Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Exhibitionism

APRIL 27, 1998: 


Elisabet Ney Museum,
permanent display

When Elisabet Ney emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1870, she left behind a promising career as a sculptress, having carved the likenesses of many European aristocrats, scientists, and philosophers. The perils of the Franco-Prussian war and a desire for a new life brought Ney and her husband to this country, leading them to Central Texas and, eventually, to the splendid "Formosa," Ney's house, studio, and sanctuary still standing in Austin's Hyde Park neighborhood.

Although urban sprawl has all but engulfed "Formosa," the small estate remains largely unchanged. It now serves as a home for many of Ney's works - frozen in time in milky-white plaster casts - and as an encapsulated history lesson on her enduring success as an artist in the bustling arts scene of 19th-century Texas.

The collection of sculpture revolves around, of course, Ney's Texas years, a time filled with chiseling the "founding fathers" of our state. One corner of the building is home to a group of busts of politicians and statesmen. Sitting stoically, many with bare shoulders, you can almost sense the intimacy that Ney was renowned for developing with her subjects. She clearly studied their visages down to the most minute details; it's evident in the thick tendrils of Gov. F. Lubbock's beard and in William Jennings Bryan's slightly wrinkled brow.

This room also houses several of Ney's buckskin-clad frontiersmen. Her life-size, full-body renditions of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin - the finals of which still stand in the State Capitol - are perhaps her best-known works from her Texas tenure. This tag is a humorous thing, considering her background as a German sculptress of European royalty.

The work that seems to convey most truly Ney's love for sculpting is the vibrant Sursum, a life-size piece she created from her imagination while living in Europe. The work, depicting two nude, cherubic boys poised as though they were leaping for the heavens, is full of vitality and energy, and is one of the few works showing Ney's dexterity at bodily details. From their curly ringlets to their rounded bellies and dainty toes, the boys clearly display Ney's talent for realism, symmetry, and detail. As a female artist in the 19th century, she was certainly not afforded much opportunity to explore nudes, so this work is all the more appealing in its rarity. Sursum was one of Ney's personal favorites, and it is a refreshing piece among all the patriarchal monuments, a work of sheer youth and vigor that seems to embody Ney's character best. - Cari Marshall


Zachary Scott Theatre Center

Feathers fall. In great numbers they drift down from heaven, feathers white as eyes, as summer clouds, as any pure thing. Their descent is like an ethereal snowfall - delicate, pristine, marked by grace - and yet the man on whom these feathers fall views it with his face contorted in terror. For the man named Prior Walter, fear is the thing with feathers.

What is there to fear? Change. Profound change. In Tony Kushner's epic, the shower of feathers heralds a visit from an angel, a divine messenger of the millennium who brings tidings of great turmoil: The old order passeth. History is cracking open. This sense of utter upheaval, of the whole world giving way under one's feet, is frightening. Yet by the time the feathers fall in this part of Angels in America, Prior already knows such upheaval. His whole world gave way underneath him when he discovered a lesion on his arm and knew that he had AIDS. Suddenly, Prior's body became a part of him on which he could not rely, his future became a darkening tunnel of pain and physical collapse and hospital stays. A profound change, to say the least.

Profound changes permeate the play. They're woven into the fabric of the setting: the Eighties, the era of the Reagan revolution, when conservatism and materialism and patriotism dramatically erupted again on America's political landscape; the era of AIDS, when the scourge began claiming lives in great numbers, prompting the nation to alter its view of sex. They're woven too into the lives of the characters, who must grapple with them as Jacob does his angel: Louis, Prior's lover, must struggle with the knowledge that he is a coward in the face of Prior's illness; Joe, an idealistic lawyer, must struggle with the homosexuality he has fought for years to submerge in his Mormon faith. Harper, Joe's wife, must struggle with their marriage's collapse and her overwhelming anxieties that have seeded in her a reliance on pills just to get through the day. The foundations on which these people have based their identities are splitting apart, threatening to obliterate who they believe they are.

The enormity of these conflicts are conveyed with clarity and conviction in the Zachary Scott Theatre Center's production. Again and again, we see in actors' eyes distress that reaches to their characters' core, hear in their voices anguish born in the deepest chambers of their hearts. When Prior is at his lowest, Jason Phelps loses himself in despair, his eyes going dim, his limbs going slack with hopelessness. Martin Burke's Louis transforms into a tornado of twisted impulses, his fretfulness and guilt whirling about him in great gusts of feeling and language. As Harper comes face-to-face with the truth about her husband, Meredith Robertson stokes the furnace in her until her eyes blaze with the fury of betrayal.

It's always apparent how much is at stake for these characters, even when the performances may not explore many facets of a character. Kevin Madden focuses very tightly on Joe's conflicted sense of self, projecting it in a perpetually clouded brow and downturned mouth, and a pained, labored way of speaking. Madden makes it hard to see the intelligence and appeal that continues to draw people to this character, but even so, he always keeps Joe's moral quandary crystal clear. It's clear, with him, with everyone, lives are on the line. Souls are on the line. The future is on the line.

In convincing us of this, director Dave Steakley's realization of Angels is true to its source. Kushner has given birth to a drama of staggering scope, encompassing matters of race, history, philosophy, social interaction, sexuality, religion, and more, and it demands productions that will open themselves up to its full vision, all its concerns. This production does, in myriad ways. Scenic designer Michael Raiford provokes our sense of past and future in his set that is classical and yet not classical - in his massive shining mausoleum wall that spans the back of the stage and the various pillars he suspends over it; the form is antique but the textures are metallic modern. Allen Robertson tunes in a range of noises crackling through the ether - voices, static, faded tunes, celestial chords - and rings the action with it. Karen Kuykendall expands herself to embody a concerned Mormon mother abandoning the sacred ground of Utah for the profane streets of New York, a weary but still compassionate rabbi, and a doctor who must stand his ground in the face of a blistering verbal assault from Roy Cohn (Tom Byrne, interpreting Cohn as a relentless showman, a Barnum of the bar); with each, she finds distinctive ways - the rabbi's shrug, the doctor's granite posture, the mother's pensive stare - to make each one real, each one human. It's evident in the focus and intensity of Robert Whyburn's lights, in the smooth gestures of Patrick Amos' Mr. Lies and the spice and snap of his Belize (his scene with Martin Burke's Louis is a highlight), in the awkward enthusiasm of Robin Christian's Mormon realtor, in the fluidity of the staging, in the abundant humor, in so much.

So much is there to be expressed. It is an astonishing script. Perhaps this production does not give everything in it full voice, but its call is clear and compelling, and it rings true in our heart. And it is very much the sound of an angel. -Robert Faires

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