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Hot Nights: 'The Bear' and Whiskey Shivers

Barkeep, gimme a whiskey with a Chekhov chaser

By Robert Faires, Fri., Aug. 24, 2012

Noel Gaulin gettin' his grizzly on
Noel Gaulin gettin' his grizzly on

Plays 'n' bars. Maybe not as classic a combination as cookies 'n' cream or peanut butter 'n' chocolate, but the two complement each other quite well, and every few years another local theatre company discovers anew how an adult beverage can help even the most bitter Beckett go down more smoothly and how saloons are a natural environment for theatrics, even when they're scripted. The latest to take advantage of the felicitous mix of drama and drink is the Exchange Artists, a troupe well-versed in making theatre outside theatres, as seen in its fairy-tale transformation of the Elisabet Ney Museum for The Story Seekers; its preapocalyptic seminar at the Omni Austin Hotel at Southpark for The Order of the Elm; and its guerrilla theatre activities in Whole Foods and on Capital Metro buses on World Theatre Day. Bringing plays to bars is a natural extension of what the company already does, but the Exchange Artists won't be invading the Blackheart Bar on Rainey Street this coming week just for one quick shot and a soliloquy. It's instituting a regular series that shakes up short theatrical pieces with sets by hot local bands.

Actually, it was the pairing of theatre and music that first appealed to Bridget Farr, a new member of the Exchange Artists producing team and the one taking the lead on play selection and band involvement for the series that's called Hot Nights. If you're looking to have a band play with your play, why not go where the bands – and their audiences – already are? Or as Artistic Director Rachel Wiese put it in an email: "We're young people who like live music, going to bars, and theatre; Hot Nights are a way of bringing together all of the things we love about Austin."

The debut pairs Anton Chekhov's one-act "The Bear" with foot-stomping folkies Whiskey Shivers, who perform not only after the play (which runs all of 15 minutes), but also before and during it. The roots quintet supplies the score for the 1888 comedy, and according to Wiese, their breakneck-tempo trashgrass "literally amplifies the noise" in the head of the lead character, Grigory Stepanovitch Smirnov, the landowner so vexed by the refusal of widow Elena Popova to pay her dead husband's debt to him that he challenges her to a pistol duel.

While "Bear" and band are separated by both time and culture, Wiese finds the Shivers' "slightly unhinged take on American folk music" an apt match for "the equally unhinged characters" Chekhov wrote. "They share a certain charming but dangerous explosiveness." Adding to the TNT on Chekhov's side of things will be Briana McKeague, who played the pistol-packin' sister Babe in Crimes of the Heart at City Theatre, as Elena, and Noel Gaulin, the Maniac in Palindrome Theatre's Accidental Death of an Anarchist, as Grigory. And as if this tinderbox needed more fuel tossed on it, the Blackheart will be offering specialty drinks with "Russian" and "bear" themes.

Assuming that the roof won't be literally blown off the bar by the first Hot Nights program, the Exchange Artists expect to be back at the Blackheart with a sophomore offering in November and more every three months thereafter. No future programs have been set, but Farr and Wiese have been in touch with folk/pop buzz band Wild Child about playing Hot Nights, and the group is up for it. In the meantime, the troupe has a full-length project to produce. No, it isn't performed in a bar, but The Man Who Planted Trees, a new homegrown adaptation of the allegorical short story by Jean Giono, promises to make Sparky Park, the pocket greenspace at 37th and Grooms, even more beautiful than it is. Visual artist Katie Rose Pipkin is providing projections and illustrations, while Rohan Joseph is supplying the score to enhance Katherine Craft's script. The show will run Oct. 4-20, Thu.-Sun., 8pm.

Hot Nights presents "The Bear" with Whiskey Shivers, Thursday, Aug. 30, 9pm, at the Blackheart Bar, 86 Rainey. For more information, visit www.exchangeartists.org.

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