Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Exhibitionism

AUGUST 3, 1998: 


Zachary Scott Theatre Center

Don't you hate hearing that you just missed the greatest thing and you can't see it again? Well, sorry to gloat, but you did and you can't. Conceived as an informal new career-boosting benefit for one of the Zachary Scott Theatre Center's most dedicated crew members, Shannon Richey, Tuesday's cabaret at Zach became an unpredictable, unforgettable thrill ride through uncharted waters, with the campy, vampy Sylvia St. Croix at the helm.

Duo Meredith and Allen Robertson opened the show with an engaging mix of standards and original songs, punctuated with a hilarious medley of "songs couples should sing" -- such cheeky favorites as "Love Will Keep Us Together," "Beauty and the Beast," "You Light Up My Life" -- you get the idea. Charlie Pollock, on momentary reprieve from the magnetic leading role in The Who's Tommy, offered a lovingly rendered, if restrained, performance. His infectious charm and wide-eyed enthusiasm make a sustained note feel like a marvel to behold. Leslie Bonnell's jazz set set torch songs aflame; her version of "The Man That Got Away" was the real deal. Like Ella and Billy, she knows how to massage a note, to make it break and tumble while you wait, breathless, your heart aching. All three performers were an evening of entertainment in themselves, and few would have left unsatisfied had the lights come up before the final act of the evening.

But nothing -- nothing -- could prepare us for the diva in waiting, ready to pounce. Performer Joe York, reprising his riotous drag role from last year's Ruthless! The Musical, utilized every actor's tool available to create this brilliant and disturbingly realized character, the über-diva of 20th-century stage and screen. Bette, Judy, Carol, Barbra, Liza -- Sylvia channels them all, spewing out a raucous riff of squints, swaggers, and a long, luxurious limp hand. Sloppily smoking, loaded with liquor, she regaled the audience with her triumphs of yesteryear and woes of today. And yes, the lady is a tramp.

In the midst of this, we learned a few simple lessons. What did we learn? Well, we learned the difference between being erotic and being kinky ("If you wanna be erotic, tickle my ass with a feather; if you wanna be kinky, use the whole goddamn chicken!"). We learned what happens when Sylvia and a group of Italian brothers stay on a fishing boat for eight hours ("All they caught was the clap, but I came home with an enormous red snapper!"). And we learned to never, ever underestimate the depths of tasteless, shocking humor to which Joe York will sink, god bless him.

Feet stomped. People wept. And almost in unison, audience members dropped their heads in their hands in some hybrid of shame, outrage, and unmitigated delight. It was unrivaled, escalating one-upmanship of filthy jokes, an outrageous outpouring of wit, and a perfect ending to a perfect evening, the kind that left a speechless audience with only two words on their lips: holy shit. -- Sarah Hepola


Flatbed Press,
through August 12

Imagine life without the printing press. No magazines or newspapers. No paper money or utility bills. No Oprah's Book Club, liner notes, or swimsuit calendars! Like it or not, the printing press is a cog imbedded in the machine of our lives.

One of the more appealing applications of printing is in the arts. Through forms such as intaglio, wood cut, and silkscreen, artists and artisans may create original works from etchings or enhance existing paintings, drawings, or photos. Usually, these works can be had for a fraction of the cost of original paintings -- a plus for thin-budget art lovers such as myself.

For almost a decade, Flatbed Press has churned out and exhibited prints by a multitude of artists, some popular and some emerging. The current exhibition is a collection of recent editions and selected prints from Flatbed's archives, and the works are as varied as the artists who executed them.

Since the link among these pieces lies in the technique used to create them rather than a common theme, a vast range of content is represented here. The artists are some of Flatbed's more well-known alumni. Melissa Miller's distinctive style is instantly recognizable in Anima, with its duo of ethereal, anthropomorphic wolves cavorting. There are a couple of abstract pieces by Dan Rizzie, whose characteristically cartoony technique smacks of exuberance and playfulness.

Perhaps the most startling piece is Michael Ray Charles' White Power, a racially charged work done with sublimely powerful jabs at the psyche. What at first appears to be a happy scenario of an African-American youth chomping on a juicy watermelon suddenly turns sour, as the context of the piece becomes clear. Charles' works often have a way of catching the viewer off-guard, like a song that begins chirpy then turns morose. White Power, like many of Charles' paintings, is attractive on the surface, yet replete with social commentary that pops out at the viewer like a vicious-looking jack-in-the-box.

