Pursued By A Bear

Fresh Thoughts on Theatre


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Think of the Children!!!

A question I’ve often wrestled with as I’ve taken leave of the university setting and embarked on my own professional journey—first as social justice warrior and now here—is this: do children even belong in the theatre? I’ve seen plays ruined by children being on the stage. On the other hand, I’ve been moved by plays done by children. Taking such a broad question and giving a simple yes or no seems problematic, for there are several contexts in which children are involved in the theatre. There are children’s theaters that cater to an audience of school-age children on field trips and culturally acute parents with their little ones. There is the community or professional theatre—generally more geared to adult audiences— wherein a child may be contracted to play a child character for a musical or play (A Christmas Carol, Annie, Parade, Die Kindermörderin). Of course there is also educational theatre: present in grades K-12 and in the university setting.

Think of the children

I’d like to begin with educational theatre, as it is the most sheltered from criticism. Educational theatre is distinct from the first two cases of children in theatre in that children are largely in charge of making the play happen. In K-12 there is a teacher, either a music or drama teacher—perhaps there is even a technical director for larger high schools—to lead students in school productions of musicals, plays, and one-acts. (On a side note, if you ever find yourself in Austin in the late spring with nothing to do, see if the UIL State One-Act Play Competition is happening and drop in. You won’t be disappointed.) At the university level students are supported by the theatre faculty with even more of the work done by students. It can be amazing. Some of the best theatre I’ve ever seen was done by students, and in San Antonio, perhaps the best theatre is done by Trinity University. The educational theatre is the obvious example of when children should be encouraged to be on the stage. Educational theatre is a magical institution where one can witness the act of a human being finding his or her humanity. You can watch young people delve the depths of the shared human experience to portray emotions that they have never experienced. The cognitive advantages of a theatre education, indeed an arts education in general, are well documented and should not be ignored, and the craft’s survival hinges on young blood being first interested and then enamored by the stage.

 

Children’s theaters like the Magik Theatre in San Antonio focus on putting on fun and engaging shows for children. Their plays are usually simple stories with uplifting platitudes on topics familiar to kids. Some of their recent work includes The Magic Tree House, based on the best selling children’s series of the same name; Flat Stanley, about a kid who became flat and mailed himself around the world so he could explore the world around him; and Red, a pseudo-contemporary retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood Story. These plays often have music, dancing, and audience participation to help keep kids engaged. They are fun, light-hearted, and never challenging: accessible to children of all ages and backgrounds. Children’s theatre is essential to a thriving artistic community in that it is often a child’s first experience at the theatre. My first memory at the theatre was at The Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston, TX during the late 1990’s. My elementary school took my class to see a production of The Three Little Pigs. I don’t remember much of that production except a woman in a pig costume talking to the audience from a pool of light down stage left, but it undoubtedly had a role in my decision to tryout for the annual 4th grade Christmas play when I was old enough. I don’t know if I can with good conscience give credit to that production of The Three Little Pigs at The Grand for giving me the theatre bug; however, it is easy to see how children’s theatre can capture the imagination. The same happens to adults every day all over the world in different contexts, after all. Children’s theatre gives us the opportunity to consider the child as the audience. If you’ve ever watched a contemporary child’s television show as an adult, or given in to nostalgia and watched TV or movies fro your own childhood, you may find yourself bored or upset or thinking, “how did I watch this way back when?” The stories are often over the top with particularly stilted or pointed dialogue. The same can be said of children’s theatre. If you find yourself at the Magik or a similar institution, relax and have fun.

 

The professional theatre’s dealing with children is and should be much different. W.C. Fields is often attributed the old show time adage, “Never work with children or animals.” Fields’ personal feeling aside, this trope has persisted not because people in show business hate children or animals (though some certainly do) or because we think animals or children would be bad on the stage (though some certainly are). No, the problem is that children and animals are often unpredictable, pulling focus and upstaging their adult counterparts at every turn. It doesn’t matter what’s happening on the stage; somehow, the mere presence of a child on the stage is enough to make audiences lose their minds, and the problem is only exasperated by the presence of animals (I’m looking at you Annie!). Last season’s production of Sweeney Todd at the Cameo Theatre is a gleaming example of the pitfalls that can occur of casting actual children. Act 2 begins of course with our young man Toby—at the Cameo played by a little boy or girl depending on the night—enticing Londoners into Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop with song. For any number of reasons, the Cameo was using recoded music for this production. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this set up, except that children are unpredictable. Act 2 started no fewer than three times because—and this is simply a fact—Toby failed to make it to the stage by the time the recorded music got to the young actor’s cue to begin the song. Perhaps there was some backstage mishap. Perhaps there was nothing this child could do but to charm on the third try. Perhaps a live orchestra could have vamped successfully until the child was ready. Regardless, it was clear that mistakes were made and this production suffered for them.

