Tuesday, July 31, 2007

PLAY: "Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer"

It took a long time for me to warm up to Aidan Dooley's portrayal of Tom Crean, one of the unsung "heroes" of Ireland (this, assuming that there is something heroic about plunging into the unknown whiteness of the Antarctic not once, not twice, but three times). Ironically, it was at Crean's coldest moment--the approximately 40-mile solo trek through the snow, blizzard at his back, that he undertook to save his companions--that warmed me to the survivalist narrative. I can't say, either, that Dooley oversold the role: his wild gesticulation and shrill, incredulous commentary at his own accomplishments seem a bit hyperbolic, but not any less believable. What I can say is that Dooley's writing was held back by his own slurring, stumbling performance in the second act: short of that, I was on the edge of my seat at the odds-defying account of an 800-mile voyage with Captain Shackleton (all undertaken in a tiny, wooden rescue boat), not to mention the pitch-dark slide down the side of an icy mountain, nor the depraved conditions of their various camps. There are a few anachronisms that Dooley should remove ("like banshees on a roller coaster"), and the show would be better as a 90-minute one-act, but Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer is pretty arresting stuff.

Monday, July 30, 2007

PLAY: "Gypsy"

Photo/Ari Mintz

After hearing all the praise for Gypsy, I was expecting to drop dead of excitement watching LuPone channel all of her estimable skill into the role of Rose. Maybe I suffered from a case of overexpectations. Maybe there were too many fawning fans in the audience--a celebratory praise party--for me to enjoy the oft-interrupted performance. Maybe I was sitting too far away from the stage to appreciate the phenomenon happening on it. But I don't like to make excuses: maybe the show just wasn't as good as it was hyped up to be.

There are certainly many good things about Gypsy: the story is sharp (especially for the time), the script is explosive, and the lyrics give a glimpse of Sondheim's growing ferocious playfulness. And there are certainly good things to be said for this production: Arthur Laurents, having written the book, understands how to hit the running jokes as a director, and Boyd Gaines manages to simmer more than simper, which gives a nice humanity and complexity to his opposite, Patti LuPone. And I like LuPone in this role: she doesn't try to be technically perfect with the lines (though she can, puttering and pattering through "Some People" and "Mr. Goldstone"). She sings with heart first, cracking with emotion, and then raising her voice even higher to fill those cracks with pure soul.

But, and this is the big, diplomatic but: Gypsy is a repetitive musical, trapped in vaudevillian rhythms and one-off tunes. Based on a memoir, the focus is tangential at best (see how June disappears, look how undeveloped Tulsa is). Nor does the intimate staging play to the rafters: this is not a big, razzle-dazzle show (as the lame "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" proves). Lousie's corrupted blossoming (in "The Strip") is pretty tame in today's world, and Laura Benanti's best moments in this role are her far subtler pleas to be noticed in "All I Need Is the Girl." After all that, "Everything's Coming Up Roses" winds up being a better song for LuPone than "Rose's Turn": the second act strains and bucks with attempts to stretch the story. And while I'm glad to see a full orchestra right there with a set and a memorized script, there were so many gaps -- such emptiness on the stage -- that this might as well have been the "normal" concert version of the Encores! series.

Did LuPone fill that stage? No. She tried. And perhaps if the audience hadn't been quite so supportive, she might have found that extra spark in Rose's personality that would have truly blown me away.

Friday, July 27, 2007

PLAY: "Commedia Dell' Artemisia"

Photo/Joseph Belschner

That rape could be funny, not tragic, who knew? The producers and writers of Stolen Chair, that's who. With swagger and grace and a man who's ribald, the show woos us and flatters us, we're never appalled. Commedia Dell' Artemisia, what a wonderful name; if only bringing back classical comedy alone brought one fame. But I'll drop the old rhymes now (they're far better than me), as I must stress the point that this show's a must see. (Besides, it's not as easy to rhyme David Bengali's name as you'd think, nor Cameron J. Oro's, Layna Fisher's, or Liza Wade White's, all of whom are well worth mentioning.)

Like typical works of commedia dell' arte (think Moliere), Kiran Rikhye's taken what could be a tragedy (the historical rape of Artemisia Gentileschi) and made it into a comedy -- an old-school (for wives) affair, with rhyming couplets, slimming corsets, and masks, too. Follow the innocent yet willful Artemisia (the isabella) as she tries to escape her doting, daft painter of a father, Orazio (the pantalone), by accepting the advances of the lusty Agostino Tassi (il capitano). This is done at the behest of her more...ahem...experienced chaperon, Tuzia (the columbina), whose wide-eyed gapes are perfect for the double-takes required of her stock part.

Jon Stancato's direction is filled with little nuances of the form, and when he can squeeze in an extra pratfall or continue a running gag (an accidental grope, an intentional ass slap), he does so with panache. He also handles his actors well (courtesy of designer Jonathan Becker): Bengali slouches his way up from the earth into his mask, notching his head to call out in high-pitched befuddlement, and Oro finds a nice comedic clash by mixing a sincere gravitas in his posture with the monkey-like face he's wearing. On the feminine side, the ladies are lovely, their porcelain makeup giving a nice contrast with their zestier, full-bodied performances: Tuzia's a bit underwritten, which is unfortunate for the talented Fisher (she makes up for it with her body language), but White gets to play both the inamorata and the dottore, and relishes in her long-winded spiels as a drunk judge (think Boston Legal: The 1600s).

