Thursday, August 30, 2007

COMMENT: Controversy

With all the talk about 100 Saints You Should Know spreading across the internet today, I thought I'd jump in and help some of you out there judge for yourself. I haven't seen the show yet (my invitation is this Sunday), but I've posted a summary and personal judgement about the controversy over at my rambling, rarely-updated site metaDRAMA; feel free to check it out.

100 Saints You Should Know (Discount Offer)

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

PLAYS: FRINGE, "The Box," "The Sunshine Play," "PN1923.45 LS01 Volume 2 [The Book Play]," "Susan Gets Some Play"

The Box
Right now, Steffi Kammer's brave, autobiographical show, The Box, is a little too closed off. Her urban tale of growing up in Brooklyn's worst project, the lone white girl, smacks of authenticity, but her telling seems sheltered behind the safety of disassociative images, precisely the sort of memory-by-way-of-image she describes when talking about [Josef] Cornell boxes. At fifty minutes, the metaphors don't seem strained, but neither does Kammer's experience: her emotion peeks out, as if from behind a slightly ajar door, but her presentation is anything but jarring.
Her style presents the squalid past with rosy cheer, not resentment. To that end, the play is uplifting, but dramatically awkward; it is easier for Kammer to imitate the stereotypically rich Jewish ladies (whose idea of something not working is something that clashes) than it is, at times, for her to open up the full refrigerator of memories. She touches on a near rape with an older Russian man, the constant stress of her Swedish mother, and of a hopelessly romantic homeless man, but all the impact is boxed up with her memories.

The Sunshine Play

Remember the Act II opening from The Fantasticks, "That Plum Is Too Ripe"? Well, that's The Sunshine Play, an overt physical comedy that hides the cynicism underneath. Both halves are well executed by the players, with Cosmin Selesi (Trifan) as a delightfully tight-lipped jealous drunk; Daniel Popa (Dan), as a sarcastic, joke-cracking free-wheeler; and Isabela Neamtu (Iza) as a quick-witted, overwhelmed beauty. Peca Stefan's script captures the nuances of natural conversations: awkward rhythms, weird first kisses, and all; this, even translated from Romanian. The direction from Ana Margineanu is thrilling: for all the small gestures, there's a sense of excitement in each nuance, and even a few surprises, too. That final scene, anything but happy, follows logically and completely from everything before, and the whole Monday Theater team has done us a service by bringing this play here.

PN1923.45 LS01 Volume 2 [The Book Play]

After watching Hotel Oracle, the last confusing collaboration between writer Bixby Elliot and director Stephen Brackett, I was hoping that Mr. Elliot would skip the intellectualism and the magical realism and simply get to the point. With PN1923.45 LS01 Volume 2 [The Book Play], he's gone one better: he's pinpointed the message. That message--about homosexuality's struggle for rights and need for acceptance--is at times a little overbearing. However, the playful magical realism (which collides a couple from the '50s, the '80s, and a mysterious stranger from the future) keeps the action at least theatrically plausible. Furthermore, the central characters are likeable and understandable, even at their worst, and their struggles are identifiable and sincere. Jonathan (James Ryan Caldwell), ashamed of being gay, tries to avoid committing to his open partner, Brad (Yuval Boim), even after Brad is bashed for it. In the '50s, things are even worse for Laurence (Chad Heoppner), who expresses his shame with his self-loathing homophobia and a shy attempt at marriage with a spinster librarian, Madeline (Marguerite Stimpson). The contrast--seamlessly (and at times emphatically) navigated by Brackett--speaks wonders for the cultural differences and struggles. If the fiery Everett Quinton's performance as Harry, the Fierstein-like proselytizer, weren't so emotional, it would seem superfluous; as is, it's just another layer to a solid tome.

Susan Gets Some Play

Being single in the city sucks, and dating is hard. But if it could always be as funny as in Adam Szymkowicz's Susan Gets Some Play, then we'd at least have something to look forward to. This show builds on everything Szymkowicz developed in last year's Nerve (it even pairs the two leads again), but escapes the easy situational comedy of a blind date by building the story around a real (albeit metadramatic) heart: Susan Louise O'Connor's, to be specific. You see, the plot of the play revolves around a director (Kevin R. Free) who creates a play solely to find Susan a boyfriend. We, the audience, get to watch (and perhaps take part in) auditions, then to delight in the growing farce. But Susan Gets Some Play is grounded in her likable innocence, and sparkling honesty: when she talks about how nice it would be simply to be held (even if she has to play a character for no pay, no lines, and a terrible commute), it seems blissfully sincere. Mortiz von Stuelpnagel's direction amplifies the ridiculous, but remains elastic enough to snap back into seriousness. Comedy is built on such distortions of mood; this production has near perfected the necessity of equal parts silly and sincere.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

PLAY: FRINGE, "Hail Satan"

Hail Mac Rogers, Dark Lord of Devilish Dichotomy. His new show, Hail Satan, cleverly plays Satanism against type to make a satirical commentary on religious tolerance and the meaning of personal faith. It's also a damned funny office comedy: talk about "soulless" corporations. For all the bad puns I'm making (this review is filled to the brim-stone with them), Rogers makes the wiser choice of downplaying his fecund material, all to better shock us later.

His instrument for this quiet instruction is Charlie (Sean Williams), the jolly, soft-spoken leader of both a copywriting team and a cult of Satanists. Always smiling, with the passive yet forceful nature of a psychologist, Charlie runs a tight ship that includes the zealous Natalie (Autumn Dornfeld), the super-serious Marcus (Jason Howard), and the affable but noncommittal Kristen (Renee Delio). The play opens on an ordinary Monday with the hiring of the unmotivated but diligent Tom (Matthew Kinney), the perfect tool for a job Charlie's working on. Unfortunately for Tom, whose love of Kristen and curiosity of Satanism get the better of him, that job ends up being the unwilling participant in the conjuration of Satan's daughter, Angie (Laura Perloe).

