Girl Crazy

Austin Women Taking Center Stage

In Austin theatre, women are never far from center stage. The pool of talented female artists in our town is so incredibly rich that producers, directors, and playwrights of both genders are perpetually cooking up projects to showcase them. The past year is perfect proof, with its bounty of shows featuring all-female ensembles (Torque, The Cow Pattys, Alabama Rain, Beehive, and lovve/rituals and rage), women flying solo (Anne Sexton: The Excitable Gift, Black Velvet Bernhardt), and women in the major roles (Becoming Brontë, Keely and Du, Ellen Foster, The Triumph of Love, Sabbath Days in a Hot Pick-Up, Blinded by the Lights, and Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), et al.). From this and from the nominations for this year's Austin Theatre Critics' Table Awards nominations (elsewhere on this page), you can see why it's easy for folks to get giddy over this city's female performers, directors, designers, playwrights, and other theatre artists. Right now is a splendid time to relish some of those outstanding talents. Both Blinded by the Lights and Goodnight Desdemona... are still running, and Sabbath Days..., which closed its world premiere run at ArtSpace two weeks ago, is being revived at Chicago House for three more weeks. And there are two other shows with a female focus at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center and Frontera/Hyde Park Theatre, both, coincidentally, with "girl" in their title: the musical Dreamgirls by Tom Eyens and Henry Krieger, and the smoky mystery Girl Gone by Jacquelyn Reingold.

The moods and styles of these last two works are very different, as the reviews below by Barry Pineo and myself attest, but they do share more than a word in their title: Both deal in the world of performance, in obsessive pursuits and loss of identity, and, of course, with the unique prices women pay for the dreams they pursue in our society. See both and what you may find is that they are surprisingly complementary to each other. What you will assuredly find is that the breadth of female talent on Austin's stages is breathtaking. - Robert Faires

When we first meet Tish, she's carefully walking along an imaginary sidewalk, doing the best she can to avoid stepping on the cracks. She does this because she knows that a stepped-on crack can turn into a hole, the hole can swallow you, and you will be gone. Like her best friend Jean is gone. In flashbacks, we learn that Tish met Jean when she got a job as a topless dancer. Tish needed a teacher, and Jean was everything Tish was not: confident, assertive, in control. Then, suddenly, Jean was murdered, her body cut into pieces. She's gone, but Tish can't let her go. Tish wants Jean back - however she can get her.

Director Vicky Boone and her collaborators do surprising, inspired things in Girl Gone, this latest Frontera/Hyde Park produc-tion. Images of sexuality and violence dominate. Set designer Christopher McCollum creates a nightmare world cut through by a thin, black thrust stage stained with blood-like smears of white paint. He also dissects the dark space with red clothesline, from which hang female body parts scissored from newsprint, dangling on hangers, and wrapped in plastic. Tiny shards of mirror are suspended from the ceiling, slowly rotating, catching and reflecting Robert Whyburn's lights: flickering fluorescents to banks of colored downlights to tiny spots that pick actors out of the blackness. Esther Marquis reveals the dancers with lingerie, colorful synthetics, fishnet, and high heels - with one exception: Instead of dancing topless, the women wear breastplates, accent on "breast." The men are more conventionally attired - the only thing conventional about the production, including Andrea Ariel's slash-and-burn choreography and Jason Phelps' brooding, booming, aggressive, and frightening sound design that sets the mood and bridges the gap.

Boone's actors are strong as a group. Virginia Jenkins' Tish makes a very believable transition from callow fragility to experienced manipulation. Patricia Wappner's Jean is friendly in a narcissistic way, teaching while seducing. The other dancers succeed as well: Maggie Bridges' hardened professional, Aimee McCormick's living pelvic thrust, and Amy Lee Pearsall's Mame dreamer are coolly realized characters that sometimes provide comic relief. Though in less flamboyant roles, the men do equally well: Ron Reeder as Tish's geeky boyfriend, Michael David as the best gigolo around, and Chamblee Furguson as a sax player who seems far too charming to shed blood.

