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Christmas Belles, a new production of a play celebrating its 10th year, is currently spreading holiday cheer at The City Theatre in Austin. To paraphrase a line in the play itself, this is a Class A Southern Comedy.

According to one character, "Laughter is the only medicine we can afford that doesn't come from Canada." The laughter created by the play is infectious, but since this is a Christmas play that is a good thing.

There are 11 members in this ensemble cast, each of whom portray their roles with aplomb. No easy matter, as the dialogue and plot are so outrageous. The play is opened by a real spitfire actress, Nikki Bora, whose character of Miss Geneva is the nexus around which the prime plotline revolves. A portrayal worthy of an award.

Her nemesis in the play is Honey Raye Futrelle, portrayed with endearing and vexatious qualities in equal measure by Christina Manley. As the lead photo shows, Honey Raye is none too happy with Miss Geneva, who eventually proves to be her saviour in the production of a Christmas play by the small Texas town's Tabernacle of the Lamb church. This play within a play serves as a foil for an unending sequence of disasters of Biblical proportions, thus giving the other members of the play the opportunity to shine: Cassidy Timms, Beau Paul, Dawn Erin, R. Michael Clinkscales, Giselle Marie Munoz, Robyn Gammill, Ty Wylie, Brent Rose and Danielle Bondurant. The second photo shows a silly moment as Brother Justin (Wylie), dressed as a reindeer, confides his Christmas wish to Santa (Clinkscales).

One member of the audience told me that having lived in Texas for several years, he clearly saw the resemblance between some of the characters and true life. The play (by the powerhouse trio Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten), is so unsophisticated it was enjoyable, but no so unsophisticated it became corny. A true delight, and one I highly recommend for a fine Austin Christmas.

Finally, kudos to Scout Gutzmerson for a fine job in her first stage costuming credit.

 

Performances run through Dec. 30, 2017. For more info visit the website: www.citytheatreaustin.org

Photo credit: Aleks Ortynski.

 

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The most delightful Christmas confection of the season is not a gingerbread house but a play currently being performed at the Austin Playhouse.

 

Written by Lauren Gunderson (the most produced living playwright in America) and Margot Melcon, Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley made its world premiere in 2016, and has already become a staple with theatre companies all over the country.

 

With a legion of Jane Austen fans to support it, that is not too surprising. Her book Pride and Prejudice is one of the most iconic bestsellers of all time. The play is an imagined sequel, set two years after the book in Mr. Darcy's home of Pemberley, featuring the gaggle of Bennett sisters in a whole new set of marital travails.

 

The year is 1815, and with a beautiful set consisting of a drawing room and library by designer Mike Toner, and period costumes by Buffy Manners, one feels very much in the moment.

 

The play centers around Mary Bennett (played by Jess Hughes), the only one of the sisters to remain unmarried, and her unexpected love interest, Arthur (Stephen Mercantel).

 

Jess Hughes and Stephen MercantelMy only quibble is with the visual portrayal of Mary. In the promotional photo Mary is shown wearing glasses, rightly making her appear very bookish. It would have been more in keeping with her character to have her wear glasses during the play.

 

Elizabeth, star of the book and wife of Mr. Darcy, is sensibly played by Jenny Lavery; Maria Latiolais as Lydia is given a cloyingly wonderful stage presence, and Marie Fahlgren brings to the pregnant Jane just the sort of empty-headed but lovable persona Austen fans expect. And of course sister Mary, who (as one sister says) casts of 'chill of inaccuracy' over every conversation. The cast is completed by Samuel Knowlton who gives us the quintessential Mr Darcy, his brother-in-law Charles (Zac Thomas) who seems blissfully happy with his wife Jane, and Katie Kohler as the control freak Anne, who has her own designs on Arthur.

 

As the title of the play suggests, the time is Christmas, and Elizabeth becomes a trend-setter by placing a tree in the drawing room. The myth is that Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert introduced this German tradition to England in the 1840s, but it was actually done by King George III's wife Queen Charlotte in 1800. Even so, very few people would have decorated their homes with a tree in 1815, so it is no wonder everyone who enters the drawing room remarks on why a tree is indoors.

 

Mary, who wails that she “still suffers from a lack of definition,” finds a kindred spirit in the socially challenged Arthur. Mercantel's portrayal of this character is eminently believable, which is critical to the success of the production as he is the pivotal character. Who he chooses to marry – Anne or Mary – is the angst-driven engine that powers this play to a conclusion that even its characters describe as “shock and wonder.”

