Friday, September 28, 2012

BIP Nominations--Erin Treadway, Ben Taylor Ridgway and Kathleen Fletcher!

B. Iden Payne Awards Nominations Meeting
Vortex Theatre
September 24, 2012

Costume Design by Benjamin Taylor Ridgway
Photography by Daniel Brock
The BIP awards nominations were held at the Vortex, on their main stage, with the set of Water still up. Director Cullum asked the entering audience not to walk through the dry pool to get dirt in it that will later muddy the waters in the show.

Tutto Theatre Company received three awards nominations for its work this year!  Two were for The Twelfth Labor, best lead actress in a drama, Erin Treadway; and best costume design, Benjamin Taylor Ridgway.  The third was for Kathleen Fletcher, best lead actress in a comedy, in The Alien Baby Play.   I was surprised--how could anyone remember back as far as February?  They could, and how!  This is a definite tribute to the power and hilarity of Kathleen's performances.

That's it.  I think it is important to note that both our nominated actors are resident in NYC.  Tutto has a commitment to supporting local talent, and this may seem like a contradiction.  But no, Kathleen is an Austin native, and Erin is a Texas native. Tutto is supporting our local and regional talent in their First Coast endeavors, doubly satisfying when their award nominated performances are in Austin before the home crowds.  Benjamin Taylor Ridgway moved to Austin from NYC within the last couple of years and counts as brilliant local talent.  We are honored to present his work on our stages.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Interview with playwright, Leegrid Stevens

Leegrid Stevens
Photography By Daniel Brock

An Interview with Leegrid Stevens

By Tutto Theatre Company

Tutto: Apart from any of your professors at SMU and Columbia, what modern playwrights influence you most?
LS: The most influential playwrights for me have been Anton Chekhov, Eugene O’Neill, Samuel Beckett, and Sam Shepard. Chekhov has probably influenced me the most out of those four. I constantly use his style and approach as a blueprint for structuring a new play. Sam Shepard has also been a big influence but more in terms of atmosphere and tone. Becket is strange to me because, generally speaking, I don’t enjoy his plays. However, I find myself constantly thinking about them and exploring his ideas. Right now I’m working on a play that is basically a modern Happy Days.

Tutto: There is a somewhat formulaic trend toward short plays--3-5 cast members, no more than two acts, upper middle class concerns and settings. Your plays are thoroughly unlike that; is this due to deliberate avoidance or pursuit of a different playwriting philosophy?
LS: You’re talking about middle-brow theatre! Ah, the middle. Not too artsy or ambitious, not too silly or stupid, just right in the middle with a comfortable sized (i.e., not expensive) cast and themes that play directly to the demographic of most theatre audiences (i.e., middle class with a stunning Manhattan apartment). I actually tried to write a play that fit that category and managed a three person cast, two acts, but it ended up being about a polygamist and one of his former wives who killed their child for his attention. So it didn’t quite apply to the theme of “stunning Manhattan apartment”.
To answer your question, it’s not deliberate avoidance or a different writing philosophy that prevents me from writing plays in that vein. The truth is that I simply can’t. I’ve tried and I immediately get totally depressed and I hate myself and think I’m a small person and a terrible playwright and, worst of all, that I’m utterly boring. So I stick with plays that feel impossible, and horribly flawed, and totally exciting. And I don’t feel like so much of a zero.

Tutto: Dialog in your plays and other writings shows an affinity for Spoonerism, the switching around of syllables in phrases to create nonsense phrases, often with editorial commentary implied or explicit. Is this a language feature that has always come easily to you, or is it a more thoughtful literary exploration you work very hard at in your plays? The Twelfth Labor is a real showcase of Spoonerisms.
LS: The most difficult subject for me in school was always spelling. I kept re-arranging the letters in the wrong ways. Calling it Spoonerism is kinda the nice way of putting it. But, yes, I think I’ve always had a facility (or failing) with that sort of thing. However, it was only after I encountered the work of James Joyce (Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake) that I became aware of the vast possibilities in puns and multiple layers of meaning. Twelfth Labor owes a great deal to those two books. I also read the entireDictionary of American Regional English (the first four volumes… Si-Z wasn’t published yet) and marked down all the interesting words for the play. That was no small task, I’ll tikki you that.

Tutto: Has anyone ever told you that you look like Brendan Frazier?
LS: Never, until last year, in Austin, live on the air with John Aielli of KUT-FM while I was promoting The Dudleys. During the interview he said I looked like Brendan Frasier and then we went to commercial and when we came back he assured all his listeners that I really do look like Brendan Frazier. Only in radio do I look like Brendan Frazier.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


Helen Allen
Photography By Daniel Brock
An Interview with the Hens (Chris Humphrey, Content Love Knowles and Helen Allen)
July, 2012
By Tutto Theatre Company (TTC)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Twelfth Labor Impressions

Impressions of The Twelfth Labor: A Non-review
The Twelfth Labor
By Leegrid Stevens
Produced by Tutto Theatre Company
5600 Sunshine Dr.

I walked through the parking lot of the MacCallum Fine Arts Academy in central Austin in the energy-draining August heat that curls the very leaves of the trees.  Tutto Theatre Company’s US premiere of Leegrid Stevens’ The Twelfth Labor takes place in the Lab Theatre, a black box space across the parking lot from the still-new Mac Fine Arts Center.  Black boxes are where anything can and does happen.  On this night the first surprising impression in this black box was the sight of the exploding set by Ia Enstera.  The house left end of the set and the upper wall of the upstage center house wall seem to explode upward and away like a slow-motion film of a tornado lifting effortlessly the logs of a log cabin one log at a time.  This frozen explosion is the perfect metaphor for the family in the house below.  That family not only exploded in 1949, the time of the play, but they are still exploding, as does every family today. 

I have to state immediately that I am highly involved with this play as a producer and board member of Tutto Theatre Company.  I can make no claim of objectivity for these impressions, and I wouldn’t want to.  But the play strikes me deeply (who would produce a play that didn’t?), and I want to tell the world about it.  That’s why I’m calling this a non-review. 

The base facts of the play are that it’s about a hardscrabble Idaho farm family in 1949.  Earlier, their patriarch, Forrest Prater (Skip Johnson), had left the family temporarily for a construction job on Wake Island in 1941, where, although a civilian, he was captured by the invading Japanese.  He spent all of World War II in a prison camp, and by 1949 had still not returned home. 

Forrest’s developmentally delayed daughter Cleo (Erin Treadway), however, has persistent bright, prophetic dreams of Forrest’s safe homecoming.  On the other hand, Cleo’s mother Esther (Rebecca Robinson) has lost all hope for the future in the misery of her endless labor operating the farm and keeping the family together.  Hopelessness in the declining fortunes of the farm is the source of all the conflicts of the play, and all the characters take action (or simply writhe in place) out of their sense of desperation and widely varying visions of their personal futures. 

