Wednesday, October 31, 2007

FILM: "Saw IV"

When the first Saw become surprisingly successful, a psychological horror film along the lines of Seven, there wasn't a single moviegoer who thought a sequel would be a good idea. And yet, something in the slick design of the film's gruesome horror sequences (gimmicks like those from Final Destination, but far more plausible in their construction) managed to salvage the second film, and by Saw III, director Darren Lynn Bousman had gripped the essence of the franchise: hairpin puzzles, overlapping pieces, and twisted design. In fact, for all the bloodletting, the creative team had even found a way to turn the redundant moralizing of the villainous Jigsaw into digestible Grimm-like fables meant to teach us to listen (Saw II), to forgive (Saw III), and now, with the most elegant (and improbable) of the series, how to let go of obsession (Saw IV).

This time around, the plot circles back to Detective Rigg (Lyriq Bent), who has been "so busy trying to stop [his] friends from making the wrong choices, that [he] has been unable to make any of [his] own." Just because the film opens with the gruesome and cinematic autopsy of serial-killing Jigsaw (Bousman's become a better director) doesn't mean that he can get away without being tested, and it isn't long before he finds himself with ninety minutes to save two of his friends: Detectives Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) and Mathews (Donnie Wahlberg, who Saw aficionados will better remember as the survivor of the last two films). Rigg's emotional, and in too deep, and he does more than play the game: he has to judge the other players, too. The costs have never been higher, or more emotionally manipulative: whereas Saw III asked Jeff (Angus Macfadyen) to salvage his own life by forgiving those who had initially ruined it (saving them from certain death), Saw IV seems to be recruiting Rigg as the next Jigsaw, with goading, blood-written notes asking Rigg to "See what I see," "Feel what I feel," "Save as I save," and "Judge as I judge." Other films have asked us to put ourselves in the shoes of a killer before, and have begged us to sympathize with murders, even -- in the most absurd of franchises -- to cheer for them. But few horror films have bothered to question what actually makes not just them, but those around them, tick.

Saw IV, more complex with every iteration (but not hopelessly so), also operates as a prequel, at last answering many of the personal questions we have for John/Jigsaw (a more mellow and human Tobin Bell): we meet his ex-wife, Jill (Betsy Russell), and learn that his first "game" was played out on the drug addict who accidentally killed their son in utero. That the gruesome pig mask developed from an unhealthy obsession with the zodiac (which seems to breed killers). That having spent time at a drug clinic, he understands that everyone must help themselves. And that while John may have begun his games alone, he's enfranchised Lionsgate studios with the apprentice(s) to continue the series indefinitely (though it's hard to imagine the series beating the peak it is at right now). These revelations are the best part of the film, the pieces of the puzzle that enhance not just this film, but the entire series. (We haven't yet jumped the shark.)

Where the film lags is with the additional layer of Agents Strahm and Perez (Scott Patterson and Athena Karkanis), two FBI agents who are investigating Rigg, who has now gone missing. As access to Jill's revelations of John's past, they're invaluable, but as targets and unwitting players in Jigsaw's game, they seem meaningless, in reserve, perhaps, for Saw V. (To avoid spoiling anything, let's just say you don't see either one die.) Likewise with the scenes involving Hoffman and Mathews: while it's good to see characters come full circle, it's unsatisfying to see former players turned into helpless victims (although, in fairness to the twisted logic here, Mathews has yet to actually save himself). The only dramatic impetus in the film comes from Rigg's moral journey and Jigsaw's broken past, and everything else comes off as woodenly written filler -- sawdust, if you will.

At 110 minutes, it's the longest and most involved of the films, but it manages to fly through the familiar paces like a springloaded dart, and it caroms from deathtrap to deathtrap on surprisingly fresh feet. The Saw franchise has the dubious honor of spawning soulless torture flicks, horror with perhaps many points, but no actual point. But individually, it has grown more distinct, graphic, and well-made with each iteration, and Saw IV is an awfully good entry into the canon.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

PLAY: "Speech & Debate"

Photo/Joan Marcus

I went to high school at roughly the same time as young playwright Stephen Karam (26), and things weren't quite as silly as they're presented in his excellent new play, Speech & Debate. But times have changed, and Karam's done his research: he's taken two of the oldest stereotypes in the book, the untalented drama "major" and the overzealous nerd, paired them with an openly gay student, and modeled the scenes after various exercises from Speech and Debate. For instance, Extemporaneous Thought, follows Diwata's stream-of-consciousness rants (and Casio-composed songs) as she vents the only way she can: to her website, Monoblog. Or Storytelling, in which nebbish Solomon tries to interview "queenie" Howie over the phone, looking for the drama behind a drama teacher's online solicitations for sex. Though the play continues through Cross Examination, Declamation, and Student Congress (to name a few), it never strains the idea, and each scene cleverly ties these disparate students into an unlikely friendship, the kind that, given each one's secret, they all really need.

Speech & Debate is light and open-minded, but this doesn't stop it from being critical and dramatic where necessary. That Mr. Karam is able to jump from a teleconferenced chorus of song into a trumpeted chatroom conversation, and from there into a debate on freedom of speech (within a school) or the right to personal secrecy, speaks more clearly than I can toward his strength as a playwright. He's helped by the intimacy of the classroom set (the audience is proximal enough to be students) and by the masterful direction of Jason Moore (Avenue Q) who knows a thing or two about indulging quirks while still being truthful, if not insidiously so.

The acting is probably the weakest part of the show, and that's more a testament to the rest of the production than it is a critique of actors Sarah Steele, Jason Fuchs, Gideon Glick, and Susan Blackwell. They're all good, and they play well off one another, but they're channeling such exaggerated tics that they sometimes come across as self-aware and glib, particularly with Mr. Fuchs, who pulls faces more than some of the actors in 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. It still works, but it'd be nice to see more than a brief glimpse of the real Ms. Steele, who is currently hiding behind what I'll call her character's Eyebrows of Indignation.

Some nitpicking seems de rigueur for a show that boldly traverses comedy and drama so well, but I wouldn't want to risk discouraging anyone from seeing this delightful show. This is good, topical theater, done professionally, and ticketed cheaply ($20), so get going!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

PLAY: "The Brothers Size"

Tarell Alvin McCraney is the phenomenal backlash to the backlash: while MTV and BET are busy recontextualizing classics as "hip-hoperas" or thinly veiled Shakespeare revivals ("O"), he's taken the modern, urban story of two brothers -- think Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog -- and written it with tribal African rhythms. Jonathan M. Pratt, off-stage but visible, provides a percussive heartbeat to the already throbbing text; in the center, Oshoosi Size (Brian Tyree Henry) sleeps on a uncomfortable cairn, hiding in sleep from his do-good brother, Ogun (Gilbert Owuor). One of the possible subjects of his nightmares, the leonine Elegba (Elliot Villar), stomps around him, imprisoning him within a circle of white powder. Literal and metaphorical, immediate and foreboding, poetic and brash, this simple element of staging is all the show needs (and director Tea Alagic doesn't waste our time with anything else). The rest of the show is as graceful in movement as it is abrasive in tone, like watching animals in a sumo match. McCraney has a real voice, and for all the spiritual masks, the metadramatic slips into third-person stage directions, and the borrowed songs, it is unmistakably fresh. When these brothers call out or at one another, it is with a truth polished so razor sharp that it bleeds on their tongues.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

PLAY: "Philoktetes"

Photo/Paula Court

I loawethed Philoktetes, which is to say that John Jesurun's production, getting a US premiere 14 years after it was written, sent me into a simultaneous spasm of awe and loathing. Awe because Jesurun simply writes engaging poetry: seething rants of verse-cum-curse that come in waves of a playful prosody that sustains long thoughts in short sentences bedazzled by common patois and modern jargon ("His head hit a bullet. Habeus corpus, a talking corpse.") Loathing because Jesurun's fanciful production seems as lost at sea as the roundabout, nothing-for-granted script: his twin screens project images above the center of the stage and on the floor itself, but this eerie superimposition of natural disasters (cyclones, thunderstorms) or calm visual "white noise" (rain-flecked water) doesn't connect with the rambling text.

