Sunday, September 30, 2007

PLAY: "medEia"

Some people will swear to the universality of music, the way that simple lyrics and easy grooves float directly into one's subconscious, there to live forever. Others will testify to the unambiguity of a picture -- a thousand-word image that breaks down linguistic barriers and pierces the heart. Still others will swear to the thousands-of-years-old Greek dramas, which are still as relevant now as they were then; a testament to the emotions we all live and die by. Whether or not Oscar van Woensel had any of this in mind when he reworked Euripides' Medea (along with his Amsterdam-based company, Dood Paard), his play interjects pop lyrics into a stream of consciousness text that jumps from the removed summary of the third person chorus to the involved passion of first person tragic.

At first, the work feels like it's beating a dead horse (Dood Paard means that in English): the three actors (van Woensel, Manja Topper, and Kuno Bakker) pull a battered, parchment-thin curtain up so that it veils a piercing row of lights, then stand in front of it like weathermen before a blue screen and explain the story of Medea (how Jason came to Kolchis seeking the Golden Fleece so that he might be made king by Peleas; how Medea helped him, only to be spurned by Jason's love for King Creaon's virgin daughter; how Medea revenged herself by killing the children she shared with Jason). After twenty minutes of dialogue, the actors rip down the curtain, pull another one up (closer to the audience this time), and project musically accompanied slides (clicked through so rapidly that they are barely recognizable) across the screen. Wash, rinse, and repeat, it seems.

In actuality, this is more like a dance of the seven veils: each of the four segments grows more involved, less removed both from the text and from the audience. The text, so simply written in what Dood Pard calls a "Euro-English," starts to develop a rhythm to the ear, and the pop lyrics grow more and more identifiable. For instance:

Survival of the fittest
I will survive
So turn around now
You're not welcome anymore
Be strong
Now you need it

I need it

All you need is love

Ohblahdi ohbladah
Life goes on bra
Lalalalalife goes on
There are some nice moments in medEia, but too much of the presentation seems disconnected, particularly the musical interludes and accompanying slide-show. Throwing in an image of Bush, any image, forces the mind to think of other things, and those comparisons just aren't there (not like they are in, say, Iphigenia 2.0). If this was meant to be transformative or startling, it's not. But the plain prose is intriguing, as is Dood Paard's back-to-the-wall delivery of it, and the story really is (and probably always will be) universal.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

PLAY: "Iphigenia 2.0"

Photo/Carol Rosegg

War, like life, is a matter of distance. Charles Mee's politically charged adaptation of the classic Euripedes play Iphigenia in Aulis, now modishly titled 2.0, succeeds because it removes that distance: no longer Troy, but Iraq. The time is now, so the mistakes of the past are now the mistakes of the present, and the sorrow of a greater leader is now the sorrow of his audience.

Much as angry Democrats demand (unjustly) that Republicans send their own children to war before they recklessly commit to bloodshed, so too does Agamemnon's (Tom Nelis) army demand a sacrifice, a human ante in the pot: Iphigenia (Louisa Krause), his beloved daughter. In a fit of weakness, he draws her and her mother, Clytemnestra (Kate Mulgrew), to the port of Aulis, saying that he will marry her to her beloved Achilles (Seth Numrich), but by the time he recants, it is too late: the imposing chorus of soldiers (J.D. Goldblatt, Will Fowler, Jimonn Cole, and Jesse Hooker), led by the stolid Menelaus (Rocco Sisto), will not let them leave.
Though the family resists, it is in the passive way America "protests" the war, and their feeble pleas are always revoked by the aggressive athleticism of the soldiers, who do what they say.

Tina Landau's direction makes use of the wide Signature stage, a space stripped to damaged concrete walls, with scarred colors and maps littering one wall, and battleships moored (synecdochial masts cast menacing shadows against a blue curtain) against the other. Everything about her style is crisp, from the intentional flourish of color when Iphigenia first enters with her bridesmaids (Emily Kinney and Chasten Harmon) to the abrupt-as-lightning light cues that send the actors scrambling as if under fire. These choices heighten the energy and keep the mood focussed, even when Mee's collaged script meanders. To this end, Landau is able to use Mee's weaker sections as subtext, or to present them as wistful, alienating lists. The erratic sections also allow for the inventively emphatic dances, from a Greek folk remix to a hip-hop military exercise.

However, having just seen Ivo Van Hove's The Misanthrope makes the lackluster moments in Iphigenia 2.0 stand out: for all that it's a good parallel, one that yields a strong polemic, there is very little connection between the performers and the audience. The menacing shifts do more to provoke a mood of helplessness--which fits our modern day--than to explain how the soldiers feel: if anything, they're silent supermen who refuse to let their armor down. The play is strong--athletically directed, with a healthy, relevant script, and hearty performances--but if you look beyond the razzle dazzle of the show, it has only one climactic usage of that strength.

