Before you know it, Summerstock Austin will be packing folks into the air-conditioned Rollins Studio Theatre three shows at the Long Center for the Performing Arts.
Last year, we were bowled over by “Annie Get Your Gun” and mightily amused by “Monty Python’s Spamalot” as performed by students and young pros.
The three selections this year:
“The Music Man” (July 20-Aug. 11) Meredith Wilson‘s classic about a con man selling the idea of a marching band to small-town Iowa is an ideal match to the Summerstock project. Bonus: Top teacher Ginger Morris directs and choreographs.
“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (Aug. 1-11) This adaptation of the Steve Martin-Michael Caine movie — also about swindlers — is not revived often enough. We admired the David Yazbek-Jeffrey Lane show on Broadway but haven’t seen it since. Dustin Gooch directs.
“Rob1n” (July 24-Aug.11) Every year, Austin nationa treasure Allen Robertson contributes a new show to the Summerstock season. He worked with Damon Brown on the book for this family-friendly version of the Robin Hood tales — hey, another lovable criminal?).
Robertson’s job? He only wrote the music and lyrics, co-wrote the book and serves as the show’s director and music director. (Pay no attention to the placeholder poster above. It comes from a Florida Studio Theatre project. I’m sure the Long Center will send out something fresh soon.)
Tickets are available at TheLongCenter.org or by calling (512) 474.LONG (5664). Also available at the Long Center’s 3M Box Office located at 701 West Riverside Drive at South First Street. For groups of 10 and more, please call 512-457-5161 firstname.lastname@example.org.
From where I sit, “Austin Camerata” translates into “unadulterated beauty.”
At least it did last night when the Austin chamber orchestra played the Rollins StudioTheatre 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.”
Spectrum Theatre Company, the African-American troupe that the late Billy Harden co-founded, will commemorate the Austin actor, musician, educator and leader on June 16-17 with “Juneteenth Chronicles.”
The show, created by Austin playwright Abena Edwards, pulls together passages from more than 250 interviews with former slaves, originally collected in the 1930s by the WPA. Directed by Crystal Bird Caviel, the cast will include standouts sudh as Roderick Sanford and John Christopher.
In the occasion of Zach Theatre‘s first fully staged musical by Stephen Sondheim, “Sunday in the Park with George,” which opens May 30, we republish this Nov. 8, 2009 story that includes my interview with great man himself.
Stephen Sondheim, the creative force behind 18 major musicals, might be the greatest artist Broadway has ever produced.
Consider his music, lyrics and theatrical collaborations over the past 50 years. He transformed the way words go with music during the musical’s so-called Golden Age (“West Side Story,” “Gypsy”). He later fused music and lyrics into darker material (“Company,” “Follies” “A Little Night Music”), which led to his mature theatrical masterpieces (“Sweeney Todd,” “Into the Woods,” “Sunday in the Park with George”) and even his lesser gems (“Merrily We Roll Along,” “Assassins”).
Critics believe his work will survive centuries, if not millennia.
“Sondheim – more than any other composer or lyricist – has given us music and theater that is memorable, challenging, intelligent and inventive, yet emotionally and intellectually satisfying,” says Rick Pender, editor of the Sondheim Quarterly, a national magazine devoted to its namesake. “I do not see this kind of multifaceted genius in any other Broadway artist.”
Sondheim is not so sure about his legacy.
“I wouldn’t make any pronouncements,” he said recently in a rare telephone interview. “Who knows if musicals will be done? Who does the musicals from 100 years ago? They are ridiculous. The songs are good. Not the musicals. You want to listen to an Irving Berlin tune, but not see an Irving Berlin show.”
(“Annie Get Your Gun” might be an exception.)
Thursday, the nine-time Tony Award winner – who also earned an Academy Award and a Pulitzer Prize – will make his first Austin appearance. He will extend a cycle of public conversations started two years ago with The New York Times opinion writer and former theater critic Frank Rich. At the Long Center, his colloquy partner will be Austin Chronicle arts editor Robert Faires.
Local musical aficionados can hardly wait for the verbal exchange.
“Sondheim represents everything that is good about American musical theater,” says Austin director Michael McKelvey, who recently staged an award-winning “Sweeney Todd.” “He is always original and thought-provoking, a composer with a grasp of all that Western music can deliver.”
Born in 1930 in New York City, Sondheim wrote his first musical as a student whose schoolmates included the son of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. The elder artist had collaborated with composers such as Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers to produce classics like “Show Boat,” “Oklahoma!” and “South Pacific.” In one of the happy coincidences of theatrical history, Hammerstein became a sort of surrogate father and oversaw the development of Sondheim’s tender aesthetic.
Although he studied music seriously, it was Sondheim’s lyrics that first drew the attention of Broadway professionals. And, in the postwar period, words made an emphatic point. Hammerstein had already linked the songs closely to the action, so that audiences actually paid attention to them.
