Long on Creativity

In its 14th season, FronteraFest is as inventive, surprising, and out there as ever

Just when you figure FronteraFest must have run out of quirky, unlikely, where-in-the-world-did-they-get-that kinds of performances, you get a dance program promoting a philosophy of life based on the wisdom of Dolly Parton or a show celebrating crooks who don't think big but just scam dollar bills by mail in an office 9-to-5 (albeit one where they can smoke dope all day). These are just two examples from this year's batch of longer works in the annual performance festival that argue that, even in its 14th year, FronteraFest is not lacking for creativity, inventiveness, and a little touch of lunacy. Last week, the Chronicle Arts team hit the first week of the 2007 Long Fringe to get a feel for where this year's wild rides will take you. We cover nine of the 19 shows running this year at the Blue Theater, 916 Springdale; and the City Theatre, 3823 Airport; with a bonus look at the second week of the Short Fringe. Dates and times for remaining performances for each production follows the review. Ticket prices vary. For reservations, call 479-PLAY. For the full schedule and more information, visit www.hydeparktheatre.org. – Robert Faires


Cabaret Anna!

Anna Maria Garcia is really putting herself out there. For this "experimental" performance, she sports tanga shorts over fishnet stockings, a blazer, and a garter headband. In her best Betty Boop voice, she says, "Life is a cabaret," but later she says, "Life has its ups and downs." Which is it? The show seems split on that point, as it is in many elements. On one side of the theatre, blue light shines on a Mexican blanket and a trophy representing Garcia's upbringing in South Texas, while, on the other side, red light represents her loss of innocence in the Big D. A striptease, an operatic reenactment of a breakup, and a Spanish ballad follow stories about becoming a cheerleader, winning a beauty pageant, partying with the Dallas Cowboys, and getting dumped. Garcia's accompanist, Jan Seides, tags along, telling some of her own stories, too. Her folksy tunes are enjoyable but do nothing for the "cabaret," which feels more like a cocktail party that gets you sober. The show does conclude, however, with Garcia pitching a hilarious diva fit, explaining why all the show's other performers were "dismissed." – Patti Hadad



Thursday, Feb. 1, 7pm, at the City Theatre


Vivisections of Chaotic Unrest

The FronteraFest Long Fringe openin' night. Gotta review a new show and hope it's all right. Just a bald-headed white boy sittin' in my seat. Don't know what to expect, so I crack and start to read all the shit in my program; it's openin' my eyes. Gonna watch a bunch of stuff from some artists called UpRise! Started off with a dancer an' a poet name of Love; it be like an angel movin' an' God speakin' from above. Then a woman singin' rainbows remind me of the sun an' the beauty of the world when the whole thing was begun. Next up was a poet named Christopher Lee, who be comin' with the power of the righteous dignity. My mouth be hangin' open by the time that Lee is through, then more dancin' with Ananda and her whole entire crew. They be puttin' out the energy and swirlin' like the wind, blowin' me around the globe and then right back again. Then some black men with some weapons take the City Theatre stage, with their swords an' axes flyin' an' their feet an' fists o' rage. Then a poet talkin' Brenda threw her baby in a Dumpster, 'cause she think her life be endin' when she havin' such a youngster, and a woman sayin' Jesus is the god of the oppressed, not the god of men in suits who be causin' all unrest. And more dancin' and more fightin', and then, right at the end, a man who talked of love while the dancers covered him. All the time my grill be gapin' like some deep an' dark abyss, 'cause there ain't much Art in Austin that come close to touchin' this. My name is Barry, and that's my flow. Now get your ass up off your couch, and get it down to see this show. – Barry Pineo



Saturday, Feb. 3, 6:15pm; Sunday, Feb. 4, 4:15pm; at the City Theatre


Against My Will

A young woman alone in a spotlight, seated on the floor, hugging her knees. From the darkness around her comes ragged breathing. Then the breathing builds into harsh, rasping sounds, and four figures can be glimpsed crawling on the bellies toward her. They reach for her and nudge her, like late-night creep-show creatures, and she recoils.

