Bernstein’s ‘Mass’ is nothing less than an Austin triumph

Leonard Bernstein‘s “Mass” is about nothing less than a profound loss of faith, Not just personal, but also national, even universal.

Premiering 1971 during some of the most grim days of the Vietnam War, the great composer’s theatrical take on the traditional Mass structure was to deconstruct it and put it back together.

In this case, last week’s cover of Austin360 predicted the triumphant outcome.

He poses a saintly Celebrant against competing masses of singers, dancers and instrumentalists.

First one group, then others, and ultimately the Celebrant himself lose the comforts of faith and peace and smash the religious images that adorn the altar at the center of the stage. If this spirtual chaos can seem heart-rending today — and at the Long Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, it was — one can only imagine the effect on buttoned-up audiences right after the 1960s, a decade that tore apart conventional social norms on so many fronts.

No wonder its debut at the Kennedy Center was so controversial. Not only that, the two-hour spectacle that begins with Broadway-Bernstein’s “Simple Song” — sung too softly here — ricochets musically among Copland-Bernstein, Stravinsky-Bernstein and the sometimes unsettling High-Modernist-Bernstein.

RELATED: In a coup, Austin lands Leonard Bernstein marvel.

All this added up to an evening of almost overwhelming sensation, thanks primarily to Peter Bay, who has dreamed of conducting this towering piece since he witnessed the Kennedy Center premiere 47 years ago.

Let’s break it down:

  • Children’s choirs: The combined troupes, led by multiple directors, provided moments of joyful respite from the the heavier drama of “Mass.” Their brightly-clad innocence and sweet harmonies elicited an audible “aw” from the audience every time they appeared. Despite Michael Krauss‘s large, never crowded and gorgeously sacred set, the kids were by default and musical necessity required to cluster downstage. While stationed there, they were the stars of the show.
  • Bernstein100Austin Chorus: Placed upstage of the altar, this formidable group of singers, dressed for most of the action in dark robes, provided a sort of solemn anchor for everything else. Led primarily by Craig Hella Johnson of Conspirare, their sound was rock-solid and responded to whatever challenge Bernstein and Bay threw at them. It would be interesting to hear some of their sections done separately in concert. They would hold up.
  • Street Chorus: While the upstage choir blended into a whole, this group of two dozen or so singer-actors — dressed in street clothes and semi-seated to the side — injected particularized humanity into their roles. While they clearly represented some of the social subsets from the early 1970s, the performers made each part their own, thanks in part to stage director Josh Miller‘s efforts to distinguish each individual’s profile. Their solo meditations on faith and doubt really got the show’s near-operatic project rolling.
  • Dancers and Acolytes: Not having seen a stage version of “Mass” before, I could only imagine — or rather, struggle to imagine — the function of these mostly silent figures dressed in plain black-and-white cassocks. Yet, choreographed by Jennifer Hart, they kept the show in almost constant motion, delineating sections and amplifying the major themes. Included onstage were some of Ballet Austin‘s finest dancers, who know how to make movement into theater. If you don’t have the dancers, you don’t have “Mass.”
  • Celebrant: At first, baritone Jubilant Sykes provided the warm, soulful heart of the show. Wearing his vestments lightly and employing the full range of his stunning voice, Sykes tried to reach out and mend the rips in the social-sacramental fabric around him, not easy to do when there are 300 other performers around you. Yet when it came time for the Celebrant to break down and lose his personal connection to God, Sykes, defrocked in a solo spotlight, gave us a raw psychological study that could have been drawn from the most terrifying Greek tragedy.
  • Austin Symphony Orchestra+: Austin’s primary classical ensemble was supported by rock, jazz and marching band musicians. Yet they carried the preponderance of the musical weight triumphantly under Bay’s baton and, let’s be plain, they have never sounded more urgent or imperative. Especially during the interludes, they shed any mundane notion of constraints or equivocation. And as the audience made abundantly clear during the curtain calls, this was pinnacle so far in the career of conductor Bay. That’s not to say it’s downhill from here, but with this monumental “Mass,” all the participating Austin performing arts groups proved our city can aspire to almost anything. (And it made profit that will go back to the arts groups, says co-producer Mela Sarajane Dailey.)

Mad about Austin Camerata

From where I sit, “Austin Camerata” translates into “unadulterated beauty.”

At least it did last night when the Austin chamber orchestra played the Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center for the Performing Arts.

