A Most Happy Stella, Waking Up and Raspberry Fizz
This past Saturday I headed down to Addison from Denton to catch a couple of shows at the WaterTower Theatre Out of the Loop Fringe Festival. I first became aware of the festival as I was finishing grad school in 2009 and participated in 2010 where I connected with Audacity Theatre Lab Artistic Director Brad McEntire. Since then, he has been an active presence with Stage Directions Blog and I was more than happy to make my way down to see his latest show, and incidentally my first of his work, Raspberry Fizz in a double bill with Greyman Theatre Company’s Waking Up by Kelsey Ervi and directed by Emily Christine Smith. I drove down early (around 1:00) to catch the matinee opening performance of A Most Happy Stella by David Parr and directed by Eric Amburg. I will be the first to admit that I like to go and see work that my friends do and in this case, I went to see three of my friends working in a new play (also something that I love). I had no knowledge of the production and was not involved in any way, other than as a delighted audience member. I don’t consider myself a journalist in the sense of a totally objective reaction to a piece, my reaction is my own and in publishing my opinions on plays that I see (or that Dan and I see together) I am simply trying to capture my experience and give others an opportunity to get some information about the play before they go. That description sounds like a journalist, but I am also involved in the craft of making theatre, I am an educator and playwright and director, among other things. This is my reaction.
A Most Happy Stella is for all intents and purposes a series of vignettes that riff on classic films that I assume Parr holds in high regard. They are campy and at times beautiful, always witty and quite acerbic as well. Walking into the main stage at WaterTower, I was confronted with a Jazz combo headed by Rebecca Cordes (who wrote the musical The Great White Way with Parr, seen at last years festival). Cordes knew exactly when to step back and let the be-dreaded bass player and the cool trumpet of her bandmates shine, and shine they did. The last minute addition of Brian Casey on bass brought the performance to a virtuosic level, he soloed with smooth grace and lighting quick, complex constructions. Jason Webb on trumpet brought out melody lines in unexpected ways and John Allnutt on drums rounded out the ensemble. When Cara Statham Serber came out and began singing a jazzy “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it seemed like a step backward for the play. As apropos as Cobain’s song is for the theatre, it is a tired convention by this point and while I understand the impulse, I feel it was a misguided attempt at relevance (albeit from the 1990’s). The production took an immediate step up from this moment with the clever and fast paced Long Gays Journey Into Night which saw the Dallas based portion of acting ensemble come together for the first time. DeAnna Gonzales, Serber, Zane Harris and Travis Stuebing had fantastic chemistry as a group of siblings and a mystery man. Parr’s writing never strayed from the sharp, biting dialogue that played with misunderstood characters being quoted immediately after in a pun/wit form. Going from the titles of the pieces, this was most probably his intent.
Porn Yesterday saw the NYC portion of the ensemble, Joleen Wilkinson and J. Stephen Brantley riffing on the film Born Yesterday as a couple ostensibly celebrating an anniversary with a “you choose one and I choose one” scenario. Wilkinson shone as New Jersey style white trash, Brantley came across as stiff and disconnected. He warmed up as the show went on, the two were heartbreaking in Alas Poor Yorick, probably the most fully realized of the pieces besides the final number. A Most Happy Stella, the final piece of the show felt like it alone was the reason for the production. A musical take on Streetcar, the piece was funny and biting. Stuebing’s Stanley was the highlight of the piece for me. He brought the right amount of machismo and femininity (especially when draped in more feather boas than I could count). As a piece of theatre, the vignette construction brought the production into the Youtube age; short, comic scenes with strong acting all around and some music thrown in to tie everything together. The ensemble provided a varied and consistent canvas for Parr’s writing and Director Eric Amburg avoided the long pauses I noticed in 2010 when he directed Parr’s Mimi at the 44th Parallel and found just the right tone for each scene. I imagine it was difficult bringing together a cast from NYC and from Dallas in a short rehearsal period, in this case it served to highlight the differences in the scenes and provided two distinct groupings of actors who each brought out the quirky humor.
After I couldn’t get tickets to Autobahn by Neil Labute, I waited around until the 8pm show where I was pleased to see that I was getting in on a double bill. Grayman Theatre Company began the evening with Waking Up, a befuddling short play about...coupling. There were four actors playing three couples in various orientations and stages that were bounced back and forth between one central bed. Using one set piece for the whole production was a brilliant touch, actors threw pillows off and put them back on to the blanket-less bed. From the beginning, Nellsyn Hill was the standout in this group of Baylor BFA students. She provided the most genuine moments and rarely struck a note that didn’t seem to be coming from the immediate experience. All of the performances were solid, the script seemed to be lacking in clarity and direction. While it was enjoyable, it wasn’t something that stuck with me as I waited for the final show of the evening Raspberry Fizz.
Raspberry Fizz, by Brad McEntire and directed by Andy Baldwin (who opened Lord of the Flies at Levelground Arts on the same night) is a delightful piece of theatre, expertly acted by Jeff Sweringen, Natalie Young and Shane Beeson. The piece tells the story of a young boy and girl on the cusp of teen-hood, the boy waiting to ask the girl to a harvest dance. The Carnival Barker is there to create a sense of mystery and he continually recites a mantra designed to capture the interest of the young boy. Sweringen as Ellson hits all the right physical notes with his character; one would hardly believe he wasn’t a child based on his physicality. Young as Samantha is pitch perfect in her flat, midwestern accent that reminded me of something out of Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. Beeson’s Barker was a little more challenging, at times his patter came across as forced but it didn’t detract from the overall performance. The final moment of the piece, Sweringen and Young dancing slowly, was a nice end to the evening. Tension built up and released by the slightly childish dancing on the part of the two actors.
What was interesting for me in the double bill was the difference in the age of the performers. Grayman is made up of University students and Audacity Theatre Lab’s cast is decidedly not but the two groups in the same space within the same time frame created two distinctly different but complimentary pieces of theatre. Searching for love and purpose, belonging and raspberry fizz.
For more information about Out of the Loop performances, visit www.watertowertheatre.org. Each of the productions reviewed has a number of performances remaining at the festival.
Podcast 5 March 2012: