Of Cactuses, Crickets, and Cars

Cataloging the diverse wonders of FronteraFest Long Fringe 2006

A half-dozen playlets all set in cars. Ten that all deal in some way with those chirping insects called crickets and an imaginary village in Maine. The tale of a sheltered young woman who gives her cactus a name. Stories of the missing and murdered women of Juarez. A dance set in a kitchen with the female workers breaking plates. A spoof of the Faust legend. Every FronteraFest features an almost dizzying range of dramas, and this year's batch of longer works in the annual performance festival is no different. Its unlikely mix of short plays, character sketches, and dances reveals a world of wonders as diverse as our own outside the theatre. Last week, the Chronicle Arts team hit the 2006 Long Fringe to catalog those wonders for you. Their reports on the 11 shows running this year ought to be enough to prod you into making at least one trip to the performance edge this week.

All Long Fringe performances are at the Blue Theater, 916 Springdale. Dates and times for remaining performances for each show follows the review. Ticket prices vary. For reservations, call 479-PLAY. For more information, visit www.hydeparktheatre.org. – Robert Faires

Of Cactuses, Crickets, and Cars
Photo By Bret Brookshire

The Most Beautiful Lullaby You've Ever Heard

Running Time: 1 hr, 15 min

Stop me if you've heard this one: A woman and a man are falling for each other, but there's this other guy ... The Most Beautiful Lullaby You've Ever Heard concerns that universal, the love triangle, only in playwright Greg Romero's experiment the apex is just the narrator.

The play captures the nuances of a courtship between nameless lovers seized in breathless moments that feel like a record skipping over the same scene but playing different outcomes.

Director Jasson Minadakis doesn't let the actors look at each other much, mostly just stare ahead at the audience as in a scripted reading but without the scripts. This makes the production seem as if it is happening in some romantic ether where the narrator is the puppet master and the two characters are his marionettes. He introduces their conversations in various places set in his imagination, such as on the beach, at a bar, or in their apartment. But underneath his monotone is a sense that he is the obstacle to their future communion. He turns the lights on, reads their onstage actions, and blocks their exit attempts.

Romero, working on his MFA in playwriting at UT, lets the characters interview each other with quirky repartee. "Come here often?" the man says. "I'm a regular," the woman says. "You're irregular?" As they get to know each other, they subtly start to show their dark underbellies, revealing secret fetishes and squalid pasts. They hurt each other with Mamet-type verbal abuse. "I wouldn't mind if you hit me over the head with a beer bottle," he says. "Fuck you," she says. Romero's lullaby sways between dark and light, but since it involves our favorite entertainment variant, love, it's the most beautiful. – Patti Hadad

(Friday, Jan. 27, 7pm; Saturday, Jan. 28, 11:15pm)

Of Cactuses, Crickets, and Cars
Photo By Bret Brookshire

Dance Carousel

Running Time: 1 hr

What might I be able to say to encourage you, your relatives, your friends and acquaintances, and people you happen to meet in passing on the street, to turn out in droves to see Spank Dance Company's delightful Dance Carousel? Would it be enough to say that it is one of the most pleasurable, thought-provoking, eclectic hours you likely will ever spend in a theatre? What if I said that Spank Artistic Director Ellen Bartel's idea of having 10 choreographers create four one-minute dances each and then present them in a kind of round is not just a neat, quirky idea, but a brilliantly entertaining one? Would that be enough? If I said that there was never a moment when I was not entirely stimulated and intrigued, more than a few moments when I was completely surprised, numerous moments when I laughed out loud, and some moments when I was moved to tears? (Did I mention that you should go?) How about if I said that you get to see some of the best-known dancers in Austin – including Andrea Ariel mixing environmental consciousness with physical power and grace and Audra Williams doing a mean salsa – with folks that you haven't heard of but will, including Ashley Parker Overton, in my favorite pieces of the evening, combining amusing spoken-word stories interpreted with movement? That it mixes the innovative – choreographer Megan Knotz's dances appear only on film – with the traditional – choreographers J. Tietz-Gwin's and C. Wong's dances are balletic and beautiful – in ways that you cannot anticipate? That more often than not, it leaves you wanting more? (What more could be said?) How about if I said that it is an arts event worthy of both your money and your time? Would that do it? I'm hoping it will. – Barry Pineo

(Saturday, Jan. 28, noon; Sunday, Jan. 29, 1:45pm)


Running Time: 1 hr, 45 min

Although best-known as the writer and director of films such as In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, Neil Labute writes for live performance as well, and this production consists of six such pieces, all vignettes revolving around couples in cars, and each, in large ways and small, displays Labute's flair for revealing scathing middle-class humanity at its worst. In "All Apologies," a man tries to make up with his wife for calling her a certain famously derogatory four-letter word in an Albertsons. "Bench Seat" finds a young man attempting to break up with his somewhat disturbed girlfriend. "Funny" centers on a daughter on the way home from rehab delivering a disturbing ultimatum to her mother. In "Road Trip," an older man takes a seemingly abducted young woman cross-country. In "Long Division," the driver tries to get his passenger to retrieve a gaming system from his estranged wife. And in "Merge," a man discovers that his wife has allowed a massive indiscretion.