To its credit, that ending is pretty powerful, and the anguished uncelebration of the wedding cum funeral fulminates to a point where Agamemnon's actual grief cannot be distinguished from the raucous noise. However, the work being done--particularly by the soldiers--is more likely to dazzle than to impress: the lack of steadiness in the script and direction causes the few emotional anchors (Krause and Nelis) to be lost in the frothy direction. Instead of focus, we are awash in feelings, and the result--which will be exhaustingly rewarding to some--isn't as strong as the political spine.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Australia Project II: Australia Strikes Back (Week 2)

More of the same can be a good thing. Last week, The Production Company treated us to four off-kilter one acts, all of which were written by Australian playwrights who were thinking of America at the time. This week, it's another three one-acts, from the occasionally filth "967 Tuna" (Australian for excellent) to the beautiful "The Beekeeper" (no Australian translation needed there) and the hypnotically turbulent "Syphon."

The strongest piece is Emma Vuletic's "The Beekeeper," which sets the plight of colony collapse disorder (a k a, where are all the bees in America going?) against an Australian mother's inability to properly carry a child to term. Just as America imports Australian bees to keep their hives alive, Olivia (Chandler Vinton), turns to an American surrogate, Amber (Lethia Nall), to help her finally deliver a baby to term. (Such work is illegal Down Under.) Patrick McNulty plays with swift lighting cues to jump cuts between moments in time, but his best choice is to have distance communicated by silence rather than space. The two stand close to one other as they talk (or don't) by e-mail, and these quiet moments are tender and effective. Vuletic's writing is also very strong, jumping between the natural conversation, monologues about bees, and occasional legalese (to enforce the alienating "contract"). Vinton crackles through Olivia's necessary stiffness, adding a dash of loose desperation that connects us to her nerves, and Nall, rarely dropping her forced nonchalance, manages to convey a stream of raw emotions.

Brendan Cowell's "967 Tuna," on the other hand, is a play of surfaces. Jeremy (Nick Flint), a hyperchill Australian, rents a fishing boat from an uptight American, Captain Steve (Michael Gnat). As they converse (in a short and snappy patter that brings a mellower David Rabe to mind), the American becomes increasingly possessive and bellicose, while the carefree Australian's thick skin starts to become a frightened shell. The script is too playful--shallow ruminations from stereotypes--and while Flint and Gnat have great chemistry, Mark Armstrong can't steer the script into deeper waters. (Instead, he succeeds at dressing it up, evoking the cramped deck, the lapping nausea of waves, and an exciting high-speed drive.) Steve's wife, Dorothy (Sarah Eliana Bisman) is a deus ex machina, a physical metaphor for the daunting US(A), but her slow, unnatural dialogue clashes with the clipped tones of the play and ultimately serves as little more than a life raft off a meandering ship.

Tommy Murphy's "Syphon," on yet another hand, is buried so deep under the skin that it's never clear why your skin prickles. Perhaps its the deadened performances from Stephen Pilkington and Todd d'Amour, two druggies who come to live with the obsessive compulsive Isabelle (Erin Krakow), or perhaps it's the way time flies by--days, weeks, months, years--without bringing anything more than superficial changes. Murphy metes out the pace with staccato mundaneness ("Hey," "Yah," and "Dunno" are the oft-repeated "lyrics"), and director Shoshana Gold brings in the absurd properties with a slow, at first imperceptible, fade. But the conclusion fizzles where it should explode, not a bad trip so much as an impenetrable one. You want to go along for the ride, but you can't seem to follow homeless "monsters" or the senselessness of a student uprising.

As individual pieces, only "The Beekeeper" stands on its own, but as a collection, the Week 2 series serves to showcase not just Australian playwrights, each with their own unique styles and visions, but the directors and actors importing those views to America. And that's just filth. Your last chance to check out the four plays of Week 3 is 9/27-9/30 at chashama.

Monday, September 24, 2007

PLAY: Ivo Van Hove's "The Misanthrope"

[N.B. There's a valid point to be made that you shouldn't read this review, or look at the picture below. You should just buy a ticket. Jaime says so. Matt says so. David says so. But I'm a critic, so below you'll find the reasons why you must see this production.]

Early on in The Misanthrope, our titular (anti)hero Alceste (a phenomenally dour, Rickman-like Bill Camp) proclaims: "We ought to punish pitilessly that shameful pretense of friendly intercourse. I like a man to be a man, and to show on all occasions the bottom of his heart in his discourse. Let that be the thing to speak, and never let our feelings be hidden beneath vain compliments."* If ever a director has agreed with this virtuous rant, it is Ivo Van Hove, who punishes his actors, using animalistic direction to drag out the savage bottom of their hearts, confrontational camera work to keep feelings from being hidden (or from running of stage), and superficial props (like food and garbage) to, ironically, strip away the superficial.

