Theatre Review: Bottle Alley Theatre Company’s Aurora

This alien exploration works as a play and an encapsulation of what makes Austin special


Rosemary McGraw of Aurora (photo by Zac Stafford)

Austin is porch culture. That’s how I describe it to outsiders – a land of warm nights under string lights, cool drinks and shooting the breeze. Ideally Austin theatre should echo that vibe, right? Bottle Alley fully embraces it. A bottle in hand, a field behind an alley, a stage and story meant to spur sublime conversation.

OK, Aurora wasn’t actually down an alley, but it was in a field tucked behind pet psychic/photographer Stern Hatcher’s Paper Plate Gallery. It’s the definition of eccentric space, with about 40 school desks semicircling a shipping container splattered with stick-on stars, crowned with a homemade radio tower strewn with lights and metallic doodads clanging in the breeze. Outdoor setting with atmospheric lighting? Check. Prior to showtime, a ramshackle ticket booth sold Lunchables, cupcakes, and signature cocktails like Sunny D mimosas and boozy cherry limeades. Drinks? Check. The play itself ushered in discussions about space and sanity and our place in the world. Afterward the audience lingered, swapping plot theories. Philosophical musings? Extra check.

Such an Austin setting makes Aurora truly special, a creation that could only blossom here. That specific connection to place makes the art tangible, something we can access and be part of. It’s a mirror, it’s recognizable, and it’s beautiful in a wandering way.

The play follows donut-shop employee Aurora (Rosemary McGraw) on the night of her 30th birthday. She quickly monologues the basic setup: Her maybe-mother told her stories of 1897’s UFO crash in Aurora, Texas, and connected that event to finding Aurora in a remote field. So clearly, in Aurora’s own words, she’s a “space dumpster baby,” a being from beyond just waiting to go home. Chris Fontanes’ script sets up her night of waiting to be delivered, revealing drips of Aurora’s past and outlook as the night progresses. This night is not an anomaly. Aurora’s taken over this space, constructing her own campsite and radio tower that converts gathered transmissions into poetic missives from the stars. The tower is an overwhelmingly gorgeous set-piece, thanks to designer Lilly Percifield and constructor Joe Kelley. It’s realistic, but with details that spun, twinkled, and rang out unpredictably. It was a mesmerizing backdrop.

Such an Austin setting makes Aurora truly special, a creation that could only blossom here.

The entire space, especially presented in the dimness of night, seems perfect for Bottle Alley’s aesthetic and Aurora as a whole. I wonder if the story would be as effective on a sanitized stage, without the shadows of trees and the hum of cicadas. Even the sometimes-deafening traffic noises from nearby MoPac fit into the ambience. It’s another testament to the Austin aesthetic. It added to the honesty and lived-in nature of Aurora’s night. It fit neatly into my idea of porch culture, with a story where characters sit and ponder while the world exists at the fringes.

Performance-wise, it’s a deft three-hander where director Trace Turner has characters bounce off each other in ways that enhance the story. Aurora is visited, Scrooge-like, by beings that change her perspective and offer new insights. There’s fellow donut-shop employee Andi (Cassandra DeFreitas), whose warmth spreads through her scenes like sweet honey. She grounds Aurora to Earth, grudgingly accepts her yearning for orbital escape while begging her to recognize the connections in humanity. DeFreitas naturalizes the script. With her, it’s not a performance, it’s just... life.

On the other hand, Aurora also encounters Anne (Bonnie Lambert), a sudden and stiff presence who may or may not have escaped from a local hospital. Lambert’s spot-on cryptic weirdness further humanizes Aurora, while simultaneously unmooring her from the present. Aurora seems looser against this intentionally alien presence, even while Anne beckons her toward the unknown.

The characters aren’t too outlandish. They talk and drink and smoke, read T.S. Eliot poems and listen to music (an ingenious iPod mix that fades in and out at the perfect moments – don’t worry, the playlist is available on Spotify). But the conversation feels honest, builds them into real people. These could be your neighbors or friends. Fontanes did such a good job creating them that I wanted more of their story, more of this place. More of the poetry radio tower. More of the donut shop and the alluded-to town carousel. I left imagining volumes of short stories surrounding the town, something between Flannery O’Connor and Lake Wobegon, connected and wistful and full of these rich characters.

Aurora works as a play and an encapsulation of what makes Austin special. It’s off the beaten path in a laid-back way. Do you yearn to actually keep Austin weird? Because Bottle Alley is furthering that cause.

Aurora

Bottle Alley Theatre Company

May 17-19

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