Paper Chairs' The Audience

Elizabeth Doss' adaptation of García Lorca's unfinished play is less a drama than a dream, unbound by logic, reason, or convention

Imagine you're intent on creating something the world had never seen. You'd almost certainly have to defy conventions, reject norms, abandon traditional notions of structure, construction, mores. And doing so would require trampling on many toes, ruffling many feathers, being accused of subversion. And God forbid you should do this under a regressive, repressive regime. You would be risking much: position, reputation, perhaps your life.

Is this how it was with Federico García Lorca? Before he penned the dramas for which he is known – The House of Bernarda Alba, Yerma, Blood Wedding – the Spanish poet/playwright attempted a theatrical work in a much more experimental vein, one that lit a fuse under the well-made play and exploded it in a shower of surrealism, that took aim at bourgeois tastes and blasted them between the eyes, that took homosexuality out of the closet and set it in a spotlight. García Lorca started this play, El Público, years before the Spanish Civil War began but never finished it. In 1936, in the tumult of La Guerra, he was assassinated, leaving it forever incomplete.

One needn't be familiar with the details of García Lorca's life – or death – to know that The Audience, Elizabeth Doss' new adaptation of El Público for the Austin theatre company Paper Chairs, won't end well for the nameless theatre director confined on the tiny, cell-like block upstage. The glower of Zac Crofford's imposing guard shoots menace through the space, and Megan Tabaque's Voice of Authority (or should that be Authoritarianism?) hectors Vincent Tomasino's anguished director relentlessly through a bullhorn as she moves around the audience – "Your life is a crime against the state," she sneers – finally badgering him to tell the story of his death. Clearly, this man's time is short.

In time, he speaks, but what follows is less a narrative than a dream, unbound by logic or reason. At one point, the guard provides an impassioned defense of his mother through a fantastic account of his own birth. At another, three horses provide a running commentary on the action. The character of Juliet appears to complain, at length, about the tiresome resurrections she must endure every time Shakespeare's tragedy is produced (a grievance shared by the Olga, Masha, and Irina in Salvage Vanguard Theater's Thr3e Zisters). Eventually, Cassandra Reveles' exasperated Juliet just gives up, stepping off the stage and sitting down with the audience. The play careens wildly from earnest drama (scenes between Tomasino's director and his Romeo, a soulful Jorge Sermini) to absurdist comedy (Rommel Sulit's fast-talking theatre producer and an expressive Kelly Hasandras as his aide, doing a song-and-dance sell job on the director), and you can never be sure the show won't jump the rails completely at some point. The actors work hard to keep the ride steady, and so do co-directors Doss and Lisa Laratta, who also designed the elegant, somewhat spooky set (clotheslines festooned with white gloves hover over the stage). But with this play having the feel of something the world has never seen, nothing is certain.

Well, one thing is: the fate of our García Lorca stand-in, the director. Doss has woven enough of the author's biography into her adaptation that his execution is painfully inevitable. The fascists will have their brutal way with him, as they did the writer of El Público. "It all seemed like such a good idea in my head," the director mutters from the stage as his murderers assemble behind the audience. Having ridden his runaway train of a play, we appreciate his regret. But after the shots are fired, we hear his voice once more, through the bullhorn: "This is the play I was trying to write," it says, again and again and again.

It's worth noting that the guns just fired were pointed in our direction, too. So, are there authorities we should be watching out for and plays we should be trying to write?

The Audience

Austin Playhouse at ACC Highland campus, 6001 Airport, 512/476-0084
Through Aug. 11
Running time: 1 hr., 10 min.

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Paper Chairs, Elizabeth Doss, Lisa Laratta, Vincent Tomasino, Megan Tabaque, Zac Crofford, Rommel Sulit, Cassandra Reveles, Kelly Hasandras, Jorge Sermini

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