All the Neighborhood's a Stage in the Drive-Through Vortex Odyssey

The Vortex keeps things safe, sacred, and mythically provocative in their newest stage spectacle


Allegra Jade Fox as the goddess Athena in The Vortex Odyssey (Photo by Errich Petersen)

Feeling like you're stuck inside a Trojan horse lately, citizen?

Here we are, six months into the big coronavirus pandemic shutdown of 2020, and cabin fever is no longer just an abstract concept to anyone. It's like cabin fever has been weaponized and we're all its favorite targets, and if only we could escape for a little creative meatspace diversion beyond Facebook and Zoom, could get out and safely engage with the actual world again, could take some kind of journey, like how that mythic hero Odysseus –

Hey, hold on: The Vortex, that longtime and relentlessly inventive theatre troupe on the Eastside, is offering everyone the chance to do just that. Almost literally. For two weekends, Oct. 1-10, the company is presenting a "drive-through performance installation quest" called The Vortex Odyssey, where you and your pod, in your car and cruising that independent business district along Manor Road, can encounter live performances of scenes and characters from Homer's The Odyssey – but with everything reimagined through an antiracist, post-apocalyptic lens, exploring the crucial themes of our shifting age: Black Lives Matter, systemic racism, grand uprising, pandemic, and climate crisis.

You might recall Vortex's Performance Park of 2018, that weeks-long, wildly costumed spectacle of myth and magic that took over the theatre's entire compound and wowed the hundreds of folks who came to visit? It was "simultaneously a play, musical, game, scavenger hunt, live-action roleplay, immersive performance art, and more," our reviewer Shanon Weaver reported at the time. Imagine that sort of thing but spread out in discrete chunks across the neighborhood with you making like Odysseus-in-a-Toyota, traveling through the archly modernized domains of Greek myth.

This mid-pandemic odyssey is devised, constructed, and performed by more than 80 artists and volunteers under the direction of Vortex Artistic Director Bonnie Cullum, who conceived the show while trying to imagine a safe and magical live event that could replace the company's annual fundraiser, Salvador Dali's Naked Feast. She thought of a driving quest through the neighborhood around the theatre, one based on an ancient story, and at the suggestion of her husband, composer Chad Salvata, she settled on The Odyssey. "I immediately knew that was the perfect container for now, that it could hold all of the horrors of the pandemics of COVID-19, racism, fascism, and climate crisis," she says.

Now, for a financial contribution to the Vortex – hey, even the most blue-sky creative endeavors require the grounding of money to continue – you can set sail (or engine) on this sprawling quest yourself.

You think you know the parking lots and alleyways and urban surroundings of Manor Road establishments? Well, not like you'll see them on this journey. Safe in your car, the voice of Athena (Allegra Jade Fox) guides you via audio app, as original music from local muses Chad Salvata, Malyssa Quiles, Sergio R. Samayoa, Ali Stuckey, and others plays. The show reveals itself to you stop by stop. You'll encounter mighty Athena in the flesh at the first performance installation in the Vortex parking lot – after the poet Homer himself (played by Johann Mahler) has welcomed you. The sea god Poseidon (Anderson Dear) commands the next section farther down that lot; he and a pair of naiads (Vikki Schwarz and Katherine Schroeder) will do their Coco Lectric-choreographed thing before you're urged onward, to the Home Steam building nearby. The treacherous Scylla (Tiffany Nicely-Williams) and Charybdis (Emily Christine Smith) await you with other sea monsters on the loading dock there, but you'll escape – only to encounter the Underworld where Hades (Michael Galvan) holds forth, abetted by Persephone (Jelena Stojiljkovic Rhines) and Charon (Steven Fay). And, listen: You haven't even left the block yet. Next there's the Island of Circe at Estes Garden, with that goddess (Hayley Armstrong) and her little piggies (the Diverse Space Dance Theatre), choreographed by Toni Bravo. The Island of Calypso at the Fannie Mae Stewart Con­servatory, where Laura Freeman's Calypso and Blaise Ricin's Hermes sing to the music of Content Love Knowles ...

Are you getting the gist of it, pilgrim? These are living tableaux, elaborate as context allows, with fanciful masks and costumes, set pieces and lights. It takes a village, though, to raise a myth, and The Vortex Odyssey installations involve teams of writers, directors, designers, performers, installation managers, and traffic managers. Costumes are being pulled from earlier Vortex and Ethos shows, and whisper generators borrowed and rented to supply power to locations that don't have electricity the Vortex can use. The company has also talked to their neighbor businesses on Manor Road to get them on board – spaces such as YuYo, where Kami Cooper will reign as the monstrous Cyclops; the Ace Motel, which will be home to seductive Sirens Suzanne Smith, Mindy Rast-Keenan, Oktavea LaToi, Luis Ordaz, and Marliza Mendez; and that 8 Track gin mill, where – ah, but we don't want to give it all away and lessen the journey's impact on you.