The second act switches emphasis from the office politics to Angie's growth in the care of Tom, Kristen, and "Uncle" Charlie. For Perloe, this is a great acting opportunity, as she gets to play Angie from two months to eighteen years old, showing remarkable character changes from scene to scene. It's great for Kinney, too, who has to struggle with his unexpected love for a daughter he never wanted, and who has some great moments discovering himself as a father. As for Rogers, it's the perfect opportunity for him to pass on his "values" to the audience through an innocent child. That's a joke, I'm sure, although Rogers writes so well that it's not clear that Mephistopheles isn't peeping out from the inkwell, chuckling to himself at clear, logical arguments from Charlie as to why Angie ought to destroy her enemies: "The pursuit of happiness is a bloodsport."

Mac Rogers must have made a deal with some sort of devil, for he keeps getting blessed with exceptional casts and superb directors. As with the recent Universal Robots, Hail Satan is a well-scripted play that manages to rise above parable and tell a fully fleshed story. And, hey, if some small sacrifice is needed, if some blood is required to grease the wheel, well . . . at least it's going to a good cause.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

PLAY: FRINGE, "Elephant in the Room"

The phrase "inspired by" isn't the most inspiring thing to see linked to a play. Playwrights all too often wind up simply aping a plot and forget to add their own plot. This is, sadly, the case with Dan Fogler's adaptation of Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros. The good news is that Dan Fogler is a funny man--you might remember him from 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee or the upcoming Balls of Fury movie--and he instills his new play, Elephant in the Room! with energetic piles of comedy, like a stack of funny flapjacks, piled high and drenched in silly syrup. The bad news is that when the sugar high of Fogler's wit runs out--toward the beginning of Act Two--there's about as little holding the play together as there is holding the scroll-like sets in place.

Going to see Elephant in the Room! then is a means to sample the various talents of gifted comic actors; to see them, if you will, in their natural habitat of reckless, unrestrained comedy. Bjorn Thorstad, with his rubbery torso and quizzical voice, brings to mind Ace Ventura; Johnny Giacalone, with his wavering body language and self-effacing demeanor, could double as Adam Sandler; and Jordan Gelber, with his fiery presence and sloppy charm, is reminiscent of Fogler himself. The show is stolen by Ariel Shafir's transformation from a slick, domineering businessman into an elephant, and his vocal and physical control justify the protracted, over-the-top scene. This is a recurring theme of Fogler's work: the actors qualify the text, going above and beyond to sell the material.

Ultimately, there are too many things that the cast can't sell: aside from all of the pop culture references (from South Park to some odd goggle-masked exclamation) and the clunky scenes (a pot-based government, several satirical addresses from our beloved Bush), the play's moral conceit makes very little sense, bogged down as it is. Ionesco had a distinct target and purpose in his work; Fogler's target doesn't seem to extend beyond the third row. What is the Elephant in the Room!? I don't know; try standing still and I'll throw this pie in your face.

Friday, August 24, 2007

PLAY: "Long Distance"

Photo/Chris Montgomery

Welcome to the world of Judy Budnitz, where the growth shown in a mammogram looks like the streaks in salad dressing, or where the sunset's light is akin to what we see inside our eyelids after rubbing them. Budnitz's style captures the alien nature within us, and Ateh Theater Group, which has made a habit of adapting untraditional stories, has put together a straightforward production of three shorts: Long Distance.

The first and third plays nail the disturbingly normal style the best; both are done by Bridgette Dunlap, who is as funny, direct, and efficient in her direction and she is in her adaptation. In "Visitors," spurts of sudden darkness show the leaps in time as a mother calls her daughter with ever more distressing news about a road trip gone horribly wrong. The crisp breaks allow us to live scene-for-scene, balancing Mom's (Sara Montgomery) unreasonable calm with Meredith's (Elizabeth Neptune) understandable distress. The staging is clever too; though the mother stands just feet behind Meredith, the distance between them feels pronounced, something only enhanced by the clever trick of having the mom go limp whenever Meredith's not on the phone.

In "Skin Care," Neptune revisits the hyper-nerved in her portrayal of Amy, who can only beg her leprous sister to come home from school, lacking the will to do anything more. But, doubling as the narrator, Neptune has the opportunity to illustrate the nuance between cool resolve and sterile distance and this piece, more than any of the others, captures the ways in which distance manifests itself. Montgomery, who plays the sister, is the star of Long Distance, as serious when she asks the doctor to make love with her (because he knows how to protect himself) as she was dotty in the earlier play.

At the center of the 75-minute collection is "Flush," in which Lisa (Madeleine Maby) can only watch as cancer grows, "like oatmeal," in a loved one's breast. "Flush" is the most realistic of the stories, and Alexis Grausz directs it well, but the scenes wind up playing better in Lisa's narrative monologues than in what often seem to be extraneous, illustrative scenes. But even here, the phone conversations between sisters, mothers, and daughters show a gulfing desperation to hold the whole world at once, regardless of the frightening, alien things that creep, crawl, or literally go "bump" in the night.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

PLAY: FRINGE, "Double Vision"

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich's Double Vision is a sad tale of the collapsing modern relationship. From the opening's relentless telephone ring to the climax's desperate silence, love is transformed into a siege: it's no surprise that our heroes enjoy fucking to the 1812 Overture. Dave, Mark, and Ben hole themselves up into their shared apartment, and imagine things: Dave gets into routine accidents caused by a phantasmal blond, Mark itches with the guilt of all his affairs with married women, and Ben lives in a fantasy so pronounced that he has to lose his true love in order to live.

If the men seem insane, their women aren't much better: Celia, their neighbor, survives her marriage by working the opposite of her husband's hours; Mary's attempts to force Dave into stopping her from leaving for California have made her irrational and unable to think for herself; and Michelle believes blindly in her blissful future with Ben, which is why the double vision of perception dooms so many relationships.

That double vision comes back to haunt the playwright: Blumenthal-Ehrlich is perceptive, and she evenly represents the characters, but she never gives us anything that's 20/20. Celia talks in the jumbled panic of the fast-paced when she describes the maternity ward: "I mean, babies live and everything. It's a lot harder. Not it's not depressing. You have more life going on in radiation therapy than you do in the outside world. You have honesty and warmth and closeness, and then they die. It's like putting life in a trash compactor. It's a full rich experience. Even if it's condensed." Parts of that make sense: Celia, like Ben, prefers to know where she stands with things, and like all the characters in this play, fears commitment.

