Austin Theatre Refuses to Fade in 1995 And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going

The past 12 months saw some of Austin's

brightest theatrical talents leave us: meticulous director Mark Ramont, who left town after two years as Capitol City Playhouse's artistic director; the imaginative, physically daring young company Troupe Texas, which dissolved after only a few brief seasons; the beloved performing space Chicago House, which moved from its longtime home at 607 Trinity; theatre artists Norman Miller and TJ Gaudette, who passed away after making many, but in the end too few, contributions to our art.

We watched them go and, listening to those old grumpuses in Washington attack the arts, it seemed many people wanted everyone else in theatre to go, too. But Austin theatre is nothing if not persistent. Like the character of Effie in Dreamgirls, most local theatre artists and activists stood their ground and sang out that they weren't going anywhere. Except possibly the World Wide Web, where it seemed everybody was putting up a Web site. Or Seattle, where a handful of Austin theatre companies met with colleagues from around the country in the second RAT conference, further solidifying Austin's presence on the national theatre scene. Or the West Coast, where Salvage Vanguard Theater toured their homegrown production of David Bucci's rock play Kid Carnivore.

But those alternative destinations were only stopping points to push the real action at home, where Austin companies again staged more than 200 shows (90 of them penned by local writers). On Congress Avenue, The Public Domain opened their second-story stage, joining Live Oak in the State as new live theatres on Austin's Main Street. Joe Sears won the recognition of the nation, with a Tony nomination for his work in A Tuna Christmas on Broadway, but even this star used one of his breaks from touring Tuna to direct a pair of one-acts for Teatro Libertad at Planet Theatre. Yes, the message in local theatre in 1995 was clearly, "I'm not going. This is the place to be."

And here are two lists showing why the Chronicle critics agree. We didn't see everything (and we apologize to anyone whose work we missed), but we saw much on Austin stages that thrilled us this past 12 months. Take note for 1996.

Top Ten (Okay, 11) Transporting Experiences in the Theatre in 1995
(Robert Faires)

1. The Three Cuckolds (University of Texas Dept. of Theatre & Dance). That rarest of creatures in Austin theatre: a classical comedy that's truly funny. Director David Yeakle whipped up a commedia confection rich with brightness and imagination, and his crack cast -- surely one of the hardest working all year -- infused it with so much lunatic energy that this tale of runaway appetites still has me laughing months later.

2. The Billy-Club Puppets (Tongue and Groove Theatre). Director Yeakle again, creating a magical world of marionettes and masks and romance and play on a makeshift stage beside Lake Austin. The most complete theatrical experience I had all year, with setting, show, and company joined into an enchanting whole: stars and music and brightly colored canvas and gently lapping water and wonder. Much, much wonder.

3. Jacqui Cross singing "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" in Dreamgirls (Zachary Scott Theatre Center). More than a stirring version of a show-stopping song, Cross' rendition was a fusion of character, artist, feeling, and drama into a mesmerizing, breathtaking theatrical moment.

4. Allen Robertson's musical direction in Avenue X, Dreamgirls, Forever Plaid (Zachary Scott Theatre Center), and Cabaret (Live Oak Theatre). Local musicals have risen to a new level the past few years. Some of it is the quality of the singers, but some is also the extraordinary guiding hand of Allen Robertson. As is clear in show after show, he can weave disparate voices into a liquid whole, can spin melodies into magic.

5. The Chalk Circle (Troupe Texas). This athletic, energetic company disbanded in 1995, but not before they gifted us with one last treasure: a rich and feeling adaptation of a Brechtian drama. With their bodies and music and a few props, they took us on a jaw-dropping journey across mountains and through wars.

6. No Mo' Blues (Root Wy'mn Theatre Company). Another fragrant, spicy, nourishing helping of Sharon Bridgforth's singular poetry/drama, strikingly realized in the alternately growling and honey-sweet voices and sensuous movements of a great Bridgforth interpreter, Sonja Parks.

7. Ameerah Tatum in Blue Orpheus (GullyLove Productions/VORTEX Repertory Co.) and Dreamgirls (Zachary Scott Theatre Center). An artist of flashing eyes and souful voice, Ameerah Tatum can burn herself into your memory. Twice this year, she did that to me: as the smoldering wronged woman in Carl Settles' blues opera and the ambitious Diana Ross-like singer in Dreamgirls.