The only sad part about Commedia Dell' Artemisia is that it's condensed to stay under an hour, which means there's no romance and no real comeuppance. The climax simply dissolves into a bawdy song with a hasty conclusion: I say, if you've got it, flaunt it, and there's no reason the Stolen Chair Theatre Company can't turn this one-act into an even bigger crowd pleaser.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

PLAY: "33 to Nothing"

Photo/Jaisen Crockett

33 to Nothing's billing is a bit misleading: this isn't "a play with live music" so much as a recording session with a play. There really is a band, 33 to Nothing, and they really did just release an emo-ish rock album, and they really are in a play called 33 to Nothing (with the exception of drummer Tim Valli, replaced here by actor Ken Forman). If nothing else, it's a nice branding strategy and marketing campaign, especially since the run at the newly minted Wild Project is an open one.

As it turns out, the show is actually better than the album; the only problem is that the "dramatic scenes" that fuel the raw emotion for the eight songs of the show burn all too quickly into smoke, and choke the progression of the show. The best thing would be if the play within the gig could be performed internally so that all the audience had to sit through were the songs; seeing as that's not likely, I'll settle for director Randal Myler tuning the show a little better. If in the show, lead singer Gray (Grant James Varjas - keyboards), can keep changing his lyrics; there's no reason Myler can't fix a few notes now.

Then again, Gray's an alcoholic, struggling to keep his band together as his life apart. He's lost the man he loves--his bandmate Bri (Preston Clarke - lead guitar)--he's been evicted, and his mother has just passed away. What's left of Gray's family is the band, but as Tyler (John Good - rhythm guitar) seeks more control, and Tyler's wife Alex (Amanda Gruss - bass) runs out of ways to broker piece between them, even that seems tenuous. Barry (Forman), as the drummer, is well suited for comic relief, and given the stifling tension, he's called upon quite often for his misguided complacency.

What's really interesting about 33 to Nothing is how well the music is worked in to the story. Granted, setting the show within a recording studio allows you some freedom, but it's interesting to see the fictional history behind these songs: for instance, the way all of Gray's latest songs are melancholy ways of crying over Bri, or for blaming him. Of course, the problem is that there's little theatricality in this realistic staging, and the range of music is rather limited to that which best serves the story. Not much is up-tempo, and while the focus on lyrics is nice to see in a musical, the verses are erratic. There's nice poetry on "Happy Moral Suicide" ("He keeps his heart in the frozen food aisle/not because he has a cold heart/but because he wants it to last a little while") but only banality on their title track ("Don't be scared when I need a drink/It's just something that I go through/Nothing bigger than my thirst/nothing bigger than my love for you"). So far as staging goes, not to mention the big picture of drama, 33 to Nothing is a huge step back from Spring Awakening and Passing Strange.

33 to Nothing is, in many ways, a trivial musical playing off-off-Broadway. At the same time, it's an innovative debut for an album, and it's a concert with real meat (and some chops) on songs like the elegiac "Lost to Me" and the show-stopping "28 Bars." With more variety -- both in the staging and the song choice ("The Same Old Song" winds up standing out as anything but) -- this show might find some real soul, and not just the commercial application of one.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

PLAY: "The Magic of Mrs. Crowling"

The real magic of Brian Silliman's new play, The Magic of Mrs. Crowling, is that he's managed to work his way through the sardonic silliness of a Harry Potter/J. K. Rowling parody and find a sincere story beneath the blunt humor. This slight-of-hand works by means of an amusingly distracting first act that manages to keep raising the energy, like a magician drowning in scarves so that he can conjure up a dove. In this case, that dove is the soberer second act (just a bit too expository), which pulls the curtain back and releases all that comic tension.

Director Abe Goldfarb keeps the pace moving at a whimsical speed, and he counterbalances all of his choices to make a greater effect. The quick cuts between scenes make the long, awkward pauses stand out (silence is always a great punchline), and the exaggeratedly epic scenes from the book (complete with a movie-quality score by Larry Lees) really punch up how mundane Kicken Petchio's (Paul Wyatt) life is. Of course, it's no wonder Kicken is so obsessed with the fate of "Henry Shields and the Groglog Imperium": in real life, he's dying of a rare cancer, his mother's already dead, and his father's fear of death has made him a sports-obsessed tyrant. Also, if I had friends like Dazzelin (Patrick Shearer) and Valiaare (Dennis Hurley), who so trippingly enunciated their wizarding words while battling eye-popping evil like Charcana Charcane (Ronica V. Reddick), I'd probably "wax fantastic," too.

The charm of the play comes from combining the two worlds: Kicken's father Ramsey (Brian Silliman) brings A. R. Crowling (Shelly Smith) so that she can reveal the end of all this "geeky shit," only to find that she's on the literary steroids of cocaine, and that her case of writer's block is only worsened by her own characters' constant criticism. Smith has the choice part here, growing from an eccentric loon to a Hulk-like warrior and a defeatist New Yorker, all in powerful spasms of text. Silliman, meanwhile, has the advantage of also being the play's author, and along with Goldfarb's precise directions, manages to milk out all of his laughs without straining them. Finally, Wyatt's the heart of the show, one of those rare actors who understands the desperate need of children to believe, and his frustrations are what give substance to what is essentially a peanut gallery of wizards.