“The next big change came with the rock revolution,” Sondheim says. “People started listening to lyrics. Nobody really listened to Cole Porter’s lyrics, except the clever, comic ones. After the pop revolution, people had a lot to say: There was anger and passion – (expletive) the establishment. Before that, lyrics were generally anodyne: ‘I love you darling,’ and all that. I’m oversimplifying, but “”
Sondheim’s lyrics were so adept, so clever, so crucial to each show’s emotional progress, he was recognized as a singular wordsmith.
“I am continually in awe of the multiple emotional layers and thoughtfulness of Sondheim’s work,” says Zach Theatre director Dave Steakley. “The recent spate of stripped-down productions, fewer orchestrations and chorus members, have revealed new truths for his fans and have become new, meaningful works on their own, instead of feeling lesser.”
More than 60 years after penning his first lyrics, Sondheim has collected them in a two-volume book that will include recollections and commentary.
“There are a lot of lyrics and a lot of comment,” jokes Sondheim, one of the few theater artists elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Reviewing thousands of lyrical lines – all stored in the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center – were there any surprises?
“Honestly no,” he says. “Every now and then, I would glow with pride and delight, or wince with shame and embarrassment. But I’m a slow writer. I worked on these things meticulously, so there are not a lot of surprises left. I really know every word.”
Although he had been writing musicals for 25 years, Sondheim did not make his mark as a composer until 1970, with a string of grown-up hits: “Company,” “Follies” and “A Little Night Music.”
“My first exposure to the fully formed Sondheim was when I bought the original cast album of ‘Follies’ in the 1970s,” says Long Center managing director Paul Beutel. “The raw yet soaring emotion of songs like ‘Too Many Mornings’ and ‘Losing My Mind’ – so perfectly captured in music and lyrics – just wiped me out.”
Although musical devotees call these “Sondheim shows,” the artist always emphasizes his collaborations with writers and directors (Harold Prince, James Lapine, etc.) and, especially, his prized orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, whose full-
orchestra sound undergirds Tim Burton’s movie adaptation of “Sweeney Todd.”
“He is a most generous man, a mentor who is always ready to lend his support – creative, emotional and intellectual – to the work of others,” Sondheim Quarterly’s Pender says.
Recently, two of Sondheim’s collaborators, George Furth and Larry Gelbart, died.
“George was an actor,” Sondheim says. “Music meant nothing to him. So writing with him was interesting. That’s one reason the songs don’t always fit into the script. They are commentary; raisins in the cake. But George’s dialogue is extremely brilliant. It’s dialogic.”
Gelbart, his collaborator in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” adapting the Roman comedies of Plautus, understood music, he says.
“In ‘Forum,’ the songs are respites from the farce,” Sondheim says. “And ‘Forum’ is a very tight farce. The songs are breathing places. Otherwise the comedy would be relentless.”
One reason Sondheim’s shows – almost never big profit machines – are regularly revived is they provide peerless opportunities for performers.
“Sondheim’s work demands that a performer be equally gifted as an actor and as a singer,” says director Steakley. “Sondheim’s melodies and harmonies, as well as the speed of his complicated lyrics in passages of songs, are rigorous for a singer to master. Equal to this is the emotional investment and honesty required to convey his character’s multilayered states of being.”
Patti LuPone, Angela Lansbury, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Raul Esparza, Audra McDonald and Elaine Stritch are among the prime Sondheim interpreters. One of Sondheim’s special muses, Lansbury, was in one of his early musicals, and she’s slated to play aged Madame Armfedlt in the upcoming Broadway revival of “A Little Night Music.” British director Trevor Nunn’s restaging of “Night Music,” transferred from London to New York, is simpler than earlier versions.
“The tone is Chekhovian,” Sondheim says. “That’s implicit in the piece anyway. It’s about shadows. But it’s still a comedy, done with chamber music in a chamber style.”
One musical that made a definite impression in high school and college drama departments is “Merrily We Roll Along,” which deals with the fraying of youthful ideals in a tale told backward. Yet it lasted only 17 performances in its first Broadway run. Later, Sondheim and Furth tinkered with it, and Lapine revived it on the road.
“We are satisfied with it now,” Sondheim says. “The problem – and this was true in the source Kaufman and Hart play – the lead is an unsympathetic character you get to like. James dug into it a little more, without softening it. Just helping audiences out. It may never satisfy them. People are turned off by unsympathetic characters. I like them, when something interesting happens to them.”
Although he was pleased with the movie version of “Sweeney Todd” – and he’s in negotiations for films of “Follies” and “Into the Woods” – he’s not ready to make generalizations about the return of the movie musical, or the success of youth-oriented shows like “Glee” and the “High School Musical” movies.