This opening image of Against My Will – stark, focused, fraught with tension – lays out the fundamentals of what humdrum collective is about: tightly drawn theatrical presentations pulled from basic stage elements and crafted by a team of intrepid young collaborators with imagination, guts, and precision. And that's what keeps your eyes riveted on the stage. The script – a fantasia inside the mind of that girl in the light, who's desperately seeking meaning from existence – is somewhat dense, with the four figures, who appear to represent four aspects of her life, assaulting her with anecdotes and epigrams. Daniel J. Houston's writing, while undeniably intelligent and chewy with language, suffers from the feeling that it's continually circling itself rather than moving forward. Still, the actors give it their all, and with just a ladder, a wheelchair, an apple, and that rope, they and director Erin Meyer deliver a consistently inventive and captivating ensemble work. – R.F.



Friday, Feb. 2, 7pm; Sunday, Feb. 4, 2:15pm; at the Blue Theater


Catfish!

Departed, Deshmarted. The Sopranos? That fat lady's sung. We're up to our concrete overshoes in crime dramas about the mob's big fish and their million-dollar rackets, but how's about a story about the penny-ante schemers, scamming away pocket change way, way, way below dose guys in the sea of illegal pursuits? Mick D'arcy's one-act finally gives a turn in the spotlight to a few bottom-feeders in this aquatic metaphor. In this case, they're a quartet of joint-smokin', jaw-flappin', almost criminally pun-happy societal fringe dwellers who keep a cash-by-mail pyramid scheme afloat from a walk-up apartment deep in the heart of Texas. New hire Mick – an affably mellow Doug Taylor – is getting schooled in the ins and outs of the operation when the gutting of envelopes and sorting of sawbucks is interrupted by a pair of genuine mob types from the Big Apple. While that may sound threatening, these would-be goombahs quickly prove even less ept at hardcore crime than the doobie crew, who succeed in getting the drop on these saps with some habanero juice, sex-toy cuffs, and an industrial vac of industrial-strength weed. Sound goofy? Sure, but that's what you get when you flip the bloody, intense crime drama totally on its head. Ultimately, the show is about as ambitious as its stoner protagonists, but that, along with the quirky comic sensibility – groaners and all – is part of its low-key charm. And it's anchored by a killer turn from Lana Dieterich, who makes office goddess Serena a tough-as-nails, unflappable delight. – R.F.



Friday, Feb. 2, 8:45pm; at the Blue Theater

Long on Creativity


St. Nicholas

[Excerpted from an earlier review of the show]

From the darkness you hear, "When I was a boy, I was afraid of the dark. And perhaps one of the things I thought was there were vampires." So begins a play that takes the audience from Dublin's art scene to London's vampire scene. It is not a fright fest. But actor Ken Webster manages to keep things on the verge of creepy. He affects a soft Irish accent and a secretive tone that make the audience feel as if they are hearing something they are not supposed to hear.

He tells us how he was a drunken, cruel, and careless theatre critic who had lost touch with his humanity. His exploits led him to London, where he fell in with a pack of vampires who resided in the suburbs. Conor McPherson's St. Nicholas is storytelling at its finest: stories woven into stories. Sometimes the narrative is direct address, sometimes reenactment, sometimes an Aesop-like fairy tale, and sometimes a step-off-the-stage-and-turn-on-the-house-lights commentary on credibility and magic. The language is rich, and Webster attacks it. Like the set – nothing but a chair, a table, and a glass of water – he is simple in his presentation: well-dressed, calm, smooth like the scotch his character spent so much time drinking.

Through his time with the undead, this dead-inside critic found new life. He discovered what makes humans human. Reflection and conscience. Sadness and beauty. Trying to describe the creatures, he says, "Just like beauty in real life: Sometimes it's there, and sometimes it should be, and it's not." It is hard to make writing this good sound natural, but Webster manages it easily. – Hannah Kenah



Friday, Feb. 2, 10:45pm; Saturday, Feb. 3, 8:15pm; at the City Theatre


Dance Carousel

Three years ago, Spank Dance Co.'s Ellen Bartel conceived of having 10 choreographers each create four one-minute dances, which would then run in a round, like pretty posing horses at a county fair flashing fast by your delighted eyes. I was fortunate to see the third installment at last year's Long Fringe, and I'm quite pleased to report that this year's entry is as joyous and original as the last.