Right now, The Magic of Mrs. Crowling can ride the cusp of Pottermania to draw audiences who feel a bit ashamed of their own fervor for more "Pot." Even after the glamor fades, Silliman's show can hold up: he just needs to cut out his unfortunate mimicry of Rowling's all-too-real exposition.

Monday, July 23, 2007

FILM: "Sunshine"

Sunshine may be a science-fiction flick, but its core is that of a natural disaster on par with Deep Impact, and the emotion is right up there with that of the similarly claustrophobic and aesthetically pleasing independent film, Cube. It's a merging of the kinds of big-budget special effects that make a tidal wave of solar fire with the low-budget artistry that gets just the right color of blood against a sterile, flickering white.

, the tale of an eight-man crew of scientists on their way to reignite the dying sun with a stellar bomb, may not sound like a bright idea, but it's directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland (who last brought you 28 Days Later... and The Beach). For Boyle, it's a technical step up from his previous films, and a striking success in the genre where similar stylist Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain) failed. However, while Boyle handles the heat of the kitchen, Garland's third act doesn't hold up well under the focus of the sun, and his great ideas are saved only by Boyle's imagineering and the excellent casting of Cillian "Can't Miss" Murphy, who hasn't been in a bad film since '02. For the first two-thirds of the film, you'll notice that Boyle's camera is wide, focussed on the majestic, deafening nature of space (scored by the epic electronica of Underworld) and that the inevitable deaths of this thriller are clever, and according to character. It's only in that final stretch that Boyle is forced to focus on narrow corridors, dark passages, and Murphy's piercing, panic-stricken eyes. (It's no surprise that the solar-plated space-suits of the film are carefully designed to show the eyes, and the eyes alone.)

Then again, there's another way to look at Garland's plot, and that's as a mirror of the utilitarianism of this crew. Just as the majority of them sacrifice themselves to ensure the mission succeeds (what are eight lives in the face of all life's extinction), so too does Garland's script sacrifice plausibility -- one of the least necessary features of a science-fiction film -- in order to give Boyle the climactic shots that cinch the film. Along the way, he actually mirrors another plot point: Capa (Murphy) votes to deviate the ship's course to investigate the distress beacon of Icarus-1, the ship that preceded them seven years ago, hoping that their fissionable payload will give them a better shot at succeeding. However, the deviation from their plotted course backfires, and, due to the human error of their naviagator, Trey (Benedict Wong), their solar shields are damaged. From that point on, things go badly for our crew, just as Garland's eventual deviation (for Boyle's greater good) results in some bad writing. The crew faces immolation, suffocation, and even the irony of hypothermia as they desperately try to finish their mission, and while I won't tell if you they succeed or not, Garland's script holds up well enough under the pressure to go from coal badness to some diamond-like grace.

Eerily beautiful as Sunshine is, it's also a great character piece. The film isn't played for laughs like Serenity was, but there are tones of those anti-heroes in our last-ditch crew, from the resolute do-or-die computer technician Mace (Chris Evans) to the high morals of the love interest, Cassie (Rose Byrne), and the cool calculations of the doctor, Searle (Cliff Curtis). In the efforts to stay under two hours in length (the one focussed success this has over films like 2001: A Space Odyssey), not all of the characters get as much development, and some are reduced to stereotypes, like that of the selfish communications operator, Harvey (Troy Garity), or the zen-like oxygen specialist, Corazon (Michelle Yeoh). Luckily, Boyle manages to find a nice resolution here, compressing his action scenes to the barest essentials of testosterone and the most critical moments, as achieved by jagged flashcuts and solarized double-vision. His greatest feat is in his utilization of light: from the blinding sun to the ash-covered blackness, Boyle makes the confines of his spaceship far more extensive than they are, and manages to make single scenes far more vivid than they would otherwise be (which is where he saves Garland).

The only thing missing from Sunshine is a prolonged tension: things go wrong, but always in small, self-contained doses, and we, as an audience, are given far too many chances to recover. Alien, which is the other great science-fiction film this will be compared to, didn't have Boyle's range of effects, but it had a more exacting atmosphere, and the tighter focus actually scared us, as opposed to Boyle's epic focus, which simply awes us. But, hey, if you've got a problem with just being awe-struck, perhaps you should just cake on the sunblock and stay in today; for the rest of you, grab the cool sunglasses, because Sunshine is a film with vision, and you'll want to look directly at its brilliance.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

PLAY: East to Edinburgh: "Inside Private Lives"

Kristin Stone wants to get intimate with you. She wants to sit in your lap, stroke your chest, and break down the wall of silence that so often greets a monologue on the stage. She, as Christine Jorgensen, the notoriously publicized transsexual from 1952, wants to be in Playboy, and she wants you--her friends--to help convince Hugh to let her pose. And that's the thrill: at last the actor really wants something from the audience, at last, the veil between us is broken.

Her show, Inside Private Lives, isn't a theatrical showcase of "celebrity" impersonators--it's a chance for communion with vilified stars. Want to know why Elia Kazan ratted out the Group Theater? Ask him (Adam Lebow). Want to know what Tokyo Rose really thought of the American troops she demoralized during World War II? Ask her (Yee Yee Lee). Just be aware that they want something from you too: Bobby Sands (Paul Ryan) wants your blessing to continue with the hunger strike that would make him an Irish martyr in 1981. Wallis Simpson (Sheila Wolf) wants you to forget you saw her cheating on King Edward VII in 1936.

