An innovative use of space marks 7 Towers Theatre Company's debut
Reviewed by Adam Roberts, Fri., Dec. 9, 2011
Burn ThisBallet Austin City View Terrace, 501 W. Third, 951/237-6210
Through Dec. 18
Running time: 2 hr., 15 min.
One of the highlights of Ballet Austin's phenomenal complex at San Antonio and Third is the AustinVentures StudioTheater, an intimate proscenium smack in the heart of Downtown. Until Saturday, this was the only space at the facility in which I'd ever attended a performance. Thanks to the creative ingenuity of the young 7 Towers Theatre Company, however, that evening I found myself with 13 others in cozy company at Ballet Austin's City View Terrace to see one of Lanford Wilson's best-known works: Burn This.
Wilson's play takes place in a dancer-turned-choreographer's Manhattan apartment, and few sites in Austin would provide a more imaginative setting than that of the terrace. Anna Berken's set design creates a pseudo-thrust configuration, with the audience seated on two adjacent sides of the "stage." The terrace's kitchen serves as the fictional apartment's kitchen, with the lounge space transformed into the sparsely furnished living room that tenant Anna prefers for working out her choreography. The terrace windows provide a sparkling glimpse of Austin at night – perhaps the most striking effect of 7 Towers' chosen site as the play makes frequent references to the apartment's view and events on the street below. At least once during the course of the evening, an actor exits the lounge/"living room" to the outdoor terrace, making effective use of nearly every aspect of the space (save for some rather obvious problems from the lack of sufficient backstage areas).
The performance site seems to contribute its own character, expanding the four-person cast with its unique role. It's joined by Suzanne Balling as Anna, the budding choreographer; Scot Friedman as Larry, Anna's roommate who works in advertising; Tom Green as Burton, Anna's steady romantic interest; and the production's director, Aaron Black, as coked-up Pale. The ensemble's acting is more or less satisfying, with Green and Black turning in the strongest performances. Both achieve a grounding that results in realistic, truthful portrayals of their characters. Though Balling is clearly no newcomer to the stage, her Anna is too passive, even untenable. Similarly, Friedman tends to play at his character's wisecracking, quirky personality rather than offer a more palpable arc for Larry. Each actor interacts significantly with the physical space inhabited by the audience, and sometimes this seems forced: a too-obvious attempt to make the audience feel it's sitting in the middle of the apartment. But the site does this on its own, with inherently tight quarters that need to be allowed room to breathe and interact with the actors and audience, rather than forcing them the other way around.
According to its playbill, 7 Towers is "motivated by what Martha Graham describes as a 'queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive.'" If the sort of innovative qualities the company has imbued Burn This with are to continue to permute its future work, I say, "Keep us marching."