Austin Shakespeare’s intimate “Old Times” baffles, disturbs and moves

Jill Blackwood, Nancy Eyermann and Ben Wolfe in "Old Times." Contributed by Bret Brookshire
Jill Blackwood, Nancy Eyermann and Ben Wolfe in “Old Times.” Contributed by Bret Brookshire

Supposedly, while starring in a 1984 production of the Harold Pinter play “Old Times,” Anthony Hopkins asked the playwright what the play’s ending meant. Pinter’s reply? “I don’t know. Just do it.”

This anecdote is a fairly good summation of Pinter’s writing, which is at turns provocative, elliptical, off-putting and confusing. It is also poetic, precise and very, very good, which is part of the reason why Austin Shakespeare’s production of “Old Times” (originally produced in 1971) feels so fresh and contemporary.

The other reason, of course, is the high talents of the team behind this production, beginning with its performers.

The play features three character —  married couple, Kate and Deeley, and Kate’s old friend, Anna, who has come to visit them. It very quickly becomes clear that Kate and Anna were more than just friends, and Deeley spars with Anna for his wife’s affections, while at the same time finding himself increasingly attracted to her. The tension between the three characters is emotional, psychological and dangerously erotic, a balancing act that all three performers excel at.

As Deeley, Ben Wolfe’s increasing frustrations with both Anna and his own wife provide the play with its emotional arc. His confusion, anger and fear drive the action forward in a cohesive line, even as the plot and characterizations begin to deliberately crumble into surrealist territory. Jill Blackwood’s Anna is sleek, sexy and poised, a constant straight line standing between the curved, crooked figures of both the set and the married couple.

Nancy Eyermann, as Kate, gives a standout performance, vacillating between placid mutability and steely control, even as Deeley and Anna fight for/over her. The intimacy of the playing space, which is entirely in the round, allows for her subdued style to shine.old_times_cropped-3229

Rather than trying to clarify an intentionally vague and poetic plot, director Ann Ciccolella has leaned into the mounting sense of menace that “Old Times” develops as it goes on, particularly by embracing the full-on eeriness of the second act. The set, designed by Patrick W. Anthony, is a simple living room (and later a bedroom) with bare furniture, but one that is deliberately crooked and off-center, with far too much space inside, evoking both the distance between the characters and the existential gulf that the play creeps towards.

Anthony’s lighting, alongside sound design by Lowell Bartholomee, also plays a crucial role in the production, creating both tension and mood. It is, in fact, these design elements that get the final, powerful word, even after the actors have said their last lines. The light and sound fill up some of the famous “Pinter pauses” and imbue them with a power that differentiates them from those pauses merely filled by silence.

Old Times is a forceful and emotional play, even if it is one that lends itself to multiple interpretations, all or none of which may be correct. Austin Shakespeare’s production plays up the text’s most visceral and disturbing elements, making for a powerful evening of theater that may confuse your intellect while still ringing crystal clear to your senses and emotions.

“Old Times”

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through March 5

Where: The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive

Cost: $18-$44

Info: 512-474-5664, thelongcenter.org

 

‘The World According to Snoopy’ at Texas State delights with family fun

 

"The World According to Snoopy." Contributed by Kathy Houle
“The World According to Snoopy.” Contributed by Kathy Houle

 

In 1975, composer Larry Grossman and lyricist Hal Hackady premiered “Snoopy: The Musical,” a sequel to the hit show “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown.” Similarly based on the Charles M. Schulz comic strip “Peanuts,” “Snoopy” (with a book by Warren Lockhart, Arthur Whitelaw and Michael L. Grace) never quite achieved the level of success that “Charlie Brown” did.

Kaitlin Hopkins, head of the musical theater program at Texas State University in San Marcos, aims to change that. Working with Grossman, Hopkins has revived “Snoopy: The Musical” as “The World According to Snoopy,” a new version of the show with a revised book from Hopkins, Grossman and choreographer Adam Cates, as well as an additional song featuring lyrics from Tony-nominated composer and lyricist Andrew Lippa.

After a successful workshop production in 2015, “The World According to Snoopy” will receive its full premiere at Texas State’s Performing Arts Center this week (produced by the Department of Theatre and Dance and running from Feb. 14-19) before moving on to a two-week run in Houston for Theatre Under the Stars. Not only does this provide a great opportunity for the talented young cast of performers, but it also creates a delightful chance for Austin/San Marcos-area families and lovers of musical theater alike to view a lost classic as it strives for a second chance at success.

The most striking aspect of “The World According to Snoopy,” at least at first, is the high-tech and modernist timbre of the set design by Michelle Ney. Fiberglass lightboxes abound, some hanging from a tree and some ported around by the cast to create props and scenery, while projection screens fill up the back wall. Snoopy’s famous doghouse dominates the stage with its own sleek, lightbox siding. This is in immediate and striking contrast to Sally Rath’s costume design, which features cartoonish, oversized dresses and shorts evoking the childlike nature of the source material.

