Exhibitionism

THE TAFFETAS: POPTO-BISMOL
Zachary Scott Theatre Center,
through January 1
Running Time: 1 hr, 30 min

Pink. Easy. Soothing. These are the three qualities that count when you're talking about Pepto-Bismol. Its color -- that vivid rose, somehow both muted and electric simultaneously -- distinguishes it from everything else in the medicine chest, a hue suggestive of gardens, fairgrounds, childhood nurseries, and other sites of simple comfort. Pour it from the bottle and it flows out smoothly, calmly, the liquid just thick enough to keep it from rushing into the spoon (and frequently spilling out of it). Its very nature is pacific, and once it's inside you, you can feel its thickness and sweetness and pinkness sliding down to coat your insides and just settle everything down. Ahhh....

Those qualities that combine to provide such relief in this over-the-counter restorative are also prevalent in this latest pop revue from the Zachary Scott Theatre Center. When the four sisters who comprise the fictitious Fifties singing group of the title appear onstage, they are ablaze in pink, their cookie-cutter dresses and shoes -- more whimsical creations from designer Michael Raiford -- shining like some cotton candy dream. They start to sing and the music -- some of that era's most innocuous ditties, from "Sincerely" to "Johnny Angel" to "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" -- issues from their mouths in a full and lesiurely stream. Nothing hurried, nothing forced, nothing ragged, just music slipping toward your ear, where it eases inside and coats your brain, covering over all that anxiety and tension that seems endemic to life in the Nineties and just settling everything down. Ahhh....

As he did with Zach's earlier production of Forever Plaid (currently revived and running in rep with The Taffetas), director Dave Steakley has taken a catalogue of pop songs hung on a gimmick -- for both The Taffetas and Plaid, it's harmony hits of the Fifties -- and crafted an entertainment showpiece with plenty of polish and power to charm. He ensures that each song is served up like the dessert you've been waiting for all through the meal -- with sweet moves, creamy sounds, and light but tasty dollops of humor that make the thing complete.

Steakley's cast is, as with Plaid, a well-chosen corps of talented singers whose voices blend beautifully and who all project a sort of bygone innocence that walks the line between purity and parody. Rebecca Schoolar, Meredith Robertson, Larissa Wolcott, and Lisa Robert (who alternates with Laura Powell) beam at us like aspiring showroom models and speak enthusiastically of domestic joys like the offspring of Betty Crocker herself. It's amusing -- as it's intended to be -- but thanks to the abundant charms of these performers, it's adorable, too. Character-wise, there's not much there in The Taffetas, but these women create personalities we can embrace. Embrace, heck, these gals you want to hug.

The Taffetas' voices here are as engaging as their characterizations. Individually, the singers excel in replicating the dreamy romantic vocals of period singers like Doris Day and Peggy Lee (with Schoolar doing a keen Connie Francis on "Who's Sorry Now" and Robert a dead-on impression of the Shirelles' lead singer on "Dedicated to the One I Love"). Collectively, their voices bind as tightly as kin, giving even the silliest of the songs enough substance to knock you over (no doubt the handiwork of master musical director Allen Robertson).

There are those for whom the taste of Pepto-Bismol is too cloying, its shade of pink unnatural. They take no comfort from the stuff. I suspect such folks might find The Taffetas similarly unsatisfying. But for those who sigh contentedly at the invocation of its essences -- pink, easy, soothing -- a theatrical equivalent to that elixir is waiting to becalm you and put a friendly smile on your face. -- Robert Faires




FRESHMAN YEAR SUCKS!:
ANOTHER LION TAMED

Planet Theatre,
through December 14
Running Time: 1 hr, 15 min

Circus allusions are perfect for talking about theatre: Actors are animals who respond only to positive reinforcement. Live performers work without a net. Sometimes it's not how well the bear waltzes, it's that he waltzes at all. Carnies have their own code of ethics. And, a perennial favorite for describing a popular trend in the Austin arts community, writing and performing a one-person show is like taming a lion.