That the show provokes two distinct feelings from me at the same time is no surprise: one of the central themes of Philoktetes is in the duality of being and non-being; we've all seen the unreliable narrator before, but in a revealingly meta moment, Philoktetes introduces himself in the third person and explains that he'll "give the clue, then the story, then the real story. First what they saw, then what was seen, then what was. The cadaver will direct the autopsy, a talking corpse narrating, a dead horse talking, a dead foot walking. Philoktetes is dead." This, more or less, is what follows: segmented scenes, carefully broken up by choreographed silences, that give the show the semblance of linearity, even was it falls into chaos.

It would be as easy to simply call Philoktetes mad as it would be to make him a representation of the AIDS epidemic: after all, he's been alone on the island of Lemnos for ten years, abandoned by his trusted leader and friend, Odysseus, because of a horribly disfiguring disease that discomforted those around him. Any of these things explain his resentment, his habits for word play, his split personalities, and general calm: if we cannot be sure that he is even alive, he certainly cannot be sure that Odysseus has actually come seeking him out (more specifically, Heracles's bow and arrow, which Philoktetes carries, and which Odysseus believes will allow him, at last, to conquer Troy). But there's something unsettling about this noncommittal language; what, for instance, are we to make of Philoktetes's comment that Neoptolemus, Achilles's son and Odysseus's comrade, is "such a fag"? (The response, by the way, is "What does that have to do with anything?" and Philoktetes's dismissal is, "Nothing, I just thought I'd notice it.") Sure, there's an implied subtext to the relationship between soldier and commander, but pointing it out for the sake of pointing it out is more redundant than the tautologies that Jesurun keeps stressing in his own highly symmetrical storytelling (and staging).

One thing Jesurun does to balance this willful obfuscation, this divide between text and image, between action and purpose, between life and death: he stills the actors. By quieting the emoting, at times to a hypnotic lull, a meditative prayer, or an itemized list, he is able to create pockets of sudden, visceral excitement. The cast handles this well, with Louis Cancelmi (as Philoktetes) eking out some of the wryest humor this side of The Misanthrope, and Will Badgett (as Odysseus) finding a frustrated indignation at having to deal with such an unwieldy tool. Jason Lew has the hardest time, forced to address an upstage video camera that projects his face to us, but turns his body away, and this disassociation carries over into his performance.

I loathe the production (the multimedia, the life-choking restraint), but am in awe of the core (the text, the actors). Watching Philoktetes, I care too much about trying to "get it," but reading the script late at night, in a fevered frenzy, and at my own inquisitive pace, I'm much more enamored with the philosophical ideas, thrilled with how bedecked they are in vulgarities. This is, perhaps, a work to be explored rather than experienced.

Friday, October 26, 2007

PLAY: "The Overwhelming"

Photo/Joan Marcus

"The Overwhelming" is an accurate, if not understated, description of the "cats and rats" cycle of fear that led to a mass and swift genocide in 1994 Rwanda when the Tutsi-led RDF seized power. As such, it is also an accurate phrase to be the title of J. T. Rogers' political and human play about an American family -- real outsiders -- caught in the middle of what they cannot understand or name enough to even fear properly. Rogers' script is smooth, chopped into scenes (not to mention languages) that easily elide in and out of one another in an effort to provide an unbiased view of the Hutu and Tutsi struggle. His play is also subtler than Hotel Rwanda, taking place in the absolute calm before the storm, and without any hero, just a series of increasingly (or decreasingly) sympathetic characters.

Jack Exley (Sam Robards) has come to Rwanda on a last-ditch effort to salvage his scholarly career. He plans to write about his former college roommate, Joseph Gasana (Ron Cephas Jones), now a leading AIDS doctor, only to find that his friend is missing, killed, and then perhaps still alive, and perhaps not really his friend, and possibly not even a very good doctor. He's also brashly brought his family into this terse land: his new wife, Linda White-Keeler (Linda Powell), and his teenage son, Geoffrey (Michael Stahl-David). Linda, who is African-American (the play has a laugh at this term), leaps at the opportunity to further her connection with "home" (she's from Detroit), and to write new creative nonfiction from her personal experiences, most of which come from the charismatic Rwandan government official, Samuel Mizinga (Charles Parnell). Geoffrey leaps at the chance, too: to separate himself from his father, something he's assisted in by his peer, Gerard (Chris Chalk), a secretly Americanized teen who is happy to show Geoffrey where to "make sex with the ladies."

This may seem like a few too many subplots, but J. T. Rogers immerses us in it, which is where the strong casting comes in. The Overwhelming, dealing entirely in shades of gray (with the foreboding of red), keeps introducing dual characters: when Exley tries to find his friend, he encounters a vindictive policeman and a helpless UN major, both played by Owiso Odera. When there's information to barter, it comes from a snooty French diplomat and bitter South African NGO worker, reflections of one another played by Boris McGiver. Those actors who stay more or less in one role end up with untold layers and nuances: as U.S. embassy official Charles Woolsey, James Rebhorn makes us hate the cold aloofness with which he discourages Jack and brags about living pension to pension. But sure enough, in a bittersweet scene on a golf course (the play is mostly set in a resort, which hammers home Rwanda's "vertiginous dichotomy"), we find that Woolsey cares very much for the home he's made, and is dismissive out of frustration, not callousness. There's simply nothing he can do.

Where The Overwhelming flags a bit is in the direction from Max Stafford-Clark, who keeps underscoring the scenes. It's bad enough that Rogers has to state the obvious (in one scene, a Hutu villager talks Linda out of buying cabbage from a Tutsi whore), but do we really need a mountain of skulls to pop out of the wall? Or even the one "subtly" spotlit one stuck in the background's frame? The tension builds from the language, an increasingly aggressive spiral of conversations that use repetition as emphasis; it isn't necessary to have a literal thunderstorm too, or to project a swimming pool onto the ground.

Though we all know where The Overwhelming is headed, both from subtle cues and overbearing ones, Rogers and the excellent cast manage to keep disarming us. Everyone lies, everyone runs, and everyone has a moment of inner conflict, which is what transforms this from a political mouthpiece into an actual drama. Some moments are more defined than others, as with Jack's climactic choice (and who could do otherwise?) or Geoffrey's bloodied realization that he's out of his league, but even the Linda's tender needs are well acquitted when the judgment comes knocking.