It would be naive to think that these actors can ever truly know the thoughts of the men and women they play, but it's fun to take part in their interrogation, especially if you're familiar with these fallen stars. It's a fun way to learn about real characters, not to mention a test of an actor's ability to play them, using the histories they've researched and studied. However, there are some wooden responses that seem like stump speeches, and the actors seem to get stuck on the same tactics for getting what they want from us, which limits the dramatic nature of the show to mere novelty. It's a step up from Elvis impersonators, who don't care about the soul, but a step down from what a polished piece like Frost/Nixon is trying to accomplish.

Inside Private Lives is the reality TV of theater, and it has the potential to really grow as an educational event. But without the dramatic impetus provided from a second party, or from a well-seasoned writer, it is simply a three-dimensional form of voyeurism.

Friday, July 20, 2007

PLAY: East to Edinburgh: "An Age of Angels"

Before he heads to Edinburgh, Mark Soper needs to learn to sell himself a little better. His play, An Age of Angels is populated with so many eccentrics (child-watching perverts, pant-shitting nerds, alien-obsessed loners) that it's hard to get past the foulness to enjoy his characters. The thin, multi-threaded plot doesn't help either: the show begins with the sounds of children playing, then sirens, then bullets, but it isn't until the fifth character (an ignorant urban hick) talks about trying to get a "goddamn soccer ball" that we understand what's going on. The point of the play is to show how the little things add up, but the lack of self-contained arcs for the narrators makes them less than tangential: they're phantasmal.

Soper's other issue is his language: would even the smartest dweeb at an elementary school use the phrase "perfect Pynchonesque parabola" to describe the arc of a soccer ball he's reflexively kicked? His dumb characters work because they leave off with the staccato rhythms and beat-poetry descriptions of minutia, but the show all too often seems like a continuation of more of the same. It's also, quite frankly, terrible for a few of the segments: Soper looks and sounds like a combination of Robin Williams and Lee Tergesen, but without the energy or sincerity of either. As a director and producer, Ines Wurth should've given her star a transfusion of coffee: this would've cleaned up the stalling costume-changing transitions. Still, I give Soper credit for memorizing such technically roundabout dialog, and, to the eight people who left the performance after ten minutes, you should know the show improved. (Not enough for me to recommend it, however.)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

PLAY: "Surface to Air"

I'm hesitant to say bad things about Surface to Air: it's the first theatrical production to grace the renovated Symphony Space. However, if their future selections are as bad as David Epstein's charmless family drama, there's little to be lost in this warning. Surface and air is all you'll find in this shamelessly exploitative play about Vietnam (i.e., letting go of the past). The plot idles as often as the ghost of the play, Rob (Mark J. Sullivan), a sullen monologist who orates every so often from a dim spotlight cast over the stage left patio. The rest of the time, he just stands there, nodding off, although who could blame him, considering how blandly James Naughton directs the rest of the cast.

Princess (Lois Smith) is a germaphobe whose spirit died when Rob crashed and went missing, thirty years ago. So it makes perfect sense for her to smear herself in Rob's ashes: well, perfect sense considering all the hard work Epstein and Naughton go through to establish her fear of people and things. After all, she sprays not just the table, but the rag she wipes it with, and then the trashcan she throws it into. It's all so artfully done. Of course Hank, Princess's husband, has it out with his children, Terri and Eddie, over the meaning of honor: why else would you reunite them? Marisa Echeverria, who plays Eddie's new, Hispanic wife, is the only spot of color here, and the play she's in has nothing to do with Vietnam. There are a few good spots between Cady Huffman (as a bossy studio executive) and Bruce Altman (as a docile documentarian), but these scenes only re-enforce how unnecessary the intrusion of Vietnam is into this play. Politics may be dramatic, but just talking about politics, without any stakes or emotional investment at all? That's worthless.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

FILM: "Meatball Machine"

Meatball Machine is a splatterpunk reimagining of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, shot with the patented cinematography of a shaky YouTube video, and with little care for lighting or particularly realistic blood. The film is streaked and splattered with this laughable gore at every turn, and is a bitter triumph of style over substance. Not much is particularly good about Meatball Machine, especially not the awkward romance-cum-action storyline, but at least some of the special effects go beyond the rubbery prosthetics and juddering camera.

I'm glad that at least the design is original; in terms of plot, haven't enough bad Japanese films been made about alien biotechnology (The Guyver comes to mind)? The film's audience is also very telling: while in most cases, the parasites simply infect their hosts and use them as tools--necroborgs--to battle each other as part of a game, there's a key scene that indulges in some tentacled live-action hentai before screwing giant lids through the host's eyes. Junya Kato certainly had as much fun writing this scene as he did with an earlier brawl between a transsexual and our feeble antihero, but you can tell that its the codirectors, Junichi Yamamoto and Yudai Yamaguchi, who wanted to stretch it out.