First out of the gate is Chell Garcia-Trias' "Earth," in which two women grieve for a lost loved one, who eerily returns to life dancing in her shroud. Next up is the athletic and dynamic Khoi Le, using Vivaldi as his muse and wowing the packed house with his graceful yet powerful physicality. Other standouts include the Elsewhere Dance Theater/Sheep Army, who perform amusing, mechanized dances that gradually build to a frenetic crescendo, and Sharon Marroquin, strikingly beautiful in black and white, accompanied by her own recorded voice praying in the background. But the highlight of the show is Travis Lockwood in four dances by Michele Owens-Pearce. Saying that Lockwood suffers from Down syndrome would be accurate, but he didn't appear to be suffering in the least as he danced to the themes of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. While it's possible that, in a longer format, Lockwood's simple yet deeply felt and stunning dances might not hold up, on this evening the audience was riveted each time he took the stage, and Lockwood all but stole the show from the many gathered professionals.

The Austin arts scene has more than a few unique traditions, but few are as unique and special as this: 40 works of art that leave you yearning for more. What lover of the arts could wish for more? – B.P.



Saturday, Feb. 3, 2:15pm; Sunday, Feb. 4, 9:15pm; at the Blue Theater

Long on Creativity


Dolly Would

Dolly Parton would be proud. In this ultra-flirty dance performance, five plucky girls and two cheerful guys pay homage to the Curvaceous Wonder, dancing only to Dolly songs with aplomb. Conceived and choreographed by Zenobia Taylor, the show flows from song to song, including a jaunty catfight set to "Jolene," a wild rope-jumpin' playfest to "Seven Bridges Road," and a sentimental tribute for the final number, "I Believe." The moral of the musical is simple: When you're in a pickle, ask yourself, "What would Dolly do?" The troupe acts out scenarios and inserts Dolly wisdom. You bump into an ex-lover you don't remember? Or run into a bear in the woods? Act as Dolly would, and all will be fine and dandy, like a hard-candy Christmas.

Other than the gosh-darn goodness of Dolly, two key elements make this piece so fun to watch. Taylor's choreography is nimble and creative: The dancers leap off the back wall, flip upside down, sashay, and straddle each other in smartly envisaged moves. Secondly, they are so expressive, so sassy, and so willing to do backward rolls on a cold, concrete floor, you can't help but love them. Consistent with a line from the show, they all seem to say, "I've got the power of Dolly in me." – Clayton Maxwell



Sunday, Feb. 4, 4pm, at the Blue Theater


Synecdoche

A synecdoche, a small part of the wide world on stage, dressed in gray with guts protruding from techno-lacerations, stands before a live audience and sings its version of Woodie Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land": "This space is your space/This space is MySpace ...." Amid notebooks and cell phones are a couple of MacBooks set up on a foldout, an iPod in a Bose speaker dock, a projector screen, and two 12-inch-screen TVs that project a live feed of the members of M.E.M.E. (five students from Bennington College) presenting memes, those cultural ideas that replicate haphazardly (like pop lyrics, clichés, etc.). One reads aloud his experience being roasted on LiveJournal by an ex-girlfriend, while another says she fell even more in love with her boyfriend while chatting freely online. Obscure performances (such as Eve handling an apple with sonic input) are executed through an interactive digital-video device called Isadora that allows the performers to alter images or music. They ask, "Why perform theatre if we have an online forum?" Instead, they use their own bodies to communicate, bursting into a lip-synch of "Video Killed the Radio Star" or striking poses in "Vogue." – P.H.



Saturday, Feb. 3, 6:30pm; Sunday, Feb. 4, 7:45pm; at the Blue Theater

Long on Creativity


The Small Stars, the Musical; the Workshop by the Small Stars

Hold tight to your lapels, Guy Fantasy fans, you're in for some raw musical absurdity, otherwise known as the Small Stars workshop. Partially improvised, the workshop is proof that narrative discontinuity works, even when a bit overcaffeinated. Two would-be screenwriters, Guy Fantasy and Buddy Llamas, are suffering through their day jobs at the Mega-Life insurance company. Their buxom, loudmouth boss (who bedazzles in her solo) promptly fires the duo, inspiring one of the more endearing songs here, "Guy's Lament." Guy and Buddy turn to the sanguine Glenn Livett, their local bar pianist, for advice – and it all pretty much breaks down from there. The story hops from Mexican soap commercials to sibling rivalry to a flashy venture to Vegas and then Hollywood. It all ends happily, sort of, with the realization that "Everyone loves a winner, but a loser's got to love himself."

