Alibi V.23 No.37 • Sept 11-17, 2014 

Arts Feature

Art in the Black

Vortex Theatre finds new home for charming opening play

Vortex board president Marty Epstein welcomes a full house on opening night.
Vortex board president Marty Epstein welcomes a full house on opening night.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
“Welcome to our new hole in the wall,” jokes Marty Epstein, the Vortex board president, as he welcomes a full house on opening night. He’s referencing the sometimes drafty, often damp former home of Albuquerque’s oldest continually running theater. The new Vortex Theatre (2900 Carlisle NE) smells sharply of new paint, and underneath, the scent of a rich thespian history floats through. For 37 years the Vortex has produced entertaining and thought-provoking theater from rented stages around the University area. Now the time has come for the Vortex to showcase their signature mix of classic and cutting-edge productions at a space that belongs solely to them.

Once an art supplies store, the building, on Carlisle between Menaul and Candelaria, now holds a 99-person black box theater. Inside the dark space, sets can be staged in a multitude of fashions, and audience seating is moveable. David Richard Jones, founder of the Vortex, says, “We recognized that the spaces inside the new building would work—we produce intimate theater with flexible staging, which was as fundamental in 1976 as it is now.”

One could feel a kind of cozy symbiosis in the new Vortex that night, achieved through the mélange of set, actors and audience.

Since premiering Waiting for Godot on opening night in 1976, the Vortex has had time to perfect the art of collapsing space between actor and audience. Now, almost 40 years later, the seats are perched atop risers only a few feet from a decorated scene. As people choose their seats, appraising or acquainting themselves with their neighbors, the inside of a shabby but charming bar is illumined with soft lights. Amidst the low hum of chatter, a man walks through a door on stage and begins the tidying work of a barman. The public’s conversations slow for a minute, then resurface after it becomes clear the barman will polish regardless of their chatter.

Home sweet Vortex
Home sweet Vortex
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Tonight, Picasso at the Lapin Agile’s possible but improbable premise revolves around a pair of young geniuses. Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso meet one starry night in a Paris brasserie in 1904. In a year Einstein will publish his groundbreaking papers on relativity, and two years later Picasso will introduce his Cubist masterpiece “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” to the world. When the two men encounter each other in a boozy bar, things turn loquacious, as brilliance can.

Amidst talk of art and the future, the actors do an impressive job of balancing humor and pathos in the play. No doubt the author, actor and comedian Steve Martin, has experienced both. Alongside the earnest Einstein (Jeremy Gwin) and voracious Picasso (Grey Blanco), a small group of characters alternately argue and bond. The bar owners, Freddy (Nathan Chavez) and Germaine (Leigh-Ann Santillanes), support their artist patrons while simultaneously deriding and sleeping with them. Suzanne (Evening Star Barron) wants to see one particular regular after a previous steamy encounter. Sadly it’s not Gaston, a crusty, elderly regular mirthfully portrayed by Arthur Alpert. We quickly learn that he spends his nights thinking about sex and urinating a lot.

Almost all the characters observe both the absurd and profound in life. As the group talks about the nascent 20th century, Germaine prophesies, “Smoking in restaurants will be banned,” while Freddy insists, “Led by Germany, this will be known as the century of peace.” It’s a funny moment that reflects Martin’s witty writing and highlights the actors’ ability to deliver lines like playful blows.

Nathan Chavez as Freddy and Jeremy Gwin as Einstein
Nathan Chavez as Freddy and Jeremy Gwin as Einstein
Alan Mitchell
After the show director Martin Andrews remarks on the sportive synergy of the actors. “Everyone had great timing. They could read each other and the audience; they knew when to wait a beat, when to continue. I was really pleased.” One could feel a kind of cozy symbiosis in the new Vortex that night, achieved through the mélange of set, actors and audience.

With the wish for intimacy and flexibility clearly achieved, the Vortex can look forward to other hopes. Founder David Richard Jones wishes “to expand our public social profile.” He talks about the ways the Vortex has already started this growth in the community. “There are two ways that we, the Vortex, have contributed in Albuquerque in the last five years. We became the major producer of the leading Chicano writer in New Mexico (Rudolfo Anaya), and we brought Shakespeare to the masses.”

He refers to Vortex-produced plays of Anaya’s work, which drew crowds of hundreds from around the state, and the popular Shakespeare plays performed in the Civic Plaza. The Vortex wants to continue to reach beyond the “traditional theater-going crowd” and offer theater fodder for all in its shiny new space.

The building, on its way to completion, still needs improvements. Along with a new heating and cooling system, Vortex board members are looking to install theatrical track lighting and a sound system for the hard-of-hearing. They are $150,000 away from their building fund goal.

For now, the Vortex relies on the kindness of theater lovers and volunteers. I find myself sitting next to an Albuquerque resident who saw the theater’s Shakespeare on the Plaza productions and volunteered to paint future set pieces. She ended up recreating the pivotal Picasso that astonishes in the play. “I painted it in my garage,” she tells me. Although we can’t all duplicate an 8-foot by 8-foot Picasso, we can contribute to this Albuquerque treasure by attending their engaging productions.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile

Runs through Sept. 28
7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays; 2pm, Sundays

The Vortex Theatre
2900 Carlisle NE
247-8600, vortexabq.org
Tickets: $22 general admission, $15 students
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