Then again, given the paucity of material, it's no wonder they chose to linger on their nifty monstrosities. Whether by mental erosion or an attrition of horror, Meatball Machine actually picks up once Yôji faces off with his near-girlfriend Sachiko. Their prolonged junkyard showdown can't possibly be taken seriously, but it's thoughtlessly entertaining: at one point Sachiko welds metal to the man who once harassed her and uses him as a gladiatorial shield. It doesn't matter that Yôji was infected by a mad scientist out to harvest parasites for his half-infected daughter to feast on, nor does it matter that Sachiko can technically still feel everything that the alien is making her do. It's cool to watch mutants shape new weapons out of their own bone, flesh, and organs, even if, as I mentioned before, the quality never manages to get far beyond that of YouTube.

The concept of Meatball Machine actually doesn't lag that far behind bigger budgeted catastrophes like Alien versus Predator, with humans caught in the middle. But the execution is too tightly targeted on certain fetish-minded and blood-thirsty cinephiles to have broader appeal, and there's really no built in fan-base for the rubbery acrobatics of adult Power Rangers. These fans may disagree, but on my end: I don't like my meatballs half-baked.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

CD: This Is Me Smiling, "This Is Me Smiling"

Although a lot of This Is Me Smiling's self-titled album is about miscommunication, their musical vocabulary is a little too shaky to top the charts. It's not just the transitions between songs (like the harsh cut-off of "Ephemera" biting into the sweet summer of "Feelin' the Time Pass By"), but the transitions within songs themselves; these are tracks that can't settle for a single sound. The instrumentals that strum to nowhere and the interruptive techno sections (the accurately titled "Up In All Directions") disguise how lost the album is. It's an aggressively coy blend of tunes tethered together with poor lyrics, but certain tracks, like "Mixing up Adjectives," manage to speed through the weaknesses, and some pieces, like the folk duet "Say What You're Gonna Say," are transcendentally beautiful. Dan Duszynski and Sheldon Miller have wonderful voices (and can both play the guitar and keyboard), and when they don't drown themselves out ("For When You Don't Hear It Right"), they'll do just fine. Until then, they're stuck being the awkward, attractive little flaws they sing about in their perfect closing, "Alive in the Chase."

PLAY: "The People vs. Mona"

Photo/Sam Rudy Media Relations

The show might be called The People vs. Mona, but I doubt you'll find many people who don't fall in love with her hokey small-town charms. Tippo, Georgia might be filled with "gators and gospel," but what you'll remember from Jim Wann and Patricia Miller's lighthearted hit are the characters, and perhaps a few of the bluegrass (or perhaps "green"grass) numbers from the "McGnat" brothers (Ritt Henn, Jason Chimonides, and Dan Baily), a nice southern-fried trio that keeps even the most mundane of courtroom ordeals (swearing in, for one) lyrically aloft.

After a brief introduction to Tippo from our narrator, defense attorney, and straight man Jim Summerford (the pleasant Richard Binder), the play leaps from the neon-lit confines of Mona's Frog Pad bar to the oaken bench of the country courthouse, run by the hoochie- and coochie-less Judge Ella Jordan. The quick pace is designed to keep the witnesses and their songs a coming, self-parodying backup dancers and all, and it works: the lyrics aren't all that clever or catchy, but the antics of former kitten dancer Tish Thomas and Blind "They Call Me Blind Because I Can't See" Willy (a saucy and spry Marcie Henderson), or the lecherous Euple R. Pugh and sincerely happy motel owner Patel (a well-ranged Omri Schein) are.

As for our central characters, Wann and Miller go with the tried and true tale of new romance: Jim falls out of love with his pushy fiancée, the prosecutor Mavis Frye (Karen Culp), and into love with his client, the guiltily innocent Mona (Mariand Torres). Binder is appropriate stuck between Culp's high energy and Torres's low jazz, and the melodies seem to extend from the characters, with country songs like "A Real Defense," or the gospel showdown of bible passages in "You Done Forgot Your Bible" right up there with the sultry jazz of "Partner," the blues of "Lockdown Blues," or the marching band anthems of "Marching Thru Tippo." There's even a bit of operatic emoting, courtesy of the honestly awkward Officer Bell (a resonant David Jon Wilson).

Considering the play's not meant to be taken seriously, Kate Middleton does a surprisingly deft job of staging the cast of ten. Her work often takes a backseat to the choreography from Jill Gorrie, but the overall atmosphere is all hers, and the reason her actors nail so many of the jokes is because she doesn't emphasize them. The People vs. Mona is a smooth ride, right down to the clever confession scene, in which all the actors run through their key lines so that Jim can try to piece things together in his mind. The only thing really missing is the sense of southern heat: the play is so light that it never works up a sweat, nor gets the audience all atwitter.

Then again, with the sweltering weather outside, maybe a nice cool glass of clever, character-based musical comedy is just what the doctor ordered. The People vs. Mona is a taste of southern hospitality, in lyrical form: so go get you some.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

PLAY: "Universal Robots"

Mac Rogers has done precisely what the humans of Karel Capek's seminal play, R.U.R., did: he's built a better machine. His reimagining of Capek's work, now titled Universal Robots, explains how the eccentric Rossum built robots for the Republic of Czechoslovakia with the assistance of the persuasive Karel Capek (a very sharp David Ian Lee). While the moral and some of the characters are the same, the story is filled with a far more emotional ichor, and although Rogers' script is a bit overlong with historical fact and satire of Capek's early years, his second act is a phenomenally well-acted and -scripted piece of theater. I don't think Universal Robots will rise up and conquer humanity, like robots of both Rogers' and Capek's play, but I with a few tweaks, this play can certainly conquer a larger house.

