If you loved ‘Shakespeare in Love,’ the movie, you’ll probably like ‘Shakespeare in Love’ on stage

A famous movie about a famous historical playwright co-written by a famous contemporary playwright is now a play adapted from that screenplay by a playwright best known for a screenplay. Which is perhaps only fitting for a play about a woman pretending to be a man so that she can act in a play written by the man she loves.

Contributed by Austin Playhouse

“Shakespeare in Love” is a 1998 film (the year’s Oscar winner for best picture) about the imaginary Viola de Lesseps’ love affair with the very real William Shakespeare. Perhaps best described as a historical romantic dramedy, the movie was directed by John Madden and co-written by screenwriter Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard. It became both a box office success and a critical darling, so perhaps it’s no surprise that in today’s world of cross-media pollination it was ripe for a stage adaptation.

Written by Lee Hall, a playwright best known for writing the screenplay to “Billy Elliott,” the stage adaptation of “Shakespeare in Love” premiered in London in 2014. Now that adaptation graces the stage at Austin Playhouse in a new production playing through April 22.

Hall’s play is remarkably faithful to the original screenplay, and it contains most of the film’s memorable scenes and lines. The script is so faithful, in fact, that it begs the question why there was a need to turn the film into a play in the first place.

Some of the film’s strongest aspects — the comparison of contemporary film acting with traditional Shakespearean acting, the faithful re-creation of Shakespeare’s London, the revelation of the seamier side of Elizabethan morals and mores, etc. — are unique to the filmic medium, and don’t make the leap onto the stage. Normally, when a popular film is adapted for a stage production, it is turned into a musical, rather than left as a straight drama, and Hall’s script sadly shows why this is the case.

Austin Playhouse’s production, though, helmed by director Don Toner and assistant director Lara Toner Haddock, is stylish and charming. Performed in the manner of a Shakespearean work — with actors taking on multiple roles, moving the set pieces themselves and singing a transitional chorus or two — it seamlessly melds poetic textual homage with the story’s more farcical, humorous side. The epic-sized cast of 20 performers does a good job walking this line between the classic and the contemporary, ably led by Stephen Mercantel as a lovesick, longing Shakespeare and Claire Grasso as an adventurous, vivacious Viola.

“Shakespeare in Love” is certainly not a play that redefines the ways in which theater and film can influence one another, but it is a perfectly lovely and faithful adaptation of the movie that die-hard fans should enjoy.

“SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through April 22
Where: 6001 Airport Blvd.
Cost: $20-$42
Information: austinplayhouse.com

Conspiracy and paranoia take center stage in 9/11-themed ‘Yankee Tavern’

For better or worse, we live in a time filled with conspiracy theories. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, there are outlandish stories dominating social media to suit your darkest beliefs about the secret masters pulling the strings behind our fraught, tenacious moment.

Contributed

But ours is not the first period in which conspiracy theories have ruled the roost. Think of the JFK assassination. TWA Flight 800. Or the mother of all 21st century conspiracy theories, 9/11.

This is the context behind Steven Dietz’s play “Yankee Tavern,” now receiving a new Austin production courtesy of Different Stages. The story is entirely set in a New York City bar, the titular Yankee Tavern, a down-on-its-luck dive that has seen better days. The bar and the abandoned hotel above it are owned by Adam, a young man who inherited the establishment from his father. He is helped by his fiancé, Janet, and his father’s best friend, Ray, though the entire building is scheduled to be demolished soon.

Ray dominates the first act of the play, staggering across the stage, opining about a variety of conspiracy theories both new and familiar, particularly those relating to 9/11. In their discussion of these conspiracies, all three characters reveal their own hidden doubts, insecurities and inabilities to leave certain mysteries unsolved. It is very much a character-driven drama that revolves around these conspiratorial debates.

The second act, though, takes a drastic narrative turn and becomes a straight-out thriller, as Adam and Janet find themselves wrapped up in a 9/11 conspiracy themselves, embodied by a threatening stranger who sat at the bar, mostly silent, throughout the first act. This sudden shift is a bit jarring and might work better if the intermission didn’t interrupt the dramatic buildup between acts, but both halves are interesting in their own right.

