Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Best Theater of '07

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Top Five Shows of '07

#1 - The Misanthrope - Hands down the most engaging interpretation of Moliere I've ever seen, Ivo Van Hove's physical direction lent an air of discomfort that helped to translate how Alceste views (and smells) the world, and while he's not the first person to use the media to modernize a play, his revealing use of mixed media broke down the walls between actors and characters, the boundaries of the stage, and the usage of space. The play managed to demolish the set and the characters without harming the script itself, and from Bill Camp's lead performance to the vanities of his co-stars, the show is perfect theater.

# 2 - Journey's End - David Grindley didn't conform to Broadway norms when he revived R. C. Sherrif's Journey's End: he kept the play shrouded in the dank darkness that befits a trench, he belabored the silent tension of preparing for war, he blocked scenes without having any actors on stage, and he kept the emotional stakes high, even through the curtain call, refusing to release us from the drama. I hope more people remember that rules are meant to be broken, because his force of vision, chained to the masterful performances of his ensemble cast, made this production one of the high points of the theater, all the more so for not ever being overt or pushy, and for escaping the melodrama one expects of an old-fashioned war play.

# 3 - The Eaten Heart's Oliver Butler, Hannah Bos, and Paul Thureen are The Debate Society, and this rich and multidimensional retelling of The Decameron, set in a three-room spread of hotel rooms and chained together by lightning fast costume changes and illusory effects produced a startling tableaux of the eccentric 60s, not to mention life itself. More impressive is the developmental process they used to come up with the final product (all that trial and error for something so utterly seamless and astonishing), a process which proves that an independent theater company can put on the highest caliber of theater if they choose to.

# 4 - Adam Bock's The Receptionist is an unassuming play that seems to just be about everyday life, and that is its great deception: with utterly natural dialogue that's been sharply directed by Joe Mantello, we're laughing so hard at the normalcy that we put ourselves in the receptionist's shoes. When we grow to understand what she does, we have to question our own capacity for the same; likewise, when she is put to the test, we have to admit that the same could happen to us, we who were so brightly laughing only a moment before. This is exactly the sort of parable that works: an unassuming little worm of an idea that, once inside our minds, refuses to go and which, more importantly, targets exactly the sort of audience who need to understand it.

# 5 - No Dice shouldn't work: the thought of listening to three actors recite close to four hours worth of edited transcripts from their friends, families, and themselves, sounds absolutely horrible. To help us accept this epic of the everyday, this throwback to oral storytelling, the actors don the outlandish costumes and horrendous accents of dinner theater, which makes the transition back into their real people all the more striking. The conversations themselves have been expertly edited so as to be true representations of that "cosmic murmur" the cast worked toward, and the play also gets points for daring to work in a freestyle beat-boxer, a wacky dance competition, and a physical underbelly girded on repetition that should be annoying but is actually endearing.

Runners-Up: The Brothers Size, Macbeth: A Walking Shadow, a volume of smoke, Saint Joan of the Stockyards, The Seafarer

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Top Five Performances of '07

# 1 - Allison Pill, Blackbird & Mauritius - From being manipulative and coy in Blackbird to being spirited yet broken in Mauritius, Allison Pill (as in last year's Lieutenant of Inishmore) has a way of sneaking up on you, seeming sweet, even as she plays the tough girl (like some combination of Hilary Swank and Charlize Theron, with the personality of Mary Louise Parker). She doesn't even seem to be at the top of her game yet, but already, she's a heartbreakingly simple actor, no frills attached.

# 2 - Bill Camp, The Misanthrope & Beckett Shorts & Coram Boy - A fierce speaker, a gruff personality, and an utterly likable villain, this actor's actor not only performs at the top of his game, but he brings those around him up to his level as well, case in point being the way his scenes in Coram Boy always sparkled, or the way in which he brought Ivo Van Hove's highly physical vision to life. To go from that to Beckett, too, and next year's Dead Man's Cell Phone; that shows pure range and -- most importantly -- good taste.

# 3 - Tied: Conleth Hill & Jim Norton, The Seafarer - These two best mates stuck by each other through thick and thin in Conor McPherson's redemptive masterpiece; I see no reason not to keep them together here, in brilliantly drunken yet utterly human performances. Conleth Hill's little tics and mannerisms make him an absolutely adorable best friend, and Jim Norton's stubbornness in the face of equally persistent fragility is a thing of haunting beauty.

# 4 - Dallas Roberts, Peter and Jerry - Albee is not an easy playwright to perform, and of his roles, Jerry is probably the one most overplayed, but instead, Roberts brings the same sensibility that he brought to A Number to this piece: a subdued rage that only occasionally peeks its head out, coupled with a charming suaveness that is as calming as it is unsettling. The man looks like he's about to jump out of his own skin, but smooth as a snake in the process, and that whip-smart coiling of emotion and intelligence make him the sort of actor who can challenge any role.

# 5 - Ensemble, New York Neo-Futurists: Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind - Given the amount of times I've gone out to see this late night treat, I should've put them on my top ten, but being that they don't believe in roles or shows so much in the immediate truths that they bring to blinding light each week (brilliantly funny, too), it makes more sense to single them out as a group. You won't find such naked honesty anywhere else on the stage, nor so directly addressed, and every cast member (on a rotating basis) brings a different sensibility and aesthetic to the table, which keeps things interesting.

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Best Theater: New York Theater Workshop
Not only is The Misanthrope my number one show for '07, but this year also brought us The Black Eyed, Horizon, and Beckett Shorts, all of which had far more going for them than the always excellent scenic design. Each production was innovative (especially difficult given Beckett's restrictions and Moliere's age), intelligent, and contemporary -- it's nice to see that there's such development going on at a self-proclaimed workshop, and there's far more to look forward to in '08, such as Elevator Repair Service's The Sound and the Fury.

Runner-Up: Roundabout, for taking a risk with the black box and the innovative Speech and Debate, and for nailing younger audiences with the unfailing combination of cheaper HIPTIX and solid revivals like Pygmalion and important new work like The Overwhelming.

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Best Off-Off Theaters: Manhattan Theater Source and The Brick
Two small theaters where you're likely to keep finding innovative festivals and intimate programming, MTS premiered two of the best shows of '07, Universal Robots and Macbeth: A Walking Shadow, and The Brick, in addition to having The Pretentious Festival, crams a remarkable amount of short programming into their little space, making it a great place not to find another brick in the wall, but a unified front of awesomeness, if I dare to be so nondescriptive.

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Best Playwright: David Ives
Granted, New Jerusalem will open in '08, but given his outstanding work editing down other playwrights, like Mark Twain's Is He Dead? or his usual contributions to Encores!, I want to give the guy recognition where it's due, for the man is truly all about the timing, a gifted punster, a noted wit, and a remarkably succinct writer. New Jerusalem is far from the perfect play, but it riled me up, energized me, and made me take a book on Spinoza out from the library.

Runners-Up: Adam Bock and Tarell Alvin McCraney
Perhaps the most directly comprehensible (though no less unsettling for the clarity) of his plays, The Receptionist succeeds with slow doses of the most ordinary charm. We see ourselves in these characters, only to feel betrayed when we learn what they do, only to leap to their defense once again when we see what happens to them. Pitch perfect, this was the most sympathetic play I've seen in some time. As for the young Tarell Alvin McCraney, his beautifully written, risk-taking The Brothers Size manages to classicalize a Topdog/Underdog tale by paying close attention to tribal rhythms, blockings, and mythos -- how liberating and, above all, fresh.

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Best Director: David Grindley
Not only did he nail Journey's End, but he mastered Pygmalion, too. He's playing with the big boys on Broadway, but he's not bowing to their rules, and that's why we can get such a gripping curtain call and the looming, ill-lit silence in one play, and a petulant, childish Higgins in the other. These may not seem like big risks, but most revivals tend to simply play it safe and rely simply on big name casting, as you'll find with other fare, like The Homecoming.

Runner-Up: Lear deBessonet and Ivo Von Hove
Because originality should be rewarded, it's important to point out two phenomenal talents; deBessonet's work on transFigured was a miracle crafted out of string, body work, and other such fragile representations of God, whereas her revival of St. Joan of the Stockyards successfully took Brecht to the country (courtesy of Kelley McRae) and the city (Justin Townsend's gritty set) at the same time; how's that for an alienating feeling? And Ivo Von Hove dressed Moliere's The Misanthrope up in syrup and hot dogs without actually dressing the beautiful couplets down at all, and his animal passion was the perfect match for the feral savages of his modern, misanthropic world.

