austin theatre review

Monday, December 19, 2005

Ballet Austin's The Nutcracker

Reviewed by Jonathon Morgan

I have two Christmas confessions to make. 1: I, with what seemed to be the entirety of Central Texas, saw Ballet Austin's The Nutcracker. 2: I had never, ever seen it before (my understanding girlfriend had to explain the story to me).

Now, I'm no slouch when it comes to live performance – I see most of what Austin has to offer, and create a fair amount of performance myself. However, I know next to nothing about ballet. Chances are you probably don't either, so I could lie, but instead of half-ass wanderings about pirouettes and pliès, I've decided – in the spirit of Ballet Austin's Nutcracker interpretation – to focus on something a little more middle-brow. This performance will be judged based on the following question: Did this production of The Nutcracker put me in the Christmas spirit?

As we walk in, the lights are bright, the faces are happy, the patrons are over-dressed, and there are lots of souvenirs for sale. We're on our way to Christmas success. As the jovial volunteer takes our tickets and gives us directions to our seat, I notice that the sounds of Christmas are filling the lobby and ringing in my ears. A group of high school students, no doubt the stars of their local glee club, are belting out timeless classics, and more timely, soon-to-be classics – the best of these scholastic songbirds also drawing on their dramatic abilities to fully embody the material. I politely ignore their well-intentioned musical misfires and think to myself: wow, it really has been a month since Thanksgiving. After hobnobbing with the men in the bathroom who'd been dragged by their spouses and girlfriends, I found my seat, feeling proud that I'd come of my own accord, and now bursting with the spirit of the season.

Then the show starts. There's not a lot of dancing, but the children on stage do look cute when they're all dressed up. In a kind of stylized mime, a bunch of kids get presents from their weird uncle with an eye patch. One girl gets a Nutcracker, and her nasty cousin, or brother, or some boy relative, gets angry and breaks it. This is a theme of the ballet's first scene: girls are sweet, boys are rambunctious and naughty. Occasionally the adults break the action to dance a little – and I know I don't know a lot about this stuff – but shouldn't they be dancing... ballet? Never mind, the weird uncle has fixed the toy Nutcracker, just in time for it to lead a battle against some rogue mice! Just as I'm starting to run low on holiday steam, wondering if all ballet has this little ballet dancing in it, lots of cute children run on stage in little angel costumes, and my seasonal chutzpah is revived. When the little girl slays the evil rat king, thus saving her former toy and turning him into a hot young prince, I nearly shout "Go Christmas!" Then, finally, some dancing, which apparently wasn't all that great as far as ballet is concerned (if the term "falling out of a turn" means anything to you, then you'll know why it was lackluster), but I didn't know, and didn't care – it looked real pretty to me. Down with the curtain, end of Act I.

Act II should be titled, "The Good Stuff". As the curtain rose and we're magically transported to the land of fancy, I realize where they've been hiding all the dancing. Plus, all the most famous parts of the music – you know, what you think of when somebody mentions "The Nutcracker Suite" – are in this part of the show. So, some fairies dance, and they do very well, and it looks nice, and I'm into the music – and then I see why Ballet Austin is so popular as a dance company (as opposed to simply an annual Christmas spectacle): the Russian dance, and the Arabian dance.

I know I've been somewhat of a smart ass for most of this review, but read the following without any hint of sarcasm: Orlando Julius Canova is phenomenal in the Russian dance – my stunted ballet knowledge aside, his technical ability as a performer and a dancer (jump after jump after jump, turn after turn after turn) is superb. Additionally, Stephen Mills's choreography in both these sections will move you whether you were paying attention to the rest of the show. Phew, it was almost as beautiful as Mayor Will Wynn was funny, making a cameo as Mother Ginger. I'm a relatively new Austinite, but after seeing the mayor of my new city grab his fake boobs and dance "the rollercoaster" in front of 2,000 people at a ballet concert, I'm sure I'll like it here. My general mood at this point in the evening: Christmas-tastic!

Then I was slightly bored for the rest of it. More fairies dance for the young girl and her much-too-old-former-Nutcracker beau, then everyone dances together, then the young girl wakes up with in her bed with only her Nutcracker toy – was it a dream? I don't really care if it was a dream or not, none of the other performances were really all that notable, and my knees are starting to hurt from the cramped little seats at Bass Concert Hall. But the good news is that I'm so pumped up with holiday cheer that none of it matters.

