Chronicle Art Reviews
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING: DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
Zilker Hillside Theatre, through October 5
Running time: 2 hrs, 45 min.
An invitation to dinner. A midnight conversation at a window. A mild insult from a stranger. Viewed by themselves, just for what they are, such occurrences are minor, inconsequential... nothings. Set in certain contexts, though, -- say, where the one being invited believes the one doing the inviting harbors a secret passion for him, or an engaged woman appears to be chatting up a man not her fiancé, or a crook is insulting an officer of the law -- these incidental incidents can provoke storms: rhapsodies of romance or diatribes of dudgeon. So it goes in this Shakespearean comedy, and it's a tribute to the Bard's mastery of drama that he can place "nothing" at the center of a play and spin around it such character and circumstance that the resulting "ado" looks natural and engaging.
There's a trick, though, in making all this fuss over nada seem credible on the stage. The actors must embody the characters with enough emotional heft that the feathery slights they suffer also acquire weight. Most of the performers in this Austin Shakespeare Festival production manage this trick handily. They respond to the play's powderpuff events as if hit by blows from a boxer. James Lane's Benedick receives the news that his verbal sparring partner Beatrice is in love with him with the slack-jawed amazement of one present at a miracle. James McDonald's Claudio burns with indignation as he accuses his betrothed of betraying him, and Jackie Belvin's Hero takes his charge with a jagged mix of pain, shock, and righteous anger. And when J. Damian Gillen's Dogberry -- a spry bantam in dandy's threads -- is called "an ass," he couldn't look more thunderstruck if he'd been hit by a bolt from Jove himself. This cast is most polished in the moments when the stakes are highest, as when the newfound love of Benedick and Beatrice is tested by a promise of vengeance. The sober intensity in Lane and Jill Swanson makes it clear their characters know how grave a challenge this is for them.
The play's lighter moments don't always fare so well, perhaps because director Marc Verzatt incorporates a bit of "shtick for shtick's sake" into these scenes. It works well enough when the business allows a couple of actors in small roles room to play -- and J.J. Olson and Andrew Deutsch make their comic bits as a pair of genial dimwits a distinct pleasure -- but when it's foisted on the leads in scenes that can generate plenty of laughs without shtick, it comes off as awkward and rough.
Other raw edges on an otherwise polished product are evident in the show, most notably in Douglas Gessaman's set. His Tuscan villa fills the spacious Hillside Theatre stage yet has mobile elements that allow for some clever staging options. Unfortunately, a lack of detail on many of the set pieces makes them appear cruder and cheaper than they ought.
It may be that the Shakespeare Festival, now in its 13th year, is going through typical adolescent changes. It looks more and more grown up, but there's still the occasional crack in its voice, the stumble over feet it hasn't quite grown into yet. While such moves may be difficult to overlook, they don't obscure the fact that in its new Much Ado About Nothing, there's "something" there. -- Robert Faires
SIX MEXICANS NAMED GONZALEZ: SOUTHERN EXPOSURE
Dougherty Arts Center, through October 4
Running Time: 2 hrs
We are our media. Culturally, the images we see on TV and at the movies are what we use as our guideposts, our moving manuals of human behavior. Media is a benchmark, the tool against which we judge our lives. It's a shame that it does such a lousy job of mirroring all of the diversity in modern life. And it's horrific that so many people, within this country and outside our borders, believe in the pretty little pictures without ever realizing how many experiences fall outside the media's purview.
Adrian Villegas' Six Mexicans Named Gonzalez is a whirlwind tour of six such stories that exist outside the media mainstream, using both monologues and video montages. Not only does this solo show provide a cultural reference point for those who have been overlooked, it's just darn funny as well.
Villegas is a joy to watch as he brings to life these six Gonzalezes, who run the gamut from a vato who reeks of machismo to a disciple of Cheech Marin to an older man who just wants to find the TV Guide. Through his many transformations, Villegas maintains an essential aura of caring about these characters while gently lampooning them and the mainstream media that overlooks them, a monolith in which all the Friends are Clorox-white, Brando plays Zapata, and Chicanos are only on the evening news.
