Once a year, a theatre production of the Weird Sisters Collective briefly appears like a friendly comet in the evenings in Austin, Texas. Like comets, they're "wanderers," at least in recent years -- you need to be alert for news of them each July or August, because the venues for their productions have changed from year to year.
They had planned to do the Jacobean drama The Roaring Girl by Dekker and Middleton, under the guidance of their friend Dr. Lizz Ketterer, but Ketterer's unexpected death in February left them adrift. They turned to comfort theatre -- Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, one of those reliable pieces that, as Robert Faires of the Austin Chronicle once commented, comes around on Austin stages with the regularity of clockwork.
Faires' observation was accurate. A Midsummer Night's Dream is familiar and beloved for its airy fantasy and good-hearted mockery of the predicaments of love. We all enjoy white magic, whether it involves transformation of brash tradesman Bottom into an ass or transformation of love-besotted young persons into fools. Plus, it's the shortest of Shakespeare's plays.
The Sisters' flight to familiar fantasy received a sharp shock after work on it had begun. The young, attractive and promising actress Senait Fessahaye, cast as Hippolyta, died suddenly. Fessahaye had appeared as the conjur woman invented by John Carroll for his adaptation of Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, done by his Weird City Theatre Company (no direct relation to these Weird Sisters). In Charles P. Stites' staging of Early Girl for his Palindrome Theatre she had played a vulnerable young woman brought up in a brothel. She disappeared from Austin and from this life as suddenly as any comet.
Despite the darkness of these circumstances, the Weird Sisters bring their familiar irreverent attitude again to their theatre work. Women all and feminists of either -- excuse me, whatever sexual persuasion, in their collaborative direction of the piece they choose to portray one of the love pairs fleeing to the woods as young women devoted to one another ("Lysander" smoothly and without the least incongruity becomes "Lysandra" in the cheerily positive portray by Hollie Baker). As always with them and in direct contradiction to Shakespearean 'original practice,' men's roles are taken by female actors, ably assisted by the indulgent audience's willingness to suspend disbelief.
Vicki Yoder as boastful Bottom the weaver is like money in the bank for this company, a strong presence with a sense of fun, fully absorbed in her character. The real stand-out, however, is the doyenne of this collective, Susan Gayle Todd. Aptly, she is Peter Quince the carpenter, the captain of this imaginary company of rude mechanicals. Todd wrote last year's script of Sycorax, a fully imagined account of the shadowy figure of the witch-mother of monster Caliban of The Tempest. This Peter(!) Quince is a vigorous, convincingly pot-bellied Texas rancher type with Texas stride and Texas twang, earnestly limited and used to command. Quince parcels out the roles to the comical mechanicals, keeps them encouraged and focused, and all in all, is a natural leader. During the always amusing final act with the mechanicals' reenactment of the tragical story of Pyramus and Thisbe, Quince stands at the platform deep in center stage, the very picture of any theatre director intently following an opening night performance and an opening night audience.
Part of the fun is seeing how the Sisters send up the familiar figures of the story. Favorites for me are Rachel Briles as the emphatic, frustrated Helena, baffled by the sudden transformation of other suitors, Rae Petersen as an unexpectedly sombre Oberon, king of the fairies, and co-director Christa French as queen of the fairies Titania, with assurance and mastery of the rhythms of the text. There are plenty of bit parts that sparkle, however, including all of the mechanicals.
A slide show before the opening presents a mischievous twist of the tale to newly-declared presidential candidate Rick Perry, this state's Governor with Chiseled Features and Good Hair. Adroit mockups of newspapers and magazines projected at stage center suggest a back story for Duke Theseus, including allegations that he was photographed with a male staff member at a nude beach. The fakes are entertaining and the concept elicits a chuckle, along with a suggested explanation of why the Duke (Noelle Fitzsimmons) is so insistent on marrying an apparently less than enchanted Hippolyta (Lauren Schultz). Overall, however, gender bending in the Sisters' staging is largely irrelevant; mortals will be fools, regardless of their sexual orientation, and we're free to laugh at their follies and pretensions.
Their production at Center Stage on Real Street is literally a dark one, with many of the upstage scenes taking place in shadows. It appeared that this was due more to technical shortcomings than to directors' intent. Center Stage may simply not have had enough stage lighting instruments and controls to do the job.
The Sisters appear to have awakened the media this year to the very Austin nature of the collective, which can only be good for them and for all of us. Michael Graupmann, arts editor of the newly established website www.austin.culturemap.com, did interviews and a profile, and Matt Largey of the KUT news staff interviewed him about it (so two male talking heads were complimenting the collective but ironically at the same time providing subtle reinforcement of feminists' view that men have more influence than appropriate). Elizabeth Cobbe, the experienced theatre reviewer at the Austin Chronicle, may have provided some gender balance in the coverage with her review of August 25.