Stage Top 10s

Top Ten That's Really 13 (and Could Easily Have Been 20) Theatre Experiences of 1996

1. (tie) The Bacchae: Torn to Pieces, The Gospel at Colonus (Hopeful Monsters/Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre, Zachary Scott Theatre Center): What are the odds? In one year, two Austin theatres stage modern adaptations of Greek tragedies, and both provide drama of astonishing immediacy and power. Susan Fenichell's updated Bacchae reset that savage tale in a modern hearing room, where the ghosts of Ruby Ridge and Oklahoma City swirled, binding us to ancient horror through our own experience. Gospel transformed Oedipus' drama into a Bible story, rich with spiritual turmoil and eventual redemption. Staged by Dave Steakley and performed by a company that sang with a rare and glorious passion, it lifted us within reach of heaven. Through these shows, I finally felt the cathartic power of Greek drama.

2. slip (Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre): An account of madness from the far side of it, conveyed with such precision and piercing vulnerability that every harrowing slip down the slope of sanity and difficult step back up was made painfully real. Solo artist Kristen Kosmas rendered each word and each movement with clarity, using them as stepping stones in her journey across treacherous ground.

3. Enfants Perdus (Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre): The theatrical equivalent of a midnight high dive into dark waters: you can't see where you're going, it's a fearful risk, but what a rush on the way. This ambitious Frontera venture -- a group-created drama of an apocalyptic odyssey from Minnesota to Texas -- epitomized the company's fearlessness in exploring language and theatricality, and it gave audiences the thrill of finding new ways to see.

4. Joe York in Sweeney Todd (Live Oak Theatre at the State): Our finest musical actor proved his versatility yet again with a portrayal of the demon barber that danced on the razor's edge. York's Sweeney raged with black fury, and his cry for the judge's blood -- an eruption of primal hate and frustration -- chills me still.

5. Vinegar Tom (UT Department of Theatre & Dance): Caryl Churchill's drama juxtaposes the tale of a literal witch hunt in a medieval village with modern pop song interludes about advertising and menstruation. Not an easy mix, but director Laura Worthen and her UT company made the material work by tearing into it with vigor and imagination. In the bold colors, slamming doors, and proud, loud delivery, they thrust the catalog of female repression at the audience in defiance.

6. Meredith Robertson in Born Yesterday (Zachary Scott Theatre Center): In an admirable revival that proved Garson Kanin's jab at the American political sensibility still has plenty of punch, Robertson worked comic magic. With what seemed as little effort as it takes to ease onto a sofa, she created a Billie Dawn who sauntered and smacked with hilarious cheek yet was as tenacious and tough as her bulldog beau.

7. Having Our Say (national touring production at Paramount Theatre): So simple as to be almost anti-theatrical, this visit with the Delanys -- two African-American sisters who lived together for more than a century -- was nevertheless profound. Their stories of their lives, plainly told, are a lesson in history, in family, in character that tell us more about America than most textbooks.

8. Cafe Bremond: A sprinkling of small tables in a low-ceilinged room. Champagne at one elbow, your lover at the other. Karen Kuykendall and Sterling Price-McKinney casting the glory of Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, Weill into the evening air. It's elegant. Effervescent. Exhilarating. Intoxicating. It's romance, 100 proof.

9. Stacey Robinson in Unmerciful Good Fortune (Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre): As a woman with blood on her hands and a secret in her heart -- something related to her gift of seeing the future of those she touches -- Dallas actor Robinson was a magnetic presence. Her performance mixed mystery, fire, and sorrow into a figure that drew us irrevocably into this unconventional thriller.

10. Laura Powell in Once Upon a Mattress (Zilker Summer Musical): One of those sublime matches of actor and role. Powell embodied the gregarious, boisterous Princess Winnifred with all the enthusiasm and exuberance and gosh-darn joy that the character deserves. She looked to be having the time of her life, and, watching her, so was I.

11. Silence, Cunning, Exile (Frontera @Hyde Park Theatre): Stuart Greenman's drama, suggested by the life of Diane Arbus, was a dark, discomfiting portrait of one woman's surrender to obsession, but Vicky Boone's direction, Margery Segal's movement work, and searing performances by a cast unafraid of baring raw, painful emotions gave it such urgency as to make it unforgettable.

12. Sin (Subterranean Theatre Company): A treatise on morality that recast the Deadly Sins of old in terms of our modern American desire for material gratification. Wendy MacLeod's script is clever and funny, and it brought out the best in director Ken Webster and his ensemble of regulars. The show was exquisitely paced and built beautifully, each scene sharper and more funny than the last.