Technically, the show hums right along, thanks to Anthony Mauzy's lights that both illuminate and project the proper mood. The video segments, which feature famous clips from notorious sources like Cheech and Chong, as well as Warner Bros.' Speedy Gonzalez cartoons, are well executed and just as amusing and enlightening as Villegas' script. Perhaps the only quibble that can be had is with the script itself. While it is strong, it could really sing with a reduction of its tendency to ramble and a willingness to dive a little deeper into its characters, to provide more insight into their lives and all their dimensions while still making the audience laugh.
Still, it's a touching and hysterical look at six characters who deserve their own space on America's screens. -- Adrienne Martini
THE WELL OF THE SAINTS: A WONDROUS JUNCTION
Fadó Irish Pub, through October 28
Running time: 1hr, 20 min
Wondrous things can happen at a crossroads. Folks can fall in love. Theatre can be reborn on its former stomping grounds. The blind could be made to see. Where two paths intersect, new options are created and anything can occur. But the best road is not always clear.
This production of The Well of the Saints is one such intersection. The space that was once Capitol City Playhouse has been converted into Fadó Irish Pub. The pub could have chosen to ignore the character of the place that came before, moving straight ahead on its road to becoming just another bar on Fourth Street. Instead, it took a left turn and allowed director/producer Rick Perkins to put this John M. Synge play on the back porch of the Epcot and Ireland-inspired Fadó. There could not have been a better path to take, given the quality and energy of this charming production.
Perkins deftly edited this Synge script to capture both the pure storyline about a blind couple who is blessed by a saint as well as some of the deeper layers of the text about the deceptiveness of appearances and the pitfalls of power. Paul Mitchell Wright gives a stellar performance as one half of the bickering blind couple and Bernadette Nason is his equal, matching him dig for dig and acting riff for acting riff. While Wright and Nason are well matched, Dan Sullivan is the perfect foil for their marital strife as the strong, if slightly dim Timmy the Blacksmith. Andrea Westby plays Timmy's betrothed Molly Byrne, the Irish spitfire, to the hilt while Dirk Van Allen bestows the Saint with a virtuous smile and a gentle manner. Sharon Elmore's costumes capture the essence of each character's persona.
Many lessons have been learned at these crossroads, most of them extraordinarily positive and worthy of praise. Some lessons, however, are about the perils of producing theatre above the real-life intersection at Fourth and Colorado in addition to the dangers of doing a show with heavy but necessary accents. Neither problem greatly overwhelms the show, but each certainly has a way of cropping up at the most inopportune times.
However, something wondrous emerges from this journey, a new space that is well utilized by Perkins and company as well as the chance to see how amusing and touching good Irish drama can be. This is perhaps the perfect play and the perfect cast for this new junction. Hopefully, we'll be able to repeatedly revisit this intersection even after the Saints have moved on. -- Adrienne Martini
THE PIANO LESSON: POWER OF THE PAST
Zachary Scott Theatre Center, through October 26
Running time: 2 hrs, 10 min
The past... it is a piano on which are carved faces of family members long dead and images of injustices they suffered as slaves. It is the ghost of a white man. It is a husband three years dead. The past... Linger in its embrace too long and it may keep you from ever knowing the comfort of a living man's embrace. Ignore it and it may wrap its fingers around your throat and choke the life from you. In the home of Doaker Charles, a railroad man living in Pittsburgh in the Thirties, the past takes all these forms and through them offers proof of its power to affect the present and the future.
