Top Ten Stage

Top Ten Theatrical Experiences of 1997

1. Ruthless! The Musical (Zachary Scott Theatre Center) This bastard love child of All About Eve and The Bad Seed may be just some pleasurably bitchy fluff, but it was so splendidly realized by Dave Steakley and company that it attained a sort of camp transcendence. The cast's comedic style was impeccable, as precise and rich as if it were Restoration comedy, with Meredith Robertson shifting amazingly from sweet Stepford Wife to sour Broadway Bitch, and he-man Joe York doing a knockout turn as demon diva Sylvia St. Croix. The fact that my wife was in the cast should shame me into removing the show from this list, but I can't. I enjoyed it too much. The giddiest I've been in the theatre in many a season.

2. Dreamgirls (Zachary Scott Theatre Center) Dave Steakley's staging of this pop musical on Zach's Kleberg Stage was a whirl of kinetic energy and soulful singing. His revival for the Paramount stage kept all that was dynamic about the first version but expanded its scope and feeling, filling the opera house with sound, soul, flash, glitz, and Jacqui Cross' gloriously wrenching voice.



Managed Care

3. Managed Care (Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre) Anatomy of an illness, as told by the patient, the ever eloquent, engaging Steven Tomlinson. This story of his mysterious malaise and search for a cure, keenly staged by the late David Mark Cohen, was itself a tonic, healing with its amusing exposure of the absurdities of modern life and its gentle reminder of the frailty of human bodies and enduring strength of its spirit.

4. The Uninvited (33 Fainting Spells) A ladder. A table. A bare bulb. Dripping water. Dancing around, on, and with these inanimate entities, as well as with each other, Gaelen Hanson and Dayna Hanson expanded our sense of how we relate to the world and people around us and crafted a witty and haunting movement drama of a guest whose visit casts an ineffable spell on her host.

5. Peter Pan (Austin Musical Theatre) The show that brought magic back to Austin theatre. From Christopher McCollum's darling dollhouse set to the exuberant dance routines by Musical Theatre founders Richard Byron and Scott Thompson to the crisp performance of same by the cast to Kristi Lynes' deliriously joyful turn as the boy who won't grow up, AMT's debut was an enchantment. I believe.

6. 30 Neo-Futurist Plays From Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind/curst & Shrewd/Ubu Roi (Rude Mechanicals) Rude Mechanicals is one stage company which understands that plays go hand in hand with play, and they proved again and again how much fun can be had in the theatre when the artists loosen up and play. These shows -- ranging from a collection of two-minute sketches to deconstructed Shakespeare to an Animal House version of Macbeth -- were rough and rambunctious and gleeful.

7. Craving Gravy (UT Department of Theatre & Dance) The optimists' Waiting for Godot. Same bleak landscape, same wandering clowns, same musing on life's mysteries, but UT playwright John Walch saw the glass as half full, and he allowed his ravenous heroes -- realized with vaudevillian precision and charm by Michael Arthur and Amy L. Washburn -- to discover a reason to go on. And it worked.

8. Fur (VORTEX Repertory Company) Migdalia Cruz's hip, freak-show riff on "Beauty and the Beast" wallowed in sensationalism, but director Barry Pineo brought such focus to its staging that, with the controlled and committed performances of Martin Burke, Elaine Williams, and especially Stephanie Swenson as the animal-woman Citrona, this tale of bestial love was hilariously hypnotic.

9. Woody Skaggs and Janelle Buchanan in A Delicate Balance (Live Oak Theatre) Two of our finest actors immersed themselves in the darkness of this Albee play and radiated blazing light. In a flawed yet haunting production, Buchanan gave us a bracing portrait of alcoholic bitterness -- gin cut with blood in a jagged glass -- and Skaggs provided an indelible image of a man lost in the night of his life, brow knotted, eyes darting, searching and searching the sky for illumination.

10. The Piano Lesson (Zachary Scott Theatre Center) A steaming bath of culture and ritual and story, of earth and wood and ghosts and passion, heated by August Wilson's funny, gutsy script and the breath and blood of the fine cast, especially William Byrd Wilkins, booming thunder and flashing lightning as the tempestuous Boy Willie.

Honorable Mentions

Deviant Craft (Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre), for the bold spirit of its actors and their mad, often hysterical attempts at "performing" The Tempest.

A Christmas Memory (Zachary Scott Theatre Center), for its profound tenderness in evoking the bond between two exquisitely sensitive souls.

Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery (First Stage Productions), for Kim Koym's colorful floor, the engaging ensemble, and Daniel Jones' deft direction.

Freshman Year Sucks! (VORTEX Repertory Company), for Rob Nash capturing in word and nuanced gesture a time, a town, and adolescence.