8. (tie) Norman Blumensaadt in The Triumph of Love (Different Stages); Paul Norton in Twelfth Night (Austin Shakespeare). Two actors, both in classical comedies, both giving us sharp comic turns and revelatory depth in the closing moments of their respective plays. Blumensaadt's lovestruck philosopher was a treat whose stunned expression upon finding he had been had was heartbreaking. Norton gave Feste the timing and improvisatory air of a born clown, with a touch of melancholy that he brought to moving fullness in the wistful song at play's end.

9. The Bremen Town Musicians (Second Youth). The familiar tale endearingly re-envisioned as a Depression-era fable of community, with some of the tightest ensemble work of the year and a full plate of Allen Robertson's lovely original songs.

10. Anarchy in the Oklahoma Kingdom (Anarchy Productions). Austin's first look at the work of playwright Erik Ehn; and a funny, wistful, lyrical look it was, with Skyler Hampton delivering her characteristic lean but striking theatrical direction and a folkish score by Ehn, Mike Warner, and Karen Abrahams-Turner that haunts me still.

Honorable Mentions: Avenue X (Zachary Scott Theatre Center), with its fine cast and astonishing a capella singing; Christopher McCollum's captivating sets for The Sisters Rosensweig and And Baby Makes Seven; Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) and And Baby Makes Seven (Frontera@Hyde Park), both funny, both with killer casts, both smartly directed by Mark Ramont; Dave Steakley's dynamic staging in Dreamgirls and Avenue X (Zachary Scott Theatre Center); Arnie Burton's engaging performance in Jeffrey (Capitol City Playhouse); Manual Zarate's funny, fantastic direction of Man of the Flesh (Teatro Libertad); Jennifer Stuart's smart and enthusiastic performance in The Triumph of Love (Different Stages); the heart-stopping closing moments of Joe York's staging of Cabaret (Live Oak Theatre).

Top Ten Most Exciting, and in Some Cases Most Entertaining, and in One Case Most Ludicrous (Which Counts in My Book as Entertaining) Things About Austin Theatre in 1995 (Barry Pineo)

1. Jacqui Cross' rendition of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" in Dreamgirls (Zachary Scott Theatre Center).

2. Karen Jones as Alvina in Eddie Lee, Eddie Lee (Teatro Libertad).

3. Ernestine Jackson as Billie Holliday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill (Capitol City Playhouse).

4. Jeffrey (Capitol City Playhouse), especially the performances by Martin Burke, Steve McDaniel, Steven Gibbs, and Bil Pfuderer.

5. The opening of The Public Domain theatre space at Eighth and Congress.

6. Robert Whyburn's uncountable lighting designs, including Girl Gone (Frontera@Hyde Park), Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (Zilker Musical), and Five Guys Named Moe (Zachary Scott Theatre Center).

7. Christopher McCollum's set designs for And Baby Makes Seven (Frontera@Hyde Park), Girl Gone (Frontera@Hyde Park), and The Sis-ters Rosensweig (Zachary Scott Theatre Center).

8. Michael Bucklin's performances as Tristan Tzara in Travesties (Different Stages) and Lucio in Kuka (Capitol City Playhouse).

9. The stage combat in FYT (Fourth Wall Theatre Company).

10. The design coordination in Faustus (VORTEX Repertory Company).

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order): The stunt climbing in K2 (University of Texas Dept. of Theatre & Dance); The Sisters Rosensweig (Zachary Scott Theatre Center), almost everything about it but particularly the relationship between Babs George's Sara and Ev Lunning, Jr.'s Mervyn, and Barbara Chisholm's performance as Gorgeous; Harv Morgan's performance in multiple roles in Talk Radio (The Company); Shannon R. Mayers' direction of Sabbath Days in a Hot Pick-Up; Janelle Buchanan's "Handler" monologue in Talking With... (Critical Mass); and last but certainly not least, Vinnie Caggiano's mean-spirited attack on Robert Faires and others in the pages of the Chronicle. n

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