Review: Wraith Radio by Bottle Alley Theatre Company
by Michael Meigs
Chris Fontanes' original works for Bottle Alley Theatre Company tend to take place in the dark. There are good reasons for that. He and his collaborators have been making seat-of-the-pants theatre in Austin since September, 2012.
I reviewed his work Stage back then, and when I checked the date on that review just now I discovered to my embarrassment that in 2012 I used exactly the same term: "seat-of-the-pants theatre."
So let's be more specific. Chris and Bottle Alley have essentially zero resources. Faced with the extreme version of the much lamented theatre venue crisis in Austin, they've reduced their expectations. Their productions are nano-sized; their tech is almost non-existent; every one of them is participating with little expectation of compensation; they've found owners of rehearsal and performance spaces willing to put up with their single-minded shenanigans for nothing or for very little.
Fontanes' Wraith Radio initiates the fourth or 'senior' year of activity -- Chris took a year off in 2015-2016. Like so many other theatre makers in this creative town, he holds down a day job to make possible his creative evenings, and he'd probably gotten too worn down to deal with that disconnect.
Wraith Radio takes place at the BAMPAC performance center, tucked away in an anonymous structure on a dead-end street off the aptly named Industrial Boulevard. The area is ill-lit; Bottle Alley offers assistance by setting up a single Fresnel on a tripod to illuminate the building front. The play takes place in a room about 10' x 12' just beyond the BAMPAC reception counter. You'll be asked to wait in the narrow public area until it's ready. And when the twelve or so of you are invited to enter, you'll need to pay attention, for in the semi-dark you'll have to step over some of the actors sprawled motionless on the floor.
Even after you're settled, there's a long long moment in the blue-green darkness as surging rock music absorbs you. Eventually the figure beneath a table littered with tech junk begins to move in a gently spasodic air-guitar rhythm. She will rise and grasp a heavy microphone to send her Wraith call sign out into the mute and unresponding darkness we imagine all around. This is not the command center of the Starship Enterprise. It's a wrecked, abandoned and entirely unidentified outpost of catastrophe. There is no response. Crop-haired Emily Rankin as the gently free-associating and perhaps hallucinating Wraith is stoic, wry, wounded and past all hope of rescue.
The audience is absorbed by her flat emotionless free association and soon absorbed into her hallucinations as well. Jessie, a male figure also crumpled in this eerie space, revives and speaks to her. He's bewildered, slow, afflicted by a head injury. Michael Rodriguez speaks as if far, far away yet trying to reach out to Wraith in her anomie.
Wraith's companion Star, Ellen Falterman, settles into a desk chair for dialogue. She also has been wounded. Falterman's UK accent is cryptic, unexplained, and it further provokes our curiosity: Who are these women? Where are they? Why are they so eternally abandoned?
Like a sombre clown in the woods, Tim Olivares ghosts onstage as patiently waiting Death. He has little to say. His is a quiet, reassuring presence, silently suggesting relief from this confusion.
Chris Fontanes's belief in the transformative character of theatre is evident. His scripts are developed by the elected ensemble, and it's evident that we as an audience are being admitted only at a very late stage as witnesses to the transformation that has been effected.
The stage pictures were vivid. The dark in this Bottle Alley production is elegantly emphasized by Fontanes' innovation of a vivid wash of blue-green light. He makes his characters intensely visible without granting them any hiding places. Like us, they're surrounded by technology, but it connects to nothing.
Fontanes' fantasy in Wraith Radio is consistent with his earlier work. These characters are lost and afflicted, working to understand and verbalize a world only partly understood. The very act of putting their emotions and perceptions into words grants them a sort of salvation, a transaction that's no doubt true for the playwright as well. In Wraith Radio all are doomed; some have already disappeared and ghost into our view as fading semblances of former selves.
The curtain call is a moment of subtle, sublime drama: Olivares with his painted Día-de-los-Muertos face and eternal calm, extends a hand to Rankin and to Falterman; Rodriguez joins hands with them and all bow to the miniscule yet transfixed audience.
Bottle Alley's performances are reductive, minimalist in their technical aspects, and yet focused upon essential enormous themes. Like Wraith and Star, in our lives we may find ourselves in rooms without safe exits and without clearly defined missions.
Our own freely associating broadcasts may evoke no response even from the forces we were instructed to address.
The result: Our messages become our missions.
November 11 - November 20, 2016
113 Industrial Boulevard, C-3
Austin, TX, 78745
Opening night is Friday, November 11th with performances Saturday and Sunday evenings. The play shall conclude its run on Suday the 20th for a limited run of six nights. The house shall open at 7:30 with the performance scheduled to begin at 8.
Tickets are $11.34 (service fee included) via
Performances shall take place at BAM Academy South located at 1202 Industrial Blvd. Look for the signs located outside the gate. Upon entering the gate look for the building that is illuminated with BAM ACADEMY written on the outside. Those familar with us know that we practice found space theatre, and our venues are typically unusual.