All the character interactions show their conflicts, but at the same time the characters hold each other with great tenderness.  For example, the acidly gossipy Hens (portrayed by Content Love Knowles, Chris Humphrey and Helen Allen) take Esther under their wings to get her ready for the awards ceremony.  Throughout the play, the characters play and often give each other food, some of it rotten, but still.  One audience member remarked that the play was a story having delicacy, and, yes, I can see it, right through the fight scenes. 

At least part of this underlying tenderness is due to Director Gary Jaffe’s sensitive direction.  His blocking of the stage action, in particular, is full of Baroque swirlings and asymmetric movements; these qualities give surprise to many entrances and flashes of costume color against the earth tones of Enstera’s set.  This movement style also heightens the Hens’ transit of the play, with their bizarre and crisp speeches, dialogues and evil cluckings. 

The play is a narrative drama, but one of non-linear storytelling, so a la mode.  Acts II and III depict fantasy landscapes and different times, all in Cleo’s dreamland and seen through Cleo’s eyes and spoken with Cleo’s voice.  And her language is incredibly rich, with Spoonerisms, neologisms and imaginatively distorted songs and dialogues from period movies beloved by Cleo.  This is a strange turn for any play, but the audiences embrace it from the first instant.  The cast delights in their lines; they take them (Cleo-speak) as a rhetorical challenge, to give as clearly as possible the dialogues with all their subtle and double and triple meanings available for the audience’s enjoyment.  The audience need not sit there with puzzled looks, wondering—what’s okasure? What’s snovel?  What’s coreshits? 

Wray Crawford and Trey Deason are standouts in this triumph of rhetoric and exposition, accepting the added challenge of rapid-fire patter and punning in their Abbott and Costello routine.  I would recommend this play to all my friends on the strength of acts II and III alone.  They are that good. 

Another variation from modernist drama and literature (I’m sure you’ve stopped thinking Tennessee Williams, Steinbeck and Faulkner long ago) is The Twelfth Labor’s act of breaking the centrality of story.  Where modernist stories have a main plot with subplots, The Twelfth Labor maintains a balance of stories, and gives equal weight to all the plot lines.  All the stories are strong and the play keeps its central secrets until late.  So one wonders what is truly the central story here.  More than half the play is seen from Cleo’s point of view, but when Esther steps on stage one is convinced that the play is really all about Esther.  Likewise, when Forrest takes us through the prison camp, and, in his long monologue explains why he left about a quarter of himself there, we feel as though everything was a lead-up to his character-revealing experience.  And so it goes.  When Esther and Donna (Megan Minto) finally confront each other about their lives, we believe there can be no higher plateau in the play.  Rather than feeling confused by all this storytelling at the end of the play, surprisingly one feels a vast, vast sense of resolution.  This is only for the audience, however, because the characters’ outcomes are varied—they are resolved or unresolved, succeeded or failed, fulfilled or left empty, just as in life.  But the feeling the audience takes away seems to carry with it the inspiration to struggle onward, that all is well. 

I have a final odd impression about the play and its writing.  The soldier Dee is the best nonembodied character I have witnessed in years, perhaps since Godot (probable overstatement).  Donna reads his poetic love letters (so does Cleo) and describes his desire for marriage, desire for a son, desire for the best of everything and motivation for education.  Esther describes his uniform buttons, deception, dark side and malicious intent toward Donna.  Between these extremes of dark and light we can easily see the outline form of a human character.  I felt I knew him.  All that remained was for an actor wearing his Army uniform to step on stage.  I enjoyed this small exercise of restraint, however, in not creating an enacted role for Dee. This restraint gave a tiny space for the imaginative play of the audience, and is also the best literal expression of the absentee husband. Such thoughtfulness is one mark of brilliant playwriting.

Director Jaffe and Annamarie Kasper as Herk together have crafted a gem of a role in the character of Herk, mud-covered yet shining.  At the end of the play, yet again, we think that it has all come down to the story of Herk and his relation to The Family Secret.  Herk has the actual end of the play, without a spoken line attached to it.  He turns away from the dining table and looks past and upward from the audience, seemingly looking toward the future.  The fear in his eyes, so well gathered in his short life, is gone.  To a certainty, what we see there now is hope.  

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The 8-Bit Art Trend

“8-Bit Artisan”
The Austin Chronicle
May 4, 2012
Vol. 31 #36: 48-49

I am struck by the ongoing rediscovery of 8-bit art and games.  The article referenced above in the latest Austin Chronicle by James Renovitch profiles Rachel Weil, a self-taught programmer of 8-bit video art and games on the highly obsolete 1980s Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).  Remarkably, Weil began this hobby in high school, long after the heyday of 8-bit and NES, in fact after it all ended, when electronics stores were, in her words, “filling Dumpsters with NES carts.”  Now Weil is a one-woman game and performance company named Party Time! Hexcellent!  Her demos, videos and games have been shown in North America and Europe.  Her game “Track + Feel II” has just been showcased in Austin and is available for purchase.  Without a doubt, Weil is a creative whose hobby became her career.  We can only wish Rachel Weil the greatest success.

Naturally, I cannot overlook the parallels with Tutto’s premiere of The Dudleys!: A Family Game by Leegrid Stevens, which opened at the Blue Theatre almost exactly one year ago.  That show was partly live stage play and partly 8-bit video art and chiptune music.  Austin’s own Gary Jaffe directed it.  The play’s characters moved back and forth between the live and 8-bit worlds, so that often the planar boundary of the 8-bit video world with the live stage set was indiscernible.  Admitting my biases, I declare again that The Dudleys! was some of the best multiple-arts theatre I’ve seen in the year since; I am not alone in my praise: the B. Iden Payne awards committee showered The Dudleys! with accolades. 

This 8-bit revival has about it an atmosphere of sharing which may be the aspect I like most.  The Dudleys! offered a concurrent 8-bit art show in the gallery next to the theatre, and in pre-production The Blue Theatre held events featuring chiptunes—dejayed by The Dudleys! playwright Leegrid Stevens.  Some of that music was featured in the play and was composed by the playwright himself; the 8-bit visuals were created by several artists from around the country, in collaboration with the playwright.  In his Chronicle article, Renovitch says of the “archaic programming language” that makes 8-bit possible and Rachel Weil’s mastery of it, that together they “made an interactive experience that brings people together.” My own experience confirms the truth of this statement, and I encourage the growth of the 8-bit art trend in our culture.  I don’t know if Rachel Weil attended The Dudleys!, but if she had, I’m sure she loved it.   

Monday, April 23, 2012

12L Production Blog--2nd Installment

Twelfth Labor Production Blog 2nd Installment
Second Design Meeting, March 27, 2012

Tutto board members Ervin, Brock and Robinson drove to a house in near south Austin, the home where designers Natalie George and Ben Taylor Ridgeway reside.  Board member Pidge Smith was absent, having given birth three days previously.  We saw Tara Chill waiting for us out front and noted designer Ia Enstera’s old International Harvester vehicle, similar to a Blazer, parked on the street.  The meeting was held in this location because Natalie George was feeling under the weather and did not want to travel to another location.  We greeted Tara and walked into the living room. 

