Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robi Polgar, Fri., April 23, 2004
The HouseMary Moody Northen Theatre at St. Edward's University, through April 25
Running Time: 3 hrs
Although The House began its textual life as what writer/director J. Ed Araiza describes as "an indirect look at the House of Atreus," that classical lodging was razed long ago. In its place has been constructed a hodgepodge of ideas and experiences of the young performers who populate the stage in this Mary Moody Northen Theatre production. It's an eclectic mix to be sure: Creation mythology butts alongside dreams biblical and spiritual; the daily (and nightly) student rituals of between-class conversation and partygoing illuminate or mask the pain of indecisiveness and alienation these young people feel from both peers and parents; and there are intimate, introspective stories of several characters forced to make choices that force adulthood on them perhaps too soon.
This is Araiza's third collaboration with the student artists at St. Edward's University, and it is unapologetically about them, which makes for the show's strengths and its weaknesses. Araiza and master teacher/vocal coach Ellen Lauren hail from the SITI Company, one of the most theatrical and inventive companies in the world. Much of the dynamic SITI approach is brought to bear on this production, including exquisite opening sequences that combine the simplest, most personable humor by Gina Houston as the House Manager (read: "God") with some stunning ensemble movement. The creation of the universe, told with glow sticks and movement and music there is a lot of music in this play is brilliant in all senses of the word. During these sequences, we meet the confrontational Luke, played strongly by Brent Werzner, who is Houston's equal in his role as the lord of all things dark, be they hell, humor, souring relationships with friends and lovers, or combating his own inner demons. There are more than 30 cast members, most of whom occupy center stage at one time or another; Robin Grace Thompson plumbs the emotional depths of dreamer Jeanne in the play's mammoth role it is her dreams from which many of the early stage images emerge and her relationships with Luke and her mother that provide the scant structure on which the play hangs.
For what is lacking in this overwhelming and overlong production is a true ground plan; the play is too cumbersome for its own good. It needs structure: There's the exploration of creation mythologies; the intertwined dreams of the students and biblical tales they seem to be channeling; a double dose of an excruciatingly dull debate on America's actions in the Middle East; the realistic stories of Jeanne and Luke, and Jeanne and her mom, and Luke and his parents; and a strange Macbeth tangent for yet another alienated kid, Matt (played with verve and warmth by Brad Carlin); and the grim, hard-to-hear musings of a heavy metal Cassandra (Valerie Redd); and the epistolary drama between Joey (Aaron D. Alexander) and his cousin Madeline (Adriene Mishler). It goes on and on. There are many songs of all genres. The onstage combo rocks, and the music is heartfelt and honest, but it is all so retro: Jimi Hendrix and the Monkees and Bob Marley and, hell, even Kurt Cobain is sorta classical now. Given the themes of youthful indecision and coming of age, of a Vietnam-like conflict on the other side of the world and the cast's attitudes to it, of unwed pregnancy, and of the demand to be treated equally (women, blacks, gays), this might be Hair, just not as focused as the original, if that's possible.
Yet the music still speaks, and the anti- and pro-war debate is certainly not limited to young people at parties the same lines are evident in The New York Times or the weekend soccer games at Zilker Park or at your company's watercooler. The thing is, they are inherently untheatrical. It's all just talk. When Araiza and his company are moving, embracing something more than their daily lives, when they can weave their daily existences, un-unique as they are (no matter how emotionally charged), into the fabric of the ever-expanding, mysterious, mythological Whole, then The House stands among the strongest of theatrical endeavors. There are many, many in-jokes, and the event overall is self-deprecating in a way that indicates everyone knows this is something of a work in progress. It doesn't quite mitigate the feeling of length of the production, but there are few groups of artists with this sort of enthusiasm for life, and it is good to see these young theatre-makers seizing life, in all its messiness and uncertainty, and constructing so much from it right before our eyes.