Listen to Austin 360 Radio

You think you're an Austinite, but have you been to Esther's Follies?

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
Ray Anderson's magical illusions are a big draw for Esther's Follies, the musical comedy sketch troupe on East Sixth Street.

Me: How long have you lived in Austin?

Driver: Two years.

Me: Have you been to Esther's Follies?

Driver: No, what's that?

Me: You can't really call yourself an Austinite until you do. Take my advice, see it and have fun.

Since 1978, Esther's Follies, the city's rollicking musical comedy sketch troupe, has functioned as a required rite of passage. You had to see it in order to understand the city's manifold eccentricities, its sometimes wry, at other times ribald sense of humor, or its transgressive leftist loyalties.

Not that Democrats get off scot-free. These merry pranksters will satirize any self-important politician or pop cultural figure at the drop of a vaudeville gag.

More:What's showing? Austin stage groups team up for ATX Theatre's online show listings guide

And now this essential part of our performing culture is back in front of full houses at its longtime "pool" — a reference to 1940s swimming star Esther Williams — on the corner of Red River and East Sixth streets (its fourth home, but for most folks, the only one we've ever known). Except during the peak months of the pandemic, Austin's core entertainment district has not been without this essential comic relief, at least for as long as these two intersecting streets have been mostly about entertainment.

Be prepared: The comedy comes fast and furious. 

These comedians, most recently with the help of musical director Doug Ewart, replace the lyrics of pop songs with topical references inspired by the news of the day. They do so with the help of quick-change costumes, wigs, masks and novelty props.

It is theater at its purest.

Co-founder Shannon Sedwick, who has lost not an iota of her timing, physical proficiency or musical mastery, is the virtuoso of this particular comic form. The "reveal" from her cornucopian décolletage as a tearful Patsy Cline is perhaps the show's most essential bit.

For a change of pace, the troupers switch to extended comic sketches. Two that stuck with me from a recent visit lampooned cherished Texan identities. In one, veteran Shaun Branigan as Matthew McConaughey explains the core personalities of different parts of the state. It's brutal but hilarious. In another, Ted Meredith and Billy Brooks act out an imaginative process for registering to vote in Texas. Pretty darn on the spot.

More performers joined in for a priceless sketch about "constitutional carry" in the state. An older bit that has Dr. Seuss' Sam-I-Am hitting on an adamantly resistant woman causes some squirming these days.

More:Austin's Blanton Museum of Art to be 1st major U.S. museum with dedicated sound art space

Esther's Follies, however, would not be Esther's Follies without the magical illusions of Ray Anderson. The night I attended, Anderson performed more than a dozen immaculate illusions. People and pets appeared and disappeared. Wands and women levitated. Fanged traps fell and bodies disassembled without injury to cast members.

I witnessed these illusions from the distance of about a dozen feet and yet I could not make out the hidden trick in any of them. Not even close. This appeals to the innermost child in me.

All the way, in various guises, Anderson interacts with gleeful if nervous members of the audience. Some of these exchanges teetered close to a line of dubious taste — an errant codpiece is a routine as old as Roman comedy — but any momentary breach of good manners was rapidly mended by the magnetic and endearing magician.

Meanwhile, the irresistible spectacle of unsuspecting people passing by the street-side windows that serve as Esther's backdrop is still as funny as the first time I saw it. The troupe always adds a few ringers to the sidewalk crowd, but that just amplifies the festive atmosphere.

Esther's Follies forever and for always!

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.

If you go

Esther's Follies

Where: 525 E. Sixth St.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Info: esthersfollies.com