But why? Double Vision spins a series of scenarios at us, at the heart of which is Dave's growing madness, a heart-sickening fear that drives him to literally self-destruct. Even when he strips and walks around naked, he is no less hidden than before: it's just a different type of angst. Shane Jacobsen manages to reveal a lot of Dave's insecurity, and the rest of the cast is suitably eccentric (yet sweet). Rebecca Henderson's self-doubt as Mary gives her some great tactic shifts, and Quinn Mattfeld takes Mark on a real exploration of his personal choices. But the understanding gets stuck behind the thick lenses of wordy everyday banter.

Ben ultimately confesses that he lacks basic awareness of people, and with that, responsibility. "Change is awareness. Awareness is change." But that makes the awareness of Double Vision morbid; what's clear to us remains painfully closed to the characters, and it forces the change to be tragic. Celia's right to describes love as "like asking for a fork and having a million knives rain down on you.... It's a utensil, but it's not quite what you asked for. And it's a lot of what you didn't ask for." Double Vision feels a little overwhelming, and, in the final minutes, certainly not what you asked for or expected. But like love, this frisson of surprise makes for an eerily gripping play.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Tara Dairman's script for PB&J is as off-kilter as the explanation of how "penis" wound up being the secret ingredient in Millie & Lillie's Peanut Butter. This isn't a bad thing, as that explanation is quite funny. But it is implausible, and prone to extreme bits of camp, most notably from the horrible French accent of a prostitute turned "nurse," or from the bullish antics of a radio producer. Again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing: Juliet O'Brien's lack of inhibition makes Cherie into a ditsy sex kitten. The show is a divisive split though for the "butter-side up, butter-side down" audience, as those not enthralled by the gleefully absurd work will probably end up hating the shallow, dick-based humor.

I fall a little into the latter camp because PB&J doesn't quite manage to satirize blind consumerism and blinder media coverage. When Dairman is on, with Dick Longfellow (David Gable) trying to work his way through an interview with a few fingers of brandy, it works. When the focus hits below the belt--and stays there--then it all gets a bit too cartoonish. It's odd, too, because Dairman draws parallels to the rape of Philomena in Ovid's Metamorphoses and hints at a deeper story of resentment between the sheltered, spoiled, girlish Lillie (Lisa Riegel), and the mannish, knowledgeable doer (Amy L. Smith). Instead, as Dick draws nearer to the truth, the story get stuck, more and more, on that titular peanut butter.

PB&J is well-paced, and director Cyndy A. Marion does a good job of stressing the double-takes, the running gags, and the exaggerated naiveté of the characters. Though some of the scenes seem artificially inflated (with Viagra?), those are preferable to the moments that simply fall short, or fail entirely to rise to the occasion. But hey, for all that the play goes too far (does his name have to be Dick? Longfellow?), I did laugh, quite a lot. Just goes to show you that maybe you can butter both ways.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

PLAY: "Fair Game"

Parts of Karl Gajdusek's Fair Game are ripped from the headlines, which is to be expected of any realistic political play. But what makes Fair Game more than fair is the way that Gajdusek develops his story. There's the immediate lead of Governor Karen Werthman's run for president, and then the juicier story of her son's inappropriate relations with one of his Princeton students, Elizabeth. There's also a colorful sidebar about Simon's research into the spin of history, innovative graphics (which is to say, direction) by Andrew Volkoff, and a deeper story that reveals secrets about Karen's campaign manager, Miranda. The play also doesn't feel like news: by cleverly cutting from the scandal to the encounters, Fair Game maintains a rhythm that makes us constantly reassess our opinions of the characters. Late-breaking news, if you will, from the past.

The first act of this production is excellent, filled as much by subtle, quiet scenes that observe the political machine as by boisterous historical lectures from Simon or the underfoot love story. At first, the second act suffers from jumping several months ahead, to an implausible (albeit amusing) entrance from Karen's opponent, Senator Bill Graber. Even still, the words run like butter: this lengthy play is one smooth feature article.

While the lines may be slick, they're not rehearsed (save the ones used in debate): instead, the actors stretch for answers, particularly Chris Henry Coffey (Simon), a quick-witted combination of Michael J. Fox and Nathan Fillion, jumping to statements only to backpedal to what he really meant. So too with Sarah-Doe Osborne, who plays Elizabeth as a rebel in search of a cause, flitting from one passion or emotion to the next, looking for the one that fits her best. As the confident campaign manager, Caralyn Kozlowski is also worth mentioning, particularly for the occasional slips in her imperturbable armor and her always graceful recoveries.

The scenes also show a lot of diversity: they may have a touch of melodrama, but they avoid the patented patter of, say, Aaron Sorkin, and present a story that's far more intimate than similarly themed films like The Contender. Here it's not all politics: it's also games of "Name That Inaugural Speech" and "Spin the Bottle"; it's as much preparing to face the press as it is actually facing your mother.

Monday, August 20, 2007

PLAY: FRINGE, "Bukowsical"

Photo/Lili Von Schtupp

It's crude and lewd, but boy does it have a toe-tapping beat! Bukowsical! may be faithful to Bukowski's life in attitude only, but throw caution to the wind and prepare to get soused. Do as the giant bottle of Jim Beam (good old Sweet Lady Booze) sings, as she spreads her legs and shakes her tail: "Take Me." It's hard to be offended, even by the off-kilter opening ("When you're fucking a whore, and you're downing a case/Bukowsical"), because of how exuberant it all is--exactly the same kind of highbrow lowbrow that made Urinetown a success.

The premise is similar to another recent musical, Gutenberg! The Musical!, in that it is presented as a backer's audition. The difference is that the pompous actor/director/producer John Marcus Cardiff (Marc Cardiff) knows what he's doing, and brought an exceptional cast out to introduce his vision. By the second number, it's clear that Cardiff's vision is absurd--he comes out wearing a Phantom mask, and encourages the bullies to beat Bukowski: "Art is Pain" ("You're totally disgusting and we hate you/you'll never get a girl to masturbate you" is followed by a musically precise chorus of "Nyah Nyah").

