by Robert Faires
"My, how you've grown!"
Taking in Austin's arts scene at the end of 1998 is not unlike seeing a teenage nephew at the annual family reunion and noticing that his shirtsleeves offer ample view of his wrists and his trousers are no longer within shouting distance of his ankles; i.e., there's some serious growth going on here.
While Austin's cultural community has been developing steadily over the past several years, the developments in 1998 were so numerous and so dramatic as to be startling. Who knew on January 1st of last year that the 12 months to come would see: Austin voters overwhelmingly approving the long-delayed Mexican American Cultural Center, improvements to the Carver Museum, and -- most impressive -- the renovation of Palmer Auditorium into a 21st-century arts center; the selection of world-class architects for two new local museums, the Austin Museum of Art's permanent downtown facility and UT's Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art; a team of Dell executives and their spouses pledging $13 million to the new AMOA building; the Blanton acquiring one of the world's major Old Masters collections; the Texas Fine Arts Association opening its new downtown home, the Jones Center for Contemporary Art; Austin Lyric Opera acquiring land for a new headquarters on Barton Springs Road; the Zachary Scott Theatre Center breaking box-office records with its production of the Tony Kushner epic Angels in America; Live Oak Theatre embarking on its renovation of the State Theatre into a major multi-use performing arts facility; several groups changing their names to mark new eras in their history (the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, the State Theater Company, Sharir + Bustamante Danceworks, Zilker Theatre Productions)? Who could have known? Development of this magnitude in the local arts scene is unprecedented. But there it is. And the fact that so much of it occurred in such a concentrated period of time should convince even the skeptics around town that this is a new day for Austin's cultural community. Old fears about lack of support and failure to realize grand ambitions need not apply. We're growing up.
That's the message of 1998 on our cultural front, and it's a welcome one. If there is anything unfortunate about its timing, it's that some of the people who contributed greatly to our reaching this point are no longer with us to enjoy it: John Bustin, W.H. "Deacon" Crain, Gustav Likan. As we move into this new day, we should remember their guidance and support, and strive to follow the example they set. -- Robert Faires
NINE SHOWS THAT TRANSPORTED ME
by Robert Faires
Red, White and Tuna
1 Red, White, and Tuna (Charles S. Duggan Presents) Seen as simply another of Joe Sears and Jaston Williams' comedies set in Texas' third smallest town, this farce about a Fourth of July reunion gone literally sour was entertaining and superbly crafted enough to make a best-of-'98 list. But seen as the end of a journey begun 17 years before in a modest little theatre on Sixth Street, Red, White, and Tuna was the show of the year. In its characters' musings on time and change, we could glimpse the author-performers reflecting on their own lives, on the unexpectedly long road they have traveled with the citizens of Tuna and what it's given them. Their farewell gesture -- changing costumes onstage for the first time -- was a slyly theatrical and deeply touching acknowledgment of their art and their audience.
2. (tie) blood pudding/Race of the Ark Tattoo(Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre) Two new plays from Frontera that spoke of history and ghosts, and how they shape identity. blood pudding took us to Bayou Country and the Crescent City to resurrect the Creole people through the lush language and fluid rhythms of Sharon Bridgforth. The warmth of the setting and liveliness of the ensemble under Laurie Carlos' direction created a seductive twilight land that still haunts me. I'm also haunted by Race of the Ark Tattoo, by its eerieflea market consuming Hyde Park Theatre and Jason Phelps' scarecrow caretaker. Spurred by David Hancock's spooky script and Vicky Boone's keen direction, Phelps became a man maddened by a void within him desperately trying to divine his story through objects from his past. Both shows proved again how adventurous a company Frontera is and how rich its explorations of new territory can be.
3.Ulysses (Ballet Austin) Homer's epic hero danced his way from Troy to Itháka, and every step was a thrill. BA artistic director Lambros Lambrou filled his ballet with earthy, dynamic movement that captured the tale's adventure, but like his protagonist, Lambrou stayed focused on home, the work resonating with that place's powerful draw. Nadya Zybine's Penelope made clear why Rafael Padilla's Ulysses persisted in his quest, and their duet of reunion was the tender embodiment of steadfast love.