This is an awfully impressive production -- important, too -- and if it reproducing a revival of Cabaret is what it takes for Roundabout to finance projects like this, then they absolutely ought to proceed, full steam ahead. There was a class of students when I attended, right beside them was a row of elderly women, and then there was me. I'd say we all learned a lot, and I doubt many left that theater underwhelmed.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

PLAY: "Pygmalion"

Photo/Joan Marcus

David Grindley is following on the heels of Journey's End with another excellent revival, Pygmalion. And while the focus has changed from crass war to high etiquette, the shows have much in common: save for a wide-open scene that's inaudibly set in the middle of a rainstorm, Jonathan Fensom's sliding shoebox sets are as claustrophobic as ever and, thanks to Jason Taylor's lighting, either dimly lit (in Mr. Higgins's study) or blindingly bright (his mother's drawing room). Not to mention returning stars Jefferson Mays and Boyd Gaines, who play the intellectual naifs who tamper so unwittingly with a young woman's character and soul. Mays is the ideal choice to play this dialectic and didactic dialect coach, given his strong TONY winning performance in I Am My Own Wife, and Gaines (as in Gypsy, earlier this year) provides an upright balance for that petulant youth. Claire Daines is in tough company, but she acquits herself well -- I only wish that her accents didn't seem to stifle her physical freedom. The far better example of cockney transformation comes from Doolittle's moralizing father, played here by Jay O. Sanders (the exaggeratedly straight man, as he was in A Midsummer Night's Dream). The production really makes the most of Shaw's use of language, especially given such hummers of lines like "What is life but a series of inspired follies?" or "Do any of us understand what we're doing? If we did, would we do it?" Grindley's direction makes for a realized life that is inspired (but not folly), and one need only look closely at Mays's flash of realization at the close of the play to see how true it is that we never truly understand ourselves.

For more information about HIPTIX (how I saw this show), check my side site, metaDRAMA.

Monday, October 22, 2007

PLAY: "Seating Arrangements"

The Bats are to acting as the New Theater Corps would like to be for criticism: a local repertory company of upcoming talent who all share a passion and enthusiasm for the arts. On that basis alone, may The Flea, which hosts them, receive all the grants it needs, and many charitable donations. One such grant, from the Danish Arts Council, has brought the best out of what the Bats can offer with their young blood, as well as what The Flea can offer as a welcoming theater: in this case, Pold Worm Jensen's seating ARRANGEMENTS, or the most fun you can have at a banquet (that isn't really a banquet). Which makes sense when you consider that the play is based on Babette's Feast, but not at all about that famous short story-cum-film, save as a jumping off point for the actors, jumping in and out of characters in a semi-futurist style.

Since June 2007, Erik Pold (joined by set designer Stine Worm Sorensen and dramaturge Allan Richardt Jensen, all from Denmark) has been working with eight of the Bats to piece together a celebratory and revelatory piece about the values important to them -- not the modesty meets extravagance of the 1881 feast (these actors have great imagined lives, but as they confess, are mostly all without health care), but about their discomfort. In a stylized formality, these actors riff off the original material and jump into telling their own stories, the only ones they really and truly can, be that a hyperbolic rant against Donald Trump's SoHo zoning, or about recent immigration legislature.

Some of these brief conversations are paradoxic: a comfortable actress speaks about being uncomfortable having to discuss her Mormon roots (Jane Elliot). Some are familiar: an actor talks about how his repressed past in Ireland kept him from being who he truly was, until he found himself able to be persecuted for it in America (Donal Brophy). Some actors rap (Bobby Moreno), sing (Max Jenkins), or violin (Sylvia Mincewicz) through their frustrations, joys, and pains. Whatever the form, whatever the topic, it is all entertainingly intimate, not shared across a stage, but from plated seats beside you at the table. (Well, OK, if you're not early enough to snag a seat, you'll have to watch from a more formalized seating arrangement.)

Occasionally, the play is too formal; it would've been nice to see looser transitions, more natural moments of spontaneity, and more genuine conversation outside of the larger "numbers" that make the actors leap from their seats in outrage. At the same time, Pold keeps the "food" fresh by playing enough with blocking and lighting to make those events theatrical, yet personable. (I, for instance, was Riccardo, Assistant Sector Manager for a moment.) The thoughts are not unified, nor even complete, but the actors are, and I'll take the honesty of their clamor over the dissembling glaze of some flimsily commercial play any day.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

PLAY: "Yank!"

Photo/Jennifer Maufrais Kelly

Before the first chords of Yank!, The Gallery Players management spoke to the audience about ways in which it could help convince them to add more original musicals to their seasons. They mentioned voting for them over at the New York Innovative Theatre Awards. (Check!) They suggested telling their friends about it. (Check!) Then, having focused their creative minds into this wonderful production, they seemed to run out of other ways we could help convince them. Here are a few of mine:

(1) David Zellnik is a wonderful playwright. His last show, Serendib, balanced science and nature, playing the two off each other in a paralleled story between monkey and man. His new musical, Yank! (music by his brother Joe), is a warm-hearted and honest tribute to the WWII era, both in musical styling and gay prejudice. Country boy Stu (Bobby Steggert, well-qualified for the role after being a delightful rube in Roundabout's 110 in the Shade), out of place in the military, finds solace in the strength of Mitch (Maxime de Toledo), whose cool demeanor and charismatic looks (think Ben Affleck) give him the sobriquet "Hollywood." However, their romance is far from dreamlike (though there is a "jump the shark" dream ballet): Stu flees the front when a more "open" soldier, the gay-and-loving-it Artie (a delightful Jeffry Denman) picks him to be a photographer for Yank! magazine.

(2) Revivals are done to expose new audiences to old classics, or to bask in the memories of the past, but new works like Yank! are able to expose old audiences to new classics, while still giving the memories of the past. Here are the enjoyable song stylings of the '40s, but here's a story that's fresh and relevant, too. Languorous radio riffs like "Blue Twilight," up-tempo comic drifts on "Saddest Gal What Am," and tight choral numbers that can play the military aspect ("Credit to the Uniform") in the same breath as the civilian ("Your Squad is Your Squad"). Want a sweet, quiet duet, sung with nothing more distracting than a spotlight? ("A Couple of Regular Guys.") Want a toe-tapping, bring-the-house down number? ("Click.")

(3) It's normally awfully expensive for audiences to give a new show the benefit of the doubt. But $18 tickets scream for people to cross the river, especially when that new show has Broadway talent (Steggert and also Nancy Anderson, who plays all the female parts), a catchy score, and a revealing glimpse at an often glossed over truth about the military. For that price, you do get a few over-quirked actors, but everyone's hard-working, and the chorus of purposefully stereotyped actors ("We got one of each kind," says the Sarge) are as good as their names imply: Tennessee, Czechowski, Professor, and Rotelli, played to the hilt by Tyson Kaup, James Stover, Daniel Shevlin, and Chris Carfizzi.

Truth is, I have an ulterior motive. The Zellnicks have another musical, Casebook of Hapsburg, R---, and given how hard it is to mount even a black box show, we need more theaters with budget-stretching directors (like Igor Goldin, who crisply uses two rolling metal walls in about every way you can think of, and then some), and more audiences willing to tackle stories that have more than mere fluff. The Gallery Players are on the cusp of both, so let's all just push.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

PLAY: "Spain"

The only thing I could say after seeing Spain, mouth agape with the time I'd just wasted was: "Really?" To which I could only answer, of course not; Spain is fantasy masquerading as allegory (except Jim Knable doesn't have anything to say, just plenty with which to play). One doesn't learn anything from Barbara (a gleefully unnerving Annabella Sciorra) conjuring a Conquistador (a mustache-twirling Michael Aronov) from her repressed Freudian psyche (the script has a more lavish description, but this is all I remember). Certainly nothing about how she feels for the husband who just left her (Erik Jensen), now just a punchline waiting to be run through with a sword, nor why she hangs with the dour, aptly named Diversion (Veanne Cox). Director Jeremy Dobrish has them run through a series of hoops, wasting Lisa Kron on a series of exaggerated one-liners (she plays a self-aware mystic), and even when the acting soars, the fantasy fails. The set hinges open to reveal the "golden heart" of Spain . . . and it's what looks like golden aluminum foil, wallpapered into some minimalist vista. At one point, Distraction reveals her own longing, then bites into a big, unpeeled orange, lets the juice drip down her face, and exits. (Sanity exits stage left.) Knable's thrilling comic momentum promises the exotic but quickly fizzles out into the mundane neurotic.

