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.