Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Slaughterhouse-Five or: The Children's Crusade

Photo/Donata Zanotti

Watching Godlight Theatre Company's production of Slaughterhouse-Five or: The Children's Crusade didn't make me feel unstuck in time so much as stuck in a theater. The adaptation, by Eric Simonson, is a good one, but Joe Tantalo's claustrophobic direction relies too heavily on the audience being avid fans of Kurt Vonnegut. The play opens, as we shuffle in, with Man (Ashton Crosby), standing over a drain flecked with dried blood, a giant cross of metal hooks, dog tags, and helmets hovering ominously above him. The cast waits visibly in the "wings" of the studio, backs to us, equally frozen in time. The actors look amateurish, and the setting is trivialized by the space -- an audience stepping gingerly over blood to get to their seats -- and what was so forceful on the page becomes remarkably gauche. "Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds," says Man, awkwardly doing his best to ignore the audience. And then: an electric throb of piano, a rotting sound effect and a spotlight meant to signal a "time shift." (In case you missed it, the next three characters to speak will stress that Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.)

We don't get to hear the next lines from the book ("And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?’”); instead, we get brief glimpses of Boy Billy (Darren Curley), being "taught" to swim by his Dad; a more coherent view of Young Billy (Dustin Olson) passively passing through World War II, from the the trenches to the POW camps in soon-to-be-fire-bombed Dresden; and the main narrative of Billy (Gregory Konow), whose big smile and endearing personality are enough not only to make us believe in his temporal condition and alien abduction, but in the show itself.

Now, if you haven't judged this book by its cover, the play begins to work. Violent cartoons like Roland ("You ever heard of the Iron Maiden") Weary and Paul ("I'll kill you") Lazzaro are done justice by the ensemble, their comic sneers an unsettling match for their subject matter, and cryptic characters like Kilgore Trout have thick layers of pain under their jovial smiles. The play constantly breaks its momentum with the "time shift," but it always picks up speed again, with characters sometimes literally spinning from one scene and role into another. Deanna McGovern, who plays all the female parts, does a good job -- intentionally or not -- of bleeding some of her physical traits from character to character, which blurs the lines further between times, though not ever enough for us to lose ourselves in the absurdity. The closest we get is with the excellent portrayal of the alien Tralfamadorians, palm-flashlights strapped to the actors wave like palm fronds in the night.

At best, the show comes off in a rapture of helpless glee, the sort found most often on the bearded face of Mr. Konow, who smilingly engages with the audience. At worst, the show remains as unbalanced as Mr. Crosby, who coldly lectures to the thin air. The play doesn't have to make sense (and without props, it won't to those who haven't read the book), but it does need to connect with the audience, otherwise the satire is simply clowning, and the big tragedies of war (and the small daily happinesses of life) come off as weird aliens in the night.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Trojan Women

Photo/Enid Farber

Are we just so saturated with tales of rape and violence that we're immune to it, or is it the stunting steel of the cage boxing in The Classical Theatre of Harlem's ensemble in Trojan Women that makes the work so disaffecting? There's some questionable acting in play as well, with women going through their gripes as if ticking off a grocery list, and the men acting like thoughtless brutes, but at heart, Alfred Preisser's adaptation (and direction) of the classic Euripedes play comes across like Cassandra's predictions -- filled with truth that is largely ignored.

The show takes place in several stages: in the first, we meet the prisoners, led by the dethroned Hecuba (Lizan Mitchell), her mad daughter, Cassandra (well played with equal parts resignation and disgust by Tryphena Wade), and her daughter-in-law, the ex-princess, Andromache (a fierce Linda Kuriloff). Off to the side, in a separate cage, Helen (a willowy Zainab Jah) lounges atop a broken pillar, flaunting her beauty even in defeat. As the women keen, rattling the mesh of the cage wall, they are visited by a diplomat, Talthybius (Michael Early), who in period clothing, delivers with legalese and political clout the news of their impending "marriages" (read: slavery). Early's performance, filled with restraint and verbal slips, is the highlight of the show, a chance to see modern double-talk set against classical tragedy, and a way in which to bring the crimes of the past into context with those of the present. As women are carried away, one by one, to the ships, victorious Meneleus (Ty Jones) confronts his wife. Unfortunately, his rage is overshadowed by the chorus of raging women, and Mr. Jones remains strangely desexed and detached, much like the play, even as Helen wraps herself and her words around him in an effort to save her own life.

At one point, Meneleus shouts, "Justice? That's just a word with big ideas attached to it." It's the problem that Preisser runs into with his script: the big ideas aren't conveyed with any sense of tragedy, and what should be a cumulative effect of defeats, an embarrassment of losses, becomes just another day. There's no sense of the ten years spent battling, and it almost seems like winning and losing are the same. The men may carry guns, and wear shoes, but save for a few women wearing black stockings to symbolize the absence of limbs, they're very much the same. Furthermore, where there are big ideas, there are bigger generalizations, and the specifics (citations of violence) are listed at a remove from the plot -- more importantly, from any need to speak.

By the end of Trojan Women, these much-abused women are mostly as nameless as they were at the start. The lack of personality in much of the ensemble, or the similarity of performance (blending into a bland wall of sound), holds the show back from its potential, as does the stifling set. We're accused by the actors of being complicit in their tragedy, but at the same time, we're protected by prison walls: at best, the show illustrates how little we feel for those outside our daily life. Better, I think, to step outside the box and shake things up a little.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Main(e) Play

Photo/Ryan Jensen

Two men stand in a living room, catching up on better times, days when actor Shane (Alexander Alioto) used to visit home and his cement-mixing brother Roy (Michael Gladis) more often than just Thanksgiving and Christmas. The room is a mess of beer and toys, and director Robert O'Hara frequently keeps it lit in the staid glow of late-late-night television. Theatrically, it's a Kodak moment that shows the history between these brothers, and its now haphazard remains. But then Shane opens his mouth, spinning an argument out of one of the many scenes that happen offstage, referring to a character (Roy's seven-year-old monster of a son) that we never see, and pulling up a history that seems more anecdotal than real: "Do you want to tell each other things, Roy?" he asks. "OK. Let's tell each other things." This is the problem at the heart of Chad Beckim's The Main(e) Play: the characters all tell each other what's happening.