The play opens with sped-up shots of the cast having their makeup applied, which serves both to be frank (Van Hove seems reluctant to partition actors from their roles), and to establish the vanity of these characters. Then the overhead lights flicker with their harsh glow, and we find Philinte (a straight-faced
Thomas Jay Ryan) trying to convince Alceste to be a little less brutally honest. Poor Alceste tries, with the self-proclaimed poet Oronte (Alfredo Narciso), but the bile boils over. Only with his lover, Celimene (Jeanine Serralles) is he more docile: he has the blind faith that he can change her. Instead, he ought to fear her more: she flirts so shamelessly with her "friends" (Acaste and Clitandre, played by Joan Macintosh and Jason C. Brown) that even the hypocritical prude, Arsinoe (Amelia Campbell) chastises her, and her cousin, Eliante (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), refuses to take her side. The entire cast is outstanding, particularly Bill Camp, and Serralles stands out (as she did in The Black Eyed), with her easy transitions between moods, pivots which are essential for illustrating the double-talk of socialites.

For emphasis, Jan Versweyveld's set limns them with sleek black reflective walls, displays them on a giant screen that makes up most of the back wall, and frames them with a series of windowless fourth walls. No matter where they go, the cameras (hidden behind the walls) follow, especially when they run (as they frequently do) offstage. It's a powerful effect, heightened by the harsh modernization of Harrison's translation and by Van Hove's violent, surprising direction.

The most striking scene has Celimene and her high-powered friends gathered around a table filled with the most decadent and fatty treats, all simultaneously talking on their cell phones and gorgeously gorging. In walks a fed-up Alceste, who turns their dinner party into a grotesque as he anoints himself with hot fudge, douses himself in ketchup, pours spaghetti and whipped cream down his pants, and crowns himself with half a watermelon.

Photo/Joan Marcus

Inflammatory staging such as this amplifies Moliere's words: at last the physical is as scathing as the verbal, and still--because of the often metaphoric qualities--subtle to a degree. They also help to build the emotion: rather than rushed rhyming couplets, the text now has a jazzy quality to it, with seductive rolls on the floor between lovers or prolonged and ridiculous wrestling matches between rivals. Such direct actions give way to the language--now ragged and sometimes clipped--and juxtapose the clean structure with the dirty truth.

The choice for an overbearing soundtrack, added to an already cinematic production, does steal from the effect. The actors are so crisp (even if their mikes are not) that it is unfair to make them fight music as well as emotion to make their point. Also, there are some segments that Van Hove hasn't quite figured out: Alceste's metadramatic use of a cameraman to reveal Celimene's betrayal is funny, but nothing more, and a video conference call between two cell phones and a Blackberry is awkward. (To be fair, it's awkward in the script, too.) Every play, no matter how experimental, must have some rules, and at times, it feels like Van Hove is cheating for the sake of aestheticism, not the integrity of the script.

Let him cheat. Ivo Van Hove is a brilliant auteur, and his work here, while distinctive, doesn't hurt Moliere, it just makes the revival fresh and unique. Van Hove, who seems to agree with Alceste that there should be frankness in all things, has put his reputation out on the table, spattered and splayed it across the walls. In return, he has made an unforgettably graphic comedy out of The Misanthrope, and that's a beautiful thing.

*N.B. I don't have the 1973 Harrison translation, so this quote is from Bibliomania. I'd have used Richard Wilbur's, but his is too playful and polite to match Van Hove's vision.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

PLAY: "Six Degrees of Separation"

Photo/Jennifer Maufrais

John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation is a tough play to revive: there are seventeen roles, but only really three or four parts, and a good director needs to find enough balance to make the show seem evener than it is. Tom Wojtunik, however, looks like he's riding by the seat of his pants, thrusting props onstage with the aid of two gloved Seussian hands, setting large dramatic scenes in elevated boxes within the backstage wall, and letting the actors generally do as they please.

In some places, Wojtunik's style seems natural: the shock value of a naked hustler, say, or the beautifully bookending image of a spinning, double-sided Kandinsky (my favorite artist). In others--particularly with the children, or when there are many characters on stage--the blocking looks staged, and the acting seems forced. For a show that talks about the death of imagination, it's a little worrisome to see so much generic work, but then again, it's hard to flesh out parts that Guare has intentionally underwritten, especially in ninety minutes.

