Y Ask X and Y?

picture of actor in frightening costume
Chad Salvata

Oh. My. God.

About as pleasant as a car wreck and just as compelling, VORTEX Repertory Company's TheX and Y Trilogy seemed to elicit the same gape-mouthed response from each of its audience members. Coined a "cybernetic opera," this trio of trance-music musical dramas -- The Black Blood, Panoptikon, and Triskelion -- staged by VORTEX over the past three years is the theatrical equivalent of a four-tab acid trip, a twisted vision part Hieronymous Bosch, part graphic novel, and part video game. It is a trilogy rife with not only incest, murder, and rape (the stuff of mythology and high opera), but jaw-droppers like a painful anal birth, the gulping of vaginal wine, perversion rapture (?), and the drinking of menstrual blood.

Oh yeah, and many of the actors are nude. Nude and in your face. And if they're not, they're cloaked in costumes spun straight from a fever dream, awash in lasers and fog and some of the most exquisite lighting in recent memory, courtesy Jason Amato. As characters with names like Ophydon and Korpa, these artists stalk the stage "cybernetically," that is, in the kind of jerky, staccato motion that makes you feel like a club kid who's been gazing into the strobe light too long. And their words are mostly unintelligible, as the actors' voices are distorted electronically and are often drowned out by the wonky techno trance music with which ethos has scored this opera.

It is a grand and unprecendented spectacle, unlike anything seen before in Austin theatre. And whether you find it bold and inspirational or tedious and embarrassing, The X and Y Trilogy is a piece you're not soon to forget. It is also a piece that is historic -- not only because it is the first (perhaps the only?) cybernetic opera to grace the city's stages, but also because of the commitment devoted to its production. Never has one of Austin's theatre companies dedicated so much time and energy to producing such an ambitious creation by a local playwright.

To some extent, the response to The X and Y Trilogy is beside the point. What has mattered over the past four years and what will matter next week as the entire trilogy is remounted and performed on the stage of the Paramount Theatre is that this is a creative labor of love, a testament to the unflagging commitment of its creators, Houston performance artist Chad Salvata and director Bonnie Cullum; that for VORTEX, it is the culmination of 10 years of living theatre on the edge and a piece that, deep within its bizarre, metallic exterior, harbors the throbbing pulse that kept the company there. It is a piece that means something powerful to its creators and performers. "The show has a heart," longtime VORTEX company member Matt Patterson explains. "Even if it's black."

The Black Blood opened in January of 1996, a holiday sneer for your holiday cheer. While other theatre companies were tearing down their Christmas Carol sets and Zach Scott was still sweatin' to the oldies, VORTEX set designer Ann Marie Gordon was constructing a parallel universe for the consumption of vaginal wine. The piece introduced Salvata's vision for the trilogy, his cybernetic cosmos of the Goldground, where human flesh merges with futuristic machine, but where a struggle for power goes on that is as ancient -- and tragic -- as the race itself. Infected and later plagued by the sins of its fathers, the civilization of The Black Blood finds the forces of good and evil in a war for the occupation of the soul. And each year, same time, same place, a new installment continued the battle: Panoptikon in 1997 and in 1998, the trilogy-completing Triskelion.

actor in costume gesticulating to the sky

Anderson Dear

With each production, at least one aspect of the audience feedback was uniform: "Everyone comments on the spectacle," Cullum claims. And the spectacle is magnificent. "It's like being trapped in a stained-glass box," gushed Chronicle critic Adrienne Martini, a description which seemed to perfectly crystallize Amato's light design, with its dazzling shards of white, the awesome beauty dappling the play's dark and sinister tones.

But the problem with a spectacle is that the makers of said spectacle get a bit bristly if they begin to suspect no one sees the inner beauty glowing within, like parents who grow huffy when they only hear their daughter is "pretty." For its creators, this child was a wonder, a piece of theatre so unique and out-of-this-world that the only way they can describe it is to make parallels to other works of art. Cullum herself likens it the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in its creation of an otherworld (in Tolkien's case, Middle Earth; with X and Y, the Goldground). Actress Rembert Block, who won a B. Iden Payne award for her performance as Corpa in Triskelion, compares it to a live-action cartoon, a spin on Japanimation in its psycho energy and fleshy, man-meets-machine costumes. And Matt Patterson, in what has become the touchstone of our times, references Star Wars, since "in the first one, you're introduced to this world, and in the second one, the empire is in place and in power and then it's destroyed, and in the third one, good triumphs again."

The creator himself shrugs off any overt influences. "I think if I'd done any of that intentionally, it wouldn't have worked," admits Salvata, a soft-spoken musician and artist whose tastes run more toward Dante and Nietszche than Tolkien and Lucas. Perhaps a more fitting precursor to The X and Y Trilogy is Einstein on the Beach, the experimental classic by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson. It too carries a social message embedded in the story, but its art seems more concerned with form and style, interested in trying things out, challenging its audience, even alienating them at times. Maybe it's just our postmodern craving to land on some cultural reference point, a desire to parallel this cybernetic world with our own vocabulary of film, art, and music that keeps people entangled in the allusions: It's a haunting vision, a social drama, a dark satire, mythology, performance art. The opinions and interpretations spin so furiously, a whirlpool of thoughts, critiques, and ideas, with the only real answers coming from two people, Cullum and Salvata, sheltered in the vortex.

