Works by Chris Scroger: Mickey Mouse for the Next Millennium

Eeka Beeka,
through July 18

Somewhere between the fantastical visions of Salvador Dali and those of Dr. Seuss lies the lunacy-laden world of Scott Scroger. Scroger, a recent transplant from Denton and former University of North Texas art teacher, paints pictures inhabited by garish and frenzied clusters of strange creatures, the kind you'd expect to find in the test tubes of a mad scientist's laboratory or on the perimeters of our universe. Although Scroger's acrylic paintings are somewhat unsettling, there's a certain playfulness about them that keeps them from being morose or foreboding. They mix Dali's surrealist clamor with Seuss' heartening frivolity.

These works are undeniably eye-catching, practically assaulting the viewer with outrageous colors. Set against the gallery's t@  Ú < C the paintings' colors make an especially intense onslaught; they're so bright and vivid they almost hurt. And they're so alive that at times it seems as if they might jump off the canvas and pull you into them.

The main characters of these pieces are sheer Scroger creations; some are kind of amphibious, some are sort of crustaceous, some I-don't-know-what-the-hell-ous. In The Summer of Gigawurst: a Sandwich, a green fish-like creature with an elephant-like head is suspended in a mesh of pinks and oranges. It looks a little stunned as a neon yellow and green skeletal arm grabs its snout-like extremity. Another arm reaches down from above and delicately plucks a purple, floating, script-written word: blorpy. Perhaps Scroger's accompanying description will help illuminate the work's meaning: "A voyeuristic view of drive-by food-snatching by electric x-ray alien arms, all being observed by a fat-tittied demon." Okay, perhaps not. The piece's meaning is basically left up to the viewer; as for myself, I came away feeling like I had just seen a slice of futuristic animation, a Mickey Mouse for the next millennium.

Scroger ventures into the kind of boisterous surrealism that you don't often find locally. I hope this is a sign that more experimental work is finding its way into Austin galleries, because it provides a nice, swift kick in the rear to the often sleepy arts scene. -- Cari Marshall

Freshman Year Sucks!: Breaking Out, Making Out

Planet Theatre,
through July 19
Running time: 1 hr, 10 min

The best part of Rob Nash's new four-part serial solo work, The Class of '85, is knowing that he'll have to return to Austin three more times to complete the tetralogy. There's still time to catch the first installment, Freshman Year Sucks! Nash is in town fine-tuning the piece for two more weekends before the show re-opens in Los Angeles, and fans of this approachable, generous comedian (whose trilogy 12 Steps to a More Dysfunctional Family played to raves in seasons past) won't want to miss his latest nostalgic trip, this time into the chaos of parochial high school.

A deceptively simple premise -- the trials and tribulations at an all-boys parochial high school in Houston as seen through the eyes of three young men: Ben, Johnny, and George -- Freshman Year Sucks! displays a sophistication that complements the barrage of (usually hilarious) high school nostalgia. In 1981, "our heroes" embark on the next level of American education, hoping, after their dismal junior high years, to "get their lives back again." Three friends: Ben, effeminate and awkward; Johnny, handsome and non-conformist; and George, overweight and underconfident; and a host of teachers, parents, girls, and other neighborhood denizens guide the story of freshman year through the turbulent waters of sexuality (straight and gay), algebra, sports, the obligatory dance (a toga party modeled on the one in Animal House), breaking up, breaking out, making up, and making out.

Nash tells the story fast, playing all the characters, switching instantaneously between them: a virtuoso performance he continues to hone. He portrays the characters with honesty and empathy, creating, in gestures and inflection, recognizable, fully wrought figures with complex needs and fears. His onstage ease is a particular strength, allowing him to delve into such harrowing events as a drama teacher's sexual come-on to his young student-actor or a bigoted father's belting of his son and then quickly shift gears to expose the humor of a first date, P.E., and confession.

And then there is the music. Perfect musical choices by Brad Hastings and Peter Malof highlight Nash's characters' exploits. The early Eighties has provided a wealthy store of sound bites ranging from ironic schlock to outright hilarity. Music and memories, sharpened with Nash's incisive wit, pack the evening with the zing of the sharpest editorial cartoon.
-- Robi Polgar

Aria Inertia: Translating Experience

Hyde Park Theatre
through July 12
Running Time: 40 min

Performance art can so easily slip into self-indulgent navel gazing. Not that navel-gazing for its own sake is necessarily bad, but it isn't a spectator event. It is a journey of self-discovery that is not intended for an audience's expectant eyes, orbs which want to be entertained and enlightened through an interaction with the performer. And, if the performer is too deep into his own groove, he can't very well invite anyone to make the journey with him.

But it is a hard line to travel. Make the piece too aware of its audience and you can lose some of the truth behind the act. Ignore the audience completely and you have failed in your attempt to communicate your vision of reality. You have to learn how to walk with one foot in both camps and blend the two.

Jason Phelps' Aria Inertia may, at times, err on the side of deep, personal introspection but, ultimately, this piece invites the audience in and makes them want to see more of this story. Phelps has managed to translate complex feelings about growing up while coping with his brother's mental illness into a seemingly simple work that uses dance, song, and speech. But there are quite a few layers here, levels of thought that create an auditory and visual tapestry in this stripped-to-the-bone-and-painted-black Hyde Park Theatre space. Phelps is beyond using dance and text simply as therapy and has, instead, begun to investigate methods of translating his experience in an audience-friendly manner.

Perhaps what makes this show so engaging is its eagerness to please without compromising its integrity. Phelps, clothed in nothing but a pair of seemingly symbolic out-grown trousers, provides guideposts along this journey, which is not a transparent trip and requires some thought by the spectator. Humor and honesty bubble along this path, as markers for those who want to stay with the group but need to take a small break from the intensity.

This is a perfect piece of art, however. Its imperfections do not stem from being unaware of the audience, rather, they stem from caring about Phelps' plight and craving more information worked into the piece about his past. This feels like a piece that has almost, but not quite reached the end of its development process and has almost finished its introspection about itself. But it definitely is spectator-ready.

-- Adrienne Martini

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