But first, an historical note: Debra and Kevin Rollins, whose gift made the gray box theater possible, adored chamber music. And yet, during the first 10 years of the Long Center, not much of the genre has been heard in their Studio Theatre.

For a concert called “Reinventions,” the room sounded great! And there was enough space onstage to accommodate Dorothy O’Shea Overbey‘s dancers, who performed with the musicians during the final number.

Back to the music: Like other chamber orchestras, the University of Texas-associated string group — led offstage but not onstage by cellist Daniel Kopp — expands on the collaborative dynamics of a string quartet. Their measured romp through Edvard Grieg‘s “Holberg Suite” was precise, proportional and over way too soon.

All else melted away when guest violinist Chee-Yun arrived downstage, her red gown gown splashed against the orchestra’s workaday blacks, her performance lighted to their near darkness. And for good reason, because she could pull all those wild sounds from her instrument for Astor Piazzolla‘s “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.” These four tangos, composed independently but rearranged to match Vivaldi‘s “Four Seasons,” kept the near-full house on the edge of their seats.

For the final piece, Dmitri Shostakovich’s somber and powerful Symphony for Strings, the musicians formed an arc around an open space for Overbey and her dancers. All of them are choreographers as well, so in sense, it was a collaborative effort not unlike the orchestra’s. Dedicated to the victims of fascism and war, the music is associated with the fire-bombing of Dresden and also could be seen as anti-Soviet. (A lot is read into Shostakovich.)

Mesmerizing — although at times crowded and unfinished due to a very short rehearsal period — the dark dance held together by a red scarf well matched the dark music. Visually, it was most arresting when musicians entered the dancers’ zone.

Give us more chamber music at the Rollins and more smart, collaborative work like “Reinventions.”

 

 

 

 

‘Seminar’ is a vicious satire with no easy answers but plenty of laughs

Some plays have become classics of the stage because they have a fierce moral center. Others have succeeded through the ways in which they deliberately comment on the lack of such a center in contemporary society.

Theresa Rebeck’s acclaimed 2011 black comedy “Seminar,” succeeds because it refuses to give any character the moral upper hand, creating a text of vicious highs and lows that critiques, to quote Sondheim, “the art of making art.” Its new staging in Austin by Jarrott Productions does a superb job of bringing out the ferocious nature of the text, balanced by a great deal of successful comedy and nuanced characters that manage to remain just this side of likable.

“Seminar” follows four young New York writers who have each paid $5,000 to take part in an exclusive writing seminar helmed by a savagely acerbic teacher. With a heady mix of sex, desire, finances and power dynamics, the play follows the group through several classes, chronicling the relationships, careers and love triangles (quadrangles? pentagons?) that develop.

Director Bryan Bradford’s take on the play is stylish without being flashy. The majority of the action takes place in one Upper West Side apartment, and the stark white set designed by Michael Krauss (and subtly lit by Chris Conard) reflects the blank page that these writers are using to create both their stories and their lives. The transitions between scenes are quick-paced, thanks to simple but clever costuming by Colleen PowerGriffin and spirited sound design from Craig Brock, which means that the energy of the story never falters, creating a tight, dense, 90-minute play.

Given the relatively simple staging, much of the weight of the production falls upon its cast of five actors, all of whom are up to the task. One gets the feeling here, moreso than in many other productions, that each actor is absolutely convinced that their character is in the right at all times, and indeed an argument can be made that even at their most sadistic moments, every person on stage is making an accurate point. In this way, the performances underscore one of the text’s key messages — that both life and people are complicated things, and to accurately capture that reality means to show individuals in both their best and worst light.

As the well-connected Douglas, Devin Finn is delightfully obnoxious, countered with an almost puppy dog-like naivete that makes him endearing nonetheless. In contrast, Regan Goins’ portrayal of provocative sexpot Izzy is so straightforwardly self-aware that it’s hard not to admire her bluntness. Brooks Laney and Sarah Zeringue, as Martin and Kate, are given deeper layers by the text, which each of them mines to create well-rounded characters with dark edges. Zeringue, in particular, is so good at portraying ingénue-like tropes that the revelations of her own ethical breaches are devastating even if they are fairly obviously telegraphed by the play itself.