 

Who made these mistakes? It is completely unfair to blame the children in these situations. They are young, unfocused, untrained. No, the blame lies with directors, producers, and casting agents who insist on casting children when a young—but adult—actor will do. There is a challenge for many actors in playing characters significantly older or younger than the actor. Perhaps it’s a matter of believability? If you play an older character as a young actor, it can potentially feel artificial and forced. If an older actor plays a young character, it can feel like a farce or worse, a caricature of mental illness. Yet, this is exactly the tactic taken when Sweeney Todd opened on Broadway in 1979 with Len Cariou, Angela Lansbury, and then thirty-one year old actor Ken Jennings in the role of Tobey. I hardly think the Cameo fancies itself comparable to Broadway—it isn’t—so it must be time for it—and similar institutions— to stop placing children on the stage when an older, more experienced actor would be better. There are some plays that perhaps will not work if you don’t use a child: Matilda, or Little Eylof for example. For the rest, stick to the professionals or your theatre could suffer greatly despite the best of intentions.

 

I suppose the take away is this: children absolutely have a place in the theatre. That place is a sheltered, structured environment safe from the wrath of audiences and critics (e.g. me) alike, where they can learn and make mistakes and not have to be perfect in peace. Children should also be a highly valued audience, necessary for the indoctrination inspiration of the next generations of theatre artists. Children probably do not need to be in the theatre to fill roles when a trained actor can offer a more dramatically satisfying performance. Even better, choose to do a play without children. Though if you must have children, I recommend God of Carnage or A Doll’s House; the kids are great in those.


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Don’t Wait for The Dumb Waiter

Ridiculous. Silly. Menacing. Scary. Surreal. Existential. Eerie. Weird. Absurd. These are some words that come to mind when one first experiences the works of Nobel Prize winning British playwright, Harold Pinter. Known for several entries into the canon of Western Theatre such as The Room, The Birthday Party, and The Homecoming, perhaps one of his more relatively accessible plays is the ever-witty The Dumb Waiter.

Written in 1957, The Dumb Waiter tells the short tale of two men, Ben and Gus, in a windowless basement in Birmingham. In this windowless basement, Ben and Gus are waiting for instructions to do a “job.” Their only interaction is with one another and a mysterious offstage “other” who communicates via the titular dumbwaiter. To spill more of the plot would be a grave disservice, though context is essential for fruitful engagement. Pinter was one of a number of playwrights who grew disillusioned with the world at the end of the Second World War and with the horrors of the atomic age burned into the hollows of recent memory. Pinter and his ilk—including Beckett, Ionesco, Stoppard, Havel, Sartre, Dürrenmatt, Albee and others—came to a startling realization that in a world where millions die for the whims of a few and mass destruction beyond comprehension was possible, human life—indeed humanity itself—was unimportant. The machinations of the world seemed to be random and without reason. Such a worldview ran so counter to contemporary philosophy that it could only be given one label: absurd. Indeed, these artists began to tell stories that reflected this new status quo, and these plays became part of a theatrical movement known as Theatre of the Absurd. It is into this context that The Dumb Waiter is born.

dumb-waiter-harold-pinter-capital-t-theatre

Currently playing at Capital T Theatre in Austin, TX starring Ken Webster and Jason Phelps and directed by Mark Pickell (all of whom have won numerous theatre awards in Austin and elsewhere), The Dumb Waiter seems just as poignant as it did over fifty years ago. The modern quotidian lifestyle can often seem boring, aimless, or without meaning. On buses, subways, elevators, escalators, and sidewalks; in kitchens, living rooms, classrooms, pressrooms; we are glued to technology, and increasingly the digital realm is replacing genuine human interaction. Set in the late 50’s, there is minimal technology to distract our characters, but they similarly whittle away the time whilst waiting for something more, something that seems always just out of reach. Ken Webster’s Ben finds that something is his next job. All he does is focused on completing his current job and accepting the next one. His partner Gus, with a strong performance by Jason Phelps, seems more interested in getting answers to his questions. Ben’s blind acceptance of authority clashes electrifyingly with Gus’ search for the truth with potentially calamitous results.

