Review #1 of 2: The Outsider by Beyond August Productions
by Michael Meigs
A double irony attends Beyond August Productions' staging of The Outsider. The titular character, Ned Newley, is not an outsider at all. He's the lieutenant governor of a small, unidentified, perhaps New England state. Ned is far and away the smartest man in the room, but he didn't get that position through the exertions of politics. He was drafted as a presumptive non-entity, the state treasurer, strangled with shyness and practically invisible to the public eye. But when a hands-on governor gets his hands on the wrong staffers and is forced by scandal to resign . . .
And, God bless him, though he's been well below the radar since before the pandemic, Michael Stuart is no outsider in the long history of Austin's live theatre. His was one of the first memorable faces I recall from the early days of this platform—big and gentle, a man with expressive eyes and an often bewildered face, Stuart was instantly recognizable; he could have stepped out of MGM's 1930's character stable. He was terrifically active from the 1990's, well before I got to town in 2007, often cited and repeatedly lauded at Austin's B. Iden Payne theatre awards, much of the time for work with Austin Playhouse. I vividly remember their 2010 production of The 39 Steps in which he and David Stahl played the two clowns who riffed through dozens of characters. Stuart got a remarkable role at Zach Theatre in 2012 as whimsical Uncle Charlie in August: Osage County. He was quietly pleased by the enthusiastic reception, especially for the wonderful final-act transformation that drew applause. Stuart, with twenty years or more of Austin thespian experience, was also bemused by some of the comments by Zach theatre patrons: "Some of them asked if I'd I ever been onstage before."
The relative outsiders, in fact, are the relatively younger company founders, who struck up fast friendships within the cast of another August: Osage County, the 2017 City Theatre production directed by Andy Berkovsky. That bonding experience became the new company Beyond August Productions, and the core members are onstage in this cast, just as they were in their October 2021 Wonder of the World, co-produced at Trinity Street Players with the by-then-homeless City Theatre Theatre. (No wonder Berkovsky was there at opening night; no wonder the company recruited City Theatre stalwart Jeff Heinkle to direct their shenanigans!)
The young company searched out a new venue, a remarkable feat in these space-starved times. The Rosette Theatre is an intimate theatre space within the Baker building, formerly an AISD property, just east of Guadalupe at about 40th street. A scarlet neon sign and neon streamers make the location on the north side of the building easy to find. The space has three rows of about fourteen seats on the floor, a raised stage, and a balcony that can accommodate at least twenty more. The venue's management has also made it available for concerts by the Austin Classical Guitar Society.
Paul Slade Smith's neatly crafted comedy from 2015 makes fun of the politics of image. Tim Blackwood plays the ethics-free political operative who saw Lt. Gov. Newley stammer and panic for five minutes as his swearing-in ceremony was live on national television. An opportunity! thinks this inside-the-Beltway slicker. Here's a man with whom the average voter can identify and support! That was probably a pretty good joke back in 2015; in today's world of Hershel Walker, Dr. Oz, He Who Shall Not Be Named, and his minions, the funnies have turned distinctly bittersweet.
The Outsider is full of zing, however, with characters bouncing off one another like steel balls rebouding inside in a pinball machine. Patrick Wheeler is Ned's staff aide (in fact, the only staffer of the newly appointed governor), Jill Klopp Turner is a sharp-witted television journalist annoyed at being on her network's short leash, and Robyn Conner is the airheaded temp brought in to do the filing who happily and cluelessly immerses herself in the intricate political maneuvering. Great talent and sincerity is required to play a fool, and Conner delights every time she intrudes upon the proceedings.
Shannon Embry, memorable as the madcap clown-therapist in Wonder of the World, here is a shrewd pollster orchestrating focus groups and feeding data back to the rapidly developing campaigns (the first one for a friendly face to take the lieutenant governor position, the other an over-the-horizon lob to bring Ned Newley onto the national scene). And then there's Darren Scharf as short-spoken cameraman A.C. Petersen, the closest thing to an average American voter in this circus. A.C. will be the pivot for the playwright's lesson on the role of government. The concept is so simple and self-evident that its restatement in these troubled times is a reminder of the absurdity of the culture wars and zealotry that wag the tails of today's media.
Michael Stuart's comic delivery is close to spiritual. His character quivers with stage fright, yet has an intricate grasp of the facts, figures, and statistics of government operations. Gov. Ned Newley is a genius devoid of charisma, a problem solver who's afraid to lift a finger. Despite his looming stature, Stuart makes a Newley who'd rather crawl into a hole than face a television camera. Ned's buffeted and wary but eventually encouraged by the steady stream of polling statistics, and those conflicted feelings play across Stuart's face and physique. The Outsider would be a cheerful, funny evening's entertainment without him; with him, it's exhilarating.
October 01 - October 16, 2022
3908 Avenue B
Austin, TX, 78751
October 1 - 16, 2022
Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.
Rosette Theatre, Baker Center, Austin
Ticket $25 general admission, $35 reserved, plus fees, available HERE