Top 10 Memorable Moments in Austin Theatre

Highs and lows from Austin’s stages in their first real post-pandemic year

(l-r) Krissy Lemon as Gabrielle, Sara Burke as Charlotte, Sandra Mae Frank as Ella, and Meredith McCall as Madame in Zach Theatre & Deaf Austin Theatre's Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella (photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)

After theatres shuttered in 2020 due to the pandemic and attempts at reopening were stalled by a Delta variant surge and subsequent Omicron-fueled cancellations, 2023 ushered in the production of full season lineups and the return of shows previously put on hiatus. And so, every raised curtain and completed run this past year has been a memorable moment.

But with directors, design teams, and ensembles of actors still reestablishing their sea legs, did productions and performances meet audience expectations? Here are 10 of this past year's most memorable moments – both fantastic and unfortunate – taking place on Austin-area stages.

1) When Actors Have the Upper Hand

Nontraditional casting alone was not what made Deaf Austin Theatre's recent collaboration with Zach Theatre (Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella) and cohabitation at Ground Floor Theatre (Moisés Kaufman's The Laramie Project) so memorable. It was how co-director Brian Cheslik and actor/ASL consultant Sandra Mae Frank interwove sign language into the musical to create a marvelously choreographed ballet of vocal and visual expression that heightened the emotional resonance in a show already brimming with it. And it was how, in the docudrama, ASL designer Kailyn Aaron-Lozano created highly expressive signing styles. Actors used different speeds, handshapes, body movements, and linguistic markers to differentiate and add depth and dimension to characters. Each monologue was mesmerizing.

2) More Than a Tribute to a Landmark Lesbian Kiss

In 1923, Sholem Asch's play God of Vengeance served up Broadway's first queer kiss. It was never meant to be significant or scandalous, but the theatre was raided, the show's producer and 12-member cast were arrested and convicted on charges of obscenity, and the production was shut down. Paula Vogel's dramatization of the play and its period, Indecent, is a tribute to that landmark lesbian kiss. But during the Austin Playhouse production of the play, under the thoughtful direction of Lara Toner Haddock, the banning of the production and the quieting of dissident voices became a powerful testimony to how history seems to be repeating itself.

3) Tetrameter Verse Becomes Less of a Curse

Seuss' The Cat in the Hat returned to the Zach/ Since its COVID delay, the play's finally back/ So many ticketholders were shouting with glee/ We're talking those others, just not I – nope, not me

I am not a big fan of the iambic verse/ And Gilbert & Sullivan, well they bother me worse/ But the one writing style for which I've no use/ Is the preening rhymed scheming of one Dr. Seuss

But the moment I took my assigned center seat/ Who did I have the good fortune to meet/ But a boy to my left, who's the talkative type/ And so was the girl sitting just to my right

They told me what's what from a kid's point of view/ "It's all meant to be fun," they proclaimed. Hmm, who knew?/ So just set expectations to lower than low/ And you'll have a great time when you see a Seuss show

4) Raising Regurgitation to an Art Form

It's surprising how infrequently projectile vomiting works its way into a theatrical performance, considering how effective it was in Yasmina Reza's comedy of conflict, God of Carnage, staged by Beyond August Productions. When the gloves of civility come off, all niceties and restraint are purged, figuratively, and Annette (played wonderfully by Shannon Embry) purges, actually. This pivotal scene shifts the play's dynamics and is one of the funniest and most memorable moments on an Austin stage.

5) A Reenvisioning and Then a Remounting

There were many brilliant moments in Gilbert & Sullivan Austin's 2022 production of The McAdo, a remarkable reenvisioning of The Mikado. Sadly, the production was short-lived. After the opening night performance, the production was shut down due to COVID infections. A year later, under Michelle Haché's direction, the show once again took the stage. While the musical tells a tale about love triumphing over the cruelties of life, the opening moment of this remounted production is a triumph of a company's love of Gilbert & Sullivan over the cruelties of a pandemic.

6) Not Hamilton

When Renaissance artist Michelangelo was asked about the process of sculpting his marble masterpiece David, he responded, "You just chip away the stone that doesn't look like David." An equally astounding feat was Lin-Manuel Miranda carving a monumental musical out of Ron Chernow's 800-plus-page biography of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. The touring musical Six, which passed through Bass Concert Hall this year, also gave voice to historical figures: the six wives of Henry VIII. The moment the houselights went down, it became clear that Six was built specifically for the people in the audience who like their theatre the way they like their history lessons: short and superficial.

7) Duuude!

There's a lesson to be learned in Mattie Barber-Bockelman's fun, futuristic surfer story, Ride the Wave, which premiered at the Vortex. Something about getting the most out of life while the getting is good. And there must be some higher purpose behind the casting of three women as lifelong surfer bros. Not sure. By the time the last "duuude!" was uttered and the lights faded to black, none of the play's underdeveloped by seemingly good intentions gained clarity. Maybe the moral of the story was that the world makes no sense. Bummer.

8) If Pheromones Could Talk

In a creative city like ours, there is no shortage of original plays by local playwrights getting their world premiere at local venues. One of the best of this year's offerings was Katie Folger's Getting in Bed With the Pizza Man – a lusty, self-written, one-woman, one-act oration on female sexual discovery, exploration, and empowerment. If pheromones could talk and were given a public forum to express themselves, it would be this: a hybrid of a Penthouse letter and a Scientific American submission. In the moment Folger strips down to a pink bikini bra and shiny hot pants, it is clear that this show is more randy than raunchy and more intellectual than merely titillating.

9) A Wake-Up Call

Another world premiere took place at Hyde Park Theatre this past spring, where Zell Miller III's Chronicles of an Indigenous Offspring offered one Black man's reflections on racial injustice in the segregated 1970s Austin of his youth and today. Miller – an award-winning interdisciplinary theatre artist – chose varying degrees of creative and confrontational expression to get his point across, particularly to unaware or unconcerned white Austinites in the audience. It worked so well that Miller's work was invited back for an encore engagement this past October.

10) Not Dead Yet

Kudos to Fallout Theater, the Downtown improv/sketch comedy/stand-up venue, for taking a creative risk and trying on for size a live theatrical production. Dead. Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the End was an original, debut dark comedy written and directed by Roy Lazorwitz and Louie Sanchez, two sketch comedy writers/performers at Fallout who had recently created Wise Guy Theater Co. for their playwriting. Let's hope that the idea of staging really long-form performances isn't dead in the water at Fallout. Given the toll the pandemic took on our smaller playhouses, Austin's theatre scene could certainly use another venue to help keep area theatre viable and always in the conversation.

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More by Bob Abelman
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Review: Austin Playhouse's <i>The Norwegians</i>
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