Finally, as the frequently mean-spirited writing teacher Leonard, Colum Parke Morgan shines, bringing charm and depth to a character who could simply read as a cackling villain in less deft hands. Instead, Morgan plays Leonard as the only character on stage who isn’t constantly convinced of his own moral self-righteousness, which gives him a freedom to be harsh, playful and even quite charming while still expressing some particularly callous truths.

Jarrott Productions’ presentation of “Seminar” is ultimately itself a classroom on character power dynamics, as mastered and presented by a good script and a great cast.

“SEMINAR”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, with additional 7:30 p.m. performance May 21, through June 3
Where: Trinity Street Theatre, 901 Trinity St.
Cost: $18-$25
Information: jarrottproductions.com/seminar.

Shakespeare meets sitcom: ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ brings laughs to Zilker Park (and it’s free)

Shakespeare in the park may be quite difficult to produce and present — and sometimes watch — but Austin Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” displays once again the company’s formula for a successful evening of Shakespeare under the stars. By focusing on Shakespearean comedies — last year’s show was “The Comedy of Errors” — artistic director Ann Ciccolella has created an atmosphere of witty, whimsical entertainment that can withstand a distracted, and sometimes distracting, audience laid out on blankets and camping chairs.

Nick Lawson, left, and Toby Minor in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Contributed by Errich Petersen

This year’s free production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at Zilker Park is perhaps even more successful than “The Comedy of Errors,” thanks to the way in which co-directors Ciccolella and Gwendolyn Kelso have chosen to focus on the play’s inherently episodic comedic scenes with a unique concept that weds the story to a 1950s sitcom aesthetic.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” tells the story of John Falstaff as he attempts to woo two married women. In these “merry wives,” though, the jolly, rotund and witty knight has met his match, as they continually outwit and humiliate him. With such a comedic setup, the play rather naturally lends itself to the conceit of Austin Shakespeare’s production, which utilizes gorgeous costumes (designed by Benjamin Taylor Ridgway) and sets (designed by Patrick W. Anthony) that deliberately evoke the charm of shows like “I Love Lucy” and “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”

Though the production could stand to buy into this concept a bit further — the verbal delivery is classic Shakespearean, rather than leaning into the unique linguistic style of such old-school sitcoms — it works marvelously for what is ultimately a somewhat frivolous piece of the Shakespeare canon. In fact, because of its frivolity, and its focus on sex farce and middle-class relationships, the play holds up remarkably well to modern eyes, and this format takes full advantage of the text’s lighter nature. By crafting a deliberately episodic approach to the play, Ciccolella and Kelso account for audiences whose minds may wander to the nature or the stars around them.

Gwendolyn Kelso, Toby Minor and Babs George in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Contributed by Errich Petersen

Though filled with strong performances, the true standouts of the production include Babs George and Kelso as the titular “merry wives,” who excel at broadcasting the text’s ironic humor with a wink and a smile. Nick Lawson, as Master Ford, is similarly adept at the show’s broad comedy, particularly when his character becomes increasingly worked up as the story unfolds. Finally, Toby Minor delights as a very physical version of Falstaff (owing, no doubt, to Minor’s expertise in the physicality of stage combat) that hones in on the buffoonish qualities of the character, a good fit for this sitcom-inspired production.

Austin Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is, by design, a piece of light, over-the-top springtime entertainment to be enjoyed in the beauty of Zilker Park, and at that it succeeds wonderfully.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through May 27
Where: Beverly S. Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater, 2206 William Barton Drive
Cost: Free
Information: austinshakespeare.org

‘Cry It Out’ looks at motherhood, friendship and what it means to have it all

Theatre en Bloc’s regional premiere of playwright Molly Smith Metzler’s “Cry It Out” is an exploration of parenting, motherhood and self-definition, couched in a suburban comedic drama. It is equally a play of ideas and a deep study of several interesting characters, with a wicked and wacky sense of humor that makes for an engaging, entertaining whole.

Contributed by Errich Petersen

“Cry It Out” begins by focusing on the burgeoning friendship between two neighbors, Jessie and Lina, who only seem to share one thing in common — they are both new mothers. That shared experience, though, proves enough to overcome several socioeconomic differences, until the pair is confronted by the even bigger gulf between them and their wealthy neighbors Mitchell and Adrienne.

As the play unfolds, we see deeper into the layers of each of these four characters, particularly in terms of how they relate to being parents. “Cry It Out” makes no case for any one particular response to the drive to “have it all” but rather gives a fair hearing to parents who want to stay home and those who want to work, and looks at the double standard that complicates such a question for mothers versus fathers.