 

Mercifully absent from the play are the moralistic tones that seem to characterise many of the plays set in this era. This is one of the most innocently enjoyable plays I have seen in a quite a while. A superb production with delightfully quirky characters portrayed by an excellent ensemble cast, this is a Christmas treat to be savoured by all theatre-lovers in Austin.

 

Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley is playing until Dec. 23. Visit the website for tickets:

www.austinplayhouse.com

 

 

 

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The Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev has been in and out of fashion in Western musical circles for decades, but for now he is definitely IN. The Austin Symphony Orchestra is offering a rousing rendition of his famous Symphony No. 5 this weekend.

 

Prokofiev, who died in 1953, is being portrayed live on stage during the first half of the multimedia event, in a production created by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Conceived in 2005, they have now created 30 so-called 'Beyond the Score' presentations that give the audience a cultural and musical background to some of the world's most iconic scores.

 

Here Yevgeniy Sharlat spoke the words of Prokofiev. He was joined on stage by Robert Faires as the narrator, Barbara Chisholm as the composer's wife, and David Long who represented several composers. The symphony joined in by performing brief excerpts of his major compositions, as a chronological survey of his life was shown on a big screen. His peripatetic life as a composer and pianist, from Russia to the United States, on to France , back to the U.S. and finally returning to Russia, is given as a welcome textural background to his work.

 

In the dialogue, Prokofiev describes his Symphony No. 5 as a tribute to man's mighty powers, and this Promethean inspiration is expressed in music that brings to mind roiling magma. Each burst of a lava bubble is marked by the clashing of cymbals in the first movement.

 

The second movement is quite different, redolent of a busy metropolis filled with streetcars and pedestrians. The frenetic pace of city life may not have been what the composer intended, but it would make a good soundtrack to a silent film about New York City in the 20s.

 

The third movement most closely conforms to what Soviet officialdom demanded from its composers in the 1940s. It has a searching quality to it, expressing lost innocence: not surprising as the Motherland was still battling Nazi forces as Prokofiev wrote this in the winter of 1943-44. It is not a plaintive melody so much as a soul-searching attempt at redemption which seems to be fulfilled in a sweet and tender ending.

 

The fourth and final movement has a sprightly, almost Carnivalesque exuberance. It reminds one of music from his 1921 opera The Love for Three Oranges with its “charming capriciousness” in the words of legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht.

 

One of the touchstone recordings of the 5th is by Leonard Bernstein. The tempo by the Austin Symphony was too fast in comparison, thus minimising the full dramatic effect Bernstein achieved, especially in the 3rd movement. Nonetheless an excellent introduction to this great symphony for the Austin scene.

 

The Austin Symphony will be giving Bernstein a great birthday present next year, to celebrate his centennial. His Mass will be performed June 29 and June 30, preceded by a suite of free events for the public who can learn about this extraordinary musical extravaganza. It begins with a 100th birthday bash at the Bullock Museum on Jan. 7, 2018. Visit the website for details:

http://www.bernstein100austin.org/calendar-of-events/

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It took Clint Hill 46 years to come to terms with his role in the assassination of President Kennedy. Hill, who was a Secret Service agent, spoke about his career during an appearance at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin.

 

Hill said “I went back to Dallas, alone, in 1990. I looked out that window in the Texas School Book Depository, and I came away knowing there was nothing more I could have done that day.”

 

It was Hill who jumped onto the back of the limousine when the shots were fired, but he was unable to prevent the worst. The Secret Service, he said, “had a responsibility to protect the president. We failed to do so, and it haunted me for years.”

 

Hill on the back of the limousine as Pres. Kennedy is killedWhen asked by an audience member who he thought was responsible for the assassination that changed the course of history, Hill was matter-of-fact. “There were only 3 shots fired from the Texas School Book Depository, from one rifle. There was one assassin, he operated alone, and he was Lee Harvey Oswald.”

 

Even though that awful day in Nov. 1963 was the most dramatic moment of his career, Hill served five presidents, the subject of a book he wrote in 2016 with Lisa McCubbin. During the Library event, she set up questions which Hill, standing at the other end of the stage, would answer. The capacity audience included several Secret Service agents. One of these was Tom Johnson, who introduced Hill. Tom was assigned to the security detail of President Johnson, and there is a famous photo of the President at Cape Kennedy watching the launch of Apollo 11 to the Moon. Tom stands right behind him.

 

Hill, who will be 86 in January 2018, offered a lucid and entertaining account of the presidents he has worked for, beginning with Eisenhower. “We were not his favourite people, but we had a great deal of respect for him.”

