Tuesday, February 28, 2017

John at Hyde Park Theatre

As a child, I grew up in theaters. Watching plays and talking about them was my first taste of literary analysis. Sometimes at movie theaters, I feel depressed if I don't think people around me are paying close enough attention. The joy of movies and plays is in being asked to understand subtext. For me, the second joy is feeling a bit emotionally wrecked. I want theater that challenges me to think about people in new ways. I want to walk away feeling changed, charged, and maybe not quite okay. Live theater is such a brave art form; it excites me because it's different every time and because each performance takes such courage and energy. I don't get to see enough of it, but lucky for Brendan and I, we were able to catch a preview of John by Annie Baker at Hyde Park Theatre last weekend, and if you live in Austin (or within driving distance), you cannot miss this one.

I hate movie previews these days because they give everything away, so I won't do that here. I'll just tell you the premise. Jenny and Elias are a couple that go to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to stay at a bed and breakfast that turns out to be real--weird. There, they meet Mertis, a strange woman with some curious tendencies who runs the B&B, and her friend Genevieve who is not technically sane but sometimes the sanest character on the stage.

Photo Credit: Hyde Park Theatre
The show is directed by Ken Webster, and it's always a treat to watch his creative process and the complete and consuming dedication he puts into every project. Ken has such a knack for casting that I often wonder how the off broadway productions of his plays can function without the Hyde Park Theatre actors. He finds people that truly embody the roles, and even with discussion about lights and props going on between the three acts, it was easy to feel I was watching something real and organic. Annie Baker's work is masterful. There's no other way to say it. This play has so many layers that it challenged what I think of as theater doing; Brendan put it best when he said "this is the kind of play that she earned the right to write." 

Katherine Catmull is fantastic as flighty Mertis, the B&B owner whose house is filled with knick-knacks. Mertis struggles to make her guests feel at ease as she works to please both humans and the house (you'll see), and she brings humor and lightness to the stage. Catmull does an excellent job with the evolution of her character, over time making the audience realize that Mertis's secrets aren't like yours or mine. With her sing-songy voice and unique dialogue, you just want to listen. Mertis's friend Genevieve is played by Lana Dieterich, always a favorite to see on stage. Genevieve is blind, but she is aware of more than meets the eye (pun intended). Instead of questioning the seemingly ridiculous, Genevieve embraces it, and somehow makes what is absurd understood. Dieterich creates an endearing character; though her monologue is frightfully disturbing, Dieterich delivers by letting humanity meet insanity. There is no way anyone could make this role so entertaining as Dieterich has. I think this is my first time seeing Zac Thomas and Catherine Grady in a play, and both are an absolute delight. The build up in tension between these characters is so breathtaking. They were completely relatable in the beginning, and over time, I became completely worried for them. As Elias, Thomas portrays a character both self-centered and sensitive. You somehow feel sorry for him, even as he's making choices that you know are destructive. Grady is so perfect as imperfect Jenny. She makes her work onstage look effortless as the phone obsessed girlfriend who simultaneously wants to accept and fix Elias. The cast works together excellently; each member expends so much emotional energy that they bring this world utterly to life. At the end, you'll want reassurance that everyone is okay and that it was just pretend. You'll also want to talk about it for the next two weeks. 

So, here are the details on John. 
Word in my email is that you can catch a free preview (Wednesday) March 1st by just showing up before 8PM. The official opening date is Thursday, March 2nd. The show runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8PM through April 1st. The theatre is located at 511 West 43rd Street. If you are looking for an interesting evening out, this is the ticket (literally). Speaking of tickets, the cost is $22 per ticket on Fridays and $24 per ticket on Saturdays (except for the last weekend when prices increase to $24/$26). $2 off for students, seniors, and ACA members. Thursdays, as always, are pay what you can: keeping quality theatre affordable for Austinites. Check out the website for tickets and more details. 

Happy viewing Austinites. I'm envious of you because I'd go see it again if I were local. If you see it, please email me about it so we can discuss. 


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