Saturday, June 30, 2007

A Reminder of Why We Do Theatre

A number of television shows and films beckon me lately, and once I’ve seen them, I hope to write about them. There’s the blockbuster Knocked Up, about which I’m entirely suspicious, given its pedigree and given what I’ve heard about the choices—or non-choices—Katherine Heigl’s character makes around her unexpected pregnancy. And then there’s the recently opened Evening, based on the book by Susan Minot, which I read years ago and found very moving. With a cast so full of talented women, that film must be worth seeing, regardless of how well they adapt Minot’s non-chronological, elegiac story.

I’ve also recently started watching Rescue Me, Dennis Leary’s FX-broadcast dramedy, which I find I like despite the incessant boy-banter among him and his firefighter buddies. Too soon to discuss it here, but I’m getting hooked by original plot lines and characters (the gay son of Jerry, the stressed out fire chief; the beautiful, baby-faced young Mike, debating his sexuality and whether or not to kill his terminally ill mother; and Leary’s Tommy, with his fluid moral code and his 9/11-survivor’s guilt), by the confident and easy ensemble acting, and by the writing, which cuts way above network tv.

I’ve also tuned in to the new season of The Closer, which I’ve written about in this blog before. Brenda’s new style—less garish make-up and clothes, which I suppose means she’s assimilating to LA—and Kyra Sedgwick’s impeccably committed performance attracted me instantly, although a recent episode in which she worried about her father finding out that she and her FBI agent boyfriend were living together didn’t make sense to me. I might have missed some back-story, but I can’t imagine why a woman as tough as Brenda would be so concerned about parental approval. But maybe that’s one of her rich contradictions.

Sadly, because of other commitments—work, play, travel—I’m missing more theatre in Austin than I’m seeing. I was unable to catch Sharon Bridgforth’s Love Conjure/Blues, the next version of the performance novel that she continually reshapes and restages, much to the delight of Austin’s audiences (see I utterly admire Sharon’s passion, and her luscious language, inflected with poetry and spinning into stories of love and betrayal and wily tricksterisms that please the ear and the imagination alike. I’ve heard that the most recent version was a video installation in which Sharon interacted with taped performers. The large-hearted generosity of Sharon’s vision, I’m sure, remained intact and inspiring throughout.

I’m also missing a production of Parallel Lives: The Kathy and Mo Show, which I’ve never seen performed by anyone but Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney. Produced in Austin by the City Theatre Company, Breanna Stogner and Kathleen Fletcher take on these roles, which require them, I assume, to play Kathy and Mo, as well as all the characters they cycle through in their performance/play, which addresses, with affectionate humor, the travails of everyday life for women in the 20th (and now 21st) century. I’d be curious to see how local actors handle performing performers performing multiple roles (see

An event I was lucky enough to attend at Zach Scott Theatre last Tuesday night, however, reminded me why I’m a theatre person in the first place. Ann Ciccolella, who served since 1999 as the Managing Director of the theatre, recently opted to end her tenure at Zach to pursue other local arts opportunities (see During her eight years with Zach, Ann directed, among other things, a remarkable production of Cabaret, in which she cast singer Susanne Abbott as the emcee, a brilliant decision that opened up all sorts of new gender meanings in the musical. Abbott’s performance was as (if not more) sexy and sly and riveting as Alan Cumming’s on Broadway, and her gender brought with it new implications about the erotics of power when it circulates among women (even if those women are primarily the Kit Kat girls).

Ann also directed the best production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf I’ve ever seen, finding in the play more layers of menace and malice, vulnerability and veracity than I thought possible to retrieve. With the inimitable Fran Dorn (a nationally known actor who came to Austin from the Shakespeare Theatre in DC to head the MFA Acting Program at UT), as Martha, a full partner in the play’s movement and mood and style, the intricate, lengthy play was tragic, crystal clear, and awfully quick.

