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Men of Tortuga

Rare is the theatre company whose debut is as deft and precise as Street Corner Arts' is

Reviewed by Adam Roberts, Fri., Dec. 16, 2011

(l-r) Rommel Sulit, Joe Penrod, Kenneth Wayne Bradley, Garry Peters
(l-r) Rommel Sulit, Joe Penrod, Kenneth Wayne Bradley, Garry Peters

Men of Tortuga

Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd, 479-7529
Through Dec. 17
Running time: 2 hr.

When one attends the premiere offering of a new theatre company – a frequent occurrence in Austin – the impulse may be, understandably, to set a low bar for expectations. After all, it's common knowledge that to build any organization from the ground up usually requires a certain grace period of sympathetic leeway for all involved – including that first audience. Every once in a while, though, a new band of theatre folk is somehow able to achieve one fantastically rockin' coming-out party. But rare indeed is the company whose debut is as deft and precise as Street Corner Arts' Men of Tortuga. Don't let this one pass you by.

It's clear before the house lights dim that Street Corner is already in the business of shaking things up. You're not handed the traditional playbill with your ticket but instead are instructed to collect a "dossier" from the lobby's "Central File." Although some of this magic was lost during a curtain speech noting the production of the meticulously crafted document (a peek that should have remained behind the scenes), it's still clear that the company is starting out on the right foot in terms of creativity.

The impetus for the founding of Street Corner Arts was "to facilitate enjoyable, collaborative, and engaging opportunities for artists in Austin." It would be difficult to gather that actors Kenneth Wayne Bradley, Joe Penrod, Garry Peters, Rommel Sulit, and Benjamin Summers were doing anything but enjoying every manipulative minute of this underground political thriller. Jason Wells' script is certainly engaging, providing each performer with an especially distinct, solid character for their acting chops. And chops they have to spare – these men and director Andrea Skola Summers have carefully considered every nook and cranny of Tortuga, and their homework has paid off in a big way.

Future audiences are quite likely to benefit from the company's artist-centered mission. If those who produce are happy, engaged, and valued as collaborators, those on the receiving end should continue to reap the rewards as they do with Tortuga. Yet to talk of producing and receiving doesn't quite get to the heart of the special quality that I experienced with this production that is so rare for a theatre company's first time out – that give-and-take, almost conversational quality between those onstage and those in the house (making the small quarters of Hyde Park Theatre an ideal choice for this particular show).

As I left the performance on Saturday night, I took another look at my "dossier." Printed in boldface on its cover were the instructions "Use Caution! Disclosure of this Information May Compromise Sources and Methods." Ironically, it would seem that full disclosure is at the heart of what this company intends to do and will likely continue to accomplish if Tortuga is an indication of things to come. Its sources and methods – a high-quality play, solid acting and direction, and a commitment to provocative storytelling – form the not-so-secret code for Street Corner Arts' impressive debut.

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