Rob Nash has once again ventured into the golden beast's cage with Freshman Year Sucks!This is familiar territory for Nash, whose Dysfunctional Family Saga charmed audiences far and wide while he singlehandedly told the story of a family who put the fun in dysfunctional. Sucks! is the first part of his new multi-episode epic, The Holy Cross Quadrilogy, that takes us back to 1981 and a Houston all-male Catholic school. The four shows will chronicle these wonder years for three boys searching for manhood: Johnny, the poet-rebel, and his two chick-repellent friends, Ben and George.

Sucks! has emerged from the miasma of script development that is Austin. Nash performed a less developed version last summer at the Planet in order to get feedback from a real, live audience and hone his material. He then hooked up with director Gregory Gunter in Los Angeles. All this input has helped this script tremendously, fleshing out formerly insubstantial characters, like our heroes' parents, while giving the audience more insight into the trials of the first year of high school. Now, all audience members, whether they were forced into Catholic school or public, can wince at the mistakes and cheer for the triumphs of these kids. Plus, Brad "The Whipping Boy" Hastings' sound design, chock full of early Eighties hits, will bring the teen years flooding back to those whose minds are triggered by Adam Ant and Duran Duran.

But this is more than a nostalgia trip. Nash's performance strides into the lion's cage, whip in hand, and proceeds to charm the beast. You can tell just how much he cares about the characters he has created and how important their story is to him. This passion and depth tames even the most hard-hearted audience member. Granted, Nash does stop just short of sticking his head in the mouth of this newly placid beast and this threat of implicit danger seems to be the only thing missing from the revamped production. Ultimately, you know that these three lads will come to grips with their problems, despite the mounting pressure in their lives that is inexplicably released by an unnecessary intermission. Perhaps the real threat lies in the possibility that Nash will forget which character is supposed to be saying which line or that Zach Murphy's tightly cued lights will miss their timing.

All in all, however, everyone emerges unscathed, ready to fight the beastie three more times to finish the story. -- Adrienne Martini




AMERICAN ARCANA:
DESPERATION ON THE CUSP OF THE MILLENNIUM

The Public Domain
through December 21

It's just over two (!) years 'til the millennium strikes, and those who feed on grim tales of human depravity are in for a treat. Those already weary of the hype should buck up and prepare for the worst. Fortunately, this isn't it.

American Arcana depicts a bleak near future, a world in which cynicism and uncertainty are the only constants. Penned by playwright Cyndi Williams as "an apocalyptic comedy," American Arcana (an arcana is an archive of secret things) chronicles the gradual erosion of our morals, institutions, and civility in a series of monologues and dialogues by an array of characters. The play offers a glimpse at a future that might be, a reality so dark it is only a shadow away. It is a world in which the rantings of a paranoid politician stir public sympathy, a gospel singer finds comfort in her outrageous belief that she is the Virgin Mary, and even a sacred ritual like marriage is not without hostility and recklessness.

Not surprisingly, right-wingers take it on the chin here. But Williams' tale holds caution for us all. Radio, television, the cult of celebrity -- these are the true agents of alienation, wedging out our individuality, extinguishing the spark of human connection. In this production -- the ambitious first effort from Austin Script Works, a promising company founded by playwright/ director Emily Cicchini and playwright/UT professor David Mark Cohen to nurture new plays -- some of the scenes capture the bitter mix of isolation and suffering Williams hoped to convey. Lisa Hargus' drunken bout with an estranged God, which could so easily fall into slurring and sputtering cliché, manages to be harrowing and poignant. Guilford Adams, in his two powerful monologues as the Son, brings a gentle touch to the surrounding harshness of the production. Perhaps it is these solo performances which best illustrate the quiet desperation Williams was striving to capture. Throughout the rest of her play, Williams maintains a nice ear for human nuance and an understanding of our often contradictory need for independence and community, but in attempting to capture something epic, she stumbles a bit: too many scenes, too much abstruse symbolism, so many actors that it's all but impossible to keep them straight, especially when they reappear as different characters. Although some deft direction by Christina J. Moore make its thirtysomething scene transitions smooth, the play, unwisely stretched over three acts and two intermissions, is still way, way too long. Williams would be well advised to hone the piece down, to whittle away the excess and let the heart of the tale -- in all its divine grimness -- shine. -- Sarah Hepola

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