Austin is crawling with actors. Some are talented, some are dreamers and some are deluded. There are plenty of jobs for waiters and store clerks who shed those mundane jobs in the day and take to the stage in little black-box theaters when night falls. There are lots of those little theaters and they create an environment which is very supportive of the fringe and avant-garde theater which flourishes in Austin to an extent I have seen nowhere else. It's even spawned a major fringe theater festival called FronteraFest.
One of those little theaters is Salvage Vanguard in the trendy French Place neighborhood of East Austin, where I went last night for the opening of Direct Object, an interesting showcase of performance art which won "Best of the Fest" at FronteraFest in 2008. Direct Object is the creation of the DA! Theatre Collective under the direction of Heather Huggins. Huggins and her troupe are following the model of her teacher Andrei Droznin in a style which can best be described as visual storytelling with a particular emphasis on the use of prop objects as the focal point of short scenes. It combines elements of pantomime and improvisation and perhaps even the Russian circus. The result is certainly a fringe theater experience, but unlike so much experimental theater, it is tight, disciplined and actually entertaining.
Direct Object is made up of 13 scenes, all performed with no sets and minimal costuming, and each having a single focal object which fills many roles. There is one principal actor in each scene and they don't speak in any significant way, but their performance is accompanied by sound effects which add substantially to the realism of their efforts. In each scene the actor takes his object — a picture frame, a trunk, a back-pack, a bungee cord, etc. — and works with it and expressive body movement to create a scene or convey a concept. It's very physical and looks like hard work and the object may play a number of different roles during the course of the scene. A lot of credit also has to be given to the sound effects players who worked from the side of the stage and were very inventive in producing the perfect sounds to help define the objects, rather like foley artists in the old days of radio.
Most of the scenes in <i>Direct Object</i> were well done, but a couple of the performers really stood out. Lisa del Rosario's extremely animated style and precise movements really made her two scenes work, especially a short scene towards the end with a backpack. Jude Hickey was a dynamic presence in both of his scenes, but "Frame" dragged on a little long and didn't manage to achieve the suspension of disbelief it really needed. Wallis Currie-Wood is the youngest member of the troupe, credited as an intern, but her scene with a Hello Kitty lunchbox was inventive and engaging. Also excellent was Stephanie Denson's "Travelogue" which made very creative use of a steamer trunk and had some of the best sound effects.
As a piece of ensemble performance art, Direct Object was both provocative and entertaining and some parts were surprisingly funny. To make the audience laugh without words and without resorting to slapstick takes a lot of talent and DA!'s performers managed to pull it off a number of times. To a certain extent the scenes were a bit like training exercises, but they still kept my interest and didn't leave me feeling cheated without plot or narrative or dialogue.
Direct Object runs through the 26th and DA! is also touring local schools with their children's show Heron and Crane. They plan to bring Andrei Droznin himself to Austin next year.