Nobody really takes the narrative seriously, least of all Bukowski (Brad Blaisdell), who intentionally forces emotions to match those ascribed to him by the narration. But when the singing kicks in, Blaisdell's a star, showing the range of a deep-throated roar in the smoky jazz hit "Love Is (a Dog from Hell)," the sweet gruff of a love song in "Chaser of My Heart," or the stream of contrapuntal curses of his "Elegy" (layered over the elegiac "Remember Me"). He's joined by a great chorus, but his greatest asset is Fleur Phillips, who floats coloratura above Buk's jagged notes in the role of One True Love (and even gets to belt some gospel on the side).

The writing by Spencer Green and Gary Stockdale (who does music, too) shows a tight collaboration of ideas, and only misses the mark on a few songs that seem disconnected, like "Slippery Slope" (with the one-shot villain, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen) or "Through A Glass, Barfly" (in which Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke battle to play the film version of Bukowski). But for the most part, everything follows logically, from the "Writing Lesson" from Faulkner, Williams, Plath, and Burroughs ("Get down, get dark, get dirty") to Buk's time among the down-and-outs on the "Derelict Train" or at the postal post office ("Working Song").

The show perhaps owes its greatest debt to director Joe Peracchio and his choreographer, Leanne Fonteyn, who never miss a chance--even in black-box--to keep the show upbeat. You might call this type of musical a form of upbeatnik poetry: but I'd just call it unmissable, and in honor of the late Charles Bukowski, a heady brew that's good to the last drop.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

PLAY: "The Shattering of the Golden Pane"

Photo/Kymm Zuckert

Le Wilhelm's play, The Shattering of the Golden Pane, captures the insecurities and procrastinations of first love, in all of its obsessions, but this is not a good thing for audiences. There is nothing less satisfying than watching two characters talk about all the things they've seen elsewhere: even if Mark A. Kinch and Kristin Carter were better actors, that would only postpone the tedium, not belay it. Even worse, Wilhelm has a third character, the ghost of a nightclub singer (Kirsten Walsh), who appears behind a theatrically opaque wall to opine (musically or otherwise) about true love and its (apparently often) deadly consequences.

The "action," so to speak, takes place in an abandoned church, and the dim lighting does justice to the detritus of stone and paper across the stage. The players are David (Kinch), a Goth with tattoos, spiked collar, and black fingernails to prove it, and Verta (Carter), a tremulous, quivering punk with a penchant for alcohol and baking. But David makes it very clear off the start that he hasn't brought Verta to his secret lair to seduce her; instead, it's because they both share an affectation for Caleb (Kevin Perri), a man so beautiful that simply watching him work out (through the gym's shimmering golden pane) brings tears to these ageless peeping toms. And so the play meanders, occasionally waxing upon some romantically apt lines, but more often than not stumbling through repetition, whining, and other adolescent annoyances.

The Shattering of the Golden Pane lasts an unforgivable two acts, turning from creepy romance to creepier revenge fantasy, but it never really resolves the ghost story, nor does it give a real arc to either of its central characters. Verta, even when propelled to action, never seems comfortable in her own skin, and David mopes around hunched over or curled into himself with all the charm of a Gothic Jerry O'Connell. The part of the show that picks up, and where director Gregg David Shore wakes from his coma, is when the commanding Caleb shows up, at first through a series of letters, and finally, revealingly so, in person. Here, the quick cuts and passages of time are efficiently crisp, as opposed to earlier jumps that simply seem like run-on sentences.

If Wilhelm could simply cut the repetitious scenes, remove the ghost, and focus on the actual conflict, he'd have a much better show. In other words: more shattering, less golden pane.

PLAY: "the7 battles thebest"

The Best is back with a new episode of their underground theater-rock show about a group of pop-icon rebels against an oppressive government, and this time it's bigger, better, and more epic than ever before. At the same time, it's still suffering from some cryptic jokes and, because of the sound system, many indecipherable lyrics. Truth be told, there isn't that much you need to understand: our heroes do battle, through song. Eamonn Farrell's script is clever, which is a plus, but if you don't get that hype is what powers the insurgency's online bandwidth, or that OEDI, their increasingly crazy on-board computer is adapted from Oedipus, you can still enjoy the jams produced by Jim Iseman III and his band and the choreography by Andrea Davey. You might not understand every word that comes out of Hilda's (Jessica Weinstein) mouth, but the old-school late night MTV vibe of characters like Captain Anus and Part-He-No-Penis isn't all that hard to grasp (and in truth, is almost funnier in snippets).

For those paying attention, The Best has added a new, extra-campy video introduction, and Jim Iseman's music diverges enough from force rock to showcase some slower numbers and the vocal talents of the group. "Do or Die" is straight rock, but "Paper Airplane" is a ballad sung by Melissa (Liz Davito) as she swings from a piece of black fabric, and MSS's (Matt Schuneman) "Let's Dance" is an acoustic suicide letter. And hell, you have to admire the balls of a rock band that will do a light instrumental number, "7/8ths," that is mostly just a showcase for modern dance. But "The 7 Is Coming," a funky flow of rap and rock, is the best example for the unique way in which The Best turns exposition into drama. This abundance--choreography, videography, and rock--can sometimes get a little carried away, but for the most part, Farrell's direction is just absorbingly frenetic.

My one warning is that The 7 Battles The Best is almost two hours long, and ends with a cliffhanger. It's by far the most ambitious show of theirs, with a large cast, a big band, and a slew of video cameos, and all of these upgrades keep the show feeling innovative, even though the basic format (story, song, story, song) hasn't changed all that much episode to episode. Still, seeing The Best is always a bit of an unexpected treat, so go get your freak on.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

PLAY: FRINGE, "Riding the Bull"

Photo/Jonathan Slaff

In America, everybody's lonely. August Schulenburg's honest satire, Riding the Bull, takes two Southern-grown heroes--an awkward rodeo clown and the rightly named "Fat" Lyza--and looks to connect to, rather than demean, the world around us. In rapid succession, Schulenburg gives us glimpses of loneliness being tackled by focused intensity (on, say, milking a cow), constant sex (otherwise known as "temptation"), money (the American solution), faith, and finally, love itself. That this is all done without bucking us from the saddle is due largely to the likability of the cast and Kelly O'Donnell's intelligent direction.