In addition to these two unforgettable productions, Ann directed The Vagina Monologues with rotating cast of local luminaries, including beloved local theatre doyenne Karen Kuykendall, the Austin City Manager Toby Futrell, and Fran Dorn. Adopting the casting scheme that kept the play running in New York for many years, Ann managed to invigorate the event and keep audiences coming for more lessons about what women call their female parts. With her cagey creative intelligence, Ann fashioned a sharp production of a play that’s been long overdone by college students celebrating Eve Ensler’s “V-Day,” her own canny anti-domestic violence activist/artistic creation.

With these memories of Ann and many more to chew on, the theatre hosted a send-off that itself proved memorable and moving. Although I’ve only been in Austin for eight years, I’ve found the theatre community warm and welcoming, taking care of long term denizens of the scene as well as us newbies. As some indication of the eclectic, ecumenical bent of the community, the crowd at Ann’s party boasted administrators from the Long Center (the new performing arts complex that’s slowly unfolding its stages just across Town Lake from downtown Austin); members of Zach’s board of directors and its staff (from front of house folks to techies, designers, and performers); local arts writers from the Austin American-Statesman and The Chronicle; fundraisers and philanthropists; other theatre-makers and performers; and numerous FOAs (Friends of Ann).

After a bit of circulating in Zach’s hot, increasingly loud lobby, we were ushered into the theatre for an hour of testimony and performance in Ann’s honor. The chair of Zach’s board talked about being a Jew in Texas and broke a glass under his foot, a ritual performed in Jewish weddings for luck. A board member told a story about meeting Ann for the first time during his interview, and wrapping up the hour feeling pleased with their conversation. When he stuck out his hand to shake, Ann said, “No-no-no-no-no, in the theatre, we hug,” and warmly embraced this more or less stranger.

Ann’s assistant, Barbara Chisholm, who also performs regularly at Zach and around Austin, spoke of what it’s like to work with someone who’s also a friend. Robert Faires, the arts editor of The Chronicle, honored Ann with his reminiscences. And Toby Futrell, the city manager whom Ann had cajoled into taking a role in The Vagina Monologues, related what it felt like to make her stage debut under Ann’s auspices. As Zach’s Artistic Director Dave Steakley remarked, the list invited speakers ranged from the theatre into the community, representing the reach of Ann’s influence across the city.

While these remarks were always amusing and apt, the performances interspersed with speeches moved me even more. Austin is the kind of theatre town where performers who work regularly become known to audiences, where you can see the extent of an actor’s range and the breadth of her creativity. Zach employs a stable of performers who I look forward to watching in every production, and four of them presented at Ann’s party. Jill Blackwood, who recently played Julie Jordan in a TexArts production of Carousel, and who performed as the prostitute living in Cliff and Sally’s boarding house in Cabaret, sang a Sondheim number from Into the Woods, which Ann directed for another theatre earlier in her career.

Meredith McCall, who played Sally Bowles in Ann’s Cabaret, sang “The Waters of March,” the poignant bossa nova written by Antonio Carlos Jobim. She sang with such warmth and affection and hope for Ann’s future, the catchy tune couldn’t help but be infectious and inspiring. Martin Burke, a Zach regular who played Prior in Steakley’s production of Angels in America, which Ann dramaturged after local playwright/critic/theatre professor David Mark Cohen died suddenly, performed Prior’s final monologue, the one in front of the fountain of Bethesda where he looks forward to the future with hunger and wonder.

Helen Merino, a local actor who moved to New York after playing Honey in Ann’s Virginia Woolf, Antigone in Ann’s adaptation of Sophocles, and many other parts, performed a monologue after surprising the audience (and Ann) by appearing live.

But here’s the thing about those four performances: The performers offered each of those speeches or songs as a trove of love and respect for Ann. Whatever their original context, they all took on new meaning in the performers’ address, and in the context of tribute, of memory, and of hope for Ann’s future. Through performance, Jill, Meredith, Martin, and Helen clarified how often and how intimately Ann touches people’s lives.

In a theatre, but without the typical mediations of text and character, set or direction, these four actors marshaled their craft and polished their emotions to deliver lyrics and melodies that struck just the right chord. Without a play or a musical to guide them, they used their art to deliver other art, wrapped with bows to Ann. What better way for an artist to receive the gift of people’s admiration but in art, as art, through art?