Why so much exposition? Well, Mr. Beckim's excellent with language, but not with editing. In 'nami, the strong characters and desperate social situations limited what he could and couldn't say; in Lights Rise on Grace, he used monologues to build into solid scenes later, speaking directly through his cast. In The Main(e) Play, he's stuck with a bland plot and somewhat redundant characters, and his unique descriptions ("It looks like Mr. Rogers and Captain Kangaroo had a gang bang in here") are sorely out of place. He's not helped by O'Hara, either: the play sags from lengthy but nondescript scene changes, and unessential movements -- like the up-the-aisle entrance to the house -- are overemphasized. Characters are misused, too: we could use more of Shane's old flame Jess (Susan Dahl, the only actor to really use that accent), and less of his rival, Rooster (Curran Conner's excellent in the role, but Roy makes his part redundant).

I use words like "sag" and "stuck" to illustrate that there's something worth saving at the core, and in this case it's the feeling of becoming an alien in one's own home. By making his main character an actor, he gets to play with the omnipresent illusion of theater, and when Shane exclaims that he's tired of playing pretend, it's a powerful moment. Furthermore, while the play seems as cluttered with extra scenes and unconnected rants, I've never seen Mr. Alioto so vulnerable or Mr. Gladis so solid. As Shane, Alexander is channeling the smarmy attitude from Nelson, but mixing in a real sense of loss; as Roy, Michael is threatening with just a whisper, and when he has to speak seriously, his voice is strangled with the sad sort of strength that comes from being a single father.

The Main(e) Play would be a lot stronger if it dropped the parenthetical aside in its title, and stuck to the main point. Right now, it's trying too hard to be clever: it needs to be honest first.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Heather Christian and the Arbornauts in "North"

Photo/Courtland Premo

Heather Christian and the Arbornauts could've chosen a better theatrical vehicle to widen their exposure than the crashing plane of their new show, North, but given the seemingly unlimited range of Mrs. Christian's voice, the packaging hardly matters. She's absolutely arresting, one of the few female singers I've seen who can honestly be called a siren (after her ability to freeze her upper register and vibrate it so it sounds like the wailing of a melodic police car). That shouldn't excuse the ambiguity of the wintry set, or the static snow and loopy graphics of the sundry televisions, but it does. Had the actual theater been as cold as the "plot," I'd have sat through it to hear Heather lilt through covers of The Decemberists ("The Engine Driver") and Cyndi Lauper ("All Through The Night"), not to mention her own songs, like the titular "North."

The show itself exists in the dreamy poetics of metaphor, from a silent entrance up the audience aisle (with poses struck in the snapshots of light between transitioning blackouts) all the way up to the identical ending. There is no dialogue beyond the distant recorded voice of a pilot: the story is told entirely by the music, with the assistance of a few dances that look like flight attendants hyperventilating their way -- in sync -- through the pantomimes of airline safety. Like the frosted trees that roll from the wings onto the stage, this is just trim and icing that frames a set list in much the same way that a teenager cleverly stitches together a series of disparate songs into playlist with a clever title.

North has a unifying force, however, a polarizing, truly magnetic north that points the way forward, and that's Heather Christian. The audience may not be able to guess that what appears to be a puppet show of a flaming airplane jettisoning debris onto a dying tree below is actually the supposed origin of the Arbornauts , born of "packages of love" that blossom within a tree. But they can follow the cryptic love song "Jet Thrust and Blushes," guided like its singer "So, so, so high you were, there was a highway up to you." There are moments of static distraction, and the band isn't yet as cohesive as they should be (I couldn't think of a reason they'd be singing off pitch), but that's just a little turbulence. And as the pilot says, "Sit back, relax . . . or lean forward all twisted up, the choice is really yours."

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, in addition to being the premiere play of new multimedia theater group 1927, is also an idiomatic expression for being given a choice between two dangerous alternatives. I'm sad to report that this production, which has won several awards in UK festivals, is actually a remarkably tame and crude combination of real people and animated backgrounds -- writer/director/performer Suzanne Andrade speaks truly when she announces that what we'll see are "ten strange stories and terrible tales." But saying so doesn't really excuse such scrapheap stories, stories only occasionally salvaged by their unique presentation as faux 1920 video projections: multimedia done classically. Their result is what I imagine rerecording an mp4 onto an eight-track might sound like.

The first tale, "The 9 Deaths of Choo Choo Le Chat," shows the capability of their technology: a real-time umbrella repels recorded rain; an actor pantomimes falling from a roof with digital assistance (think Urinetown); pretends to be tied to railroad tracks (where's Snidely Whiplash when you need him?); and suffers four other wry deaths. The rest of the scenes are just absurd vignettes, like about a family that starts by deep frying everything from the television to the lawn and eventually the children ("Deep Fried"); or about the rise of the Gingerbread Men ("The Biscuit Tin Revolution"), an imitative bit of Edward Gorey ("a lavender lake where meringue swans sing, they crawl under rocks and liquorice logs").

