Top 10 Memorable Moments in Austin Theatre

Productions and performances, from the fantastic to the unfortunate

(l-r) Nicolas Garza, Martavius Parris, Peter Frechette, Christopher Joel Onken, Kriston Woodreaux, and Nash Ferguson in Zach Theatre’s The Inheritance, Part 1 (Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)

When we reflect back on a live theatre production, it's often one brief shining moment that we recall – an instant when a playwright's idea, a director or designer's vision, or an actor's performance surpasses an audience's expectations. Such elusive moments seem frozen in time and suspended in space. Of course, theatrical missteps and creative miscarriages are similarly memorable, for awe can be found in work both awesome and awful. Here are 10 of this past year's most memorable moments – both fantastic and unfortunate – taking place on Austin-area stages.

1) Peter Frechette in the House

Zach Theatre's The Inheritance, Part 1 left audiences so dazed by Matthew Lopez's superbly crafted portrait of gay life in the 21st century, director Dave Steakley's spellbinding staging, and the stellar performances turned in by the entire ensemble that it required a conscious act of determination to stop staring and start applauding at the end of the show. Guiding the characters on their journey of discovery was the mysteriously materialized, quirky, and long-dead author E.M. Forster and an older, unassuming neighbor of the central characters, both played by the absolutely incredible Peter Frechette. With every entrance, the play and production became just a little bit more mesmerizing.

2) When You Give a Puck

Austin Shakespeare's free, outdoor production of the classic comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream was not its best work. But on opening night, Lilly Percifield – a backdrop charge artist – took the stage at the last minute to play Hermia, one of the play's four featured lovers, when the original actor took ill. Too focused on the script in her hand to be overwhelmed by the experience, aware of the glitchy microphones, or concerned about blocking, her performance and those of the actors around her were enhanced by Percifield's WTF energy and spontaneous discovery. In her first scene, when she read the line, "I know not by what power I am made bold," she pretty much owned the audience.

3) Jaw-Dropping Drama

In Trouble Puppet Theater Co.'s staging of Undark, crafted by Artistic Director Connor Hopkins, a single tabletop puppet set against a backdrop of projected shadow puppetry dramatized the true story of a corps of female factory workers in the 1920s who were poisoned from painting watch dials with a newly invented, radium-based luminescent paint. The mere novelty of a person with radiation poisoning being played by a puppet – particularly one as detailed and seemingly fragile as Hopkins' creation – managed to draw and then hold your attention even when the horrific story being told made you want to look away. This was particularly true during the riveting moment when her radiated jaw crumbled and fell from the puppet's head and into her rod-controlled hands.

4) Girls Gone Wilde

The two female lead characters in Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, which satirizes the behavior of Victorian high society, are not particularly likable. But the gadfly playwright gave them his most empowering soliloquies and pointed social commentary. As the moral absolutist Lady Chiltern, City Theatre actor Sunshine Garrison balanced the warmth and humanity required to be her husband's true north with the steely demeanor necessary to be Mrs. Cheveley's nemesis. As the conniving Mrs. Cheveley, Dawn Erin's remarkable physicality – her confident strides, the way she owned the space she occupied, and her use of a fan as an extension of her right hand and wrong thinking – was a master class in period performance. The moment these two women met onstage for a confrontation, sparks flew.

5) Jump Scares As Creative as They Are Creepy

Like most Glass Half Full Theatre productions, Caroline Reck, Indigo Rael, and Gricelda Silva's engaging, bilingual devised work Yamel Cucuy employed magical realism and boundless imagination in its storytelling. But most of all, this one-act play about things that go bump in the night had great jump scares – the kind that could quicken the heart of the most avid horror movie aficionado. The play finds 13-year-old Yamel (Silva), an undocumented immigrant, in hiding and hounded by ICE agents and the terrifying specters that filled the Mexican folklore of her childhood. Each and every jump scare revealed these terrifying creatures and was so impactful that audience members are still checking under their beds for boogeymen.

6) Reenvisioned, Remounted

There were many brilliant moments in Gilbert & Sullivan Austin's production of The McAdo, a remarkable reenvisioning of The Mikado, the ninth of 14 collaborations between librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, written in 1885. The runner-up for most memorable moment came in an email blast just after I had posted a flattering review, announcing that the production was shutting down after the opening night performance because one of the principals, then 14 additional cast members, and then the entire wind section of the orchestra contracted COVID. The most memorable moment came a few weeks ago, when it was announced that the production will remount in June 2023. 

7) Local World Premieres

In a creative city like ours, there is no shortage of original plays by local playwrights getting their world premieres at local venues. One of the best was Raul Garza's Running Bear, revolving around a successful middle-aged structural engineer (Mical Trejo) and a despondent 17-year-old (Macy Butler). The most memorable moments among many were when their exchanges shifted from antagonistic attacks to compromising conversation and, finally, to self-disclosure. Director Rosalind Faires subtly adjusted the actors' proximity to allow two incompatible and damaged individuals to touch each other's hearts and heal their shared sense of cultural alienation and social isolation. This was Hyde Park Theatre's first original play in over two years, and it was a mighty reminder of what we've been missing.

8) Now Is the Summer of Our Discontent

In the sci-fi film The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on the surface of Mars with only a colleague's vast collection of disco to keep him company. "I'm definitely going to die up here," Watney tells his video journal. Those attending the touring Summer: The Donna Summer Musical – about the life, times, and up-tempo tunes of the late disco icon – could relate to Watney's sense of deprivation. Like Mars, there was a lung-compressing absence of atmosphere in this production and not nearly enough gravity in the emaciated script. In one particularly vapid moment, prerecorded audience adoration was piped through the Bass Concert Hall speakers as if the creators knew that the show alone was incapable of generating its own authentic call-and-response.

9) Memorable by Design

The moment audiences entered the performance space for Nilo Cruz's compelling 2003 Pulitzer Prize-wining drama, Anna in the Tropics, they were immediately transported to Ybor City, Florida, in 1929. The show takes place in a small cigar factory, where the monotony of hand-rolling tobacco lessens upon the arrival of a young man (Ben Bazan) hired to read aloud novels to the workers. Worn, hardwood factory floors were surrounded by tall, whitewashed walls that were – like the characters themselves – distressed by the passage of time. If the Broadway production of this play had achieved the same aesthetics as this staging, courtesy of scenic and lighting designers Maggie Armendariz and Jacqueline Sindelar, Cruz would have had a Tony to go with his Pulitzer.

10) Every Raised Curtain

Throughout the last two years of the pandemic, shuttered theatres hoping for a rapid reopening found themselves dealing with a Delta variant surge and Omicron-fueled cancellations. In light of the lockdowns and losses, every theatre now awakening from its COVID-induced slumber and announcing a show or a season is a freakin' miracle. Every raised curtain is a memorable moment.

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