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Best Company: The Debate Society
Imagine my surprise to find that the group with the most seamless performance of '07 (The Eaten Heart) got there by throwing tons of stuff at the wall, letting that tap water run until it turned to gold. That they're able to edit themselves down through workshops, developmental readings, and rehearsal to such perfection shows a working theatrical model, one that can tour with abstract vignettes in the mode of Danill Kharms just as easily as it can contemporize The Decameron, and I can't wait to see what happens when they lay on the final coats of varnish to their Untitled Auto Play in late '08/early '09.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Quick Note

That Sounds Cool is closed for the holiday season; reviews will resume with a look at Clubbed Thumb's latest production (Jordan Harrison's Amazons and Their Men) and their new anthology of their greatest (including Shelia Callaghan's Crumble [Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake] and Adam Bock's The Typographer's Dream).

Friday, December 21, 2007

PLAY: "Cut to the Chase" & "The City That Cried Wolf"

Of late, I've become a big fan of 59E59 Theaters; not only do they produce a series of festivals that bring, amongst other things, tastes of off-Broadway British fare and the Edinburgh Fringe, along with consistently varied programming in their two studio spaces (theater B and C) and the solid offerings of the main Primary Stages space. (Not to mention their affordable pricing.) This month, the two smaller stages offer contradictory nights of entertainment: the first, Cut the Chase is vaudeville for kids, the second, The City That Cried Wolf, is a grown-up nursery tale. Both are derivative of very specific genres, but with Cut to the Chase, the enthusiastic execution makes the work seem fresh, and although The City That Cried Wolf mugs too much for the Jasper Fforde crowd, its nonstop punning is funny -- almost exasperatingly so.

With Cut to the Chase, the only point where the audience actually wants the show to cut to the action is in director Mark Lonergan's introduction, a short introduction about their influences (Keaton and Chaplin) and their target audience (the young, and the young at heart). Honestly, that's the only drag of the performance. Seconds later, hyperactive Dilly (Laura Dillman), clad in a bellhop's costume and armed with an infectious laugh, silently introduces the rest of the cast: Dobson (Mike Dobson), the dour drummer; The Great Jeske (Joel Jeske), the director; Julietta Massina (Juliet Jeske), the singing diva; Kasper (Ryan Kasprzak), the lovable scamp; Little Angela (Andrea Kehler), the annoying tease; and Roland Derek (Derek Roland), the lanky illusionist. This is all done in a matter of minutes, using no more than the most basic movements, a series of three farcically placed doors, and a few sliding curtains, and with the parts well established, the company breaks into a series of "acts," all of which revolve around the constantly thwarted romance of Dilly and Kasper.

The camaraderie and smooth transitions speak to the developmental technique of the company (which fleshed out Mr. Jeske's ideas with their own unique tricks), and to the strong hand of Mr. Lonergan, who succeeds at entertaining both the young and young at heart. In little over an hour, we're treated to a tap-triggered light show, a balloon-drumming exhibition, an amusing series of riffs on a piano, a magic act, several songs (ultimately parodies of the old 30s style), and quick-change choreography. It's good natured, genuinely funny, and a great time.

Photo/Oliver Jevremov

On the other hand, The City That Cried Wolf tries entirely too hard, and that's what ultimately brings down Brooks Reeve's hysterically scripted (if leaden) play. The show is a hard-boiled look at the death of Mayor Dumpty, as investigated by the private eye (or B.), Mr. Jack B. Nimble at the behest of the police force's golden egg, Mother Goose. If those puns delight you, you're in for a treat: Reeve's agglomerate of nursery tales are a riot, and the dirtier they get, the funnier. For instance, Jack's suspect, Little Bo Peep works at a certain sort of "peep" show -- she's a dancer at the Hey Diddle Diddle, where you might get solicited for Mrs. Muffet's "toffets" (and might even accept if you've had one too many hickory dickory daiquiris).

Unfortunately, the play finds a static direction from Dan Barnes and Leta Tremblay, who seem more interested in sight gags (Granny's cane is the biggest shotgun I've ever seen, and Little Bunny Foo Foo's appearance as a deranged, mallet-wielding psychopath is an indelible moment in the theater) than in structure. Additionally, while the leads are at least playing solid characters -- Adam La Faci's nonchalant narration as detective, Chloe Demrovsky's sultry flocking, and Michelle Concha's serious (yet surprisingly deft) commanding officer -- the other four actors get lost in the roughly ten roles they each play. Each one gets the point across -- for instance, Rebecca Jones plays a testy waitress named Mary Mary, and Mat Bussler clucks enough to remind us that he's Plucky Lucky in this scene -- but they do so with the minimum of effort, underplaying what is already a ridiculous concept.

The City That Cried Wolf
never gets a silly enough performance to justify the story; it could take a cue from Cut to the Chase, whose silly plot needs no justification, just performance.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

PLAY: "Edward the Second"

Photo/Brian Dilg

It's very noble simply to love and be loved in return, but when you're a king, love comes at a higher price. Edward II (Marc Vietor, with such believable longing and grasping physical prowess) may truly love Galveston (Kenajuan Bentley) and may in fact, be loved back (though Galveston teases and flaunts for a great many, as is his preening, sycophantic nature, Bentley plays him with something deeper reserved for the king). But his court is only the more irritated for it: Mortimer (Matthew Rauch), Lancaster (Davis Hall), and Warwick (Joseph Costa) kick up their heels at the titles so flagrantly granted to the low-class upstart; the Church, as portrayed by gaudy Archbishop (Raphael Nash Thompson), is irritated by the licentiousness of it; and Edward's wife, Isbaella (Claire Lautier) -- well, we all know what happens to a woman scorned, although Lautier keeps her head up for quite a while before turning to her misplaced fury.

As directed by Jesse Berger for his Red Bull Theater company, the work doesn't judge the homosexual currents any more than they would've been in the Elizabethan era that Christopher Marlowe wrote this for, but simply gives flesh to the page with a tautly erotic and highly physical staging that thrusts the action onto a narrow runway of a court that is half fashion show (I'd want to show off Clint Ramos's costumes, too), half military trenches. And while I'm no scholar of Edward the Second, Garland Wright's adaptation of it serves to heighten the emphasis on character rather than theme by setting the action in a malleable, anachronistic time, with language that is both harsh and pliant, all at once, something that's necessary for a plot full of reversals and sudden shifts in mood.

When Galveston returns to England for the first time, in the very wake of the old king's death, he imprisons the bishop who banished him (Arthur Bartow). In lesser hands, this would simply be a moment of satisfying vengeance, but Mr. Berger (perhaps after bloodying his hands so much in previous productions) goes one step further: Galveston all but rapes the holy man as he tightens the fetters, a point that also doubles as a bitter symmetry for what will eventually befall the king himself. So too does Mr. Berger handle a provocative scene later in the play, set at an opera house, in which we watch the king, lost half in love, half in music, waiting for Galveston to return (he has manipulated his wife, with false hope, into bringing back the very lover who displaced her): Galveston stands for a moment behind him, quietly savoring the power he holds over the king, along with the pomp of his own peculiar circumstances, and yet, when he touches the king's shoulders -- a simple touch -- the realization of that love would make even the coldest heart in the theater feel for the keening king.

More than love, however, the play also focuses on hate (if it is true that we should "Fie love that causes death and hate," what should we think of pure hate itself?). As Mortimer, Matthew Rauch is absolutely electric: "I am feared more than I am loved. Let them fear me," he utters without a hint of melodrama. He is the opposite of Edward -- decisive and strong -- and yet the court is no better in his usurping hands than in the rightful king's. He has a true love, too, in Isabella, but he never allows that to stand between him and power; instead, he channels his frustrations onto the former king, now a prisoner who squats, near-naked, in a pit of sewage.

Viscerally, Edward the Second is less satisfying than their previous revival, The Revenger's Tragedy: this production is efficient, and often bloodlessly so. (I'm told several squibs had technical difficulties when I attended.) But intellectually, Edward the Second is full of satisfying parallels and points about what happens to those leaders who ignore their subjects, and to those who force their love upon others, with little regard for personal choice. The warning comes from Edward's son, Edmund (Raum-Aron), who is forced to grow up all too fast, a steely, unhappy child who is the bleak start of a future strewn with corpses.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

PLAY: "Scapin"

Set in San Piccolo, of festive "Itty Bitty Italy," Scott McCrea's new translation of Moliere's Scapin is a spry salute to the brio of commedia. But as flailingly directed by Shawn Rozsa, this is more an act of improvimisia dell'arte than anything: more a throwback to the ragtag street performers trying to out-lazzi one another than to the troupes who performed complete, scripted works (in other words, if you didn't like The Glorious Ones, you really won't like this). That doesn't mean it isn't funny, just wildly so: Scapin! with an exclamation mark. And perhaps I'm expecting too much from this lesser work of Moliere's (The Misanthrope it ain't): the plot is as simple as this:

Octave and Leandre (Matt Luceno and Nico Evers-Swindell) love Hyacinte and Zerbinette (Maya Rosewood and Catherine Wronowski), which requires their servants, Silvestre and Scapin (Jonathan M. Castro and Spencer Aste), to fool the money out of their controlling parents, Argante and Geronte (Roger Grunwald and John Freimann). (What can I say, comedy comes in pairs: there's even two dim-witted porters, played by Emile Nebbia and Jay Painter.) After much running around, Scapin, the smartest of the lot, tricks everyone into a happy ending.