Director Norman Blumensaadt takes a very spare, realistic approach to the text, allowing the oddities of the conspiracies to create a weird atmosphere without any bells or whistles added. This works well, as it allows the cast to shine. Bill Karnovsky is particularly strong as Ray, embodying an old-school type of New Yorker who is equally as charming as he is off-putting, while Kelsey Mazak, as Janet, embodies the play’s dramatic arc with her slow unraveling and descent into paranoia. Will Douglas’ tightly wound Adam and Greg Ginther’s imposing Palmer (the stranger at the bar) both add to the tension, though the text gives them a bit less to work with.

Despite being uneven in its dramatic tonal shift, “Yankee Tavern” is a thoroughly engaging thriller that, in addition to telling a good story, also raises important questions about the things we question, why we question them and whether it’s more dangerous to ourselves (and to society) to get answers or not.

“YANKEE TAVERN”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through April 14, with no performance on April 1 and added performance April 11
Where: Santa Cruz Theater, 1805 E. Seventh St.
Cost: $15-$30
Information: differentstagestheatre.org.

Strong all-female cast delivers timely and clever satire about gun control debate

Gun control is, understandably, a hot-button issue in America at the moment. There are a lot of ways to approach the topic, and you can see pretty much all of them on display at any given moment on a number of news channels. Anger. Vitriol. Sympathy.

Comedy?

Contributed by Errich Petersen

That’s the approach taken by “The Secretary,” a new play by Kyle John Schmidt that’s getting its world premiere this month courtesy of Theatre en Bloc.

“The Secretary” tells the story of a gun manufacturer somewhere in small-town America that decides to name its newest weapon after a secretary at a local school who used her own gun to stop a school shooter. As the play progresses, we learn more about the details of that encounter, as well as the tendency of the new gun to “go off by itself,” in a high-energy satire that takes aim at all sides of the gun control issue.

The strength of the social commentary in “The Secretary” lies in the script. It pokes fun at both gun enthusiasts and gun control activists in equal measure. In the process of making the excesses of both sides look ridiculous, the play makes strong arguments for both sides, with a middle ground implied as the only solution. Because all of this is couched in satire (with, to be sure, a very dark edge), the commentary never comes off as preachy.

Schmidt creates razor-sharp characters, from the motherly owner of the company, to the “heroic” secretary with a dark secret, to the prospective employee who almost graduated from college with a degree in social justice. The characters all tread a very thin line between realistic depth and cartoony bluster.

It is the extremely strong cast, under the precise and controlled direction of Jenny Lavery, that keeps the play from ever teetering too far over that line in either direction. This all-female cast is one of most talented assemblages of performers ever gathered on the Austin stage, with one knockout performance after another.

Austin mainstays Babs George, Amber Quick and Liz Beckham are joined by relative newcomers Regan Goins and Susan Myburgh, as well as the venerable actress Elise Ogden. Each of the women is given her time to shine by the script, showing us both the darker nuances of their characters as well as their more sympathetic sides, thus creating a true ensemble piece that rightfully puts its faith in the strengths of these actresses’ performances (each of which is embodied in pitch-perfect costume choices by designer Jenna Hanna-Chambers).

The issue of gun control is, without a doubt, deadly serious. In “The Secretary,” though, we remember that amid the cacophony of yelling, sometimes laughter and sympathy can be extremely powerful tools in any reasonable argument.

“THE SECRETARY”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through April 8
Where: The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive
Cost: $15-$34
Information: 512-474-5664, thelongcenter.org

City Theatre’s ‘Bad Jews’ questions tradition and incites debate

In her director’s notes to City Theatre’s new production of Joshua Harmon’s play “Bad Jews,” Stacey Glazer explains, “What does it mean to be Jewish? Ask 12 Jews, you’ll get 45 answers. We are a people who question and debate everything.” It is this kind of debate, particularly within families, that is at the heart of “Bad Jews,” making it at times uproariously funny and existentially sorrowful.