The challenge of Six Degrees of Separation is staying a character and not becoming a point. Too often in this production--as with the four children, the friends of Ouisa and Flan, and the various detectives and policemen--the roles become examples of disconnection, rather than simply people who happen to be disconnected from one another. (Ben Roberts and Jacqueline van Biene, who play two naive lovers from the West, are proof that you can naturally be both a real person and a model of something at the same time.) And while placing phone callers in a raised black box within the wall seems at first like a good device, it makes it less alienating, and leads the actors to overemote.

However, where Guare has focussed his script is also where Wojtunik has done a marvelous job. Ouisa (Laura Heidinger) comes across well as the socialite wife (two millions dollars, two million dollars) who develops a conscience for the world around her, whereas Flan (Mark Hattan) provides a nice balance for her zeal by remaining a cold yet genial realist. As for Paul, Richard Prioleau really makes him seem like an autodidact, the sort of self-made genius who is an expert at fitting pieces together, which in turn allows him to fit in. His transformation from a rough street youth who slurs the word "bottle," into the self-proclaimed son of Sidney Poitier is a rich one, and the only regret is that his big final scene is at a remove, set (like all phone calls) deep against the back wall.

Ultimately, Six Degrees of Separation comes off more as a pleasant production than as a biting look at the meaning of, and connection to, life. The hurried pace of the opening runs out of breath in the sagging middle of the play, and the actors all seem uniformly pleasant, without a scrap of menace or, more unfortunately, presence. The bold exceptions, both in the acting and Wojtunik's direction, only emphasize the separation, and though there are enjoyable moments, I left the theater a little disillusioned.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

PLAY: "Have You Seen Steve Steven?"

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Remember that time when you were a kid, and you thought you knew better than your parents? Or that other time, when you got older and you realized that, for all your rebellion, you were becoming your parents? Or that last time, when you were really old, and you didn't remember either of these times? Anne Marie Healy's new play, Have You Seen Steve Steven? is appropriately funny as it dredges through the truths of the first two things, reflected in a homey Midwest McFamily, the culturally klutzy (yet obsessive) Clarksons. But it's the third thing that at last turns the work into a frightening satire, with an affectingly disaffecting series of onstage dismantlings of both family and memory, those tenuous connections to actual life.

Unlike other modern satirists like George Saunders, Ms. Healy grounds her work in the laughable concerns of the Clarksons as they prepare for their old friends, the Dudleys. But wait! They're out of Shiraz, there's a bean dip stain--pimento!--on the sofa, and neither Mary (who's been boastfully preparing a "hot dish" to go with the Ritz Bitz) nor Bill (who's been basking in the glow of his SONY 9877 projector system) has showered yet. If anything, things are too normal, which leads us, along with the daughter, Kathleen, to suspect (in that Eerie, Indiana sort of way) the intentions of the soft-spoken, neon-orange-hatted, bear of a neighbor that is Hank Mountain. (Rightfully so, but still...)

Our concerns are whisked away, however, by the speedy and efficient pace of Healy's script, and Anne Kauffman's disconcertingly cheery direction (similar to that in The Thugs). Our concerns are set aside by the arrival of Jane and Dudley, who come across as a slightly more in-the-know (i.e., pretentious) version of Mary and Frank. In other words, they're the sort of people who "order" an exchange student so as to seem concerned, but can't pronounce her name (Anlor), nor care to learn it. Tommy, their son, doesn't buy into their consumerism, for which he is rewarded with the sobriquet "Mister Ex-Pat," nor is he especially interested in reliving old times with Kathleen, except for mentioning their old imaginary dog, Steve Steven.

The play operates at first as a farce, with pratfalls from Frank as he tries to cover up the bean-dip stain and sight gags from a parade of personality-stealing puffy coats. But between the creepy neighbors (Hank is joined later by a sprightly old maid, Vera) and Tommy's gloomy realism, the show keeps transforming into something more sinister. The smiles we took to be genuine are quickly exposed as screw-on, and though there's love between the parents, it's one of deadening comfort, not livening passion. At first, the mispronunciation of Anlor's name (Rumbone, Rambone, Randor, Ranflor, ultimately the commercially captivating Rambo) is amusing, but as the night goes on, it becomes more like a sick joke on everyone involved.

As for Have You Seen Steve Steven? itself, Kaufmann has nailed the mood, Healy has caught the rhythms, and the cast has vibrantly brought it all to life. There's certainly room for the quirky discomfort to be repetitious, and the play's conclusion is so extremely--almost militarily--staged that it's hard to follow ("NETWORK IS PANINI!"), but the production itself is so crisp, so genuinely warm, that we follow these families into the hell of growing up (as Thomas puts it, right before breaking down, "Yeah. I'm. Totally taking this like a man..."). By no means is Steve Steven an easy play (I'm not sure I understand it all), but it is enjoyable, especially in the quiet, honest and awkward moments between the performers--moments where, for a second, it looks like they're just about to really connect, only to just as suddenly dismiss the impulse with a well placed Midwestern "wull." The whole cast is exceptional, but Alissa Ford and Tom Riis Farrel (Mary and Frank) pivot between needs particularly well, and Matthew Maher (Hank) is easily one of the year's most memorable villains.

The one gripe I will take up with the play is that it's hard to take Anlor seriously, and her role in the play's conclusion confuses more than it coheres. It's not the actress's fault--Jocelyn Kuritsky is alarmingly funny--but given that there are already two strangers at the dinner party, and that the play is mostly an attack on the walled-in American lifestyle, there just isn't any need for another Other.

What there is room for (as fresh young plays like God's Ear, The Thugs, and Dead City have demonstrated) is for discomforting comedy, for we are now, more than ever, living in a world where our laughter comes veiled in the shadow of our collective nervousness.

Monday, September 17, 2007

PLAY: FRINGE, "bombs in your mouth"

Photo/John Scott

The bombs in the mouth from Corey Patrick's provocative title turn out to be nothing more than a poetic usage of popcorn, but the play is still plenty provocative. Bombs in your mouth is a compact comic drama about half-siblings reuniting in their Minnesotan home after six years to grieve the father neither of them loved. It isn't long before they start grieving their own more important failures, abetted by a few beer-chugging contests, some scatological childhood memories, and the sort of raging emotions that put the fun in dysfunction.

Patrick's script doesn't explain the dementia that led their father to write his memoirs on a roll of toilet paper, Kerouac style, nor the sudden snap that made Lily (Cass Bugge) write one of her ad spots as a whore thanking Valtrex for reducing her herpes long enough to get her bent over a table every now and again. Instead, the story puts us in their shoes, surrounding them with the frightening detritus of a life half-lived: cold spaghetti with tomato sauce and ketchup, Jello mold, beer, and Vikings blankets. It's not apparent at first what particular stick is up Danny's ass (Patrick), until we learn that his life--his entire world--goes only as far as the Pump 'n Pay he works at. He's not an alcoholic so much as a survivalist.

The greatest accomplishment of bombs in your mouth is how quiet something so raw can be. Director Joseph Ward understands what so many people in charge don't: that the sincerity of not knowing is a powerful, sympathetic, forgiving notion. As a result, there's not a moment that isn't focused and crisp, even if many of those moments are either nonsense arguments that rise out of agreements or are broken confessions of uncertainty. For all that the show yo-yos from highs to lows, Ward and his cast make it look more than natural: they make it plausible. By the end of bombs in your mouth, it's not just the squalling siblings who love each other: we love them, too.

Friday, September 14, 2007

PLAY: "The Australia Project II: Week 1"

Theater should do more than entertain, it should also inform. After all, every monologue is laced with ideas, every character with opinion, and every play with unique perspective. In the strong first week of The Australia Project II: Australia Strikes Back!, four playwrights give us their view of America, a full two hour sample of various styles and wonderful ideas ranging from the pregnant metapauses of Pinter's Explanation to the exuberantly sprayed tangents of The Port. There's New York through the dystopically glazed eyes of avalanche-dwelling Caroline (Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart), and then there's 1892's empire-gripped Australia, seen through the eyes of a loyal lighthouse keeper (The Melancholy Keeper of the Deep, Deep Green). The night goes easily from reverent to fervent, and despite the different tones, the plays do well to complement one another, covering up the occasional shortcoming with general freshness.

Pinter's Explanation, by Ross Mueller, is the somber opening act, a piece pregnant with Pinter's pauses, though far less snappishly playful. The lengthiest of the one-acts on display, it features Michael Szeles and Mary Cross as former lovers, now reunited nineteen months later to work on adapting an Australian play. Unfortunately, while Man has an ulterior motive (he wants to rekindle a relationship he soured with the repressed jealousy of her success), Woman has only monetary reasons for being there, and the emotional core of the play is one-sided and ultimately artificial. The good moments stem from the discussion of theater itself, something that artistic director Mark Armstrong knows how to steer. That conversation is certainly more exciting than Man's recitation of the monologue-within-a-play, and of Woman's angry rant at Man's selfish nature.

Far better is the hit of the night, Anthony Crowley's The Melancholy Keeper of the Deep, Deep Green. Bridgette Dunlap, who often directs adaptations of magical stories for the Ateh Group is well-suited for this tale of an American, Richard (Kevin O'Donnell), who travels to the past to convince Patrick (the excellent Andrew Lawton) to leave the lighthouse dark for an evening. Aside from the undertones of the costs of determinedly "right" American interference, the story focuses on the twinned labor and love of a honest man, a story built with rich, rusted language like "He emptied his lungs through his mouth," that brings to mind Clay MacLeod Chapman's volume of smoke.