This theatrical experience isn't all about meatspace, though. In addition to the in-your-auto journey, there's a schedule of performances and installations exclusively online, featuring live interactive and prerecorded experiences.

The Vortex Odyssey: Underworld will be revealed on Fri., Sept. 25, and run every Friday and Saturday concurrent with the drive-through show. This Underworld is created and directed by three Vortex powerhouses: Associate Artistic Director Rudy Ramirez, Managing Director Melissa Vogt, and company member Dillon Yruegas. Set in the subterranean realm of the gods, the show offers a tour of Hades' realm, guided by the god himself and underworld ferryman Charon. You're taken to Tartarus, the Asphodel Meadows, and the Elysian Fields, where you'll meet heroes, challenges, and even join Persephone's Feast. But who's performing this part? Popular sexologist Annie Sprinkle, commedia dell'arte troupe La Fenice, Latinx improvisers Prima Doñas, burlesque performer Ginger Snaps, the "professional blonde spectacle" known as World Famous *BOB*, improv savants Parallelogramophonograph, and aerial artist Marisa Pisano are some of the talents adding depth to the cthonic component.

"We're looking at Underworld as a place where classical mythological figures live, but also contemporary figures," says director Melissa Vogt, who also contributed an original animation called Medusa Problems to the mix. "So, for Asphodel Meadows, we're looking at that realm as a place of remembrance. There's a memorial room with a memorial to some of the people we've lost to COVID, to [anti-]trans violence, to police violence – and it's also a place where the audience can leave a picture and a message commemorating loved ones that they might have lost. But the Underworld isn't all dark or scary – the Elysian Fields, for instance, is uplifting and fun. There's burlesque, there's dance, there's music – there's Persephone!"

Note: The part of Persephone, wife of Underworld boss Hades, will be played by a rotating cast of performers – that sex-positive Sprinkle among them.

"Different people will be playing different characters every night in the live rooms," says Vogt. "We're setting it up so that, when you're in Tartarus, say – and the main character is Cerberus, so you'll be in Cerberus' doghouse – you can click through a portal that takes you to a Zoom screen with the characters in it, so you can actually interact with the three people playing Cerberus. And some of the content is going to be accessed by, like, you'll have to solve a puzzle to get through to see it." Vogt smiles, her face bright within a frame of pandemically lengthened hair. "If you go into the Underworld," she says, "you're definitely going to find something you'll like."

Especially in conjunction with the Odyssey drive-through the real world's Manor Road IBIZ district, this Underworld is sure to be, a person might say, one hell of a diversion.


Illustration by Melissa Vogt

The Vortex vs. Coronavirus

Throughout the pandemic, the Vortex has been offering a steady, ahem, stream of content: videos of old productions, live broadcasts of new material, original web series, yoga and meditation sessions, talk shows, and whatever other wild, diverse, serious, comedic, and downright weird material they can come up with. How has the company been able to keep up its weekly production/dissemination schedule? For the answer, the Chronicle turned to the person curating all this virtual programming, Vortex Managing Director Melissa Vogt – also one of the creative forces behind The Vortex Odyssey: Underworld. Here's part of her answer. See the full interview at austinchronicle.com/daily. – W.A.B.

Melissa Vogt: We had to close the theatre back in March. You could see the writing on the wall – when SXSW was canceled, I was like, "It is coming." We were about to hit tech week for Selfie: The Musical, and the axe dropped. The guillotine. Everything we were working on got cut off kinda mid-stride. And that was ... daunting. But, you know, I'm not the type to not take action. I'm a very action-oriented person. I'm like, "Let's make a plan! Let's do a thing!"

I'd already been doing this archival project in the bar, been really deep into all our video archives. And we have such a rich, deep archive of video. And I figured, OK, let's just start streaming some of this stuff.

We also have a big company of artists who are always working – and, suddenly, they were just twiddling their thumbs. Most of them were about to open a show, and then everything shut down, so where is all that creative energy going to go? We needed to make something. And Eva McQuade and Jen Jennings and Rudy Ramirez and a whole slew of other people just stepped up and were like, "Sure, I want to play, I'll do some online stuff – interactive stuff or improv or script-reading, whatever it takes," and the ball just started rolling.


The Vortex Odyssey drive-through quest will take place Oct. 1-10, Thu.-Sat., with specific entry times 6-9pm, starting at the Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd. The Vortex Odyssey: Underworld online experience will take place Sept. 25-Oct. 10, Fri. & Sat., 8pm. For more info, visit www.vortexrep.org.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

The Vortex, coronavirus, Vortex Repertory Company, Bonnie Cullum, Melissa Vogt, Rudy Ramirez, Dillon Yreugas, Chad Salvata, Annie Sprinkle

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