Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Heather Barfield Cole, Fri., April 16, 2004
Esther's FolliesEsther's Pool, ongoing
Running time: 1 hr, 40 min
In the bustling swoon of Sixth Street, there is a place determined to make people laugh: Austin gem Esther's Follies. Since 1977, founders Shannon Sedwick and Michael Shelton have concocted a spectacular recipe of ambience, spirits, and raucous humor baked to please. Using inventive props, puppets, wigs, costumes, live music, and a giant claw machine, the gang at Esther's stuffs fast-paced skits, relevant political satire, and illusions into a tightly compacted show that leaves little room to breathe. Those inhalations happen when your belly is sucking up air in progressively spasmodic bursts of laughter.
The show begins upon passing through the doors. The theatre space is decorated with a fantastically tawdry seaside-underwater mural complete with a sunken ship, fish, and a synchronized swimmer. Once the show officially kicks off, it is obvious from the get-go that the troupe is sharp and focused; they demonstrate their agility at rapid costume changes and character transformations, jumping smoothly from act to act seemingly without effort, save for the glittering beads of sweat on their foreheads. They work their tushes off.
Magician Ray Anderson is perhaps Esther's shining star: He's comical, he levitates bodies, he flies over the audience, he improvises with a sharp wit, and he's not afraid to wear tights. Kerry Awn is another keeper, since he knows how to emulate both the inanities of George W. and the exaggerated pride of a tie-dye wearing, Barton Springs-swimming citizen of South Austin. Shaun Wainwright-Branigan and Meta Rosen superbly topple a naughty Cat in the Hat rhyme routine. Elisa Shepard and Jewel Cropper are energetic and in top form as pop-star divas, sorority girls, angry punk rock magician's assistants, or soap opera queens.
There is another silent and immobile actor in this show: the transparent window overlooking the sometimes confused, inquisitive, or resistant passersby on Sixth Street. The window breaks convention, allowing the action occasionally to move onto the street and the actors to perform for both the folks seated inside and for the curious outside. It's a whole 'nuther show out there, but oddly enough, it's never too distracting from the hard-working players, hellbent on turning frowns upside down. Familiar conventions of camp are heartily embraced, including the pseudo-voluntary abasement of audience members, as in a lampoon of a love scene when an unsuspecting gentleman's head is thrust between two bosomy peaks. It may sound juvenile, but oh, is it fabulously silly.
Here is a show that is utterly fun, exciting, and polished. The Follies is a vaudevillian escape reminiscent of Manhattan's mid-19th-century Bowery Theatre or "circus of the masses," where packed houses combined with rambunctious laborers meant peanuts or leftover dinner thrown at mediocre performers. Although audiences today are less inclined to throw food over footlights, Esther's Follies exhibits just the right amount of raunchiness and sophistication to warrant participation on a loudly interactive level. That beats staying at home playing Ultima Online in your underwear any day. Bring family (perhaps more suitable for the PG-13 set and up), bring tourists, or bring yourself to a laudable Austin tradition, worthy of sustainability long into the unforeseen parodied future.
Oops! The following correction ran in our April 23, 2004 issue: In her review of Esther's Follies ["Exhibitionism," Arts, April 16], Heather Barfield credited Elisa Shepard with being one of the performers who is "energetic and top form as pop-star divas, sorority girls, angry punk rock magician's assistants, or soap opera queens." She should have given the credit to Laura Mathis for those performances. The Chronicle regrets the error.