One piece that works has two twins run directly from the camera's frame into the stage's boundaries (Last Action Hero, done theatrically); speaking creepily as one, they select a victim from the audience, and then, after dressing him to look like their dead grandmother, they pull him behind the projection wall -- and suddenly he's in the film as well. That's deft editing by Paul Barritt, and good timing from Andrade and her partner, Esme Appleton. But it's followed by a video clip in which a crude, herky-jerky puppet is unintelligibly devoured by the devil's vagina (as Lillian Henley coolly provides a live piano accompaniment), and that brings us back to reality: without some sort of story, everything is just an aimless effect, grim icing on a macabre cake.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


If you've ever taken an acting class before, then you know the fundamentals are to (1) find ease in the role, (2) connect the character to yourself, (3) remain inside the given circumstances, and (4) to go on stage each night as if it were your first time. In recent years, Rotozaza has reconfigured their work to make it easy for its actors to do so: first, by using guest performers (as in last year's Doublethink, a far craftier and immersing work than the similar An Oak Tree), and now, with Etiquette, by making you, the audience, into the performers.

Their newest piece is a show for two people (tickets -- sold only as pairs -- are $20); the setting is the noisy and nontheatrical restaurant, Veselka; the stage is a table littered with props and two sets of stage manager-like headphones; and the performers are you, A, and your partner, B. I refuse to say much about this world because I strongly urge you to "see" it first-hand, and to speak about it would ruin many of the small, surprising moments. Better to simply get sucked into this Ibsen-like world, freed of the surrounding chatter and of the obligations of being right or wrong. Etiquette's small-scale epic, played out on a table, in a mound of blutac, and on the palm of one's hand, is a miniature must-see.

I will offer one final disclaimer, however: you'll be so involved in following the effortless directions, and so concentrated on your partner's every move, that you'll probably end up missing the show itself: when I went, we were both surprised to find the play over so suddenly, and although I can remember what I did, I can't say that I understood the character well enough to say why I did. This isn't a problem, for it truly speaks to the all-consuming effect of the show, but all I can think about when writing about Etiquette is how much I want to go back, even if it's just to watch two other anonymous performers. Though extended now through February 1st, it is almost entirely sold out -- so grab a thirty-minute slot, any thirty-minute slot, quickly!

2.5 Minute Ride

[Published in Show Business Weekly]

Actress Nicole Golden is no Lisa Kron, and, granted, there is lot she can’t truly convey to the audience in 2.5 Minute Ride — an autobiographical play originally written and performed by Kron. The play is a reflection on Kron’s relationship with her father, whose parents were Holocaust victims. In Golden’s rendition, colored lights take the place of family photographs during a slideshow and a genial warmth substitutes for Kron’s crackling self-deprecation. In many ways, it’s almost more impressive that Golden can shed tears for a theatrically-adopted family. There’s never any doubt that Golden has journeyed with her “family” to an amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio, or that she has traveled with her “father” back to Auschwitz, so the play is able to stand on its well-written feet.

There are a few moments where Golden has trouble channeling Kron’s tics, but these faults come across as faults with the play itself. After all, whoever heard of a roller coaster ride lasting 80 minutes? To keep the momentum, the show skips between Kron’s comic observations from the Cedar Point Amusement Park (“Health food in the Midwest is anything in a pita.”) and her emotional recollections of Auschwitz, a parallel that works on a subtle and savage level given the touristy treatment of the concentration camp: gift shop and pricey parking. Kron’s point, however, isn’t to skewer commercialism, and Golden, understanding that, focuses more on memory and description than the jokes. Unfortunately, this sometimes makes 2.5 Minute Ride more performance than play, which is why her impersonation of Kron’s father goes awry.

Then again, roller coasters are supposed to be a little bumpy, and director Matt M. Morrow doesn’t go for smooth transitions between locations. Lumps and all, the grounded, boisterous Nicole Golden recreates Kron’s original trip as honestly as possible.

Friday, January 18, 2008


Photo/Colin D. Young

At the bend in the river where the women do their wash, sits an old woman, Sofia (Ching Valdes-Aran), the fierce and stubborn grandmother of the Fuentes family. Sitting there, she is as still as the dead tree leaning out of the river; eyes full of sadness, she looks as raw as the wooden planks that make up the river bank. She is the living embodiment of the political paradox at the heart of Ariel Dorfman's excellent play, Widows: she waits because she cannot bear waiting.

With her four missing men, a father, husband, and two children, she represents the pain and hope of the village (widows all save a priest and her thirteen-year-old grandson), a group of otherwise weak-willed women who lose themselves in the routines of labor, refusing to speak the names as if that small mercy will now allow them to trust in the very military that abducted their men. Though her own daughter, Fidelia (Ana Cruz Kayne) has turned against her, desperate to believe the Captain's (Mark Alhadeff) razor promises, she knows what comes of men who say things like: "We are ready to forgive your disobedience if you are willing to forget our stern response to it, if you learn to behave." Even when a body floats out of the river, the villagers remain shadows of themselves, fearful of the vicious Lieutenant (Guiesseppe Jones) but more so of the nameless corpse that are afraid to claim -- in yet another paradoxical moment, the climax of the play, the women chant as one: "It's mine, oh please don't let it be mine."

For a political play, Widows digs remarkably deep, following not only the deep-rooted nature of fear, but also the internal clash between the military kindness (another paradox) and brute strength, the difference between the rich landowners and the poor peasants, and the frail attempts of a woman to carry on not just tradition, but culture. To that end, Hal Brooks directs the play like a river itself, surrounding the set on three sides by the audience, and narrowing the action to a thin strip of dying land, where the butts of rifles and the faceless bodies are at their most intimidating. The action flows quickly from scene to scene, bubbling up every now and then into a most magnificent Greek chorus of rapids, a babble of insistent voices that break our hearts upon the rocks. In this sense, Brooks is able to steer clear of some of the uneven actors, overlapping their voices and plowing through where he cannot avoid the worst of it. He also knows enough to go with the flow: in Act I, Mr. Jones overflows with malicious glee and several of the weeping widows crow instead of keen, but by Act II, the solid shoulders of Mrs. Valdes-Aran and the wincing mustache of Mr. Alhadeff help them dry off.