 

Hill knew the dangers of a motorcade through the streets of a city as early as 1960, when Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon drove through New York City in a open car. Imagine both top elected officials in the same open car! “It was a mess and I was scared to death,” Hill explained of his feelings.

 

Once Kennedy was elected, the CIA chief assigned him to protect the First Lady, not the president. “I was angry, disappointed and mad,” he said. “I wanted to be where the action is,” but he came to appreciate the time spent with Mrs. Kennedy.

 

He relates an amusing incident while protecting Pres. Johnson. It was on a round-the-world flight, and they landed late at night in the Azores on Christmas Eve. The PX stayed open so the other Secret Service agents and staff could do some Christmas shopping. Hill was standing in front of the plane's ramp when Johnson suddenly appeared in yellow pyjamas. “Hey Clint where is everybody?” he bellowed. Clint explained, and Johnson said “Well I haven't been shopping either, let's go!” Hill said “you could have heard a pin drop when the leader of the free world showed up the PX,” with a robe over yellow pyjamas.

 

Hill clearly did not like Pres. Nixon, so he was relieved when assigned to protect the vice president. First Agnew and then Ford, who became the last president he was assigned to protect. As one can imagine, it was an all-consuming task. “My children pretty much grew up without a father. I was away 90% of the time.”

 

What did the presidents have in common? “They each had a large ego, although not as large as some egos,” he joked, making a sly reference to the current occupant of the Oval Office.

 

For more about the library visit the website: www.lbjlibrary.org

 

Photo copyright by C. Cunningham

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Before Rudolph leads Santa's sleigh this year, he is on a 50-city tour showing off why his red nose saved Christmas. One stop on his tour was Austin, where he delighted an audience consisting mostly of pre-teens and their parents.

 

This is the 4th consecutive year for the theatrical tour, which is based on the 1964 television special.

 

Rudolph with Yukon and HermeyThe theme of misfits runs through the production. Rudolph's pal in this regard is Hermey, played to perfection by actor Nick Ley. It seems curious that the role of Rudolph was played by a female, but it behooves me to say (pun intended) Sarah Errington offered a perfectly believeable young reindeer. The message that misfits have a place in society is a powerful one, which hopefully resonates with many of the young people this production is primarily designed for.

 

The adventures of Rudolph and Hermey with Yukon, a hard-bitten gold and silver miner played by Ben Burch, is a major element of the production. The music during his appearances, which includes a battle with a giant snow monster, seemed a bit overpowering to me and perhaps too loud for all those young ears in the audience. His bellowing dialogue was sometimes lost in the din.

 

A thin Santa was ably played by James Gruessing, but changing his character from the iconic plump Santa struck me as odd. Shouldn't all those kids in the audience be shown what they expect to see?

 

Kudos to the puppeteers who handled everything from small, cute creatures to the 12-foot Abominable Snowman. This nod to the stop-action character of the '64 show was especially appreciated by the parents in the audience.

 

Quibbles aside, the production was flawless, and combined with a dazzling suite of musical tunes that concluded with audience participation in the song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, this was a great way to kick off the Christmas season in Austin.

 

For upcoming performances in other cities, visit the website for the musical:

www.rudolphthemusical.com

 

 

 

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Anne Smarzik of Relics Jewelry & Gift Emporium proudly holds the Judge's Trophy she won last year at the first annual Wassail competition in Bastrop, Texas. This year she won the People's Choice award at the event, while Caledonia Cottage Quilts won the Judge's prize for an alcoholic wassail.

 

Some 15 local businesses in this town east of Austin vied for the coveted trophy, mostly with non-alcoholic versions of this Christmas tradition. Anne told me her recipe has been handed down through five generations of women, and she has daughters to continue the tradition. Her secret recipe, consisting of about 8 ingredients, derives from England where she was born.  

 

Relics is at 925 Main Street in Bastrop. Check out their fascinating store at www.relicsjewelry.com

 

Photo by C. Cunningham

 

 

 

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Actor Tom Hanks is also writer Tom Hanks: it was that persona on display at the Texas Book Fest this month. Speaking to a sold-out audience of more than 1,000 people in Austin, Hanks was here to promote his new book Uncommon Type, a collection of 17 short stories.

 

Hanks said the first book he read for pleasure was The Hobbitt, “and in 6th grade I read Hailey's Hotel.” Later he “fell in love with the plays of Eugene O'Neill and Shakespeare.” All this informs his approach to writing now. “I don't write from a plethora of nostalgia. I write from cynicism.”