I'll say this for MCC Theater, however: they've got a discount offer (Jaime speaks better about all the discounts currently out there) called $20 under 30. It's unfortunately still a rush, much like the occasional Off-Broadway 20at20 deal, but at least the whole two hours in advance bit gives you enough chance to swing somewhere else if, for some reason, Spain is sold out. These are the right initiatives and steps for building an audience (and getting loyal fans), and Spain is very much a show for younger audiences (it just happens to rub me the wrong way). It's just a shame that MCC (which already does great work with its Youth Company -- [disclosure] I was a member) is getting beat by other large Off-Broadway discounts, like NYTW's $20 Sundays (or SoHo Rep's insane $.99 Sundays). Still, steps in the right direction, no?

Friday, October 19, 2007

PLAY: "Pulp"

Pulp, a new horror anthology by Nosedive Productions, isn't just right for the October season, it's exactly what the doctor ordered. According to that eviscerating doctor of the opening number, "Metaphor," some pain is necessary to satisfy the audience's desire for catharsis, but this well-assembled production is pretty good about cauterizing the weaker portions and the evening is mostly a delightfully grim success.

The play follows our hosts, the Blood Brothers (Pete Boisvert and Patrick Shearer), as they shuffle across the dimly lit stage, making sure the show goes on, whether they have to force it to perform or not. Clad in slick but funereal suits, with bald heads and faces as white as the gleam in their sinister smirks, the two lend cohesion to the play, framing devices straight out of classic comics like Tales from the Crypt or House of Mystery. Shearer even sounds like the Cryptkeeper, all glib narration and unmasked revelry in the twists and comeuppances that befall each character.

Speaking of twists, the three central pieces by Mac Rogers, Qui Nguyen, and James Comtois all deliver. Comtois's "Listening to Reason," the strongest of the three, introduces us to a homicidal maniac (although, as our host points out, fan, addict, or fiend is more appropriate) who is undone by the very thing he takes such pleasure in, and the denouement--an intimate moment of uncontrollable laughter from the cornered killer, played by Marc Landers--is one of the creepiest things within Pulp. Rogers's "Best Served Cold," a close second, succeeds by pandering to the inevitable twist: our narrator delights in reminding Brianne, a waitress being held hostage by the wronged Marybeth, that she only needs to stall for eight minutes before a cop will arrive. The suspense is driven by this persistent nagging, and Jessi Gotta and Anna Kull deliver tight performances as the waitress and revenger. Nguyen's piece, "Dead Things Kill Nicely," suffers from some unbalanced performances, particularly from Stephanie Cox-Williams, and lacks the momentum of the other plays, but by keeping it physically close (and with such attention to the sex appeal of pulp's omnipresent damsels in distress), it manages to convey the proper mood.

The other acts are short and incomplete vignettes, but they work as palate cleansers, and go with the collective atmosphere of Nosedive, in which playwrights, actors, and directors freely participate in everyone's plays, and everyone has a chance to stand out (like Brian Silliman, as the inept but always smiling Magician in "Something Up His Sleeve"). That spirit also lends Pulp a bevy of sight gags (beyond the always funny splatter of blood packets), and that comic timing, applied to suspense, is what helps transition the pulp story to the stage. Nosedive knows what they're doing, and Pulp goes down smooth.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

PLAY: "Me, Myself, I and the Others"

Remember the old commercials with the egg frying in the pan? You know, this is your brain on drugs? Well, that brain has nothing on the Seussian fantasy Wreckio Ensemble has cooked up in Me, Myself, I, and the Others, a madcap physical comedy written and co-directed by Dechelle Damlen. (She is joined by Kimberlea Kressal, who is excellent at directing such highly stylized pieces.) The mind is an asylum, populated by its own Looney Tune-like manifestations; the result is something like an old time circus freakshow. Entertaining, but you can't live in a concept, no matter how brilliant or well-executed.

I love Jian Jung's impressive Wonka-meets-Star Trek laboratory and Oana Botez-Ban's dysfunctional costuming (white coats meet colored tights, garters, and green medical gloves). But what works aesthetically only exacerbates what doesn't work emotionally. The show is dealing entirely in caricature, so there's no growth: in fact, there's very little drama. The expressionist absurdity sees to that, with conversations not just overlapping, but literally competing for attention. When the chaos coalesces, it all seems worthwhile, but Me, Myself, I, and the Others isn't sane: it wants to sustain the neuroses, not explain them.

Day Fantasist (Randi Berry) squeals about her hopes and dreams, then plunges into fright at her inadequacies; Random Haphazard (Benjamin Spradley) lurks by drawers filled with paper memories, cataloging our "hero's" thoughts; and Eye The Third (Karly Maurer) runs the show from a raised podium, like a DJ constantly scratching and remixing stray thoughts. Hangfire Rundwild (Santana Dempsy) is the wild child, clad in 80s spandex and a yellow boa styled into a punk lock of hair, and she jumps around stage with great enthusiasm for repeating the catchy choruses of songs ("You say hello, and I say goodbye"), and Really Mean (Anna Lamadrid) stands aloof, taking note of all the unsaid nasty thoughts like a legal stenographer. What little conflict there is in these disparate parts belongs mainly to Myself Workhorse (Paul James Bowen), who protests the unequal distribution of work, but his struggle for identity (or at least a job description) is artificial drama, as is the arrival of the real antagonist, Mr. Hang Back (Emily Firth).

The cast is so committed, they should be committed, and their endurance is at such a high level that the audience is at least kept on its toes. But these manifestations are set in their ways, and they have no inner selves, only a collective outer self with high tension, allergies, a violent craving for chocolate cake, and a need to sever ties with her old lover, none of which are truly satisfying perceptions to have. And because the play never fills us in, it only truly works when it remains eccentrically opaque. Perhaps Me, Myself, I and the Others would work better as a gallery installation -- something audiences could walk into, interact with, and then run from at the first yawn of boredom. As is, it's a pure experience that overstays its welcome.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

PLAY: "Xanadu"

My experience with Xanadu was remarkably like that of the first time I ever played with a helium balloon. Fitting, since this adaptation (of what I'm told is a horrific movie) is well aware that it's full of hot air. (Hot air, unlike Douglas Carter Beane's one-liner script, isn't always bluster; here it's also momentarily uplifting.) Specifically, the first fifteen minutes are just a limp balloon, tethered to some hologram and a suspended mirror, plus the bland songs "I'm Alive" and "Magic." But then the show picks up, having inhaled all that untapped helium, and it zooms by with the ridiculous fury of a high-pitched over-the-top Australian accent (courtesy Kerry Butler) and what seem to be the unlimited vocal ranges of Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa in "Evil Woman."

From there, Christopher Ashley really finds his own pacing, with the appropriately charming "Suddenly," followed by the impressive non-disco rhythms of the slow jazz "Whenever You're Away From Me" and '40s/'80s clash on "Dancin'." Unfortunately, the helium runs out shortly after "Strange Magic" (which, like most of the show is really only held aloft by the strong, energetic voices): while the sight gags improve (roller skates and leg warmers are joined by Pegasus, a Cyclops, and a centaur), the music starts getting repetitious. The glitzy, catchy finale, "Xanadu" only manages to remind the audience that it's just watched something glitzy and catchy, but doesn't feel like a real ending. Douglas Carter Beane's played the show so much for laughs that he really doesn't have anywhere to go beyond the Broadway jokes.

