Setting expectations accurately can be challenging, but when it comes to a theatrical production, it is extremely important and may be the linchpin to the venture’s success or failure.
With that said, Theatre en Bloc’s production of Austin Is a Place (You Are Here) might have fared better had expectations been set a bit more accurately. When I first looked into “Austin Is a Place,” I read that the play’s collaborators had participated in hundreds of interviews with Austin citizens and read through historical files to research the information and material for this show. I expected it to be more specific to Austin rather than an everyman/every town story with little, if anything, to suggest why such extensive background research. In the end, we left feeling like we had either just “not gotten it” or it was poorly presented if the research was actually there.
Upon entering the performance area, one cannot overlook the large, extremely large, mound of dirt rising up from the concrete floor and flanked by wheelbarrows and shovels. My first impression was that I was beneath the earth in a mine of some time. As the play progressed, the actors began moving the dirt, and I struggled to grasp the meaning of this energetic effort. But eventually all was revealed.
The story seemed to be the story of Everyman and every city where growth and expansion overwhelm the ecosystem and suffocate the denizens until they must migrate to survive or commit to struggling harder even though the chances for survival are slim. While my expectation from the title was that this would be an Austin-centric story that was both specific and universal, that did not seem to be true. In broad terms, it was the story of Los Angeles or Dallas or Tulsa or almost anywhere. Did I feel a wrenching sense of loss for what Austin had been? No. Did I experience a sense of loss for Austinites who had been shoved aside in the name of progress? Not based on this story.
With that said, there is much to commend the production. The cast is not only talented, but they deliver strong, memorable performances that are fascinating to observe. The commitment of each to his/her character is at times compelling. The characterization of the narrator or leader is very comical in sorts and reminded me of a Cirque Du Soleil performance, (one in which I often enjoy the movement but don’t “get” the story or message). There are some rather fun moments where two of the more uniquely opposite characters go for a swim together, and a bit about races was funny.
The direction was solid and the blocking was exceptionally good. The metaphors and symbolism were rich and bountiful giving the audience something to think about and focus on when the performance drags (which is often). There are many moments when the piece seems to stop time and not in a good way. If the actors had moved at a bit faster pace, the show could have been done in one act. Instead, it often feels like there is not enough material to occupy the entire time and so the direction attempted to stretch it all out by slowing down the action and adding in extra choreography.
At the end of the day, it comes down to this… Theatre En Bloc’s production “Austin Is a Place (You Are Here) is experimental performance art at its finest. And experimental performance art is not one of our preferred forms of theatre. So, if performance art is something you like, you will LOVE, this show. However if you are not a fan of performance art, then you should probably stay home.
Austin Is a Place (You Are Here) runs April 18−May 12, Thursday through Sunday at 8:00 pm. All performances are at the MexitasEventCenter 1007 North I-35 Austin, TX. For ticket reservations: 512.522.4083 or theatreenbloc.org.