‘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

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

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