Let's call a disco ball a disco ball: Xanadu is a giant in-joke that's supported by some truly gifted performers, particularly Curtis Holbrook. (Cheyenne Jackson is dead-on as a vapid Venice Beach artist, but he overplays it into a hokey, homegrown monotony.) But when the jokes pile on the shallow spine of the film, and numbers with Tony Roberts remain resolutely flat (being old and famous does not get you a free ride), it's not really much to watch. Hilton Als (of The New Yorker) calls the show anti-Broadway, but while that may have been true for the old days of Broadway, this self-referential pomp and substanceless circumstance is no different from a Mel Brooks vehicle, or, say, Spamalot, across the street.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

PLAY: "I Used to Write on Walls"

Photo: Working Man’s Clothes/DARR Publicity

Working Man's Clothes has another gripping, visceral hit on their hands, following up on Penetrator with Bekah Brunstetter's I Used to Write on Walls. Not that there aren't blemishes on that wall, or that the chalk Brunstetter uses to pen her play doesn't snap at a bunch of places; it's just that the overwhelming mood of the piece, from Georgia's beat poetry to Mona's mania to Anna's precociously dirty mouth, is one of lurking hilarity. And while the connection of disparate characters (four women, one wild surfer dude) isn't as strong as, say Six Degrees of Separation, it's fresh, hip, and a lot of fun.

The credit for much of that falls to the cast, who don't drop a beat, even when speaking a blend of the ridiculous and beautiful (i.e., "Teeth are the dirty little secret of your face."). Every line sounds natural and crisp, especially those from Diane (a gifted Maggie Hamilton), a vulnerable cop who we first meet leaving a lengthy, bubbly message with her date from the previous night, full of justifications, weak mirthless laughs (like hiccups), and a barely withheld desperation: "Thanks for the sex," she says, closing the phone. Then, looking at it quizzically, "Talk to you again never."

Like most of the women in this play, Diane is smart, and well aware of her faults: she just isn't able to stop them. Anna's mother (Rachel Dorfman), for instance, has to keep telling her beautiful daughter not to look her in the face because it burns her: if she could, she would just steal that face. Joanne (a loose and very pleasant Darcie Champagne) introduces herself to Diane with an acknowledgment that she usually doesn't have much self-confidence, as she hates her vagina. And Trevor (Jeff Berg, whose experience playing Tom Cruise has really paid off here), the "raddest philosopher ever" who they all admire, keeps sinking into woman after woman as a way of punishing himself before God for leaving his one true love behind. Not all of these exaggerated traits work, for instance, the dotty sadist, Mona (a terrifyingly good Ellen David), works more to wake something up in Trevor than she does as an actual character. And the daughter, Anna (Chelsey Shannon), is more a comic device than a need for the play. That said, she's still delightful, which is how Brunstetter gets away with her odd moments.

As co-directed by Diana Basmajian and Isaac Byrne, I Used to Write on Walls flies by in a rush. Even the intermission seems swift, with the first act energizing the audience in the same way as coffee (it almost shouldn't be, but it is). The second act gets a little cramped on stage, as the direction starts to blur the boundaries of each scene, but if sets and lighting are what WMC has to skimp on to produce shows like this, then so be it (read: donate money). I Used to Write on Walls refers to that personal sliver of regret we all have that we don't still do the things we used to. Thankfully, refreshingly so, Bekah Brunstetter hasn't given up on illustrating them to us.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

PLAY: "Start Up" (GTA's Road Theater USA)

Start Up is destined to be one of those plays that is more remembered for its vehicle (an obnoxiously green school bus on a sixteen-state road trip to bring theater to the heart of America) than for its concept. That's unfortunate, because the actual ideas of this play are some of Roland Schimmelpfennig's strongest, and certainly the most accessible for America. (No surprise, it was written for our uncultured shores.) Our three ambitious and clueless German heroes (Kati, Rob, and Micha) have come pursuing the loftiest of American dreams. They want to start a business, yes, but not an easily marketable one: they want to theatrically share German culture. Instead, the proprietor, Ike, keeps pleading that they open a video store instead ("There's a real need for a video store").

So what's more important: culture or capitalism? It's a very good question to be asking, especially for theater, an enterprise which isn't always economically feasible. GTA, a company run by actor Ronald Marx (who last brought us the 2006 Stadttheater at HERE Arts Center), is looking to do both, by boldly marketing eccentric modern shows not just to New Yorkers, but to those who would be tourists, and he'll be bringing the theater to Kentucky, Tennessee, George, Arizona, and a lot of other hub cities that we wouldn't normally associate German theater with.

To handle such an enterprise, however, GTA has turned to a shaky multimedia presentation that keeps getting in our faces, only to back away. Start Up starts up by pumping the audience up with the Rocky theme, but then plunges them into a darkness lit only by the tech team's open laptop computers and a microwave that is steadily working its way through a popcorn bag. Later, Micha and Liz start to get a little wild and crazy, only for the show to cut to a lengthy documentary-style segment that follows Rob, Kati, and Ike as they journey around NYC to get food. (This segment may have been filmed live, but it hardly matters: theater is never as raw as it is when it's directly in front of us.)

The only place where this works is when the pace breaks so that Micha can lecture us (complete with PowerPoint slides) on Germany's economic fall and rise ("Nobody remembers the Marshall plan anymore"). It's a ballsy demonstration of the very type of "theater" that nobody likes to sit through, but it's necessary for contrast with the only types of conversations Ike (the American) can have with anyone outside his culture, with films as a sort of bastardized universal language. America is, according to the characters, "a country of cinematography," and it's not hard to see that: clips of Das Boot segue into recently filmed segments of the touring Germans in front of local landmarks (like Doc Holliday's over on 10th and A, or Coney Island), and conversations often wax on a yearning for the Western vistas of rolling hills (one scene overlaps one such rustic monologue with a lengthy zoomed tracking shot of New Yorkers walking by PS 122).

The filmed portions of Start Up are a little hard to take in; Schimmelpfennig's writing works best in close proximity, where he can still surprise you with an act of violence (Start Up happens to be calm and demonstrative, but Roland Sands, as Ike, is able to at least threaten it at any moment). On stage, it's also easier to see the talents of the cast, who act so casually familiar with one another that it really does almost feel like we're intruding on their business affairs, even when there's a panel of people on laptops stage left, or a boom mike operator following them around. Which, you know, really does sound a lot like America after all.

Friday, October 12, 2007

PLAY: "The Ritz" and "Mauritius"

Photos/Joan Marcus


Stamp collectors (or should I say philatelists) know this better than anyone: errors are what keep things interesting. Theresa Rebeck is an overt writer, very explicit and crisp in tone and mannerisms, so she explains this within the play itself: damaged people are interesting too. So are interesting hybrids of character types: F. Murray Abraham plays an arms-dealing stamp enthusiast named Sterling, and Alison Pill plays both a scrap and scrapper of a girl as Jackie, who is best described as the flickering exhaust of a lighter: dangerous and fragile all at once. This is important, as Rebeck's plot is fairly obvious and in the familiar con-game tenor of early Mamet: her characters are what sustain the script, her actors are what fill the stage (John Lee Beatty's sets are intentionally bland so as to support the squalor of Jackie's life). I'm glad, then, to have Doug Hughes (Doubt) in command, who eschews spectacle for essence, and as a result often gets it. As for the rest of the cast, Bobby Cannavale understands both the aggression and the silence of a smooth talker, and Katie Finneran (who was a riot in Pig Farm) inverts her deadpan to make one of the most numbingly unconscious villains I've seen on stage. (As for Dylan Baker, both the actor and the character are superfluous: Baker's sleepwalking through a boring role.) Doesn't matter, really: I couldn't keep my eyes off Pill, who has a special tenacity of spirit that is as irresistable here as it was in Blackbird and Lieutenant of Inishmore. She'll grow up to give my favorite actress, Mary Louise Parker, a run for her money, mark my words.