The play wonders if it is possible to build a democracy on lies and dead bodies; the answer is no. But if you throw in a mass of wailing women; a narrow, confrontational set; logically twisted lines; and a menacing phalanx of soldiers indistinguishable from dead bodies, then you can build a stirring play.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Under The Radar (Off-Site): "Small Metal Objects" and "Of All The People in the World: USA"

-Small Metal Objects

Photo/Jeff Busby

It's a feeling most peculiar for a New Yorker, this sense of tuning in. And that's just one of the conventions that Back to Back Theater turns on its head for the site-specific piece, Small Metal Objects. Not only is it unusual for an audience to gather in the crowded South Ferry terminal during the height of commuter traffic, but it's discomforting for the commuters themselves to see hundreds of eyes suddenly focused on their very anonymity. It's even more unusual to find ourselves rooting for such little guys: Gary (Sonia Teuben) and Steve (Simon Laherty), with their slouched postures or diminutive size, their slow, easy going speech, and long, contemplative pauses, are far from the heroes we expect. But that's the point, isn't it? To focus in on the sort of person you'd normally ignore, and to actually listen for a moment, to remember, as Gary optimistically opines: "Everything has a value."

That said, Small Metal Objects begins rather tantalizing, by allowing us to hear Gary and Steve speak before we can pick them out of the crowd. For fifteen minutes, there's a sense of telepathic deepening, as if we are hearing two strangers and growing to understand their characters, to really perceive them, an effect deepened by Hugh Covill's repetition of electronic chords. When at last we locate Gary in the crowd, it's like finally meeting an e-correspondent: not what you'd expected, but not disappointing either. We also have the benefit of a slight story that makes us further sympathize with him: he's being met by a tall, handsome man, Alan (Jim Russell), who wishes to buy some drugs from him. Yes; that's another flip of conventions: we're rooting for the drug dealer, and against the handsome man.

Back to Back Theater's mission is to give light to these underdogs, the people excluded from the norm because of perceived or imagined disabilities, and Small Metal Objects proves how deserving we each are of a voice. When Alan's colleague Carolyn (Genevieve Morris) shows up to cajole Steve into allowing the transaction, she tries every trick in the book to move Steve, but her distaste is apparent from the get-go, and only solidified when she growls: "You're standing here dying when you could be living." As if, because Steve is different, or because he's prone to metaphysical meltdowns, he is somehow less of a person. If anything, he's better off: he has a friend like Gary, a friend who won't assail his character, and who bravely accepts him as he is, doing his best "to see you more happy than depressed."

The plot may be slight, but it's utterly compelling and suspenseful because of how close the action is. We may know what's going on, but the pedestrians -- accidental extras -- don't, and that gives the play a frisson of unpredictability, or greater still, the poetics of the ordinary, as when a pigeon flapped by, exactly to the cue of a long, hopeful, electronic thrum. For a moment, we have stopped our busy lives, looked around, and really listened. And that's the most beautiful thing of all.

-Of All The People in the World: USA

Photo/Ed Dimsdale

Speaking of stopping our busy lives, the installation Of All The People in the World, an international production from Stan's Cafe making its premiere in the World Financial Center, is an excellent reminder of how powerful the visual is. The premise is simple: take five tons of rice, use one grain for each person, and then convert stats into mounds of rice. Some stats are serious, as with a series of comparisons between the number of citizens of Chad needed to produce as much carbon dioxide as citizens from the lowest ranking country (Congo) to the highest (Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the US). Some stats are irreverent: "Number of Taxi Drivers in New York City" as opposed to "Robert DeNiro." Others are cute: "Number of viewers for the final episode of "'Sex and the City'" versus "Single Women in Manhattan." Some are terrifying: there are about as many millionaires in the world as there are refugees (and they're both larger piles than you'd think).

As one continues through the exhibition, the staggering volume starts to add up. One starts to compare even unrelated stacks, coming up with their own valuation for all those little granular lives, growing invested in the correlations, and heartsick at some of the stats. There's no way to avoid the lurch in one's gut at seeing how much "rice" was born today as opposed to how much "rice" died. It's unfathomable how Sub-Saharan Africa could be so riddled with AIDS. Numbers on the page can be reasoned with, ignored. The sheer willfulness of counting and displaying all that rice, its obtuseness in the midst of a business sector: these things make the facts unavoidable, and all the more powerful.

The exhibit changes on a regular basis, and sells little gift bags that allow you take take home a representative "Hillary Clinton" (for example), but don't dismiss these commercial tools as gimmickry: Of All The People in the World: USA is not only powerful, it's completely free.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Amazons and Their Men

Photo/Carl Skutsch

Jordan Harrison's new play, Amazons and Their Men, is a clever work of fiction that investigates the escapism of film during a time in which the world was being plunged into darkness. Loosely following the real-life attempts of Leni Riefenstahl to film herself as and in Penthesilea, Harrison writes with a director's fluid grace, connects scenes with an editor's masterfully sudden sequencing, contrasts characters in the film with those in the play like a verbal cinematographer, and ultimately comes away with an elegant piece.

