Martin Brothers Cafe, through March

"Storm's a Coming" by Sarah Higdon ©1996

If an artist claims Lewis Carroll and Dr. Seuss as two of her strongest influences, you can pretty much count on finding some playful animal iconography in her work. But while Sarah Higdon does give animals human qualities in her acrylic paintings, her settings tend to be a little more tense than the Cat in the Hat sort.

Higdon's animals are immersed in a wash of bright, vibrant colors, but their expressions generally aren't too playful. Some appear churlish, as in My Life With the Big Top, which depicts two dogs in clown garb, drinking cocktails with a rabbit wearing pasties. The three characters -- with expressions ranging from bored to angry -- stand upright in a field of grass under a cresent moon. The scenario makes one wonder: Is this what animals do when humans aren't around? You can almost hear them, as they drink their martinis, grumble and complain about how their owners treat them.

Three Purses portrays three bespectacled grandma bunnies, clutching their handbags and looking as though their grandchildren had just arrived for lunch with three new body piercings. Peering over their eyeglasses, the chubby rabbits look as ornery as any grandma with an ax to grind.

Higdon claims her work is "about the times one feels out of place, yet handled with wit and satire as opposed to coming off melancholy and serious." Though wit and sarcasm are evident, the works convey an equal sense of brooding melancholy, befitting work influenced by Alice In Wonderland.

Kudos to Martin Brothers for the excellent halogen lighting; it does the paintings justice. -- Cari Marshall

February 28, Harry Ransom Center

The recent lecture on "Humor in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec" drew the Frenchiest crowd I've seen in town. The fourth-floor auditorium of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRHRC) overflowed with scarf-tied necks, cheek-kissing greetings, and conversation that ranged from rapid-fire, native French (I caught something about a discotheque, I think) to French-accented English (discussing the use of gaslights in French art). While encountering such a heavy concentration of French people in an auditorium in the heart of Texas was a bit disorienting, it would be hard to imagine a crowd more appropriate to the occasion.

The talk, co-sponsored by the Alliance Française and the UT Department of French and Italian, was given by an American, Julia Frey. A connoisseur of the colorful French artist, Frey has recently published a book titled Toulouse-Lautrec, a Life, much of which she researched at UT. The HRHRC houses about 1,000 pages of Lautrec family letters and serves as one of the top three sources of information about the artist in the world.

Using slides of the artist's work and photographs that he produced with friends, Frey helped convey Lautrec's humor. The first slide was a photo designed by the artist and taken by Maurice Guibert -- a trick photo depicting Lautrec as an artist, sitting at a canvas, painting Lautrec as a model, posed on a stool. The image is an excellent example of Lautrec's tongue-in-cheek attitude, one that appears time and again in his depictions of the sizzling Moulin Rouge burlesque scene. Through the slides, Frey illuminated many of the hidden jokes and, often, insults in Lautrec's paintings, a number of which were at the expense of the artist himself; Lautrec often pictured himself as either a grotesque -- greatly exaggerating his less-than-attractive features -- or an animal being subjected to apathy or cruelty.

Overall, Frey's lecture was intriguing and witty, a refreshing consideration of the lighter moments in the life of a terribly disturbed artist, one haunted as much by his wealthy, domineering family as by his dwarfism.

The Lautrec family letters are available for viewing by the public in the HRC's manuscript collection, though, of course, you must be proficient at reading faded, 19th-century French writing to get the gist of them. Or you could pick up Frey's 600-page book.

-- Cari Marshall

The Public Domain, through April 5

Robert Faires as Sherlock Holmes

Dear Robert,

I find myself in the unenviable position of choosing to review a show that you, my editor, are in, for a company that the Chronicle's other theatre reviewer, Robi, is the artistic director of. Never one to balk in the face of a situation that could get my heinie in a lot of hot water, I press on.

This somewhat recast Sherlock at The Public Domain really does improve on the show's first mounting by PD a few years ago. Bernadette Nason fits the role of the devious con artist Madge Larabee much better than she did the role of Alice Faulkner, the blushing damsel-in-distress, a part filled in this production by Leigh N. Yeager, who delves for as much character development as this underwritten part will allow. Michael Stuart returns as Moriarty and is as delightfully eerie as ever. The rest of the cast is well-rounded and includes stand-out performances by Michael Miller, Marco Noyola, and David R. Jarrott.

This set at PD's "new" space works much better than the one in the mounting of this script at Synergy Studio. The scene design by Michael Arthur and Robi Polgar and costume design by Sylvia Tate give us a much better sense that the drama is just one of Holmes' seven-percent dreams, a fantasy in which he gets to fall in love, fight a worthy adversary, solve the crime, put the bad guys in jail, and get some relief from the terrific boredom he faces by being so darn smart. However, it did feel at times that the manipulations of the set which the cast had to make hung up the pace of the show.

I guess my largest qualm with this production, though, is the motivation behind it. Why bother remounting this show? Granted, this version far exceeds the previous one, but why do the show again with essentially the same concept, some of the same actors, and the same director? Is there some screaming void which this show fills?

Regardless, it's still a hoot.

P.S.: Re: the Holmes-man himself: All I can say is, I thought your performance really worked. In this mounting, I think that you instill Holmes with a deliberateness and humor that was missing in the first and really tap into the idea that he is the true mastermind behind this mystery. Unfortunately, there is no real good way to say this without having it look like I am sucking up to the boss-man. C'est la vie.

-- Adrienne Martini

Through Apr 5, Thu-Sat, 8pm, Mar 16, Sun, 2pm, at The Public Domain, 807 Congress. Tickets: $5 Thu; $12 Fri/Sat ($10 seniors, students, ACoT). 474-6202.

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