So much of this production succeeds that I was surprised when it lost my interest. Perhaps it was the night I saw it, or perhaps it was a choice that Boone and her actors made, but during the final scene of the play, the strong tempo and timing apparent for the majority of the production disappeared. Shocking things were revealed, but the revelations came at such an excruciatingly slow pace and seemed so awkwardly realized that all tension dissipated. This scene should have been the climax of the play, and playwright Jacquelyn Reingold has written what should be two surprising reversals into it, but when they came, they seemed obvious and not worth waiting for. The production certainly is a treat for the senses, but the story peters out. - Barry Pineo

When we first see them backstage at Harlem's Apollo Theatre, preparing to take part in an amateur talent show, Effie, Deena, and Lorrell are fresh from Chicago and fresh-faced, and their dream of hitting it big as an R&B trio - the Dreamettes - seems as pure and sweet as their harmonies. But as we follow them on the hard road to fame, through torturous tours and personal sacrifices, betrayals and suspicions of betrayals, and dark divisions that rise up among even close friends and family members, we see how hard it can be when dreams come true.

Tom Eyens' book for the musical Dreamgirls takes for his template the saga of the Supremes: A black girl group rises from obscurity to pop celebrity in the Sixties; the lead singer is singled out for superstardom, which breeds resentment among the onetime friends and eventually leads to the group disbanding. It is our age's archetypal show-business tragedy, one we've seen played out again and again, most recently with Kurt Cobain, but it has yet to lose its mythic resonance for us.

Eyens strains to cram the whole story in here - he has to deal with several protagonists and events spread over a dozen years - and the result is a series of short scenes, almost all set either onstage or backstage at some theatre, that begin to look alike after awhile, like the stops on a long bus trip. And in the way he and composer Henry Krieger have crafted their musical, the story reaches its most powerful moment at the end of the first act, with a fiery statement of independence that nothing which follows can top.

Still, their show boasts considerable appeal. The songs handily evoke the sound of Sixties R&B and pop, and while you won't mistake any of Krieger and Eyens' numbers for Motown hits, you'll likely hear in them a pleasant echo of those soul standards. And Dreamgirls does tap some of the power of the show biz tragedy on which it is based.

It's that power that director Dave Steakley delivers nimbly and with much style in the Zachary Scott Theatre Center production. His sensitivity to the feel and look of popular music and considerable command of the pop vocabulary - demonstrated with flair in Beehive, Rockin' Christmas Party, and Forever Plaid - create a credible atmosphere for this "period piece" (aided, of course, by elegant, inventive design work from Michael Raiford and vivid lighting by Don Day). And into this Sixties world, Steakley sets performers with the energy and verve to send the theatre's walls tumblin' down. His leads are all dynamos. Ameerah Tatum has a sound as round and rich as fresh cream, in which she steeps deep feeling finely nuanced. Judy Arnold has that narrow tone as focused as a laser and as adept as cutting through steel. Jacqui Cross has a sound as wide as the wind and as strong, but she can end a phrase like the crack of a whip. Together, their sound can melt your ears.

Supporting them is a fine ensemble, one that includes Janis Stinson and Billy Harden contributing sharp work and Clinton Sam, whose James Thunder Early is a screamin', sweatin', gruntin', grinnin', knee-jigglin', hip-shakin' approximation of James Brown.

But the Dreamgirls command the spotlight. Their sound as a team is seamless - more tribute to the wizardry of musical director Allen Robertson - and they seem a real unit. And that makes their break up all the more heart-rending. We feel a real bond being sundered. Indeed, watching the Dreams argue bitterly, I felt the same churning in my gut that I did when the Supremes split. When Cross hurls herself into the anthem "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," her raw fury draws tears.

Steakley does much with little. He uses Raiford's spare set pieces minimally and effectively, letting the performers take the focus, dress the stage, tell the story. It's a winning fusion of his entertaining choreographic style and narrative direction, and it gives us a Dreamgirls that is in many ways a dazzling dream. - Robert Faires

Girl Gone runs through May 15 at Frontera/Hyde Park Theatre. Dreamgirls runs through May 21 at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center.

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