The Austin Chronicle

Capital T Theatre's It Is Magic

This captivating staging of Mickle Maher's comedy debates theatre's enchantments where Macbeth meets "The Three Little Pigs"

Reviewed by Robert Faires, November 15, 2019, Arts

And he huffed, and he puffed, and he ... yeah, you know the rest.

Or do you? Maybe not. Aspiring playwright Deb thinks there are Shakespearean depths to be plumbed in the tale of "The Three Little Pigs," and she's ready to prove it to the patrons of the Mortier Civic Playhouse with her new adult adaptation for the stage – that is, if she can just cast the Big Bad Wolf. She's called Tim down to the theatre basement for another audition – this is, like, his fifth – but she still doesn't find him convincing, which she tells him in the kind of eviscerating terms that make directors seem like cousins of this fable's lupine villain. (Listening to him makes her eyes cloud and starts her "thinking only of everything that's wrong in the world." Ouch!) But before he can prove to Deb that he has the windiness to win the role, Tim has to excuse himself for some actual Shakespeare, playing Second Murderer in the Playhouse's production of the Bard's Scottish Play – the tragedy believed to be so cursed that theatre people won't even say its name.

And so the audience for Mickle Maher's It Is Magic finds itself at the crossroads of folk tale and dark drama, ravenous wolf and ambitious thane, dream and superstition, the magic we sentimentally ascribe to theatre when its make-believe transports us and the black kind, as when the Wyrd Sisters do their "double, double, toil and trouble" cooking routine. It's an unlikely intersection, but the Chicago playwright has a singular talent for mining magic from strange mash-ups, as with superheroes and The Tempest in Spirits to Enforce, or the Bush-Kerry presidential debates and Albert Camus in The Strangerer. This work is no different. Maher links the mismatched tales through the force of desire in both – bestial desire that can be sated only through violence. Thus, the stories come to look like two sides of one bloody coin, with both also playing on the rule of three: three pigs, three houses, three witches. Maher sets that coin spinning and keeps it going until we're not always sure which story we're seeing.

Deb is sure which story she wants us to see, though, and when she starts getting pushback over her trio of trotters from Playhouse Artistic Director Ken – a cynical atheist of the stage who not only doesn't believe theatre has magic but insists that it's dead and he's primed to bury the corpse – Deb fights him as fiercely as Macduff does Macbeth. (There! I said the name!)

Capital T Theatre puts us ringside for the battle, and as with the company's other productions of Maher's works – The Hunchback Variations, Song About Himself, There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, et al. – there is hilarity here and lyricism and intensity when you least expect it and much that surprises. Katherine Catmull's sweetly hopeful Deb, defending theatre's magic, might seem to be a pushover for Robert Pierson's brutally jaundiced Ken, but she's shown a gift for offhanded cruelty on par with his; in the audition, Catmull's casual gutting of John Christopher's Tim – who's pure earnestness in a kilt – is at once hilarious and horrifying.

Ken, though, seems able to counter every argument against him (expending more breath in the process than the Big Bad Wolf) and survive every effort to take him down. Pierson projects the director's power and invincibility with a broad smile and mad gleam in his eye, giving him more than a little resemblance to the bloody and seemingly unstoppable Scot whose story is unfolding on the stage up the stairs. Things look grim for Deb and her sister, Sandy (who's been at the Playhouse for 20 years and never been cast in anything, a fact Rebecca Robinson sells with the bitter sulk of a teen being forced to go to church). Enter a stranger: a spooked and somewhat spooky woman who "smelled" the audition flier at the Y (Jill Blackwood, deliciously freaky). Her presence shifts the balance of power and introduces a magic that may be more literal than what's been alluded to before.

It Is Magic encompasses the foibles of community theatre at its worst and the wonders of theatre at its best, the egos that possess theatremakers like evil spirits and the openness that allows artists on the stage to bond with audiences off it, enchantments light and dark, curses and safety and the curse of safety. In sharing the show with Austin, Cap T Artistic Director Mark Pickell casts a potent and mesmerizing spell, one that may help you answer the question, "Do you believe in magic?"

It Is Magic

Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd, 512/478-7529
Through Nov. 23
Running time: 1 hr., 40 min.

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