In this remarkable drama, which earned its author a Pulitzer Prize, playwright August Wilson has much to tell us -- to teach us, rather -- about the past and our need to find some balance in how we live with it. He wants us to remember its place as a source of history, of a family's and a people's heritage, from which one may take pride and love and direction for the future. But he seeks to caution us, as well, about the past's capacity to afflict us if we hold it too tightly -- to blind us to hope and beauty in the present, to nurse hate that ought to have died long ago. The play abounds in instruction, but, despite its title, it never feels as if it's lecturing us. Its author is too much the storyteller for that. What lessons it offers come through tales of spirits and train tracks, broken-down trucks and bodies in wells, stealing pianos and selling watermelons, and through the feisty debates between Doaker's nephew and niece, him wanting to sell the heirloom piano so he can buy some farmland on which to build his future, she wanting to keep it as a memorial to her ancestors and the blood they shed. We're not so much set down in a sterile classroom as immersed in a bath of culture and ritual and story, one pungent with the scents of the earth and smoke and flesh, redolent of the South and slavery and ghosts and Africa and rich brown skin and love.
You can find this bath within the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, which summons up its sights and sounds and smells with sensitivity and style. J. Richard Smith's set hasn't much in the way of room, but it is dense with living, its worn wine-red sofa, weathered wooden table and chairs, and chipped stove testifying to years of service. Likewise, Kathryn Lang's costumes bear the creases and marks of many wearings, adding to the character of this world. Even Don Day's lights -- burnished gold and wistful blue -- add a sense of age and time.
Wilson's lessons are living lessons, and so need blood and flesh in the performances that bring them to an audience. The actors here put their breath and bone into the characters, creating figures whose pasts can be seen on their shoulders and in their eyes, whose struggles are immediate. Clayton Murrell makes Doaker a dry and solemn man bearing the weight of his existence with as much dignity as he can. Carla Nickerson's Berneice is a fierce defender of her family's past who cannot see how her loyalty to her dead husband has paralyzed her; when she finally receives attention from Jason Brooks' Lymon -- a boisterously comic yet still human figure -- the recognition of loss in her face is stunning. And William Byrd Wilkins' Boy Willie is a whirlwind of passions, teasing one second with a gleam in his eye and a loud deep laugh, the next blasting at some foe with brazen words and fiery stares. With added substance coming from the performances of Jacqui Cross, Timothy Curry, and Billy Harden, this production gives us a family that is alive, and gives their world, and especially its past, a pulse that beats out a lesson to us.
-- Robert Faires
WORK BY PETER NORWOOD: PARADISE & POVERTY
The next time you dine in a restaurant, put away the cell phone, interrupt your conversation about mutual funds, and take a look around. Many area restaurants consistently display artwork by local artists, and sometimes, if you're patient and attentive, you can find a real gem of a piece. It might take a little work, and you run the risk of offending a patron by peering over his head or tumbling over a strategically placed piece of decor while getting a closer look, but it might be worth the effort.
In this case, the effort is minimal and the payoff is great. Shaggy's casual atmosphere makes it easy to examine the wall hangings, and Peter Norwood's collection of photos tucked between the restaurant's kitschy Caribbean paraphernalia is excellent.
One can assume these color photos of Cuba are meant to supplement the room's tropical motif, but the line between tropical flavor and social commentary is gray with Norwood's powerful images. The collection shows a chilling dichotomy: the small island's natural beauty versus the depth of the poverty that grips it. One image depicts a plush setting, with massive, towering palms surrounding rounded, rolling mountains. As the brilliant blue sky meets the stunning green fauna, it's hard to imagine a more perfect paradise. Yet in the next image, a young boy stands in the dusty path leading to a small, thatched house no bigger than the cluster of palm trees beside it. The boy's face is neither revealing nor deceptive; it simply implies sheer apathy and boredom. His faded clothes match those on the dark bodies lazily spilling out of the house -- bodies only mildly interested at the snapping camera several yards away.
One striking photo depicts another young boy, barefoot in the gritty streets, playing with a tattered milk carton tied to a string. Although set against a backdrop of dilapidated, cracked buildings, the boy, with his sad little toy, appears wonderfully unaware of the conditions around him. The image catches him in a giddy moment during a blessingly naïve age, although you can't help but to think he'll eventually become one of the listless bodies lying around the thatched hut. It's perhaps even more telling that this image is located above the restaurant's bus tub, full of our easily-discarded scraps and garbage. -- Cari Marshall