“Bad Jews” from City Theatre Austin. Contributed by Aleks Ortynski

Both a comedic tragedy and a tragic comedy, “Bad Jews” presents one evening in the lives of three cousins — brothers Liam and Jonah and their cousin Daphna — whose beloved grandfather has recently passed away. While Daphna is a fervent believer in upholding Jewish religious and cultural traditions, Liam is the epitome of a modern agnostic Jew who eschews such things, and Jonah vacillates between the two while mostly trying to avoid getting caught in the middle. Thrown into the midst of all this is Liam’s girlfriend, Melody, a shiksa from Delaware with a naïve optimism born of privilege.

Glazer, both the director and designer of the show, has created a naturalistic stage picture for the ensuing drama, all taking place in real time in a studio apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The room is cramped and crowded, with the characters constantly on top of one another, a visual representation of the ways in which their arguments compile as the story unfolds.

At the core of “Bad Jews” is, indeed, a series of arguments between Daphna and Liam, each representing two extremely different takes on modern Judaism. Though they are sometimes taken to extremes, both characters as crafted by Harmon are believably opinionated and empathetically flawed. Neither Harmon nor this production sides with one of the other in their debates about the meaning of Judaism in their lives, leaving that conclusion up to the audience, and it is to the credit of the talented cast that both characters have moments of great strength and devastating weakness.

Jem Goulding, as Daphna, perfectly portrays a certain kind of overbearing woman whose entire identity is wrapped up in her faith. David Barrera’s Liam, meanwhile, is the perfect foil to this, disdainful of much of his own culture but who nonetheless embodies it in his own mannerisms and neuroses. Both are initially quite unlikable — particularly in contrast to Brooks Laney’s sweet-natured, conflict-averse Jonah and Keaton Patterson’s bubbly-if-oblivious Melody — but as we learn more about the two cousins, we come to sympathize with each of them more and more.

Their conflict is an expression of the types of long-simmering feuds that develop among all families. One need not be Jewish to appreciate “Bad Jews” (though it doesn’t hurt), or to be moved by the deeply felt conflict between holding firm to tradition and assimilating into the modern world.

In that sense, “Bad Jews” is the timeless story of the American family, in the tradition of O’Neill, Williams and Miller. City Theatre’s production is a nuanced, layered exploration of these family dynamics, one that ultimately doesn’t come to any easy conclusions. If you ask 12 audience members which character was in the right and which one was in the wrong, you’ll get 45 answers. “Bad Jews” is a play that questions and debates everything.

“Bad Jews”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through April 8
Where: 3823 Airport Blvd.
Cost: $15-$25
Information: citytheatreaustin.org

In this comic musical, the bad guys always win

[cmg_anvato video=”4345776″ autoplay=”true”]

If Edward Gorey and Stephen Sondheim ever teamed up to write a Broadway musical, it would look a lot like “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”

From left, Briana Gantsweg as Miss Barley, Blake Price as Monty Navarro and James Taylor Odom as Asquith D’Ysquith Jr. in a scene from “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.” Contributed by Jeremy Daniel

Based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal” (which was also turned into the 1949 black comedy “Kind Hearts and Coronets”), “A Gentleman’s Guide” won the 2014 Tony Award for best musical. The show’s national tour will be playing at Bass Concert Hall through March 25, courtesy of Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts.

The overriding sensibility of “A Gentleman’s Guide” is a macabre type of satire, poking fun at the comedy of manners tradition while also casting askance glances at the wealth inequality of today’s world. The witty, whimsical book by Robert L. Freedman doesn’t fall into the trap of becoming sentimental or attempting to wrap up the story with some heavy-handed moralizing. Rather, the satire carries throughout the entire play, in both the dialogue and the songs, co-written by Freedman and composer Steven Lutvak.

To pull off this kind of satire, though, requires two things — inventive direction/design and a sterling cast. Fortunately, “A Gentleman’s Guide” has both.