The living room, as would be expected in the home of designers, was filled with art and design appointments. I noticed three cabinet doors set in the wall over one of the couches, artfully arranged, which could have come only from the bizarre set of “Machinal,” produced in 2010 by Paper Chairs, another independent Austin theatre group.  Natalie lounged quietly on the couch beneath the arrangement, and Ben Taylor Ridgeway sat on a cushion at a glass-topped coffee table, sketching with colored pens. 

Ia Enstera walked in from the back porch and sparked ten minutes of chatting.  The pleasant talk created a low-key, relaxed atmosphere.  Artistic director Gary Jaffe walked in unannounced and called the meeting to order.  He reminded us that this meeting was to report the initial design concepts the designers were pondering.  By this time, the designers should have read the script, perhaps more than once, and have a pretty good knowledge of what the play is all about.  Director Jaffe added to these impressions with his own vision and imagery of the play.  He spoke in word pictures, embellishing his speech with many arm gestures.  Against this backdrop of imagery, he asked the designers to report their current ideas in turn.     

Ia Enstera had been spending her time viewing old documentaries of twentieth century Western life; she gave two titles: The Plow that Broke the Plains and Fight for Life.  She showed still images on her iPad and noted that people and homes of that time period had a home-made look and one of permanence, patched and repaired.  Throwaway culture came later. 

Further talk in the realm of the set and theater took a random course, with people asking questions of Enstera and adding impressions of their own.  The meeting fell into all-talk-at-once on the issue of seating and flats for the set.  Of course, nothing was resolved on those points. 

The talk of costumes, the design realm of Ben Taylor Ridgeway, turned naturally to the play’s characters, their motivations and personalities.  Director Jaffe led the discussion here, giving his ideas of who they are, based on his readings of the play.  Ben showed his sketches, small color renderings of each of the characters arranged in two lines on the page with a sunset landscape behind them. These were the sketches he had been working on when we had come in. His words to describe them were few, saying mostly that while most of the characters were members of the same family, their clothing was characteristic of them as individuals and that, as above, clothing had a sense of permanence: clean, repaired and maintained. Regarding the Hens, three female characters representing neighbors and townspeople, Ridgeway viewed them as country fops and caricatures.  Their costumes should accentuate their bodily differences.

Ben Taylor Ridgeway is young and a huge design talent.  He has significant experience in Texas and the East Coast, where he worked in the fashion industry and off-Broadway.  
In Austin, he is a B. Iden Payne award winner.  Overflowing with talent, Ben is the type who designs everything on him and around him—hair, accessories, T-shirt, shoes, magazines on the coffee table—thus his appearance is different every time one sees him.  He also says what he thinks, in the moment.  He did not let it pass that he was the only designer present who had actually prepared materials for presentation in the meeting—ignoring Enstera’s iPad images.  I was satisfied that I would never be bored in a design meeting.

Natalie George, not feeling well, talked slowly about lighting ideas.  She spoke, however, with keen awareness about integrating set and costume design areas by means of lighting.  Lighting can change a character’s demeanor by the light reflecting off the costume.  In this regard, some fabrics are better than others and must be chosen well to succeed in this task.  Also, the lighting design must resolve an important issue in this play.  How can lighting transform the set from dully realistic in Act I to Technicolor/surreal in acts II and III?  Natalie viewed this issue as the core of her effort in the lighting design. 

After the presentations, Director Jaffe reiterated the production design needs of the play.  He summarized sound design issues, saying acts I and IV have mostly wind sound effects and few music effects.  Acts II and III have many more music and sound cues.  He passed along Playwright Stevens’ phrase description of the music effects: “creepy memory music.”  Although Playwright Stevens has apparently prepared all the sound effects, Jaffe proposed retaining an Austin sound designer to troubleshoot issues with the sound effects when we receive them, saying the cast, several of whom have singing parts, would be more comfortable with such a person on hand during rehearsals.  No decision was made on the question, although a few names were proposed for the position.  The meeting ended on Director Jaffe calling for more detailed, slightly more concrete design plans, tentatively scheduled for April 24th

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Twelfth Labor Production Blog--1st Installment

Twelfth Labor Production Blog – 1st Installment

This series of blogs will be posted periodically to record the creation of Tutto Theatre Company’s production of “The Twelfth Labor” by Leegrid Stevens.  The goal of the blog series is to form an eyewitness record of this new play by an emerging playwright, auspiciously produced by Tutto Theatre Company. 

A play production has an immense lead time requiring planning more than a year in advance.  To those involved, all the work seems like isolated points in interstellar space, seemingly disconnected but gradually coming together in time and space to become a living, breathing human experience named live theatre.  To those fascinated with this art form, the process of all the disconnected points coming together appears mysterious.  My blog will confront the mystery and pull out a few, but not all, of its secrets. 

As of this writing, March 17, 2012, the production has accomplished two milestones, the auditions/casting (January 7, 8 and 14, 2012) and the first production design meeting (February 20, 2012). The performance is scheduled for the first three weekends in August, 2012. 

Earlier, the production budget was built from Tutto Theatre Company’s City of Austin contract services matching grant for the 2011-2012 biennium.  The match was accomplished out of the proceeds from prior productions including Leegrid Stevens’ award-winning “The Dudleys! A Family Game,” donations and in-kind services.  These funds were secured largely before the selection of the play. “The Twelfth Labor” (12L) was of interest to Tutto Theatre Company because it is a new play.  Producing new, contemporary plays is a commitment stated explicitly in the mission statement of the company.  Tutto queried the possibility of producing 12L during the production of “The Dudleys! A Family Game.”  To the surprise of everyone, playwright Stevens stated his enthusiasm for a Tutto production of another of his works.  The deal was only closed, however, after a very long series of phone calls, e-mails, texts and face-to-face meetings in the spring and summer of 2011.  The finished deal was that Tutto Theatre Company would give the play its first full-scale production running for an industry standard three weekends, or twelve performances.  Artistic director Gary Jaffe would direct the play, and Erin Treadway would play the central character of Cleo, per the playwright’s wishes.  The dates of the play were only specified as sometime in the second half of 2012.  The venue of the performances would be sought by Tutto and it would be a locale that would meet the production requirements. 

The venue selection turned out to be a circuitous and involved process in its own right.  The board members and AD Jaffe phoned, e-mailed and texted as many theatres and performance spaces as they could recall, touching almost all of their collective theatre connections.  At that time, in the summer of 2011, MacCallum Fine Arts Academy in central Austin was finishing construction of their new, very large arts center.  They set a grand opening performance for September 30, 2011 on their state-of-the-art proscenium stage.  The Tutto board of directors and AD Jaffe turned out in force for the event and were highly impressed with the facility and the performances.  By a unanimous act of will, the board and AD Jaffe made contact with the director of the theatre division of MacCallum Fine Arts Academy, M. Scott Tatum.  The goal of this contact was to gain a space for 12L at the Macc.  The surprising aspect of the negotiations was that they became an extended game of media tag, just like dealing with the playwright and making contact with venue managers.  Nothing’s easy.  It was not until December, 2011 that Tatum agreed to a production of 12L at Macc.  The performance space would be a black box theatre near the arts center. 