Despite the emptiness of the plot, Rozsa stretches the action across two acts, adding unscripted entertainment before the show and during intermission, a choice that successfully evokes a clowning atmosphere that makes it OK to laugh, but hard to laugh for long. He's helped by Keven Lock's colorful set, a brightly painted series of backdrops and doorways that help to make the Turtle's Shell Theater seem larger than its name. This backfires on Rozsa, and that's what hurts this production: it's more escapinism than Scapin, and the show is stolen before it even begins by Jay Painter's hyperactive Italian braggadocio: Scapin may be crafty, but I'll bet he can't pull an inflated balloon through one nostril and out of his mouth. The ice is successfully broken (always important for period comedies), but under the global warming of Painter's sunny performance, it continues to melt until it has submerged the text of the play itself. Furthermore, Rozsa's attempts to compete with Painter's talent as a performer causes him to overdo a lot of the comedy, stretching out jokes beyond their expiration date, as with Silvestre's spork-wielding appearance as a would-be mobster.

By playing so many things over-the-top, Scapin loses itself as a farce and just becomes a series of jokes tenuously tied together by the most basic of plots. At best, it proves that happiness is not always boring (just exhausting!); at worst, it isn't funny (and that's something that Scapin can't pin on fate).

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

PLAY: "The Puppetmaster of Lodz"

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Finkelbaum (the magnificent Robert Zukerman) hasn't left his attic apartment in ten years. Occasionally, he peers nervously through the keyhole, listening and looking for intruders, before cracking the door wide enough to snatch the day's groceries, left by his good-natured concierge (Suzanne Toren), but for the most part, our frightened hero (clad in a dirty T-shirt, worn suspenders, and musty pants) simply talks to an unmoving lump in his bed, his wife, Ruchele . . . a life-sized puppet made of cloth. But don't judge so quickly. You might act the same if you'd narrowly escaped Birkenau, walked eight scattered sleepless days and nights through the woods, and at last found a bit of shelter near Berlin. You, looking for comfort, might also have built companions for yourself -- you are, after all, a puppetmaster -- and now you, too, might disbelieve that the war is over (though it is 1950, time is not nearly so strong as memory). After all, "they fabricated plenty of other things besides the news," you might say. "So that people would suspect nothing, they fabricated false train stations, false station masters, false houses, with false flower pots, and the people believed . . . believed . . . and when they made them enter a gas chamber, telling them it was a shower, they believed . . . they believed."

Such is the conceit of Gilles Segal's powerful play, The Puppetmaster of Lodz, and though it's not entirely clear why it has taken the concierge so long to seek professional help in coaxing out the survivor (or why they don't simply bash down the door), such logical thoughts only arise in retrospect, for within the play itself, "They say if you want to, you can. If you absolutely want to believe, you can always find a way . . . " And Segal has. In this fine translation by Tonen Sara O'Connor, brought to life by Silbert's rich performance (conviction, desperation, hope admixed with despair, &c.), it's easy for the audience to understand where Finklebaum is coming from: "It's hard to survive when you trust people." The question then: what sort of life can one have without that trust?

No life at all, which is why Finklebaum has tangled the strings of his imagination so tightly around himself that even when we can see the glimmer of recognition in his eyes, it is quickly dulled by the happy lies strewn around him. What's more, even Segal gives us a little reason to trust: in succession, a Russian, an American, a Jew, and a German all try their hand at convincing Finklebaum that he is now safe, yet all four roles are played by the same actor (Daniel Damiano), a point that only re-enforces Finkelbaum's perhaps righteous paranoia. Even cleverer, Segal plays with our own paranoia, making us wonder if Finkelbaum's refusal to accept reality isn't compensation for something darker, some secret about his escape that only comes out in darkly comic (and then simply dark) re-enactments of his life before and within the camp.

Bruce Levitt's direction is almost as striking as Ralph Lee's gaunt and forlorn puppets, and both work hand in hand (or wrist and string) to tenderly pull us along, right into darkness or, perhaps, salvation. Zukerman's performance is also helped by Roman Tatarowicz's clever set design, which cramps him in a dingy room that's akin to a bomb shelter, yet also crowds his visitors into a narrow hallway, of which we can really only see as much of as Finkelbaum can, through the peephole. But the best effect of all is Segal's writing, which goes from clever logic to wry dismissals, embittered refusals, and finally, bleak parody:

"What? it's not spectacular enough, is that it?" says Finkelbaum of the epic puppet show he's been working on. "Just wait . . . First, I haven't told you that he belonged to the Sonderkommando, that's to say that all day long he burned the bodies of his brothers and sisters. If that's not enough, we can make him be obliged to mount erotic performances by making use of fresh corpses like Japanese puppets for an S. S. officer, amateur aficionado of Bunraku . . . and if you absolutely insist, we can add some jazz music at that point and put in your tap number . . ." Here is a mind that's been stretched to the breaking point so many times that it desperately wishes it could go mad ("For me not to have become mad, that is the most shattering proof of the non-existence of God . . . a little imagination, yes . . . madness, no"). Instead, it can only reenact, and even those happy reenactments, undiluted by clouds of insanity, must turn to ash -- in fact, there's an oven conveniently placed in the corner.

The Puppetmaster of Lodz is pretty powerful stuff, and what's most impressive about the production is that you leave without feeling that you've had your strings pulled, or that your emotions have been manipulated at all. Instead, there is real empathy for the humanity that Segal has fashioned, and real mourning for all those lives lost, lives not necessarily lost to something as easy as death.

Monday, December 17, 2007

PLAY: "Beckett Shorts"

Photo/Joan Marcus

Love Beckett or hate him, you aren't likely to find a crisper collection of his short plays produced anywhere; from JoAnne Akalaitis's firm direction to Philip Glass's foreboding compositions to Alexander Brodsky's bleak sandbox of a set, these plays -- a few no more than fragments -- seem fully realized, even if their messages still may not come fully into focus for the casual theatergoer. Still, for those who do not wish to sift through that stark desert sand, who do not want to find the hopeful yes that may be buried beneath all of those dissolute nos, there's at least an outstanding cast to watch: Bill Camp ("Rough for Theater I") and Karen Kandel ("Eh Joe") provide riveting interpretations of Beckett's text, and Mikhail Baryshnikov uses his physical grace to work as a mime in "Act Without Words I" and "Act Without Words II" (he's joined here by David Neumann), and as a soulful face caught in haunting contemplations, hinging the work with economical motion.

The curtain -- a wall of projected, randomized light -- wrinkles upward to reveal a desert and a man (Baryshnikov). Surrounding him are walls of solid shuttered blinds, save for two open exits to the wings and a photo-delayed projection of the stage along the back right wall, an effect that elicits the inescapable feel of a panopticon (which, if you believe in God, is what Earth is). In the bright light, our symbolic Everyman cannot hide, and simply does as commanded, following a shrill whistle, even as it continues to take advantage of him. In a series of comical events, the man attempts to obtain a floating carafe of water, but the deck is stacked against him: when he finally stacks two cubes together to reach the water, it rises ever higher. And when he gives up and looks to the other use of his tools -- to use his rope as a noose rather than a lasso -- even the tree folds up its branch and dangles tantalizingly out of reach. This piece, "Act Without Words I" is the perfect introduction to the plays, accessible to anyone who has ever drawn a single breath.

Its successor, "Act Without Words II," is also fairly representative of the human condition: two men sleep tightly wrapped in their green burlap sacks, on a narrow strip (one's lifeline, perhaps). Every so often, a goad rolls in from stage left, poking the closest sack until it gets up and works. The men never meet, but share the same clothes (and the same rotting carrot), each dragging the other's sack a little further stage right, living their routines in unremarkable repetition. Here, Akalaitis uses an ominous theme of Glass's like that of Jaws, turning the sure and steady appearance of the goad into a larger meditation on that lurking force that forces us to go on.

From here, the play skips a few years ahead (from 1956) to one of Beckett's sketches of humanity, "Rough for Theater I." Like his most memorable work, Waiting for Godot, we find two lovable losers stranded in the middle of a cold and twilight desert; one is a blind fiddler (Baryshnikov), the other a wheelchair-bound cripple (Camp). In a sobering dialogue, the two both describe the other as a "poor wretch," and yet they have so much to offer one another, even if it is nothing more than companionship. Camp's boisterous character, who brags of pushing himself idly between points A and B, sees a little bit of his dead son in the fiddler, while the fiddler, who has found a simple peace in being still, angrily insists "I am not unhappy enough!" when suicide is broached. What's remarkable here is the way the quiet kindness of an old man's knee turns to such a violent cliffhanger, a key twist that Akalaitis simply provides to the audience, without any attempt to explain.

