Austin Is a Place (You Are Here)
Theatre En Bloc experiments with telling the story of our city's growth but fails to be specific about it
Reviewed by Dan Solomon, Fri., April 26, 2013
Austin Is A Place (You Are Here)Mexitas Event Center, 1107 N. I-35, 512/522-4083 www.theatreenbloc.org
Through May 12
Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.
Theatre En Bloc's Austin Is a Place (You Are Here) is definitely experimental theatre. Its question – "Can you construct a fable that addresses growth, development, resource scarcity, and gentrification in nonspecific ways?" – is an important one, certainly worth asking if you're trying to use art to make a point. It's just that, the way that experiments sometimes do, it fails.
The stage, such as it is (the piece is set on the floor of an empty warehouse) is adorned simply. Ladders, buckets, wheelbarrows, and a big mound of dirt. Actors appear and start digging into the dirt mound and gushing about "this place." (None of them ever use the word "Austin" to describe it.) There are breaks for choreographed movement and occasional skits where the actors converse, briefly, in vague terms about "this place." More people come, represented by empty pairs of shoes on ever-expanding dirt patches, and people eventually start getting worried.
If that sounds vague, that's how it comes off onstage, too. There are a number of neat devices – the ladders come to represent high-rises, more shoes get dumped onto the mounds, the passage of time is marked by recurring explosions of cedar fever, an exercise bike is used to clever effect – but there's not much else to hang on to. The script, devised by the ensemble (which includes Theatre En Bloc co-producing directors Jenny Lavery and Derek Kolluri), is a mush of bland nonspecificity. The characters, such as they are, are busy representing types and ideals, and never begin to resemble actual people. There's a lot of talk about "opportunity" and "dreams," but we never learn what they actually are.
It's possible to create a fable that captures the nuance, sophistication, and emotional resonance of real life without getting lost in irrelevant details, but this isn't the play that does it. Making a piece of art that addresses big, complicated themes and issues without getting preachy or boring is a worthy goal, but the company's fear of saying anything specific leads them to say nothing at all.
There are moments in Austin Is a Place that would be possible to connect with emotionally – say, the scenes in which characters who've been onstage since the beginning watch as their dirt patches are replaced with ladders – but given the amount of time all those characters spend as blank slates, it's impossible to feel anything about it. And that, ultimately, is why the experiment that is Austin Is a Place fails: These are all grand, universal themes that are bigger than any one time or place, yes, but the reason we give a shit about those universal themes is because they're ultimately about people's lives and their stories. This play doesn't give us people or even a real story. It just gives us ideas, and when it comes to what we think of the changes in Austin, everybody's already got plenty of those.