As GL ("Gaylord"), Will Ditterline uses panicked aggression to hide his constant fear, and as Lyza Mary, Liz Dailey manages to convey both the hard steel of a woman forced to endure constant ridicule and the marshmallow heart beneath all that blubbery padding. Pairing the two is visually comedic: GL is all half-tucked, tight, receding, and a little sallow from his makeup, and Lyza is frumpy, loose, full-bodied, and natural. But Schulenburg doesn't play it for laughs: the script is filled with tenderness, most notably for GL's unseen mother (symbolically represented by a flimsy dress) and the Elvis impersonator (or is he?) they buy in order to satisfy her obsession. Of course, Riding the Bull has its share of cheap laughs ("What do you call them? Elvises? Elvii?"), not to mention Lyza's post-coital visions of the future (O'Donnell stages it so that the money they make gambling comes pouring out of their every orifice: the American Dream). But for every Baby Jesus that's shoved up a cow's butt, every magi made to fellate a mule, there's a serious message about faith and forgiveness, too.

Friday, August 17, 2007

PLAY: "Will Durst: The All-American Sport of Bipartisan Bashing"

I really enjoyed Will Durst's show, but in the spirit of bipartisan bashing, I'm going to start this review with a critique: don't ever start your one-man show with a video montage. Everyone there (1) already knows who you are, (2) doesn't care who you are, or (3) got a free ticket. Along the same lines, don't spend the next ten minutes telling the audience what your show isn't: I know I'm not watching Avenue Q; if the rest of the audience doesn't, what makes you think they'll believe you? Truth is, Will, the list of segments from your show includes numbers ranging from "Quagan" (Can you guess which two Presidents had a secret love baby named Bush?) to "Wrong As Wyoming Sushi" (and other oxymora, like ""). Of course, your show also isn't very Bipartisan or All-American: how can it be, with skits like "Impeachment? Hell No. Impalement." Granted, you can make a show by just reading quotes from our Idiot-In-Chief all night long, you can mock his resolve ("as resolute as rectal cancer"), and you can laugh at his IQ ("He was provided with faulty intelligence? [beat] Well, DNA's a bitch."), but if the best joke you have about Democrats is that they're hard to make fun of because they're like a vacuum, then you're not Bipartisan.

What Durst is (see? don't talk about what your show isn't), is a very likable guy, with a Bill Murray-like charm. He starts as a hunched-over, mopey schlub, a self-effacing wise-guy; then stands erect, breaking his deadpan to cackle maniacally; and is suddenly an average Joe again. Unlike other political satirists who lord their intelligence (Dennis Miller), bask in the ridiculous (Bill Maher), indulge in innocence (Jon Stewart), or break out apoplectic antics (Lewis Black), Durst is just an observant fellow who reads the news and saves it for a rainy day. (Don't believe me? His set is a throne made of old papers.) The only thing that really disappointed me after Durst got rolling is that he didn't mock Karl Rove's retirement, which was announced that morning, even though one of his segments was "Today's Headlines." Now, I'm no political humorist, but you'd think Durst could've mentioned something from the comic gold inherent in Rove's plans to begin his retirement with some "dove hunting."

Well, perhaps by the time you see this show, he'll have worked it in. He is, after all, such a good sport.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

PLAY: FRINGE, "The Commission"

The barbed-wire walls aren't the only constricting thing in The Commission: Steven Fechter's script is a fenced-in, all-too-tidy play about the very sloppy consequences of war and the myriad crimes that go along with it. Dreamscape Theater's production is fine but flat; there's not a lot of action in three-quarters of the play, and the circuitous talking is not justified by the script's backward-moving narrative. As a result, the first and last scenes are warm-ups and cool-downs for the meat of the play, the two scenes with Karl (Patrick Melville).

In the first of these scenes, Karl is a cool diplomat, trying to bypass a entrenched soldier with the use of increasingly trenchant language. This soldier, Ivan (Zack Calhoon) is apparently guarding a mass grave, and Karl will stop at nothing, no matter how hypocritically criminal, to expose the war crimes he's been investigating. Ivan shows up again in the fourth scene to beg Boba (Al Choy) for his daughter's Tulia's (Rena de Courcy) hand in marriage, but that scene's tangential, as is the first scene, that randomly puts Tulia in the same room as Paula (Susan Ferrara) for some light conversation. If these three scenes weren't so forgettable, the interplay between them might unlock some deeper understanding of the fractures of war, and the play might serve as a bone-setting tool that restores humanity (only to strip it from us once more).

However, it's only the third scene, a graphic confrontation between Paula and Karl, that sheds any light on the consequences of war. Ferrara and Melville are the stronger actors of the show, and they seem well matched here; furthermore, because director Sarah Gurfield strips them of their clothes, they have nothing to hide behind. Fechter's script bares its teeth here as well, from the vicious molars to the subtle, delayed wisdom teeth. It's also no surprise that the fangs come out at a moment when the play is furthest from the war: The Commission makes the biggest statement about objectivity and passivity by branding victimization and violence into what is otherwise a domestic scene. Look, it says: if we can do this in our own bedrooms, to those we supposedly love, what won't we do to those anonymous strangers we know nothing of and care nothing for?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

PLAY: FRINGE, "Reader"

Ariel Dorfman's 1995 play about the consequences of censorship is awash in Philip K. Dick-like stretches of the imagination, but it lacks dark humor and it loses itself amid interlocking scenes that we are never provided the key for. This blurring of lines is an intentional descent into self-abuse, but it's a shame that Ianthe Demos can't find a stronger anchor for the play: everything else she's working with is sharp, from Mike Riggs' noirish lighting in the background and ominous penumbra in the front to James Hunting's excellently minimal set: a wall of papers blocks out the truth of the outside world; a venetian blind shutters the shudders behind it. Even when our heroes venture outside, they are seen only from the paradoxical illumination of umbrellas with bulbs screwed into the top.

The cast is fantastic too: Nick Stevenson steals the show as the spry Director of the censoring bureau, a man who literally casts himself as the villain when he starts rewriting the story, and Darrell James is grounded as the beleaguered antihero who can only save those he loves by condemning them to lesser evils than the ones he sees over the lawless horizon. Demos's problem is that there's little delineation between Daniel Lucas, the censor, and Don Alfonso Morales, the character in the novel he's reading. Both are played by James, and Don Alfonso, the "fictional" one, has a more exaggerated tone, but as the scenes slide into one another it's hard to tell what's going on. The same applies for Nico Evers-Swindell, who plays the son (either Nick Lucas or Enrique Morales, depending on the time), and for Emma Jackson, who plays Irene/Jacqueline, the love interests of Daniel/Don Alfonso. I'm sure it's as confusing for you to read that as it is for me to write.