With the venue secured, the 12L performance dates tumbled into place.  The show would premiere August 2 and run through the following two weekends, until August 19, 2012. 

Auditions were held January 7 and 8, 2012 in the old theatre auditorium at Macc.  The auditions were a combination of open calls and requested appearances.  Callbacks took place on the following Saturday, the 14th.  The whole process was arduous.  Auditions and callbacks by themselves surely justify hour-by-hour descriptive blogs to give the least sense of this essential component of the playmaking process.  It suffices here to state that AD Jaffe considered the readings and all the actors’ performances in excruciating detail.  Phone calls and social media blasts occupied the entire weekend, well past the scheduled afternoons.  The result, gained by this arcane divination called auditions, was an impressive and complete cast. I’ll have much more on the cast members in later blogs. 

 The final getting-the-ball-rolling event was the first production design meeting held in the Macc black box on February 20, 2012.  Board members Matt Ervin, Daniel Brock and David Robinson met with Director Jaffe, Stage Manager Tara Chill, Set Designer Ia Enstera, Lighting Designer Natalie George and Costume Designer Ben Taylor Ridgeway.  The meeting was strictly an introductory meeting between the staff and the designers.  The discussion was almost exclusively a chat session, as all the designers know each other and have worked together on several previous productions.  The only takeaway from the meeting was the agreement to show initial design concepts at the next production meeting on March 27th. 

Upon leaving the meeting, I felt that the vastly separated points were somehow less disconnected, that the stars were beginning to align, almost imperceptibly. The premiere was slightly less than six months away, and we had started the process more than a year in advance.    

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Theatre Night with Dr. Dave--Cabaret

By Kander and Ebb
Produced by McCallum Fine Arts Academy, Royale Court Players
McCallum Arts Center, Austin
March 4, 2012

Macademy produced Kander and Ebb’s renowned “Cabaret” in their new arts center and made of it a giant party, a song festival, a design exhibition and homage to the powerful artists who staged this show in the past.  Perhaps the essential stroke of genius in this play is Kander and Ebb’s setting of it in Berlin, 1931/1932, drawn from Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories.  The potential themes on which a production could touch in “Cabaret” range from libertinism, to sexual and religious liberation/oppression to the rise of fascism.  Touching on too many of them, depending on one’s resources, can give a production of “Cabaret” the feeling of a play at war with itself (What are you, “Cabaret?”  Are you a historical romance, an anthology piece on club life, a musical revue, a screed on Nazis or all of these?)  The Royale Court Players in their youthful enthusiasm succumbed to the play’s temptations and tried a little too much, giving us a two hour and forty minute show with one 15-minute intermission.  The attempt, however, was laudable, verging on glorious.  At the end, the audience was happy and cheering as it rushed out to the restrooms.
The show was well designed from top to bottom, and primary credit for its success starts with directors Courtney Wissinger and M. Scott Tatum.  All of the design elements seemed well coordinated.  Mr. Tatum’s scenic design was especially facilitating.  To depict the famous Kit-Kat Club in Berlin, Tatum built two wide pillars upstage.  Between them stretched a curtain for center entrances and behind which the club band performed all the musical numbers.  A low platform for all the dances and singing extended center stage in front of the curtain and pillars.  Stage left and stage right held the club seating and dining tables.  Cast members depicting patrons and staff remained there throughout the play, performing and creating tableaux vivant.  These human forms, in concert with costumes, styling and lighting, formed images strikingly similar to photographs of European clubs of the 1930s.  This aspect was perhaps the most spectacular element in evoking the excitement of the setting and time.  The highly textured pillar surfaces caught and interacted with the various lighting sets to harmonize and in part control the emotionality of each scene.  The only notable flaw in the design was the second story windows, which were openings on a dressing room and the Master of Ceremonies’ garrett, stage right and stage left, respectively.  The windows were frontally angled to the stage below them, but acutely angled to the house.  I sat on the aisle seat house left (the theater has two aisles dividing the house in thirds and no aisles on the row ends at the walls) and I saw the stage right window scene at an extremely acute angle.  No one to my left saw the scene at all.  I estimate a quarter of the audience had no sight line at all on this scene.  The corresponding situation pertained in the stage left window scene.  The design staff had months to address this elementary, glaring problem.  ‘Nuff said. 

The action of the play roared across this set.  The story of the Kit-Kat Club on New Year’s Eve 1931 and into 1932 is familiar to theatre- and movie-goers alike.  The story dances through its many themes, all in lace and feathers, and easily escapes becoming merely the story of the romance between club singer Sally Bowles, played by Annamarie Kasper, and American writer Clifford Bradshaw, played by Connor Barr.  The dynamo of the show is actually the Master of Ceremonies, played by John James Busa in the role immortalized by Joel Grey.  Director Wissinger and Mr. Busa addressed the high standard and dominating image of Grey’s characterization wisely by seeking another dynamic.  Their efforts were successful.  Busa’s Master of Ceremonies combined the punk and goth esthetics, with a flavor of the vampiric.  Busa’s Master of Ceremonies was snide, dominating, darkly threatening, seductive and sarcastic.  In the end, too, he was tragic and suffering.  He borrowed nothing from and owed nothing to Joel Grey.  Delightful work, Mr. Busa. 

Driving the action of the play in dance were the Kit-Kat Girls.  The choreography was inventive, the credit given to Bazie Adamez, but it had the look of collaboration.  It did not fail to excite.  The Kit-Kat Girls are minor gems in musical theatre.  Their heraldic colors are red, black and sequins.  They all have back-stories, especially Rosie, Frenchy and Texas, and this gives them a whiff of mystery.  Brennan Martinez as Texas conveyed by her immense stage presence both the naughty-naughty boldness and the mystery. 

Well into Act II most of the tears have fallen to the stage and washed away the blood.  The reprise of the title song is a solo by Sally Bowles, and as written it is a testament of irony that will stand the test of time.  Sally takes the stage in a floor-length gown, still sequined, but this time instead of sparkling red or black, it has only the cool gray tones of black-and-white television static.  As she sings, the patrons and staff leave the club one-by-one until it is empty; leaving Sally with the loneliness she fears most.  And although the voice still releases the power of the song, the singer does not quite achieve the irony expressible by a worldly wise character just beginning to feel the corrosion of too much gin and repeated self-destructive choices.  I wanted to sense the tears forming inside Sally Bowles, but I could not.  Someday this performer, Annamarie Kasper, will convey such feelings with ease, and her career is to be followed with anticipation (she has been cast in Tutto Theatre Co.’s production of The Twelfth Labor, slated for August, 2012).  For now, the song symbolizes clearly Germany’s own headlong pitch into the abyss. 

