Cast chemistry shines in Hyde Park’s ‘John’

From the first time they staged “Body Awareness”, Annie Baker plays have become a regular event at Hyde Park Theatre, and each time they’re one of the highlights of the season. To see Ken Webster direct a Baker play is to watch a master at his best, and now audiences get a chance to do just that, with their latest production, “John”, a simple but satisfying tale of a couple’s experience at a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, PA. After their acclaimed production of the Pulitzer-prize winning “The Flick”, Webster and company return with another insightful look at modern society, this time taking a look at relationships, and how this generation relates to the ones that came before. It features a fine cast of Hyde Park newcomers and regulars alike, whose skills meld into a lovely tapestry or humor and pathos.

There are few writers working in the medium that capture the voice of the modern generation better than Pulitzer-prize winner Annie Baker. As she’s shown in masterpieces such as “Aliens”, “Circle Mirror Transformation”, and the award-winning “The Flick”, her characters’ dialogue seems particularly contemporary, while never feeling stilted or stage. The flow and ebb of conversations play out in ways they would in real-world situations, but they still serve the piece dramatically, a tight-wire act of writing that very few can hit. In “John”, she may have succeeded in this more than any of her pieces before, as each of the characters feel rounded, real, thanks in major part to Baker’s sharp, intelligent writing, that shows us how the three generations we see on stage are very different, but in their way, shockingly similar.

As “John” settles into its second act, a delight comes over one as you realize what Baker has given the audience: a chance to experience the lives of three generations of women. As the three women talk, there’s no judgement, no shame, just three powerful women talking about past loves, lives, and their place in the universe. It’s carried with gusto by the three performers, with Lana Dietrich in particular utilizing her amazing gift for reactive comedy. It’s simple, and it feels real, and there’s a comfort between the actors that’s evident from word one.

The true accomplishment in “John” doesn’t come from any particular performance, but instead in the way each performer works together. Zac Thomas and Catherine Grady feel like a real couple from the moment they walk on stage, with their eccentricities and squabbles coming off as the result of years together, and not forced character choices. In much the same way, the friendship between Katherine Catmull’s Kitty and Lana Dietrich’s Genevieve is instantly believable, with the two bouncing off each other with aplomb, with Catmull treating Dietrich’s loonyness with the kind of charm you reserve for your closest loved ones. Each character introduced adds to each scene, providing different dimensions with each conversation, all coming together to create a whole that comes together beautifully by the time we reach play’s end.

Hyde Park Theatre is one of Austin’s most consistent companies, and when they’re producing the works of Annie Baker, even more so. It’s no surprise, then, that their latest “John”, is yet another hit, a smartly directed look at several generations of women brought together at a bed and breakfast, which combines a modern, active script, and a cast with amazing chemistry. It obvious that director Ken Webster has a lot of affection for the works of Annie Baker, and it’s a relationship that works wonders. “John” may have a two and a half hour running time, but you’ll barely feel a minute of it, thanks in equal measure to the authenticity of Baker’s work, and Webster’s smooth direction of his game cast.

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