The Capital T’s treatment of the piece may be fairly traditional in its presentation, but director and scenic designer Mark Pickell’s stage complements the unease generated by Pinter’s dialogue (or lack thereof) to such a degree that the basement becomes a third character itself with its own simple eccentricity and complex mystery. Indeed, Pickell’s production brings the text to such life that in its staging it almost feels like a brand new play. When giving this play a read it seems weird, but captivating. This production is an uncomfortable laugh riot that is claustrophobic but incessantly engaging. Catch it until November 21. Thursday – Saturday, 8PM in Austin’s Hyde Park Theatre located at 511 W 43rd St.


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Truth in Illusion

What is a memory? Is it selective or all encompasing, subjective or objective? It might be defined as a mental recollection of past events. Psychology tells us that a when we remember, we aren’t actually recalling a memory of the event, but recalling the last time we remembered it. For Tennessee Williams, memory seems more like an exercise. A way of uncovering truth in the guise of misinformation and reverie.

Tennessee Williams’ first commercial success, The Glass Menagerie—now playing at Trinity University’s Stieren Theatre—is Williams’ exercise of his own memory. The play is highly autobiographical (Williams’ avatar is Tom, Laura his sister, Amanda his mother) and is clearly the product of an exorcising of inner demons. The text feels true to life, or at least true to the playwright’s life. Even though our narrator, Tom, lets us know at the beginning of the play that his interpretation of events is skewed and full of illusion, none of the action of the play feels untrue. Perhaps it is Tom’s/Williams’ disconnectedness from the events that allows for this truth; Tom’s character routinely stands onstage and watches the action of other characters while removed from the action.

This distance allows Tom, and by extension the audience, to recognize the other characters for their qualities and not their familial ties: Amanda is a loving relic, but obsessed with the money and status of the Old South; Laura is loved intensely, but is burdensome as an unmarried woman past the age of majority. Even Jim, whom Tom calls the most real character in the play—who represents the capitalist dream— proves to be unattainable. Tom himself isn’t exempt either; he “goes to the movies” (drinks) to escape his life.

Trinity’s production captures all of this and more. The set design is perfect for a memory play, highlighting only the most important aspects of the home: the furniture, the door frame, the fire escape, the eerie picture of the absent father. The sparseness of the set and the contrast brought to the stage by the lighting get to the heart of why memory is so fascinating and engaging. Memory is slipping away; it is fleeting. Memory vanishes. Just like Amanda’s ideal of the Old South must vanish, just like the opportunity Jim represents must vanish, memory will always become more selective as our memory becomes less specific. It is interesting then, as our memories become increasingly vague, that memory exceeds what can be said and hints at a larger scale of what is true.

Three more chances to see Trinity’s production of The Glass Menagerie, playing at the Stieren Theatre Thursday at 7PM and Friday, Saturday at 8PM.


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Making Lemonade out of Citrus Groves of Terrible

Following a car accident that left her permanently disabled, Beatrice (Liz Vermeulen) makes the most of her life as the beautiful spokesmodel for Dry Ones Adult Diapers. She splits her time between her quirky accountant, Tabitha (Jordan Cimmino), her stereotypical, promiscuous agent (Cristina Vazquez), and her hunky male nurse, Vargas (Miguel Di Costanzo); these people seem to be her only friends and their companionship is vital to her well-being.

The play follows our protagonist, Beatrice, as she navigates her fluctuating relevance to her diaper agency. While her employer is courting potential new spokesmodels, Beatrice goes on the offensive to avoid change: an understandable aspiration, but therein lies the conflict of the play, and the source of several textual shortcomings. To fight against the oncoming tempest of change, Beatrice begins by trying to make her character more sympathetic. This is the play’s only moment of relevant social commentary. Unfortunately, our fascination or preoccupation with the sob story and its tendency to give someone their fifteen minutes of fame is too briefly discussed to catapult this play onto a higher level.

Further conflict arises when Beatrice’s staff starts to make preparations to move on with their careers, effectively leaving Beatrice behind. Rather than allow this to come to pass, Beatrice begins a campaign to make her staff unhirable to anyone else. Beatrice’s cry for help and attempt to keep her world from changing is supposed to be an understandable human reaction, but her methods are deplorable, and Vermeulen’s efforts to make our wheelchair bound heroine sympathetic fall flat, a true feat for the disabled.