Then there's Lally Katz's Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart, a peppy parable about what life means, when you strip away the false and fancy lights of the city and look for the love underneath. Here, New York is already dead, and it lives on only as a VR haven for suicides. MySpace New York, as it is called, is on the verge of crashing, and we follow Caroline (Nicolle Bradford) as she falls for Thornbury (Ryan King) and his sad Father (Joe Menino), who fears that he cannot save his stubborn son a second time. Katz leaves a lot to the imagination, as does Kara-Lynn Vaeni's direction, but the modern conversations are eerily prescient, and we can almost see the city flickering out.

Week 1 ends with Wesley Enoch's The Port, a one-man show starring Emma Jackson as a frantic traveler who opines directly to the audience on a slew of reasons why she hates (but doesn't really hate) Americans as she packs her port (Australian for suitcase) to travel somewhere else. This cram-packed rant is not only an impressive performance, but the most open of the pieces, shouting out pearls of wisdom about the importance of getting lost in the world (Pinter's Explanation also emphasizes this).

I end this review by emphasizing the same thing: it's necessary that we lose ourselves from time to time in thoughts that are not our own. Without that, we risk eventually becoming lost to the world, and stagnant within ourselves. Week 1 continues through Sunday, and Weeks 2 and 3 run 9/20-9/23 and 9/27-9/30 at chashama.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

PLAY: FRINGE, "Jamaica, Farewell"

It's no surprise that Debra Ehrhardt is working on a screenplay: her autobiographical one-person show, Jamaica, Farewell seems to be the Hollywood version of her "escape" from Jamaica. That's a shame, because Ehrhardt is so likable, with the sort of easily excitable yet fully dramatic storytelling personality that makes you want to watch and listen to her (the accent doesn't hurt either). But she's bogged down with making everything bigger, and that distracts from the quieter moments where Ehrhardt seems to really connect with the audience, as when she gives a tearful goodbye to her drunk, yet beloved father.

The play is divided into two distinct halves (interrupted, actually, by the sort of blackout that usually marks the end of a show). In the first, our hero (going by the name Debby Ann Phillips) recounts her dreams of America, all from the precocious stories she tells in school straight to her modern day visions of an idyllic "other." Remembering the story of a maid who married her way to America, she clings to the first American she finds: a faceless CIA agent who speaks in the monotone of classically one-dimension film heroes. Though it's conceivable she might woo her way to the US through his connections, she instead gets involved in an illegal smuggling operation, trying to seduce her CIA stooge into unwittingly transporting $1M across the border.

The next half of the play details all the ways in which this plan goes wrong, and Ehrhardt, the engaging storyteller, grows increasingly frenzied as she goes from the slums to even worse places, like Pigeon Town and Jackass Ridge. She has some adventures with some colorful characters, like the owner of a bordello, a pot-smoking driver, and a Satan-like rapist, but the story lacks a real emotional engagement with anybody but the narrator, and this turns some of her art into redundant, self-serving hype. Which is not to say that Ehrhardt herself is a fabulist or shameless self-promoter; it's just that her story often seems to be happening either to someone else or under the shield of an audience. Like a Hollywood movie, then, it's entertaining, but only up to a point.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

OPERA: "Don Giovanni"

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Although Don Giovanni is part of the opera-for-all program at New York City Opera, I guess it will always be that opera just isn't for all. In Hal Prince's production the limp trees are well-met by the limpid supertitles, and Susan Stroman's choreography, deliberate and symmetrical, could've come from a school on formless etiquette. Opera is built on long stretches of exposition, and nothing is ever said or done easily, but the trade off is that these sometimes mundane things are at least beautiful in the undertaking. Well, the only thing beautiful is the undertaking of Don Giovanni's soul, by a fantastically costumed Statue (the makeup artist ought to be credited). There are voices that are phenomenal, like Julianna Di Giacomo's Donna Elvira -- but squinting across miles of rows to see her pained expression takes away from what you hear in her soul. And you can tell that Daniel Mobbs is properly hamming up Leporello--you even laugh here and there, yourself--but when he sings, the orchestra washes his low baritone away. The debut performances of Mardi Byers, Aaron St. Clair Nicholson, and JiYoung Li (Donna Anna, Don Giovanni, and Zerlina) are perfunctory, with moments of mellifluousness, but nothing that you would call a breakout. I don't claim to be an expert on opera, so take this sand-grained post as opinion more than review, but this traditional Don Giovanni seemed to lack soul from the start.

NOTE: For more information on New York City Opera's inspired and ambitious, season-long OPERA-FOR-ALL program of $25 orchestra tickets, you can read my thoughts at metaDRAMA or just skip directly to their ordering site, here.