The way Rogers has rewritten characters to produce actual drama is very effective: Karel's brother Joseph is now his sister, Jo (Jennifer Gordon Thomas), and is the true emotional yin to his ethically solid yang. Unable to ignore the virtual slavery, her compassion recasts her as a robot activist, whereas the male dominated Republic only listens to the romantic science of Peroutka (a nicely nerdy Ben Sulzbach) and the fierce realpolitik of president Masaryk (a gruff, fittingly flustered James Wetzel). In another twist, the robot inventor, Rossum, is now actually Rossum's widow, who, in a maddened state of grief, assumed his experiments, oblivious to the toll this has taken on her daughter, the innocent and beautiful Helena (a bubbling Esther Barlow).

The structure and direction, both by Rogers, are also very clever. By using a narrator (One, played by the crisp, clear, Michelle O'Connor), Rogers is able to loop around in time and abbreviate scenes that would otherwise be too long. In this vein, he's able to mock Capek's original style, dabble in some Brechtian analysis of Communism, and make some nice statements of his own ("Who is the most dangerous man in the world?" "A beautiful dreamer with the means to realize his dreams."). The downside is that these early moments all come across as asides to the central narrative, and stretch the show. Given the excellent cast, it's not a terrible use of time, but it makes the first and second halves of the play quite disparate.

A great deal of this bias, however, may be due to the scene-stealing Jason Howard, who not only comes to life as Robot Radius, but also makes the show come to life as well. His eerily precise recitations of robot rules not only match the alienating qualities the script requires but are replicated in his motion and emotion. Mr. Howard isn't the only actor in the show to have such range (indeed, most of the actors are double cast), but his "upgrades" are the most apparent.

Save for a few moments of flubbed lines (of which there are many), Universal Robots is a widely appealing play, one that not only shows off Rogers' talent as a writer, but as a director as well.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

PLAY: "Doppelganger"

If one buys into the scientific and stressed-out speech of Simon Heath's Doppelganger, then one cannot be sure of anything: in the great infinite binary, everything is both a one and a zero. But Emanuel Bocchieri's direction is bogged down in spastic direction and randomly generated cues (literally -- the show uses a technology designed to activate video and sound based on how actors move). There’s one thing the audience can be sure of: Doppelganger is a mess, consistent only in being dim and haphazard.

Our hero is a nervous nerd by the name of George (Jermaine Chambers): he's early to work so as to not feel claustrophobic in the elevator, and he's reliant on his boss, Frank (Matt Hanley) for tales of the thrills that are absent in his life. George is a watcher, not a doer, and he is just another modern human attempting to avoid pain by quantifying problems. But life is more erratic than that, and this is where Doppelganger's random array of multimedia effects, paper-scattered floor, and screaming file cabinets work. Despite George's careful planning, his world is shattered in 4.6 seconds -- the amount of time for his boss to fall forty stories to his death -- and he meets Marcia (Heather Carmichael), both Frank's lover, and the woman at the other end of those 4.6 seconds, a woman now traumatized by vertigo.

Rather than ground itself in connections, Doppelganger prefers to analyze from the fringe, using voiceovers and video clips that make the show as personal as a PowerPoint presentation and the text as comprehensible as an art-house film. Instead of exploring George's coming out of his shell to take--gasp!--drugs, the entire show seems like a bad acid trip, or the product of one, in which Mr. Heath looked in a mirror and looked up the word “doppelganger.”

Saturday, July 07, 2007

PLAY: "Washing Machine"

Photo/Ben Kato

Fist in the Pocket sure chose the right play to premiere their company with: Jason Stuart's stunning Washing Machine is equal parts creepy and charming, innocent and premeditated, choreographed and raw. In turn, Jason Stuart chose the right director for his work, his co-developer, Michael Chamberlin, who uses industrial minimalism to keep the focus on the story: What may or may not have happened to those involved in the washing machine drowning of a five-year-old girl. Chamberlin, then, chose the right actor to perform this demanding solo piece: Dana Berger launches herself into this role with enthusiasm and curiosity, yet always manages to pivot as crisply as the light design into each new character with a fresh tone, perspective, and rhythm.

In this melding of director, playwright, and actress, Washing Machine is able to cycle through a variety of styles. Brendan McCall's interpretive choreography goes from the euphoric first breath in the machine to the shuddering (yet still strangely beautiful) final asphyxiation. Akiko Kosaka's intimidatingly postmodern plastic representation of the washing machine and the hanging goldfish bags that keep the water so tantalizingly separate provides a space for exploration. Ben Kato's lighting takes on a personality of its own as it flickers from harsh to psychedelic, and the music (ebbing from techno to the climax of The Who's "Baba O'Reilly") ominously swells out of Elizabeth Rhodes' sound design.

The beautiful but barren aesthetic allows Ms. Berger to operate with athletic grace, springboarding from character to character before eventually diving into the murky depth of the play. In one scene, she's a rigid insurance claims adjuster, clinging to her cigarette for dear life; in the next, she's a slouching, bitter old man who always manages to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. She has to play not only the unfortunate child (whose tongue sticks out first in curiosity and later in a swollen, muffled scream), but the unfortunate young mother who, as if in a trance, stands gaping for 21 seconds before smashing the glass with a rock. Stuart and Chamberlin don't provide any answers to the girl's tragic death, so it's up to Berger to form connections with the characters, and her familiarity with them (even an abnormally young post-pubescent boy) allows her to be shockingly direct with the audience.