4. Gypsy (Austin Musical Theatre) The ultimate show-biz fable staged with all the allure and pain of a life in the theatre made palpable. Director-choreographers Scott Thompson and Richard Byron brought all their backstage savvy to bear on the brilliant Laurents-Styne-Sondheim script and it showed, in the glorious singing, snappy movement, intense emotion, and Pamela Myers' electric rendition of "Rose's Turn," which seized your heart, then broke it right in two.
Angels in America
5.Angels in America (Zachary Scott Theatre Center) Dave Steakley's realization of the lauded Tony Kushner epic was not without its weaknesses, but when it connected -- which was often -- the impact was powerful. A force of gutsy, committed artists -- from designers to actors to support staff -- drew from Kushner's dense, literary text a stirring confrontation with loss and history that hit us where it mattered: in the soul.
6. Annie (Austin Musical Theatre) Pure sunshine on a stage. Musical wizards Scott Thompson and Richard Byron took what could have been the sappiest show of 1998 and made it look bright and fresh, infusing it with a joy that was positively luminous.
7. The Santaland Diaries (Zachary Scott Theatre Center) Martin Burke proved an ideal interpreter of David Sedaris' tart reflections on life as a Macy's elf, giving us every ounce of the author's droll venom but spiking it with his own frantic urgency that heightened the material's hilarity. A welcome shot of Christmas cheer served with a jigger of wry.
8. The Whimsy (Physical Plant Theater) That rare wonder: a dream come alive. With a singing Moon, a wistful figure in rose, and puppets who voyage to the bottom of the sea, Steve Moore, Katie Pearl, and a corps of imaginative collaborators fashioned a romance that was enchanting in its blend of fantasy, mystery, lyricism, and wit.
9. Dress Me Blue/Window Me Sky (Frontera @Hyde Park Theatre) Lectures about optics and interactive demonstrations of optical illusions embellished this meditation on loss by Lisa D'Amour and Katie Pearl. Through these simple theatrical flourishes and the touching gentility of D'Amour's guide, we learned to see loss from someone else's perspective, through their eyes, and it was a revelation.
House (Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre), for Ken Webster's outrageous, funny, rich performance;
The Who's Tommy (Zachary Scott Theatre Center), for Dave Steakley's inspired "Sixties feed-your-head Wonderland" take and Charlie Pollock's goosebump-raising lead performance;
Salivatio (Rude Mechanicals), for its complete cartoon vision, Kirk Lynn's wonderfully whimsical script, and the lovely communal conclusion;
Atlas of the Universe (Johnson/Long & Company), for its open embrace of a sense of wonder, its imagination, and its visual poetry;
The Last Night of Ballyhoo (Zachary Scott Theatre Center), for the skill and warmth and sense of community of its priceless cast and Michael Raiford's wonderful set;
Beast on the Moon (Live Oak Theatre), for Jill Parker-Jones' sensitive direction and the heart-wrenching turns by Ken Webster and Boni Hester.
NINE TOP WORKS OF THEATRE
by Sarah Hepola
1. True West (OnStage Productions/The Company) Helmed by director Michael Stuart, with the assistance of first mate Ken Bradley, the sometimes jerkiness of Shepard's play became a smooth sail, a foul-mouthed, gritty homage to the playwright, sibling rivalry, sweaty men, and cases of Schlitz.
2. Arcadia (Different Stages) Different Stages' rock-solid ensemble waltzed us through this wry, beautifully wrought gem from master Tom Stoppard. As the charming Septimus, Joey Hood (who went on to appear in three of the nine shows on this list) caused a collective sigh from all females present.
3. Salivation (Rude Mechanicals) Kirk Lynn pulled out all the stops in the finale to his Faminly Trilogy. And the result? Heavy on goofiness and slathered with wordplay, it was a sinfully giddy comic feast.
4. Another Evening With Dottie P. (Shirk Workers' Onion) This little slice of hedonism, in which the Shirk Workers transformed Movements Gallery into a speakeasy, was an intensely fun tribute to Dorothy Parker, liquor, sex, and walking the tightrope when the morning comes.
5. Angels in America (Zachary Scott Theatre Center) Dave Steakley brought us the play of the decade near the end of the decade. Filled with heartbreak, hope, and some truly muscular performances, it left its handprints deep in my mind all year long.
6. Gypsy (Austin Musical Theatre) Broadway flash and a stellar cast makes for one voluptuous, sexy evening of musical magic via Austin Musical Theatre.
