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Austin Chronicle Exhibitionism

OVID'S MYTHS: THE ROMAN NOSE IN EXILE: MERRY METAMORPHOSIS
Zachary Scott Theatre Center, November 1

When the poet Ovid was banned from Rome in 8 A.D., he set a rather unfortunate vocational precedent. Empires have crumbled, centuries passed, but poets - with all their ornate language, dense metaphor, and singular vision - often seem in universal exile, forever misunderstood.

Project InterAct, Zachary Scott Theatre Center's professional theatre company for young audiences, attempts to remedy this injustice by sculpting a play accessible to toddlers from language sometimes mystifying even to college students. The result is Clay Nichols' Ovid's Myths: The Roman Nose in Exile, a playful and loose lesson in history, mythology, sociology, and just getting along with each other.

After losing imperial favor in Rome, Ovid - appropriately nicknamed the "Nose" - begins the play deserted in the town of Thomas amongst savages, brute illiterates who don't know a conceit from a hole in their head. After finding tenuous refuge with two "recovering cannibals," Ovid attempts to gain favor in his new land by recounting pithy myths and fables culled from his piece de resistance, The Metamorphoses. And can you believe it? They don't even get it! Such artistic impalement thrusts the sensitive poet into a creative crisis - unable to write, to eat, even to think straight.

"The Nose" has all but given up on his literary endeavors when he receives the best kind of epiphany: a change of heart. As he begins to learn from the barbarians themselves, Ovid undergoes his own metamorphosis, in which the stubborn artist must question the real difference between the savage and the civilized.

The script by local playwright Nichols is replete with lessons, from red-light warnings against the trappings of prejudice to gentle reminders to say "Please" and "Thank you." Of course, such didacticism is cleverly disguised in slapstick and broad, goofy comedy ("You're the Nose," one character claims in a typical gag. "Don't blow it."). Roman Nose plays best when spinning its own myths, which pitter-patter away with the beauty of their language and imagery. But even the most lyrical passages have an undercurrent of silliness. One particular highlight includes a cleverly executed puppet show punctuated by good ol' fashioned potty humor.

Like many a low-brow comedy, the play sags in parts but is glued together by the frenetic energy of its cast members. As Will Underwood's Ovid pontificates and ponders, ensemble cast members Cara Briggs, Amber Dupuy, and Maurice Ripke (whose unflagging energy is simply astounding) flurry around him, flip-flopping roles with seamless proficiency. The actors paint their characters in fat strokes, using their bodies, their voices, their costumes like theatrical fingerpainting - smearing us with thick, vivid blobs of character.

In just one hour, director Judy Matetzschk and her capable cast manage to bring the Roman Nose out of exile and fill our schools with imagination, humor, warmth and poetry - a more fortunate precedent for any poet to follow. - Sarah Lys Hepola


THE AMERICAN CHESTNUT: VACUUMS TO VIETNAM
Planet Theatre, October 27

Robert,

I almost called you last night to let you know that I wasn't going to be able to make it to Karen Finley's show at Planet Theatre. I had spent most of the afternoon lolling about my bed, victim of some random virus that seems to have made a small home in my respiratory system. By 2pm, I had a fever above 100 and thought, Fuck it. I'm not going anywhere. I'm just going to stay home and be sick.

Of course, that didn't last. Karen Finley, one of the infamous NEA Four and one of my all-time favorite performers, had finally come to Austin with her new work, The American Chestnut. So I stuffed my pockets full of tissues and cough drops, stopped worrying about a measly fever, and went to the show.

And it was worth it. In no uncertain terms, Finley was incredible. From the opening moments with her wandering about the stage vacuuming to the potent closing hand-washing vignette, the entire two hours were full of Finley's lucid poetry and intriguing visual juxtapositions. She managed to work all of life's experiences into the show - life and death, love and loss, Barney and Winnie the Pooh - to create a vivid picture of what life in America is like right now. Granted, Finley paints this picture from her own unique perspective, which is decidedly feminist, but it isn't that whiny kind of "I'm just a victim" feminism that drives me absolutely berserk. Which is not to say that she sees a rosy society in which power is evenly distributed. Far from it. Instead, she is using her voice and her intelligence to show the imbalances to us in the most graphic ways possible.