The 12 actors are for the most part well-cast and watchable, but there were some distractions. The set consists of a dozen chairs, and while directors Rich Martinez and Will Snider do some interesting things with this seemingly static arrangement, each spoken scene sits in the exact center of the thrust stage, and the sides of the audience get cheated. Also, the actors often don't vocally play to the space, so parts of the stories get lost because we can't hear them. In addition, the actors have to mime the driving, and it isn't an understatement to say they're often all over the road. But when one of the pieces works, as does "Bench Seat," the ironic but often comic cruelty that lies at the heart of Labute's writing cuts like a sharp paper knife. – Barry Pineo

(Sunday, Jan. 29, 3:30pm)

'You're No One's Nothing Special'
'You're No One's Nothing Special' (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

Port Arthur/You're No One's Nothing Special

Running Time: 45 min

Like a theatrical Noah, veteran director Ken Webster brings his latest dramatic figures to the stage two by two. This pair of two-handers revolves around the way two people fit together, how someone else can and sometimes can't complete you. The curtain raiser is Webster's self-penned "Port Arthur," set on a Greyhound bus headed to that corner of Southeast Texas' Golden Triangle. In one seat is Keith, desperately trying to focus on a magazine, which he's unable to owing to the exuberant exclamations of the fellow in the adjacent seat, one Alton Hebert, who loves riding the bus, loves his hometown (which he takes pains to pronounce as "Arthur" and not "author" the way so many of his fellow citizens do), and loves sharing little facts about the place with whomever is in earshot. What starts as a classic comedy bit about the irritation of strangers – driven by Noah Neal's blindingly chipper Alton – deepens with revelations about the men's shared past and a turn in the road that would give Rod Serling a good chuckle. An amusing lesson about karma on the busma.

Following that ride is Ann Marie Healy's "You're No One's Nothing Special," which depicts the romantic rendezvous of Rhonda and Chet after their meeting at a seminar. On the one hand, they seem a perfect match: In the Swimming Pool of Life, neither one seems to have waded much deeper than ankle level, and both are feeling a powerful pull toward change. But making a fit of their hearts and minds proves tougher than fitting their bodies together, and their comical groping for common ground develops into a surprisingly tender search for direction in life. Jamison Driskill and Heather Huggins make us simultaneously laugh and cringe at the awkwardness of strangers with nothing to say to each other, with Huggins turning herself into a pillar of yearning, leaning forward, brow furrowed, desperate to accommodate someone just as a way of making a human connection. This unfulfilled duo leaves us with a deeper appreciation of the difficulty of two becoming one. – Robert Faires

(Thursday, Jan. 26, 9:15pm; Saturday, Jan. 28, 7:15pm; Sunday, Jan. 29, 9:45pm)

The Candy Dish

Running Time: 1 hr, 15 min

If there's one word that can silence a child – or an adult, for that matter – it is "candy." But the audience couldn't keep quiet at the Getalong Gang Performance Group's the Candy Dish, an assortment of choreographed delights. Charmed by eight sweet dances from Zenobia Taylor, a founder of Getalong, and Ballet East artists Amberlee Cantrell and Funmilayo Hill, they couldn't stop laughing.

Each choreographer concocts her confections out of her own personal flavors: Cantrell draws on music for inspiration; Hill employs Polynesian finesse; Taylor lampoons different styles and eras. The show hits the ground dancing, so to speak, with Cantrell's "Wasted in Our Leotards" and "Barely Overwhelming," driven by the jazzy-folk harmonies of Medeski, Martin, & Wood and Herbie Hancock. The dancers use their hips with flawlessly sensuous movements. Cantrell's piece "and then I find myself Stuck again" is performed by Elizabeth Palmer, who rightly has a solo act demonstrating her graceful endurance.

Red flowers are the object of frustration and affection for Hill, who combines the Japanese technopop of Towa Tei and striking beauty of the aloha spirit.

Taylor's, however, carves out stories, which are the nuggets of the show. The ladies are dressed in Fifties petticoats for explosive dancing to bubblegum tunes like "You Don't Own Me" and "Heart and Soul." Then comes the wrestling of a mother and restless daughter behind the back of a Southern preacher. Somehow, the daughter, the elastic Angela Johnson, winds up wriggling all over the preacher like a monkey crawling on Jack Hanna. Two ladies tug at the same man, Spencer Driggers, who also plays the preacher, while yearning, as we all have, to Foreigner's "Feels Like the First Time."

