Archive | March, 2013

Our Review of Catastrophic’s ‘Godot’

23 Mar

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By JOHN DeMERS

Two men meet in nature as the sun edges lower, perhaps on a desolate plain after some kind of nuclear holocaust. They talk, they laugh, they argue – but most of all, they wait. For someone. For something. And when the person or thing they’re waiting for doesn’t show up, they return to the same spot the next afternoon, to wait again. They talk about giving up hope, but then they hope. They talk about leaving, but, in one of history’s most enticing final stage directions, “They do not move.”

And world theater is never the same.

It’s appropriate that Houston’s Catastrophic Theatre is serving up Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as its debut in its new venue, the former home of DiverseWorks, where Catastrophic had staged several shows in the past. Most of the works they’ve produced and/or created over two decades owe a huge debt to Beckett and, more than any other of his works, to Godot. There’s a strong feeling of coming home about the company’s realignment with its single most profound reason for being.

Beckett’s play is part suicide note, part lyric poetry and part vaudeville act, each style of entertainment grabbing our attention in quick succession until we start questioning which is which. What we don’t ever question is that we’re having a wonderful time in the theater, laughing harder and more often than we have in ages. As with most works of art, for the theater or elsewhere, there’s a barely concealed scream of protest at the core of Godot, crying from the heart – to what? to whom? – about the way the human condition simply is, even as we’re all having a ridiculous amount of fun recognizing our plight.

Within five minutes of the play’s opening lines, director Jason Nodler (who founded the company with Tamarie Cooper) makes it clear that he and his stellar cast are worthy of the work at hand. In a correctly stark set design – a barren tree, a rock, an occasionally projected full moon – everything falls on the actors’ navigation of Beckett’s remarkable, unexpected, soul-slaying language. The guy may have lived most of his life in Paris, but he was Irish, after all. In so many ways, what isn’t slapstick physical comedy (something Catastrophic always handles wonderfully) is lots and lots of talking.

Greg Dean and Charlie Scott are amazing as those two men. Anyone who hears about Godot’s subject or style and assumes the result must be dreary needs to watch these guys onstage. The characters known officially as Vladimir and Estragon act and react, grouse and cry out, laugh and kinda-sorta-maybe love, the latter in a way that evokes fellowship among the timeless tramps they most resemble. Their physical comedy is infectious, as though old-fashioned shtick had been called upon to deliver the worst news anybody ever heard.

Though (spoiler alert) the long-awaited Godot never shows his face, a few other people put in appearances on that shadowy stretch of  plain – and memorable appearances they are. Company regular Kyle Sturdivant shines, as he always does doing virtually anything with Catastrophic, along with Troy Schulze. They pull off a bizarre, wild and savagely endearing master-slave thing as Pozzo and Lucky, each at times more outlandish than the other. Sturdivant in particular brings an over-the-top musical-theater flair to his scenes as the guy holding the whip.

Is Waiting for Godot depressing? Now that’s a tough question, with one long, crazy, contradictory answer. Like all the Theatre of the Absurd “comedies” it helped define, the play’s notions of human life as cruel, meaningless and brief aren’t exactly the stuff of Little Mary Sunshine. Still, having emerged from World War II with much the same despair that marked the Lost Generation in Paris after World War I, Beckett and his contemporaries mined a remarkable amount of humor from the barren earth they chose to excavate. Waiting for Godot seems written with Catastrophic Theatre in mind.

Company Photo by Anthony Rathbun.

Our Review of the Film ‘Far Marfa’

22 Mar

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By JOHN DeMERS

Ever since the early 1950s, Hollywood has been a’comin’ to Marfa. George Stevens filmed Giant in and around town, while the “around” definitely loomed large more recently to the directors of There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men. Over the years, the artsy West Texas enclave has grown accustomed to the movies. Heck, in No Country, the president of Marfa National Bank was the first guy Javier Bardem got to kill.