7. Raised in Captivity (Subterranean Theatre Company) Anchored by David Stahl as the play's sick soul, Subterranean Theatre Company's production of this Nicky Silver comedy managed to make this dysfunction junction feel just as cozy -- and crazy -- as family.
8. The Santaland Diaries (Zachary Scott Theatre Center) Martin Burke's manic monologue, which brought to wild-gesturing fruition David Sedaris' deadpan memoir of the same name, was a full-belly hoot, a swift comic knockout I didn't want to end.
9. O.T. (Austin Script Works) Clay Nichols' earnest take on race relations in the 1990s snapped together with the help of strong lead performances from Jim Elliott and Zell Miller III, and the sharp hand of director David Yeakle.
NINE TERRIFIC THEATRE ARTISTS WITH MORE THAN ONE REASON TO LOOK BACK ON 1998 WITH PRIDE
by Robert Faires and Sarah Hepola
(in alphabetical order)
Martin Burke, for his performances in Angels in America and The Santaland Diaries.
Lee Eddy, for her performances in Laughter on the 23rd Floor and The Kathy and Mo Show.
Joey Hood, for his performances in Arcadia, Another Evening With Dottie P.,Raised in Captivity, and Salivation.
Christopher McCollum, for her scenic design work on Ulysses, Annie, Gypsy, and Otello.
Aimee McCormick, for her performances in Another Evening With Dottie P. and Hey-Stop-That. Jason Phelps, for his performances in Angels in America, Race of the Ark Tattoo, and Walter Thompson's Sound Paintings, which he helped bring to Austin.
Allen Robertson, for his direction of Schoolhouse Rock, his musical direction for Blues in the Night and The Who's Tommy, and his sound design for Angels in America.
Dave Steakley, for his direction of Angels in America, The Who's Tommy, and The Santaland Diaries.
Ken Webster, for his performances in Beast on the Moon and House.
NINE TO KEEP YOU KEEN FOR '99
by Robi Polgar
1. Ron Berry as The Schoolmaster in The Visit (Refraction Arts Project) Clearly one of the best actors on Austin's stages these days is our Ron. The scene that sealed it: When Berry's Schoolmaster gives up his righteous quest of saving the townsfolk from their inevitable murder-for-hire of shopkeeper Alfred Ill for the money they'll net. A disturbing and hilarious descent into a booze-soaked, conscience-crushing paralysis.
2., 3., 4. Andrea Beckham in The Biggest Room of All(Andrea Beckham Dance Collaborative); Melissa Santos in Chance Blames Fate(Stillpoint Dance); and Nicole Wesley's sensual chair dance in Atlas of the Universe(Johnson/Long Dance Company) Three inspirationalmoments in three dances performed by three precise, fluid, and gifted dancers. Besides technical prowess, each dancer has a generous dose of presence: that mysterious quality that pins your eyes to her as she exuberantly explores her onstage space. A mix of vivaciousness, beauty, and powerful dancing from all three.
5. The aesthetics of The Brothers Karamazov (UT Department of Theatre and Dance) Director Michael Bloom and his design team created a dark, hulking, finely textured, and fittingly grim world for this problematic production. A solid concept crisply realized.
6. Anne Hulsman The all 'round perfection award 1998. Yeah, yeah, there's definitely a conflict of interest here since she's finally (after three years of my needling) become an Artistic Associate at The Public Domain, where I am artistic director, but Anne's development as an actor for a variety of companies over the past few years has been tremendous and this year I had the pleasure of seeing her in action in multiple capacities: as a stalwart company member, disciplined stage manager, and risk-taking actor. Her work ethic preparing for a role is unparalleled, and it has surely made her one of the best actresses in town. A true fan of Austin theatre, there's not much Anne hasn't seen and supported, so y'all give her an extra big hand next time you catch her in action.
7. New Musical Director Peter Bay raises the baton at the Austin Symphony From the moment the Maestro turned to his orchestra and practically leapt into action you could sense a change in the fortunes of Austin's flagship orchestra. The musicians seemed almost unable to mask their amazement at the new-found force of their own efforts. And a brave start, indeed, with Bay choosing the potentially hard-to-sell work of modern American composers. He should keep Symphony audiences joyfully on their toes for many a season.
8. Michael Stuart No matter how hard you try to stop him, he just keeps on going and going and going. Compassionate and smart: Does anyone know theatre -- and Austin theatre in particular -- better than Mr. Stuart? When will he take that much-needed vacation? Why, right after the current three or four or five projects he has piled high on his plate.
