Austin Actors Shine in ZACH Theatre’s ‘Harvey’

Before Harvey was turned into a film starring Jimmy Stewart, it was a 1944 play by Mary Chase. The play, a light-hearted screwball classic, is the perfect vehicle for Zach Scott’s Martin Burke as Elwood P. Dowd, although Lauren Lane steals the show as Dowd’s sister Veta.

The play opens in the library of an elegant house, as Veta and her daughter Myrtle entertain high society guests in the other room. Veta and Myrtle desire nothing more than to rise in society, so that Myrtle can find herself a good husband and they can live in the luxury they feel they deserve.

The only problem is Veta’s brother Elwood, who drinks too much and carries on conversations with an invisible six-foot rabbit named Harvey. Elwood is the sweetest, kindest man in the world, but Veta and Myrtle can’t help being embarrassed when he walks into every room and introduces strangers to the unseen Harvey. After Elwood interrupts their party, Veta decides that committing him to a sanitarium is the only solution.

However, when Veta takes Elwood to Chumley’s Rest and tries to get him committed, the doctor, Sanderson, decides that Veta is actually the one who should be committed. After all, she’s clearly upset and keeps raving about a six-foot tall rabbit named Harvey. Sanderson lets Elwood go, apologizing for the mistake, but Elwood doesn’t mind. Nothing seems to ruffle the charming Mr. Dowd, and it isn’t long before he’s invited Sanderson and his nurse, Miss Kelly, out for drinks later in the evening.

The play kicks into high gear in the second act, when Veta is sprung from the sanitarium after the doctors realize they’ve made a terrible mistake. Lane plays the traumatized Veta to the hilt – woozy, drugged, hysterical and absolutely hilarious. Lane’s performance is laugh-out-loud funny, and more than worth the price of the ticket.

Burke is pitch-perfect as the charming, kind-hearted Dowd, but the play is ultimately more about how the other characters are changed by Dowd’s influence. Veta and Chumley are both humanized and brought down to earth by Dowd and his friend Harvey.

Also notable is the play’s set design, which places the two settings – the library and Chumley’s Rest – on a huge rotating platform. My one criticism of the Topfer stage is that it oftentimes seems to dwarf material that might be served better by a smaller stage, but here the design helps overcome that tendency.

Zach Scott’s production of Harvey is definitely worth checking out if you’re in the mood for a good laugh. Highly recommended.

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Movie Review: Star Trek: Into Darkness

Star Trek: Into Darkness opens with a chase scene that results in a pretty flagrant violation of the Federation’s vaunted “Prime Directive”, but JJ Abrams’ version of the Star Trek universe has always played a little fast and loose with the rules. That’s part of its appeal… as long as you’re in the mood for a fast, loud, popcorn action flick that fits the basic contours of Star Trek without quite capturing its heart.

Don’t get me wrong; Into Darkness is definitely thrilling, funny, beautifully shot and competently acted. Zachary Quinto is pitch-perfect as a young Spock, and Simon Pegg is always entertaining. I like Chris Pine well enough as Kirk, but can’t help missing the intelligence and calm competence that Shatner brought to his version of the character. As for the rest of the cast, they honestly aren’t given very much to do. Into Darkness is light on character moments, and the few scenes we are given are inevitably interrupted with an explosion or an unexpected swerve of the ship.

Much of the action is set in motion by a mysterious man named John Harrison who commits acts of terrorism against the Federation but may be more than he seems. Benedict Cumberbatch plays him with his customary booming voice, but appears to have been directed to open his mouth as wide as possible in order to better get the words out. It’s a bit disconcerting when he’s shown in close-up, and doesn’t quite match the calibre of acting he’s known for from the BBC’s Sherlock.

Abrams’ first Star Trek had some pretty great action set-pieces, but here it feels like the movie is overstuffed with wall-to-wall action. The climactic scenes involve the Enterprise plummeting towards the earth without power, a foot-chase and fist-fight on top of what I assume is a futuristic garbage truck, and pacing that is simultaneously exciting and relentless.

The most questionable choices made in the script happen in the last half-hour or so, when we are treated to a huge number of call-backs and in-jokes referencing famous scenes from the original series and movies. One would have been a nice wink to the fan base, but a half-dozen or more begin to break the fourth wall and turn what should be serious moments into comedy.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the spectacle, but found myself wishing for a quieter, more thoughtful story set in the rebooted Star Trek universe. If a new TV series isn’t in the cards for the foreseeable future, then I can only hope that the inevitable next Star Trek film takes a different route.

Verdict: 3 out of 5 stars.