Technology has come a long way since Giant. There are still folks around Marfa – like Mateo Quintana of Quintana’s Barber Shop – who remember going each evening to watch the “dailies” (which had been sent to LA for processing and back again), as well as to grab a glimpse of stars Elizabeth  Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. The latest in this long line of “Marfa films” – a brand-new, quirky and entertaining comedy-drama titled Far Marfa – is coming to a computer near you. Or more accurately, it’s already there: for sale as a download at www.farmarfa.com.

As directed by Cory van Dyke, born in Galveston and raised in Conroe, Far Marfa is a strange and fascinating little film, more thought-provoking at times than satisfying. The production values – if you have qualms about indulging in an “independent film” that features amateurs alongside professional actors – are very high. And speaking of high: yes, there are smuggled drugs involved in the plot, and the vast skies of Far West Texas have never looked better, not even in real life. What weaknesses the film has come from the too-thoughtful, too-hipster-self-absorbed story about lost souls trying to find themselves in the middle of a mystery-crime yarn, not from the overall direction, cinematography or editing.

Van Dyke, who now lives in Marfa and wrote the Far Marfa screenplay after penning something called Surfer, Dude, seems a bit of a multi-tasker immersed in a labor of love. On the movie website imdb.com, he has credits as a director, a screenwriter and a cinematographer – real separate credits, not just some do-it-yourself film-school kind of thing. Having worked earlier with producer Ray Stark at Columbia Pictures and even with iconic B-movie king Roger Corman, Van Dyke seems to know his way around the process. And for all the click-here-to-download technology, he acquits himself thoroughly as a film professional.

The plot has appropriateness to the real Marfa today, on several levels. For one thing, it’s about a man with musical aspirations who’s trying to find himself long after people were traditionally supposed to find themselves and start doing something about it. Think: late 20s, but more likely early 30s. For another thing, it involves Marfa’s chief fetish, art: a lost painting by a now-dead legend that’s given to our hero Carter Frazier, only hours before the giver is either murdered or takes his own life. Then the painting turns up missing, and then the Presidio County gendarmes come for a little chat with Carter.

The main cast of Far Marfa takes its roles seriously. Johnny Sneed, a veteran of such TV shows as Parks and Recreation, The Mentalist and NCIS, makes us believe in Carter – even though we already knew the guy exists all over Marfa, Austin and similar places. He brings an openness and generosity to the role that’s refreshing, keeping the character’s over-the-top angsting about his dead-end life from ever rolling  into ridiculous. The same type of kudos go to Jolyn Janis as Carter’s near-miss love interest named Quarry – something you seek and work to dig for, get it? – though she also simply looks great walking along dirt roads and railroad tracks in jeans mini-skirts and cowboy boots. Other imported actors, like Jesse Bernstein and Julie Mintz, handle their roles with style, even though the film is really and mostly one extended panic attack on the part of Carter.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the film, for those who know and love the real Marfa, is the number of locals who do just fine in significant speaking parts – not just Hollywood’s usual walk-on extras. Sure, Ty Mitchell (owner of Lost Horse Saloon) makes such a great-looking long-tall cowboy he’s played one in many movies, including the most recent rendition of True Grit. More eye-catching are the performances delivered, around the edges of the stars, by real folks like David Beebe, the Houston-born musician who opened Padres and now serves on the Marfa City Council; Adam Bork, the former Austin musician who operates Marfa’s legendary Food Shark food truck with his wife Krista; Boyd Elder, the artist based in nearby Valentine who in the ‘70s designed album covers for the The Eagles and other bands; and Steve Holzer, the Marfa-based artist who also helped craft the lovely Los Portales addition to the Gage Hotel in Marathon.

Sadly, the entire rest of the region’s desolation and beauty emerges in Far Marfa as a kind of Marfa suburb, instead of Marfa being one of several towns built along the rail lines in the late 1800s that cling to life in a much larger desert wilderness. It’s a fascinating corner of the world, this Far West Texas on the edge of the moonscapes of Big Bend National Park. If you love nothing else about Far Marfa – and there’s plenty else to love – you might get the message to go for a visit. And even while you’re out there, you might find yourself remembering the skies from the movie. Which might be one way, in the spirit of Carter Frazier, to find yourself.