The cast of this production is adept at grounding these issues within nuanced characters. Jenny Lavery, as Jessie, and Lee Eddy, as Lina, truly showcase the deep emotional connection and friendship between the two women, which makes for a stark contrast to the deliberately disconnected performances by J. Ben Wolfe as Mitchell and Christin Sawyer Davis as Adrienne.

Both Wolfe and Davis are given some intensely dramatic speeches by the text, which shows off their talent, but Lavery’s and Eddy’s roles are somewhat quieter and more layered. It’s in the development of this relationship between the two women that director Lily Wolff shines brightest. Wolff is extremely talented at getting actors to actively listen to one another on stage, and it is this intense connection between Lavery and Eddy that provides an emotional core to the more political discussions of parenting throughout the play.

The text also has an extremely strong sense of place. It nails the nuances of the ways in which class differences on Long Island influence, and are in turn influenced by, geography, and it perfectly captures the tensions between Long Island and “The City” as well as the north and south shores of “The Island.” This is, in fact, where Eddy particularly stands out. Her at turns hilarious and heartbreaking portrayal of Lina as a hard-nosed islander is a pitch-perfect representation of a denizen of the south shore of Long Island that goes beyond the typical stereotypes of such a woman.

Much like parenting itself, “Cry It Out” is both joyful and harrowing and comes to no easy conclusions. It is a remarkable portrayal of both a strong friendship and of the depths of emotion that come from the life-changing experience of child-rearing, put together in a package designed to make you laugh until you cry.

‘CRY IT OUT’
When: 8 p.m. May 10-11, May 13-14 and May 16-20
Where: Zach Theatre’s Whisenhunt Stage, 1510 Toomey Road
Cost: $15-$70
Information: theatreenbloc.org

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

 

Texas State’s ‘Ragtime’ shows why musical is so timely today

The late-1990s musical “Ragtime” has never been considered a major, “important” work of American theater, in the way that shows like “South Pacific,” “Rent” or “Hamilton” have. However, a new production of “Ragtime” by the Texas State University Department of Theatre and Dance proves that it should be, and is a must-see for any fan of musical theater.

Emma Hearn, Ben Toomer and Trevor Berger star in ‘Ragtime’ at Texas State University. Contributed

Based on the historical novel of the same title by E. L. Doctorow, “Ragtime” tells the story of three groups of Americans (a wealthy white family living in the suburb of New Rochelle, a Jewish immigrant and his daughter living in the tenements of New York and respected African-American ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. and his lover, Sarah) in the first decade of the 20th century. Like the novel it comes from, the musical — with a book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens — explores the massive social changes America was undergoing at the turn of the century, with these different groups and families weaving in and out of one another’s lives in increasingly deep ways.

When it was first produced, during the relatively peaceful era of the late ’90s, the full impact of “Ragtime” may have been perhaps muted. Seen through the lens of today’s world, though, the power of the text speaks directly to our contemporary problems. As director Michael Rau explains in his program note, “The conflicts over immigration, wealth inequality, women’s rights, workers’ rights, and black lives are as present in this story as they are in our society today. This is a piece that explores the foundations of our society and the fractures that divide America. But most importantly, this musical offers a vision of America that contains both despair and the possibility of a better future.”

Though audiences and reviewers at the time of its initial production may have found such a hopeful ending somewhat trite, in light of the much darker and more disturbing tone of a good deal of the play, that vision of a more just, more united, and more diverse future is a potent message for today.

RELATED: Musical ‘Ragtime’ is an American classic

The other reason “Ragtime” has a checkered history of major productions is that, quite simply, it is a huge show. The musical demands a tremendous cast, period costuming and a set that can represent dozens of different locations. As Rau and his designers have shown, though, “Ragtime” can (and perhaps should) be stripped down to allow the powerful songs to take prominence over the scenery. Costume designer Marissa L. Menezes does the heaviest lifting when it comes to setting the tone for the time period, while scenic designer Brandon M. Newton’s mobile set of three tall platforms, three stairways and an occasional piece of flown-in backdrop, aided by lighting designer Annalise V. Caudle’s expressive illumination, simply and effectively create a number of evocative settings.

In addition, a stripped-down production works so well here because of the immense amount of talent to be found on the stage. Against a powerful orchestra under the helm of music director Austin Haller, the student performers form a delightful ensemble, particularly in the larger dance numbers created with an historical eye by choreographer Kiira Schmidt-Carper.

