From the hands of theater and puppet artist Caroline Reck, miniature allegorical landscapes and characters emerge from quotidian stuff.
A sheet of blue plastic becomes an undulating ocean, while an iceberg is shaved from repurposed plastic foam. Quaint neighborhoods materialize out of cleverly crafted and painted cardboard and sticks. And poofs of fake fur at the end of a puppeteer’s rod awaken as a barking, frisky dog.
Through her Glass Half Full Theatre company, Reck has conjured imagined worlds. But with her newest show, she gives us a cityscape and a very timely situation, all too familiar.
Opening Friday at Salvage Vanguard Theater, “Simple Sundries” is a comedic yet thoughtful look at Austin’s rapid growth and the gentrification impacting the east side.
Told through dialogue-less physical theater and puppetry, the hourlong show, which Reck created in collaboration with Parker Dority, finds a young woman, newly arrived to Austin, in search of a more authentic style of living.
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The earnest millennial generation-age woman — named Constance — plans to open a chic sundries shop in a recently flipped East Austin bungalow. But Constance’s entrepreneurial plans are thwarted by some of the bungalow’s previous residents — namely a flock of monk parakeets — who have colonized the house.
“Constance is not ill-intentioned,” says Reck. “She’s just one part on an entire trajectory of what’s going on and has been going on.”
Taking a break from rehearsal recently, Reck and Dority explained that the origin of the show started when they began thinking about the instances when birds become trapped in supermarkets or big box stores. In the evolution of a city, one demographic will replace another, just as humans have displaced wildlife, the collaborators say.
The first iteration of “Simple Sundries” began as a 10-minute show in 2013 — long before public opinion exploded recently when an East Austin piñata store on East Cesar Chavez Street was unceremoniously demolished by new landowners.
But by coincidence, Reck and Dority had already decided that the bungalow in “Simple Sundries” would be on East Cesar Chavez Street. And certainly Austin and its current profile are the unmistakable setting of the show.
But “Simple Sundries” is no cynical diatribe, the creators insist.
The show “is not a condemnation of one person’s or one group’s actions,” Reck says. “It’s a comedy of human folly — the human folly we’re all engaged in.”
With one actress and a puppeteer, the play relies on wordless physical acting, much of it rooted in classic mime and clowning. And though it’s written for adults, the play’s humor and topicality likely will connect with children age 9 and older, Reck and Dority suggest. (There is no adult subject matter in the play.)
“Simple Sundries” is the latest from Reck’s Glass Half Full Theatre, the tiny company that in its few years creating theater in Austin has netted several awards and considerable critical acclaim for its inventive blend of puppetry and physical storytelling that employs gestures and expressions in tandem with props and sets to convey the narrative along with a variety of puppetry techniques — shadow puppetry, rod puppets and body manipulation.
Reck’s visual aesthetic, which makes use of simple, common materials, is a considered one, not a budget-driven decision.
Much of what Reck has created for Glass Half Full Theatre tackles challenging topics, particularly climate change, but it does so with characteristic playful humor.
The result is an eloquent theatrical and puppet storytelling that’s earned Glass Half Full Theatre a very distinctive place in Austin’s theater scene — a place arguably shared only by Reck’s husband, Connor Hopkins, artistic director of Trouble Puppet Theater. (The two are often collaborators — and are expecting their first child in April.)
Last month Reck and company remounted “The Six Seasons,” an enchanting look at the effects of climate change on the history of farming as part of Zach Theatre’s children’s season. In August the show travels to the National Puppetry Festival. (Next month, Reck will create puppetry for Teatro Vivo’s updated and bilingual version of “Cinderella,” also set for Zach’s children’s theater program.)
“We’re not out to lay blame,” Reck says of “Simple Sundries.” “But to reflect about what’s going on. Everybody has their idea of what the real Austin was or should be.”