The Austin Chronicle


December 19, 1997, Arts


The Public Domain,
through December 21
Running Time: 50 min

The quest for the book has taken yet another odd turn. Which book? Ah, obviously you haven't been paying attention to this particular journey called Flame Failure. For the past eight months, the characters in this serial from the Downstage Players have been looking for the book, a tome that contains all of the world's knowledge — past, present, and future. In this story, written and directed by Dan Bonfitto, three agencies, all vaguely cult-like, have been looking hither and yon for the silly thing. Now it's in the hands of a real cult, a cyber cult, and things are bound to get a little unusual.

Time is playing tricks on the cultists, fracturing and regenerating, destroying the linear flow of this episode of the saga. Oddly enough, it works and adds a disconnected air to the late-night proceedings tucked under The Public Domain. It's like being trapped in a CD player stuck on shuffle, forced to figure out what the album is from random snatches of music. Eventually, however, it all comes together and becomes one of the tighter scripts of the series.

Michael Miller's Faustron is the creator of this time out of joint. Cult leader and alleged Machiavellian hand behind this slice of virtual reality. The whole show seems to take place in the hard drive of some demented computer and Faustron, like any good megalomaniacal messiah, ends up with more than he bargained for when he tries to download the book into his own head. Once again, we are reminded that your standard human brain is just not designed to hold all of the world's knowledge. One would think that Marina Lee's sharply characterized MEPH-AI, an artificial intelligence designed specifically for this purpose, would be more adept at handling this kind of download. Think again.

And if these pieces of the plot weren't labyrinthian enough, there is an intriguing sub-plot with a dead secret agent, well-played by Marshal Maresca, and two computer programs excitingly brought to life by Bob Gutierrez and Shannon Grounds. The plot alone is a lot of information for a mere meat mind to handle, but somehow it all becomes an enticing and intriguing bit of theatre for those who are looking for something very far out of the ordinary. It is the plot that keeps you around, despite these fine performances and David Sebastian Boone's always ingenious lights. Like a good book, the story simply sucks you in and makes you want to know more. — Adrienne Martini


Various locations (see below)

Can you imagine art on a wall that is unpretentious and pure expression, framed with butcher paper? Can you imagine enthusiastic artists willing to follow directions with no concern about how their work should look, with plenty of energy left over at the end of the day? Venture out to one of the seven places around Austin and see some of the 200 paintings produced by Ortega Elementary School students. From first graders imitating Impressionism to sixth graders capturing Ancient Greek styles, these children used tempera paint, gray paper, brushes, pencil erasers, sponges, and fingers to create illuminating, expressive art. Their most helpful tool, however, was teacher Kathleen Abbott, who guided the students through the painting process. Using techniques taught to her by Ann Worely, who Abbott calls "the mother superior of Austin art," Abbott gave the students directions on how to use the materials, taught them techniques of layering colors — begin with background, end with details — and introduced them to art styles from history. Each of Abbott's 14 classes had its own specific art movement to focus on. With the exception of the first graders, all the students designed and created their own compositions, with the general idea of the -ism to lead them.

The result is an inspiring collection of work. The honesty and enthusiasm behind the paintings shines as much as the laminated finishes. Superreal Seascape, by Roger, a 10-year-old, is a picture of a rocky seashore. Touches of paint, however, cause a simple landscape photo to explode with motion. Woman Sewing is clearly an Impressionistic work. The six-year-old artist, Chris, used purple, green, and yellow to create a soft, hazy world. The woman quietly sits, almost floating, and conveys both sadness and eeriness. Twins, painted by Rene, also six, is deceptively simple; the outline of the twins, done with quick, thick strokes, is also a vase — an optical illusion. Young Picasso has intensely expressive eyes and a two-toned face. Seven-year-old Efren's bold uses of color and almost Cubist way of putting things together that don't always fit make it Picasso-esque, indeed.

All the paintings are on sale for $25. Art, it seems, does not have to be expensive and sophisticated to be valued; more than 17 pieces have already sold after one month on display, and public interest is growing.

Children, with fewer inhibitions, with little of the unfortunate wondering what others think, are capable of honesty that adults can seldom handle. It is this level of enthusiasm that is so striking. They knew what they had to do and simply did it. They painted. And painted. And painted. Most of the students may have cared little if they were up to par. And the concept of standards vanishes when seeing these paintings. In facing 40 individual paintings/worlds, offering me glimpses of what goes on in these young minds, I was splashed not only with gobs of color, but with hope. To think, if these kids are learning how to express themselves now, in tune with history and art, who knows what they can do as functioning adults? — Elise Guillot


Dougherty Arts Center,
through December 20
Running Time: 45 min

You know how sometimes you want something so badly but when you get it you find part of it you don't want? Like you want to be out of school, but when you graduate and get a job, the daily grind wears you down. Or you want to own a home, but once you get that mortgage, the upkeep becomes a burden. Jay Jay is learning about that right now. He wants so badly for his family to stop treating him as a baby — he is five, after all! — but when they do because the family gets a new baby, Jay Jay's insides get all jumbled up. Is it that he didn't want what he thought he did after all?

Anticipation and gratification are pretty common issues with everybody this time of year, so it's not unusual to see playwright Ann Ciccolella and composer Freddy Carnes build a new holiday musical around them. But they don't take these issues down the obvious road — to Santa's house, where we weigh what we ask for against what we get. Their path is one down which we examine our sense of self, who we are as individuals and members of a family, what it means to grow up and how that can come from how we care for those who have more growing to do than we do. For Jay Jay, accepting Maria as the new baby comes when he learns she gives him a new role to play: big brother. He isn't losing his old self but growing into a new one.