RELATED: One actor tackles multiple roles in ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’

With a stage-within-the-stage format complimented by footlights, voice-overs, projections and exquisite costuming, this production is heavily stylized, to an almost Brechtian degree. The scenery is often reminiscent of the kind of intricate, morbidly tongue-in-cheek design work found in Disney’s Haunted Mansion, creating a playground for the actors to deliberately chew the scenery.

Blake Price plays protagonist Monty Navarro, a young British man of the lower classes who learns that he is ninth in line to inherit an earldom from his mother’s family, the D’Ysquiths. Price is pitch-perfect in the role, which subverts the musical theater trope of the plucky, go-getting young protagonist, as Monty decides the best way to inherit his family’s money is to kill the eight people ahead of him in the line of succession. Despite his ghastly deeds, Monty remains likable, thanks to Price’s energetic performance. As his romantic foils, Colleen McLaughlin and Erin McIntyre also delight, with sly takes on the tropes of the bad girlfriend and the naïve ingénue, respectively.

The most demanding, enchanting and delightful performance, though, comes from James Taylor Odom as the entire D’Ysquith family. Remarkably, each family member has his or her own unique physicality and vocality, showcasing Odom’s range and his ability to create richly comedic characters in just a few scenes (and sometimes less than that). He provides a master class in comedy acting that keeps up the momentum of the show even during some of the relative lulls in the narrative.

“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” has all the bells and whistles of splashy Broadway musicals, but they are used to tell a wicked story where the bad guys win (because there are no good guys). In this, it is a dark, funny satire that truly speaks to our contemporary world.

“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”
When: 8 p.m. March 21-24, 2 p.m. March 24, 1 and 7 p.m. March 25
Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive
Cost: $30-$125
Information: texasperformingarts.org

Ground Floor Theatre’s ‘White Rabbit Red Rabbit’ weds script, spontaneity and sassiness

Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” is a unique theatrical experiment, requiring that a different actor perform it every night and that the actor must not see the script prior to reading and performing it on stage. As such, the play serves in some ways as a three-way dialogue between Soleimanpour, the actor and the audience, featuring a serious of metatextual games that grow increasingly serious, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Zell Miller III, left, performs the lead role in “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” on March 16. Contributed by Lisa Scheps

At its core, “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” is a kind of theatrical version of the infamous Milgram Experiment: It asks both actor and audience how much they’re willing to obey words on a page created years in the past by a writer half a world away. Because of this focus, though, it is equally about spontaneity; each production will be different from the last, as will each individual performance. Depending upon how it is staged, formatted, advertised and so forth, different producers can create entirely unique atmospheres surrounding a production of the play, ranging from the darkly serious to the ebulliently comedic.

Ground Floor Theatre’s new production of the text veers more towards the latter, with a who’s who of Austin performing arts talent taking on the main role (see the group’s website for details on who is performing each night). By presenting a 10-minute stand-up comedy act as an opener for the play, the Ground Floor Theatre producers create an atmosphere that undercuts some of the darker suspense of the performance, which has the effect of allowing the focus to fall instead on the issues of identity hiding behind the questions of obedience.

MORE ARTS IN AUSTIN: Exhibit at Contemporary explores architecture and politics of race

“White Rabbit Red Rabbit” constantly questions the very meaning of the words “me” and “I,” as the actor performing the role is giving direct voice to Soleimanpour, who sometimes speaks directly to the actor. This took on special resonance during the wonderful opening night performance by Paul Soileau, in his persona of Rebecca Havemeyer. The question of gender identity — presented as a binary in the text — was met with a shrug and a laugh before a winking acceptance of “girl” as acceptable. Every time the text discussed the unnamed actor performing in a role there was added nuance, likely unintended by the playwright.

This is the great strength of “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” — each performance will be unique. It brings together the poetry of scripted theater with the immediacy of improv comedy and asks as much from the audience as it does from the performer. While one evening’s performance may be lacking in suspense and focused more on metatextual, philosophical and linguistic play, another evening might take a much more serious and darker tone, depending upon the particular actor and particular audience.