The Getalong Gang dives into the show's title and comes up performing on sugar highs for any viewer's palatte. – Patti Hadad

(Friday, Jan. 27, 9pm)

Irene Is a Cactus

Running Time: 1 hr, 30 min

RoHo Productions presents a heartfelt, character-driven story about a woman, Gwen (Susan Mara Stith), who seeks independence after leading a sheltered life. Set in a Florida town, Gwen and her overprotective sister Shayne (Diana Reddish) struggle to adjust their relationship dynamic as Gwen establishes her identity apart from her protected childhood by living on her own for the first time. Gwen's neighbor, a laid-back artist fascinated with Gwen's childish curiosity, develops a romantic friendship with her. A freewheeling poet and a stuttering realist also color Gwen's transition into independence. Irene Is a Cactus, written by company member Rocky Hopson, is a delicate study of kindness and chaos in what could be an unsafe world. As indicated in the play's title, Gwen's habit of naming her plants instills in them personality traits that mirror fragility and strength in a forgiving and accepting muse on the human spirit. – Heather Barfield Cole

(Thursday, Jan. 26, 7pm; Sunday, Jan. 29, 5:45pm)

Of Cactuses, Crickets, and Cars
Photo By Bret Brookshire

Among the Sand and Smog

Running Time: 1 hr, 30 min

An ongoing problem in Juarez, Mexico, is its hundreds of young women, mostly maquiladora factory workers, disappearing. Their bodies are found in the desert or not at all. SONAV Stage and Screen's play addresses these murders and unsolved mystery plaguing Juarez. Three acts structure varying perspectives on the situation. Beginning at a women's rally, a television star Julie (Felicia Lopez), ignorant of the situation, is to speak before a crowd on behalf of the crisis. As she waits to give her speech, she engages in candid conversation with a mother (Marisa Varela) missing her daughter. The women bond as the emotional affect of the trauma reveals itself. In the second act, two men are held in separate jail cells where they wait for months to get a fair trial. The authorities provide them with no answers as the two men seem pinned as scapegoats for the real perpetrators. Maurice Ripke and Jose Villareal as Victor and Guillermo play card games through long hours of waiting, providing informative details, but asking questions more, about how and why the murders happen. The final act is a haunting montage with actors performing the missing women's voices and bodies while describing their own tortured deaths. Among the Sand and Smog is a responsibly executed and potentially powerful production on a media-hungry subject. – Heather Barfield Cole

(Saturday, Jan. 28, 3:30pm)

Of or Pertaining to ...

Running Time: 1 hr

What do a few grocery carts, some busted plates, Lords of Acid, and more than 20 spray-painted T-shirts have in common? They all appear in Of or Pertaining to ... where an all-female group, under the guidance of a choreographer named Dillar, interprets scenes plucked from the dancers' realities. To the chirpy overhead music of Jimmy Cliff's "I Can See Clearly Now," the girls abandon their inhibitions in a supermarket (what we all secretly wish we could do in the aisles), belting out "chasse" and performing acrobatic leaps off their carts.

In a piece choreographed by Karen Morris, a waitress, the girls toil in a kitchen, breaking plates to Manu Chao's "Esperanza" (again, what we wish we could do) and spinning off into heated hysteria. "Bedtimes Stories" raves, with two songs from Lords of Acid's Lust album playing while three girls in leotards engage in some sexually charged wrestling and carry out acts of onanism. As in the other pieces, the performance's drive is to speak silently through their feminine bodies, moving limbs in every direction, sometimes gracefully, sometimes dissonantly.

Deep in the show, we recognize the girls as women with tattoos and spastic hair who have more to break than just a glass ceiling. Several cacophonous and uneasy minutes pass during "The View From the Window" while the dancers move along with the fractures and crashes of breaking glass until the tune "I Shall Be Released" by old Austin performer Cody Hubach leads them into a hoedown.