Of course, it's just like a grown-up to want to talk about the meaning in the play. If I had a smidgen of kidness left in me, I'd be talking instead about all the cool songs that bounce around your head and make you wanna go sproing sproing like a Super Ball, or about how Brian Gaston's Jay Jay is so fun, really eager and loosey-goosey like he just has no muscle control at all, or about how funny Mary Alice Carnes, who plays Jay Jay's mom, looks as a very, very pregnant elf, or about how terrifically Linda Nenno, who plays Jay Jay's Aunt Linda, sings a blues song about a dog, or what a riot it is when Kelley Huston as Jay Jay's older sister tickles Jay Jay. But I guess since I can't speak with any authority about any of that, I'll just say in my stuffy grown-up way that this show explores the growth of a family with humor and heart. And the songs made me wanna go sproing sproing. — Robert Faires


Bass Concert Hall,
through December 23
Running Time: 1hr, 50 min

"My, how you've grown!" It's one of those adult lines that children must endure from time to time. It typically comes from some relative or family friend who hasn't seen you in a while and while it seems to acknowledge your progress toward adulthood, it's typically cooed at you as if you were still lying in a crib. Rare is the adult who delivers the line with true admiration and proceeds to treat you differently as a result.

In this year's edition of The Nutcracker from Ballet Austin, that curious old enchanter Drosselmeier comes off as just such a singular grown-up. In his first shot at the role for the company, new ballet master Jerry Schwender plays Drosselmeier as eccentric bachelor uncle, a fellow hip-deep in his second childhood and sensitive to the needs and desires of the young. On meeting Clara, he expresses astonishment at her growth, but then looks to take her very seriously, and in his performance and artistic director Lambros Lambrou's staging of the work, seems to fashion for her a fantasy that pays tribute to her passage into adulthood.

The 1997 Nutcracker unquestionably belongs to Clara. Lambrou has given her much to do, and as danced by Jessica Fry, she is a self-assured young woman. She moves confidently, purposefully even, and when the time comes for her to clobber the Rat King with her shoe, she does so not just fearlessly but with the smile of a kid pleased with her own ingenuity. She grows in stature and the desire of the figures in the Lands of Snow and Sweets to dance for her makes sweet sense. She is as a queen.

With this sensibility behind it, Ballet Austin's Nutcracker continues to grow as a production. Lambrou continues to develop the whimsy of the piece, with Jason Hartley an exceedingly rascally and amusing Fritz and the addition of guests to fill the ample skirts of Mother Ginger. At the December 14 show, Shannon Sedwick nearly brought the house down with a nod to her Patsy Cline routine at Esther's, reaching into her bosom and pulling forth a compact, a razor, a cell phone. But despite the presence of laughs, the sense of wonder never suffers. Anthony Casati is a bouyant Nutcracker Prince, so light in his leaps he seems more at home in air than on earth. Inga Lourjenko and Guennadi Chtcheberiako bring a stately majesty to the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier. Chris Hannon creates a leaping, tumbling flame of a banner in the Chinese dance. And Kristin Shoaf-Roberts proves hypnotically seductive in the Arabian dance, hands winding in serpentine grace.

Each December, Ballet Austin gives us more to see, to drink in with our eyes. It's making it tougher and tougher to wait 12 months for the next Nutcracker.

— Robert Faires


Stephen L. Clark Gallery,
through Dec. 29

Keith Carter is what you could call snap-happy. What might appear to most folks an incidental moment in time is, for Carter, a significant event worth capturing with his camera. For years, he has recorded these events in black-and-white film around Texas and the U.S., and his new show delivers more of what has become his trademark: beautiful, candid fragments of frozen time that leave an indelible impression on the viewer.

From the proud-looking shaggy pup inWolfhoundto the floral-dress-wearing masked girl in Straw Hat, Carter's images are the kind we see everyday yet rarely recognize as possessing the form and character required to become art. Stars features two black boys, masking their eyes with star-covered wooden blocks. A shadow of a chain link fence is cast upon them, giving their shirts a harlequin-like pattern. This pattern and the stars make the boys look almost like jesters, but their tight lips add a dimension of pensive thoughtfulness. The photo is simultaneously jovial and eerie, like a narrative that's segueing from humor to darkness.

What is perhaps the most striking aspect of Carter's work is its innate simplicity. Natural light and unsuspecting subjects combine with Carter's excellent skill to produce images full of warmth and emotion, evident in the series of books accompanying this show. From the simple, East Texas folk in The Blue Man to the exploration of the relationship between man and animal in Heaven of Animal, the books prove again and again that Carter possesses the instinctual ability to recognize beauty in any random expression of emotion, billow of smoke, or encounter of chance. Carter's work is at once comfortably familiar and curiously unusual, like a friendly, distant cousin at a family reunion who's constantly snapping pictures from the corner of the room.

Also on display are Bill Witliff's photos from the Lonesome Dove television series. While they merit recognition (and are undoubtedly a big draw for the gallery), their placement along the floor of the main showroom is somewhat distracting, and Witliff's cowboys tend to fight with Carter's swans.

— Cari Marshall


Ruta Maya Coffee House
218 W. Fourth, 472-9637
Through June,
with a rotation in February

Trudy's Texas Star
409 W. 30th, 477-2935
Through June,
with a rotation in February

Mr. Natural
1901 E. Cesar Chavez, 477-5228
Through June, with
a rotation in February

Mother's Cafe and Garden
4215 Duval, 451-3994
Through January

Amy's Ice Cream
1012 W. Sixth, 480-0673
Through December

Roppolo's Pizzeria
14200 N. I-35, Pflugerville,
Through June,
with a rotation in February

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