The show evolves into a terse farce for the climax as the characters all grow a collective spin and rise up, as they must, against the oppressive readership. But that oppression is as vague as the play, even when represented by The Man (Zack Griffiths), who spends the majority of time watching from the wings and walking heavily behind the three prongs of audience seating. The subject of Reader isn't strong enough for us to get more than the most minimal of connections, which is a shame, as this is a professional production, with very talented workers. It's the same problem One Year Lease faced with last season's Iphegenia Crash Land Falls; but at least they're trying.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

PLAY: FRINGE, "Helmet"

Douglas Maxwell's Helmet is meant to be an upgrade of David Ives's Sure Thing, taking the scene-restarting exercise to a more dramatic level. However, with the sloppily physical direction of Maryann Lombardi, Helmet comes across more as a beta-version of a play: there are some nice features, but the aesthetic upgrades are glitchy (actually, they're non-existent in this bare-bones production), the action is choppy, and the play takes way too long to get to the point.

The underlying premise is pretty nifty, though. Sal (Michael Evans Lopez) has run a video game store into the ground, proving once again to his family and his wife that he is a failure. The people who do look up to him are teenagers like Roddy (Troy David Mercier) who hang around all day, living exuberantly in the present or vicariously in their video games. Tonight, Sal's in a particularly grumpy mood and Roddy (a k a "Helmet") is harboring a vicious secret, and their completion of the day is presented as a video game. The actors advance from level to level, dying when they fail to get their needs and then restarting just in time to try a different tactic.

As a writer, Maxwell knows what he is talking about: he quotes from a wide canon of games and has plenty of wry comments to make about them. And he builds to a nice parallel between Roddy's cathartic escapism and the thrill of living in the real world, with only one life left. Even his hokey jokes are more quaint than bad: "I'm a PlayStation, you're a Wii. We live in the same store, but we play different games." But Lombardi seems to have a disregard for video games and clutters the text with a wide variety of grid-based movement that makes the play seem more like body rehearsals in an Alexander classroom than an actual show. Additionally, Lombardi forces the actors to enunciate certain words (like the titles of video games) with exaggerated lilts that not only break the flow, but don't fit the seriousness of certain scenes. The only thing in Helmet that is authentically game-like is a verbal battle synced to the 2-bit sounds of Pong.

The biggest problem with this production is that Michael Evans Lopez doesn't have the energy, chemistry, or connection necessary to play Sal. Troy David Mercier overpowers him in every scene: the "game" has to "cheat" in order to keep his character from dying at the start of Level 1. If Lopez were playing an artificial intelligence, most of which are notoriously simplistic and broken, he'd be in better shape, but Helmet hinges on the actors being, first and foremost, human. Mercier understands this, and has a real arc beneath his otherwise manic actions, but it makes the scene-to-scene progression redundant to watch. My advice? Take this show back to the shop, level up the actors a little longer, and upgrade the production values. Right now, it's not even worth playing on an old-school Commodore.

Monday, August 13, 2007

PLAY: FRINGE, "Not From Canada"

How existential can you get when you're busy covering a table with push-top soap dispensers? The answer, provided by Kevin Doyle's funny but overlong play Not from Canada, is "very." It's a commercially branded No Exit, a satire that stresses the banality of an identity-less society by sticking three amnesiacs in a room. Cute Guy, Cute Girl, and Not-So-Cute Girl are exactly that, and nothing more: their fate is to recount postmodern narratives in a clipped and incredulous tone as a French waiter exaggeratedly ignores them. With intentionally racist observations about our segregated culture, Doyle breaks the ice by having them all realize what they have in common: they are white and have clothes on from Malaysia (and so therefore must be friends). The show continues in this vein, looking at the concerns of affluent idiots who fear the abundance of choice, celebrate the necessity of useless sales, and get lost in the corporate machine: "Is it a Target-Taco Bell or a Taco-Target Bell?

The success of Doyle's script is that we understand even with identities, these characters would still be vacuous, the sort of people who thrive on unintentional witticisms like: "I hate ice. I prefer my soda naturally cold from artificial cooling." And the main characters, Ishah Janssen-Faith, Paul Newport, and Macha Ross manage to keep the energy up despite their sedentary prose. However, Doyle's script slowly becomes more surreal: the characters our three "heroes" talk about (like "A Spanish or Hispanic Woman") sit at other tables and noiselessly dance in the background with one another, but they are no better than empty shells: they are caricatures.

At some point, Not from Canada becomes a satire without a target, and the play starts to grow yawningly empty. After the first hour, not even the appearance of "A Large Panda Bear" can alleviate what's become droning, and the multiple endings make it obvious that Doyle doesn't quite know how to end his play. But there's a lot of potential, and a lot of cold, calculated humor, so I'm holding out.

Friday, August 10, 2007

PLAY: "Measure For Measure: Provide Your Own Block and Axe"

With Measure For Measure: Provide Your Own Block and Axe, adapter Doug Silver and director Andrew Frank hope to recapture the momentum they created with last season's theatrical abridgment of Macbeth: A Walking Shadow. Andrew Frank is a keen Shakespearean director, and he works well with his actors to get the nuances out of the script, even if this requires some exaggerated gestures or punch-lined pauses to make sure the audience is on the same page. But Silver's extensive cuts (the play runs roughly seventy minutes) undermine the text by whirling characters in and out, with little explanation of motive or plot, and Frank's solid instincts are overwhelmed by random choices in the staging. The end result is awkward and underwhelming: no matter how you measure it, the only real draw to the show is Ato Essandoh, who brings the same intensity to Angelo's comic lechery as he did to Macbeth's serious tragedy.

