The Last Hurrah

Theatregoers of Austin,we have hit The Wall. In the annual performance marathon known as FronteraFest, this is that point when we break past the blurry vision and fatigue and soreness brought on by four solid weeks of stage work. Somehow we've endured all the deeply personal "get-to-know-me" monologues and interpretive dances and esoteric verse and alone-in-the-light raging against the machine that have been hurled our way for the past month, and we know we can see the Fest through to the end one more time. And, as is always the case with FronteraFest, once we've hit the wall, all that's left is the best. During the last week of the festival, Frontera always brings back the outstanding pieces from the preceding weeks, some selected by judges who have observed the work throughout the fest, some selected by the festival producers and crew. You have through Saturday, February 13 to catch up on this year's Best of the Fest (see "Arts Listings" for schedule). In the meantime, why not read Sarah Hepola's look at last week's Mi Casa Es Su Teatro, the day-long FFest component featuring performances staged in homes around the city?

All Best of the Fest performances take place at Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd. Tickets are $10. Call 454-TIXS for reservations.

-- Robert Faires

Mi Casa Es Su Teatro

Saturday, February 6

Spending time in someone else's home is never quite safe. Not safe like watching TV or surfing the Internet, or like eating frozen dinners and renting movies. Spending time in someone else's home is a risk, because you are at their whims. You are captive to their smells, their heat, their habits, their likes and dislikes, even their music. The producers of Mi Casa Es Su Teatro know all this; but they don't necessarily want you to be safe. That's part of the reason they stage this day-long theatrical festival, an annual part of FronteraFest in which artists turn their homes into public theatre spaces for hour-long performances. With pieces ranging from puppet shows to comedy improv to performance art, the concept is ingenious, really -- and just another way that the Frontera@Hyde Park gang -- experts at risk-taking -- make sure we never forget that living in a community means making human contact. This time, that means entering someone else's home. And at its best, you sense that glorious relief from the old routine, a chance to dabble in another world, to play with better toys, to feel that hospitality; at worst, you are held prisoner. Last Saturday, I felt both.

In We're Better Than Everyone Else, movies took the front seat for debate. Not hardline movie criticism, grant you -- Pauline Kael, be damned --rather, an assertion of the layman's rights to film debate. Here we find three friends, who have admittedly whittled away many hours embroiled in these debates, staging a contest to determine who is the "rightest." While low on concept, the piece was engaging on the basis of the actors' strong personalities. There was Pamela, the sarcastic analyzer; Chuy, the cutup; and Jeff, the academic who espoused with deadpan enthusiasm his unabounding love for Andie MacDowell and Julia Roberts. For seven minutes, they took on audience-suggested topics, from their favorite 10 movies of all time (Citizen Kane would be on Chuy's list, but he hadn't seen it yet) to their thoughts on Brian's Song (very few). The show hit a groove when members were riffing on their own idiosyncratic tastes, and stretched thin when they stuttered through unknown territory. But at least they acknowledged it: "This is boring," one would complain and quickly jump to the next topic. In the end, we voted on who seemed rightest (Jeff), who presumably possessed bragging rights until the next installment. Like any heated and fairly ludicrous argument, it evaporated upon leaving. But for someone who will play Siskel to anyone's Ebert, I didn't have too many complaints. Except, of course, that I'm righter than all of them.

Not the case with my second stop, Knights Templar Pestle Hop Slumber Party: a Bed-In, or what might have been more precisely titled Fetish in the Afternoon. Wearing hoop skirts with nothing under them, a group of sexual hooligans trounced over the 50-plus audience members seated on the floor, falling on us, kicking and screaming, with presumably one purpose: To give us a glimpse of their nasties. Over the next hour, there was god-awful trumpet blowing, a man washing audience members' feet then sucking their toes, and a mildly amusing accordion piece about an eggplant-shaped penis implant. When the audience was asked to share good and bad sex stories, people told tales of being wrapped in cellophane at Anchovies and cum-up-the-nose (that's a good sex story, by the way). And through it all, most audience members looked about as comfortable as a 14-year-old virgin in the boys' locker room. But the absolute nadir was a game of spin-the-bottle: Fewer things are more agonizing than watching a purple-faced audience member as his ear is probed by a stranger's tongue. This was all part of the shock-the-bourgeoisie plan, to be sure. And I know the artists were trying to be welcoming in their own kinky way. But if I were someone intrigued by this kind of fetishism, the affair would have struck me as lame, because what playful imagination was there got quelched by intolerable confessions and humor on par with Jim Carrey fart jokes. Since I'm not someone interested in this kind of fetishism, it was about as welcoming as an anal probe.

Skittish and shell-shocked, I arrived at my final stop, Carlos Trevino's interactive maze, Madhouse!, with only one demand: Just don't touch me. Thankfully, no wandering hands were waiting in ambush at this house, where every room had been transformed to reflect a certain mood -- be it serenity, anxiety, introspection, or fear. Although I wasn't allowed to peak in every room, what I saw stays with me: a hundred Japanese symbols painted on banners and flapping in the wind, a man reading riddles nonstop, a wall stacked with televisions, a huge crawl-through maze of cardboard boxes in the back. It was a wondrous and beautifully executed labryinth in which every room offered some new image of wonder. My favorite moment of the day came in the second-to-last maze I entered. After climbing through a cluttered closet, I arrived in a room filled with such unexpected, simple splendor that for a second I thought I'd happened upon Narnia. The floor was covered in fall leaves, with a small, craggy tree broken on the path, and on the wall, film stock of blue skies and sun-dappled trees ticked away. In the corner, little white bunnies hopped around, sniffing out corners and the hands of passersby. There was a guy lying in the middle of it all, soaking in all the peacefulness, and at first, I thought he was part of the arrangement. But apparently he just dug the room and wanted to stay there awhile. What a strange thing to do, just lie down on the floor. But I understand why he did it. All noise was filtered away, except for the whir of the film and the crunch of leaves underfoot. Everything suddenly seemed to fit, like magic. It felt comfortable. It felt like home. -- Sarah Hepola

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