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Our Review of ‘Jersey Boys’ at Hobby Center

21 Mar

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By HOLLY BERETTO

Before those denizens of Jersey Shore took over our TVs and made a mass-market splash for everything from self-tanners to scents (all apologies to my sweet second-cousin, DJ Pauly D), there was another Jersey bunch creating a storm in the rock and roll tea cup. And, in another in an endless stream of musicals that string together a bunch of hits (think Mama Mia, Rock of Ages, Movin’ Out et al) hinged on however thin a plot, Jersey Boys tells the story of The Four Seasons. They’re the ‘60s sensation that was never out of the Billboard Top 20 from 1962 through 1967 and charted three straight number-one hits, introducing us to Sherry and reminding us that big girls don’t cry and imploring guys everywhere to walk like a man.

The show bounced into the Hobby Center amid a swirl of candy-coated pop lyrics and fun, flirty melodies that predictably brought the audience to its feet. And a good time was had by all.

That’s the short version. The longer one, is that Jersey Boys makes for the musical equivalent of an E! True Hollywood Story, with less jump-cut editing and vastly more heart. Each member of the group, lead singer Frankie Valli, keyboardist /vocalist /lyricist Bob Gaudio, bass guitarist Nick Massi and lead guitarist Tommy DeVito takes a turn telling the tale of how this ragtag bunch of star-wannabes went from singing on Jersey street corners and seedy lounges to becoming a 1960s hit machine. Along the way, marriages crumble, gambling debts accrue, there are breakups and make ups; but through it all, there is the music – and a brotherly loyalty to each other that consumes nearly everything in its path.

Jersey Boys excels when it’s ebullient, tossing out chart-topper after chart-topper in rapid-fire succession, showcasing the four-part harmony of the cast, Brad Weinstock (Valli), Brandon Andrus (Nick Massi), Jason Kappus (Bob Gaudio) and Colby Foytik (Tommy DeVito). The arrangements here are darker than Baby Boomers will recall, lending a little heft to songs that danced along like so many puppy-lovelorn teenagers. Beneath that, where the demons lurk, the show is thinner, though it tries really hard to bring gravitas to counter all the levity.

Weinstock is a terrific Valli, his voice ringing in falsetto up above the rest of the team, and Kappus lends a stabilizing force – both in song and acting – to the storytelling as Bob Gaudio, especially up against the pugnaciousness that is Foytik’s Tommy DeVito. Watching the tension that swirls around the inevitable arguments over lyrics, structure – even the band’s name – turns out to be more captivating than you’d ever imagine.

Klara Zieglerova’s industrial scaffolding set acts as a blank canvas, easily evoking everything from Vegas hotel suites to recording studios, although the projected screen shots above it that occasionally resemble Roy Lichtenstein prints don’t add much. Jess Goldstein’s costumes perfectly capture the polish of The Four Seasons’ (and the mid-1960s) look, and Howell Binkley’s lighting occasionally steals the show, especially during “Dawn (Go Away),” where we go from backstage to rock concert with the flip of spotlights.

Make no mistake: the fun here is always going to outweigh the flaws. So what if “My Eyes Adored You,” Valli’s first solo hit that charted in 1975, is used entirely out of context and chronology? You get to hear Weinstock sing it with sweet sincerity. Sure, the vignettes of mobsters and messed-up teenage daughters seem dropped into the storyline just to have something in between songs. What does that matter when they’re spaced around “Sherry” and “Let’s Hang on to What We’ve Got?” It’s a ride you’re just happy to be along for. By the end of it all, as you’re walking out of the show, you will inevitably hear yourself saying, “Oh, what a night.”

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Our Review of TUTS ‘Man of La Mancha’

2 Mar

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By JOHN DeMERS

In the same way The Crucible funnels 1950s Cold War paranoia through the Salem Witch Trials, Man of La Mancha funnels what I’d have to call 1960s idealism through one of literature’s most enduring and endearing idealists, Don Quixote de la Mancha.  The result, which seems both brief and spare compared to today’s blockbuster musicals from the marketing and merchandizing departments at Disney, is a reminder of what a long way a “little” can actually go.

