Summer Theatre in Austin: “Constellation” and “Jesus Christ Superstar”


Although the hot humid days in Austin rarely turn into cool comfortable summer nights, we got lucky a week ago when we saw choreographer Sally Jacques’s company Blue Lapis Light present their “site-specific aerial dance performance” Constellation between two federal buildings downtown. The typically enervating humidity lifted, caught between the storm systems that have kept the city green this spring and early summer. A soft breeze rustled our programs and flicked through our eyelashes, open in wonder at dancers stepping off the sides of buildings to soar into the air above us.

The audience sat rapt on the plaza between two completely quotidian government buildings, their impersonal, unaesthetic 1960s architecture suddenly transformed by the presence of bodies rigged to ropes, costumed in flowing, gossamer materials that draped and flattered their movement through the air. With sleeves and leggings fluttering behind them like wings, the dancers took leaps of faith off the tops of these buildings, diving, catching themselves, swinging into the air, pushing off window ledges to keep up their momentum, and reaching out towards each other as the air streams moved them first closer then farther away.

Resonant, crystal clear music—from soulful arias to resounding instrumentals, from classical turns to vaguely New Age stylings—lifted the performers’ spirits and our own as the rich sound seemed part of the current that held the dancers in the air. They flew in unison and in counterpoint to each other, complementing one another’s movement with their own strength and grace. I was riveted by the shear feat of their actions; what kind of courage does it take to trust your harness and cables enough to step off the roof of a building, lit like an angel, into a void, hoping this lowly technology will catch you as the audience tries to hold you up with its collective breath?

Part of the evening’s stimulating energy, in fact, comes from such shared adrenalin. The audience comes to trust that the performers are safely held by their harnesses, ropes, and carabiners, and strong enough to negotiate the space between themselves and the building, and the building and the ground, with the grace and style of dancers performing on the ground. Constellation changes your perspective. The vertical side of a building comes to seem horizontal; the wall begins to look like the floor, as the dancers careen gracefully about. The giddy feeling of losing all sense of foreground/background, floor/ceiling, or performer/audience transported me into a weightless, freeing sense of utter, communal presence in time and space.

The brief performance toggles between two sets of performers commanding the sides of the two facing buildings. One is considerably taller than the other. When dancers first approach the higher roof’s edge and make their leap off the side, they’re accompanied by tiny bright pin-lights, each attached to its own miniature parachute. These lights descend alongside the dancers, marking the distance between them and the roof and the ground below. The light breeze picked up these little stars and carried some of them toward the audience and dropping others, unseen, into what would be the wings of the stage, if this weren’t an exposed, outdoor plaza.

In fact, part of the pleasure of watching the dancers fly comes from seeing their colleagues standing on belay below them, supporting their movements while firmly rooted on the ground. The technology of the dancers’ flying is always exposed, but that doesn’t diminish the apparent miracle of flight we witness above. The belayers’ presence underlines a structure of support that’s necessary, if hidden, in any performance.

Nonetheless, fear and daring outline the dancers’ beautiful images. Much of the movement simply concerns the trajectory of their flight, as they swing back and forth across the building’s face. Pairs of dancers fly toward each other, not quite close enough to touch; the only plot or action concerns their subtle effort to gather the momentum they need to swing closer, to finally grasp a finger or a hand as they connect momentarily through space. Coming together and swinging apart with a grace that seems strangely human, even quotidian—given the virtuosity and courage such aerial dancing must require—forms a metaphor for human relationships: our desire to connect as each of us flies through our own biosphere, sometimes making contact, sometimes flying apart.

The tallest building’s honeycombed façade reminded me of the fallen World Trade Center towers in Manhattan. Constellation rewrites the tragic image of people falling from the burning buildings. Instead of plummeting desperately to certain death, the dancers leap from the buildings and find themselves caught, suspended in an acrobatics of hope that eases my memory of those other, desperate falls to earth.

