On any playground in the world, you'll see them: kids squabbling. And no matter where it is, you'll see them all squabbling pretty much the same way: making faces, calling each other names, stamping their feet, insulting each other's mothers, sticking out their tongues -- in short, doing all those distinctively puerile things that kids do when they're put out.
In the State Theater Company's smooth revival of Noel Coward's Hay Fever, the stage might as well be a playground, for director Jill Parker-Jones and her cast have turned back the clock on the play's notoriously ill-mannered Bliss family and made its members overgrown brats -- fashionably dressed, well-spoken, and devilishly clever brats, but brats nonetheless. They handle their intrafamilial intrigues and spats with all the maturity and grace of a crew of kindergarteners bickering over a game of tag. They snip, they snipe, they glare, they brood. Best of all, when they still don't get their way, they storm out of the room in a grand sulk. This might be tiresome stuff were it not for the wit with which Coward sweetens the proceedings and the comedic skills with which the actors and director spoof these childish combatants.
The play opens with the four Blisses -- mama Judith, an actress in quasi-retirement; papa David, a writer in mid-novel; and Simon and Sorel, their Bohemian offspring -- at home in their country estate (here a hodgepodge of Asian rugs, African statues, and European crystal cluttered stylishly by Joe York). As they engage in their ordinary routine of disputations, it comes out that each family member has invited a guest to the estate for the weekend. As no one is willing to rescind their invitation, this means a full house with every Bliss jockeying for prominence and, consequently, terrorizing their unwitting non-Bohemian guests. It's essentially an extended joke about the outsized egos of artistes, with Coward -- who knew a thing or two about artistic egos -- taking playful jabs at their vanity, pride, and manipulativeness.
Fortunately, the actors here "get" the joke. They appear to be having great fun either puffing themselves into a state of inflated narcissism or recoiling in panic from those who do. Center stage -- figuratively and literally -- is Babs George's Judith, who may have left the theatre but for whom all the world's a stage. George makes her every utterance a soliloquy, a declaration of Judith's will that will carry any debate by sheer dint of dramatic expression. George accents these monologues with the calculated physical displays of the Master Thespian: the Hand to the Forehead, the Sidelong Dip to the Divan, the Downcast Eyes. Each gesture, each line, is just big enough to signal mockery -- and so to tickle us ever so slyly. Considerably more subdued but no less sly or amusing is Alan Waldock's David, who assays the intellectual author with the cool tang of a gin and tonic on the rocks. Like the drink, his performance will sneak up on you, delivering its heady delights when you least expect it. By contrast, the pleasures of Joey Hood's Simon are openly apparent: a youthful enthusiasm and vigor that propels him literally halfway across the stage. Jackie Belvin has the trickiest Bliss, Sorel, whose petulance is hard to play without her coming off as shrewish and sour, but she makes the character seem more a born fussbudget, a soul sister with Peanuts' Lucy; she can't help being crabby, she came out that way.
The actors who must respond to this fearsome foursome all mine the vein of discomfort for many laughs: Lara Toner with her bubble eyes, Ken Webster with his diplomatic nod and forced smile, and especially Michael Miller, who meets Sorel's demand to join her in the library with the hangdog look of a condemned man out of appeals. Then there's Cyndi Williams as the Blisses' maid, who refuses to be cowed by her employers and shoots them glares that would wither a garden, and Boni Hester as a positively feline Myra Arundel, who reels off her sophisticated slams at Judith in a slinky purr -- and leaves scratches all across the carpet.
Part of what helps all this Cowardy comedy come through is that the company leaves the material room to breathe. The actors allow the lines and situations to have time to register and the humor in them to build. They also give us time to absorb the character of these characters, to soak up every iota of their conceit, their willfulness, their spoiled, silly, immature ways. With a leisurely, confident flair, the artists here make this Hay Fever child's play. -- Robert Faires
The Vortex, through June 26
Running time: 2 hrs
When you walk into a theatre and there onstage are all the cast members for the evening's show giving each other backrubs, doing a scored vocal warm-up, then holding hands for that final company moment before actually starting the performance, it's as if a beacon is flashing or a siren is blaring to warn you of indulgences to come. And if the evening's art was
How wonderful, then, that the Vortex shatters this expectation with an evening -- all right, a late night -- that is full of original works, zesty little nuggets that are as entertaining as they are thought-provoking. Blood Storm may be an imposing title, but under the guidance of director Bonnie Cullum, the works that grew from an ongoing Vortex Repertory Company workshop show off the original voices of this varied and multitalented group; these works are full of wit, poetry, and a relish of the theatrical-in-a-nutshell.
