Review: The Little Mermaid by Scottish Rite Theater
by Michael Meigs
The excitement of theatre vibrates in the air in the classic space of the Scottish Rite Children's Theatre in central Austin. On Saturdays, Sundays, and some mid-week performance days a bubbling crew of 3-to-8-year-olds occupies the mats in the center of the auditorium, while parents and less daring children occupy the conventional theatre seats. The energy level is as high as any Broadway opening night.
This is a volatile crowd, in the literal sense of a bunch of individuals ready to fly up, off and around in any direction. Before each SRCT show an actor shows up as crowd-pleaser and crowd-tamer, with a vivacious presentation. Laura Ray, clad for her titular role as the mermaid, welcomes everyone with a bounce and a big smile and big, big gestures. She teaches the kids a song and happily outlines the rules. Then she gets them up on their feet to apply to their backsides the imaginary "bottom glue" to keep them in place as action animates the stage and slips quicksilver along aisles and around the audience. She gets the grown-ups up, as well, to pledge in unison to abstain from flash photography.
And then we're rolling!
SRCT keeps it simple, keeps it colorful and keeps it moving. The four actors and actor/stage manager Ariana Khan are funny and appealing. Characterization is broad and comic. The cast frequently speaks directly to the audience.
Curly-headed Laura Ray is slim and lithe enough to be a big sister. Her wiggly swim motions are lovely. Handsome Scott Daigle portrays both the prince rescued by our fishy ingenue and the grumpy undersea king. He can do that with no more than a change of cloak and crown, thanks to the fact that every one in the audience knows the story.
Bridget Farias as the mermaid's crustacean companion is a best buddy and a voice of conscience, vivid and a lot bigger than life in her remarkable costume. Adapter D. Heath Thompson gives us a clumpy, big mean ole witch in fright wig and titanic, scheming selfishness. Thompson managed with grace and humor a funny moment when one tiny girl in the audience declared emphatically, "She's a man!!"
In the busily amusing 35 minutes or so of the show the mermaid gets her lovely legs through the deal with the witch, attracts the prince, and with the help of the children's singing foils the witch. She regains her voice and everything turns out happily ever after.
SRCT plays are bright collaborations by familar Austin talents. Farias, a director in her own right, is theatre operations manager for the Emily Ann theatre in Wimberley. Daigle starred last summer in SRT's As You Like It in a performance recognized with a "Best Leading Actor" nomination for Austin's B. Iden Payne awards. Laura Ray appeared in City Theatre's The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
D. Heath Thompson, an indefatigable scriptwriter and actor, adapted that C.S. Lewis piece at the City Theatre, regularly scripts for SRCT, appears onstage around Austin, and this weekend is running a late-night fan parody of the He-Man animated cartoon that he co-authored.
Austin puppetmaster Connor Hopkin devised fishy friends for the witch, and Austin musikmeister Michael McKelvey provided the tunes. And as always at the SRCT the Kelso family were involved -- mom Rita with the costumes and daughter/actor Gwen with the direction, shared with Farias.
The Scottish Rite crew knows what they're doing in children's theatre, and they have a gem of a theatre to do it in, thanks to the Austin valley order of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. The gorgeous painted backdrops date from the late 19th century and are a dazzling demonstration of the art of scenic perspective painting. The hall is a historic building, originally a community center for Germanic Texans, right on West 18th street in the center of Austin, a stone's throw away from the Bob Bullock History Museum.
SRCT tickets are good value for the money -- $10 for adults and $7 for children. The theatre has its own parking lot, a further convenience. The lot fills up quickly when a show is going on, so plan to get there at least half an hour before showtime.
A note about possible complications of theatre-going on a Saturday: I cut it a little too close for the 10 a.m. performance on the morning when UT was playing a Florida team at 11 a.m., just blocks away. The SRCT lot was full.
Facing the alternative of paying the $8 to $10 demanded of football fans elsewhere that morning, I decided to come back the next day. I'd much rather support the theatre than the parking lots!
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207 West 18th Street
Austin, TX, 78701
(poster via Scottish Rite Theatre)