The evening shored up my faith in theatre’s power to rally us. Plied with deliciously plentiful food and bellinis, the audience flew high on Ann’s tribute. But the cocktails only enhanced an evening that was already magical, bringing together a hard-working, supportive, committed theatre community to toast one of its own and send her on her way to her next adventure in the arts. Moments like these provide milestones for people like Ann, who are moving on, and touchstones for the rest of us, who receive the gift of connection with the things that matter, and are moved and reminded of why we we’re people of the theatre.

Thank you, Zach,
The Feminist Spectator

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Summer Theatre in Austin: "Constellation" and "Jesus Christ Superstar"


Although the hot humid days in Austin rarely turn into cool comfortable summer nights, we got lucky a week ago when we saw choreographer Sally Jacques’s company Blue Lapis Light present their “site-specific aerial dance performance” Constellation between two federal buildings downtown. The typically enervating humidity lifted, caught between the storm systems that have kept the city green this spring and early summer. A soft breeze rustled our programs and flicked through our eyelashes, open in wonder at dancers stepping off the sides of buildings to soar into the air above us.

The audience sat rapt on the plaza between two completely quotidian government buildings, their impersonal, unaesthetic 1960s architecture suddenly transformed by the presence of bodies rigged to ropes, costumed in flowing, gossamer materials that draped and flattered their movement through the air. With sleeves and leggings fluttering behind them like wings, the dancers took leaps of faith off the tops of these buildings, diving, catching themselves, swinging into the air, pushing off window ledges to keep up their momentum, and reaching out towards each other as the air streams moved them first closer then farther away.

Resonant, crystal clear music—from soulful arias to resounding instrumentals, from classical turns to vaguely New Age stylings—lifted the performers’ spirits and our own as the rich sound seemed part of the current that held the dancers in the air. They flew in unison and in counterpoint to each other, complementing one another’s movement with their own strength and grace. I was riveted by the shear feat of their actions; what kind of courage does it take to trust your harness and cables enough to step off the roof of a building, lit like an angel, into a void, hoping this lowly technology will catch you as the audience tries to hold you up with its collective breath?

Part of the evening’s stimulating energy, in fact, comes from such shared adrenalin. The audience comes to trust that the performers are safely held by their harnesses, ropes, and carabiners, and strong enough to negotiate the space between themselves and the building, and the building and the ground, with the grace and style of dancers performing on the ground. Constellation changes your perspective. The vertical side of a building comes to seem horizontal; the wall begins to look like the floor, as the dancers careen gracefully about. The giddy feeling of losing all sense of foreground/background, floor/ceiling, or performer/audience transported me into a weightless, freeing sense of utter, communal presence in time and space.

The brief performance toggles between two sets of performers commanding the sides of the two facing buildings. One is considerably taller than the other. When dancers first approach the higher roof’s edge and make their leap off the side, they’re accompanied by tiny bright pin-lights, each attached to its own miniature parachute. These lights descend alongside the dancers, marking the distance between them and the roof and the ground below. The light breeze picked up these little stars and carried some of them toward the audience and dropping others, unseen, into what would be the wings of the stage, if this weren’t an exposed, outdoor plaza.

In fact, part of the pleasure of watching the dancers fly comes from seeing their colleagues standing on belay below them, supporting their movements while firmly rooted on the ground. The technology of the dancers’ flying is always exposed, but that doesn’t diminish the apparent miracle of flight we witness above. The belayers’ presence underlines a structure of support that’s necessary, if hidden, in any performance.

Nonetheless, fear and daring outline the dancers’ beautiful images. Much of the movement simply concerns the trajectory of their flight, as they swing back and forth across the building’s face. Pairs of dancers fly toward each other, not quite close enough to touch; the only plot or action concerns their subtle effort to gather the momentum they need to swing closer, to finally grasp a finger or a hand as they connect momentarily through space. Coming together and swinging apart with a grace that seems strangely human, even quotidian—given the virtuosity and courage such aerial dancing must require—forms a metaphor for human relationships: our desire to connect as each of us flies through our own biosphere, sometimes making contact, sometimes flying apart.

