Live theater and magic make for a well-worn comparison, but in Capital T Theatre’s latest production, it’s our assumption that we already know the story that reveals something new.
Prolific Chicago-based playwright Mickle Maher’s “It is Magic” premiered earlier this year in the Windy City, and this first Austin production, at Hyde Park Theatre, shimmers with authenticity. This probably owes a lot to its being, at its heart, a love letter to and a performance report for the theater itself.
Maher’s comedy places us in the basement rehearsal hall of a struggling community theater. Upstairs, an unoriginal production of “Macbeth” is going about as well as it can. But down below, Deb (Katherine Catmull) is holding auditions for her first play — an adult adaptation of The Three Little Pigs that she has written herself. The actor up for the role of the wolf, Tim (John Christopher), begins the play with a bloviated monologue, and Catmull’s and Christopher’s interplay as director and auditioner immediately captures the imbalanced and self-importance of an endless audition to hilarious effect. Deb’s scowling sister Sandy (Rebecca Robinson) also wants the role, though, so the impasse can only be broken by “I’m a cool dad” artistic director, Ken (Robert Pierson).
The play’s title moves in regular circulation throughout the dialogue, most often arrived in the Deb’s voice as she pleads for Ken to make good on his promise to produce her play. Theater is magic, she insists, it lives inside the walls of the building itself. Deb’s passion and desperate willingness to scale back and to self-fund her play are altogether heartwarming. This play’s humor is at its zenith when that sincerity contrasts the very bad play Deb has adapted out of the three little pigs. Pedantic and moralizing, it’s a relief to laugh at well-meaning attempt to humanize the big bad wolf.
It’s opening night for “Macbeth,” of course, so drinks are poured and lips loosen. The play proceeds until a third, somewhat feral sister arrives. Liz (in a crisp performance by Jill Blackwood) wields cosmic energy, and when she shows up out of the hurlyburly itself, she changes the play’s relationship to reality.
It’s easy to forget that the original Elizabethan audiences for the Scottish play were likely taking the magic seriously. Director Mark Pickell guides “It Is Magic” through its charming series of reversals and paradigm flips by keeping theater’s secret powers of the unexplainable in plain view. Shuttering lamps, stage deaths, and choreographic incantations all pleasantly remind us that there is pure joy and inarticulable value in being in a dark room with the impossible. Designers Lowell Bartholomee (sound) and Patrick Anthony (lighting) transform the intimate space from plausible rehearsal hall to a place where the veil between realms has grown thin.
Variations of the phrase “it is magic,” repeated as often as they are, become a catechism to reminder that we don’t go to the theater to be too smart for the implausible.
In a lesser play, the contemptible artistic director would be revealed as the big bad wolf and would obliterate all vulnerable persons with mirth. Crucially, however, Maher’s play recognizes that that’s not how artistic institutions work. It’s an irony that undermines our sympathies in the story of the three pigs, but “successful” theaters are often the ones that succumb to the allure of the brick house.
At its most poignant, this production challenges the audience to ask if there should be such a thing as a house that can’t be blown down.
“It Is Magic” runs through Nov. 23 at Hyde Park Theater. capitalt.org/wp/