The Austin Chronicle


Beauty Vultures and the Plague of Sleep: Heartwarming Chill

May 22, 1998, Arts

Planet Theatre,
through May 24
Running Time: 1 hr

Somewhere in a chilly fault line of the mind, underneath dreams, myth, fairy tale, and pure giddiness, lurk the odd characters of Rembert Block's new work Beauty Vultures and the Plague of Sleep. Another in a long line of bold, expressive productions from the VORTEX Repertory Company, Beauty Vultures combines basic elements of song. dance, ritual, music, and a twisted modern bleakness to tell a story of love and loss.

Block, who wrote the play and directed this premiere production, portrays the Heartbroken Glamour Clown, whose sole purpose is to entertain the audience, perpetually. Weary and increasingly bitter, the Clown finds herself at the mercy of the Beauty Vultures, a gaggle of three black-clad harpies — who evoke an all-girl Motown back-up group in dementia — that demand the Clown continue The Show. Snake, Frog, Turtle, and Bird, the four animals that comprise the Dream Council, find a champion for the beset Clown in the millennially sleeping Polar Bear, adrift on his iceberg. They waken him, and in the ensuing conflict, Bear and Clown meet, fall in love, and... well, it is a plague of sleep....

In spite of the apparent lunacy of the plot (there are detailed notes in the playbill that give the tale a truly elemental, mythological feel), Block's storytelling is clear and moving, if a little weighted down from time to time. The entire evening comes across in song, or chant, supported by a refreshingly simple live combo of guitar, clarinet, harp, and percussion. The story unwinds as one vaudeville turn after another — most of which contain clever lyrics or have a delightful audience-inclusive self-awareness.

All the performers project a clear enthusiasm for the play, and their enjoyment infects the audience. Block is solid as the Clown, comfortably performing her discomfited character. Amie Todd, John Steven Rodriguez, and WendyElizabeth Jones make gleeful, roguish Vultures. The various animals, played by Chad Salvata (Polar Bear), Mick D'Arcy (Snake), Marshall RyanMaresca (Frog), C. Robert Stevens, (Turtle), and Elizabeth Doss (Bird) charm with their idiosyncratic mannerisms and movement.

Kari Perkins' costumes, particularly those for the animals, are clever and understated, a mix of children's fairy tale and adult irony: Salvata's Polar Bear wears as much ski gear as fur; Stevens' Turtle wears army greens and sports a big, square backpack as his shell. Perkins skirts the inherent danger of trying to force a realism onto the onstage animals with a playful style. Similarly evocative are Ann Marie Gordon's set and Zach Murphy's lights, particularly the Arctic opening and the colorful, vaudevillian presentation.

It takes a certain courage (and madness) on the part of a performer to allow an audience to delve into the cracks of such poetic, personal space. Block descends into her icy, glacial imagination and returns with a tale as heartwarming as the setting is chill. —Robi Polgar


State Theatre,
through June 7

Running Time: 2 hrs

Things to do today: Get flashy literary debut applauded in the right places (New York Times Book Review, Esquire, New Yorker); get glossy photo spread in one of those magazines (GQ, Interview, Vogue, Vanity Fair); get real threads (Hugo Boss, Missoni, Prada); get hot posse to hang with (Quentin, Matt & Ben, the South Park guys); sit back and savor being hot, being in, being one of the proud, the few,... the celebs.

Fame may not be the rarefied commodity it was once, what with everyone nowadays getting their 15 minutes and all, but it still has a powerful allure. Just ask Evan Wyler. He's a young writer who has recently checked off the first two items on the "to-do" list above, and he's hungry to finish the rest. The attention accorded his first novel and his designation as a new star in the literary firmament was heady stuff, downright intoxicating. He loved being known, being pursued. And he wants more.

Well, he gets more — much more — when he meets Alexa Vere de Vere, a woman of high style and extravagant manner who comes to Evan with a project that promises to land him nipple-deep in the glitz and glamour and glory for which he lusts. Vere de Vere wants Evan to write the story of her life — make that the movieof her life — an incredible adventure of jet-setting and star-making and sex that, she assures him, will be a major motion picture. When he agrees, she whirls him — as the twister did Dorothy — into a world of dazzling colors, resplendent outfits, and people most unlike those in Kansas. In this new world, under Alexa's spell, Evan nearly loses himself. But then he's jolted back to The Way Things Are, and it forces him to confront how much he truly desires a life of lustrous surfaces and conspicuous notoriety.

Evan's journey may be familiar to seasoned theatergoers — it's the trip of every naïf who learns the hard way that not all strangers are trustworthy — but playwright Douglas Carter Beane makes the trip an unusually entertaining one. He has a keen sense of the high-gloss world of modern celebrity and our everlasting infatuation with it, and he brings them together in a flash of tangy, larger-than-life characters and tart one-liners. "Hollywood," rhapsodizes the too-too Alexa, "it truly is the the finest word in the English language." That, in a nutshell, is the pleasure of As Bees in Honey Drown: wit that manages simultaneously to satirize and salute our love of image — especially the flashy and the false. For good or ill, it wickedly reminds us, we are fashion's fools.

For a show with so much to say about style, Live Oak Theatre's production has a curiously casual look to it. James Barker's set — a tall freestanding faux-brick wall opposite a tall fabric curtain that masks a recessed playing space — reads as generic New York loft, with the set elements that he uses to identify specific locales — restaurant tables, office chairs, and some block units covered in garish red fabric — looking either purely utilitarian or bargain basement cheap. Buffy Manners aims for couture in her costumes, but she undercuts her efforts with styles that sometimes appear more Eighties than Nineties, fabrics of dubious quality, and by filling out outfits with incongruous elements, such as rubber-soled shoes with the equivalent of an Armani suit. The wigs worn by Babs George as Alexa don't look combed, much less styled. And a series of slides meant to evoke ultra-trendy fashion photos instead suggest family album snapshots. This loose approach might not be such a big deal if the script weren't repeatedly reminding us of the importance of appearance. Our greatest creations, notes Alexa, may be ourselves.

Fortunately, most of the actors are in tune with this idea and use it to create some giddily memorable characters. Catherine Glynn shakes it every which way as a scatterbrained photographer's assistant a bit carried away with her work. As a music industry executive, Ken Webster delivers appealing bluster and perhaps the definitive comic reading of the word "putz." As Webster's secretary, Boni Hester pulls laughs out of the determination and defensiveness with which she stands guard at his office door. And David Stokey is all swish and gush as a very enthusiastic, very fey suit salesman, then turns 180 degrees to play the man holding the key to Alexa's past with serenity and understated warmth.

And what of Alexa? While Beane gives the actress who plays her plenty of room to forge an über-Mame, Babs George takes a relatively restrained approach to the role. She flavors her speech with vintage Kate Hepburn cultured hauteur and occasionally gives herself over to a flamboyant sweep of the arm or dip of the head, but her movements are generally tight, judicious, as if she's testing them for effect. In some of her early scenes with Evan — John Vincent Hoff, projecting clearly the character's innocence and inexperience, if not always his motivations — George appears almost to be auditioning for the part. Some of that may have been simply opening-night jitters; still, the impression left was of an actor filling in a role rather than a character seizing life by the throat.

Live Oak scored a national coup by being the first regional theatre to produce this play, for which they're to be commended. But in taking the play out of New York, the company has taken a lot of the New York out of the play, and, with this play, that's problematic. Style is at its heart, as it is with Oscar Wilde's work. What we get is like The Importance of Being Earnest performed in Wranglers and pocket Ts; the lines are still funny, but the world from which they spring is missing. —Robert Faires

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