A MILESTONE for ALT:
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by Hannah Bisewski and Michael Meigs
What does a theatre space feel like? How is it supposed to make us feel? Those of us in the small crowd gathered for the opening of the premiere run of Jakob Holder’s Housebreaking were asking ourselves those questions in some form or other. People from the Poison Apple Initiative funneled us into a cramped living room nook in a discreet East Austin housing venue. We found ourselves in the kitchen of a fairly average but rundown home. But that’s a part of the story, too.
The play opens with a painfully long blackout, finally interrupted by the entrance of two men through an oddly placed kitchen door. One of them, Chad, has brought home with him a homeless man – Carmine -- he met outside a bar. Chad treats him with an erratic combination of pity and disgust. With dark, voyeuristic curiosity about the hobo’s lifestyle, he drills the baffled Carmine with questions, only to express repulsion at his responses. Carmine once had a home but has lived on the streets since it burnt to the ground. The exchanges reveal more and more deficiencies in life of each man.
Chad’s sister the venomous bartender Magda appears, as does their father, a man lost for years to his obsession with sportscasts. Chad manipulates them into vaguely recollecting “Uncle Carmine” of years ago. Why? We don’t know, and neither do the other characters.
We finally understand what Chad is playing at when he manages to steal Carmine’s clothing and runs away from home, essentially switching places with the hobo. The second act, years later, gives us his moving return home. Here we finally understand why Chad threw away the place he had in his admittedly dysfunctional home and why he was entirely wrong in doing so. The dialogue is gritty, but Housebreaking articulates a clear message. Chad’s disturbing anecdotes of his years away make vivid the savage fight for survival that continues endlessly, much too near for comfort.
The Poison Apple Initiative cast effectively relays this message. Almost every line is delivered with nuance suggesting the weight of a long and crushing back story. In particular, Juston Street and Elizabeth Bigger, the brother and sister of the show, manage to relay just the right balance of obligatory family affection and the ever-present irritation of years of disappointment that make for a believable sibling relationship.
These characters have exteriors hardened from years of grueling experience and attitudes that stymie every relationship. Audiences will share that frustration, particularly towards the end of the piece. Housebreaking is almost three hours long and toward the end, the story seems to run out of momentum. Everything that could be said between the characters has been and none of them seems to be able to change the mind of anyone else. Speeches become lengthier, turning to set-piece monologues. Though the script never moralizes, the meditative tone of the first half fails to meet the promise of the explosive inertia of the first half. Housebreaking sputters to an end with a few quiet revelations.
Director Bastion Carboni and his colleagues of Poison Apple Initiative (“biting wit – rotten cores”) have been exploring edgy, intense theatre and to date have provided this town with the challenges of Sartre’s No Exit, Bash by Neil LaBute, Sheila Callaghan’s Crumble, and Buchner’s Woyzek. Housebreaking fits that pattern. Carboni used to contribute theatre reviews to Austinist.com that were entertainingly sardonic and polysyllabic but not snide. Word on the ’net is that Carboni will spend the month of February 2012 in a writing residency at the Vermont Studio Center, thanks to funds raised by Poison Apple Initiative. ALT looks forward to having him back in town for further thoughtful entertainment and provocation.
Review by Cate Blouke for the Statesman's Austin360 Seeing Things blog, December 7
Review by Jillian Owens for the Austin Chronicle, December 15