A Delicate Balance: Darkness Falls

State Theatre
through November 16
Running time: 2 hrs, 20 min

"Where do I live?" The question comes from Tobias, the aging master of the suburban household in which this Edward Albee drama of settled lives getting unsettled is set. He asks it of his wife Agnes, not to inquire after his address, a number on a block on a street in a town, but to seek his place in the larger world, perhaps even the one beyond the physical. "Where do I live?" he asks the unfailingly precise Agnes. "In the sad darkness," is her reply.

Darkness figures prominently in this fascinating, biting tale. It is in darkness that Tobias and Agnes' friends Harry and Edna feel some nameless terror and seek refuge from it in their friends' home; that Tobias and Agnes' daughter Julia comes to reclaim her place at home after another failed marriage (her fourth, but who's counting?); that Tobias sits alone, pondering, and sees the actions of him and his loved ones with terrible clarity. Darkness surrounds these people, swallows them, so that they cannot see where they are or where they belong.

Darkness all but engulfs the set of this Live Oak Theatre at the State production. Designer James Barker provides only pillars and arches for Agnes and Tobias' living room. Where the walls and whatever lies beyond the walls ought to be are only black drapes. It's as if a void has come to this home and eaten away everything but its bones. The few muted yellow columns and curved supports silhouetted against the dark might be the skeleton of a great beast.

It's a potent setting, but watching Albee's characters grope through these remains for a place where they can regain themselves is alternately absorbing and alienating. Director Don Toner seems alert to the play's tensions and the dynamic complexity of its language -- rarely have words been used so pointedly and with such impact in a Live Oak show -- but he isn't able to get everyone in his cast to channel that turmoil or the exactitude of its expression into characterizations that are fully rounded.

Marlene May certainly finds the precision in Agnes -- each word out of her mouth is new minted, sharp-edged -- but she concentrates so intently on this one aspect of the character that she all but disconnects Agnes from feeling and meaning. Her Agnes articulates the words but doesn't quite inhabit them; she floats apart, detached from everyone, even herself.

As the prodigal daughter who insists on retaking her bedroom, Cyndi Williams radiates adolescent scorn and smugness. She gives full vent to Julia's angst and fury, fully earning the description of "bratty" leveled at her, snapping at people, stamping around, even screaming. However, it's so unrelentingly harsh that it finally just pushes us away from the character.

To be fair, these roles are monstrously hard. They show people overwhelmed by anxiety, fear, resentment -- such people aren't necessarily supposed to be likable. But they are supposed to be human, and we should be able to relate to them in the traumas they face. We can in Janelle Buchanan's Claire. She etches the pain of the alcoholic with unrestrained bitterness -- the edge in her voice is like fingernails digging into your flesh -- but she cuts it masterfully with jiggers of tart, bitchy humor. Everett Skaggs' Tobias hasn't the release of humor in his favor, but he is eminently human, a figure of frailty who garners no respect, who is never taken at face value, who is tortured by the mystery of emotion. He touches us with his pure befuddlement, brow twisted, eyes scanning the skies, searching for a star to fix on, a sign of the dawn, something to provide illumination in this black night. In a work so consumed in darkness, Skaggs and Buchanan are shining beacons of light.

-- Robert Faires


Holy 8 Ball Studios,
One-night viewing November 1

A network of bones and vessels entwine, forming a bizarre, tangled maze. Red oxygen-rich blood and blue oxygen-hungry blood envelop the smooth bone matter in the assemblage of bodily innards. Hidden in the midst of the organic collision is the faintly noticeable oval face of an unborn baby, a life unto itself yet an intricate part of the labyrinth.

As seen in this work, Tabitha, E. Vedrine explores the body's workings from the inside out, in a manner at once grimly morose and curiously beautiful. Set against a pale yellow backdrop surrounded by a wide black border, the mangled structure in Tabitha seems at first unruly and uncontrolled, then suddenly firmly rooted in the crisp, clear lines of the layered borders.

In this collection, Vedrine deconstructs skeletal parts then rebuilds them into a totally inhuman form: A spine twists and curves around an entanglement of bones in one work; a totem of rib cages are stacked precariously in the next. Vedrine's pieces delve into a dark dimension, examining facets of people that many artists seem hesitant to touch. Yet the effect is somehow not gruesome or gory; it's simply an exploration of the psychological and physiological makeup of humans and the many structural possibilities that we rarely stop to consider.

Bart Farrar's works, however, achieve an effect dangerously close to gruesome. His pieces -- in stark contrast to Vedrine's acrylic on canvas paintings -- are made of a mishmash of materials, often using old plywood as a canvas. Glory Spoiler could be a medallion from hell, perhaps a prize given for achieving a certain level in Dante's inferno. A sinister face (are his eyes and mouth sewn shut?) is depicted on three attached pieces of dark wood, with the center piece inverted, adding another frightful dimension to the demonic visage. Dangling be-low the face on a piece of black cloth is a metal octagon with a Ferris wheel of flames painted on the surface. You can almost hear Beelzebub himself as he awards the piece to a newcomer: "Congratulations! You've made it level four!"

Holy 8 Ball's one-night-only display of these works is situated between two fitting events: Halloween and Day of the Dead. The perfect timing of this chilling exhibit is coincidence -- anyone who has ventured to the black-ceilinged, windowless gallery at the 8 Ball knows that a certain amount of grisly material is evident in every show. But this still makes for an appropriate Halloween weekend outing.

-- Cari Marshall


Velveeta Room,
through November 1
Running time: 1 hr

Birth. Five little letters that are the end product of creation. Nothing can be born without pain. Pain is part of the territory, whether you are giving birth to a baby or a script. It is a rare joy when you're allowed to witness a birth, and New York comedian/performance artist Reno has given Austin that joy by coming here to find her new show. She is familiar with the agony of pushing a new piece into existence, and you can watch her struggling to find what her baby will finally look like, once this labor ends.

The father of modern psychoanalysis. You can almost see Herr Freud sitting back, smoking his cigar while furiously taking notes about Reno's mother angst -- after all, that's what this show is loosely about. Reno just finished making a movie about her search for her birth mother and wants to tell you how much both the search and the filmmaking process was full of hysterical and serpentine paths.

Pool. But Reno can't just talk about her mom-quest. Someone is playing a game of eightball in her brain, and the balls don't always get into the pockets. The topics bounce from her hatred for rural life, her confusion over new area codes, her excursions in gynecology, and her liaisons with young women. Reno is the model of multi-tasking, never quite able to finish one thought before launching into the next, almost as if she is trying so hard to avoid telling us about the one thing that she needs to get off her chest, because it hurts just a little too much to delve back into the damage her abandonment caused.

Information overload. The words just keep flying out of Reno's mouth, like bullets from a machine-gun with a jammed trigger. Some of the words are gems, like the ones in Reno's story about a run-in with some troubled youth. Some are clinkers that just seem to lead the performance further astray. But there are just so many of them that it can be hard to keep up, a problem that will be solved once Reno listens to all the audio tapes from this Austin leg of her development process and weeds out the material that doesn't work.

Prophecy. When I look into the bottom of my cup, the shapes tell me that this will be a wonderful show once all the water evaporates and only the leaves remain.

-- Adrienne Martini

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