The advantage of this collaboration is that it clarifies Measure for Measure, one of the genre-defying "problem plays," as an easily accessible comedy. The bawdy jokes are sharp, albeit excessive, and all hints of morality and scruples of subplots have been washed away. At the same time, what's left over isn't very focussed either: Silver's cuts trivialize the actions of characters like Pompey, Elbow, and Lucio and Frank's over-the-top direction gropes blindly for laughs, which at times minimizes the effect of Shakespeare's wit. The play is also wildly uneven: everything that's not directly related to the main narrative has an excess of ham, from the effeminate, Steve Carell-like actions of the Duke (Lex Woutas) to the softly drunk buffoonery of Provost (John-Andrew Morrison). There's a time and a place for such antics--Mistress Overdone's sex scene is anything but overdone by a wonderfully unabashed Fiona Jones--but the pacing of the comedy has been ruined by the constant begging of laughs.

Additionally, Measure for Measure has also been stuffed with needless parlor tricks. After all the trouble of cutting the script and focusing our attention, it makes little sense to have the actors drop their roles as they watch and laugh the show from the wings, and even less to then have on-stage actors refer to their chortling companions as their characters. And why start the play in a lounge, or set the play in modern times, if that device isn't used as a springboard for some greater understanding of Shakespeare?

Macbeth: A Walking Shadow was an excellent production that enhanced our view of a haunted hero, and it succeeded by being specific with both character and atmosphere. Measure For Measure: Provide Your Own Block and Axe seems like a rushed follow-up, or a chance for Ato Essandoh to dominate another Shakespearian role, for it evokes only the atmosphere of a circus, a show in which almost everyone is just clowning around.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

PLAY: "The Last One Left"

How do you once again tell the story of the child who sacrifices her own life to care for an ailing mother? By adding pirates. But not just sea pirates, robot sea pirates -- actually, Mexican robot sea pirates. And the mother, Ruth (Deborah Johnstone), she can't just be sick, she needs to be damaged by something really ludicrous, like a falling airplane part. Next, we'll have to bring home the favorite (i.e., only) son, Danny (Marco Formosa), so that this selfless daughter, Emma (Emily Clare Zempel) can really struggle with her inner guilt. You know what? Better add a younger sister, too: you know, Anna (Maria McConville), the idealistic kind who can't wait to become a lesbian, and possibly a vegan. And let's top the whole thing off with a twisted love story . . . Eddie (John Stillwaggon) is Danny's army buddy, and when he visits, he falls for both daughters. For all the incredulity embedded above, playwright Jason Pizzarello knows what he's doing: The Last One Left is a poignant and hysterical look at things as different as the blind trust of soldiers and the blind love of romantics, with sayings as epic as "Love is a ship that always sets sail in a storm," or as odd as "I smell running water and hear burnt toast." Dev Bondarin adds a rare touch of beauty to such a story with her quiet, musical transitions, not to mention a deft hand with the comic timing of the stylized, door-slamming farce within the romance within the drama within the play.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

PLAY: "Daguerreotype"

The American Story Project's ambitious Daguerreotype creates a fine latent image by focusing on Mathew Brady and then branching out to the Civil War and the question "What is history?" However, Brady's narrative is underexposed. The hour-long play, for all director Jess Chayes's quick cross-cutting, doesn't get any closer to the heart of Brady (Edward Bauer), one of the pioneers of war photography, nor to the doomed relationship between him and his wife, Juliette (Hayley Stokar). We understand that he has a great passion for his work, enough that he leaves his sick wife behind to risk his life at war in the "What-is-it? wagon." And we see that age and bankruptcy force him to find meaning in his 30,000 "captured" photographs, lest he die of regret. But these are images alone: we see them without necessarily understanding the story behind them.

That's why the second half of Stephen Aubrey's script is so much stronger: he abandons the back-and-forth between Brady's lament, sitting beside his wife's sickbed, and Brady's remembrance of History (a collection of roles, including Abraham Lincoln, played by an agile, but indistinct Zach LeClair). Instead, the rest of Daguerreotype follows a lecture that Brady may have given about the history behind the photos, which allows the Aubrey to use his imagination, and not just his investigation. At this point, it's just a trio of actors working together to unfreeze the still images of the past, riding the waves of time with vibrant rhapsody.

Daguerreotype is still all over the place, blurry and unfocused, but the energy and passion make for an exciting bit of theater. With more development, the final image may be as crisp and haunting as the portraitures hung throughout the theater. But without a richer story, the American Story Project will be trapped like Brady: "walking and working among phantoms."

Friday, August 03, 2007

PLAY: "The Brig"

Photo/John Ranard

The Brig
is closer to modern dance than theater. The rote choreography of military indoctrination lends itself toward the physical over the intellectual, and the emotion stems from movement rather than story. Grippingly tedious and jarringly tight, The Brig is an illustration in several scenes of the dismantling of a soldier's independent thought. It isn't actually a dance, but in the absence of narrative, the intimate exposure of these men, and the prolonged passage of time, it seems like one.

In actuality, The Brig is a work of hyperrealism, written by Kenneth H. Brown, based (one imagines) on his own experiences as a prisoner of his own country. His writing strips away tactics and replaces them with imperatives; his plot dulls our nerves with repetition, only to jangle them again with swift punches to the gut; his dialogue is humorless and severe. Judith Malina, who controversially directed this in 1963, meets Brown's needs with crisp and efficient staging, stark lighting, and claustrophobic passages. She also forces the cast to meet Brown's needs: not only are they never allowed to sit still, but they are actually punched (it's pulled, but still). At times, the show is less acting than reacting, which is where Brown and Malina manage best to blur the line between reality and theater.

The other successful bit of staging is The Brig's honest homage to the unique ability of the military to make chaos appear organized (and more recently, to make organization fall into chaos). As the routines build and build and the layers of individual actions shriek one atop the other, we are swept away by the callous efficiency of the dehumanizing machine. The style is that of classic comedy, with the establishment of routine and the gradual distortion of it: but in the absence of humor, it becomes a serious grotesque. And when one of the prisoners finally snaps (as he must), it is only a matter of time before a new soldier is sent in for disciplining. (It is a mark of good pacing that Brown introduces the newcomer toward the end of the second act. Rather than allowing us to ease in with him in Act I, Brown pushes us in. When the new prisoner enters, we view him with the eyes of veterans who know better than to hope for mercy.)