The final piece, "Eh Joe" was originally produced as a 1965 film, but is done here (as in Dublin, 2006) as a staged piece, with the film's content (a gradually closer and closer steady shot of Joe's unwaveringly heavy face) projected onto a scrim while the actors sit behind the ghostly light in their own private isolations. Baryshnikov sits upright on a bed with hardly a movement at all, entranced by the voice of a Woman (Kandel) that constantly accuses him, snidely, of being a heartless man, a man now trapped in "that penny farthing hell you call your mind," as he contemplates his old age ("Sit there in his stinking old wrapper hearing himself") and loneliness ("Anyone living love you now, Joe?"). The play proceeds with a steady, wearying rhythm that could very well be the erosion of the mind, and thanks to the staging, we can now see the Woman, too, as she rises from her chair and eventually crawls through the stand, whispering harshly by the end of things, speaking of memory and imagination, until finally, with the picture gone out of focus -- death presumably come at last (one interpretation pegs the nine movements of the camera as the nine levels of hell) -- the lights go out.

There's a lot to digest in these four plays, each a distinct glimpse at some hopefully hopeless measure of the human condition. Akalitis has placed them in chronological order, which gives insight into the focus of Beckett's work -- from highly physical to almost entirely vocalized and internal. She also manages to use Jennifer Tipton's lighting to tell a further story with the plays: the start is life, all bright and full of questioning experimentations, the middle and later years grow darker and darker, and by the final scene, the stage is almost entirely dark, lit only by the pallid glow of the actor's own face, projected back at him. Despite being barely seventy minutes long, it's a full-bodied work that thoroughly explores (in miniature) some of Beckett's best.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

PLAY: "Vital Signs: New Works Festival Series 3"

Between this week's series of one-acts and last week's, I think it's safe to say that Vital Signs has earned its name. These final four premieres share little in common -- there's a twisted fairy tale, a sequel to Our Town, a whimsically written parable, and a rhythmic love story -- save that they are all well-produced, honestly performed, and splendid to watch.

The opening play, Sharyn Rothstein's "Senor Jay's Tango Palace," uses a backdrop of that most passionate of dances as a cautionary warning to those who lose their spark. Marlo Hunter's direction (and choreography) lets Marmalade (Maria Parra) and Robert (Leo Ash Evens) loose in the background while Ben Johnson (Nick Merritt) and Senor Jay (Jose Febus) can only watch, as they do every night, their dreams flicker momentarily before them. They've also resigned themselves to the most dismal of dreams: Jay's is a rundown place, and Robert's more interested in groping the innocent Marmalade than he is in dancing with her. Although Ben's contemplative small talk is the highlight of the show, Jay's easy going nature is what sells it; Jay is another one of Rothstein's all-too-human failures: he humanizes everyone around him, even though he's lost his corazon.

The next piece, Cheri Magid's "The Lock," uses a staple of symbolism -- the fortress -- to look at the consequences of such imprisoning protection on The Lady (Carla Rzeszewski), and the truth behind such white-horsed characters as The Prince (Christian Felix). In a series of progressive scenes, simply directed by Blake Lawrence, Rzeszewski slowly kindles to life, blossoming before our eyes with a girlish vigor that keeps us rapt with anticipation. To tie each of the Prince's visits together, each one slowly dissolving the castle walls, Magid adds a Soothsayer (Alice Barden) whose simple poem haunts the proceedings with an eerily erotic message, full, like life, of foreboding and hope.

As for Sheila Callaghan's wonderfully written "Ayravana Flies or A Pretty Dish," the need for exotic excitement comes across a bit cryptically, but is completely carried by the characters: a shy (and English) Elephant (Fletcher McTaggart) and an excitable young cook, Olivia (Lauren Walsh Singerman). In a series of alternating monologues, Callaghan convinces us of how important it is that we really live and explore our world -- not just by vicariously throwing in foreign spices like cumin, or by working in an airport to be around those bold enough to fly, but by daring to take risks oneself, even when it may lead to disaster. McTaggart plays the elephant with the potential to soar, but it's Singerman who literally zooms across the stage, helping to make even the ambiguous portions of the script crackle with Callaghan's unique wit.

The final piece, It's Our Town, Too, is good -- but a bit exploitative. In the first scene, writer/Stage Manager Susan Miller introduces us to another town, a modern one filled with a gay couple, George and Louis (David Lloyd Walters and Dan Via) and a lesbian couple, Emily and Elizabeth (Alexis Slade and Amy Staats), who are about to see their adopted children Molly and Chance (Janet S. Kim and Jason Cruz) get married. By portraying modern relationships in Wilder's familiar model of family/town/community, Miller pays homage and makes a bold statement all at once. But her second scene, the "death" scene, seems to be pulled directly from the original Our Town, and seems to be placed there to mine our emotions without earning them: if the point is simply that gay, lesbian, or straight, there's no difference in the way we live, love, die, and grieve, then it's just overkill: the point is made already, now let it rest in peace.

All told, this twelfth installment of Vital Signs gives the impression that America has a fine and healthy heartbeat of new playwrights, ones who collectively draw from a rich culture of the past and actively develop -- with new voices -- a culture for the future.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

PLAY: "A Very Nosedive Christmas"

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

A Very Nosedive Christmas Carol is to the original as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is to Hamlet. James Comtois is no Tom Stoppard (Comtois is deliberately funny), but once again his Nosedive company strikes to the heart of what audiences really want this holiday season: laughs and eggnog (or eggnog and laughs, I'm sure he doesn't mind the order). In any case, the focus this time is on the supporting characters, Marley (Scott Lee Williams) and his cadre of ghosts, Past (Marsha Martinez), Present (Brian Silliman), and Future (Ben Trawick-Smith). You see, they're sick of haunting Scrooge (a delightfully Shakespearean Patrick Shearer) every year, and they're craving a release from the chains that bind them -- in a sense, they're scrooges themselves, denying what has become a postmodern Christmas staple.

At the same time, they're also actors -- playing a specific part for a specific audience -- and as they talk about their dismal auditions (Bloody Mary, Hamlet's father), they try to find ways to truly live each performance as if it were their first (even if that means putting stickers on a sleeping Scrooge). They all do their job very well, from Williams's mopey chain-rattling and misanthropic narration, to Martinez's endearingly cute performance, Silliman's technical prowess (his vocal warm-up is a scene-stealer), and Trawick-Smith's terrifying presence as some sort of cross between 80s hair metal lead singer and Grim Reaper (in other words, compliments to costumer Stephanie Williams).

As is typical of Nosedive productions, very little is taken seriously, and this play -- which we've all seen a million times before -- is the better off for it. The ghosts (like Scrooge) still learn a valuable lesson about Christmas cheer, but this time they do so in the midst of baby-chucking antics, caroling monkey puppets (and a sock-puppet Tiny Tim), and the most eccentric Cratchit family you've ever seen. Those portions that hew too close to the original, as with Scrooge's nephew (Matt Johnston), serve as reminders of how much more fun it is to watch a grown man (Marc Landers) walk around in a half-crouch so that he can play a little boy. As for the rest of the company, they're in particularly good form too, like Ben VandenBoom's emotional Bob and Jessi Gotta's charming Belle (I mention these two because they've played very different parts in other Nosedive productions).

A Very Nosedive Christmas Carol is now in its third year, and on the fast track to being a NYC staple of the season. So ho-ho-hurry over to the Red Room and get your jolly on.

Friday, December 14, 2007

PLAY: "The Santaland Diaries"

Photo/Jennifer Maufrais Kelly

David Sedaris, if you've ever read him in The New Yorker or heard him on NPR, is an icy humorist. He comes across as droll, listless, and bitter, which makes him perfect for the cold commercial holidays. But his slow, nuanced book, The Santaland Diaries isn't done much justice by Joe Mantello's adaptation, which, in forcing big-bellied Santa laughs with a series of jolly cuts that jump from joke to joke, loses the sardonic rhythm that sustains all of Sedaris's work.

B. Brian Argotsinger is missing something, too: he seems uncomfortable emulating Sedaris's sedate nerviness, but quite at home in Michael Wilson Morgan's candy-cane stockings, which constantly belies his own derision. Instead, he resembles the "artistic" elf he talks about, codenamed Flaky: he comes across more as an actor who hates his job so much that he'll turn it into something more agreeable, in this case, a chance to mimic his targets. Whereas Sedaris just calmly rolls everything into one casually caustic joke, Argotsinger leaps into the voices of those bad elves, Santas, and parents, which is pandering more to the audience than to the tenor of the text. (In fact, he commands the stage like a stand-up comedian, waiting for laughs and -- at one point -- talking directly to one person as he cracks a smile and says, "Oh, now you get it!")