Clifford Bradshaw seems to have stepped out of the play with no worse than two black eyes and saddening experience.  The last lines of the play are his, and they keep the tone of tragic romance and ruin built throughout the play.  The lines as written seem peculiarly awkward, but as Connor Barr delivers them flat and straight they gain immense impact:  “There was a Cabaret, and there was a Master of Ceremonies…and there was a city called Berlin, in a country called Germany…and it was the end of the world….and I was dancing with Sally Bowles.  And we were both fast asleep.”* 

*Quote drawn from Dir. Wissinger’s Director’s Notes.  

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Theatre Night with Dr. Dave--A Jigglewatts Jubilee

A Jigglewatts Jubilee
Produced by Jigglewatts Burlesque Co.
29th St. Ballroom, Austin
February 24, 2012

I have been wanting to write this blog for a long time.  I have been a fan of members of the Jigglewatts burlesque troupe since before they were Jigglewatts.  They tour nationally now, and occasionally overseas, So tonight’s show (actually two performances--at 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.) was somewhat of a rarefying opportunity to see them in Austin.  So I reserved a VIP table and showed up at the venue with time to spare.

OK, stop You.  I didn’t go to a strip show or to a “gentlemen’s club.”  The Jigglewatts perform a new and rising form of alternative performance that I call New Burlesque.   It borrows from your grandmother’s vaudeville burlesque, yes, but it also adds to that certain new forms such as rock music, an emphasis on costuming, acting, dance and social  networking.  The short intro is that in New Burlesque they never fall out of their pasties and G-strings, although there have been legendary accidents.  More on New Burlesque later.  You’ll have to dig up the legendary accidents for yourself. 

Looking around the 29th St. Ballroom I saw an alternative crowd of hipsters, street people, artists, retired go-go- girls, industrial workers, a few Goths (getting old and gray now), the leather crowd, in short, the demimonde.  Jigglewatts aficionados all.  The acreage of tattooed flesh was so great that it truly became urban camouflage.  This is not mine, OK, I’ve heard it before, but it is certainly true.  These are the people who have unfettered imaginations and are ruled by their dreams, not the boss’s punch-clock.  They pay for having minds and talents by working behind retail counters and in repair shops their entire lives.  Management does not like or promote them, and they scrape together a living in one postindustrial slough or another. Altogether they form a vast underground tribe 

The Jigglewatts speak eloquently to them in their performances, and tonight was no exception.  Emcee Jade Esteban Estrada held the crowd from first to last dressed all in black with black platform sneakers with polished steel toe shields.  His pink feather boa accented everything and signaled his preferences—about which he was vocal throughout in a series of hilarious standup routines between the dancers’ performances.  He also wisely pushed the Jigglewatts’ marketing strategy of advertising their shows by way of social media. 

The Jigglewatts, with their guest Ruby Lamb, were polished and spectacular.  They truly turn up the erotic heat in their dances.  They chew off their gloves and stockings with expertness and seeming ease.  They and all New Burlesque troupes place great emphasis on costume.  The Jigglewatts invariably began their solo dances in floor-length gowns covered in brocades, feathers and lace and, I kid you not, precisely matching spike heels.  All the gowns have strategically placed snaps and Velcro for timed-release exposure.  But the gowns also have one emergency costume ejection zipper.  One zip and the whole gown falls to the floor!  How do they do it?  Now we are at the lingerie layer, and it just goes on and on. 

The Jigglewatts reputation is growing, and they have high rankings in the burlesque world to show for it.  Coco Lectric is ranked seventh in the world currently, and Ruby Joule follows her at No. 27.  The ranking organization is based in Britain and has a great time compiling its statistics.  Pearl Luxe is an accomplished tap dancer and has choreographed a lengthy performance number complete with sequined top hat, cane and “Puttn’ on the Ritz.”  Jolie Ampere Goodnight and Ruby Joule each sing melodic torch songs in their numbers.  Ruby wrote hers, Jolie perhaps so, I am not sure.  They each have beautiful, clear voices.  Ruby, in particular, sings every phrase in her song of attraction and rejection as a line in a story, and keeps the audience in the palm of her hand.  Her style reminds me of David Bowie, the Thin White Duke, and his performance style of living every line of his songs through his dance and gestures.

Goldie Candela and Ruby Lamb have erotic bodies and expert timing of every wink and wiggle.  Ruby Lamb has a fascination with skin art and a certain almost-vulpine look that makes one want to submit to her bite. 

The New Burlesque and its adherents in the underground are part of a social trend in my belief, but one far less overtly political than the Occupy movement.  The Jigglewatts and New Burlesque make a multitude of symbolic displays to the diverse elements of the tribe.  The eroticism is the carrier wave of the symbolic tide and serves to provide some unity within the group.  This world of symbolic display is greatly akin to Victor Turner’s concept and book title The Forest of Symbols.  Semiotics, verbal communication and visual communication fill up our everyday perceptions and minds in a sometimes-literal rainforest of symbols.  Deep, deep within that forest the tribe gathers.  There, the Jigglewatts are the silhouetted figures dancing around a great bonfire.  The fire can be nothing more or less than desire, and with the dancers’ every gesture and glance the flames vault higher. Sparks drift from the fire and light upon the tribe’s fever dreams, hallucinations and unfulfilled longings.  This is the Jigglewatts’ blessing on the tribe, that everyone’s imagination is unsullied by the gritty world in which they find themselves, that there is more.  Go forward.  

Theatre Night with Dr. Dave--Woodwork

“Woodwork, A Collection of Hank Schwemmer Plays”
Produced by Paper Chairs
Delta Millworks, 5th and Springdale Rd.,  Austin
February 23rd, 2012

“Woodwork” is another production taking place in a warehouse, this time the huge Delta Millworks factory at 5th St. and Springdale Road in east Austin.  Again I say “Aah, east Austin.”  The place by its very existence gives the theatre world extremely rich settings and imagery, seemingly without end.  The setting could not be more apt for presenting this dense, colorful and fantastically textured collection of six one-acts by Austin playwright Hank Schwemmer.  The place was well-designed and prepared when the seating (no paper chairs) was set out around the space.  I complimented scenic designer and director Lisa Laratta (one of four directors of these plays) that she had even designed in the sweet, aromatic wood fragrance that permeates the place.  She said, “Yeah, that and the popcorn smell—it can’t be all one thing, you know.” 

Likewise the plays performed.  Schwemmer has made his career to date in writing one-act plays for Hyde Park Theatre’s Fronterafest.  This gives most of his work a one-act structure to meet the requirements of the theatre festival.  All similarities end there.  “The Oracle Game” followed theatre students playing the training exercise of telling a story one word at a time each.  As the cadences of the one-word-at-a-time stories took on a hypnotic sound and feel, the play snapped into Ouija Board-style spirit possession, and the characters spoke not their own words anymore but the prophetic words of some Other, specifically the descriptions of the Beasts surrounding the Throne of the Most High in the Revelation of St. John the Divine.  “Ballet for Dog and Red-Haired Girl” followed this immediately, performed exquisitely by Zac Crofford and Emily Tindall as the Dog and Red-Haired Girl, respectively.  It is beyond description—no spoiler here, but the floppy-eared dog is not what he seems.  And so the entire show went for two hours that seemed like thirty minutes.  “The Situation As It Stands” was a scream and a half, and “Woodwork” was a surprisingly layered tale of heartbreak and finding one’s father and healing in the old man’s woodworking shop.  The term “woodwork” will forever take on new levels of meaning after this play.