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Donuts Come With Everything at Gourdough’s Public House

Gourdough’s offers the sort of food that makes the most sense late at night after a few drinks. Giant, decadent donuts combined with occasionally nonsensical toppings – fried chicken? bacon with maple syrup icing? – that seem best-suited for a food trailer that stays open until 3am on weekends. Accordingly, it is all the more interesting that Gourdough’s also has a brick-and-mortar Public House location on South Lamar that offers a full menu expanding on the trailer’s concept.

Where the trailer location offers mostly dessert options with a few bizarre savory donuts thrown into the mix, Gourdough’s Public House has salads, sandwiches, burgers and entrees, all of which involve donuts to surprising results. Gourdough’s is definitely not a place to go when trying to stick with a diet or maintain a vegan lifestyle. Bacon and honey butter are common themes throughout the menu, and even the salads come with a “hot garlic donut” as a side.

Although a donut burger might sound like an off-putting combination, donuts work surprisingly well in place of a traditional burger bun. The donuts Gourdough’s uses in savory dishes aren’t glazed, although some dishes like the Mother Clucker (fried chicken on a donut) do include honey butter as a topping. I ordered the Double D’s burger, which includes “angus beef cooked to order, bacon, fried egg, blue cheese crumbles, buffalo sauce, red onion and chipotle mayonnaise”.

Even without all the toppings, the beef was some of the best I’ve ever had in a burger, and I’d argue that although the burger might have been good with a normal bun, the donut put it over the top into wonderful decadence. I was also thoroughly impressed with the potato chips that came as a side. They were perfectly crunchy, not too salty, and appeared to be made in-house.

No trip to Gourdough’s would be complete without dessert, however, and despite the fact that everyone in my group was completely stuffed after finishing our burgers, we decided to split a few dessert donuts. First came a birthday donut covered with a half-inch of cream cheese icing and sprinkles on a bed of honey butter.

That nearly did us all in before the Black Betty arrived with its blackberry filling and cream cheese icing. We also ordered Salty Balls, which include caramel sauce and dry roasted peanuts, but most of us were too full to eat at that point. I took them home, however, and am pleased to report that Gourdough’s makes for great leftovers.

I loved my trip to Gourdough’s Public House, but I’m not sure my waistline could handle regular visits. One of my friends put it best: eating at Gourdough’s Public House is like “getting drunk and eating hangover food at the same time.”

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Theatre Review: Slowgirl at Hyde Park Theatre

When seventeen-year-old Becky comes to visit her uncle Sterling at his house in Costa Rica, it isn’t just another decadent teenage vacation. Back home, Becky is facing the consequences of a tragic drunken mishap. To get her “away from things”, her mother bundles her up and sends her off to visit her hermit of an uncle, who she hasn’t seen in years. Sterling is a long-haired hippie who spends most of his days reading, building trails in the jungle and avoiding human contact. Becky is hyper and foul-mouthed and full of secrets, and she immediately begins upsetting her uncle’s carefully ordered solitude.

Most of the action takes place in Sterling’s house, which he keeps open to the elements during the dry season, much to Becky’s horror. He puts her up on a fold-out bed in the front yard, and they discuss life, their personal histories, and what it’s like to live alone in the jungle. Sterling takes her to a “labyrinth” he built on a hill as a form of meditation – really more of a path cut into the ground – and Becky thoroughly fails to understand the gravity of the setting… at least at first.

To a certain degree, Slowgirl is comfortably predictable. When we are told early on that characters may not be telling the truth, it’s easy to assume that we will find out some percent of the truth by the end of the play. Sure enough, Becky slowly opens up about the terrible thing that happened to “Slowgirl” – given name Mary Beth – that has Becky convinced she might go to prison when she returns to the United States. Sterling has secrets of his own, of course, and the play also spends time unpacking his backstory, but he mostly serves as a foil for Becky’s manic teenage declarations.

As Becky, Molly Karrasch gets the tone and cadence of teenage speech down pat. She’s absolutely hilarious and manages to be motor-mouthed and impish while also conveying the terrible worry dragging the character back down to earth. Hyde Park Theatre artistic director Ken Webster grounds the piece with a more sedate role as her uncle Sterling, who serves as a quiet contrast to Becky and her outbursts. The play is minimal, realistic and to-the-point, and even if I did find it slightly predictable, I highly enjoyed the performances and would definitely recommend checking it out.

Slowgirl plays at Hyde Park Theatre through April 27th, 2013.

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Ramen Done Right at Ramen Tatsu-Ya

If your only experience with ramen to date is the sort college students make in a microwave when they can’t afford anything else, the food at Ramen Tatsu-Ya will be an eye-opener. Located in a shopping center off 183 near the Ohlen/Payton Gin exit, Ramen Tatsu-Ya is an up-and-coming “Japanese soul food” restaurant starting to get some serious buzz around town.