The lyrics from the musical's most outrageous song and dance (written by Miles Zuniga, aka Guy Fantasy) hit the essence of the show:

I'm not afraid to fail, and I'm not afraid to flop

It's a workshop baby, it's a workshop ...

It's like Brownie running FEMA during Hurricane Katrina,

It's a workshop baby, it's a workshop ...

Because this cast doesn't seem too bothered with anything except, perhaps, having a good time, they can coax audible chortles from the most stoic among us. With clever songs, strong characters, and sheer wackiness, the workshop jells. Sometimes the less perfected a musical is, the better. – C.M.



Sunday, Feb. 4, 5:45pm, at the Blue Theater

Sharon Sparlin
Sharon Sparlin


FronteraFest Short Fringe: Week 2

Only in FronteraFest. It's rare that a night at the theatre ends up with you onstage under bright lights as a contestant in a dating game, far from the safety of your dark seat or hiding behind your notebook, should you be a critic. The second Best of the Week this year had so much variety, from musical improv and mime to yoga and slam poetry, that I expected Chuck Barris to come out in a weird hat with a gong. And by the end of the night, I wished he had.

The evening started calmly with "Austin in Denial," a no-frills lecture by Stuart Hersh focusing on a shocking moment in a city that prides itself on its liberality. In 1919, John Shillady, a white secretary of the NAACP, got a literal beating at the hands of local lawmakers. Despite the lack of theatrical shenanigans, the predominantly white audience hung on Hersh's every word, listening intently to the details of horror.

After that, two women appeared onstage filming "Jo and Joanne's Yoga Infomercial." The "info" part is what we learn in exaggerated Jersey accents about the tender relationship of Jo (Sissy Siero), who lost her husband to a younger woman and has been contemplating Botox, and Joanne (Amanda Poston), who lost her husband in a car accident. Written by Siero and Katherine Tanney, who directed, this piece was the only one in the night that featured traditional theatre with comical characters and flawless storytelling.

The "all girls all the time" improv troupe Girls Girls Girls presented "______, the Musical!," which that night was "Postal Service, the Musical!" Poking fun at the actual service, not the band, it was ceaseless hilarity for the full 25 minutes, with quick ideas for scene changes, clever climaxes, and romantic scenes where ... well, when is a girl pretending to be a boy ever not funny?

The festival is also a place where those who have been behind the scenes lately might pop back into the public eye, like Sharon Sparlin with "The Earth Is a Fluid," her strange interpretation of geometry and geology choreographed through mime and modern dance. The way Sparlin acts kinetically with objects with raw onstage talent only confirms that the fundamentals of mime and dance are essential for her talented direction in theatre.

And now we come to the reality piece that I will heretofore refer to as "the most embarrassing moment of my life" but that Eirik Ott referred to as "Dating Big Poppa E." BPE registered for FronteraFest to meet chicks, he said. Somehow he selected me to be one of three giggling contestants competing for a chance to win a coffee date with him. The audience cheered. At least, I think they were cheering. All I know for sure is that my knees were knocking. After a few sessions of slamming poetry and emphasizing that his date must get along with his cats, BPE asked grueling elimination questions; knowing how to spell "brouhaha" or recognizing the Shins' "Kissing the Lipless" was what would win me the date. Aside from blindsiding potential dates under a spotlight, Ott is a sweet and charismatic performer with a talent for rhythm and the spoken word. He didn't know I was writing a review. It was audience applause that led him to ask me for the date. One of his famous haikus is, "Mantra: I am a magnet of love and friendship. Blather, rinse, repeat." I turned him down, but in the spirit of the game, I blathered an excuse. I'm allergic to cats, I told him. – P.H.

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