 

Hanks elaborated by saying that as a cynic, “I am interested in wrong or strange moments of serendipity in which our lives change. Everything that happens in our lives is about interactions with people who have different ideas. People connection: there is a power of direction that goes along with it. That is the kind of dynamic I relate to.”

 

Surely an inspiration for his collection of short stories was the first such collection he ever read: Who Am I This Time? by Kurt Vonnegut. A thread that runs through each story of Hanks' book is mention of a typewriter, which reflects his own fascination with the machine.

 

It began in 1986 when he went to Israel to make a movie. “I walked by a store that had this Hermes baby typewriter.” He now owns 140 typewriters. “A lot of them are just objects of art from the 1930s to 1960s,” but he does use many of them. “I like the permanence that you get from typing anything. It will last as long as the carvings on Westminster Abbey.”

 

Photo copyright Sun News, by C. Cunningham

 

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Veteran newsman Dan Rather received the Texas Writer Award this month. The award, in the shape of cowboy boots, was given to him in Austin during the annual Texas Book Fest.

 

As the bastion of what many in the country perceive to be the “East coast liberal media” it is not surprising Rather had a lot to say about the current political and social climate in the country. He made a particular point that “patriotism is being confused with nationalism. Patriotism is a deep and abiding love of the country,” Rather explained, “but it includes the recognition we are not perfect. Trying to achieve a more perfect union is patriotism.”

 

On the situation in 2017, where some people won't even talk to their neighbours if they voted for an opposing political party, Rather uttered soothing words. “We need to lower our voices and be empathetic.”

 

Asked “how did we get here?”, Rather said “It has been a slow process.” He harkened back to the 1960s with its high-profile assassinations (Rather was in Dallas in Nov. 1963 and reported on the death of President Kennedy). “It was a difficult decade,” he said, but highlighted not the Watergate scandal of Nixon but instead “Nixon's Southern strategy.”

 

The president, said Rather, devised a way to “suck away the votes of the southern states by appealing to white racists. The word got around that you could win politically” by applying this strategy. Rather traces our current dilemma to that legacy of Nixon.

 

There seems to be a mindset now that returning to some golden age will set things right. “Any thinking person knows there is no going back to the 1950s, which, by the way, wasn't that great,” Rather said.

 

Not surprisingly, Rather attributes the state of the union in November 2017 to President Trump. “The last nine months have seen an acceleration of the rhetoric,” propelling us into what Rather calls a “post-truth political era” where “facts are fungible. There is an effort to convince people truth is not all that important. You don't need a Harvard degree to know that is ridiculous.”

 

Looking forward, Rather poses a fundamental question: “Can we find enough to hold ourselves united to keep this great experiment – the American dream – moving forward?”

 

Rather is author of a new book, What Unites Us.

 

Photo copyright Sun News, by C. Cunningham

 

 

 

 

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For the 31st annual Austin Homes Tour, organisers selected a bakers' dozen of homes ranging from remodelled structures built 75 years ago to brand new dwellings. Sizes ranged widely too, from a tiny 1700 sq feet to a sprawling 6452 sq feet.

 

A new construction that represents the best in functional family living is located at 5010 Timberline Drive, and was done by Tim Brown Architecture. I spoke with the first owner, Kerrie Pennington.

 

One of three ladders leading to the loft“I wanted a farmhouse look,” she said. The house was inspired by an old home her grandparents had “with a windy back staircase. I wanted to recreate the idea of a secret staircase here.” The result is a slide, which her three children (5, 6 and 13) not only slide down but walk up! Another fun feature for the kids is a loft, which can only by reached by ladders that are available in three rooms.

 

One of the kids' bedrooms features a boat-shaped bed. In all there are five bedrooms, and five bathrooms in this two-story house which has a peaked ceiling and 4,568 sq ft.

 

For the adults there is an outdoor fireplace by the pool and outdoor grilling kitchen with a pizza oven. “I love how the outside melts into the inside,” enthused Pennington, who only lived in the house a few months before deciding to relocate to another state.

 

A very different farmhouse concept is located at 108 Parkwood Court in West Austin. Matt Shoberg, the owner and builder, told me he “liked a modern farmhouse: a traditional design with modern features. Big stucco box houses are the norm in Austin, so I went against the grain.”

 

Dining room at the Parkwood houseThe concept was heavily influenced by the fact he has 3 boys. “We got rid of the formal living room: the kitchen is the heart of the home. The children have their own separate spaces but it still feels like we're together.”

