Raul Garza's timely drama challenges the change that's brewing in Austin
Reviewed by Avimaan Syam, Fri., Nov. 14, 2008
Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, through Nov. 16
Running time: 2 hr, 10 min
When you meet someone who's been in Austin since the Seventies, he or she will opine about the small-town feel and freedom this city used to have. When you meet an Austinite who arrived in the early Nineties, he or she will tell you how good it was before the tech boom caused an influx to our fair city. And I can tell y'all, things have changed since I came here in 2001: I shed a tear for the Texas Showdown Saloon every Friday. Everybody wants the Austin they knew and loved, but as the city grows, how can you hold on to what's not there anymore? This question is at the heart of Fantasmaville, Teatro Vívo's exploration of gentrification and identity in modern Austin.
They say you can't go home again, but Celeste and Martin are trying to ignore that cliché. What might be harder for them to ignore are the "Yuppies off the East Side" signs or their bigot neighbor or the sense that they don't really belong anywhere. That and the raccoon that keeps breaking into their house.
Celeste and Martin are a mixed-race married couple, well-educated with an inherent sense of guilt that they're not doing enough for their community. Martin, a white yuppie, has guilt about all the privileges he has, while unemployed Celeste is desperately looking for a cause to champion. She eventually chooses to focus her outrage on a proposed dog park on the Eastside, which locals fear will be transformed into a parking garage for the new UT baseball stadium. Playwright Raul Garza surrounds this struggling couple with a cast of rich and hilarious side characters, most notably Patti Arredondo's effervescent dice-roller, Flor, and technical director Rupert Reyes' Freddy.
A chief strength of Fantasmaville's script is its development of such a full world rife with captivating characters. The play is episodic, with a loose framework of conflicts guiding it forward. That could be detrimental, but Garza and director David Yeakle imbue the ensemble with enough interest to make the ever-changing scenes feel fresh.
However, this structure, along with the plot twists, also fosters a strong sense of sitcom in Fantasmaville. For example, Celeste neglects to tell Martin that she's decided to foster the paperboy until he arrives. (Whoops!) Scenes cut off middialogue for effect, and some exchanges are fairly laden with clichés. The plot dips into melodrama and surprise revelations toward its end.
If these criticisms seem harsh, it should be said that Teatro Vívo's production is quite ambitious on all fronts: Noted songwriter David Garza supplies a beautiful score, Joey Santori's videography provides most of the local settings in elaborate detail, and Raul Garza's script tries to capture all facets of our gentrification problems and being Latino in Austin. As someone who is half-white and half-yuppie (to be fair, I think they're the same half), it's hard to swallow some of Fantasmaville's assertions. But whether I agree with every point Garza makes, I respect him throwing so much out there.
Fantasmaville provokes; it challenges the change that's brewing in Austin. It seems like the same problems have been dogging us for so long, and yet so much is changing so fast, so much is at stake – what to preserve and what to change is Austin's dilemma across decades and communities.