Over 30 short works are performed by more than a dozen company members. The first half of the show is a tumult of pieces; as one nears its conclusion, the following one is revving up. It is almost dreamlike, the succession of vignettes of word, scene, comedy,poetry, dance, and song -- and if one piece is not to your liking, wait a couple of minutes and try the next on for size.
Some stand-out turns include the three-part "Swing Dance," by Alexandra M. Landeros, as simple a piece as you'll ever see, since all you need to know about it is in the title; yet it clearly is something more -- a gentle love story, told in invigorating, jubilant dance. David Sangalli's "Faggot '99" and (all-Spanish) "Mexican Family in Turmoil" are hilarious; as is Amie Elyn's take on modern vampires in "The Invited." "Polaroid Circus" is silliness, and "Butt Symphony" even sillier, but you can't help but laugh out loud at this collection of actors all having such evident fun. Kirk Smith, staying in character even through other writers' scenes as well as the intermission as a sort of Bill-Irwin-clown-meets-Drag-worm, exemplifies that well-honed Vortex duality of edginess and humanity, amply possessed by all the company members in this production.
If your tastes tend to the more serious, Gwen McLendon's "Mystery" is lovely, and Elizabeth Doss' "Sidewalk" is replete with rich, dark imagery and sharp invectives on life's cruelties. Steven Fay's "The Method" careens off the radar, poking fun as much at this evening of neat, bold works as at the meaning of life.
Act Two makes use of blackouts between the vignettes, which is too bad, since it breaks up the evening into more traditional segments, but the spirit of the evening remains. The show starts at 11pm, ends around 1am, but if you can stay up, revel with these intrepid performers as they show you how to have a good time while sharing these little gems. -- Robi Polgar
Brink Design Warehouse, through June 25
A slight breeze ruffles the trees behind Brink Design's warehouse on East Cesar Chavez Street. Blue light bathes the spare scaffolding. Beside it the metal doors creak open and the audience gasps as smoke billows out, revealing kneeling dancers beneath a wide shaft of red light. Capoeira artist Alby Roblejo tumbles and balances effortlessly, performing the Afro-Brazilian dance/martial arts form as a continuous thread of rumbling energy. Gymnastic without the burden of being presentational, it serves as a beautiful invocation for Sally Jacques' second installment of the Probe Trilogy, Trans/Form.
Dancers in translucent white tunics and pants hang from ropes attached to the ceiling and perform gravity-defying duets, spinning upside-down and gliding weightlessly across the concrete floor. Twisting and untwisting ropes mirror the intertwining bodies that suddenly fall away from each other. This theme of interlocking yin and yang echoes throughout the piece as it moves from the warehouse to scaffolding. The dancers complete each other's movement fragments and move in unison while occupying different levels and spaces among the bars and platforms.
Carefully orchestrated lighting designs by Jason Amato filter from within the warehouse through windows behind the scaffolding, illuminating precarious and precise choreography. I watched some sections from the edge of my seat with gritted teeth because the work looks perilous. The dancers use every part of their multilevel stage, perching on the edges, hanging from the bars, inching carefully around the outside, hanging from the floor planks above, climbing the ladders and wrapping limbs around the supports. There are no wires, no nets, and no room for missteps or memory lapses. They move with the confidence of people familiar with heights, yet aware of the need for care. Particularly moving is the final section with the performers seated in chairs. After the continuously changing tableaux within the "rooms" of the structure, the group separates to perform a simultaneous slow-motion benediction to the strains of Puccini.
This is one of the most inventive and moving shows I have seen. The choreography is simple without being simplistic, overlapping to create a sense of calm completion and wholeness. Music and lighting issues are thoughtfully interwoven, creating a successful work that makes one notice the beauty in both stillness and movement. Although the structure is made of metal, it is infused with the breath of the dancers. It even accompanies their movements with its metallic groaning and creaking and acts like a reverberating tuning fork for Nicholas Young's tap solo late in the work. Perhaps in the third portion of the trilogy more dancers will interact with the scaffold sounds (with or without tap shoes). I can't wait to see where this piece goes next.
(Because of inclement weather, the performances last Saturday and Sunday were rained out; additional performances have been added for Thursday, June 24, at 8:30pm and Friday, June 25, at 9:15pm.) -- Dawn Davis
Copyright © 2020 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.