The Austin Chronicle


March 28, 1997, Arts


John Henry Faulk Theatre
through April 5
Running time: 2 hrs

When it comes right down to it, saying "There's a sucker born every minute" doesn't cover the half of it. There may be three or nine or 60 suckers born every minute, maybe more, 'cause the truth of it is there's a little bit of sucker in every one of us. Deep inside each of us is some part that wants so badly to believe in something -- the passion of a lover or the presence of aliens among us or the promise of eternal life, something -- that when some charmer comes along and assures us of the truth in our belief, we're likely as not to swallow their sweet patter and even ask for more.

That was true in 17th-century Paris, France when Molière wrote Tartuffe, and it's true in 20th-century Paris, Texas, where Third Coast Repertory Company sets its new production. As conceptual takes on classic texts go, this one fits about as comfortably as a pair of old Wranglers, partly because of the timelessness of Molière's observations, partly because the obstinacy of his characters -- who believe what they dang well want to, damn the facts -- fits the legendary bullheadedness of Texans (see Salvage Vanguard's The Battle of San Jacinto), but mostly because the Third Coast crew just wants to have some fun with the concept. In his program notes, director Paul O'Connell alludes to the play's archetypal characters and commedia dell'arte spirit. He sees in it not so much a pointed stab at hypocrisy as a broad poke at human frailty, and that's what he gives us, Lone Star style: a burnt orange Orgon who runs a big ranch but still clips coupons out of the Sunday paper; an East-Tex Elmire whose fashion sense is straight from Neiman-Marcus; a Cleante who likes a pinch between his cheek and gum as he ponders philosophical matters; and a Dorine who sneaks Marlboros when she isn't straightening her employers' house up or lives out. These Molière characters spice their rhymed couplets with "fixin' to" and "y'hear."

Causing the royal ruckus in this ranchhouse is the sly Tartuffe, played here as an oily Latino revivalist. In the role, Manuel Zarate makes no pretense at subtlety -- debasing himself with overwrought humility and trembling vocals -- and it's clear why everyone but Orgon and his mom see right through this ham. But the play still holds together because of Skip Bandy's portrayal. His Orgon is uncomplicated, plain, and accepting; he's really a hound dawg of a fella -- if you tell him you've thrown the stick, by god, he believes you've thrown and he's off to hunt for it. We can buy his endorsement of even an over-the-top Tartuffe like Zarate's, plus it gives more room for outrage to Tashya Valdevit's sultry Elmire, Gabriel Martinez's volcanic stepson, and Andrea Osborn's Dorine, whose Gallic extravagance is a hoot. (And Troy Schremmer's bug-eyed furtive scribbler and gregarious old coot are hoots, to boot.)

Not every European classic can survive the transplant to Texas soil, but this one does and thrives. It makes that message that everyone's a sucker not so gol-durn bad. -- Robert Faires


Hyde Park Theatre
through April 5
Running Time: 1hr, 15min

(L-R) Dan Dietz as Santa Anna, and Joseph Meissner as Sam Houston in The Battle of San Jacinto
photograph by Bruce Dye

I like theatrical rollercoasters. I want to feel risk in my heart and wind in my face. I want to leave the show ready to puke because I have been flipped upside-down one time too many and to know that if I hadn't kept my hands and feet close to my chest the whole time, they might have been snapped off by passing machinery. Not to say that I don't enjoy a nicely done merry-go-round, but there is nothing like the bracing thrill of a dangerous ride.

The Battle of San Jacinto is such a beast, and it is amazing what a change of location has done for the theatre company producing it, Salvage Vanguard Theater. No longer forced into the Electric Lounge, Salvage Vanguard has been able to transform Planet Theatre's cafe into an East Texas frontier bar, complete with tables, stools, and a house band, and to wisely use the cafe's myriad of structural quirks for intense effect. They have also turned this famous Texas battle into a multimedia affair, using film, slides, and live musicians to bring Ruth E. Margraff's script to life.

It would appear that this new space has also invigorated director Jason Neulander. He has orchestrated a symphony of movement, an undercurrent of actor vocalizations, and strong visual images. Molly Rice gives a stand-out performance as the Yellow Rose of Texas. Her Rose is powerful and compelling while she manipulates the rank frontiersmen who have wandered into her bar. Dan Dietz, as the opium-sucking, skirt-chasing Santa Anna, is as magnetic as Rice, despite his gringo Spanish. Together, these two actors make this a ride for the strong of heart.

It is not excitement without substance, however. Margraff and Neulander do make some compelling points about the horror of this particular battle while still producing distinct and memorable characters that comment upon our views of the differences between the sexes. But it is not a flawless work, and some of the dense layers of movement and text that this team has produced obscure some of the meaning that they have fought to discover.

The roller coaster still works, even if, in some spots, you only get mere glimpses of the scenery instead of a full picture. At all times, though, you are complicit in this vital drama, powerless to escape being swept up in the action. And it leaves you weak in the knees for hours after the ride has come to a complete stop. -- Adrienne Martini


Austin Museum of Art
at Laguna Gloria
through April 15

We Are All Alike (Indian Head I), 1995 by Paul Giovanopoulos

The 16th annual family exhibition at the Austin Museum of Art at Laguna Gloria is very pretty. Very nice. A small, carefully selected assortment of paintings, prints, and sculpture by nationally recognized and regional artists illustrates one of the elementary principles of design in art: pattern. The show is called "Art Patterns."

Pattern, according to the family gallery guide produced for the exhibition, is the repetition of lines, shapes, colors used in works of art for different purposes. It is the repetition of an image or motif. Paintings by the likes of Alfred Arreguin, Bruno Andrade, Sydney Yeager, and Miriam Shapiro, and prints by Sol Lewitt and Frank Stella are lovely to see. California artist Liza Lou's amazing display of ordinary objects rendered in brightly colored shiny beads steal the show. Julia Hart, museum education associate, says that the artist has created entire domestic environments made of beads and is currently working on a "backyard installation" complete with beaded grass, clothesline, and clothes. I wondered what that would have looked like inside the first floor of the museum, walking inside a patterned environment, rather than staring at art-swatches of pattern.

Mythic Dream, 1995 by Bruno Andrade

In the upstairs gallery, a creative, hands-on environment for children has been designed by a recent addition to Austin's art community, artist Johnny Walker. He has taken the anthropological point of view and painted the walls with patterns from a variety of cultures. It's fun to try to guess their origins (which are listed to one side on the wall). He's also included one of nature's familiar patterns -- a butterfly -- and a scientific entry -- the evolution of the universe. In this room, children can make patterned prints, drawings, and arrange plastic objects on shelves to create patterns. Adults seem to enjoy the hands-on activities too, and the museum staff and volunteers don't stop them if they want to play.

This is an exhibition for children of all ages with its formal downstairs presentation of "real" art and its upstairs arts and crafts. And, with a nod to the staff led by Acting Senior Curator and Curator of Education Kathryn Davidson, I couldn't be happier about being introduced to Liza Lou's work, or seeing Tony Berlant's house, or the Al Souza cut-up comics. But...

But the show seems to dangle tentatively between being didactic and fun. In our MTV/video/computer-laden world, pulsing with sound and light, is there more we should be doing to pry children and mom and dad off the sofa and keep them coming back to the museum? Are we missing opportunities to join rhythm with pattern, to trace the patterns in our own environment (now you know why I love Liza Lou), to literally taste and touch and hear and wallow in design? I don't know. It's just a question that came to me as I walked out quietly past the signage for the exhibition -- an exploded version of Laurel Butler's delicate leaves and swirls -- and through the patterned gates.

-- Rebecca S. Cohen

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