Amazons opens with a literal direction, as the Frau (a fantastic and commanding Rebecca Wisocky) describes the scene from the darkness: "Interior. Night." It's a common device of Harrison's to have the characters narrate their own lives, but here, under the context of filmmaking, it seems perfectly natural -- especially for Riefenstahl. As the lights rise, she speaks the poetics of the film, "The camera first sees her reflected in a lion's eye," which enables the play, text spooling through the projectors of our mind, to take on a cinematic layer. We are soon joined by the Man (Brian Sgambati), a "dark-eyed man from the Ghetto" whom she'd like to more than just cast as her lover, Achilles, and The Extra (Heidi Schreck), who has a talent not just for dying, but for dying "inconspicuously," the faithful shadow for her dominating sister. The tale takes on another dimension when a messenger, The Boy (Gio Perez) is cast as Achilles' best friend, Patroclus, especially as the sliver of eroticism between them on camera translates to a world that cannot see such acts as normal, let alone full of art.

As the Frau says, "the real world chatters on," a point driven by the insistent narration of the characters within it (poetically, too, what with descriptions of things like the "incense censing"). And though she tries to build a new one in her film ("Where else will we go when this one ends?"), she is trapped by the further chatter of telegrams, her sister's morality, and the unfolding war, a war which remains always just slightly out of frame (outsiders are always far upstage, shrouded in darkness). Best still, because Harrison's narrative is able to cut easily between time, character, and thought (and better still, to blend them), he is able to control the pace at which that war advances, but without being predictable.

What works best in Amazons and Their Men is the way in which Harrison contrasts scenes from the film with slices from the Frau's real world, a world that -- try as she might -- she cannot control. This effect is bolstered by Ken Rus Schmoll's direction, which clearly cuts between the film's Amazon battles and the play's Nazi shadow, as well as by Sue Rees's rolling platform of a set, a piece that, like the cavernous Ohio Theater, leaves much to our imagination. The contrast is also strengthened by Kirche Leigh Zeile's costumes, which are the bright imaginative fancies of the film world (white Amazonian garb, solid breastplates and red capes), showing directly the way in which the idealisms of the film die when viewed by those who are repressed.

Few plays connect manage to connect theme, plot, and character, but Jordan Harrison, along with the fantastically creative Clubbed Thumb company, has managed it with Amazons and Their Men.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Under the Radar: "Generation Jeans," "Terminus," "Disinformation"

- Generation Jeans
Photo/Natalia Koliada

If Nikolai Khalezin were to perform Generation Jeans in his home country of Belarus, in a public theater, he'd be thrown in jail as a "political," given the silver scoop of a spoon (the whole spoon might be used to commit murder, as if, Nikolai observes, a wall wouldn't do just as well), and confined to cramped quarters during his imprisonment. But he performs anyway, secretly, in private apartments, because he is a jean-wearing freedom fighter, and though it is dangerous to shout "I am free" when the black club of a policeman is swinging toward ones face, it is a phrase he knows must be said.

With so much weighty relevance behind it, Generation Jeans doesn't need to be very theatrical, and the majority of the show is simply Nikolai sitting on a high stool, speaking directly to us. It works, because Nikolai's lack of refinement speaks toward a greater honesty; he is one of those rare performers not trying to dazzle us, but simply trying to speak what must be said, in the only way he knows. That said, it is somewhat odd to see a DJ on stage with him (Lavr Berzhanin, a k a DJ Laurel), especially since the samples of music used are mostly electronic beats that don't tie into Nikolai's biographical tale of growing up craving AC/DC or The Sex Pistols. But even this device generally works: Nikolai speaks so plainly, without exaggeration or the all-too-common frenzy or caricature of solo performers, that his text keeps the music in the background, allowing it to filter through only for a meditative emphasis, which it successfully does for two of the key moments of tragic catharsis.

For a show that is for the most part performed so plainly (it even remains in the original language, with subtitles to guide us), Generation Jeans still manages to wake us up to the power of imagination, especially as Nikolai stands on stage, his arms wrapped around the flimsy bars of a representative cage, quietly envisioning verdant, emerald green meadows, or the noisy but wide open, sunset streaked runway of La Guardia Airport, thinking of anything, everything, that will help him continue on.

- Terminus

Photo/Ros Kavanagh

If it weren't for Mark O'Rowe's clever verse (e.g., smitten/admitten, invective/ineffective, identical/antithetical) and graphic language, it would've been hard to sit through his ninety minute triptych of monologues, Terminus. Harder still given the taste of thick smoke in the air and the dim and sideways illuminated sight of the actors on stage. But the language justifies the appearance of demons (composed of worms), easy-going psychopaths, and matter-of-fact violence by elevating it to the metaphor of poetry. Though I'm not sure there's a hidden meaning to a man swinging from a crane by his entrails with a demons barbed tail sticking out of his mouth as he sings "Wind Beneath My Wings," it seems not only plausible in O'Rowe's world, but oddly humorous, too, an impressive feat for such a dark piece. (It brings to mind similarly glamorous works of violence, like The Lieutenant of Inishmore.)

Watching Terminus is much like looking at one's own reflection through a broken mirror, which is why Jon Bausor's set -- a shattered pane, with the actors each standing on and beneath large slivers of glass -- is so effective. While the darker schisms of the play are hopefully not a part of our souls, the basic characters are: Andrea Irvine, for instance, plays a counselor who only takes up violence after she is much abused by a violent girl named Celine, and the only sin of Eileen Walsh's character is that she so badly wants a man that she loses herself, literally, for one. As for the mass-murderer, he is played so glibly by Aidan Kelly (think of Ciaran Hinds's performance in The Seafarer as Mr. Lockhart), that we actually sympathize with a shyness so overwhelming that it leads him to constant crime. These performances, given without a trace of poetic showmanship, are what ultimately ground the fantasies of the show, and while the ending isn't exactly the blast of white revelatory redemption that's foreshadowed, it is a satisfying close to one heck of a ride.