"The World According to Snoopy." Contributed by Kathy Houle
“The World According to Snoopy.” Contributed by Kathy Houle

 

Though a bit jarring at first, these two aspects of the production ultimately do work together nicely, hinting at an important contrast in the text itself between the innocent, childish surface level and the darker emotions hiding beneath many of the punchlines and songs (a tension that was also at the heart of Schulz’s strips). Though definitely family fare, with plenty of broad humor that will play to younger audiences, “The World According to Snoopy” isn’t afraid to flirt with the darker side of human nature as revealed in the depressions and anxieties of its juvenile protagonists.

Those characters are expertly portrayed by the accomplished cast of Texas State students, especially Maggie Bera’s simmering Lucy, Ryne Nardecchia’s lovably arrogant Snoopy and Nick Eibler’s manic, acrobatic Woodstock (with the latter pair teaming up to form a vaudevillian comedic dance duo throughout the course of the show). There isn’t a single weak performance among the entire cast, who allow the show’s complex simplicity to shine through in a way that will speak to kids and adults alike.

Hopkins has assembled a mightily talented team to fulfill her shared vision of “The World According to Snoopy,” and if Texas State’s production is any prediction of the future, the world will soon be singing along with Snoopy once more.

“The World According to Snoopy” 

When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14-19

Where: Patti Strickel Harrison Theatre, 405 Moon St., San Marcos

Cost: $8-$15

Info: txstatepresents.com.

 

 

“Hamilton” coming to San Antonio – could Austin be in its future?

Want to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical “Hamilton” live on stage? You won’t have to go all the way to Broadway.

The national tour of the show is coming to San Antonio for the 2018-2019 Broadway in San Antonio season, the San Antonio Express-News reports.

Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, and Lin-Manuel Miranda in "Hamilton: An American Musical." CONTRIBUTED
Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos and Lin-Manuel Miranda in “Hamilton: An American Musical.” CONTRIBUTED

So, any chance the show could dance its way up the highway to Austin? The national touring schedule also lists Houston and Dallas for the 2018-2019 season … and says “Additional cities to be announced soon.”

We’ll be patiently waiting to see if Austin makes that list.

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‘The Great Society’ speaks powerfully to today through the politics of yesterday

Cecil Washington Jr., left, and Steve Vinovich portray Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson in "The Great Society" at Zach Theatre. Contributed by Kirk Tuck
Cecil Washington Jr., left, and Steve Vinovich portray Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson in “The Great Society” at Zach Theatre. Contributed by Kirk Tuck

This review written by freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal

The current political climate in the United States is tense, perhaps the worst it’s been in recent memory, but Robert Schenkkan’s “The Great Society,” playing through March 5 at Zach Theatre, reminds us that our country’s political history has seen many periods of great regression.

“The Great Society” is the second play about President Lyndon Baines Johnson written by Schenkkan, following his earlier “All the Way,” which won the 2014 Tony Award for best play and was made even more famous by Bryan Cranston’s Tony-winning portrayal of LBJ in the show’s Broadway run (later adapted into an HBO original film). Zach Theatre produced the Texas premiere of “All the Way” in 2015 and now presents the Texas premiere of “The Great Society” with the same key creative team of director Dave Steakley and powerhouse actor Steve Vinovich as LBJ.

In “The Great Society,” Schenkkan covers a great deal of ground, from LBJ’s re-election in 1964 through his decision not to run for another term — and the subsequent victory of Richard Nixon — in 1968. As a result, the play is quite long and does tend to meander some, veering between a character study of Johnson, a taut political thriller about the confluence of Johnson’s progressive domestic politics and his increasingly hawkish stance on Vietnam, and a look at the split in the civil rights movement between the pacifism of Martin Luther King Jr. and the rise of the more militant Black Power movement.

Not all these threads come together in a satisfying conclusion, but “The Great Society” is less about story structure than about revealing the tragic downfall of LBJ’s policies and the movement from “All the way with LBJ!” to “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” It’s in the dramatic re-creation of these historical and political events where Schenkkan’s writing shines as he crafts potent drama out of the many compromises that LBJ makes and the lies he tells in order to get his policies through, slowly betraying many of his most fervent allies and becoming increasingly paranoid about whom he can trust.

The tension of these moments would be impossible without the tour de force performance given by Vinovich, whose LBJ charms as much as he dismays, drawing as much sympathy and approbation as he does criticism. A large, top-notch ensemble, in an assortment of roles, provides varying degrees of counterbalance to the larger-than-life Southernism of Vinovich’s LBJ.

Of special note here is Cecil Washington Jr., who portrays civil rights icon King with strength, dignity and lyricism while simultaneously portraying a vulnerability that lets us see into the far-from-flawless man at the heart of the icon.

It should come as no surprise that “The Great Society” has particular resonance to contemporary politics, and the final scene (which does feel a bit tacked on) directly tackles this issue, pulling the audience right into current day fears of corruption and autocracy following in the footsteps of a noble attempt at progressivism. This is not an uplifting play, but it is a necessary one, and it is a vital study for all those who wish to learn from the past in order to gain some idea of what we might do in the present.

“The Great Society”

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through March 5

Where: Topfer Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd.

Cost: $29-$94

Info: 512-476-0541, zachtheatre.org

 

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

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

By Wes Eichenwald

Special to the American-Statesman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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