Washing Machine is, not surprisingly, a very clean production of a sadly dirty story. It's an hour-long glimpse at an otherwise unnoticed ripple in the pool of life. But unlike the chore with which it's associated, this production is anything but perfunctory; it more resembles perfection.

PLAY: "Mr. A's Amazing Maze Plays"

Alan Ayckbourn has been criticized for not being the most substantive of playwrights, but has anybody ever stopped to consider how much fun his mindless comic romps can be? Ateh Theater Group's production of Mr. A's Amazing Maze Plays isn't worried about anything more than entertainment and the glimmering hope of a happy ending, and because of that, its over-the-top ensemble takes empty characters and fills them with excitement.

Director Carlton Ward's greatest success is in transforming the saccharine of this children's play into the type of high-fructose corn syrup that's appealing to the twenty-something crowd looking for something different to do at 10:30 on a Friday night. Unlike the recently revived Intimate Exchanges, which changes each night, but in a predetermined way, Mr. A's Amazing Maze Plays spends half its time establishing the farcical character, and then indulges in a live "Choose Your Own Adventure," where the audience can democratically choose where to send our brave hero, Suzy, and her chipper dog, Neville. (Our rowdy audience, high on life and drunk on booze, managed to kill them both, although our twin narrators were kind enough to give us a second chance.)

The play (like the majority of the "rooms" our characters explore in the mansion of the villainous, voice-stealing Mr. Accousticus) is rather empty, and as I'd mentioned previously, so are the characters. What fills the show, then, is the delightful emoting of the ensemble cast: as Ms. Passerby, Elizabeth Neptune can't just stumble drunkenly around, she has to roll down the "steps" of the chashama theater, into the audience. Ryan Tresser, as Mr. Accousticus, doesn't just have an overblown accent: his revealing costumes and drawn-out movements are larger than life, too. Madeleine Maby, the Mother, mispronounceceses her words with gusto and runs her house like a charming terror, and Suzy and Neville (Alexis Malone and Charley Layton) never miss a chance to castigate the audience with their eyes whenever we mistreat them. (Given a choice between "a room filled with toys" and a deep dark chute that "I wouldn't go down for any reason, ever," our masochistic audience chose the latter.)

The show works best as futurism: the actors squabble over who gets to play which role, the narrators (Sara Montgomery and Ben Wood) keep the show moving smoothly through the audience bits, and there are more than a few moments of laughter overtaking the actors. Plus, when has adding a British accent (to people who are clearly not British) ever not been funny? Everybody at Mr. A's ends up having a great time, from the cast and crew to audience too.

Friday, July 06, 2007

PLAY: "Goodbye April, Hello May"

Ethan Lipton's new play, Goodbye April, Hello May, too closely resembles the lives of its characters. These five roommates live in a city kept awake only by the constant sound of bombs breaking over Coney Island; their lives are awkward fumblings for security and companionship. The show lives on a stage kept awake only by the steady stream of Lipton's satirical 22nd century; once the shock value of those ideas fade, all that's left are the awkward stagings of director Patrick McNulty, fumbling for something deeper than the jokey surface.

Truth be told, the play is far too subtle to be properly satirical (unlike Pig Farm), and not thematically distinct enough to support itself on language (as with God's Ear). Lipton slips in references to the now-literal prostitution of PR work and McNulty swaddles Frank in a different gauze to demonstrate the dangers of teaching kindergarten, but the sections that truly work have Frank explicitly describing how he had to shoot a seven-year-old student: "Give me a fucking star, Frank," he says, describing the girl: "The animal." I use the two plays above as examples because the cast features Bill Coelius and Gibson Frazier, both of whom are restrained here, plodding around a dimly lit kitchen in their underwear or pessimistically talking about the idea of painting with gray. The mood is as cold as Eben Levy's accompanying techno music, which is why even a ridiculous wedding dance ends up looking more uncomfortably epileptic than hysterically spastic.

While the flaws above are due to direction, Lipton's main concern should be the lack of conflict. Goodbye April, Hello May is about alienation--of sisters, of the fifth wheel, of couples--but that doesn't give the production carte blanche to stay distanced. The text is just maddeningly casual: Frank is passive about his girlfriend Paula's late hours at a hospital, nobody seems upset when Paula is horribly burned by a firebomb (she recovers after a few jokes at her expense), and while Kelly Mares' perkiness as Irene is a nice balance for Coelius' Eeyore-like Tom, their love-at-first-desperation doesn't have much of an opportunity to develop. The one choking moment in the show comes from Albert Aeed, who plays the lonely ex-drug-dealer Harry; as he recounts the various jobs he's settled into--a list that just keeps going--he suddenly cracks with the realization of how little it all means.

Lipton's ideas are solid, but the story doesn't drive anywhere, which may be why the play idles out into an intermission despite being only ninety minutes long. After catching a breath, it feebly tries to make a point about the outdoors as opposed to the city. Unfortunately, McNulty's blocking makes the opposite point: by juxtaposing both lifestyles atop one another (hard to do otherwise when the stage is encircled by the audience), it just looks like life is alienating, period.