 

The house, which retained the core of an existing structure, is the largest I visited at 6230 sq ft. It is by Furman and Keil Architects. At one end is the master bedroom with a flexible room below it, currently outfitted as a gym. This is all connected to the main house with a steel and glass dining room bridge. Leading outdoors directly off the kitchen is an expansive area featuring a sport infinity pool.

 

The most avant-garde design of the suite of 13 houses on the tour is by Alterstudio Architecture at 1103 Constant Springs Drive. I spoke to designer Michael Woodland.

 

“The project was about taking advantage of the opportunities of the site, especially the slope of the ground and the trees. Live oak trees in front create a large front porch. The back of the house is about the view of a wall of trees and glimpses of a creek.”

 

What first strikes one upon entering the front porch is an oak tree which appears to be an organic part of the house. It seems planted in the wood floor, and rises through the ceiling with its thick twin trunks. The roughly oval-shaped opening in the ceiling repeats the contours of the front portion of the house that ones walks under just a few feet away. Another large oak tree rises from the earth a few feet to the right, bordered on three sides by the front of this space-aged dwelling.

 

When I asked Woodland how the shape of the structure and ceiling-opening were decided upon, he rightly attributed it to “whimsy: whatever looked good and felt right.” It certainly works!

 

At only 3600 sq ft this new home seems a bit constricted inside after the breathtaking expansiveness evoked by the huge trees at the entrance. My colleague regarded the interior corridors are so narrow that he felt claustrophobic.

 

The backyard features a pool structured above ground, 15 feet above grade. An opening in the ceiling above the pool echoes that of the front entranceway.

 

With perfect sunny weather on the late October weekend the tour was held, organisers expected some 4,000 people to visit the homes which were dotted across much of greater Austin.

 

The Austin Homes Tour is organised by the Austin Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, a non-profit corporation. AIA Austin serves the professional needs of more than 1,000 architect and associate members. For more information visit the website: www.aiaaustin.org/homes-tour/2017

 

 

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It has been 56 years since Come Blow Your Horn first hit Broadway, but this first-ever play by the venerable Neil Simon has stood the test of time. The production by the Players Guild of Dearborn (in Michigan) is true to the lightly comedic spirit that Simon intended.

 

Sue Delosier, in her role as Mother, stole show with her deft handling of comedic timing and delivery. That comes from a long career spanning 70 productions. One member of the audience said “she was really into her part. The whole audience fell in love with her.”

 

Mother certainly needed a good sense of humour to deal with her eldest son, Alan Baker, played by Alex Gojkov. The role is that of a playboy, a kind of goof-off who enjoys the money from the family business but isn't keen on being associated with it. Perhaps not too surprising as not many 30-year-olds can find much romance in the wax fruit business.

 

Younger son Buddy, played by Graham Dallas, has a lot of one-on-one stage time with Alan, especially in the first half of the play. They played off each other in a very natural manner, making it quite believable they were siblings. Their light banter was engaging.

 

Looking up to his older brother, Buddy decided he wanted to leave the nest and be with Alan. He found the allure of partying all the time to be alluring, but he finally realises he just wants to be a writer. This is Neil Simon's persona in the play.

 

There was a slight wardrobe malfunction in the performance I saw, which turned out to be cute. Allan's girlfriend Peggy (played by Jazzmin Sharara) was not able to get a coat on and walked off the set with one arm in and one out! Both her and Allan's other girlfriend (played by Nicole Harris) were delightfully portrayed. The cast was rounded out by Ron Eagal as Mr. Baker, and Marsha Barnett-Krause as Aunt Gussie. Her one-minute part at the conclusion of the play was perfectly cast for a cameo.

 

The most memorable scene in the play is where Mother tries to make notes during a succession of phone calls, but unable to find a pencil she tries to keep it all in her memory. She gets so confused she can't remember anything coherent. Her young son comes into the room and goes to a small bar where he opens what appears to be a old-fashioned straw dispenser. It is full of pencils! Her reaction was hysterical.

 

The very modest set by Ross Grossman, meant to evoke an apartment in the east Sixties, New York City, set just the right tone for this production. As the first play in the 90th season of the Players Guild of Dearborn, this is a sure-fire hit.

 

Come Blow Your Horn directed by Kori Bielaniec in her debut as a director, ends its run today, October 1, 2017.

 

thanks to Sharon Williams and Dr. Matt Emanuele for their review comments.

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