That much isn't really Argotsinger's fault: he's not reciting the book, he's doing Mantello's overbearing play, and as such, his twinkling eyes are a good match for his perpetual sneer and slump. He's also not being helped by Jason Podplesky's perplexing direction, which often strands Argotsinger between lighting cues, forcing him to scramble across a set of hastily gift-wrapped boxes in order to hit his next mark. Sedaris is about as far from farce as you can get, and forcing his words into that sort of festive atmosphere corrodes the underlying ideas.

Thankfully, when the text is left alone, it continues to stand the test, and Argotsinger has a nice deadpan (when he actually uses it). Hearing a "serious" account of working as a Macy's holiday elf can't not be funny, especially when it's punctuated with pleasant anecdotes about the child who wishes for his dead father to come back . . . and for a set of the Ninja Turtles, or the trainee who wants to know if she can work as a full-time elf, year round. These accounts are funny on their own merit, but when they're accented, emphasized, or shouted, they lose their composure.

The Gallery Players has lately shown a commitment to showcasing works that haven't been around for a while (Six Degrees of Separation), or most recently, with brand-new musical productions (Yank!), but this staging of The Santaland Diaries seems as cool and commercial as Santaland's own mechanical efficiency. This production solemnly shuffles from (admittedly) good joke to good joke, but it's no surprise that it took a full thirty seconds for the audience to clap at the end -- we were all left waiting for so much more.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

PLAY: "The Devil's Disciple"

Photo/Carol Rosegg

The original production of George Bernard Shaw's revolutionary play, The Devil's Disciple (1897), had a featured cast larger than 33 in number, and spoke out with a wit and truth strong enough to make critics of the time agree it was "novel to the verge of audacious eccentricity." To mount it on the small Irish Rep stage, Tony Walton has condensed the play down to eleven main parts and nine actors, and in doing so has streamlined the action (save for a expository first scene) and focused on the hypocrisy that makes this play so endearing (albeit more than a little redundant).

To begin with, Shaw focuses on the strict and Puritan rule of Mrs. Dudgeon (Darcy Pulliam), a shrill housekeeper who never ceases to complain about having to care for her uncle's bastard, Essie (Cristin Milioti), let alone her own two "good-for-nothing" children. "Let her hear," she shouts at her well-behaved but doltish son, Christy (an eager and pleasing Craig Pattison). "People who fear God don't fear to give the devil's work its right name!" This sets up the historical values of the time (1777) and place (New Hampshire), although Shaw quickly goes about mocking these values by portraying Mrs. Dudgeon as an unflinchingly cold woman (she's the only one in the house who never seems to need to warm herself by the fire). He's also gives balance to the bitter Mrs. Dudgeon by making the minister, Anthony Anderson (a delightful Curzon Dobell) into a thoughtful rebel, and by turning the antihero, roguish and well-named Dick Dudgeon (the captivating Lorenzo Pisoni) into the unlikeliest of heroes.

Shaw spends his first act, then, dealing with the reversal of roles: the set roles that we imagine for Anthony and Dick are quickly reversed, with Dick bravely marching to the English gallows in Anthony's stead, and Anthony appearing to flee the scene with the cry "Minister be damned!" As for the second, the Shaw applies his grand wit to the concepts of martyrdom ("It is the only way a person can become famous without ability"), gentlemanly contradiction ("If we should have the misfortune to hang you, we shall do so as a mere matter of political necessity and military duty, without any personal ill-feeling"), and the laughable nature of the English army, as evinced by a clash between the thoughtful General Burgoyne (John Windsor-Cunningham) and the aggressive Major Swindon (Robert Sedgwick). Even as the noose is wrapped around his neck, Dick cannot resist mocking the proceedings.

Another plot running through the show is that of the minister's wife, Judith (Jenny Fellner), who deals with the baggage of Shaw's era: "I am only a woman, I can do nothing," she exclaims. After spending half the play despising Dick for no reason other than his reputation, she spends the rest of it trying to save his life, and thereby proving another of Shaw's points: "The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent toward them: that's the essence of inhumanity.. . . If you watch people carefully you'll be surprised to find how like hate is to love." This is what we see in the coolness of the military and in the iciness bestowed by an ill reputation (those who won't give Dick the time of day).

All told, The Devil's Disciple is a very funny play, but one which doesn't really channel Shaw's wit to his best effect. The message is limited, and the second act focuses too narrowly on insulting the poor marksmanship of British forces (ironically, with precise aim of his own). What's to be gleaned from this play, then, are the excellently balanced performances of Dobell and Pisoni, who make Anthony and Dick into the best of "enemies," as well as the moral message that religiousness is not a measure of good, but rather of selfishness, and that true good can only be measured by actions that so bestow it, be them by the self-proclaimed devil's disciple, or by a gun-toting minister.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

PLAY: "Man is Man"

The problem I have with The Elephant Brigade's production of Brecht's Man is Man is that the youth of the company stands in the way of them realizing "epic theater." All the elements of success are there -- the set is created by actors filming miniature sets, songs are delivered by an off-kilter Lauren Blumenfeld, the fourth wall is completely broken, and Dutch director Paul Binnerts is somewhat of an expert on Brecht. However, in this setting, the ideas are trivialized by the amateurish production brought about by these (intentionally) alienating college students, and more so by the technical difficulties that draw more attention to the aesthetic than the raw ideas. In other words, it's very clear that we're watching a play, but it often seems like we're watching a very bad play.

But it would not do to be so dismissive -- while Justin Lauro might bring too much melodrama to the role of "Bloody Five," he is balanced by the superb lead performance of Natalie Kuhn, who plays Galy Gay. The gender reversal already serves as a reminder of theatrical conventions, but Kuhn turns her plaintive statements into a simpleton's observations, and manages to balance her audience-directed summaries along with her puzzled rapport with the company. Gay is not a real person -- which is the point of the play -- simply a collection of ideas and statements that are malleable and easily bought, and Kuhn's easygoing attitude (and presence as both character and actor) make her transformation into the equally unreal Jeraiah Jip easier to understand. "One man is just like another," especially when that man's a woman simply acting out the sum of her parts.

At the same time, I don't seek to justify the flaws of this production: the aesthetics are often so abstruse that they draw our attention away from the thematic points so broadly proclaimed in the script. What to make of Jip's temporary transformation into a religious icon, or Bloody Five's return to a civilian status, or even of the Widow Begbick's (Sarah Wood) commercial ups and downs, the way in which she swings on a dime so as to always be the one making out well. The play doesn't seem to gel into an assertive form until late in the second act, when Gay stands trial for attempting to sell an elephant (which is just another embedded layer of artifice).

Ultimately, Man is Man is one of Brecht's more difficult plays (not as straightforward as Galileo, not as focused as Saint Joan), and this adaptation makes it more difficult to follow. The actors end up seeing like caricatures of their own post-college lives, who are then playing other characters within that, a point that is stressed by all the toys on stage, be they models, tin soldiers, remote-control tanks, &c. For this reason, Galy Gay's eventual "death" is all the more unsettling, but the play itself remains resolutely bland.

Monday, December 10, 2007

PLAY: "Vital Signs: New Works Festival Series 2"

Are there theatergoers out there who don't think that the development of new plays and voices is vital? If there are, they should get down to Vital Signs, a three-week series of new works, and one of the best opportunities to see the sort of things that concern contemporary playwrights. Though I can't yet say what next week will be like (though Sheila Callaghan and Sharyn Rothstein are both names the savvy theatergoer should know), my experiences with Week 2 lead me to believe you'll be in for a treat, as there was everything from a one-act musical about moving one with one's life ("Evict This") to a delicate parallel about accidental racism ("Lost in the Supermarket") and a heartbreaking love story ("Meeting"). Ironically, the only thing these plays had in common, despite strong performances and steady direction, were their unpredictable choices, which speaks to a need to communicate old ideas in a new way.

In Sonya Sobieski's Evict This, we're introduced to Lila (Jacyln Huberman), one of those people "who's got their shit together," she sings, seemingly happy with her affordable apartment, perfect hair, and other endowments. But it's not a perfect world: she's haunted by the ghosts of former tenants, two bickering sisters (Meg MacCary and Sheri Sanders) who like to point out that ever since they died seven years ago, they "haven't been the same since." Sobieski's script spends a little too much time misleading us with comic antics between Lila and her latest one-night stand, Guy, and a bored priest (both played by Mark Shock), but ends on a strong note: even after Lila's driven out the real ghosts, she's still emotionally fettered by the ones she conjures up on her own, like lethargy, and stuck in a worse limbo than her ghostly roommates.