Finally, these women wearing white T-shirts with words like "fail," "brown," "ugly," "kill," "envy," "hurt," "gay," and "lost" haphazardly spray-painted on them promenade and flip to Curtis Mayfield and Dead Prez. Bar signs say "I'm for Sale," "Life Is Toxic," and "News Be Surprised," and red lights gleam on their angry faces. Rough and uncut, it is young adults jumping out and forcing the world to pay attention. – Patti Hadad

(Saturday, Jan. 28, 9:30pm; Sunday, Jan. 29, noon)

Past Present Future Tense

Running Time: 1 hr, 15 min

Humdrum collective offers Past Present Future Tense, a movement and text piece about a couple experiencing growing pains and doubts as they reveal the infidelities, lies, and love in their relationship. A cardboard box sits center stage. A whistle from offstage suggests we have entered the play's aesthetic atmosphere. Man (Noel Gaulin) in tuxedo briskly passes from one stage corner to another. He arranges more cardboard boxes in the space. More whistling, then She (Erin Meyer) surprises by popping out of a box. The duo judiciously explore spaces far and wide on stage, opening themselves as vulnerable but nimble dancers of emotional turbulence. Experiments with nonlinear plot through distortions of time and place merge smoothly into a climax of breakage and rupture. Man and Woman destroy the flimsy foundations they have built together by angrily collapsing boxes, gorging on liquor, and aggressive thrusts and forward bends. Using gesture and stillness in physical exploration of pain and passion, humdrum accomplishes the innovation and adventure expected from a fringe festival piece. – Heather Barfield Cole

(Friday, Jan. 27, 11pm)

Of Cactuses, Crickets, and Cars
Photo By Bret Brookshire

Cricket Radio

Running Time: 1 hr, 5 min

As the economy flattens and the cost of producing live dramatic works goes through the roof, the recent proliferation of "radio plays" makes sense. It's much simpler, not to mention more cost-effective, to produce a dramatic presentation that doesn't require sets, costumes, or elaborate lights. While producing them might be relatively inexpensive, the worth of radio plays goes beyond their ease of staging. Because of their conventions – among them amplified voices, live sound effects, and an interesting kind of direct address delivery – they appeal to an audience's imagination in ways that more traditional dramatic presentations often don't.

This set of 10 original plays is being produced by Austin Script Works, which, for those unfamiliar with it, is a support organization for playwrights that boasts an impressive 100 members. Each year ASW sponsors the Out of Ink series, in which members are given 48 hours to write a short play incorporating three elements. This year the three elements were: crickets; a countdown; and the fictional town of Piscacadawadaquoddy-woggin, Maine. One more element: It had to be a five-minute radio play.

The selected results, perhaps not surprisingly, fall into three basic categories: 1) traditional narrative stories, of which I particularly enjoyed "A Quiet Night" by Priscilla Sample, in which two men attempt to capture the "cricket conductor" and thus control the cricket cacophony; 2) surreal/impressionistic stories; and 3) stories that combine the narrative with the surreal. The last were most successful, especially "Waiting Isn't Merely Empty Hoping," by Katherine Catmull, which combined an amusing story about two people waiting for a table in a strange and busy restaurant with a truly impressive soundscape. Sound was, in fact, the most impressive aspect of the evening, both the sounds of voices and the sounds of sounds, which is entirely appropriate for plays that depend so heavily on the aural for their stories. – Barry Pineo

(Saturday, Jan. 28, 1:45pm; Sunday, Jan. 29, 8pm)

Doctor Faustus Confronts His Damnation

Running Time: 1 hr

Johann Faustus: physician, scholar, alchemist, punkass chump.

The infamous deal-maker with the devil is finally exposed as the chuckle-headed buffoon he truly was in this clever little lampoon from the Austiner Ensemble. With little more than a table, a couple of chairs, a few puppets, two flyswatters, and a well-worn copy of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, the five members of this company totally trash the name of the not-so-good doctor and in the process lay waste to the work of Brecht, Goethe, Marlowe, Beckett, Sartre, and pretty much any writer ever to put pen to paper on the subject of Faustus, Satan, or hell.

Poor Chris Marlowe gets the worst of it, with writer-performer Joshua Lellis roasting the Elizabethan playwright over his drama's philosophical incongruities and lack of a ripping good climax. As he guides us through a garage-sale Cliff's Notes staging of the work, Lellis periodically pauses the action to offer us alternate – and in his view, preferable – scenarios, including a Marxist Faustus, a Calvinist Faustus, a Faustus who tries to trick the trickster by swapping clothes with Helen of Troy just before Mephistopheles shows up to claim his soul, and a Faustus in the netherworld, forced to endure the incomprehensible torture of watching Terms of Endearment on the Lifetime channel.

The Austiners make a mockery of old Faustus, and is it a hoot: a pitchfork-totin' puppet Lucifer; a flyswatter duel with a man-fly; the face that launched a thousand ships in a thrift-store toga and bad blond wig; literary satire; puns; and the titular physician as overstuffed, conniving welcher, played with appealingly hammy pomposity by Ted Meredith. As happens with parodies like this, some gags invariably fall flat. But the wit and goodwill of the ensemble ultimately carry the day. It's that rare Long Fringe show that puts you through hell and makes you laugh about it. – Robert Faires

(Saturday, Jan. 28, 7:15pm)

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