Friday, September 07, 2007

PLAY: "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Photo/Michal Daniel

To quote Shakespeare, Helena makes a heaven of hell. Martha Plimpton usually delivers (see The Coast of Utopia), so yes, I'll follow her, to "die upon the hand I love so well." Of course, there is no hell to be found in Daniel Sullivan's direction of A Midsummer Night's Dream, only magic. The First Fairy (Chelsea Bacon) does acrobatic burlesque with her tongue and body as she swings from branch to branch, easily purring her text, and Laila Robin's Titania plays footsie both with her words and her stockinged legs. Puck (Jon Michael Hill) is a magician who does slight of hand as much with his own spry self as with his multicolored cloths, and the faeries, creepy children straight out of Tim Burton's "innocence," give way to bucolic ditties in Oberon's (Keith David) deep dulcet tones. One never thinks "poor Bottom" in the light of such theatrical antics, much less Jay O. Sanders, who "brays" that role to great effect, nor does Sullivan dwell on the wild, unspoken violence: when it boils over, it is in stylized and greatly comic choreography, as Demetrius, Lysander, Helena, and Hermia all fly at one another in the name of love. The energy that Sullivan's achieved in this production is the true fairy dust that gives this Dream wings: reason and love, it's true, keep little company together.

Monday, September 03, 2007

PLAY: "100 Saints You Should Know"

The following is a preview of 100 Saints You Should Know, which opens September 18th. I do recommend it, so a discount offer is posted below, or right here. Playwrights Horizon, according to artistic director Tim Sanford, has a rushed rehearsal period and then a lengthy period of previews that allow them to use audience talk backs to grow and mature the play, with the idea being that they're a company for the development of new works and the strengthening of a playwright. I fully endorse this, although I do think that they should charge less for the first week (again, that's why I've included the discount). Setting monetary issues aside, at the matinée performance I attended on Sunday, September 2nd, we were all assured that very little would be changed, and while I can't say for sure that everything will be improved, I have faith (pun intended) -- particularly in the confidence of director Ethan McSweeny -- that the actors will deepen their connections to the Kate Fodor's already well written script.

100 Saints You Should Know places its story beneath an innocuous layer, not condemning anyone, but not saving them either. This matches the Church's conceit, well spoken by Father Matthew (Jeremy Shamos), that everybody is filled with evil, but is redeemable. However, Fodor puts this theory to the test: Theresa's (Janel Moloney) reckless lifestyle has led her to a dead-end job with Magic Maids, the only bright spot of which is her twice-a-week cleaning of Matthew's rectory. Her current boyfriend abuses her, as does her teenager daughter, Abby (Zoe Kazan), a selfish, rebellious girl who displaces all her self-loathing onto others.

As Theresa seeks religious answers, Matthew questions his own faith when the Church forces him to take a reflective vacation, where he can examine the urgings that brought him to savor the male nudes of George Platt Lynes. He does so by spending time with his simple mother, Colleen (Lois Smith), a creature of habit and intense faith, clinging to both because she has nothing else. But his quiet solitude is shattered by a random encounter with Garrett (Will Rogers), an awkward, somewhat retarded teen who looks to Matthew (a man his father calls a fag) as the only one who may understand the twin surges of joy and disgust that he gets from looking at male porn.

On the surface, everything is innocent: Theresa drags Abby with her on a road trip to find Matthew, and Garrett leaps at the chance to have a friend in Abby. But the heart is a more complex thing: whether or not Matthew is gay, but he is cut off from his own body and has never received the warm, unconditional love he craves, not even from his mother (who was simply raised in different times). Abby doesn't really want to be a bitch, but at the same time, after being so helpless, she has grown to enjoy feeling empowered. And Theresa, albeit repentant, knows little about how to interact with her daughter.

Ethan McSweeny directs the production with a stern, mechanical hand (chiaroscuro sliding walls of greenish gray subdivide scenes that revolve around an imposing, leafless metal tree) that fills more and more with life (as the scenes continue, the walls continue to fall away, to much better effect here than in Bartlett Sher's direction of Awake and Sing). Like Fodor, he doesn't offer any answers in his minimalist staging, but it's obvious that he's worked with the cast to delve into the subtext, as what's really continually on display are the actors. Lois Smith is the standout, completely losing herself (especially after the dreadful Surface to Air) in a role that offers the least obvious needs. Transformative, with her booming first words and lilting afterthoughts, Smith also gives Shamos clear and immediate needs to play against, and his frustration is all the more visible when set against that indomitable will.