Cahterine Allen's Class Behaviors also uses misdirection, this time by veiling its motives under an extremely passive-aggressive confrontation between the highly principled new principal, Rebecca (Vanessa Shealy) and a long-time benefactor of the school, the grand grandmother, Johanna Twilling (Ruthanne Gereghty). Based on Gwenyth Reitz's no-frills direction, we're meant to see Mrs. Twilling as the villain, a woman using her influence to slowly censor the school library, but it isn't long before the tables have changed, and the more liberal Rebecca is using her power to close off discussion with the censorship of Johanna. The play is little more than a parallel between democratic and republican zeal, but at least it's dramatically so.

The most experimental of the pieces is Steve Yockey's Kiss and Tell, which uses a frozen-time narrative to allow characters to confide momentarily in us (as all other action stops) when they're at their most vulnerable. The twist isn't hard to see, especially given all the jokey foreshadowing, but the innocence of all three characters and the violent undercurrent of homophobia carries the play through the obvious patches. It's met on the other side of the intermission by Laura Eason's formulaic Lost in the Supermarket, which cuts between the expectations of two different couples who each talk about the aftermath of a casual and easily forgotten (but all too common) incident of accidental racism in the supermarket. Both plays break up the natural rhythm of conversation to make a larger point, and while neither is perfect, their messages resonate with the audience.

But for all the experiments, sometimes simplest is best: Jason Salmon's excellent Meeting takes the whole "two strangers meet at a bar" device and turns it on its head, summing up years of relationships in one apparently hypothetical conversation. Marc (Joshua Burrow) is the successful guy who's still a kid on the inside, and Stacy (Desiree Matthews) is the prim and perfect (yet fragile) object of his desire, and as they banter through the "rules" of pickup lines, they both explore where this relationship might lead. Salmon's romantic idealism elicited many wistful sighs from the audience, which is why his misdirection was the most effective of the evening: we so want this relationship, emblematic of American values, to succeed, but only find ourselves thinking pessimistically and, ultimately, destroying ourselves in fear of the future. Jack Reiling's direction manages to keep some of the more scripted lines seem natural, and the actors both do an excellent job of connecting to one another, which in turn provokes a real engagement from the audience, and a mutual heartbreak as the show reaches its surprising end.

And that, above all, is the strength of new theater -- not just its power to provoke, but to surprise. We, who think we've seen it all, need more than ever to be reminded that there are an infinite number of ways to see a story, and even more ways to interpret one.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

PLAY: "No Dice"

Photo/Peter Nigrini

Kelly Copper has edited one hundred hours of conversations recorded by (and from) the Nature Theater of Oklahoma down to a three-and-a-half "epic of the everyday, and Pavol Liska, the director, has shaped this oral work into a strange, thrilling blend of theater (not just melodrama, but hokey dinner-theater melodrama) that tackles life with a series of absurd accents, ridiculous costumes, shared gesticulations (pulled from, among other places, a book on magicians and a video of disco moves), and the company's frenetic dance stylings. The resulting work, No Dice, defies expectations, but does so by continually flaunting the "conventions" that it is breaking: in one of the few segments that is repeated in Act II, we're reminded (via 2001: A Space Odyssey) that storytelling is supposed to have a story; at another point, the characters discuss the "friendly kind of mediocrity" of dinner-theater actors, who "try so hard you have to love them."

I considered writing this review as a conversation between me and me2, so as to give you a firsthand experience of the way No Dice makes use of incomplete thoughts, the standard interruptions like "like" and "uh-huh," (in fact, there's even a great scene where one character critiques another character's brusque usage of "uh-huh").
ME: So I get there, and I'm looking around at this space -- like, this empty space, this -- what used to be, like, some sort of an indoor playground.
ME2: Uh-huh.
ME: And I think -- I'm thinking -- you couldn't, you couldn't possibly pick, like, a better spot to do a play like this.
ME2: Ha-ha. Yeah. Wait, play like this?
ME: Yeah. Some sort of freewheeling, sort of natural mediation on life that, like is distorting yet inherently honest in the way it, how it reflects, right? How we -- who we are.
ME2: (long pause) I liked the signs there. Did you? Like them? (pause) Did you see them?
ME: Sure. "No adults are allowed in the Bouncy Castle."
ME2: "Big Person's bathroom."
ME: (explosive laughter) Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, yeah, such tiny toilets.
ME2: Yeah, such small toilets.
ME: Were we ever that small? I mean, can you think back to a time in your life -- what's the earliest -- god, how time flies.
As you can see, I didn't entirely decide against it, but the language itself is secondary to the presentation, which falls somewhere between the terse theatricality (scripted through improvisation and free play) of The Debate Society and the collage work of Chuck Mee, who is known to pull just as freely from Greek classics as he is from modern blogs. Where No Dice stands out is in the lack of storytelling, the way in which Anne Gridley, Robert M. Johanson, and Zachary Oberzan immerse themselves in the rhythm of life -- the "cosmic murmuring" of edited recordings, pumped into their ears via iPod buds and enthusiastically recited (note perfect) rather than memorized.

No Dice succeeds because this lack of storytelling. It's incredibly focused, don't misunderstand, but on the other things that build character: tales of guilt about working for your friend, and the anxiety about where that may lead; long conversations about taping a television series in Russia and the attempts to convince oneself that the experience justified doing it for free; stories about working as a temp for Wal*Mart, filling out TARs (Time Adjustment Reports), taking long smoke breaks, and stealing the free sodas. Then, to make it relevant to anyone (and far more endearingly comic), the actors play these parts as broadly and hammy as possible: Zack slips in and out of an Irish accent for emphasis and constantly blows bits of fake mustache out of his face; Robert parades around as a half-Jamaican pirate with Hassidic curls hanging off the ears of his wide-rim glasses; Anne (wearing a red wig that creeps farther and farther down her head) speaks in a cheesy French accent and perpetually winces or laughs nervously as if what's being said might get her shot. They're also joined by a wide-eyed Thomas Hummel (whose hidden talent for beat-boxing brings the a surge of energy to the show) and mysterious Kristin Worrall, both of whom spend their time adding a quiet underscore of facial expressions to the dialogs.

After the first hour, the accents start to fade, and the company -- now that it has your attention -- gets more personal with their work, coming right up to the audience to share stories about drinking problems or food (specifically pudding) addictions. The physical tics now seem normal, and the characters seem no different from the actors literally channeling them, especially when the conversation turns to No Dice's structure (once an 11-hour play), marketing (the "I'm a Sexy Robot" dance certainly got me to buy M&Ms), and performance (dinner-theater).

Obviously, No Dice isn't for everyone: those not involved in the arts may miss the self-loathing jokes, and those who are might not want such a broad mirror reflected so brightly back in their face. And but so plus then it's also almost four hours long, like August: Osage County, but without such immediate drama. My advice is to take SoHo Rep up on their generous prices and watch the first 100 minute act; it's an exhilarating chance to see a company trying to find a way to tackle that cosmic, universal sound.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

PLAY: "You People"

Be they religious, obese, foreign, rebellious, or illegal, they're still people first, and The Shalimar's latest production You People aims to remind us of that, whether it's by doing a few rock numbers or a few one-act plays. This approach, while a bit sloppy and not as put together as LA FEMME EST MORTE (or Why I Should Not F!%# My Son), succeeds at being a lot like a melting pot of ideas, and there isn't a bad play in the bunch.

The first playful piece is Josh Liveright's Deseret Desire, in which we see two lovers getting all worked up with some serious kissing. Unfortunately for John (Justin Okin), Desiree (Laurie Naughton) will only take things so far on account of her religious beliefs ("butt stuff" is apparently OK from time to time -- ah, the vagaries of interpretation), and thanks to director Camilo Fontecilla's clever direction (the two sit at a distance from one another, responding to each other's kisses without actually giving or receiving them), we can actually see his frustration. It isn't long before John's agreeing to marry her, bring his kid up in the Church, hell, go to church himself -- anything for God, ahem, sex -- which says a lot about how some people treat religion in this country, especially when the sheets come off.

The next piece, Sharyn Rothstein's Miss Morley's Revenge is a more straightforward piece, and while it's nothing we haven't seen before, it's always a pleasure to see someone stand up for themselves, even when it's through the gaze of an impenetrable smile. In this case, Marilyn Hardy (Dawn Evans) is one of those self-righteous offenders who suggests "diets" and "moderation" like they've never been considered before, and Laura Morley (Kelli Lynn Harrison) just smiles and nods, being endearingly sarcastic as she plots her revenge. It's not a particularly deep play, but R. J. Tolan directs it without any menace, making it ordinary enough to remind us of just how often this well-intentioned discrimination goes on.