Honorable Mentions:

The dynamic performance prism of Greek mythology called Multi-Medea (The Momentary Theatre at The Public Domain);

The jazzy jumble of Julia Child, Soul Train, and superhero mythology created by Daniel Alexander Jones in Blood: Shock:Boogie (Frontera@ Hyde Park Theatre);

The deep connections of words to action and character to character in The Birthday Party (Critical Mass);

The vivid sensuality of Sharon Bridgforth's words and Sonja Parks' performance of them in dyke/warrior-prayers (root wy'mn theatre company);

The lightning turns and urgency of Michael Dalmon's Hamlet in Hamlet (VORTEX Repertory Company);

The impossible tenderness of Aimee McCormick's Laura in The Glass Menagerie (Capitol City Playhouse);

The humor and charm and tightness of the whole production of Sylvia (Zachary Scott Theatre Center);

The mesmerizing use of exaggerated size and space and color in Christopher McCollum's design work for Hedda Gabler (Critical Mass);

The tipsy caresses of his glass and overall touseled charm of Martin Burke in A Family Affair (The Public Domain).

Theatre, like any numbers of events in life, is made up of connected moments. Any given production is not simply a monolithic unit, without internal rhythms or tides; instead, it is like a pearl necklace, moving from one bead to the next. For me, if there is one perfect pearl in the necklace, one moment when a gesture or prop choice or movement phrase is able to express the larger goals of the production, then the production is a success, even if it, as a whole, never quite manages to get all of its pearls on the same chain.

While the following moments may or may not have been in a show that stringed its beads effectively, they all represent a moment in Austin theatre when the production team -- actors, directors, designers, and crew -- were all working on the same piece of jewelry.

-- Adrienne Martini

Top Ten Moments on Austin Stages in 1996, in Rough Chronological Order

by Adrienne Martini

1. Peck Phillips standing on a chair with an extension-cord noose around his neck and a wide smile in his performance piece Wild Abandon (self-produced, FronteraFest).

2. Ehren Christian doing a dead-on Julia Child impersonation while demonstrating exactly what is removed during a sex change using modeling clay and a cleaver in Hidden: A Gender. ((B)old Maids Productions).

3. The aural experience of mythosystole (UT Department of Theatre & Dance): Tom Lopez's dense score and the assortment of incidental noises that almost acted as a character in this multidisciplinary piece transformed the Theatre Room into a fascinating new environment.

4. Paul E. Savas seductively dressing J. Andrew Hawkins in a women's slip in The Bacchae: Torn to Pieces (Hopeful Monsters/Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre).

5. The Bad Cowboy (Mark Willard) spitting fire and oozing machismo while two women (Kerthy Fix and Molly Rice) worship at his feet in Molly Rice's The Bad Cowboy (Salvage Vanguard Theater).

6. Heather Woodbury taking a bow and looking nothing like any of the dozens of characters she had just embodied in her "performance novel," The Heather Woodbury Report (touring production at Planet Theatre).

7. Rob Nash as Matt trying to shoot-up in a club bathroom while music throbs and swirls around him in Nash's 12 Steps to a More Dysfunctional Family, Part III (touring production at Planet Theatre).

8. The Bit O' Branson Players hauling out a fake fire and extension cord for "atmosphere" during their tribute to the great state of Texas in Steve Adams & Chan Chandler's Branson or Bust (UT Department of Theatre & Dance).

9. The dizzying and intense interrogation of Stanley (Michael Dalmon) by Goldberg and McCann (Paul Norton and Andrew Criss) in The Birthday Party (Critical Mass).

10. The moment Jack gets his manhood back in Vinegar Tom (UT Department of Theatre & Dance): UT's production, directed by Laura Worthen, so effectively built up the fear of medieval villagers for women they believed were witches that when this impotent farmer pleaded with a supposed witch to return his virility and she "did," it was the most satisfying payoff of the year.

Honorable Mentions:

When Barbara Chisholm's Beryl implores Aimee McCormick's Susie to look at her in Silence, Cunning, Exile (Frontera@ Hyde Park Theatre);

The sleazy charm of Michael Stuart as Lust in Sin (Subterranean Theatre Company);

When Luz (Amparo Garcia) and her husband Pito (Rupert Reyes) look up at the stars and she tries to throw herself off the roof in Unmerciful Good Fortune (Frontera@ Hyde Park Theatre);

The dead-perfect tackiness of the props in A Family Affair (The Public Domain);

The confessions of each character in Racing Demon (Rare Creations).

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