The first thing you’ll notice upon entering Ramen Tatsu-Ya is that seating is limited and the restaurant is probably packed. When it first opened last year, Ramen Tatsu-Ya had a reputation for lines out the door and around the corner, and in fact the store next door has a sign asking people to line up going the other direction. Due to the limited seating, waitresses may ask you to share a table with other diners or move you to free up space for larger parties. Additionally, Ramen Tatsu-Ya is only open for dinner hours from 5pm to 10pm, Tuesday through Sunday.

It’s also immediately clear that Ramen Tatsu-Ya is particular about their food. The menu is limited to a few choice selections, and no to-go orders are offered. They also recommend eating with chopsticks and slurping the broth for best enjoyment. Although the prohibition against to-go orders might sound a bit precious at first, it does make sense that ramen noodles probably don’t keep or reheat very well. Luckily the serving sizes are just right, with one bowl of ramen and broth offering a filling meal with no left-overs for most diners.

As for the ramen itself, the broth is a particular treat. The #2 bowl, which comes with pork belly, marinated egg, bamboo, scallions and roasted seaweed, also includes Ramen Tatsu-Ya’s signature Tonkotsu broth as a base. Tonkotsu is a “creamy broth made with pork bones” that can take “up to 60 hours” to make according to the menu. The dish pairs nicely with a beer and really hits the spot after a long day.

I visited Ramen Tatsu-Ya on a Tuesday night at around 7pm and didn’t have to wait in much of a line before I placed my order. I was seated with two other people at a small table – the waitress checked to make sure it was okay first – and we had a pleasant conversation while I waited for my food. I was immediately impressed as soon as I had my first taste of ramen, and I plan on going back to Ramen Tatsu-Ya very soon. Highly recommended.

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Movie Review: Wrong

Wrong, 2012, unrated, 94 minutes

The first scene in Quentin Dupieux’s Wrong sets the tone throughout. A firefighter squats in the middle of a parking lot, reading a newspaper and going to the bathroom while the rest of his crew ignores a burning van. Wrong combines surrealism and occasionally puerile humor in a mix that is oddly entertaining despite the fact that the movie mostly consists of weirdness for the sake of it.

What plot there is revolves around Dolph Springer and his missing dog, Paul. Dolph wakes up one morning and his dog has disappeared without an explanation. This storyline is probably the least surreal thing about this movie, despite the fact that the ultimate explanation is weird enough on its own. However, Dupieux isn’t satisfied with one weird occurrence, so the movie is overstuffed with surrealism and non-sequiturs.

Dolph talks to his neighbor, Mike, who gets offended when Paul mentions his jogging. Mike never jogs, he says, because he hates running – despite the fact that Dolph has seen him running every day. Dolph calls a local pizza place and has a long conversation with a girl named Emma about the restaurant’s logo – a rabbit riding a motorcycle – which he feels doesn’t make sense. Dolph’s gardener, Victor, explains that his palm tree has turned into a pine tree, but he offers to replace it with another palm. Dolph goes to work, where it is constantly pouring rain inside the office. Also, Dolph was actually fired three months ago, but he keeps going back at odd hours and pretending to work. When he gets home, Dolph is contacted by a guru named Master Chang who knows what happened to Paul and who may have psychic powers.

Although the movie is funny, it definitely doesn’t offer much in the way of traditional structure or resolutions. Characters do strange things without explanation or context. Parts of the movie may be a dream or entirely symbolic. In a lot of ways, it’s reminiscent of David Lynch’s work, particularly the more disconnected sections of Mulholland Drive, but it doesn’t quite have the heft or impact of Lynch at his best. However, all of the actors fully commit to the weirdness, with William Fichtner as Master Chang and Alexis Dziena as Emma both doing especially good work.

Wrong isn’t for everyone, but for someone with the right sensibility, it’s definitely worth checking out. It’s currently playing in a limited engagement at the Alamo Drafthouse until April 4th, but is also available for rent at iTunes and Amazon.

3 out of 5 stars

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Checking Out Chinese Food at Asia Cafe

Asia Cafe has a reputation for great Chinese food, so this past Friday I decided to check it out. Located in a shopping center on the north side of town near the intersection of 183 and Spicewood Springs, Asia Cafe is adjacent to Asia Market, which is definitely a mark in its favor. Few restaurants can boast a ready supply of fresh, authentic food right next door.

I arrived at 7pm and the restaurant was absolutely packed, with every table full and a long line for the counter. The tables in the main room were a bit crowded together, but they also have rooms for groups off to the side. I decided that taking my food to go was probably the best option, but the rush actually settled down fairly quickly, so by the time my order was ready − about 20-30 minutes later – several tables were available.