Recognition for all the people responsible for the high quality of this evening of performance lies well beyond the limits of the blog.  There are many standouts.  I can only mention Natalie George, who designed the lighting that worked so brilliantly for every piece.  Alternative spaces never come with lighting grids designed in, as in professional theatres.  Ms. George built and cabled a makeshift grid into the wooden ceiling joists and rafters of the warehouse, with marvelous results.  The Master Electrician was David Higgins. 

Not everything was perfect, however.  The program (the British spell this word “programme” to distinguish it) was of the unfortunate let’s-use-every-font-on-the-menu variety, with typically chaotic results.  That and the small types rendered some lists illegible; don’t ask me the names of the running crew, for example, and about half of the folks receiving special thanks.  Another issue, not Paper Chairs’ responsibility, lies in the category of facts gone astray.  The preview article about Schwemmer by Robert Faires in the February 24, 2012 edition of the Austin Chronicle stated (p. 32), “After he saw Paper Chairs’ production of Black Snow, he says ‘I wanted to party with these guys.’”  Tutto Theatre Company produced Black Snow before Paper Chairs was in existence, and probably for the first time ever in Austin, Texas.  Since then, Paper Chairs has not produced Black Snow in any form, including readings, workshops or full productions.  The confusion in the reference above lies in the fact that several of the theatre artists involved in the Tutto production of Black Snow went on to found Paper Chairs much later.  Full disclosure, I am, then and now, the secretary of the Board of Directors of Tutto Theatre Company, and this is a source of bias.  But by virtue of this same bias I am also certain of these facts, and I have fond, fond memories of everyone involved in Black Snow. 

Paper Chairs is a company that creates repeatedly on the extraordinary efforts of many theatre artists who obviously enjoy working together.  This rare situation cries out for Paper Chairs to become a repertory company.  Its ardent supporters can then find their creative fulfillment together, and the rest of us can enjoy the results.  I await the next from these inventive minds and talents.  

Theatre Night with Dr. Dave--Phineas Hamm and Messenger #4

The 27 Would-be Lives of Phineas Hamm and Messenger No. 4 (or…How to Survive a Greek Tragedy)
Paper Moon Repertory/Cambiare Productions
February 18, 2012
The BLUE Theatre
East Austin
Runs February 16 to March 4, 2012

These full-length plays were presented as a double feature (although one could choose to buy a ticket for a single play only), and this arrangement gave Dr. Dave a huge theatre night.  Fortunately, the productions were spectacular and well-matched and left their audiences energized and satisfied.  Unfortunately, these shows will soon be competing head-to-head for numerous awards in the upcoming award nominating and granting season—Dr. Dave predicts.

“The 27 Would-Be Lives of Phineas Hamm” is a full-production premiere of an original play by its director, Rachel Maginnis.  The set, costumes and props have a nineteenth century European feel to them, inspecific as to place.  Speaking accents were not used or attempted by the cast.  The title character inherits a device from his inventor father, that, when used, kills him and reincarnates him in a new life.  The ensuing scenes are snapshots of the journey through this soul-vortex or karmic suicide express, a literary device amplified in the 70s by the science fiction writer Phillip Jose Farmer in his Riverworld series.  In this take on it, we see a lot of life, murder, sex, drinking, fighting, whoring, fortune-telling, fortune-gaining, fortune-losing, gambling and more fighting.  We don’t see a lot of answers to fundamental questions about time and the soul, yet the characters ask questions about it anyway; and Phineas never gains control over the mysterious device (don’t touch it, Jim!).  We do see a lot of scene changing by the cast, and they were very good at it.  Standouts in their multiple roles were Aaron Alexander, Andrea Smith and Omid Ghorashi.  The props by David Meissner were brilliant, the costumes by Rachel Maginnis (yes, her again) were sex-ee and the set by Ia Enstera was like some monumental carved European clock—one didn’t know what would pop out of it when the clock struck Never.
Messenger #4 hails from the Classically obsessed imagination of Will Hollis Snider of Cambiare Productions.  A literary agency has proprietary technology, which allows it to send the Messengers into every Classical and Elizabethan play—to manage their common literary devices of messengers coming on stage telling the characters and audiences what has just happened off stage.  That way a playwright doesn’t actually have to stage the sea-battle of Actium or anything else enormous that wouldn’t fit onto the stage.  Hilarity ensues.  Messages to different plays get switched; technology goes haywire; and characters fall in love.  Yes, this is farce comedy.

 The action and scenes shifted on the activation of wrist devices that hurled the messengers backward and forward in literary time.  Actors rushed on and off stage to change the set.  Often their set pieces were tree branches, and they enacted trees for the new scene, duly credited in the program.  These rapid-fire transitions afforded many of the cleverest moments of the play.  Consequently, almost all of the actors played several roles, the most being eleven, enacted by the hard-working Jessica Allen.  Andrew Rogers played only the title character, but even he met himself in a time paradox goof-up in the middle of the play.  His lover was seriously confused.  Tap your wrist devices to dislodge static buildup. 

Rachel Weise was a major standout.  Her Puck was a scream, and as Shakespeare she delivered the timeless soliloquy on actors spending a brief hour upon the stage, but the play living on forever (I forget its play source).  This was the heart of this loving tribute in farce comedy to Classical and Elizabethan drama.  Then Shakespeare went on to bring the laughs in a godlike swordfight with his own characters (What?  How dare you kill off my character!  En garde!)  Another excellent performer was Megan Minto, who brought a slightly drier and cooler humor to the play, thus becoming a relieving tropical isle in this ocean of farce. 

Regarding both plays, contemporary theatre has abandoned the proscenium stage with its structured ability to both hide and reveal its theatre magic.  Consequently, there has been a revival of the chorus.  This is post-post-Classical and post-post-Modern.  The New Chorus is tasked heavily with scene changing, as there is no curtain behind which to do this.  And black-clad stagehands are passé and thoroughly lame.  The New Chorus performs all this—and singing and dancing, too!  Both productions took slightly varying approaches to this problem set, but both succeeded brilliantly.  The issue inevitably involves transitions, which must be clear but brief.  The results reflect on direction.  The work here was facilitated by Ia Enstera’s articulating set, designed for both productions and their needs.  The choreographers, Kaitlyn Moise (Phineas) and Rachel Wiese (Messenger) also provided clever solutions throughout.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Theatre Night with Dr. Dave--Love in Pine

“Love in Pine”
Written and Directed by Gary Jaffe
The Last Act Theatre Company
The Broken Neck, 4701 Red Bluff Rd. Austin
February 16, through March 3, 2012

The Broken Neck is a term describing a theatre space so raw the word theatre isn’t used in its name.  The location is a former automotive repair shop or warehouse, with tilt-wall construction, lots of corrugated sheet-metal, broke-down cars out front, glaring security lights (Aah! East Austin!); and a chic unfinished plasterboard interior design within, accented with a near-total graffiti layer.  It was safe: there was no crankcase oil on the floor.   This Civilization-teetering-on-the-brink esthetic must not deter anyone seeking unusual locations to find rare theatre experiences.  The venue upholds an avant-garde theatre tradition: it stands right up the street from the former Red Bluff Studios, a similarly repurposed building that was home to many early 90s dance and theatre explorations.  Artist luminaries such as Deborah Hay and Sally Jacques performed and taught there; but now, in this century and in this new ramshackle place, that legacy creativity still pervaded the ether on a cold winter performance night and piqued the imagination for what “Love in Pine” might bring.  