The tallest building’s honeycombed façade reminded me of the fallen World Trade Center towers in Manhattan. Constellation rewrites the tragic image of people falling from the burning buildings. Instead of plummeting desperately to certain death, the dancers leap from the buildings and find themselves caught, suspended in an acrobatics of hope that eases my memory of those other, desperate falls to earth.

In Constellation’s last act, two dancers catch each other in the air, and intertwine their limbs across a cable that bisects the plaza diagonally from one building to the other. Slowly, inexorably, followed by a cautious spotlight, the dancers lower themselves down the cable toward the ground. They end in a vertical drop into the center of the plaza, holding each other as they touch down. The other dancers run to surround them and the audience stands to applaud, captivated by the magic of their flight and their return.

Constellation and earlier site-specific Blue Lapis Light productions (see is public art at its best, transforming public space used to service impersonal and sometimes oppressive government systems into hopeful, beautiful, aesthetic, and emotional scenes of joy.

Jesus Christ Superstar

Dave Steakley, the artist head of the Zach Scott Theatre here in Austin, consistently demonstrates his talent as one of the most creative, well-rounded directors I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch working. As the director of eight of the nine show in his eclectic season, Steakley’s boundless energy and imagination always deliver, and his willingness to take political stands with his production concepts always impresses. In 2006 – 2007 alone, Steakley directed a rousing production of Rocky Horror Picture Show; an entirely campy, spot-on funny Noel Coward with Present Laughter; Richard Greenberg’s Tony-winning Take Me Out, and will soon direct the stage version of the Disney film hit, High School Musical. Only An Almost Holy Picture, Heather MacDonald’s moving one-man play meditation, will be directed by someone else (Robert Faires, the arts editor of the local weekly The Chronicle and a regular Austin actor in his own right). (See for details on the season and the theatre.)

Zach’s latest show, Jesus Christ Superstar, is another risky Steakley extravaganza that somehow manages to get everything right, providing a transporting, breathtaking, thought-provoking evening of theatre. He sets the musical in contemporary Mexico City, and employed a translator (Álvaro Cerviño) to create Spanish lyrics for about 50% of the show. Steakley tries admirably to speak to the widest possible local audience (and Austin’s Latin/a and Chicano/a and African-American population is significant), not by presenting token plays by people of color, but by bringing new perspectives to any production he undertakes. He often uses color-blind casting, but also always casts with an eye toward how race and ethnicity might make a difference in a production. All-white casts are rare at Zach, which demonstrates Steakley’s commitment to an inclusive theatre for the city.

Steakley’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar (Jesucristo Superestrella) utterly rocks, from its score to its dance numbers to its interpretations of the story and its contemporary resonances. The first of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s megamusicals, the sung-through show tells the story of Jesus’s rise and fall, including Judas’s betrayal and the machinations of various religious statesmen who for political reasons needed him dead. Transported to Mexico City, the story becomes a parable about the personal and political costs of celebrity in an age when politicians compete for visibility with galvanizing leaders from all walks of life. In Steakley’s vision, the production also addresses the pressing social need for belief and for faith (which is in fact the theme of Zach Scott Theatre's season this year). He captures the zeal for leaders who will galvanize a population that wants change to happen, and the ease with which public hopes are raised and dashed.

Played by the handsome, soulful Joseph Melendez, Jesus in this production is a Mexican with a following. A panoply of people attends to his homilies, hanging on his words as he treats them with warmth and compassion. The crowd includes a Chicano in a zoot suit and another in the straw hat, white undershirt, and jeans of the farm worker; a young white woman in the zippers and black leather and harshly died black hair of a Goth or a punk; another young woman whose look resonates with 60s American hippies; and other performers, men and women, white and of color, who cycle through variously costumed incarnations of Mexican history, ritual, and iconography. The scene reads as global and transnational (and a bit transhistorical), while firmly rooted in the specifics of Mexican culture.