So, successful ballet? Probably not. Successful addition to my seasonal calendar of good-vibe, holiday extravaganzas? Absolutely. God bless us, everyone, and Ho Ho Ho to Ballet Austin for a fun night out.

Verdict: 6/10

Note: The Nutcracker runs through December 23, and tickets are available at Austin Ballet or by calling 512-469-SHOW.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Peter Brook on the job of the critic

Before we get going too far, I think this could be important clarification: this is from Peter Brook's The Empty Space.

"When the man in the street goes to the theatre he can claim just to serve his own pleasure. When a critic goes to a play, he can say he is just serving the man on the street, but it is not accurate. He is not just a tipster. A critic has a far more important role, an essential one, in fact, for an art without critics would be constantly menaced by far greater dangers.

For instance, a critic is always serving the theatre when he is hounding out incompetence. If he spends most of his time grumbling, he is almost always right. The appalling difficulty of making theatre must be accepted: it is, or would be, if truly practised, perhaps the hardest medium of all: it is merciless, there is no room for error, or for waste. A novel can survive the reader who skips pages, or entire chapters; the audience, apt to change from pleasure to boredom in a wink can be lost, irrevocably. Two hours is a short time and an eternity: to use two hours of public time is a fine art. Yet this art with its frightening exigencies is served largely by casual labour. In a deadly vacuum there are few places where we can properly learn the arts of the theatre - so we drop in on the theatre offering love instead of science. This is what the unfortunate critic is nightly called to judge.

Incompetence is the vice, the condition and the tragedy of the world's theatre on any level: for every good light comedy or musical or political revue or verse play or classic that we see there are scores of others that most of the time are betrayed by a lack of elementary skills. The techniques of staging, designing, speaking, walking across a stage, sitting - even listening - just aren't sufficiently known; compare the little it takes - except luck - to get work in many of the theatres of the world with the minimum level of skill demanded say in piano playing: think of how many thousands of music teachers in thousands of small cities can play all the notes of the most difficult passages of Liszt or sight-read Scriabin. Compared with the simple ability of musicians most of our work is at amateur level most of the time. A critic will see far more incompetence in his theatregoing.... Fortunately, the critic does tend to notice and in this sense, his angriest reaction is valuable - it is a call for competence. This is a vital function, but he has still another one. He is a pathmaker.

The critic joins in the deadly game when he does not accept this responsibility, when he belittles his own importance. A critic is usually a sincere and decent man acutely aware of the human aspects of his job... Still, even if he is aware of his power of destruction, he underrates his power for good. When the status quo is rotten - and few critics anywhere would dispute this - the only possibility is to judge events in relation to a possible goal. This is our eventual purpose, our shared aim, and noting all the sign-posts and footprints on the way is our common task. Our relations with critics may be strained in a superficial sense: but in a deeper one the relationship is absolutely necessary: like the fish in the ocean, we need one another's devouring talents to perpetuate the sea bed's existence. However, this devouring is not nearly enough: we need to share the endeavour to rise to the surface. This is what is hard for all of us. The critic is part of the whole and whether he writes his notices fast or slow, short or long, is not really important. Has he an image of how a theatre could be in his community and is he revising this image around each experience he receives? How many critics see their job this way?

It is for this reason that the more the critic becomes an insider, the better. I see nothing good in a critic plunging into our lives, meeting actors, talking, discussing, watching, intervening. I would welcome his putting his hands on the medium and attempting to work it himself.... The criticism that theatre people make of one another is usually of devastating severity - but absolutely precise... the vital critic is the critic who has clearly formulated for himself what the theatre could be - and who is bold enough to throw this formula into jeopardy each time he participates in a theatrical event."

I'm a theatre kid myself, and have worked in most of the areas of the theatre. I understand very well how difficult it is to mount a production in the first place: finding somewhere to rehearse, somewhere to perform, getting the rights, working through endless line runs, painting a floor all night long... I think it endlessly important, though, to keep the final idea in mind - that theatre exists because human beings have a need to dramatize.