“Mine are not that kind of musical,” he says. “They are not as freewheeling, when the stories are just excuses for the numbers.”
Sondheim is also uncomfortable talking about his legacy, though he would include the composing teams of John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret,” “Chicago”), as well as Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (“Fiddler on the Roof,” “She Loves Me”), as ones that will tend to endure beyond our time.
A notorious perfectionist, Sondheim, at 79, can look back with some pleasure on his work.
“Every now and then I see something of mine and say ‘that was good,’ he says. “It takes a long to not to be neurotic about it. Usually, I see only what’s wrong. Now I accept what’s good.”
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.
As reported in the New York Times, Bloomberg Philanthropies is putting $43 million into small and midsize arts group in seven new cities, including Austin.
“We wanted to reach cities that we thought had a really strong mix in the way they were serving up arts and culture,” Kate Levin, who oversees arts programs for Bloomberg, told the Times.
The other cities new to the project are Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. Already, the program has given $65 million to smaller groups in New York, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
By invitation, the arts groups are offered unrestricted support up to 10 percent of their budgets along with management training.
We’ll update this report when names of the local arts groups are revealed.
Notes on Austin Opera‘s recent production of “La Traviata.”
• Just as with Austin Symphony‘s concert that included Beethoven‘s Fifth, the opera company can fill a house with a favorite. Yes, just as patron Robert Nash said as he passed me going in, this was something like my 5,000th “La Traviata,” but who is counting? I like a full, enthusiastic house and a fresh interpretation of a classic.
• Every “La Traviata” is about Violetta, the fallen woman who finds love, abandons it in sacrifice, then dies. Yet everything about this production at the Long Center for the Performing arts centered expressly on Marina Costa-Jackson, who could fill an sporting arena with her charisma, her nuanced acting and her gorgeously tawny voice. She now moves up to spot No. 2 after Patricia Racette on my list of favorite Violettas.
• Every conductor from here on out must be considered a candidate for the position of Austin Opera artistic director. That’s not the official line, but it’s customary. What can we say about Steven White, who conducts around the world including at the Metropolitan Opera in New York? Judged by this one show, his sound is clean, unassuming and solidly in support of the artistic whole.
• While we loved the whirlwinds of activity elicited by stage director David Lefkowich, as well as the simplicity of his intimate scenes, we were of two minds about the costumes, sets and lights. The first act was appropriately suggestive of a bordello with a hint of luxury, each subsequent scene looked more and more bleak, less and less polished.
• Alfredo is, by nature, a pallid character. And that’s the way tenor Scott Quinn played him from beginning to end. Even during scenes of rage or regret. Germont, on the other hand, offers a mature range of responses. Although he looked young for the role of Alfredo’s father, Michael Chioldi proved forceful, then dignified, although he was less convincing as he warmed to Violetta.
Austin Art League
They have been meeting for more than 100 years. The Austin Art League started regularly examining and discussing art in social settings in 1909. They continue to do so.
During a light luncheon at Tarry House, a private club in Tarrytown on a former estate that belonged the Reed family, they covered a multitude of subjects, but got down to business handing out scholarships to Austin Community College art students Apoorva Jain and Laura Bauman. A third recipient of the $1,500 grants was not present.
They can do so because, a few years ago the group sold a collection of art that they owned, but had been closeted at the Austin History Center for decades. That secret stash brought in $200,000, part of a story I want to tell in full.
In the custom of legacy women’s clubs, members have at times been identified only by their husband’s names, at other times by their given first names and married last names. Looking over a list of first 100 or so presidents, I spied some social celebrities right off: Mrs. Walter E. Long, Mrs. Harry Bickler, Mrs. T.P. Whitis, Mrs. R.L. Batts, Mrs. T.S. Painter, Mrs. Z.T. Scott, Mrs. Fred. S. Nagle, Mrs. Austin Phelps, Mrs. Martha Deatherage, Mrs. G. Felder Thornhill III, Mrs. D.J. Sibley, Jr. and Mrs. Frank Starr Niendorff.
We did not know accomplished artist, teacher and administrator Leonard Lehrer, but he spent his last years in the Austin area. He died on May 8.
Lehrer was a founding trustee and current honorary member of the International Print Center New York and emeritus professor of art from New York University, among other titles. His art was the subject of 48 solo exhibitions and multiple group shows. His work is in the collectcions of the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery, Corcoran Gallery, Library of Congress as well as other museums and private collections.
Lehrer studied at the Philadelphia College of Art and the University of Pennsylvania. He taught or led programs at the Philadelphia College of Art, University of New Mexico, University of Texas at San Antonio, Arizona State University, Columbia College Chicago and New York University. His last position was a director of the printmaking convergence program at the University of Texas.
A celebration of his life will be held at 3 p.m. June 2 at Thurman’s Mansion in Driftwood.
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.
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.
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
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.
“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
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.
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.
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