The end of the first act of Julius Caesar (VORTEX Repertory Company), for the visceral jolt it provided when the wall literally came down.

Goin' to Georgia (Zachary Scott Theatre Center), for the joy in Joy Cunningham's storytelling and her sweet evocation of a summer Southern night.

Clayangels (Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre), for Todd and Daniel Jones' glimpse of brotherly affection and hilarious portrayal of two elderly sisters.

Water (Hyde Park Theatre), for its goofy fun and William Walden & Alice Spencer's sublime songs.

A warm, fuzzy spot will always be in my heart for a well-made play well done. It's like the comfort of a lover's embrace or the first warm day after a long winter. I appreciate Arthur Miller, Kander and Ebb, Neil Simon, and Oscar Wilde to the nth degree, ready and willing to surrender my disbelief to a master at work.

But theatre isn't always about a gentle fall into another world. The form is unique in its abilities to be here now, to walk the tightrope without a net, to trust the production to hold you up even in gale-force winds. Austin is uniquely blessed with companies who commit to the magic and immediacy that is theatre. These shows are roller coaster rides, full of low overhangs and stomach churning free falls that leave you dizzy and laughing. You don't want the ride to end, but you don't know how much more you can take before you are completely overwhelmed. When the ride comes to a complete stop, the goose bumps linger and you feel so fucking alive. That is theatre.

-- Adrienne Martini

TEN WHO BUILT THEIR OWN THRILL RIDES IN 1997

(IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER)

curst & Shrewd/Lust Supper (Rude Mechanicals) A whirlwind of words, an avalanche of talent, a veritable tsunami of cojones makes Rude Mechanicals the company to watch in 1998. curst & Shrewd, their revamping of The Taming of the Shrew, and playwright-in-residence Kirk Lynn's Lust Supper, an absurdist family drama, were maniacally and mechanically crafted productions that left a visceral impression of why we do this nutty theatre thing in the first place.



The Uninvited

The Uninvited (33 Fainting Spells) A thousand thanks go to Dance Umbrella for bringing these movement virtuosos to town. Gaelen Hanson and Dayna Hanson, the two women who are 33 Fainting Spells, make their dance with strict craftsmanship and transcendent joy. It was a pleasure to watch what the 33s could do with everyday objects and a heart full of inspiration.

A Saga of Billy the Kid (Tongue and Groove Theatre) Ya just gotta love "cantankerous hossplay." David Yeakle directed this energetic, enthusiastic, and downright electric piece of theatre in front of one of the most wonderful pieces of stone at the Club DeVille, the perfect setting for a show about an outlaw. Todd Lowe was amazing as the Kid himself, while Dana Younger was perfection as Pat Garrett.

The Battle of San Jacinto (Salvage Vanguard Theater) No drug in the world can beat a piece of theatre that grabs you by the back of the head, whips you into the scene, and laughs in your face after giving you a deep kiss that you feel to the depths of your soul. All live and in person with actors that are close enough to blindly grope in an effort to understand the magic.

Wolf at the Door (UT Department of Theatre & Dance) Newspaper falling from the ceiling, sparks flying from an arc welder, blue lights in extreme angels, pure spectacle at its finest. While I still have some problems making this visually dazzling production fit Erik Ehn's script, it was a wonder to behold.

The King Stag (Second Youth Repertory Family Theatre) A gentle breeze can raise goose bumps as well as a fierce thunderstorm. The King Stag was a soft gust of color and light, full of well-honed performances and impressions. Susan Dillard's light direction made it an explosion of theatre.

subUrbia (The Company) Performances, performances, performances. Newcomer Joseph Gibson rocked. Kim Heacock grooved. J. Damian Gillen crooned. Yes, the overall production had some problems, but these most excellent performances made the show sing.

The first three episodes of Flame Failure (Downstage Players) Granted, this may seem like a backhanded compliment, but these episodes of Dan Bonfitto's ongoing book hunt sent shivers up my spine. While the series has had its ups and downs since its thrilling beginnings, the concept and execution of those episodes were more than worth the time.

Karen Finley's The American Chestnut (Planet Theatre) I never thought I'd get the chance to see this unique and challenging theatre artist in Austin, but the VORTEX folks worked their magic and got her down here. The American Chestnut sums up life, love, and theatre in the most engaging ways possible, despite its occasionally contrived moments and Finley's in-your-face delivery. The whole experience was a great reminder of what theatre can do once you know where the form's edges are.

Deviant Craft (Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre) I'm still not sure what to make of this show, but I remember the engaging puzzles it contained. Loosely billed as an adaptation of The Tempest done by women prison inmates, Deviant Craft was a thinly veiled, inherently theatrical message about boundaries and definitions. The cast and crew were willing to push every envelope there is, with reckless abandon and great success.

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