In Nastaran Ahmadi's Splinter, the discrimination is a bit more opaque. Man (Charles Semine) is an Irish student whose visa in America is about to run out. Woman (Jen Taher) would rather he didn't, as she's in love with him, but despite her desperate offers to marry him, he doesn't want to stay: "Being in America's only fun if you're American." It's an insidious comment, especially since Jessi D. Hill directs him as being so well-adjusted, happy, and normal; if we can't make this sort of visitor like us (the air has a smell, he says), who will like us?

Taking a more comic approach to the same thought is Hilly Hicks Jr.'s Blanco, in which an illegal immigrant, Blanca (Nina Freeman) tries to Google her American dream, with the help of her electronics store friend, Daryl (Blaire Brooks). Their discovery, through a gay video chat site, is that in America, you can not only achieve anything, but you can be anyone, and be accepted for it. Samuel Buggeln uses two unnamed actors (Chris McKeon and Chip Brookes) to bring the open gates of the Internet to life, but manages also to achieve a level of solemnity when "El Blanco" and "Army Cock" reveal who they are when they're not dreaming.

The best piece of the night is Michael John Garces' Tostitos, which is a rather frightening glimpse at disaffected youth in this country. Red (Andres Munar) rides around the stage on a bike, snarling at everything, while his punk hanger-on, Annie (Jenny Gomez) follows on a skateboard. Tanya (Barrett Doss), a good girl, has unfortunately fallen for Red, and he berates her even as he takes free sodas and candies from her, refusing to make any emotional connection. When Tanya's father, Danny (Edwin Lee Gibson) shows up, the two violently collide, and the lack of respect and understanding on both sides is frighteningly palpable. May Adrales doesn't hold anything back in the physical staging of this piece, which means she doesn't attempt to explain or justify the way these characters behave, and the piece is better for its mysterious bursts of anger, its violent teasing, and its aggressive banter (all of which Mr. Garces has refined far better in this short piece than in his last disjointed play, Acts of Mercy).

The evening transitions through each of these plays with songs from Davide Beradi and Tommy Smith, but with the exception of the last number, "You People," which actually engages the audience, these songs serve only to give the cast enough time to change the sets, and simply aren't clear enough; the direction from Shoshona Currier and Joey Williamson doesn't help either, as the 80s costuming doesn't fit the modernity of the other pieces, nor does it really speak to those people -- what they're doing is too easily identified with, too much a part of our culture. But if the play's the thing, then You People's got it.

Friday, December 07, 2007

PLAY: "Chekhov's Chicks"

Ever since I dreamed of attending NYU's Gallatin program as a major in "The Philosophy and Psychology of Theater," the thought of theater's ability to really change one's perception and heal our ails -- if taken seriously -- has stuck with me, and consequently, is part of why I've stuck with it. That's why it was such a pleasure to attend Elizabeth Rosengren's Chekhov's Chicks, a play that mashes together several Chekhov plays and short stories in order to enlighten the audience about love and life. The production is quietly directed by Jewels Eubanks and sometimes (in that small, barely decorated Manhattan Theater Source space) comes across amateurishly, like a scene study class, but as a whole, it takes a delightfully active approach -- much like the "active love" of Ivanov -- until at last, after a full presentation of the short comic piece, The Bear, our hero is finally able to bear the pains in her heart.

The play begins by introducing us to the lesser known Anna Akimovna (Carolinne Messihi), a character from A Woman's Kingdom who suffers from loneliness and stress. Rather than sit around idly, she heads to a famous doctor -- Anton Chekhov (Chris Cotone) -- who quickly diagnoses the pain she feels in her heart: "I know that pain. There is nothing for it." Luckily, his muse, the actress Arkadina (Elizabeth Rosengren, who plays a kinder version of the Seagull matriarch) has another idea: what if she and her company perform some of the good doctor's plays, to see if those bold examples of life can't calm her aching heart.

Soon, we're watching the Three Sisters give the abject lesson that "people don't marry for love," but that "when you fall in love yourself, you realize nobody knows anything about it." A few moments later, Sasha (Taryn DeVito) is clarifying for Ivanov (Ramesh Ganeshram) that "The more you have to do for love, the better it is. I mean, the more you feel it." And in one of the more memorable scenes from Uncle Vanya, Yelena dreams of being that free-swimming mermaid, unfettered from dull marriage and able to love.

These excerpts are all sparsely directed and often have very little for them beyond the light of an artificial moon shining off the window, but they speak to the sort of love to be found crawling out of Chekhov's "comedies" (this joke is made more than a few times) and they do inspire a sort of hope in the hopelessness of fantasy love. But they lead the way for real resolution in The Bear, which is now imbued with enough context (like Homelife does for The Zoo Story) to make the presentation of what would otherwise simply be a lovesick farce into a really uplifting conclusion. More so, the audience is joined by the entire cast, and we can feel their excitement merging with that of the play -- in fact, Anna interrupts the performers several times with her own eagerness and hope, which makes the performance more thrilling.

Rosengren has pulled together a lot of Chekhov's better musings, and while these pieces often lose the tone of the plays (some of the actors are delivering surface readings only, with none of the subtext or real yearnings of these characters), this repurposing is smooth and emphatic in its own way. Then to end with a quoted example of my own, these chicks may occasionally be ugly ducklings, but they blossom at last into a beautiful swan.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

PLAY: "Oh, The Humanity (and other exclamations)"

Photo/Richard Termine

Will Eno's an excellent solipsist, and that helps him to be a great monologist, a writer of such specific dialog that he can trick the audience into soul-searching his every word. With Thom Pain, he found a droll enough actor in James Urbaniak that we wanted to drown in his reflexive thoughts and engage with his double-talk; but his new collection of short plays, Oh, The Humanity (and other exclamations) eschews specificity of thought for grasping meditations on mortality, and while Brian Hutchison and Marisa Tomei are able to tone themselves down, for them, it seems reductive. Worse still, the five short plays that make up the show are redundancies of each other, starting with the excellently fresh "Behold The Coach, In a Blazer, Uninsured," and ending with the dismal "Oh, The Humanity," in which the characters dismiss the artifice of the stage as a cruel reflection of life ("And these are chairs. And that's it. And I don't know who I am.") but offer nothing in return.

While Oh, The Humanity seems a bit like laziness on the writer's part, I will say this: he's good at his shtick: "Don't speak your mind," says Coach, "and certainly never your heart." With these two useful dramatic narratives out of the way, Eno divulges information through the language itself, like David Foster Wallace, who calls himself, at times, a meta-belletrist. That's an accurate genre for Eno, who turns cadences into heartbeats. For instance, Coach frequently doubles himself (not pleonastically, as he thinks, for the excess of words are necessary to punctuate his doubt): "grown in-grown," "I don't know. In general. And, in particular, in particular," or "An endless gorgeous gorgeous endless loss. Which now is now over. And we have how many more left left to us to lose?" And yet, we are too often being told that this is a pitiable man; very rarely do we actually see it or actually feel it. The poem he reads ("My love is like a sunset, stunning, and then over,") reeks of a pretension that doesn't fit the coach, and even he aches for "a gentle little rhymey poem for the old boy with the clipboard and whistle."

From here, it's more of the same: "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rain" has a Lady and Gentleman overconfessing to the camera ("I am not, as I look around myself, currently bleeding"), getting laughs and sympathy from their eccentricities, not their actual characters, and in "Enter the Spokeswoman, Gently," a cry for help is politely phrased under the diplomatically removed commentary on an airline crash ("Gravity, we trust, was a factor"), and our unshakable hero looks for hope in the little things. (She doubles herself as well: "This was, by the way, an experienced experienced crew.") Even "The Bully Composition" is partly muted by Eno's style, although here the photographer and his assistant are at least being more direct, calling for us to be "more mortal, as much as you can stand," so that their own professionalism is at least an opportunity for us to feel, for us to make some discovery about ourselves. But Eno doesn't follow the same guidelines he sets out for us: "We should try and learn to look at each other harder," he says, but never actually looks at us for we are secondary to what he has already decided to exclaim. That's why the final piece, "Oh, The Humanity," comes as a real irritant: Eno acknowledges the space, acknowledges the audience, and then dismisses it. He's busy conjuring up a mystery, the one caused by "the relations . . . not between things."

So far as an evening at the theater goes, Oh, The Humanity is a pretty artificial one, and if it manages to peer for a moment into our souls, that's only because it speaks so eloquently about the things that we don't know how to say (even though this would never be the way we'd say them). We get Eno's delightful pleonasms, but like Coach, we want a gentle rhymey poem.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

PLAY: "August: Osage County"

Photos/Joan Marcus

Tracy Letts' three-and-a-half-hour epic isn't just a comic dance around the prickly pear that is family; it's a full-blown, three-sheets-to-the-wind leap into a thorn bush. Admittedly, some of the wild taboos introduced here simply prick at the surface of things -- adultery, incest, pedophilia -- but that's because they're not the point. They're just bloody lubrication for the damaging stuff: addiction, control, and the way the world -- or at least one life -- ends.