VORTEX. The name suits a theatre group headed by Bonnie Cullum. She is an artist whose singular vision and brazen courage is matched only by her nurturing soul, the love she feels for her company, which, like so many other arts groups, has become a family. These qualities spawn a magnetism that everyone around her feels -- the artistic hunger, the world without boundaries, the woman pushing you to walk the tightrope, the woman holding the net -- and is drawn to. "There's a very strong vibe at that place," says Block, recalling the first time she ever set foot in Planet Theatre, the quirky renovated barn on Manor Road that serves as the VORTEX home. "That place has an energy of its own -- like you've walked into the force field." And into her force field Cullum has drawn not only an enviable crew of visting artists -- Annie Sprinkle, Rob Nash, Heather Woodbury -- but also a loyal family of local actors. It is, as Patterson observes, "a family of misfits," but we at the Chronicle, who happen to share those sentiments about our own brood, don't think there's anything wrong with that.

"I want to create theatre that's not necesarily safe ... that makes people talk, that maybe is an event and not just an evening," says Cullum. It's a desire that's evident in every piece she chooses, in their risque language and visuals, in their bizarre settings and activities, in their willingness to shred taboos. It is also something that has garnered VORTEX's work plenty of mixed reviews in its 10 years of producing theatre, not that that bothers Cullum. "I have a show where people come out, and they didn't like it and they leave, and other people come out of the exact same show the same night, and they tell me it was the greatest thing they ever saw and they'd never had an evening like that in the theatre before." For Cullum, this is "the mark of success." She leaves the crowdpleasers to other companies; she's in the business of pressing buttons. For that reason, and because of the style and subjects that seem to recur (nudity, vulgarity, homosexuality: the biggies), Cullum has gained a reputation as someone simply out to shock the audience. But the work and methods she chooses spring from something deeper than that. There is something political, even spiritual, in her insistence on pushing the envelope. And in response to that, to Cullum's enthusiasm and courage, people come again and again to see her shows. Amazingly, she tells me with a smile, "a lot of people who go aren't shocked; they're excited."

two actors in costume
Matt Patterson
and Jo Beth Henderson

Talk to her actors about Bonnie's strengths as a director, and they never mention the word "shock." Instead, they use the words "supportive," "focused," "thorough," "passionate." In this family, there is no question who mom is, and her kids don't badmouth her either -- despite the fact that theatre people are notorious gossips. "Bonnie really wants her actors to be as great as they can be, and she'll really push them as hard as she has to in order to get that," says Patterson, who, after performing with the company in more than 30 shows over eight years, should know. "I think that's one of her assets: the real desire not to have just a good show, but to try to make a great show." It is this perfectionism and integrity, along with the hair-pulling that sometimes accompanies it, that has allowed Cullum to carve a niche for VORTEX in the Austin theatrical community. After 10 years, the fringe company in town can finally enjoy theatre's fringe benefits: awards, sold-out shows, and a one-week spot at the most revered theatre space in town. And much of that is owed to this one trilogy, this huge undertaking that no one can help but respect and admire for its collaborators' searing dedication, their unwavering vision. And all that is what makes this 10-year finale in January so paramount.

Paramount. The gorgeous gold gilding, the plush, sumptuous reds -- the antique theatre on Congress is not just an Austin gem, it is Austin's treasure trove: a palatial home to the city's most beloved entertainers, from Lyle Lovett and Willie Nelson to Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, and as classy a place in town as exists to see classic movies. Proudly joining their ranks is VORTEX Repertory Company with The X and Y Trilogy. It is the capstone for 10 years of drama -- and perhaps a launching pad for the next 10. For Cullum, the trilogy was "the most ambitious thing I've ever done." And let the record show: She's done a lot. From her now-legendary same-sex Romeo and Juliet to a striking matriarchal King Lear, Cullum has put her stamp on the plays of Shakespeare; from her maze-like staging of Vaclav Havel's Temptation to her award-winning production of Paula Vogel's The Baltimore Waltz, she has made bold forays into contemporary drama by the Western world's leading playwrights; from Aaron Brown's gay thrillers The M.O. of M.I.and Norm L. to Kirk Smith's classical adaptationsFaustus and Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, she has supported and shaped the new work of Austin dramatists. And somewhere in there you can toss the mad camp of The Rocky Horror Show. Cullum has labored on almost every kind of play there is and many with a scope that would daunt many directors. But this show at the Paramount thrusts the experience to a whole new level. Her face flushed with excitement, her hands motioning actively as she talks about it, there's no mistaking what this week really is: "It's the biggest thing I've ever done."

"You gotta see it," Patterson keeps repeating, and he's not trying to sell me on this, he's just that enthused. He tells me about the new costumes, about the new challenges, about the way the show will sound. "Anyone who's ever seen these will remember these shows. ... People will say, 'You should have seen what these people looked like, you should have heard the music, you should have seen this spectacle.'" He can't even sit still as he says it, punching every verb for emphasis. Patterson knows that this production is not to everyone's taste, that some people are not turned on by this kind of theatre, this kind of exhibitionism. And he also understands how voyeurism works, how people can be attracted and repelled by something all at once, yet seem unable to stop watching it. "Even if you hated it, you'll say: 'You gotta see this.'" He also knows that, quite frankly, a lot of people dig it. And for that reason, he has nothing but anticipation.

Even in the face of the unprecedented -- doing all three shows back-to-back on Sunday -- no one seems to blanch. But then again, that's what this company was founded on: this fearless walk-out-to-the-edge-and-peer-over, take-off-your-clothes-and-run-around attitude. It's what's made these 10 years something remarkable. Aren't you people nervous about this? Bonnie Cullum smiles and coolly explains: "Of course, what we're doing is really impossible ... but we're doing it anyway."

The X and Y Trilogy runs January 7-10, Thu-Sun, at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. Call 469-SHOW for info.

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