Among the main characters, Trevor Berger’s Tateh taps into the humor and sadness of the Jewish immigrant experience without ever resorting to stereotyping, while Emma Hearn as Mother gives a tight, controlled performance that shows a woman undergoing massive shifts beneath the skin while holding herself together on the surface.

The standout performances in this production, though, are Anna Uzele as Sarah and Ben Toomer as Coalhouse Walker Jr. Though each of them has their own show-stopping solo, their duets have a unique power that is equally reliant upon their on-stage chemistry as it is their individual charisma as performers.

Texas State’s production of “Ragtime” is not only a beautiful, moving and important piece of musical theater on its own, but it is also a powerful reminder of an oft-overlooked show that has aged into a crucial commentary on present-day America.

‘RAGTIME’
When: Through April 22
Where: Harrison Theatre, Texas State University, San Marcos
Cost: $8-$15
Information: txstatepresents.universitytickets.com, 512-245-6500

‘Grounded,’ a one-woman show about a military pilot, soars

We’ve heard a lot about drone warfare in the past few years, from the constitutionality of such attacks to the level of secrecy associated with the programs. One thing that rarely gets discussed, though, is the effect that waging war from thousands of miles away has on the pilots and operators of those drones.

Contributed by Chris Conard

This is the subject of George Brant’s play “Grounded,” now in a new production from Street Corner Arts at Hyde Park Theater. The one-woman show features an unnamed pilot telling the story of her career as she went from hotshot jet fighter pilot to drone operator thanks to an unplanned — but not unwanted — pregnancy. She tells the audience about both her satisfactions and frustrations with the job, while showing the ways in which it wears upon her psyche and influences her home life.

As “The Pilot” in Street Corner Arts’ production, Sarah Danko is transcendent. She strikes the perfect balance, vocalizing the pilot’s story while simultaneously physicalizing and emoting the riotous turmoil going on just beneath the surface. At turns arrogant, sexy, vulnerable, angry, disturbed and loving, Danko’s portrayal is all the more impressive for the fact that her entire journey takes place in front of the audiences’ eyes with no intermission.

Thanks to director Benjamin Summers, lighting designer Chris Conard and video/sound designer Lowell Bartholomee, Danko is never quite alone on stage. Though told in the present tense, the story clearly evolves from her memory as she evokes moods, images, light and sound that help tell her story and express her emotional depths. The use of such elements avoids overkill, allowing Danko to remain the heart of the production without getting overwhelmed by external trappings.

The production serves Brant’s text marvelously well. The extended monologue is densely packed with symbols and metaphors but expressed through immediate, visceral, every-day language. Simultaneously poetic and conversational, the equal emphasis on story and imagery is borne out wonderfully by Danko, Summers and the entire production crew.

“Grounded” is a funny, moving, disturbing piece of theater that is all the more powerful for its unique look at an important contemporary issue and its stunning, heartbreaking one-woman performance.

“Grounded”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through April 21, with additional performance 8 p.m. April 16
Where: Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd St.
Cost: $15-$22
Information: streetcornerarts.org

Free play an emotional and timely look at the immigrant experience

In the year before World War II broke out in earnest in Europe, the British government established a policy that allowed for 15,000 Jewish children to flee Nazi-controlled territory to find relative safety in U.K. foster homes, schools and other housing. This effort to evacuate these children was known as the Kindertransport (German for “children’s transport”), and it likely saved most of their lives; often, these children were the only survivors of their families.

Contributed by Rod Machen

British playwright Diane Samuels’ 1993 play “Kindertransport” examines this story of survival through the lens of Eva, a German girl who is taken in by a British foster mother named Lil. The play is an intense exploration of Eva’s experience integrating into her new family and life, as well as the aftermath of her experience as she attempts to live a normal life as an adult in England in the 1970s.

The story is deeply moving, but perhaps not in the way one might expect; the play focuses much more on Eva’s experience as an outsider in Britain rather than exploiting the emotional well of horror and sorrow that one often finds in works about the Holocaust.

A new production of “Kindertransport,” co-produced by Trinity Street Players and Austin Jewish Repertory Theater, could not be more timely. As a deep exploration of the immigrant experience, and the ways in which it is a heartbreaking test of the self rather than any sort of free ride, the play clearly holds contemporary relevance. However, the producers and director certainly couldn’t have known that the show would premiere the same week as migrant caravans, consisting largely of children seeking safety from government oppression, are all over the news.