The Ritz

There's nothing momentous about The Ritz; the closest Terrance McNally's script approaches to serious issues is when Gaetano Proclo (Kevin Chamberlin) tells Chris (Brooks Ashmanskas, delightfully spry, and as swishy in his movements as his floral robes), that gays aren't normal. He doesn't say it exactly like that, but his accidental outburst is clear: American "tolerance" is more ignorance than acceptance. However, The Ritz is a farce (one already stripped of the pallor of AIDS), so Gaetano apologizes and befriends Chris. He's just a straight man (literally) in this comedy hiding in a gay Manhattan bathhouse to escape his murderous brother-in-law, Carmine Vespucci (Lenny Venito, a real ham). And what a place: on Scott Pask's three-tiered birthday cake of a set, there's always some sort of icing going on, be it that of the chubby chasing Claude Perkins (Patrick Kerr, who plays the part as creepily as the character's name), or that of the go-go goer, Googie Gomez. (Rosie Perez plays the part well, enthusiastically violent in both her intentionally awful singing and clumsy seductions, but she's just inaudible or unintelligible half the time.) Joe Mantello does a tremendous job of keeping a lot of half-naked men in action (Take Me Out had to have helped), and the only irritating part of the show remains the role of Brick: Terrence Riordan doesn't look intimidating enough for that Mickey Mouse voice to be funny. Luckily, Chamberlin grounds the whole show in a wide-eyed glaze of stupor, terror, and (at times) curious amusement: he's the row of neon bulbs in "The Ritz" that keeps it from being "The Pitz."

Thursday, October 11, 2007

PLAY: "Good Heif"

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Good Heif, a new play by Maggie Smith, takes place in a timeless, arid wasteland, where sons, their pa's, their pa's pa's, their pa's pa's pa's, and all all's spend or spent their lives diggin'. They do so without question, entrenched in an unnamed pain that they overcome by becoming inured to it. The pleasure of sex is now the violence of "fuck," a euphemistic "diggin'" that Pa (a gruff and believable John McAdams) suggests the growing Lad (Christopher Ryan Richards) attend to with any ol' heifer. Sex is a fragile dust-thing, like the rest of their limbo existence, and Ma (Barbara Pitts) refuses to even acknowledge it ("ya plant an appley seed and then it grows and so do ye--Everyone knows"). In fact, she won't even touch her family, and Pa and Lad can only watch her darkly comic seizures, yelling at her to get up, a resilience that qualifies Ma as "a good woman." No surprise then that there's no God here, just a Devil that they must pray away.

This reluctant emotion, this closeted heart, makes Good Heif itself into an arid wasteland. Overly stylized and lost in metaphor, the script may beat to the same measured staccato of the diggin', but it isn't bearing any fruit either, and once it outgrows the incipient laughs, it thuds. As farce, such methodical emphasis works (as in Greg Kotis's Pig Farm); it works as an emotional substitute, too (as in New George's last production, Jenny Schwartz's God's Ear). To make overbearing language represent something far subtler, however: that's a real trick. Sarah Cameron Sunde manages to sustain the pace for a while by reducing the acting to stark physical movements. But clockwork scenes, already drilled short by the (James) Ellroy-like language, have a weakness: their gears tend to gum up in intense, shriveling heat of an unflinching poet.

From the two-foot long erection in Lad's pants and the discovery of wet, soft, bubbling holes in the earth, it seems clear that Smith means to deal with sexual maturation versus the stubborn religious mores of previous generations. But Lad is too weak a character to rebel, which leads to another character, the horned Ol' Heif (April Matthis), who represents either a wily devil or a faun-like manifestation of Lad's subconscious need for the female touch. She, crawling across midnight rocks with crevasses gleaming with glowstick light, is playful freedom; he, stiff-backed and waddling like a pencil, wears a corset around his hips and is repressed "normal." But these moments between Lad and Ol' Heif are too dreamlike to give an easy answer, and the play lives up to its own credo: "Work is what livin's for." Good Heif is work, and while it's work filled with life, it ends up simply being work and work alone.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

PLAY: "Departures"

For all that Romeo and Juliet is a good love story, for all the ages, there's something a little unsettling about it: the youth, the naivety, and the needless resolute tragedy of the ending. I find myself drawn to the fragility of Kristen Palmer's Departures a little more, a play whose tragedy isn't the finality of death, but the death knoll of long distance: Cara (Keira Keeley) is going home to America in three months, and Andrew (Travis York) will be left behind, to drink his way to an early death in mopey Wakefield, England. These two may speak less poetically than those star-crossed lovers, but there's something more immediate in their contemporarily beautiful words. By staying simple and true, with a fine cast and focused direction, Departures is a quiet marvel on its own; not meant to be compared with Shakespeare, but of fine caliber all the same.

Palmer's effect stems from the contrast between the openhearted emotion of Andrew and restrained concerns of Cara. Andrew's the sort of man who loudly (and at length) broadly declaims words like "sure" (and all other "indeterminate expressions of emotion") and casts all his loving fantasies as miniature epics of long-lost angels and dreams. On the other hand, Cara speaks from the terrible future she can't seem to escape, a place that's she run to trying to escape her equally terrible past, a past that shakes her into a cold sweat every night. But the two are united by their commonalities: they're both writers without outlets, they both seek the momentary respite of alcohol, and they both find great passion, whether it's through tense arguments or tender agreements. For dramatic sake, Palmer doesn't spend much time in the sweet somethings of their "doomed" relationship: the prelude to the play opens at the start of summer, and the remainder takes place three months later, two days before Cara's departure.

Kerry Lee Chipman's set drops the two actors in the pit of what looks like a large half-pipe, as if they've literally fallen for each other, and then uses the opposite lips or outer boundaries of the central bedroom to set the distancing monologues. Director Kyle Ancowitz uses the tight central space to force the actors to really use one another--there's nowhere else for them to go. It also focusing the audience, who sit sits on opposite ends, like spectators at an amateur tennis match peering down at each new volley: Andrew plans to visit Cara by means of an illegal scheme his mates have cooked up; Cara can't stand Andrew being so close, because she can't afford to hurt anyone else; Andrew can't stand his own loneliness. There are no crazy twists, no last minute deus ex machina: the minute intricacies of the human heart are more than adequate.

Such simple work, even with the elevated, far from indeterminate language of the script, is actually hard to perform, as it requires attention to detail, especially with the audience looming so close. York and Keeley are a fantastic match, with fine chemistry both in their intimate moments under the covers and their public spats around the flat and in the hallway. York plays the more expressive character, and he does a fine job of keeping the play lively and on its feet, sweetly charming, and all the more sympathetic because of his wounded confidence. He says he won't get on without her, and there's the sense that he won't; likewise, thanks to Keeley's strong partnering, in Cara's eyes, it's clear that she can't live with the responsibility for Andrew's heart.