Moloney also delivers a great performance as a reserved woman, tight as her jeans, who tries to release the baggage of the past. Her struggle is internal, captured in a barely maintained frown, and yet we can see it throughout, even when it's not exploding outward against her daughter. As for Shamos, though he begins by somewhat telegraphing his reactions (a habit, perhaps, from Gutenberg! The Musical!), his performance grows more natural, until by the second act, with his confessions of confusion, he achieves the tenderest moment in the theater this year (a simple touch, filled with heartbreaking beauty). With Rogers, there's a lanky eagerness in him that makes him likable, which is a real feat given how over-the-top his character's been written; Kazan, on the other hand, has all-too-believable dialog, and simply needs to go a little deeper in the second act to transform a good performance into a masterful one.

Ultimately, 100 Saints You Should Know is shaping up to be a very sincere show, filled with outstanding performances and some achingly beautiful moments. Perhaps it's too much to ask that you know a hundred saints, but try hard to see this everyday one.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

PLAY: FRINGE, "Lights Rise on Grace"

Five words, six years, three things. Three actors, three chairs, a series of light cues. But Chad Beckim's brilliant new play, Lights Rise on Grace is anything but by the numbers. Told through parallel monologues that evolve into fully fleshed scenes, Beckim uses the repetition of events and the shuffling of time and perspective to unify the three disparate roles into one. Along with Robert O'Hara's seamless direction, he transforms the spotlights into prisons and the actors into a contemporary urban chorus, catcalling disses from the background. This, while moving at a rapid pace that compresses three lives and ten years into a tight sixty minutes.

What I most admire about Beckim (and I said this once before about his play, 'nami) is that his appropriately named "Partial Comfort" productions has mastered the removal of "villains." This allows him to fairly paint Grace (Ali Ahn) as a sweet, innocent girl at the same time that she's a rebellious American to her Chinese parents, and to make her chaste, even when she talks about mindlessly fucking men on her back, on all fours, &c. It lets Large (Jaime Lincoln Smith) be a smooth-talking, street-smart Romeo, but allows him to keep the purity of that same Romeo. It allows him to feel real remorse at "untying the knot" and paralyzing his brother. It lets Riece (Alexander Alioto, more focussed and slick than in last year's Nelson) seduce and "corrupt" Large, while at the same time making him a genuine best friend; a good godfather, even if he's an ex-convict who killed a person or two. More than anything else, Beckim's plays allow us to truly sympathize with the characters, to understand situations that most of us will not encounter. It's a credit to the actors--especially the vulnerability of the deep voiced Smith--that we go so far as to believe those situations as well.

As for O'Hara, he directs with the same, smooth technique that won him an Obie for In the Continuum; here, as there, he allows darkness to play as walls, lets the characters define their own boundaries, and makes the most out of space, particularly when he compresses and pulls the trio together in silent commiseration. O'Hara understands that the theater doesn't need fancy gadgets and flashing lights; it just needs storytellers, and he's a master of accentuating the small nuances that tell more than any strobe light might ever imply.

Lights Rise on Grace is a simple story of the human heart, one that looks beyond race, sex, and orientation to remain true to that ever-pumping organ we all share. That is what makes it so compelling, and so beautiful.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

PLAY: FRINGE, "I Dig Doug"

Unless you followed the campaign trail of '04 (specifically the rise and fall of Howard Dean), there's a lot that you won't dig about I Dig Doug, an erratic, straining, and yet occasionally charming show about politics. The play is fun on account of Karen DiConcetto, who plays one of those unnamed, mass-market generated, self-proclaimedly vapid, girls who blogs about reality TV and falls in love with the struggles of those most real people and their hardest of hardships. But Rochelle Zimmerman, her co-writer and co-performer, makes it wearisome: not because of her acting, but because of the redundant shallowness of her convictionless characters.

Like one-line cameos from a sitcom's supporting cast, Zimmerman's multiple personalities are cardboard cutouts, when they should be cutups, and this turns I Dig Doug into heartless satire, as superficial and vapid as the main character. It takes a deus ex machina to justify the over-the-top narrative that waylays our Iowa-bound heroines with heartbroken waitresses, rifle-toting terrorists and Utopian Communist hippies. Bert V. Royal's direction only emphasizes the shallow choices, particularly the unambitious and fairly standard half-lit scene changes to irrelevant yet loud pop music. It accommodates the costume changes, but it does little else, just as the play speaks to the laughable state of politics, but affects little else.

For every well thought out moment, like Girl's explanation of why Doug's policies are important and relevant to her rich and mindless friend, there's a needless and unfunny joke (the buzzing vibrator, the half-whispered moan of Doug's name). The disconnected scene structure doesn't help much either: the story is made to serve the needs of the jokes. What the show really needs is a manager and a media team; someone willing to put the right spin on all the chaotic gags. If that's done, then I Dig Doug could actually run for something.