Monday, July 02, 2007

PLAY: "AntiGravity: The 2007 Tour"

Admittedly, I'm still a young'un, but watching the deft and fearless performers of AntiGravity soar, glide, slide, and hang from various contraptions in the air made me feel like a kid again. It's the giddy feeling of vicarious vertigo, the velocity of the vertiginous feats, and the rush of fresh air through the massive Hammerstein Ballroom as a performer does a mini-bungee onto a platform mere yards behind you, and then dances himself defiantly up into the air--the most graceful set of jerky movements you've ever seen.

That's how Christopher Harrison's "epic" compilation of sixteen years of work appears, too. While it's hardly gracefully put together--there's a lot of low-impact dance and minor acrobatics to stitch together the larger numbers--and while it's a little repetitive for a "best of" collection (the same high-hanging grips, but with bold new surfaces!), this is just a bit of turbulence, a jerky dip that leads, time after time after time, into--assuming heaven is still up, up, up--grace.

Narrative is replaced with atmosphere, and big bass-thumping beats from techno, pop, and modern music get the audience excited about what they're watching. The one issue is that the women, while excitingly scantily clad, aren't nearly as exciting to watch as the men, who--in addition to being able to hit the same vertical splits as the ladies--can also use physical strength to "defy" physics, as in the two show-stoppers, "Four Poster Fantasies" and "Strength Bruts." The former is a synchronized, three-dimensional gymnastic dance around a cube of poles that astonishes: when the women take to the cube, they're still far more talented than you or I, but their choreography takes on more of a pole dance. In the latter, two men do what is called an "acroduet," but is actually more like one man lifting the other as effortlessly as a five-pound weight (assume, for a moment, that this is effortless for you) and then using him to suspend yourself in awkward contortions that contradict all logic. (I'm given to hyperbole here: obviously they're obeying the push-and-pull of physics, but who would choose science over the Look-Ma-No-Strings-Attached approach?)

In comparison to these stripped-down pieces, AntiGravity actually uses a lot of props. Some, like a skit with Segways and roller-skates ("TechnoRiders on Cruise Control") have the feel of a parking lot taken over by teenagers. Others, like a spinning bungee-wheel ("Bungee Love") look like they'd be great to dare your friends to do on spring break. But the interlocking series of a metal frame, wire hula-hoops, and women spinning forty feet in the air ("Girl Power") or the sideways flips that happen when a wall comes between two trampolines ("X-Dream") are truly fantastic, taking on the surreal sense of a fantasy, tantalizingly aloft and just within reach.

They'll be back against in Spring 2008--what goes up out of NYC must come down into NYC. Given that scientific assurance, the only question left is: will you?

Sunday, July 01, 2007

FILM: "Live Free or Die Hard"

So what's John McClane doing in a Tom Clancy novel? (Or more accurately, a Wired article from 1997.) Kicking ass and taking names, or taking names and kicking ass, i.e., inserting smirks and exuding confidence, replacing exposition with crude panache, and keeping that action hero spirit alive (at least until Indiana Jones IV). He'd better, because the stakes are higher than ever. There's no office, airport, or city at stake this time: America itself is held hostage by a bunch of cyber-terrorists running a "fire sale" (everything must go). And yeah, they've got a member of his family hostage again. Bruce Willis, as McClane, has been through it all before, so when he's scared, it looks more like he's excited to be back. Glad to see you, John, but there are plenty of flaws.

First off, Live Free or Die Hard suffers from its sprawling, disconnected set pieces (Die Hard with a Vengeance kept the octane up with the whole aspect of a game, not to mention the far more engaging set of villains). And while Mark Bombeck has successfully written McClane as (appropriately) a "Timex watch in a digital age," director Len Wiseman makes even the scars look too slick and modern: there's none of the gritty charm of the previous Die Hard films (perhaps because this is the first PG-13 installment). The first shootout, an assassination attempt on Matthew Farrell that McClane gets in the middle of, is at least set in a grimy apartment in the middle of the night, but from there on, technology takes over, both in the plot and the cinematography.

John's targets are also bigger, this time around. John's narrowly escaped being blown up with helicopters (Die Hard), planes (Die Hard 2), and trucks (Die Hard with a Vengeance) before, but he's never really been the one to do it, and there's a distinct lack of fisticuffs. There's also a distinct lack of charisma between hero and villain, not to mention villain and villain and hero and hero, so the only thing to watch "Die Hard 4.0" for is Bruce Willis: Justin Long is an unfortunate sidekick, a prepubescently poor substitute for Samuel L. Jackson (no Reginald VelJohnson), and the villanous Timothy Olyphant gapes and winces more with indigestion or boredom than anything inspiringly evil. (Still not sure what Maggie Q is doing here.)

A revitalized Willis is a decent reason to watch, and let's face it -- flaws, especially logical ones, never really hurt a summer blockbuster before. Those wooden actors are going to be dead in a few minutes anyway. We can ignore the fact that John doesn't kill all the bad guys, or that even after all the phones go dead, an OnStar-like car security system still puts our heroes through to a patient operator. We can accept the lackluster conclusion, if only because McClane utters that expletive and hyphen-heavy catchphrase one last time. Yeah, that's right, readers: yippee-ki-yay.