Review: O. HENRY STORIES

Austin Shakespeare at The Rollins Theatre At The Long Center For Performing Arts

By: Feb. 18, 2024
Review: O. HENRY STORIES
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The American writer O. Henry (pen name of William Sydney Porter 1862-1910) is considered a master of short story form with a prolific canon: eleven collections published during his lifetime, six collections published posthumously, a weekly publication of humor called The Rolling Stone (1891-1895 satire on life, people, and politics), and many uncollected stories, poems, articles, and sketches. These stories have been reprinted numerous times and the annual short story writing award for America is called the O. Henry Award. 

O. Henry’s stories center around life in early 20th century America in a wide variety of settings and romanticize the daily life of middle- and lower-class people. As a resident of Austin from 1884-1895, he is claimed as a part of Austin’s early artistic history and several institutions are still named after him in the city. With the attraction of using a ‘local’ artist of renown (also, perhaps infamy), the profusion of available stories, and the highly dramatic character of O. Henry’s writing, it is wonderful that these stories are being heard on a local stage.

Known for colorful and expressive language, O. Henry’s writing is replete with the masterful use of humor employing irony, dual meaning, metaphor, wit, hyperbole, colloquial voice, tearful smile, and - most especially - the surprise ending. It is fertile ground for dramatic productions and Austin Shakespeare has chosen nine of O. Henry’s nearly 600 stories to stage at The Rollins Theatre at The Long Center for Performing Arts this winter. Adapted by Austin Shakespeare Artistic Director Ann Ciccolella, these stories (Cupid A La Carte, Pimienta Pancakes, Witches’ Loaves, The Cop and the Anthem, The Ransom of Red Chief, To Him Who Waits, The Last Leaf, A Retrieved Reformation and The Gift of the Magi) offer an evening of delight with fresh (and quaint) stories that heartily entertain and (in these days when almost nothing surprises) definitely surprise. 

In her adaptation of O. Henry’s stories, Ciccolella creatively interweaves different points of view in the story-telling, retaining the large majority of the language and cadence of O. Henry’s unique voice (with occasional explanations peppered in for the audience). This is elegantly underscored by the addition of pre-recorded and live music (for O. Henry was also a musician), moments of dance, and the appearance of extra characters as needed for story-telling purposes. I was particularly impressed by Ciccolella’s adept direction of the actors, who seamlessly and successfully switched between retrospective first-person narration, immediate first-person point of view, and third-person-limited narration throughout the evening.

The cast of O. HENRY STORIES is marvelous. Every actor embodies several widely different roles with great success. Andrew Matthews is captivating and convincing, excelling in whimsy and authenticity, especially as Ed Collier and Sam. Ev Lunning expertly captures the essence of each character in style and mannerism (including a wonderful range of vocal textures), and nimbly draws the audience into each story. Peter Shine is particularly delightful and lovable as the amiable Jeff Peters and, later the sorely-tested Bill. 

Corinna Browning displays her expressive range in convincingly embodying the capricious manner of Mame Dugan and later the infirm Johnsy, Sue Breland shines as the hopeful Martha and worried Sue, and Lucas Schwartz (in his first Austin Shakespeare role) offers a credible and appropriately robust and rambunctious Boy (Red Chief).  

The cast is rounded out by Chuck Winkler who is a delightful Hamp, Tim Blackwood (Dugan, Cop, Bob Brinkley, Dorset, Doctor, Mr. Adams), Emily Green (Miss Learight, Annie, Edith, Sister), Shane Cullum (Thomas, Young Jud, Young Man, Voice of Judge, Jim), Maureen Klein Slabaugh (Bedelia, Madame Sofronie), and Courtney Kilmer (Beatrix, Dela).

The choice to perform in a black box theater with a platform stage and minimal props serves the production well, allowing space for the widely divergent scenes to be informed by occasional projected backdrops and audience imagination guided by the actors. Patrick Anthony’s lighting is beautifully done throughout, and includes a notable effect of a window’s shadow over a bed in The Last Leaf. Cecelia Gay’s costumes capture the essence of each character and story; I am particularly drawn to the bright colors that show up in shawls and other accessories, the camp cook’s hat, and the gorgeous apron Martha puts on partway through Witches’ Loaves. Tobie Minor’s fight choreography is straightforward, smooth and credible everywhere, but I especially took note of the care and skill displayed in The Ransom of Red Chief, where both adult and child actors were vigorously engaged in action. Toni Bravo’s choreography for the dancing that frames the production provides not only beauty, but a metaphor to the way in which similar stories might dance throughout our own lives. 

All said, O. HENRY STORIES is a wonderful evening of enjoyable stories, directed expertly and acted beautifully. As the best authors do, O. Henry brings us face-to-face with things of life and human nature: love found or purloined or lost, regrettable choices, surprising salvation, missteps and mistakes and misjudgments, and so much more. Ciccolella’s adaptation of these stories is thoughtful, artful and edifying and brings a lightheartedness to the heavy aspects of life. Only one note as a reader and subsequent audience member, I was surprised by the humorous adaptation of To Him Who Waits, which is more sorrowful than the others. I will be thinking about that interpretation for a while to see where it leads. Despite my wondering, Austin Shakespeare’s production is overwhelmingly a performance that helps us see the hope and humor that is embedded in not only these stories, but perhaps our own as well. Bravo, and I hope to see more of these stories staged in the seasons to come.

O. HENRY STORIES

Written by O. Henry, adapted for stage by Ann Ciccolella

The Rollins Theatre at The Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W Riverside Dr. Austin TX 

Feb. 16-25, 2024; Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m.

Running Time: 2-½ hours; one 15-minute intermission.

Starting at $20 and available https://thelongcenter.org/events/o-henry-stories/




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