Man of La Mancha was either the first or second musical I ever saw on Broadway, in November 1970 – yes, that’s 40-plus years ago – and I’m convinced that Fiddler on the Roof was the other. With all the musicals from any era that have disappeared, it intrigues me that the first two I saw (or chose to see, more accurately) are still alive among us. Fiddler lives on as a great movie, of course, as well as the occasional stage revival. La Mancha became a movie too, though a less memorable one, and is now being revived by Theatre Under The Stars at the Hobby Center. Based on two historical periods no longer our own, the Spanish Inquisition and the 1960s, it seems more than current enough to merit our attention.

The original set design’s single bow to majesty was the heavy stairs that are raised or lowered into a dungeon by clanking chains, letting the powers-that-be in Spain (namely, the Inquisition) come and carry off prisoners for interrogation and probable torture. One of these prisoners, on the day we visit the dungeon, is the writer and actor Miguel de Cervantes, who has (we gather) been scribbling away at a thick stack of pages about a “knight errant” named Don Quixote. The  tough, angry and violent prisoners sharing the cell threaten to burn the manuscript that arrives in a trunk unless the “new kid” tells them a story in his defense. Thus, Man of La Mancha’s play-within-a-play is deftly and believably established.

The TUTS production captures perfectly the tragi-comic dynamic of the Don Quixote yarn. The old man is indeed a bit nuts, though today we’d surely have longer, more scientific names for his various dementias. He sees giants when there are only windmills, he pictures a world of honor, sacrifice and glory; and in this tale, most of all, he imagines a virginal model of womanhood where only a strumpet from the streets stands before him. No, you are not Aldonza, my lady. I know you in my heart, and you are… the fair Dulcinea. We, of course, enlightened realists that we are, see only Aldonza.

So, in this dungeon waiting to be interrogated, Cervantes the writer finds inspiration and courage to face his trials in the story of Don Quixote, his own knight errant. And we, who are privileged to watch him find those things, find them also within ourselves. Don Quixote remains one of the quirkiest heroes on one of the quirkiest hero’s journeys in all of Western culture.

Directed with spirit by TUTS artistic director Bruce Lumpkin, the current production hews close to its stark and dramatic forebears, with Cervantes and his fellow prisoners “building” the Quixote narrative from objects they find at hand and, naturally, portraying all the characters. Special kudos go to choreographer Michelle Gaudette, for finding so many ways and places to insert flamenco, since the intense dance style that came to Spain with the Arab conquest remains one of the most “Spanish” things we know this side of paella.

The book by Dale Wasserman – a true and fully realized play, not just a storyline to hang a bunch of songs on – places a huge burden on the actor playing Cervantes/Quixote, since for him it’s most of the way to being a one-man show. Broadway veteran Paul Schoeffler does a fine job with the acting, from middle-aged Cervantes to senile Quixote, and on to the timeless ideals both men come to embody. Schoeffler’s singing voice, however, is solidly placed in the pop repertoire, certainly lacking the heft of Richard Kiley in the original and especially the thunderous operatic bass-baritone of Brian Stokes Mitchell in the most recent big-budget revival.  Composer Mitch Leigh and lyricist Joe Darion gave their man one hell-of-a-song, “The Impossible Dream,” and it takes more than a dramatic bit of pop styling to impale our hearts upon its vision.

Michelle DeJean, an HSPVA grad who later taught at TUTS’ Humphreys School, is a wonderful Aldonza, banging out the strumpet’s sex-charged bookends “It’s All the Same” and “Aldonza” while slowly coming to realize that the pure Dulcinea of the old man’s dreams is indeed the truest self she carries within. Josh Lamon shines as Sancho Panza, Quixote’s comical squire and sometimes-reluctant enabler, as do Tom Alan Robbins as the Innkeeper/Governor , Michael Brian Dunn as the Barber and Laurent Giroux as the Padre. Longtime TUTS standout Michael Tapley makes a solid contribution to the ensemble, along with the cast’s other locals: Ceasar F. Barajas, Danny Dyer, Julia Krohn, Katelyn Johnson and Kristin Warren.

TUTS Photos by Bruce Bennett

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