- Disinformation

There isn't a person out there who will leave Disinformation saying anything negative about Reggie Watts's voice: the man is an aural artist, capable of many octave-spanning notes, and that's without the assistance of his voice modulators and track-recorders, two twinned devices that let him layer distortions upon distortions upon himself. However, this show seems more like a sampler of what he can do than a statement of anything worth saying, and one of his faux-corporate slogans rings a little too close to home: "The More That You Use, The Less That You Are."

That said, there isn't a person going to Disinformation who won't be amused. From his satirical intellectualizing (his stuffy accents are enjoyable) to his retro film clips, Reggie Watts really knows how to pick his words carefully (even at their most vulgar, his "Shit Fuck Sandwich" rap is still eerily specific). It's not clear where a heart-to-heart between son and father comes in, but his mispronunciation of words like "Swiss" and "balcony" ("swize" and "balconey") is funny, as is his description of a gay night club: "It was so club. There was a floor, a ceiling, and some sort of thing that keeps those two apart." For that matter, so is his constant deadpan, a tact emphasized by his office casual look, and his too-small tie, or simply the way he unapologetically asserts himself: "Whether you're a man or a woman, or simply a man." It's nonsense, but a nonsense that we can enjoy.

Whether providing sound effects for Amy O'Neal's dancing or warbling alongside Orianna Herman, his sheer ability will always ensure he has an audience. But whether or not Reggie Watts can actually use his myriad talents to tell a story, as The Suicide Kings have with their spoken word drama, In Spite of Everything, or if he's content to just play around with short skits in various forms of mixed media . . . that's entirely up to him.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Under the Radar: "This Place is a Desert," "In Spite of Everything," "Low: Meditations Trilogy," and "Regurgitophagy"

- This Place is a Desert

Photo/Hayden Taylor

"We can talk about love and all the ways it wraps itself around us until it's just another form of suffocation," cries one of the many characters caught up in the pains and pangs of Jay Scheib's This Place is a Desert. And that's exactly what happens: a series of tight and interconnected rooms give way to a tangled snarl of relationships that overlap and clash like human hurricanes. Furthermore, a series of cameras and a passive observer (Kenneth Roraback) air the real time scenes from multiple angles, catching each character's reactions like windows to the soul, a creative use of multimedia that allows for poetic, image-heavy transitions.

As the men and women fling wildly from partner to partner, the locations become just as interchangeable, with borders as porous as the chambers of the heart. A large tan bedroom, with an illusory mirror wall, serves as the home for the couples: Jeanette and Marcello, Mr. and Mrs. Rowe, and Jim and Monica. A pale blue hallway provides the path for all the additional romances -- between Marcello and Victorovna, Monica and Richard Harris -- as does a dark red room that serves both as a place for Jeanette and Mr. Rowe, and as an orgiastic guest room.

The play does a fairly good job of depicting what happens to relationships that outlast the love, and the lingering gaze of the camera, always watching for just a little too long, helps to cement that effect. Unfortunately, the cinematic elements hollow out the stage action (which could be called a metaphor for love, but a dissatisfying excuse, if that), and after mechanical blocking, melodramatic lines delivered to the camera, and a body poetics that is anything but natural, it becomes hard to take some of the actors seriously. Caleb Hammond, for instance, would make a fantastic, egocentric drunk as Mr. Rowe, if he hadn't already played the deathbed flirtations of Bill Faulkner the same way.

Luckily, the play ends on exactly the right note, the pinnacle of anti-romance and modern love: Victornovna (the fantastic Aimee Phelan-Deconinck) pleads with Marcello (Jorge Albert Rubio, who grows more and more into the role as the show continues): "Please. Please, say you don't love me." "No," he replies, digging into her, the two burying, suffocating their heads within each other's bodies. "No. I won't say it."

- In Spite of Everything

Photo/Caroline Harvey

In Spite of Everything
is the best use of spoken word that I've seen in a play yet; an urban yet arty mix of Laramie-like exploration and poetic imagination that divorces itself from reality even as it plunges itself back in, deeper, through brilliant metaphor. Only The Suicide Kings (Rupert Estanislao, Jaime DeWolf, and Geoff Trenchard) know how much of their story is true, but it hardly matters: whether it's a poem about getting fed up in the service industry, dealing with acne, or watching Columbine in reverse, there isn't a verse that isn't relevant, not a thought that someone in the audience won't agree with.

The play opens with The Suicide Kings introducing themselves to an ordinary class in an ordinary American town and then launching into a writer's workshop called "I feel a scream coming in." Unfortunately for them, the next day, 27 kids are dead, and detectives, having found a journal at the scene of the crime, are breathing down Rupert, Jamie, and Geoff's necks, demanding to know what they said to the kid that might have finally made him snap. As they alternate roles between their own self-effacing, honest poetry for the "classroom," as detectives grilling members of the group, or simply giving testimony from the killer's friend, father, and classmates, they are pursued by Sam Bass's slashes of the cello, a musical drive that demands that the void to be filled with words.

And fill it, they do. Segments from their past (fact or fiction?) show us Rupert's initiation into an Asian sect of the Crypts, Jaime as a bullied and Goth-like teenager, and Geoff as a once-violent child, and for all of them, their escape is through the language that gave them a second chance. The show vibrates with these lively verses, poetry that ignores barriers of form or canonized style to take back a disenfranchised street grammar, and the play hums with such powerful lines that I'd have to quote the whole script to do it justice. Grab your pen and paper, or razor and wrist, whatever your medium (their line, not mine), and see In Spite of Everything, for it wasn't talking that made this fictional kid snap; it was his silence.