The play ends with Andrew driving Cara to the airport, and as Palmer points out earlier in the script, "when you leave, you don't get to find out what happens." But given the delight I had watching these two find sweet succor in one another, full of wistful glances even after their climactic fight, I'd like to hazard a pleasant guess and hope for the best.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

PLAY: "Harm's Way"

If you take Shakespeare's word for it, then "all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." But if you listen to Mac Wellman, he'll take it one step further, for if the world's a stage, then life itself is just a show, and we're all party to its indiscriminate messes. Such a darkly festive world is that of his 1985 play, Harm's Way, which follows the fall of Santouche (Seth Reich), an embodiment of the angry American who, convinced of his own morality, watches the world slip and slide away from him.

The cast of seven are raggedly tuxedoed vagabonds, who speak in an equally broken finery of eloquent slang that's filled with stiffs and bitches. But while such stylistic elements are pleasing on the eye (thanks to Howard Klein), they're less endearing to the ear. Wellman's play (like many of his con artist characters) operates like a gypsy (in the most negative sense): it robs scenes of meaning and replaces it with a lot of boiled up hokum and the maxim that: "This is America; therefore anything can happen."

And so it does; Santouche encounters a man named William McKinley, who wants Santouche to talk Grover Cleveland into burying him alive (the only problem being that poor Grover's a stiff). "Well then, you'd better be convincing," threatens McKinley (Jason F. Williams, who is at least entertainingly loud as the myriad hucksters of the show), aiming a two-fingered "gun" at our anti-hero. Whether it's a joke or not (a vindictively inside one, if any), when Santouche disarms the villain, he decides to bury him alive after all, in a feat of creative staging by director johnmichael rossi, who has done a fantastic job of visualizing Wellman's episodic fragments.

This direction is where the cast finds solid ground: it's not entirely clear why Santouche and his sullen friend Fisheye (Williams again) get into a shootout with the villainous Blackmange (Justin Sturges), but rossi's use of overlapping parallel lines (we see the far left and far right at once on different levels of center stage) makes it emphatically violent. It's not clear what the Wizard (more Williams) is supposed to represent as he pokes his long white beard through a slit in the fabric that eventually becomes his gown, but it's interesting, oddly enough.

However, these things don't make Harm's Way any better. The chorus (Esra Cizmeci, Niluka Hotaling, and Sturges) is mercurial, but only in the sense of mercury found in old thermometers -- that is, they're limited to only one level of excitability, and it grows tiresome to watch. The few accessible scenes, between the manipulative ringleader Crowsfoot (Williams) and Santouche's maligned girlfriend, Isle of Mercy (Megan Raye Manzi) are shades of one another, and though Ashleigh Beyer is bright and perky, her character remains exactly as titled: By Way of Being Hidden.

Williams, in one of his many iterations as trickster, says "If you're not part of the show, you're part of them what takes it all in, and that's a fool." Maybe some people will be in on the show, but I felt like a fool, a perplexed yet curious fool.

Monday, October 08, 2007

PLAY: "a Good Farmer"

Photo/Rick Berubé

From the plain cabbages littering the floor of the Bank Street theater to the widescreen image of an empty road to the two men in the corner plunking light underscores on the piano and guitar, you wouldn't expect a Good Farmer to be a serious look at immigration. But after a bumpy opening, Sharyn Rothstein's new play proves to be as intelligently open as her last (Neglect): it doesn't judge her desperate and misguided townsfolk, it simply presents them as they are.

Why shouldn't Gabe (Borden Hallowes) resent illegal immigrant Carla (Jacqueline Duprey), for taking jobs he believes are entitled to him as an American? Why shouldn't Rosemary (Elizabeth Bunnell) call Mexicans lazy, given that when it comes to doing work in her world (she's "CEO" of the PTA), they're too busy "working" elsewhere? And why shouldn't Bonnie (Chelsea Silverman) employ the only people willing to work for her, especially when it's the only way for her to save her farm and raise her child, given the cancerous death of her husband, David (Gerald McCullouch)? Underlying goodness, if it truly exists, is of no use if stifled by unconscious bigotry, and good intentions are so easily blinded by misdirected anger.

It takes Rothstein a little while to lay it all out, however, and the first act is sloppily one-sided (pro-immigration). For the first hour, the right-wingers of the show (Rosemary and Gabe) are exaggeratedly mean or comic, and the strong, working mothers (Bonnie and Carla) can do no wrong. (The one missing archetype is the bad farmer, but that's another play.) But after a menacing confrontation in a cornfield between Gabe and Carla ("No such thing as a good person. There's lucky and not lucky and that's all there is."), the play makes it a lot harder to defend any one person.

The second act opens, seven years earlier, with Carla unable to speak good English, and Bonnie doesn't want to hire her. As an audience, we already know that these seeds will turn out ripe, but it's easy to see why so many people, trapped in the immediate now, are afraid to trust. Nobody becomes friends overnight, but given time, even the most disparate of people can come together if their hearts are in the right place. As Carla points out to the immigration officer (and Jacqueline Duprey's sincere indignation is what sells the heart of this play): "We're just like you. With less choices."

Sunday, October 07, 2007

PLAY: "When the Messenger is Hot"

Photo/Jay Geneske

I haven't read When the Messenger is Hot, the book of short stories by Elizabeth Crane that has been adapted by Laura Eason and developed by Steppenwolf Theatre Company (now visiting from Chicago as part of the 59E59 GoChicago! Festival). But lines like "watching the morning sun glint off his crack-pipe made me realize that maybe Steven and I weren't meant to be" easily make the jump from print to stage, the sort of self-conscious poetry that the narrator of her own play can get away with. Crane's voice (distinct, fresh, and delightfully deprecating) makes the jump, but the play itself doesn't totally work: it comes across exactly as what it is, a series of short stories that have been crammed together into an 80-minute play, more fractured confession (three actresses simultaneously play the lead, Josie) than solid narrative.

The pace works best when focussed around Crane's elegant fable, "Return from the Depot!", in which a daughter refuses to accept her mother's cancerous death and is vindicated when her mother returns, three years later, to chalk the whole thing up as a misunderstanding. It's a plucky piece, and the mother (Molly Regan) is a real firecracker of a broad, all curses and charm. The surrounding collection of stories, however, focus on Josie's inability to find a man who won't horribly mistreat her, and Coburn Goss (who plays all the men) doesn't have enough personality to keep these scenes fresh.

The play becomes a three-person monologue, the internal-made-external patter of the three Josies (Kate Arrington, Lauren Katz, and Amy Warren). There are a few segments where this works, such as in "Year at a Glance!", where the women glance back at their first year of grief and assess where they are: "I realize I am marking time in 'Days since.'/I join a support group./I quit the support group because it's depressing./I feel surprised it's depressing./I notice I am marking time in 'Months since.'" The quick banter here is necessary, and works to show the rapid and totally distinct shifts in a person's mind. But it's often more distracting than hilarious, something director Jessica Thebus must have noticed, as she has Kate Arrington grieve alone when her mother "disappears" again. There are some moments that can't be shared, and Arrington's performance, a flood of tears that dry up into an enabling laugh, is proof that the story isn't flawed, just strained by the presentation.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

PLAY: "Kinderspiel"

Photo/Aviva Meyer

You'd have to be a foolyheadgirlthing to write a play set in an absurdly fictitious (but not improbable) cabaret in the Weimar Republic (1923) and to then quote Oscar Wilde's maxim: "All art is quite useless." You'd need quite a pair of balls to brag about how the expressionist theater company, the Kinderspielers, "dare to entertain you by completely wasting your time." And you'd need to be awfully clever to make a critic one of your characters, especially if her theory is that "frivolity is serious business."