I'm glad to see The Brig extended, for it is not an easy piece of theater, either to perform or to watch. The play is meant to give the audience a glimpse into a single day in the brig, and this requires a certain commitment to tedium and silence. Today, people can hardly listen to the news or watch sports without witty recaps, graphical aids, and charismatic speakers. It is nice to see an audience take the time to slow down for an actual experience.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

PLAY: "Two Thirds Home"

Possession may be nine-tenths of the law, but how do you measure the ownership of memories, that most essential and ephemeral of things? Two Thirds Home is a battle between two brothers and their dead mother's lesbian lover over who has the right to love the deceased the most. Is it Paul (Aaron Roman Weiner), the sensitive poet, the one his mother loved the most out of a fearful necessity? Is it his older brother, Michael (Ryan Woodle), the responsible but embittered son who only managed to impress his mother by making her a grandmother? Or is it Sue, who has lived in an unacknowledged relationship with their mother for twenty years, only to find herself neither a widow nor an aunt?

It's not a competition, or at least it shouldn't be, but then again, emotional people are erratic: they fight over silly things, and imagine that a piece of property can hold not just memories, but a person's being. Playwright Padraic Lillis ups the ante, too, by willing the property to all three: how do you divide a home in thirds? The first step is to reminisce, with Paul basking in fond memories of home while Michael squirms at the unfamiliarity of a home that he does not feel welcome in. When Sue arrives, Michael's discomfort is only amplified: here is the woman who has innocuously divided the family into those who approved and those who did not approve of the unspoken "friendship." Sue is grieving too, however, which leads to the second step: confrontation. The years of bottled emotions have aged well, and Lillis uncorks each new surprise with a samurai's clean-cut flourish, allowing the frothy emotions to explode across the increasingly cramped living room floor.

Such a character-driven play cannot succeed without a mastery of the script by its actors, and two of them deliver. From Peggy J. Scott, whom readers may recognize from Rescue Me, there are elements of both the yielding mother and the harsh interloper, and she snaps between the two on a dime, trying to alienate and reconcile, often at the same time. Ryan Woodle also delivers on the script, with one of the rawest character arcs in recent theater. He's the gruff child who matured too soon, resenting his brother's precociousness and jealous of the attention that should be his. As a result, he huff and puffs through a house he proclaims to harbor no emotion for, only to blow himself down when he at last confesses what he's lost. The only blemish on the play, and it's an easily concealable one, is Mr. Weiner's performance, a whiny ode to a mother who is only a fixed star in his orbit when the other two grow elegiac. Lillis's poetry is there to support him, he needs only find the power of memory to realize the full potential of this heart-wrenching work.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

PLAY: "The Black Eyed"

Photo Credit/Joan Marcus

The Black Eyed may have just opened at New York Theatre Workshop, but don't think for a second that it is a work in progress. Playwright Betty Shamieh has been working on this powerful show for five years, and it is now (like last month's NYTW show, Horizon) a masterful combination of theatrical craft and intelligent writing, and a human and political exploration of our post-9/11 perceptions, suffused with a subtle staging by Sam Gold and the rich emotions of a talented quartet of women.

The Black Eyed is an important and harshly relevant new work: controversial, but not to the point of self-combustion. Shamieh's questions are chokingly precise--"Why is violence only wrong when we [Palestinians] use it?"--and her answers range from pretty to vague and pretty vague. This is a compliment: she doesn't try to answer questions, but rather questions the answers of complacent people. Rather than settling on the easily inflammable issue of suicide bombing, she widens the scope to all of history's martyrs, and to the women that are their consequence. The angry, disillusioned, young bomber Aiesha (Aysan Celik), is met in her pink-walled limbo by Delilah (Emily Swallow), Samson's famous seductress; Tamam (Lameece Issaq), one of the many callously killed victims of the Crusades; and a young, nameless woman known only by her job, The Architect (Jeanine Serralles), and the hard-to-articulate hopes and dreams of our generation.

The Black Eyed is a hip play, though it bows to classicism. The characters double as a Greek chorus, although their interjections and echoes are used more as punctuation for Shamieh's slam-poetry verse. Paul Steinberg's stage is the audience's section of an amphitheater, all steps and levels, but it's modernized by an ominous wooden ceiling that hangs low above the audience. As for Gabriel Berry's costumes, the different outfits look less like anachronisms than evolutions in design, with similar patterns and blending colors binding these Palestinians together, even as centuries threaten to tear them apart. Director Sam Gold does such an excellent job managing the production values that the tangential nature of the show ends up being cohesive, and the individual plaints of these women add up to building the central dramatic arc.

The greatest surprise of The Black Eyed is its wit. The humor is a skirt for the passive politicizing behind the satire (like a commercial for the United States of Israel and Palestine: "Palreal"), but that doesn't stop the skirt from being pleated with increasingly complex ideas. Nor does the beauty of the gossamer language hide the presence of vulgarity: Aiesha is a bilious character who goads the other women by saying "Crudeness is necessary for clarity." Aiesha never knew beauty in her short life, and it's telling that the few moments of revered speech are reserved for her weapons: "I built something more intricate than the human heart,/hugged it to my chest,/and walked into the biggest crowd I could find."

The script is genius ("Arrogance is confidence that is snuffed out,/resuscitated,/and is never quite the same again"), but simply quoting it separates text from emotion, the too-easy escape from resolution. It also takes away from the wonderful actresses of this show, who stab these words at us with effortless grace. Issaq drops Tamam's prideful carriage just enough to let us see her relish the castration that she will one day exact on her rapists, Celik transforms Aiesha's rage into a terrifying passion, Swallow hides Delilah's guilt and shame beneath layers of silken cloth and silken seduction, and Serralles steals the show with her mastery of The Architect's intense and desperate fantasies.

The Black Eyed envelopes us in the human stories and sufferings of these beautiful, tragic women, and through their eyes, dares to question our callous answers to thoughts like, "So what if terror helped bring down apartheid in South Africa?" "So what if the Black Panther Movement got civil rights workers moving just a little bit quicker?" By no means does Betty Shamieh condone terrorism, nor is her play even about terrorism, but The Black Eyed speaks to the need to be heard beneath it all, and uses what should be the universal language of theater to poke, prod, and plead for understanding.