- Low: Meditations Trilogy Part 1
Photo/Jean Jacques Tiziou

Low opens with a blank slate: an empty chair on one of those white-floored and white-walled setups most familiar from a modeling session or an Apple commercial. What follows is, if you will permit the pun, a monologued bit of white-box theater, a tale from Rha Goddess about Loquitia, a precocious girl who thinks that her teacher is racist to associate Langston Hughes with predecessor Walt Whitman, but young enough to still get into food fights with her sister. These endearing moments carry the show for the first fifteen minutes; Mrs. Goddess gets a high modulation in her pitch to sound purposefully cute, and her free movements around the space give her both attitude and grace.

That's just the prologue: Low is subsequently diagnosed with being depressed, and when she stops taking her medication (so that she can get back to the rapping she yearns to be a part of), she ends up losing even her shitty Starbucks job and moving into the streets to make her own way, a way that ultimately has her giving blow jobs to a McDonald's manager, just so that she can use the bathroom. Her humiliation doesn't end there -- she starts to get physical side-effects that involve uncontrollable spasms and tics, and though she still has sense enough to make fun of the other homeless people, she doesn't realize how far gone she's becoming.

Rha Goddess doesn't seem to notice how far gone her play is either; she's so caught up in preserving the physicality of the character that we get very little of the actual emotion, beyond that which we create from our own fears and automatic empathies. Low wants to be a rapper, but we only ever see her jumping about lip syncing to other rapper's words, which locks us out from Low's inner voice, leaving us only with cold observations. And though Low is forced to endure much humiliation, you'd never be able to tell that from Rha's performance: the words tell us one thing, but her poise tells us another, and while I understand pride, what happens on stage is more a means to armor herself. Where the play finally connects is during a personal epilogue (Rha herself, or as Ana, Low's sister, it isn't clear) that at last allows us to see Low as another person does.

Meditations is an accurate description of this trilogy, for if the first part is any indication, these characters are all internalized and thought out, rather than experienced. Chay Yew has done an excellent job of casting cages of light on the floor, and moving his actor across the stage, but it's up to Rha to show us something more. Right now, Low is just talk, and it's nothing we haven't heard before.

- Regurgitophagy

Photo/Debora 70

I'm sure that Michel Melamed's Regurgitophagy is a great stream-of-consciousness play: I say this because it's one of my fundamental beliefs that you should always give a man who is electrocuting himself the benefit of the doubt. But what I saw on the stage was a man desperately trying to communicate something to the audience about consciousness, and what I saw in the audience were a bunch of disbelieving onlookers trying not to laugh. You see, Melamed uses a system he calls "Pau-de-Arara" to directly interface with the audience; electric clamps are attached to his body so that when we make noise of any kind, he gets shocked. Some of Melamed's jokes simply aren't funny, or they haven't translated properly from Brazil to America, but for the great majority of the time, puzzled people were trying to figure out whether or not respond to his questions, whether or not they should laugh, and best of all, whether or not it would be alright to applaud the man.

Honestly, I wanted to clap just to hurt him; after all, it's not my fault he hooked himself up to a machine like that, nor is it my fault that his text hasn't yet translated well into English. But I have another policy, too, and that's not to do anything to an artist that I wouldn't have done to me, and when he offered to show the audience that the shocks were not fake, I didn't exactly leap at the opportunity. (For what it's worth, there was plenty of noise the machine did not pick up on, and plenty of times that the machine was turned off, so the show is still more about the gimmick than his actual point.)

In any case, when Melamed read in his own language toward the end of the show, he sounded clear, strong, and confident. And when he recited off strings of three letter words toward the beginning, I started to understand the way in which nonsense could be turned into sense. But until he resolves the language barrier, American audiences are just paying to watch a man electrically flagellate himself, and that's not my idea of theater.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Under the Radar: "Church" and "Poetics: A Ballet Brut"

- Church

Photo/Ryan Jensen

For the most part, Young Jean Lee's Church, a quiet exploration of the power of faith, avoids the pontification that she declaims early on as "masturbation rage." Instead of focusing on anything negative, she opens with a voice calling out from the darkness, then introduces us to four ordinary people, Reverends Jose (Brian Bickerstaff), Weena (Weena Pauly), Katie (Katie Workum), and Katy (Katy Pyle), who each deliver a sermon asking simply for our prayers to help them (and us) through the most understandable of troubles in our lives: the tendency to whine, for instance. The play then moves into a series of absurd testimonials which, because they are delivered straightly, without satire and with tenderness, give us a touchstone for why some people are able to believe, and why others are not.

In this case, surely no-one in the audience shares the circumstances of Weena's deliverance -- ten years of orgies, drug-use, abortions made into trophies on the wall, relaxation atop ten gushing feet of chicken blood, or the erstwhile tattooing of a swastika onto one's face -- her unabashed recollection speaks to some underlying grace. Likewise with Jose's attempts to sermonize -- it doesn't matter that his parables turn themselves, half-finished, into other parables, much like his hysterical references to "birds made of fish" or of demon mummies (including, but not restricted to, unicorns). Ultimately, the play concludes with two surges of music -- the first, a rapturous dance that, all smiles and energies, gives the sensation of beauteous freedom, and the second, a large choral rendition of "Ain't Got Time To Die" that reminds us that every voice has the power not only to sing, but to come together. I'm not a religious man, but Lee's Church gives me hope that there is something that unites us all, some inner inexpressible goodness, even if it's not religion itself.