The action of the play took place on platforms and runways projecting at various angles through the space.  A thrust stage is the most apt space concept term for the stage/set design.  The result was three levels of performing space, and all the sight lines from the audience were good.  Such is almost never the case with alternative spaces, and the stage design is one of the most laudable aspects of the production.  The lighting design is best described as Hurling Photons, and there were sufficient instruments to win that game, although the lighting sets were not always well cued.  The sound design was apt but a little understated for my taste.  For example, the horrific Bastrop fires were described in monologue; the lighting design held up its end of the bargain, and this was the perfect place for the snap, crackle and pop of a truly hell-bound inferno.  We got nothin’.  The car-crashes (multiple!) were OK but no more than OK.  Clearly, the sound designer gave vastly more attention to gaining appropriate and evocative prom dance music than nuts-and-bolts sound effects, but the latter are often where the creative opportunities lie.   

The play itself started with a fatal car-crash suffered by a couple on their way to the prom dance.  It went from there through two hours and two acts with ghosts, live people, flashbacks, ‘way flashbacks, ghosts-becoming-people, people-becoming-ghosts, reverse it all again, everyone ghosts, everyone people.  I am not trivializing the action of this play.  There was an immense amount of switching backing and forth at important levels of meaning in “Love and Pine.”  When the playwright is also the director, certain things may be overlooked in the transition from word to stage reality in pursuit of the artistic vision.  The alternative stage setting, already described, did not have curtains or (intentional) blackouts to cue even the most avant-garde of audiences that we are having important changes of state in the set and characters here (human to ghost, ghost to human, etc).  There were a few good lighting cues for the changes, but the burden of making the sometimes-instantaneous transitions fell heavily on the actors, and they did a great job.  The burden of following the many transitions, however, fell crushingly on the audience, seeing and hearing the play for the first time.  If one’s understanding of the action lapses to uncertainty, the effect might be a withdrawal from suspension-of-disbelief, that all-important compact between performer and audience.  I admit that I felt uncertain and a little dulled-out by the end of Act I.

But I persevered.  The kernel of brilliance at the heart of “Love in Pine” is that the celebration of Prom is a central event in the lives of everyone surviving into their late teens, whether they graduate from high school or not.  Love, sex and the future, my future, spiral into this turning point, and we have to take our temperature constantly in order to scry any future for ourselves.  Such a delicate yet raging fear, and playwright Gary Jaffe put his thumb on it with great sensitivity, and, ultimately, compassion. Mr. Jaffe and everyone at Last Act Theatre Co. are young, not long past their own proms, and the commitment with which they staged “Love in Pine” makes the production look like their collective love letter to the world.      

The cast of “Love in Pine” is particularly well appointed.  They are all standouts, and individually deserve entire blogs on their skills and performed work.  Alas, time does not permit; however, it should be noted that the male actors, Chris Hejl and Douglas Mackie, showed particular skill in their physical work.  I credit them with adroit handling of set furniture, wineglasses and lovers’ bodies.  Their intimate scenes steamed up the audience. 

Karen Alvarado conveyed much of the story with utter confidence and agility.  Her work is measured and subtle, and yet her emotionality is quicksilver, making compass turns on the instant (a necessity in this play), but never becoming too much or overdone or opaque.  Few can manage such requirements.  Emily Madden played Tree, and at this point some Dr. Dave back-story is required.  I have had a crypto-career playing trees in dances and plays.  So I know how it is done, and I know all the nuances.  And Emily Madden’s Tree gave me the creepy creeps (and that’s a very good thing).  Bridget Farr is immensely dynamic and plays easily with great passion and smoky subtlety.  At the same time she is sharing and supportive of all on stage with her.  Such high intensity is found in few.  Fewer still can control it.  But not so Bridget: she holds the power and claims the glory.  Bridget’s amp goes to eleven.

“Love in Pine” is not Playwright/Director Jaffe’s first play.  He has won many awards for his work, in his early twenties, and Hello World--he is going to win many more!  I encourage everyone to see “Love in Pine,” overcome its challenges, bask in its delights, and get in on the ground floor of Mr. Jaffe’s work.  I hope to blog a lot of it.  Mr. Jaffe’s  next task will be directing “The Twelfth Labor” by Leegrid Stevens for Tutto Theatre Company, August, 2012. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Theatre Night with Dr. Dave--The Alien Baby Play

“The Alien Baby Play”
by Nicholas Walker Herbert
produced by Tutto Theatre Company
attended 1/20/12
runs January 20 – 22, 2012 at a private residence in Westlake,
and January 24, 28, 29 and February 5, 2012 at Salvage Vanguard Theater,
Austin, Texas as part of Fronterafest Longfringe series.