In Constellation’s last act, two dancers catch each other in the air, and intertwine their limbs across a cable that bisects the plaza diagonally from one building to the other. Slowly, inexorably, followed by a cautious spotlight, the dancers lower themselves down the cable toward the ground. They end in a vertical drop into the center of the plaza, holding each other as they touch down. The other dancers run to surround them and the audience stands to applaud, captivated by the magic of their flight and their return.

Constellation and earlier site-specific Blue Lapis Light productions is public art at its best, transforming public space used to service impersonal and sometimes oppressive government systems into hopeful, beautiful, aesthetic, and emotional scenes of joy.

Jesus Christ Superstar

Dave Steakley, the artist head of the Zach Scott Theatre here in Austin, consistently demonstrates his talent as one of the most creative, well-rounded directors I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch working. As the director of eight of the nine show in his eclectic season, Steakley’s boundless energy and imagination always deliver, and his willingness to take political stands with his production concepts always impresses. In 2006 – 2007 alone, Steakley directed a rousing production of Rocky Horror Picture Show; an entirely campy, spot-on funny Noel Coward withPresent Laughter; Richard Greenberg’s Tony-winning Take Me Out, and will soon direct the stage version of the Disney film hit, High School Musical. Only An Almost Holy Picture, Heather MacDonald’s moving one-man play meditation, will be directed by someone else (Robert Faires, the arts editor of the local weekly The Chronicle and a regular Austin actor in his own right). (See Zach Scott’s web site for details on the season and the theatre.)

Zach’s latest show, Jesus Christ Superstar, is another risky Steakley extravaganza that somehow manages to get everything right, providing a transporting, breathtaking, thought-provoking evening of theatre. He sets the musical in contemporary Mexico City, and employed a translator (Álvaro Cerviño) to create Spanish lyrics for about 50% of the show. Steakley tries admirably to speak to the widest possible local audience (and Austin’s Latin/a and Chicano/a and African-American population is significant), not by presenting token plays by people of color, but by bringing new perspectives to any production he undertakes. He often uses color-blind casting, but also always casts with an eye toward how race and ethnicity might make a difference in a production. All-white casts are rare at Zach, which demonstrates Steakley’s commitment to an inclusive theatre for the city.

Steakley’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar (Jesucristo Superestrella) utterly rocks, from its score to its dance numbers to its interpretations of the story and its contemporary resonances. The first of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s megamusicals, the sung-through show tells the story of Jesus’s rise and fall, including Judas’s betrayal and the machinations of various religious statesmen who for political reasons needed him dead. Transported to Mexico City, the story becomes a parable about the personal and political costs of celebrity in an age when politicians compete for visibility with galvanizing leaders from all walks of life. In Steakley’s vision, the production also addresses the pressing social need for belief and for faith (which is in fact the theme of Zach Scott Theatre’s season this year). He captures the zeal for leaders who will galvanize a population that wants change to happen, and the ease with which public hopes are raised and dashed.

Played by the handsome, soulful Joseph Melendez, Jesus in this production is a Mexican with a following. A panoply of people attends to his homilies, hanging on his words as he treats them with warmth and compassion. The crowd includes a Chicano in a zoot suit and another in the straw hat, white undershirt, and jeans of the farm worker; a young white woman in the zippers and black leather and harshly died black hair of a Goth or a punk; another young woman whose look resonates with 60s American hippies; and other performers, men and women, white and of color, who cycle through variously costumed incarnations of Mexican history, ritual, and iconography. The scene reads as global and transnational (and a bit transhistorical), while firmly rooted in the specifics of Mexican culture.

Judas is a white man here, played with raw, cutting energy by John Pointer. Pointer is a musician and composer, rather than an actor. Steakley uses his performance experience as a “human beatbox” to great effect here; Pointer uses his mouth as a percussion device to create sound effects that punctuate his scenes and bridge to his songs. His modified Mohawk haircut (his head isn’t shaved but a thicker band of hair stands up along the middle of his head) and his pasty white face contrast nicely with Melendez’s rich carmel-colored skin tones and his rich black hair and short beard.