While it's impossible to ignore printed objects in your everyday life, this show represents perhaps the best use of contemporary printing techniques -- a much more prodigious application than, say, the Leonardo DiCaprio memoirs. -- Cari Marshall


Beverly S. Sheffield
Zilker Hillside Theatre

For the 40th anniversary of the Zilker Summer Musical, Zilker Theatre Productions has chosenSouth Pacific (itself a ripe old 50 this year), Rodgers and Hammerstein's Pulitzer Prize-winning adaptation of James Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Tales of the South Pacific. For a simple, crowd-pleasing night of theatre, few things come close to the Summer Musical, an Austin institution bursting with a generosity of spirit -- much like Mr. Michener himself, now, sadly, deceased.

Jerry Pollock directs the all-volunteer cast of university students, professionals, neophytes, and veterans from various Texas theatres. As a whole, the cast sings well, acts well, and exudes that exuberance of a community labor of love that makes the American musical the dominant theatrical form.

South Pacific spins a tale of love and prejudice that tangles cockeyed optimist Nellie Forbush, a nurse-ensign from Arkansas, with dashing expatriate Frenchman Emile deBecque. Homespun Nellie falls in love with Emile despite his dark past -- he killed a man, then fled to the tropics -- but when it becomes apparent that the two Polynesian children on Emile's estate are his, from his previous marriage to an island native, Nellie balks. Her bigoted rejection of Emile sends him on a daring mission with handsome Lieutenant Joe Cable (the anti-hero of a parallel subplot involving a young island girl, Liat) to spy on the Japanese, a mission that sees Cable die but Emile survive to return to the repentant Nellie. The happy ending -- Emile, Nellie, and the kids together -- extols the virtues of acceptance and true love.

Jennifer Bryan and Dick Westerburg bring Nellie and Emile to life with that infectious joy of the classic musical. Both are strong in voice and possess great presence, although Bryan is given to stomping across the stage in less than demure fashion. Likewise, Matthew Scrivens' Cable seems to be running all over the place, petulantly stamping at adversity ("Gosh-darned malaria!") more than one might expect of an officer of his stature. In the role of conniving sailor Luther Billis, Douglas Taylor proves that he is one of Austin's foremost character actors. Corliss Overton's Bloody Mary, the equally conniving islandess, has a deep, enchanting voice; her languid delivery practically hypnotizes. The ensemble supports the leads well, ably executing Acia Gray and Deirdre Strand's simple, sometimes raucous choreography.

A top-notch design team of Christopher McCollum (sets), Robert T. Whyburn (lights), and Sylvia Tate (costumes) creates an effective tropical atmosphere to support the production. McCollum's set appears at first as an olive-drab quonset hut proscenium arch, the shape of choice of the American military abroad. Two large doors open up to reveal lush, beautifully painted tropical flowers and great green leaves. In the background is the mysterious isle of Bali Ha'i floating in a saturate blue sea that sparkles lazily throughout the night. Ubiquitous palm frond-covered structures roll on and off to take us to Emile deBecque's patio dining room, a wacky laundro-hut run by the deal-making Billis, and other island settings. Even the mountainous Bali Ha'i in its upstage lagoon moves to help shift perspectives on the island paradise. Tate makes the most of turning crisp officers, scruffy enlisted men, and neat nurses into erudite evening dress-clad dancers, colorful natives, and period bathing beauties (although too much might have been made of the neon green swimsuit donned by Nellie). Whyburn's lights are always shifting, casting gorgeous color and dappled light on sea and shore.

With so much going for this South Pacific, this reviewer was disappointed by the glossing over of the story's more serious theme. The revelation of the racist undertones that gave the play its Pulitzer impact is almost completely purged here. The musical suffers from the genre's need to truncate story in order to include songs, dance, and engaging comedic turns. When Emile asks Nellie why she won't stay with him (she has just learned of his children's ethnic mix), she simply says "I can't" and runs off. Soon we learn that Nellie has nothing against the kids or Emile's murderous past; that he sired the children with a native woman turns her off. When Bloody Mary brings Cable to her daughter Liat, he sings of her youthful charm, sleeps with her, and then refuses to marry her, using the same ignoble excuse. Like Nellie, he hasn't any real sense of responsibility; he's more upset by Bloody Mary's destructive treatment of his family-heirloom watch. Although both Nellie and Cable sense their bigotry, neither speaks it aloud. Can neither express in words or song his or her responsibility? Can neither reveal the contradiction inherent in his or her life -- that they have fallen for someone who repels them for no good reason? If the script lacks for expression of these feelings, then the director must find a way to bring them to the stage. It is not enough when Cable sings "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught" if he still cannot point the finger at himself. Pollock, however, lets the matter drop as the play concludes; Emile returns from his mission impossible to find Nellie with his children, and all rejoice. But when did Nellie change her mind?

The production roars clinically to its end: the build in Act I is followed by an act devoid of dramatic tension. It's too pat, but then the American musical is not really about exploring issues; it is about entertainment: safe, charming, exotic. With such unlofty goals, this South Pacific is an endearing, safe swim in the park. -- Robi Polgar

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