Because of this, it is difficult to easily sum up “White Rabbit Red Rabbit.” Ground Floor Theatre’s production of the work taps into its inherent instability and spontaneity, creating a unique, one-of-a-kind theatrical experience that lives and dies each time a new actor opens to the first page of the script.

“White Rabbit Red Rabbit”
When: Various times Thursday-Sunday through March 31
Where: 979 Springdale Road, Suite 122
Cost: $25 suggested price
Information: groundfloortheatre.org

 

Rude Mechs modernizes another Shakespeare play, with dynamic results

It’s easy to see why “Troilus and Cressida” is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” Tonally, it shifts wildly between witty comedy, brooding violence and sensual bawdiness, while its characters’ personalities are often enigmatically difficult to understand.

Though these issues might be a problem for a classical repertory theater that wants to stage the tragedy, they serve as nothing but an opportunity for Austin’s experimental theater collective the Rude Mechs. “Fixing Troilus & Cressida,” their latest work, takes “Troilus and Cressida” and turns it into a high-energy, accessible production for modern audiences.

This is the third production in the Rude Mechs’ Fixing Shakespeare Series, following “King John” and “Timon of Athens.” The idea behind the series, as the program explains, is to “take Shakespeare’s least produced plays, translate them line by line into contemporary English, including the cursing and vulgarity, cutting the number of characters down to about 10, gender screwing them towards parity, and editing the whole thing for joy with no fidelity to the original text.”

So does “Fixing Troilus & Cressida” actually “fix” Shakespeare? If the goal is to create a nuanced, exciting, darkly hilarious play that showcases the modern complexities of these characters, then it absolutely does.

To begin with, Kirk Lynn’s writing is sharply on point, updating Shakespeare’s language, especially the extended metaphors and smutty jokes, with a crackling vitality that is at turns downright hilarious and poignantly heartbreaking. Director Alexandra Bassiakuou Shaw — aided by the work of costume/properties designer Aaron Flynn, lighting designer Stephen Pruitt, composer/sound designer Peter Stopschinski, scenic designer Amanda Perry and stage manager Madison Scott — has taken that complex text and turned it into an immersive experience, where the line between actors and audience is frequently erased. The intimate staging, for example, gives new energy to Shakespeare’s frequent asides; it’s hard not to see these in a new light when an actor is giving this speech while looking directly into your eyes.

The cast, for their part, seem to revel in the opportunities provided by playing such linguistically nimble and athletically energetic parts in a uniquely interactive setting. By conflating Shakespeare’s large cast down to only ten parts, the text gives each character a variety of different levels to explore, ranging from snarky comedy to jealous rage.

The sharp divide between the more broadly humorous first act and the bloodily tragic second act starkly turns characters that had been comic relief in the first half into downright frightening figures in the second. Lauren Lane, for example, plays Agamomenem, a gender-switched version of Greek general Agamemnon, and effortlessly switches from a character whose every line elicits uproarious laughter to a vengeful leader in the midst of bloody warfare.

After the production, I overheard Jeff Mills, who plays Ulysses, say to a friend, “Everybody loves the villain.” To Mills’ credit (as well as Lynn and Shaw’s credit), not once during the production did I actually view Ulysses as a villain. Rather, he was a complex, if at times buffoonish, warrior with motivations that put him at odds with some of the other characters.

This is emblematic of what “Fixing Troilus & Cressida” does so well. It takes what is seen as a “problem” in the original Shakespearean text — the contradictions of characters from a playwright who is known for white-hatted heroes and black-capped villains — and turns it into a complicated exploration of decidedly modern characters.

You needn’t be a Shakespeare fan to enjoy “Fixing Troilus & Cressida”; you need only be a fan of interesting, dynamic theater.

“Fixing Troilus & Cressida”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday through March 31
Where: Nowlin Rehearsal Hall, Zach Theatre, 1426 Toomey Road
Cost: $5-$100
Information: rudemechs.com

UT production of ‘Enron’ takes on toxic masculinity of American corporate culture

In the early years of the 21st century, no company was more synonymous with corporate corruption than Enron. The shady accounting and outright fraud of many of the Houston-based energy company’s dealings led to a massive bankruptcy, congressional investigation and decades of jail time for some of the business’ top executives.

Annemarie Alaniz as Jeff Skilling in “Enron.” Contributed by Lawrence Peart, courtesy of the University of Texas

Though certainly a dramatic story, the tale of Enron’s downfall would at first blush seem to be an unusual topic for British playwright Lucy Prebble, whose other major works focus on weighty personal issues like pedophilia (“The Sugar Syndrome”) and the nature of love in the age of psychopharmacology (“The Effect”). However, in the story of Enron’s downfall, Prebble sees not just a tale of corporate greed but also one of toxic masculinity run rampant. Her play, “Enron,” focuses on two of the men at the heart of the scandal in order to explore how “boys being boys” plays out in contemporary capitalism.

The University of Texas Department of Theatre and Dance’s new production of “Enron,” running through March 4, takes Prebble’s critique of business culture even further through the clever conceit of casting only female and nonbinary actors in the roles of men who tie their own sense of masculinity with their corporate success. In so doing, director Hannah Wolf has crafted a nuanced, satirical, enraging piece of theater that is more timely in the era of “Me, Too” than ever before.

“Enron” is an ensemble piece, with 20 performers taking on 50 different roles. Their words and movements glide across the stage kinetically, mixing the Shakespearean drama of private offices with the dance-like choreography of the trading floor. All of the production’s various design elements — from Cait Graham’s costumes, to Roxy Mojica’s set and Robert Mallin’s projections — work in perfect sync with the performers to create a theatrical “gesamtkunstwerk,” the German term for a piece of art that makes use of multiple other media and forms to create a more potent whole.

MORE ARTS NEWS: New Austin subscribers must wait for ‘Hamilton’ season tickets

Throughout the show, it is a pleasure to watch these young women and nonbinary performers work through their portrayals of different types of men with different sorts of masculinities. Annemarie Alaniz’s Jeff Skilling, Enron’s CEO and the protagonist of the story, is a fully realized portrait of the toxic masculinity of fragile men. She channels Skilling’s underlying geeky insecurity as it manifests in alpha-male posturing about his intelligence. This is counterbalanced by Caroline Beagles’ performance as Andy Fastow, the company’s CFO, who continually prostrates himself before Skilling in an intimate, yet off-putting, surrogate father/son relationship; as well as by Kayla Johnson’s portrayal of company founder and chairman Ken Lay with some Texas “good ol’ boy” macho swagger.

Bella Medina, meanwhile, provides the story with its feminine perspective through the lens of Claudia Roe, a fictional amalgamation of various women at Enron. Medina walks a razor-thin line in her performance, simultaneously making Roe the most sympathetic character as well as the most physically imposing, providing a glimpse at the ways in which corporate culture castigates women for being too soft as well as too hard-edged.

Though the topic it ostensibly covers relates to American corporate culture in the 1990s, “Enron” is ultimately about much more than this. In its excoriating critique of both toxic masculinity and corporate greed, this production by UT’s Department of Theatre and Dance is a complex, thrilling and extremely contemporary look at the ways in which today’s American men are destroying their country because of their own fragile egos.

“ENRON”
When: 7:30 p.m. March 2-3,  2 p.m. March 4
Where: Oscar G. Brockett Theatre, 300 E. 23rd St.
Cost: $5-$26
Information: theatredance.utexas.edu

Sex and sardines: City Theatre’s ‘Noises Off’ is an energetic farce

Michael Frayn’s 1982 play “Noises Off” is perhaps the most-produced English-language farce, popular with professional and community theaters across the United States and the United Kingdom. It is, in some ways, the theatrical version of “How did the chicken cross the road?”; its humor relies on the way it twists and turns traditional farce by distorting expectations.