This, then, the "mission statement:" In my mind, the ideal theatre is one that can make an audience forget themselves for even a few minutes, to "touch the infinite," as Brook would likely write. Theatre is meant to be an experience almost near that of religion, when options and ideas that aren't ours suddenly seem possible and true. Glitter and camp have their places, but what I'm looking for is something more than that: something that William Ball might call "an orgy of belief." Let's get it on, then.

The Duck Variations - David Mamet

Seen Thursday, Dec. 15th.

First of all, one thing must be understood: I was, in the most literal sense, the entire audience for Thursday's performance at Hyde Park Theatre. The boy elected to stay home and play video games, so I wandered alone into the entrance of HPT to find no one at the ticket counter and no one in the lobby. A bit worrying. I went back outside, confirmed with a phone call and a little google-fu on the boy's part that there was indeed a performance scheduled. Back inside, then, where finally the director, Jake Coe, offered to let me pay a fraction of the ticket price as I was the only one there. At this point, a girl can't leave, right?

Jake and I both expressed a little incredulity at the inability of a Mamet show to pull in a good Austin crowd. I think we both figured out the absolute necessity of the right sort of publicity. So it didn't happen this time; I was here to see a show, goshdarnit.

The director and actors (at least I think they agreed) very gamely insisted that the show was to go on, so I waited while Jake started the pre-show jazz, wandered in, and took one of the coveted corner seats. The set, designed by Jake, was simple and dead on. The floor was littered with autumn leaves, and a well-used parkbench sat front and center. Simplicity is all you need for this show, and I was happy that there wasn't anything more.

I told Jake I felt a bit like Queen Elizabeth, waiting for the actors to come and perform for Us alone. The lights dimmed and two actors, Richard C. Dodwell and Dave Mikol, ambled onto the stage, carrying all of the appropriate accoutrements for old men on a bench (props were well-used and right, too). Duncan Coe, as the "Park Patron," follows shortly thereafter.

The Duck Variations consists of just that: two men in fourteen different scenes, all to do with ducks in some way. The themes follow along the lines of friendship, the wild freedom of life, and inevitable death, "so that others may live." Dodwell and Mikol do a reasonably good job of playing the roles - I was relieved initially that they were played by two men who can look the part.

There were times, particularly at the beginning of the show, when it didn't seem as though the actors were listening to each other, but as they and I warmed up to each other, they opened up a bit more. The pacing could have been picked up, too, but this was Jake's debut as a director, so that can be somewhat forgiven.

The addition of David Coe (presumably Jake's brother?) was nice, but completely unnecessary. He, as a nameless park patron, would stand, walk to the middle of the stage, and introduce the next scene's name. Since some of the titles are merely sentence fragments, the introductions were a bit awkward, and the same effect could have been had using a lighting effect or some simple repetitive gesture on the part of the actors. That said, I was impressed by how little Coe pulled focus, especially since he was on stage for the duration.

Mikol and Dodwell managed to find a good deal of dimension in their characterizations. At times their blocking (though there was a minimum of it) seemed a bit forced, but they worked around it. As the guy who's always "read it somewhere" ("it" invariably being facts bordering on the absurd), Mikol carried the perfect degree of pathos. Dodwell, as the more uptown character, is frustrated and impatient with his friend, though he nevertheless prefers to be a part of the world in the park. Being originally from London, he and Coe made a good choice to keep the accent. In later Mamet shows, this probably wouldn't work, but here it provided a nice further contrast between the characters. I wouldn't mind musing on a park bench with either one.

All of this is said in light of the idea that I was the lonely Queen Elizabeth in the crowd. The show would be inevitably different in front of a full house, but for the five of us present, it was a small precious gift. We were all on the same side, and although there is no possible way for a single person clapping to not sound sarcastic, the actors gamely walked back on stage for a curtain call that consisted mostly of hugs and mutual compliments. What could have easily been an embarrassing situation was turned, through respect for the point of theatre, into a kind of magic.

This is the kind of small good theatre that I appreciate most, and the production values were clean and simple, right down to the costumes. The show runs through Dec. 18th, and is well worth the ticket price.

Verdict: 7/10

For information, visit Hyde Park Theatre's site or see the Austin Chronicle, for details.