Judas is a white man here, played with raw, cutting energy by John Pointer. Pointer is a musician and composer, rather than an actor. Steakley uses his performance experience as a “human beatbox” to great effect here; Pointer uses his mouth as a percussion device to create sound effects that punctuate his scenes and bridge to his songs. His modified Mohawk haircut (his head isn’t shaved but a thicker band of hair stands up along the middle of his head) and his pasty white face contrast nicely with Melendez’s rich carmel-colored skin tones and his rich black hair and short beard.

The two render the high stakes of Judas’s friendship with Jesus more tenderly and passionately than in any production I’ve seen. When Judas accuses Jesus of setting up his betrayal, Judas shares torrents of pain that somehow never seem overplayed. Losing his friend as well as his leader, Pointer renders Judas’s emotions immediate, unrefined, and unfiltered, capped with a kind of howl of male passion for a brother/friend. Melendez, too, acts with physically invested expressions of pain, capturing Jesus's doubt in his abilities and the meaning of his ministry.

Theresa Medina performs Mary Magdalene with open-hearted, watchful intelligence. Her beautiful rich voice captures all the soulful melancholy of "Everything's Alright" and "I Don't Know How to Love Him," the two songs that grace her role. Medina sings the second song entirely in Spanish, yet for an English-speaker (even one, I'd venture to say, not familiar with the show), her confusion, helplessness, and fear are completely clear. Rather than the ethereal or hyper-sexualized version of the role offered by other performers, Medina makes Mary Jesus's shelter, his rock, his home, without losing the strenght of her own presence. All three leads create nuanced, original, unforgettable performances.

The whole production requires taxing physical commitments from its cast. For example, when Jesus is beaten after his arrest, Pilate’s henchmen stretch his arms across the stage with rope, leaving him at the center of a large, tall, rectangle white box of fluorescent light topped with a black ladder, which serves variously as Jesus’s cross and Judas’s perch, from which he cynically watches the action. With Jesus's arms outstretched to his side and his torso and legs bare, the rest of the cast runs on from the voms to slap Jesus with red “blood,” as the musicians create the sound of whips lashing his body. Like so many of Steakley’s choices, the effect is both efficient and effective, implicating the apostles and his followers in Jesus’s suffering, while the blood they slap across his body comes to resemble the beaten pulp of his flesh.

Steakley directs with almost gestic vision. When Judas betrays Jesus to Caiaphas, he receives a coin that he fingers disdainfully, knowing that money is hardly compensation for his pending private loss and the upcoming public cataclysm. As Judas sits center stage, contemplating the suicide that eventually follows, more coins fall on him from the catwalks, raining down one by one, single raindrops laden with the cost of his action. Somehow, the coins fall in tempo with the music, emphasizing the melody of Judas’s plaint in “Damned for All Time/Blood Money.” It’s a stunning theatrical moment.

The equivalences carry the production’s political grace-notes. When Jesus is arrested, two men costumed as border patrol agents carry him away. Pilate wears a conventional Western business suit and tie, and gives the thumbs up sign smugly to the audience as he and Caiaphas plot Jesus’s end. Pilate looks a lot like Bush the 2nd here, or any other politician who’s easily corrupted by power and pragmatism. Herod’s vaudeville-style number is staged as a campy theatrical performance by a popular Mexican wrestling star and his court of bodacious women in bathing suits and sashes. When Jesus dies, the company surrounds his body wearing the black clothing and white skeleton masks that signify the Day of the Dead. The production is rich with the semiotics of Mexico and its relationship with the US, as well as with references to contemporary celebrity and the empty hysteria of fandom across entertainment, political, and religious spheres.

I grew up knowing all the words to the original cast album recording of Jesus Christ Superstar, the one Lloyd Webber and Rice released before they ever mounted a production. More than 35 years later, I still remember each verse and refrain, each of its many shifts in tone and musical style. Hearing half of the lyrics in Spanish in the Zach Scott Theatre production deepened my experience of the musical, adding a moving poignancy to a visually awe-inspiring, physically commanding, emotionally and politically resonant production.

This, thankfully, again, is the joy of theatre: watching talented artists transform what we thought we knew into something both differently familiar and strange, into something we’ve seen before, offered to us in a completely fresh way. That’s my kind of theatre.

Proud to live in Austin, Texas,
The Feminist Spectator