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'Underbelly' uses music to tell family story

Production rooted in Hill Country experiences

Cate Blouke

Despite technological changes and the rise of the Internet, we've never really let go of the oral story-telling tradition — even if it's only in our own backyard. Our parents tell us stories of the past to connect us with our roots. And when a family's roots are tied to the land, the family tree becomes more than mere metaphor.

In "Hillcountry Underbelly: A Pilgrimage on the Outskirts," produced by Paper Chairs and opening Friday in the Vortex yard, local playwright Elizabeth Doss draws from her experiences growing up in the Texas Hill Country with five siblings, taking bits of autobiography and family lore and stretching them into tales as tall as the prairie sky is high.

A familial epic of Greek (or biblical) proportions, "Hillcountry" opens with catastrophe and prophecy. The patriarch has fallen down a hole and turned to limestone. Given that Evan, the youngest child (Jacob Trussell), has spent his whole life under suspicion of killing their mother, the siblings don't think twice about lowering him into the hole to investigate. Pa's ghost foretells that a flood is coming and encourages his children to get to high ground. When the waters break at the end of act one, the family scatters, and the feral orphans head for a church on the top of a hill.

"Hillcountry Underbelly" is both a spiritual pilgrimage and a coming-of-age story, following Evan's attempt to prove himself to his siblings.

The semi-autobiographical play draws on Doss' family experiences and local landmarks. The sanctuary the orphans seek is based on an abandoned Russian Orthodox monastery in Blanco.

Doss' memories are infused with folk tales and religious iconography to create an aesthetic that director Dustin Wills has dubbed "surregionalism" — illustrating the ways in which a family's bizarre everyday comings and goings can seem normal from the inside. Names have not been changed, though in the play's dreamlike world, time, space and the truth are all relative.

Music runs through the veins of "Hillcountry Underbelly," and composer Mark Stewart describes his songs as "a tense, jazzy bluegrass," more complex than traditional bluegrass and incorporating elements of rock 'n' roll and show tunes. But it isn't a song-and-dance sort of musical.

Like folk balladeers, the actors are the band — handling guitars, washboard and even a shaker disguised as a stuffed rabbit. Wills describes "Hillcountry" as a vaudevillian jamboree with elements of circus and a clear narrative structure.

Wills and co-director Keri Boyd have worked to let the music take the forefront, creating a simple, beautiful experience in the natural setting of the Vortex yard. The outdoor setting is vital to this earthy and spacious play, so (to avoid the heat) the show will start a little later than most productions, and misters, bug spray and chairs will be provided.

"Hillcountry" asks the audience to consider the family tree and how deep its roots must be to weather a storm. It investigates how we find spirituality in the natural world, asks what happens when a family loses touch with its roots, and shows us how to carry on when our forefathers are gone.

‘Hillcountry Underbelly'