The Overtime’s producing artistic director William Razavi does the best here with what he’s been given, adding notes of the classic Razavi camp I’ve grown to love. This is not his script, however, and the times Razavi’s signature comes out are few and very far between. Further, our young cast feels amateurish. There is not enough for our actors to do on stage and they do not have the experience necessary to make the several two person scenes engaging. Young Cimmino’s hurls her body around the stage like her entire weight is in her shoulders, giving her performance an affectation that I sincerely hope was unintentional. Vazquez’ Dolly Buttons verges on a stereotype that feels out of place and offensive in San Antonio. It often feels stagnant and could use a serious cutting as well as some stylistic editing. The play is vulgar but for no purpose other than seemingly to be vulgar with no sense that the vulgarity served any narrative purpose.

While the Overtime is a volunteer run theatre space, typically their productions have more polish to them. Truly—to quote Beatrice—to enjoy this play is to “make lemonade out of citrus groves of terrible.” One more weekend to catch Beatrice and the Puppies at The Overtime. For its faults, Beatrice is a night of entertainment and it has enough laughs to keep one engaged, but if you are looking for anything deeper than cheap laughs, another show might be for you.


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Adults are Just Children With Alcohol and No Chaperones

This season, AtticRep marks its return to a full production schedule after being named the first theatre company in residence at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts in December of last year.  Their inaugural season at the Tobin resembles an Attic’s Greatest Hits album  with four plays making a return to the stage, albeit in a significantly larger attic.  The company’s space at Trinity University was small, intimate, and engaging with room for less than a hundred seats. At the Tobin’s Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater—a space the AtticRep will share with the SOLI Chamber Ensemble and San Antonio Chamber Choir— higher ceilings, 250+ seats, and an open floor plan mean Producing Artistic Director Roberto Prestigiacomo and his team will have more freedom to reach more people.

The first in the AtticRep’s revival season is Yasmina Reza’s 2009 award-winning contemporary comedy, God of Carnage, which the AtticRep produced to much critical acclaim in 2012. This production features the return of most of the original cast, and their comfort with each other is evident. Gloria Sanchez-Molina and Andrew Thornton reprise their roles as Veronica and Michael Novak, whose child, Henry, is objectively injured by another child, Benjamin. Benjamin’s parents, Alan and Annette Raleigh are portrayed by returning actor, Rick Frederick, and new addition, AtticRep regular, Renee Garvens.  What begins as an attempt to maturely settle the differences of two little boys on the playground quickly devolves into an exploration and deconstruction of Western propriety and decorum.

Left to Right: Gloria Sanchez-Molina, Renee Garvens, Rick Frederick, Andrew Thornton

Left to Right: Gloria Sanchez-Molina, Renee Garvens, Rick Frederick, Andrew Thornton

The minimalist, contempo loft in the round designed by Jeremiah Teutsch acts as the perfect sandbox for our adults to play in as they discuss their children’s playground antics, and the perfect fishbowl for us to examine  four parents’ march into childlike brutality. When Annette prophetically asks, “How many parents sticking up for their children become infantile themselves?” the trajectory of the play is firmly established. The Novak’s, led unapologetically by Sanchez’ blistering portrayal of  Veronica as the epitome of moral and societal refinement, battle the more laissez-faire Raleigh’s in a series of verbal scuffles that feature shifting loyalties and quite a bit of rum. Conflicts become physical, petty, pernicious, puerile, and when Alan drunkenly exclaims the existence of a God of Carnage, his handiwork in the Novak’s home is palpable enough.

The familiarity Sanchez, Thornton, and Frederick bring to their roles is powerful and immediate—with a particularly strong performance from San Antonio stage icon, Andrew Thornton—often challenging the stiff acting Garvens to keep pace.  The story’s lack of resolution may appeal to some, but without a clear winner or loser, the action of this play—while interesting and often very funny—ultimately seemed like a futile effort and turned off this critic.  Still, God of Carnage proves to be a valiant kickoff for AtticRep’s new season. It’s limited engagement means that your chance to see God of Carnage has passed, but look out for the rest of AtticRep’s regular season. We can only hope their look to the past propels the company into a bigger and brighter future.

Be sure to catch the rest of the AtticRep’s inaugural season at the Tobin:
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Nov 12-23)
True West (Jan 28-Feb 8)
The Irish Curse (Mar 25-Apr 5)

Evan Brooks

Exit Critic, Pursued by a Bear