Local production takes a humorous look a political issues

In Austin’s underground theater scene, few people are more eclectically hilarious than Czech Republic transplants, the Crank Collective.

Founded by director/writer John Cecil two years ago under the name PraHaHa, the group’s killer mix of political comedy and rock musicality in their plays has won over audiences not just here in Austin, but in New York, Prague and Bucharest.

The group has found support from the Greater Austin Creative Alliance, a service organization that gives them the funding they need to survive in these dark days.

Now, a year after their first big Austin production, “Epidemic of Fear: The Influenzical,” the Collective breaks out their newest play: “Drone: The Musical.”

The story revolves around a pair of border patrol agents tasked to pilot drone aircraft around the U.S./Mexico border in search of immigrants trying to enter illegally or terrorists with sinister designs. However, in the course of their duties, mayhem, mischief, romance and hilarity ensue. And if that was not enough, several musical numbers are interspersed through the play, buttressed by a four-piece rock band in which John Cecil himself plays guitar.

But does playing live music in a theater setting have some difficulties for the band members?

“Oh, sure,” Cecil said. “Sometimes we have some trouble with cues, knowing when to stop playing.”

Two of the first shows were last Friday and Saturday at the Austin City Theater, and there were two more took place on Feb. 4-5 as well. The Austin City Theater is about as “underground” as it gets, an eighty seat venue, complete with a lounge area and bar, hidden within a small strip mall on Airport Boulevard behind nondescript black curtains.

“It’s a nice, very intimate venue;” says keyboardist/trumpeter Jonathan Hoyle. “We don’t even have to use mics!”

Highlights included, among other things, dancing drone planes and a screw-up with a prop that led to an improvisation that brought the house down in laughter.

After the show, the cast, crew and band members hung out with the audience and were willing to discuss the particulars of the show.

For his part as director, John Cecil made sure that the play was going to be a hit before the official unveiling.

“We actually did a test flight where we did a stage reading of the play and gave the audience comment cards,” Cecil said.

Cecil also did something Crank has never done before by hiring choreographer Jessica Kelpsch to work her magic on the musical numbers.

“I saw a show of hers where she got a lot of people to dance without running into each other,” Cecil said. “I thought we needed her…especially when we’re talking about remote controlled dancing drones.”

Another major feature of the Collective’s plays is keeping a strong political point of view without preaching to anyone.

Here, Cecil tackled immigration policies in the U.S., and the use of surveillance aircraft. The unmanned, remote-controlled drone planes are a very real thing; there was an incident in January when a plane crash-landed in an El Paso back yard. The drones in the play also come with live ammunition, and considering the fact that drone planes are just fighter jets stripped of weaponry, it makes for some potentially scary inferences.

During the performance, the band is placed strategically behind a chain link fence, a nod to our own strict borders. Hoyle made note of these facts after the show.

“People have often wondered: ‘Why does the guy play the President and the terrorist?,'” he said. “Are they saying the President is supposed to be a terrorist too?”

Regardless of what the crowd inferred, most of the audience members left amused. “Drone” was featured through Feb. 13 in Austin.