As such, though “Kindertransport” is certainly emotional, the dominant feeling I came away with was rage at the fact that this is still such a pertinent story for 21st century America, whereas a production two years ago would have left me feeling sorrowful over Eva’s wrenching experience.

That experience is portrayed with nuance by Jessica Cohen and Taylor Flannigan, as Young Eva and Teen Eva, respectively. Each of them excels at portraying Eva’s internal conflicts as she adapts to British culture. Cohen, in particular, turns in a remarkable performance that combines youthful naïveté with an inner core of strength and sorrow as she confronts very adult concerns. Director Jim Lindsay excels at creating quiet, emotional scenes between Eva and her foster mother, Lil (played by Laurie Coker), as well as flashback scenes with her German mother, Helga (played by Laura Galt).

With its emotional content and painful relevance, “Kindertransport” is not an easy show to watch, but it is a necessary exploration of how events unfolded historically so that we can — hopefully — learn how to keep them from reoccurring.

“Kindertransport”
When: 8 pm. Thursday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through April 29, with additional 8 p.m. show April 11 for Holocaust Remembrance Day. Holocaust Remembrance Day pre-show talks at 7:30 p.m. April 11-12.
Where: Trinity Street Players’ Black Box Theater, 901 Trinity St.
Cost: Free, but reserve tickets online
Information: trinitystreetplayers.com

‘I and You’ puts a thoughtful and poetic spin on life as a teen

“I and this mystery, here we stand.”

These words, from Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself,” are among the first lines uttered in Lauren Gunderson’s tight, funny, dramatic play “I and You,” now in a new production from Capital T Theatre and running through April 14 at Ground Floor Theatre. Anthony, the boy who first quotes the line, says it as he stands before Carolina, a classmate into whose room he has just intruded. Carolina has been home sick from school because of ongoing complications with her liver, and Anthony is there to work with her on a project about Walt Whitman.

Contributed by Capital T Theatre

This simple premise unwinds over the 90-minute run time. The play is neatly divided into three scenes that show the progression of the teens’ Whitman presentation as well as the development of their friendship. Just as Whitman used the medium of poetry to express a multitude of highly personal thoughts about a country and culture on the verge of splitting itself in two, Gunderson uses the medium of humorous dialogue between these two characters to express the realities of teen life in the fractious, social-media-obsessed 21st century.

Capital T’s production is a part of the company’s annual New Directions program, which “offers a young director with no professional credit the opportunity to direct a full-length play and bring a fresh new voice to Austin theater while getting paid.” This year, that director is Simone Alexander, who has crafted an intimate, intensely youthful piece alongside a talented cast, with Kenah Benefield as Anthony and Mia King as Caroline.

Much like Whitman’s poem, “I and You” rambles in subject and tone, but it constantly returns to a playful manner that underlies the discussions of serious issues, ranging from death to disease to the nature of being open and honest with oneself (and with others). The vast majority of the play eschews any narrative bells and whistles, instead focusing on the two characters’ thoughts, feelings and growing friendship. Alexander approaches the text in the same way, giving her two stars plenty of room to command the stage.

ARTS IN AUSTIN: Read the latest news and reviews

King and Benefield have an electric chemistry, one that is believably antagonistic, romantic and platonic, sometimes all at the same time. The deeper that their conversation — and thus their relationship — gets, the more they ratchet up the intensity through subtle tonality and physicality. What’s most impressive is their ability to convincingly portray high school students, poised on the cusp between childhood and an adult world that both intrigues and frightens them. Gunderson’s text resists the urge to delve into traditional stereotypes, and so do Alexander and her two actors.

In a time where teenagers are making their voices heard in the loudest possible public arena and showing us that they have what it takes to lead our country into the future, it is more important than ever to see that kind of intelligent, composed and articulate (yet still frequently confused and self-conscious) teen represented in our media. By creating a deep, soulful connection between two nuanced and troubled characters, poised on the brink between hope for the future and despair, “I and You” provides us with a vision of what it looks like to “sing” and celebrate the self even as it argues that nobody should have to sing alone.

“I and You”
When: 8 p.m. April 6-7, April 9 and April 11-14
Where: Ground Floor Theatre, 979 Springdale Road #122
Cost: $20-$30
Information: capitalt.org