Thankfully, Letts is a master of form. His previous play, Bug, was a claustrophobic affair between (mostly) two characters whose infectious paranoia brought an ever-present tension to the stage. August: Osage County takes more after the open O'Neill than the hidden Hitchcock, a grand, bitter, desperate glimpse of that great American idea: the Family. Todd Rosenthal's set is a menacing three-story house, one that dwarfs the characters, yet clusters them together into small and provocative spaces, and both Letts and director Anna D. Shapiro wring every ounce of tension from its distances, hazardous stairs, and darkness.

But the tension in August is a different beast than the compressed Bug: here, Letts belates the tension (thereby belaboring it, too) by making the arguments ridiculous ("Who calls them [Native Americans] that? They're no more native than me!" starts one; "Genocide always seems like a good idea at the time," ends another). The explosions are subverted into eccentric outbursts, and they quickly subside, filed away as quirks or jokes, as with Violet's self-medication: look at the wasted mother, listen to her nonsense, and then smile, grin, just bear it. In this way, Letts is able to let the action rise and fall without sacrificing his humor or his menace, and finds a rather endearing rhythm in this Oklahoma clan. And this constant, precarious fraying is the very point of the play: as one character puts it, "Dissipation is much worse than cataclysm." For the end of the world comes not with a bang, but with that whimper of mental illness, a living death in itself.

Barbara (Amy Morton), oldest daughter of the Weston family, suffers from that dissipation: she arrives at the family home in the wake of tragedy, supportive, sensitive husband and adorable daughter in tow. But it's not long before we see that Bill (Jeff Perry) is in the process of divorcing her for a young college student, and that Jean (Madeleine Martin, fresh from Californication, but just as precociously edgy) is a budding nymphomaniac who likes to smoke a certain bud. In fact, the more Barb tries to hold things together, the more she falls apart: when at last she physically wrestles control of the family away from her perfervid mother, she can't handle all the new issues that land on her plate. In fact, it's not long before Barb starts to resemble her mother: snapping at her sisters, walking around the house in a bathrobe, turning to alcohol. Things suddenly aren't quite as cut and dry as she (or we) suspected.

Nor are her sisters unaffected (in fact, there isn't a single family member who goes unscathed): middle sister Ivy (Sally Murphy) is carrying on an affair with her first cousin, Little Charles (Ian Barford), because he gives her understanding -- and no surprise, they're both stuck under domineering women. And the youngest, Karen (Mariann Mayberry) is just as desperately clinging to her love, Steve (Brian Kerwin), who, while far from a saint, can at least fulfill her perception of happiness (namely, a trip to Belize). As for their mother, Violet (Deanna Dunagan); she comes from another generation (laughingly, the Greatest Generation), and considering what physical horrors were inflicted on her as a child (think of claw hammers), the mental grief she inflicts on her children hardly registers as an injustice. The same goes for her sister, Mattie Fae (Rondi Reed), who thinks nothing of calling straight whiskey a "cocktail" or of pulling her husband, Charlie (Francis Guinan) around by the balls. Is it any wonder that Beverly (Dennis Letts), Violet's husband, vanishes?

The one complaint I can see levied against August: Osage County is that at times it is a little too loose; but honestly, that's just Letts making it easier to shake things up. It's also a complaint I don't share: the little details are just right, from an aunt's observations about her niece's breasts to a mother's moment of panic before returning home, and I wouldn't give up a single line in the interests of saving time. These scenes aren't superfluous, they're charming: it's hard to believe how stuffy their house is, but not when you've just heard the one about all the dead parakeets. Furthermore, these small, natural moments are what allow us to keep pace with the large, frantic scope of the show: it's what balances the negative attitudes of so many of these characters, what reminds us, time and time again, that it's never black and white.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

PLAY: "Doris to Darlene, a cautionary valentine"

Photos/Joan Marcus

Jordan Harrison's new play, Doris to Darlene, a cautionary valentine has well-earned the latter half of its name: the writing is exceedingly cautious, often delivered in a omniscient third-person that allows the characters to be in a perpetual state of introspection. Harrison handles the language very well, squeezing character into the rare lines of actual dialogue -- like the showmanship of producer Vic Watts ("I want tiny little children to hemorrhage their hearts out"), the weird music teacher, Mr. Campani ("If it ain't Baroque, don't fix it"), or the frustrated Richard Wagner, trying to overcome writer's block ("What would a dragon sing . . . if it could sing?") -- but this theatrical format is incapable of whipping our emotions into anything resembling the vomit-inducing power of The Ring Cycle.

At times, Harrison speaks elegantly to the power of music, with Tom Nelis' Mr. Campani exciting us like the solipsistic conductor in Terrance McNally's Prelude and Liebestod. At others, as with Laura Heisler's overplayed sorrow as King Ludwig, the music is washed out by distant analysis. I admire what Harrison is reaching for in the three eras of storytelling (1865 Bavaria, 1960 doo-wop America, and present day), and even more so the way that director Les Waters spins the scenes in, like some DJ scratching on a rotating stage, remixing the actors into a variety of roles, and cutting them together with some nice orchestral cues. But I think that's showmanship more than a show: for instance, Doris (De'adre Aziza) is the least developed of the characters (Wagner and Ludwig already exist in our minds), and no sooner does she have a husband and career than she has lost both in a scene we can only imagine.

The real story goes to The Young Man (Tobias Segal), who tries to come into his sexuality by pursuing his teacher, Mr. Campani; for him, at least, the music is seen as a promising, tantalizing hope of something better. Black notes on a white page; what does it bring anybody? asks Harrison, in a far too poetic, and all too unresolved ending. I couldn't say; but at least I was keyed up through the show by the cleverness of it all.

Despite not liking the story itself, the structure, language, music, and acting are all reasons to check out this show, and so to that end, here's a little code to make it cheaper for you to form your own opinion. Use DDBL on the phone or at the box office by 12/11 and you can get yourself $45 tickets (instead of the normal $65). There's also a rush for younger theatergoers; I'd certainly advise that, especially as I don't see this play selling out any time soon.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

PLAY: "The Piano Teacher"

Photo/Carol Rosegg

At first glance, Julia Cho's new play The Piano Teacher, seems to be a quaint solo show, the tale of an old woman, Mrs. K. (an electrifyingly frail Elizabeth Franz), who once was a piano teacher and now is alone. The mood is cozy, as evoked by Derek McLane's roomy and well-worn living room, and Kate Whoriskey's direction is neighborly and familiar: Mrs. K. opens the play, apologizing for her rudeness, by offering the entire front row some cookies. And yet, there's a sense of foreboding; something not quite right in the air (although that might just be the savvy theatergoer playing to the expectation of drama). When Mrs. K. picks up the phone and starts dialing her former students, just to talk with someone (the rest of the time, she "travels vicariously" by watching television), we feel that at last our expectations will be rewarded. But no, it's just another deceptively cordial conversation between teacher and former student, Mary Fields (Carmen M. Herlihy), a seemingly well-adjusted mother of two.

But then the phone rings. And no one answers her. The phone rings. Breathing on the other end. The phone rings, and she curses "motherfucker" at it, then apologizes, "You see what you made me say?" Silence. Here at last is that ominous something, with Hitchcockian menace, and suddenly her room looks more like a lion's den than a den, circled by lurking darkness, a darkness -- the savvy theatergoer suddenly notices -- that has been there all along. David Weiner's clever, subtle shifts -- a small flare on the ringing phone, a light accent to jar against a gentler reality -- that lighting has been the very thing threatening us since minute one.

As The Piano Teacher continues, Julia Cho uses a dramatic judo against us (like her peer Adam Bock), making us fear everything in the absence of familiar evil. When Mary Fields shows up at Mrs. K.'s doorstep, taking her up on that visit, we expect her to pull a knife. When she starts talking about Mr. K., and the time she used to spend doing the crossword with him before lessons, there's the fear that those happy memories are not what they expected. And when another ex-student, Michael (John Boyd) drops by a few hours later, we're waiting for him to take revenge for the molestation that surely went on behind Mrs. K.'s back. The real truth, as it often is, is far worse, so much so that when Michael starts to actually flip out, pulling the cord out of the wall, he loses his menace and becomes a caricature of madness -- this we expect; this we can deal with.

In the eerie final moments of the play, Kate Whoriskey gives us a glimpse into that unseen horror, but only a delicately suggestive one. A kitchen, and a man hidden behind a newspaper, and the lights rising higher and higher. Mrs. K. sits in her chair, picturing it, trying to tell the story she wants to remember, trying to say that all is "beautiful," but she can't. The words stick in her mouth, just like this image rests with the viewer, and with a slow succumbing to darkness, The Piano Teacher ends, pp.