The two render the high stakes of Judas’s friendship with Jesus more tenderly and passionately than in any production I’ve seen. When Judas accuses Jesus of setting up his betrayal, Judas shares torrents of pain that somehow never seem overplayed. Losing his friend as well as his leader, Pointer renders Judas’s emotions immediate, unrefined, and unfiltered, capped with a kind of howl of male passion for a brother/friend. Melendez, too, acts with physically invested expressions of pain, capturing Jesus’s doubt in his abilities and the meaning of his ministry.

Theresa Medina performs Mary Magdalene with open-hearted, watchful intelligence. Her beautiful rich voice captures all the soulful melancholy of “Everything’s Alright” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” the two songs that grace her role. Medina sings the second song entirely in Spanish, yet for an English-speaker (even one, I’d venture to say, not familiar with the show), her confusion, helplessness, and fear are completely clear. Rather than the ethereal or hyper-sexualized version of the role offered by other performers, Medina makes Mary Jesus’s shelter, his rock, his home, without losing the strenght of her own presence. All three leads create nuanced, original, unforgettable performances.

The whole production requires taxing physical commitments from its cast. For example, when Jesus is beaten after his arrest, Pilate’s henchmen stretch his arms across the stage with rope, leaving him at the center of a large, tall, rectangle white box of fluorescent light topped with a black ladder, which serves variously as Jesus’s cross and Judas’s perch, from which he cynically watches the action. With Jesus’s arms outstretched to his side and his torso and legs bare, the rest of the cast runs on from the voms to slap Jesus with red “blood,” as the musicians create the sound of whips lashing his body. Like so many of Steakley’s choices, the effect is both efficient and effective, implicating the apostles and his followers in Jesus’s suffering, while the blood they slap across his body comes to resemble the beaten pulp of his flesh.

Steakley directs with almost gestic vision. When Judas betrays Jesus to Caiaphas, he receives a coin that he fingers disdainfully, knowing that money is hardly compensation for his pending private loss and the upcoming public cataclysm. As Judas sits center stage, contemplating the suicide that eventually follows, more coins fall on him from the catwalks, raining down one by one, single raindrops laden with the cost of his action. Somehow, the coins fall in tempo with the music, emphasizing the melody of Judas’s plaint in “Damned for All Time/Blood Money.” It’s a stunning theatrical moment.

The equivalences carry the production’s political grace-notes. When Jesus is arrested, two men costumed as border patrol agents carry him away. Pilate wears a conventional Western business suit and tie, and gives the thumbs up sign smugly to the audience as he and Caiaphas plot Jesus’s end. Pilate looks a lot like Bush the 2nd here, or any other politician who’s easily corrupted by power and pragmatism. Herod’s vaudeville-style number is staged as a campy theatrical performance by a popular Mexican wrestling star and his court of bodacious women in bathing suits and sashes. When Jesus dies, the company surrounds his body wearing the black clothing and white skeleton masks that signify the Day of the Dead. The production is rich with the semiotics of Mexico and its relationship with the US, as well as with references to contemporary celebrity and the empty hysteria of fandom across entertainment, political, and religious spheres.

I grew up knowing all the words to the original cast album recording of Jesus Christ Superstar, the one Lloyd Webber and Rice released before they ever mounted a production. More than 35 years later, I still remember each verse and refrain, each of its many shifts in tone and musical style. Hearing half of the lyrics in Spanish in the Zach Scott Theatre production deepened my experience of the musical, adding a moving poignancy to a visually awe-inspiring, physically commanding, emotionally and politically resonant production.

This, thankfully, again, is the joy of theatre: watching talented artists transform what we thought we knew into something both differently familiar and strange, into something we’ve seen before, offered to us in a completely fresh way. That’s my kind of theatre.

Proud to live in Austin, Texas,
The Feminist Spectator

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