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.