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Austin Chronicle Reviews

APRIL 13, 1998: 

WHEN YOU KNOW WHAT IT IS YOU'RE DOING

Synergy Studio, through April 18

Paul and Wendy are just a young couple with a gun on the run to who knows where when a botched robbery attempt leads them to hop a train to Seattle. But when Paul is shot in the head, Wendy is left flapping in the wind. Like Alice through the rabbit hole, Wendy (strongly played by Shawn Sides) finds herself in a topsy-turvy universe, among a host of odd characters, and transforming grotesquely to accommodate them. She soon becomes embroiled in a dangerously sincere bread-worshipping cult -- and things get curiouser and curiouser from there. She soon finds work in a candle shop, but after a devious plot leaves her burned, she splits, finding a job with a widowed butcher and his grieving family. Pushed and prodded from one debacle to the next, everything seems to change except one thing: Wherever she goes, Wendy leaves disaster in her wake. For in this world, like Wonderland, the mundane mingles with the maudlin, and episodes with such innocent storybook favorites as the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker could cost you your life.

Adam Sobsey's play is inventive, and his dialogue manages to be sophisticated while remaining authentic. Coupled with Neulander's directing -- where characters and set pieces mysteriously ooze on- and offstage -- the play unfolds like a horror funhouse, with twists and turns, deep, meaningful chortles, flashes of creepy red light, and strangely distorted characters lurching out from ambush at every turn. Played by a talented ensemble, these bizarre inhabitants contain the play's finest moments, with a particularly fiendish turn by Dan Dietz as a bread evangelist, nymphomaniac, and vengeful drunken son, respectively. Part of the fun is simply seeing who jumps out at the next bend, who will cross Wendy's meandering path of nowhere-but-forward.

Because the adventure is so fun, Sobsey would do well to trim down some of the fat of his script, which runs over two hours. Some lengthy speeches and prolonged episodes slow the momentum and undercut the resonance of other, equally long speeches, like a brilliant tirade on the enduring power of bread. Because the script withholds so many answers from the audience -- Who is Wendy anyway? What is she doing here? Where are we? -- it's intriguing, but also fairly exhausting. It tantalizes and teases, but never really rewards the audience with a fully realized ending to this prolonged caper.

Despite these drawbacks, When You Know What It Is You're Doing succeeds on the strength of its originality. Salvage Vanguard consistently seeks out intelligent, off-kilter works with unique twists; its artists have proven themselves brethren to the bizarre, connoisseurs of camp -- and When You Know What It Is You're Doing is another joyous jaunt into their creepy, alternate universe. -- Sarah Hepola


MACBETH

Planet Theatre, through April 26
Running Time: 2 hrs, 30 min

In a Shakespearean tragedy, murder is like a Lay's potato chip: No one can have just one. The tragic hero happily -- well, happily for a tragic hero -- keeps on munching until he realizes that he's holding an empty bag, has crumbs all down the front of his doublet, and is surrounded by a horde of other hungry souls ready to kick the snot out of him for consuming every chip in sight. Then, the fight breaks out and the chip-scarfing hero is deposed, order is restored, and appetites are controlled.

Macbeth, plot-wise, follows Shakespeare's classic structure. Our tragic hero, Macbeth, gets a promotion from good king Duncan, decides he's not satisfied with it, and kills said king. Then, for further assurances of his superiority, he kills almost everyone else who could have a claim on the throne, possessed with a hunger for power that is equivalent to a dieter's lust for a bag of greasy, salty chips. But the crumbs -- bits of guilt and a loss of conviction -- give Macbeth away, big guys with swords notice, and they decide to put an end to this bloodshed with, you guessed it, more bloodshed. Who said Shakespeare was tricky to understand?

Truth be told, this is one of the Bard's more straightforward scripts, plot-wise, and an excellent chance for those who are frightened of the language or the classical-ness of it to dive right in. In this VORTEX Repertory Company production, Travis Dean is a nuanced Macbeth who captures almost all the twistings of this Scotsman's mind. Melanie Dean, as the Lady Macbeth, is powerful and almost steals the show. Her handwashing scene is stark and magnetic, her incipient insanity etched in the set of her eyes and the motions of her hands. Marc Balester's Lennox, Mick D'Arcy's Banquo, Dave Houston's Ross, and David DuBose's Macduff are all clear and distinct, even though the script makes these peers of Macbeth seem interchangeable. Johanna Whitmore is the perfect choice for the doomed Lady Macduff, and her short but unforgettable moments onstage are well worth the price of admission.

Director Barry Pineo relies on these strong performances to make this production tick. The set is essentially the theatre itself, with a few black crates to sit on. Pamela Wolf Fletcher's costumes stick to the basics and give enough details to tell the characters apart. Zach Murphy's lights are minimal as well, illuminating the stage enough for us to know that there are actors upon it but not well enough to decipher all of their facial expressions, which is frustrating, since these expressions are the few clues we are given to the emotional temperature of the scene.

Pineo, in fact, seems to have taken this concept to the extreme, with his use of clockwork-like blocking that leaves the characters looking as if they are glued to the wheel of a Swiss clock, brought out to dance when the hour strikes, only to promptly return to their hiding place when their moment in the spotlight is done. Some of the scenes feel rigid and cold, as if they are simply cogs in a giant Macbeth machine that will arrive onstage when they are scheduled, not when the pace of the show demands them. While most of the individual performances are great, the show as a whole feels like it has the weight of inevitability behind it, sucking out any spontaneity and life that is inherent in this tragic tale. You never get the chance to get close to the actors before they are whisked away again, marching to an unforgiving beat, which may be part of a larger concept about the inescapable conclusions of Shakespearean tragedy but which robs the script of its passion and appetites, leaving a tepid impression of this potentially scalding story. -- Adrienne Martini


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