9. Megan Monaghan going to Minneapolis' Playwrights' Center Look, ma, there is work after grad school! Can we be more pleased that Megan Monaghan, one of the hardest-working artists in Austin theatre over the past five years, has landed a professional gig, supervising new play development at the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis? Okay, so it's darned cold up there (hell, it's darned cold here, too, these days), but what a fitting reward for Monaghan, who has put in her time in so many capacities for so many theatres: As actor, producer, dramaturg, and all-around theatre supporter. Bon voyage, Megan!
TOP NINE VISUAL ARTS EVENTS
by Sam Martin
Sally Mann at AMOA
1. "Still Time: Photographs by Sally Mann (Austin Museum of Art -- Laguna Gloria) The best thing about this exhibit was Mann's lecture and slide show before the opening in which she comfortably and humorously gave some personal insights into her photography. Included in the presentation was a shot of the photographer and her two daughters, nude and urinating on a beach that she prefaced as the most illegal and offensive photograph she'd ever taken. "My lawyer told me I shouldn't even cross state borders with it," Mann, who is from Virginia, told the packed, wide-eyed audience.
2. "Paintings & Drawings by Philip Trussel" (Alternate Current Artspace) Trussel may only show once a year, but that's because he's painting the rest of the time. Perhaps the best unrecognized artist in town, this New England transplant paints crafted nudes in futurist landscapes that you can look at forever. Keep your eyes peeled.
3. "Art of Oaxaca: Rodolfo Morales -- Juegos y Evocaciones" (Mexic-Arte Museum) Talk about a late bloomer. The Oaxacan-born Morales didn't even have his first solo show until he was 50 -- and that was in 1975. Now he is considered one of Mexico's great Oaxacan painters, and his surreal, magical paintings depicting small-town Mexico have garnered worldwide acclaim. With this retrospective, Mexic-Arte landed Morales' first North American solo show.
4. Malaquías Montoya (Galeria Sin Fronteras and Mexic-Arte) Are you kidding me? The fact that Montoya went to school, worked, and made posters for the Chicano Movement in Berkeley in 1968 makes this a top show of 1998. His politically charged silkscreens depict Chicano men and women rising up to break the chains of oppression. Images in his posters of barbed wire and the American flag impaled over maguey cacti gave visual power to the civil rights explosion around the country. Fight the powers that be.
by Malaquias Montoya
5. "Circa '98" (Brown Building) Over 700 people attended the Brown Building's gala opening for Samantha Randall's visionary symposium and installation exhibit that featured 40 local artists. The majority of the show focused on the booming world of design with architectural models and drawings, as well as furniture, lighting, photography, painting, and sculpture. Don't miss next year's "Circa '99."
6. "Bucking the Texas Myth III" (Julia C. Butridge Gallery) The third take on Texas proved once again that there are some people in this state who don't look at things in such traditional ways. A re-creation of the UT Tower out of tortillas and chiles was one example. The 48 artists in last September's exhibit were selected from every corner of the state and presented a variety of mediums to fill up the Butridge foyer at the Dougherty Arts Center. I would say the myth was bucked and thrown from its horse.
7. "Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film Stills" and "Mark Todd: Bad Lands" (Austin Museum of Art -- Downtown) More photography, I know. It was a good year for pictures and the AMOA, as the growing museum kept bringing in the big guns to Austin. Sherman's subtle but dark subjects in her Untitled Film Stills series have become key expressions of an entire postmodern art movement. This caliber of art is what Austin needs more of. As the second installation of AMOA's successful "New Works" series, Todd added a complementary derangement all his own with his poetic and angry depictions of serial killers.
8. "New American Talent: The Thirteenth Exhibition" (Jones Center for Contemporary Art, Texas Fine Arts Association) Okay, maybe the pieces in this show rubbed you the wrong way or failed to rub you at all, but the fact that TFAA has a new space in downtown Austin is worth celebrating. Besides, the installation, painting, sculpture, and works on paper weren't all that bad, and most were more unusual than anything else that came through town. It's only going to get better.
9. "Lance Letscher: Recent Drawings" (Gallery Lombardi) Stepping into one of Letscher's exhibits is like falling upward into a bed of clouds. His quiet yet sublime off-white pencil on paper cutouts left me with a soulful nostalgia I normally only get in dreams.