“Noises Off.” Contributed by Aleksander Ortynski

“Noises Off” begins as a traditional sex farce, embodied by the play-within-a-play “Nothing On,” which features several amorous characters running around a country house bringing plates of sardines on and off stage while banging doors open and closed with perfect comedic timing. It’s a play that’s all about, as the characters of “Noises Off” frequently remind us, “Doors and sardines.”

“Noises Off,” itself, takes us behind those doors, and shows us what happens to the sardines when offstage and in the hands of a group of actors and stage managers with a variety of conflicts among themselves. Each act of the play features either a rehearsal or a performance of the first act of “Nothing On.” Act One shows us the final rehearsal; Act Two a performance from back-stage; and Act Three one of the final, disastrous performances from the audience’s perspective.

The City Theatre’s new production of “Noises Off,” running through March 11, reminds us why it is such a popular play. The fast-paced antics of the actors, in both their onstage and offstage personas, create a delightful ensemble piece that works hard to milk every last laugh.

“Noises Off” is something of a passion project for director J. Kevin Smith, who has served both backstage and as an actor in two previous productions. His love for the play shines through in the attention to detail in the enthusiastic staging, aided and abetted by properties master Emily Durden and costume designer Scout Gutzmerson. The production’s set is something to behold in and of itself; designer Kakii Keenan, along with assistant designer Blossom Bennett, have created a mobile set of doors and stairs that the stage crew rotates during the play’s two intermissions, turning the show both literally and figuratively inside out.

The cast of “Noises Off” is nothing if not energetic, with a range of comedy styles appealing to many different tastes. Brent Rose, as Gary, is all manic excitement, his lanky frame the perfect canvas for a highly physical performance, while Sean Hannigan’s Selsdon is far more subtle and wry, and Stacy Trammell’s approach to the young ingénue Brooke imbues the character’s dim-wittedness with an almost surrealist aura. The entire cast particularly shines in the largely pantomimed second act, where they excel at the broad physical humor demanded by the scene.

“Noises Off” is ultimately meant to be nothing more than a bit of fun, and in this regard City Theatre’s new production wildly succeeds, creating an evening of wackiness, hijinks and, of course, doors and sardines.

“NOISES OFF”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through March 11
Where: 3823 Airport Blvd.
Cost: $10-$25
Information: citytheatreaustin.org.

Get a serving of musical nostalgia at ‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’

When it opened on Broadway in 1995, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” was a minor hit, running for more than 2,000 performances — the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history. Based on the music and lyrics of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the show is a true revue, with no unifying plot or theme and only the smallest hint of recurring characters. However, the secret to its success was the music itself, drawing from the wellspring of songs created by Leiber and Stoller as they helped to invent rock ‘n’ roll along with performing artists such as the Coasters and Elvis Presley.

Contributed by TexArts

TexArts’ production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” embraces the disconnected nature of its source material, focusing on a great sound rather than a great story. Director/choreographer Kimberly Schafer certainly works hard to create a unity of characterization for each of the performers, but in the end the structure of the show — which features one song after the other, mostly without a thematic connection, and no dialogue — doesn’t allow for anything much beyond short skits for each individual song.

Fortunately, those skits are great fun, and Schafer’s diverse cast of potent vocalists create a rollicking good time. To be sure, the show will definitely resonate most strongly with those already familiar with many of the songs, thus skewing towards an older crowd, but the cast’s infectious energy and rich vocal talent imbue those songs with a modern vitality that can appeal to audiences of any age.

“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is, in a word, fun. Schafer knows this, and she lets her cast go wild with each song, emphasizing the goofiness of some (“Charlie Brown,” “Little Egypt”) and the emotive plaintiveness of others (“There Goes My Baby,” “I (Who Have Nothing)”), while creating an overall package that lets the songs speak for themselves without the contextualization of plot or character.

This is not a soul-searching story or intensive character study, by any stretch. Rather, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is ecstatically content with being precisely what it is — a good time.

“Smokey Joe’s Cafe”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through March 4
Where: Kam and James Morris Theatre, 2300 Lohman’s Spur
Cost: $40
Information: tex-arts.org