Review: Stygian Crossing by La Fenice
by David Glen Robinson
Austin remains shut down. As at the beginning of the viral plague, the arts community has suffered disproportionately from government-imposed restrictions as well as the virus. Dancers and actors cannot rehearse in groups, and they cannot perform on stage before an audience; their art is denied. But creatives wiggle, squirm, and create anyway. Austin theatres have all seemingly jumped into online programming to adapt to the creatively chafing restrictions. The most accessible idea has been to present archived videos of past shows. YouTube has been a popular platform for many of our local theatres.
Vortex Repertory Company and The Vortex theatre have gone a little farther by adding original online programming to the mix. They offer The Vortex Virtual Programming, a large series of their archived and new shows, heavy on comedy, in a weekly e-mailout. The Vortex world is HERE, just a click away.
A notable original production in the online series from the Vortex is La Fenice’s Stygian Crossing, a made-for-online performance series in the manner of a Netflix series. La Fenice is an Austin performance group loosely modeled on historical commedia dell’ arte. Full disclosure: this reviewer was a member of its predecessor the Austin Commedia Society, fifteen years ago and more. Stygian Crossing is the name of the apartment complex in which the episodic story is set, and the name is a wry play on Greek myth’s River Styx, crossed by the dead as they enter Hades. It's a comment on silly and meaningless Austin apartment complex names, befitting the dry, often ironic, humor of La Fenice.
Stygian Crossing is produced under standards imposed by the government as part of the coronavirus shutdown. Except for two actors who share a household, only a single person is on camera at any time, in keeping withsocial distancing standards, A few dialogues are held at doorways; we notice immediately that the doorway between the two speakers is not the same. The magic of film editing keeps the actors in isolation and pastes together the dialogue. The only observable violation is that masks are not worn, even outside, an ironic twist on commedia dell’ arte and its famously masked characters. Altogether, Covid rules give the show a heightened degree of creative freshness.
La Fenice elevates improvisational work and applies it in Stygian Crossing, not always successfully. Widely varying talent levels are much more obvious without supporting actors, placing greater burdens of story and performance on all. But these differences also give the show a stronger patchwork-quilt impression and a greater sense of Forrest Gump’s chocolate box.
The character of Jahn Darling (pronounced with initial “Y”), and played by Aaron Johnson, leads off every episode. He's a low-key character pursuing a from-home radio career on the low-energy left side of the dial and trying desperately to work up some enthusiasm for it. Yes, he’s a depressive. He reports yesterday’s news and the weather by looking out the window. He receives no comments on his web page. He is so low that his segments are in black and white, the only such in the series. He seeks inspiration for a career change with day drinking—Scotch whisky, and lots of it—which introduces the perils of that activity as a boredom reliever during our plague lockdown.
The series slumped in the second episode (of six total) and might have failed if not for the high talents and brilliant characterizations of Adam Wade Rodriguez as Wastelord, the Goth/Satanist warlock who always wears the eyeliner of his god Ozzy Osborne. Wastelord paints his own abstracted skull and bones murals on his walls, joins rituals of blood-drinking, can’t pay the rent, and suffers demon possession by a shark toy that infests his colon and speaks out of his anus. We strain to see how the exorcism comes out. Wastelord is one of many ongoing characters Rodriguez inhabits.
Wastelord also entrains the segment of the weekly Zoom meetings of the coven of amateur middle-class warlocks. They argue over where to find fresh blood to drink. The warlock leader, a female played by Kaci Beeler, says she gives blood once a month. That stops the meeting. The males warn hernever to bring that up again. The warlock Zoom meeting features cameos by a group including Toby Minor and Rudy Ramirez, who channeled Boccacio in creating his Covidecameron online series with The Vortex.
Musician Julie Moore plays music in all her segments, never better and more beautifully than in the season finale. In it she performs Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” on a plinky-plink toy piano and sings the lyrics on a kazoo, all of it over a montage of the other characters. She creates a memorable, treasured moment.
The series resolution comes about through Jahn Darling, who envisions a career in chronicling the lives of all the bizarre characters in the apartment complex. The insight is low-key to the point of invisibility and amounts to all the season’s segments which have come before. Perhaps the season was simply the boozy ruminations of Jahn Darling. The premise that it was about the varied goings-on in an apartment complex in lockdown from the coronavirus, in which the occupants don’t interact directly much and don’t know what’s going on with each other. Perhaps it was actually all in the imagination of Jahn Darling, played by Aaron Johnson, artistic director of La Fenice, in a work conceived, directed, and edited with Kate Meehan and Adam Rodriguez.
All are encouraged to decide for themselves, just a few clicks away. It's free, though donations are gratefully accepted. Go to YouTube, where you can search "Stygian Crossing" (episodes are available singly or as a compendium), or go to the La Fenice website.
(To donate go to Venmo.com and use @digitalhatpass -- all proceeds go directly to the artists involved in the making of this production.)
July 11 - July 30, 2020
Everywhere, TX, 78700
La Fenice presents a new comedy web series, and we’re airing all 6 episodes in the first season!
Please support these fine folks by contributing to Venmo: @digitalhatpass.
All proceeds benefit the actors and artists who made this film.