By Laurie Dietrich
Johnny Hobson is back in town. That's a deceptively simple sentence. Because Johnny Hobson is the alter-ego creation of Jump-Start Performance Co. member Paul Bonin-Rodriguez, who is, in fact, back in San Antonio developing the next installation of the Hobson saga. The town Hobson has come back to, however, is Cedar Springs, Texas, last seen through the rear window of a bus in Love in the Time of College (1994), the third part of Bonin-Rodriguez' Texas Trilogy. The Trilogy, also comprised of Talk of the Town (1992) and The Bible Belt and Other Accessories (1993), introduced Hobson as "a small-town sissy boy and Dairy Queen employee, coming of age and coming out in central Texas."
In Fringe and Fringe Ability, playing through July 25 at Jump-Start, we meet an older, if not obviously wiser, Johnny, who is living in Austin and working as a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines while doing a little freelance home accessorizing on the side. The script is intended to be the first of a second Hobson trilogy, and is itself only about two-thirds complete. This production kicks off an 18-month process in which Bonin-Rodriguez and Jump-Start will develop all three full-length scripts through a series of readings, workshops, and productions. To that end, each performance concludes with a post-show discussion, structured around specific questions the playwright has for the audience. He solicits input about their perception of the unfolding themes, the changes in Johnny and the questions those changes raise, and their thoughts about the challenges and opportunities the character may face as he tries to go home again.
The section of the script completed thus far is staged simply. Bonin-Rodriguez works in the tradition of the storyteller, performing the narrative alone on a set created with light. Director and Lighting Designer Steve Bailey is also using the workshop environment to experiment with design ideas, and has created boxes and rectangles of illumination that symbolically create the areas of action. These areas melt together (kudos to a very good light board operator!) seamlessly when necessary, to behave like a follow-spot, creating an effect, angular yet fluid, that echoes the tensions in the script.
That script, in this early form, appears to deal with connection, the yearning to bridge human distance. Johnny spends the day in airports, communicating-but-not-really with the people in his life via cell phone, and while the tone is light the undertones are ominous. How happy can this adult Johnny really be with electronic relationships and a sterile catalog of colors and textures and designer names? When news of his mother's suicide attempt summons him home in the midst of a disturbing and beautifully staged sexual encounter, his frenzy to connect is satisfied for the first and only time in the story by a real-time human encounter with a minor celebrity. It is yet another reflection on human distance, foreshadowing the distance he will have to travel, emotionally and physically, to reach his mother's hospital bed, where the story ends. For now. •