I arrived after dark at the fancy Westlake home, Google maps making it easy to find, and I was welcomed and embraced by Austin/Southern hospitality like I was coming home from some nameless war.  After five minutes the crowd of about 20 folks felt and acted like old friends, and the living room held us all comfortably.  Without warning, we were joined by a nervous, immensely pregnant woman, gravid beyond gravity, who thanked us for coming and told us this utterly convincing story of her abduction and impregnation by an alien named Gabe.  She would need all our help in giving home birth to this alien’s baby she had been carrying for fifteen months. 
Alright.  The hospitable warmth cooled around the edges a bit.  I had that unsettled feeling most people have when they are near someone they have just now realized is delusional. But is she really delusional?  Our heartstrings were tugged by this young girl who was stuck in a bad situation.  And that’s bad in the bad sense of bad.   Like all good little primates who got eaten by the jaguar, our curiosity overcame our fear and we all stayed to the end, listening to Bethany’s stories, helping her off the floor when the contraction pangs struck like lightning bolts, and munching her cookies, bell peppers and gum drops.  The celery stalk she pulled from her bosom she reserved for herself, thank you. 
This evening was a theatrical treasure, with Bethany played by Kathleen Fletcher in a one-woman tour de force.  The local weekly tabloid called this year’s Fronterafest a promising anthology of one-person performances, and “The Alien Baby Play” must, by any measure, be considered one of its foremost offerings.  Kathleen Fletcher is a native Austinite and actor who is a singing-dancing-acting triple-threat as Broadway measures these things, and, logically, that is where she now resides and pursues her performing arts career.  “The Alien Baby Play” was written by Nicolas Walker Herbert, an emerging American playwright (and director and actor), who penned the play expressly for Fletcher.  This is truly a rare conjunction of stars.  When Tutto Artistic Director Gary Jaffe found out about the collaboration, he insisted that Tutto Theatre Company produce it.  The rest, everyone hopes, will be theatre history.  Deservedly so.
But what was the play about, really?  It resolved some of its mysteries and left others tantalizingly mysterious.  Was it about a new Messiah, or maybe the first?  The play skipped over The Annunciation and went to an angel telling Joseph not to set aside his wife, thoroughly second-classing the Virgin Mary.  Several world religions tell of avatars, messengers arriving on earth through matings of divine beings and human beings.  On a more human level, we can see the isolated and frail Bethany struggling in her human way to bring back her deceased mother, or retrieve her father from falling down the bottomless well of Alzheimer’s.  And then there’s Charlie. I won’t tell you about Charlie; I’ll leave it to Bethany to tell you perhaps the best contemporary story about guilt, compassion, inflicted traumas and struggled healings. 
All the stories were wrenching, connecting with our own lives in some way, until Bethany’s stories became our stories and we lapsed into our own memories and reflections.  Toward the very end, I turned and looked out the French windows and saw a bright light in the night sky.  It seemed to glide, approaching.  In that brief moment before I heard the faint whir of the law enforcement helicopter, I thought transcendence was appearing.  Coming for me.  Coming for her.  Coming for us all.  

Monday, January 16, 2012

Theatre Night with Dr. Dave--No Assurance

No Assurance
The Blue Theatre
January 13 and 14, 2012
Produced by Julia Duffy-Dzubinski

The Blue Theatre is becoming the go-to venue for dance in Austin.  So it was for “No Assurance,” the second installment in what may become a yearly anthology series of contemporary dance.  I arrived early and sat on the first row, as I always do.  The dance space was arranged as a thrust, so there were three front rows from which to choose.  The set was minimal, as it needs to be to accommodate the variety of movement expected from eleven choreographers. 
         And there is nothing like starting a show with a knockout blow.  Amanda Leigh Oakley staged “Know Your Limits” a trio danced partly to the song “Sail” by AWOL Nation.  As with the popular song, the trio, Oakley, Randy Leigh Turkin and Kalani Hawks, were unrelenting in the rising intensity of their story of the suppressed agonies of highly made-up yet frustrated women at a house party. Ironically, the performers knew their limits and boundaries while portraying characters exploding out of theirs.  “Know Your Limits” was worth the price of admission, and it was only the first piece. 
         Producer Julia Duffy-Dzubinski gave us “Nonsense” one of three or four duets in “No Assurance.”  The Duffy-Dzubinski duet needed more weight, but it was too short, here and gone in a few moments.  Next came the exquisite trio “Disconnect” by Cherami Steadman and performed by Mysti Jace Pride, Debbie Barnes, and Cate Biedrycki.  The piece started with the performers entering on their backs, making insectlike motions with their arms and fingers, and scooting like that across the stage—waterbugs on a frolic.  And the piece was filled with innovative movement such as that.  Steadman is a marvelous explorer of concepts and images from nature, and her performers complemented her aesthetic with disciplined and precise performances. 
         Errin Delperdang brought on stage an ensemble of four dancers in an energetic and humor-filled piece one would readily characterize as absurdist.  It contained powerful movement, spoken word and non-linear storytelling.  Delperdang is one of a group of UT-Austin fine arts graduates becoming known for strong technique in service to the absurdist aesthetic.  The dance presented here did not disappoint, although Katherine Hodges’ presence (listed in the programme) was sorely missed.  After Intermission, Amnih Abboteen presented the duet “remember the times.”  The piece was a highly gymnastic demonstration by two virtuoso student dancers. Unfortunately, the clanking and tumbling of prop chairs distracted and diverted attention from their movement.  “Folks” followed immediately, a trio from Verge Dance Company, choreography by Kristin Nicolaisen.  Again, the movement and movement values were strong, but oddly, the piece suffered from following a dance with similar staccato movements and musical rhythms.  Toward the end, a bold and almost unique innovation was performed.  The stage lights faded instantly to black, and in the ambient light remaining the highly obscured figures of the dancers could be seen continuing their unison movement without error.  The effect was surprising and satisfying.  The light loss, however, was an accident, a technical failure, and it was entirely unintentional on the part of the choreographer. 
         “Driftwood” was choreographed and performed by Katherine Hodges and Maia McCoy.  The dance was a duet of steadily rising passion between two women.  It became more and more engaging to the viewer as it went on.  Rare is the dance piece that can’t be usefully shortened, but this one could have gone on enjoyably much longer. 
         Next came Randy Leigh Turkin’s piece “Hecate.”  The ensemble piece was easily the most innovative and bizarre work of the evening.  Three grotesque characters entered the stage in black costumes, veils, and tulle drapes.  Following them came a Middle Eastern dancer, Amara, in traditional costume and a tray of lit candles on her head.  The performance became even more stunning after the entrance sequences, powerfully addressing the fundamental conflict between light and dark.   
         The final piece (and final duet) of the evening was “Glass Scratch” by Kristen Frankiewicz.  It was performed by Frankiewicz and Alexandre Soares, and it was a tribute to the sensuality of sculptural bodies at rest, in movement and in flight.  I remember Frankiewicz’ equally memorable piece in last year’s No Assurance, a trio for two men and a woman (Frankiewicz), also performed to a soundtrack of two works of Euro pop.  In both dances, costume choices ran to studiowear and gymwear.  This gave the pieces looks of studio demonstrations rather than performance-ready creations; this year, however, Frankiewicz  added another element to the studio look.  She wore a fine jewelry necklace of shiny gold in multiple strands.  Was this slight change symbolic in some way to the sensual dance?  Or was it simply a new inflection on the costume choice?  I could not resolve this question, but it added to the intriguing qualities of the dance and will lodge it in my memory for years to come. 
         “No Assurance” part II was a triumph of dance art, full of beautiful, innovative and skilled presentations.  The same cannot be said for the production and production values.  The production effectively failed, to the extent that the dance artists seemed exploited.  Specifically, the show appeared to be produced on a shoestring, about which it can be said that if performance-hungry and talented artists are made to appear inept on-stage (the light outage, missed sound cues, late show start, etc), then their careers are advanced more by performing elsewhere or not performing at all that weekend.  Ultimately the artists have to make those choices and decisions themselves, but they rarely know at contract-signing time the level of supportive production they are going to receive at performance time.  Producers can give their well-deserving performers a vastly better experience by spending a few hundred dollars more for better venues, technology, better designers and better lighting and sound operators.  The lack of such efforts allowed the No Assurance production to lapse well below the threshold of viable dance and theatre production in the modern era.