If it weren't graphic, it wouldn't be Karen Finley. Really. She has quite a reputation for being more than willing to go there if it will make her point, and in this show there is some film footage that could make those easily nauseated look for the nearest exit, as well as some language that could offend even those hard to offend. But it's there for a reason, and it does more than simply shock. If that's all it was supposed to do, I would have just gone back to bed. No, it is there to jar you out of what you expect theatre to be and force you to look at this performance for what it is.

This prompts the obvious question: What is it? All the PR stuff would lead you to believe that it is a performance about the sickness of our society told in a parable about an ill chestnut tree. But that's kind of like describing Death of a Salesman as simply a story about a guy named Willy. The American Chestnut takes issue with everything from violence to vacuums to Vietnam without coming off like a heavy-handed morality play in which Finley rants and rails against everything. Instead, it is a gentle and brutal portrait of individuals in which the tension is broken by Finley's humor and use of meta-theatrical techniques. She wanders about the stage with the script in her hand, talks to Christopher Fleming, the skilled lighting designer, changes costume, and goads the audience to bring them further into her stories and ideas. While she's been lambasted for this manner of presentation, I think it's brilliant in its effectiveness and simplicity.

I am so glad that my spine kicked in at some point and got me to this show. And now that I have gotten this quasi-lucid summation to you, I'm heading back to the land of Nod.

Give me a call if you have any edits or question. Hope all is well in Chron-land.

Later,

Adrienne


The King Stag: A SLICE OF SERENDIPITY
Dougherty Arts Center, Through November 9
Running time: 1 hr, 45 min

Serendipity, n. The faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident. [After the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip.]

I suppose it wasn't really accidental, when you get right down to it. Happenstance would have been better served had I been, I don't know, just washing my car when a wonderful piece of theatre happened by. I mean, I went to the Dougherty Arts Center knowing I was going to see a play. But I didn't know how wonderful it was going to be.

The King Stag, produced by Second Youth Repertory Family Theatre, is, oddly enough, a fairy tale with Persian visual overtones that takes place in the kingdom of Serendip. In this kingdom lives King Deramo, who is searching for a bride. Three men deliver women to him but only one is chosen. Through the help of a magician's enchanted statue, Deramo discovers which woman truly loves him and, since this is a fairy tale, he discovers that he truly loves her back. But, of course, all cannot end happily there; the power-hungry Tartaglia seeks to change these joyful arrangements with the help of some magic and an evil laugh.

It is also, however, a show about appearances, about the surface of things not necessarily describing their inner shape. And this inner message must have been the starting point for the design team. On the outside, Laura J. Sandberg's lights are floating paper lanterns, J. Richard Smith's set is some rehearsal cubes, and his costumes are artfully draped pieces of colorful fabric. But on the inside, these simple elements combine with Brian Gaston's expressive masks to create a magical world in which this fairy tale can thrive.

The performers know how to make the most of these elements, as well as director and adapter Susan Dillard's take on Carlo Gozzi's 18th-century commedia dell'arte script. Each performance is bold and direct, full of strong postures and clear intentions. The actors move almost as if they are human puppets, controlled by Dillard's deft hand. Granted, some of the performers seem to be struggling to enunciate beyond Gaston's masks, but it isn't a major distraction from the frenetic action and fluid deliveries.

Like the discovery that you can represent a parrot with a piece of green silk - a technique in this production that I found oddly fascinating - the discovery of this fun, visually engaging bit of children's theatre was the slice of serendipity every theatre critic hopes for.

- Adrienne Martini


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