labor dispute at Zach,” Challener said.

presstopfer1

Many Zach employees turned out in support of their management to say they resented efforts by a local union to push the theater to “join their little club,” as Stage Chief Taylor Novak put it.

Zach used $10.8 million in city bonds to build its Topfer Theatre and sits on city property. This year it’s set to receive $210,000 from the city. Its budget is roughly comparable to The Long Center and The Paramount Theatre, which both have employees represented by unions.

Supporters of Zach’s management argued that a check-card system of unionizing versus a secret-ballot system allowed union representatives to bully employees into joining. Meanwhile, the council measures require that theater management “maintain a neutral posture.”

Two different theater-management supporters compared that to Donald Trump getting to talk for an hour while Hillary Clinton had a sock in her mouth, or Trump having the sole power to collect and count votes and then tell Clinton who won. (Trump represented the labor union in both of those analogies, adding a layer of dissonance to the discussion.)

The council majority disagreed and approved the contract amendments over the protests of Council Members Don Zimmerman and Sheri Gallo, with Council Member Ora Houston abstaining. In February, they said, they will determine the consequences for organizations that don’t comply.

*This story has been updated to clarify Anderson’s comments. She responded while Challener was speaking, but later said she was shouting to another theater employee, Director of Production Paul Flint.

Theater review: ‘W.’ serves as vehicle for amazing one-man performance

 

This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal

Joey Hood stars in "W." Photo by Jared Slack.
Joey Hood stars in “W.” Photo by Jared Slack.

 

Georg Büchner’s “Woyzeck” is famously an unfinished play, left in fragments when the German playwright died in 1837 at the age of 23. It has been performed and adapted many times in the centuries since, becoming a standard of the German – and (in translation) American – stage.

Now, the Austin Jewish Repertory Theater presents “W.,” an adaptation by playwright Zachary Christman that stars Joey Hood in an intense one-man show. “W.,” playing through Aug. 27 at the Trinity Street Players’ black box theater, puts Hood through his paces as he takes on a variety of characters and personas to depict Büchner’s dark classic.

“Woyzeck” tells the story of its titular protagonist, a young man used and abused by both the military and the medical establishment. His harassment at the hands of superiors, doctors and his own wife slowly take a toll, drawing him into a web of jealousy and anger that ends violently and decisively.

Christman’s adaptation is serviceable, if not remarkable, but it succeeds in providing a vehicle for a staggering performance. Throughout the intense hourlong show, Hood portrays seven characters, as well as a few animals for good measure. With minimal costuming, he clearly evokes the differing – and often conflicting – personalities and desires of these individuals, relying upon voice, physicality and full mental embodiment to make each character distinct and unique.

Scott Ferguson’s scenic design and Jenny Lavery’s lighting effectively serve as Hood’s scene partners, allowing for the creation of specific locations through simple set pieces and clear lighting choices, while composer Tyler Mabry’s original score underlines the entire performance. Director Adam Roberts pulls these threads together to weave a cohesive tapestry that keeps Hood forever at its center, showcasing his prodigious talent.

“W.” is not the strongest adaptation of “Woyzeck” ever put on the stage, but ultimately the script is less important than the production and the actor performing it. Austin Jewish Repertory has both a strong production and, in the phenomenally adaptable Hood, an amazing actor giving a muscular, energetic and heart-wrenching performance, making “W.” a show worth seeing.

“W.” continues through Aug. 27; austinjewishrep.org.

Catch Pokemon fever – and some classical music – at the Long Center

Pokemon-Symphonic-Evolutions_event1

 

If your days are spent plotting ways to capture a Charmeleon or Ninetales, this is the concert for you.

The Long Center presents Pokémon: Symphonic Evolutions at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 7 in Dell Hall. The event combines music performed by a full orchestra with visuals from Pokemon video games. Tickets are on sale now for $29-$89 and can be bought on the Long Center’s website or by calling 512-474-5664.

The concert will draw from recent and classic Pokemon games, including:

  • Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue
  • Pokemon Yellow
  • Pokemon Gold and Pokemon Silver
  • Pokemon Crystal
  • Pokemon Ruby and Pokemon Sapphire
  • Pokemon Emerald
  • Pokemon Diamond and Pokemon Pearl
  • Pokemon Platinum
  • Pokemon Black and Pokemon White
  • Pokemon X and Pokemon Y