I guess that makes Kiran Rikhye a large-balled, awfully clever, foolyheadgirlthing: her latest work with Stolen Chair Theater Company, Kinderspiel (child's play) is a double-bill that is avant-garde Cabaret ("infantile improvisation" meets lesbians and garters) when it comes to presentation, and starkly satirical when the plot is narrated to us "children." The play not only stands as a testament to the insane depression of the Weimar era, but illustrates the similarity between genius and insanity, and the odd power of art to transform one's perception of reality. Furthermore, by adding a journalist, Rikhye is also able to make an point about the danger of an explanation, with her mind clearly in favor of spontaneity and personal experience. (Do we demean things by giving them meanings?)

Her focal point is Louisa Reissner (Alexia Vernon), a popular burlesque dancer who is cast out of the spotlight when insane inflation (the program notes put it at 1.3 trillion marks to 1 dollar) dwindles her audience. Louisa flees into her own mind to sustain that flame of popularity, retreating into an innocent form of self-indulgent, childlike play, at which point she is stumbled upon by Max (Cameron J. Oro), an effeminate playboy with a mouth so full of candy, that he walks around, eyes glazed with the pointlessness of it all. Louisa's unforced behavior and deconstructed grammar ("Whatever we wants to, that's the pointy.") sparks a life in him that he thought lost, and the two begin to play.

They play so happily that the narrator, Heinrich (Sam Dingman), not only calls off his own suicide, but begins to sell tickets to their late-night sessions in an abandoned underground nightclub, finding the purpose the war took from him. As the play continues, they are joined by Sonja (Liza Wade White), an experimental, hands-on journalist who is thrilled by what she sees as a political statement (not to mention turned on by the loose Lousia), and Anna (Layna Fisher), a conservative widow who wants the dream, but can't overcome her inhibitions ("If things aren't clean, they're dirty").

Under St. Marks is the ideal theater: designer David Bengali pretty much just exposes the dingy frame of the space and then adds floor lights (not to take away from his work; it's so authentic). And from what I've seen, Jon Stancato is the ideal director: though Stolen Chair credits the entire cast and crew with Kinderspiel (such experimentations are the reason to support individual companies), Stancato is ultimately like the third-grade art teacher whose students make great fingerpaintings because he knows when to take the paper away from them. There's also a deeper sense of purpose to the lengthy cabaret demonstrations when in Stancato's hands: they build (along with Rikhye's script) to a point at which the playing is less innocent and more political, intentional or not, and the imaginary delivery of a stillborn child is a harsh scene.

Stolen Chair bills itself as a company dedicated to the "theft" of "historical performance styles," but it's a crime for which they'd never be convicted. Between this and their recent Commedia dell'Artemisia, they're dramatic Robin Hoods, stealing from a rich theatrical past and producing for a poorly educated present, and I look forward to their next production.

Friday, October 05, 2007

PLAY: "The Children of Vonderly"

Photo/Matt Zugale

The Children of Vonderly
is a delightfully full new play from Lloyd Suh that is, more than anything else, playful. Keeping in tone with the upbeat eccentrics of the Vonderly household, Suh redefines normality in every inch of his script, from "anti-semantic" jokes to quirky dismissals of religion and sassy wordplay ("a motherfucker's fucking mother"). Even the few moments that are more repetitious than paralleled are enjoyable: closer to sports replay than sitcom rehash.

The play opens on the seventh and last day of Shiva, the Jewish period of mourning (in this case for the Vonderly's adopting father), a period that has only "amplified the weird." Jerry (William Jackson Harper) carts himself around in a wheelchair and yarmulke, trying to take care of his sweet but mentally-stunted sister, Sasha (Jackie Chung) and his shy, mountainous brother, Abraham (Shawn Randall). Unfortunately for him, it's his grief-stricken mother, Norma (Lynn Cohen), whom he ought to worry for, and after her prolonged, opera-worthy histrionics ("You stupid ingrates, I love you"), another of his adopted brothers, Benjamin (Stephen Jutras), decides to have her committed. Jerry's world, already fragile enough thanks to the glass house set design by Sarah Lambert, grows even shakier when his other siblings, bumbling Noah and weak-boned Georgia (Hoon Lee and Maureen Sebastian), announce their plans to elope. But wait, there's more: as Jerry loses himself in drink, mourning his own realized dreams for traveling with Georgia, Benjamin asserts himself again, hiring a supervisor, Chuck (Paco Tolson), to watch over the house.

For all that plot, the play runs remarkably smooth, and without any degeneration into farce. Instead, it's a comic drama that comes closer to identifying what truly makes a family than most plays I've seen this year. Credit where due to director Ralph B. Pena, who gracefully livens the interludes with breezy music and short, silent essences of scenes in the background (a picnic, a basketball game). The show is also grounded in the phenomenal casting, which keeps the characters from sliding into caricature or stereotype. They're funny, but they're not being handled with kid gloves, and their emotions (the chest-thumping "I love you") are pure.

The Children of Vonderly covers a lot of ground, and everyone involved in this outstanding production keeps up the pace. Ms. Cohen, in her few scenes, manages to be domineering, fragile, and then sweet; Mr. Lee swings from passionate to lost to weepy and back again; and Mr. Harper, stuck playing the stubbornest of the bunch, still manages to make his repetitious arguments sound new, as if he were a Rumpelstiltskin of words, spinning them into gold.

I Can't Believe It's Not Butter might want to tie an ad campaign in with this Ma-Yi production: for a show more than two hours long, it's remarkably spry and effortlessly involved. Not for lack of a better word, but because it's the right word: The Children of Vonderly is fun.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

PLAY: "True Genius"

David Holstein's play has a lot of promise, but not much genius. Rather than tackling the issues head on, Holstein prefers to have them poke their imaginary heads out from behind the bedposts, or, once they're out, to stuff them into a closet--ahem, armoire--so that he can get back to the funnier stuff. Like Dr. Foyer, the jokey, alternative therapist who psyches out his own patients with erratic behavior of his own. Or Lila, a pathological fabulist who gets by on her cute anti-socialisms and pre-punk forwardness. Our main character, Scooter (Perry Tiberio), seems redacted from the play: there, but all but mute. And without that spark, he's simply a foil for the manias and passions of the playwright, a focal point that we can't relate to, and therefore can't sympathize with when we realize how many of his friends are in his head.

Jill Sierchio does a good job of staging the work, but like Holstein, she's too tentative about her craft. There are very few direct moments, and while this amplifies the effect of good moments (like a shaving-cream kiss), it leaves a lot of dead space, or half-felt emotions, drifting through the theater. Ken Scudder is good as Dr. Foyer, but he's only able to steal the show because his role has more drama than anyone else's: his wife has left him because he cheated on her, he's occasionally drunk, &c., &c. Not to mention he has all the good observations, too ("A liar knows he's lying; a pathological person doesn't), which just goes to show that Holstein is approaching the play too much as an intellectual.

The show is also held back a bit by some of the actors. I won't judge a child actor on the same scale as his peers, especially in a small-scale production, but Tyler S. Gulizo is aimless on stage, and his role as Scooter's imaginary little brother seems forced. Likewise, Nancy Evans, who plays Scooter's mother, doesn't manage the range of emotions necessary to deal with a violent, self-destructive son: pity, resentment, weariness are all washed out by blank grief. She has her moments, and--granted--she's not getting much from Mr. Tiberio, but the actors must find a way to make it work.

Ultimately, True Genius seems at odds with itself: I don't expect a play (especially a self-titled play) to be genius, but it's just not true, and the revelation of the "true genius" is surprising only because it's an irrelevant point tacked on to what should be the focal point of the play: a boy's escape from his secluded self with the help of a liberated liar of a girl.