I ordered the crispy duck and some cheese wontons, but in retrospect that was a bit of a conservative choice. Asia Cafe has a big menu with a lot of options I’d never seen at a Chinese restaurant. They also regularly add new dishes, and the board behind the counter listed more than a dozen specials. As I sat and waited for my order, I watched dozens of plates come out of the kitchen with a wide variety of meals that all looked delicious. Portions were uniformly huge, easily providing enough food for two people or a generous amount of leftovers.

The duck was wonderful, and kept me well-fed for two meals, but I’ll definitely be making another trip to Asia Cafe so that I can try out something else, possibly one of their soups or tofu dishes. The only issue will be finding the right time to come so that I can find a table. I will also admit that I had a hard time finding the restaurant at first. Look for the shopping center with Big Lots and you know you’re in the right place.

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Movie Review: Jack the Giant Slayer

Jack the Giant Slayer, 2013, PG-13, 114 minutes

At the start of director Bryan Singer’s Jack The Giant Slayer, we are told that in Jack’s world, the story of a war between humans and giants in the sky has become legend, a folktale told to children at bedtime. The beans that grew into a massive beanstalk were created by dark magic, and only with the help of an equally magical crown forged for the king were human beings able to beat back the hordes of slavering giants.

The story gets underway when Jack, played Nicholas Hoult, is given those same magic beans and they turn out to be quite real. He accidentally gets a bean wet and a beanstalk grows under his house, lifting it into the sky. As an added complication, the kingdom’s young, beautiful princess is trapped in the house when the stalk grows. Jack, who fell in love with the princess at first sight, quickly joins a group of the king’s men on a quest to save her and ventures into the dangerous kingdom in the sky.

The main problem with Jack the Giant Slayer is that it doesn’t seem quite sure of the appropriate tone for this story. When it is full of epic battles and dark magic, it seems like it wants to be taken more seriously, but then a bit of campy acting or some gross-out humor completely dispels that notion.

The supporting characters in particular seem to support the idea that the filmmakers actually wanted Jack the Giant Slayer to be funnier than it is. Ewan McGregor plays the head of the royal guardsmen as the sort of chap who actually says “tally-ho!” when launching into the air. Stanley Tucci, wearing a long, curly wig and grinning like a maniac, plays a villain who doesn’t need a motivation because he’s just evil. He’s also engaged to the princess, but that never really feels like much of a threat because he ignores her as soon as he is given the chance.

Jack tries to provide a little bit of everything for everyone. It has gross-out humor for the kids, epic battles for the Lord of the Rings fans and some poorly motivated romance for the sentimental among us. Unfortunately the characterizations are flat, the dialogue is unremarkable, and it’s odd to see Bryan Singer’s name attached to what feels like a very generic CGI spectacle.

2 out of 5 stars

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Growing Pains for Greek Cuisine at Santorini Cafe

Santorini Cafe opened earlier this year in an out-of-the way section of North Lamar. I recently went there on a Friday night with a large group, and although the food was excellent when it finally arrived, the cafe was dangerously understaffed and the service was both slow and inconsistent.

One of the first things you notice when you walk in the door at Santorini is the decor, which is comfortable and understated. There are small cafe tables throughout as well as several seating areas with couches and chairs. I was with a group of eight or nine people, so we took up residence in one of the areas with couches. It made for a bit of an odd seating arrangement, however, with some members seated at tables and others on couches. When my food came I ended up moving to a table off to the side so that I would have somewhere to put my plate.

Santorini’s menu is composed of standard Greek and Mediterranean cuisine, and they also offer a decent selection of wine. We started with appetizer plates that included various cheeses, hummus, dolmathes, olives and more. I ordered the lamb plate, which comes with lamb, hummus, dolmathes, tzatziki and a side salad. Members of my group tried the lamb gyro – which was generously sized – greek salads and pizza. All of the food was excellent, but we were starving by the time it arrived because Santorini simply was not ready for a Friday night crowd.

We weren’t the only large group to arrive that evening, but the other group quickly left when they realized that the bartender was the only person working in the cafe and he could barely handle getting orders as it was. One of the members of my group actually took it upon himself to write down our orders on a napkin and take it to the bar, and that napkin served as our tab for the rest of the night. Partway through the evening a second person arrived and began helping out in the kitchen, and shortly afterwards food began arriving at our table.

Ultimately I definitely wouldn’t recommend Santorini for large groups. The food was good, and I’m glad to have another Greek/Mediterranean option in Austin, but the service required a lot of patience and I’m not sure it’s worth the wait. Check back once they’ve had more time to establish themselves.

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