- Poetics: A Ballet Brut

Photo/Peter Nigrini

They may not be from Oklahoma, but if Nature Theater of Oklahoma's recent works prove anything, it's that they understands nature: human nature. Just as No Dice exaggerated our casual conversations through the veil of dinner theater, Poetics takes our ordinary movements and filters them through a dream ballet. They dress like hip twentysomethings, all colorful sneakers, funny socks, and graphic Ts; and they act like us -- sipping on a soda, crossing their arms behind their head or placing their hands in their pockets, basically trying to find a way to idle comfortably on a narrow swath of space between the audience and a looming red curtain. And when these movements start coming together in sync, as "All By Myself" starts playing, they dance like us too, or like those of us who don't know how to dance would dance (or have danced: like children, unfettered by form, unrestricted by rules).

As the curtains part, the space changes -- growing from the backstage audience area to the stage itself and eventually the entire theater -- as does the dancing: though many of the gestures are repetitive, they way they look changes based on the song (from "You Should Be Dancing" to "Dancing Queen" to "Dream Weaver"). Sometimes ballet twirls are accomplished with the use of spinning office chairs with complex steps done by dancing fingers on the floor; the show is a combination of grace and sloppiness (as when they dance while eating pizza), and becomes a brute force approach to dance. Simple movements that, out of context, would not be dance, are now, through persistence and choreography, a part of a new vocabulary of motion.

At its heart, however, Poetics is -- like Church -- a reminder of the ties that bind us all. Music and dance are two other artistic forces whose effects cannot be easily described, but which have the power to make us all move. So get up off of that dance floor, kill me softly with that song, because we can dance if we want to, and you don't stop till you get it up.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Preview: COIL Festival (at PS122)

Completing the powerful trifecta of downtown theater festivals this week (The Public's Under the Radar Festival, and HERE's Culturemart 2008) is PS122's celebration of past, present, and future works, with returning hits like the TEAM's Particularly in the Heartland (they'll be back in the fall with the US premiere of Architecting), current works like Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, and upcoming works like Iodine (YOD). The works are mostly mixed affairs that incorporate music (like Banana Bag & Bodice's punk extravaganza The Fall and Rise of the Rising Fallen), cabaret (C'est Duckie!), and dance (Beethoven Live), and, with a variety of showings from 3:00 to 10:30 every day through Tuesday, January 15th, is a great opportunity both for the artists and the audiences to get exposed.

On Thursday, January 10th, I finally got a chance to see Banana Bag & Bodice and the TEAM:

- The Fall and Rise of the Rising Fallen

Photo/Ryan Jensen

The Rising Fallen are a musty basement living room, all jam-packed drum kit, keyboard/table, impromptu soda cooler, bass and lead guitars, and a sextet of punk-clad artists with blood pressures of 278/130. The Rising Fallen are everything, which is everything. The Rising Fallen once toured the oil rig circuit, by which they mean an oil rig, where they were stuck for six months (due to weather), forced to give blow jobs, sit in a cage surrounded by steam and oil, and have their women model in a 'high concept area,' bare-breasted, for visiting Japanese execs. The Rising Fallen are more than happy to turn your frown inside-up. Don't you dare ask what any of that means: lead singer Francoise Kelly (Peter Blomquist) would have you "let it all just spin out and then look back at it"; bassist Jacko (Jason Craig) would try to find the unity in the space, a human feng shui; and enthusiastic tambouriner Ada (Heather Peroni) would just like to ride the wave, 'cause you know, on a missionary mission, you often have to do things.

The result smashes between the recent rock musical 33 to Nothing and the insane performances of The Best (OEDIrx), and is really only recommended for those who like their music to physically hurt a little. Not that Banana Bag & Bodice play badly (considering they taught themselves the instruments just for this show), but their nonsense songs are satirically unclear ("And I tried to turn a monkey into a bee/and I lied when I wrote the wrong history"), and Blomquist's deep, yet somehow shrill, delivery is wearying (which may explain why Francoise recoils from the microphone as if he's being electrocuted during each song, and collapses after he finishes). It's an energetic mind-fuck, and the addition of Mary Archias to the show (as a "fan" who replaces -- literally -- the gay "bells & whistler" Westie, as the original actor is on vacation) gives us a conduit to their insanity, but the show could use a little insulation to ground us.

- Particularly In the Heartland

What is America, when we have such divisive terms as "the heartland" (in this case, Lebanon, Kansas, the physical center of the US)? That's what The TEAM (Theatre of the Emerging American Movement) have set out to explore, by way of the Christian youngsters of the Springer family, who believe their family to have been Raptured away in the aftermath of a brutal storm, and three visitors in their post-apocalyptic world of rediscovery: Tracy Jo (Jill Frutkin), who claims to be an alien; Dorothy (Jessica Almasy), a typical New York businesswoman who falls from a plane back down to plain old Earth; and Robert F. Kennedy (Jake Margolin). Yes, that one.

Rachel Chavkin keeps us from asking questions by painting clear pictures that often surprise us with their delicate physicality; she also involves the audience by having them sing The Battle Hymn of the Republic (whose later verses, if you've forgotten, have lines like "He is sifting out the hearts of men/Before His judgment seat"), breaking the wall with an improvised mid-show Q&A, and a few other directorial tricks. Some of this is misdirection that stretches portions of the piece out needlessly, but other devices, like the use of a bag of leaves and a bag of white powder to bring about autumn and winter, or the physical representation of Kennedy's assassination by means of a ladder and a rope -- those have an immediate pay out.

The heart of the play stems from watching the relationships bloom over the seven years between the first "Rapture" and the second judgment, and the best moments of the piece are the tender montages that overlap a series of independent actions into a united whole. The TEAM also gives another good example of why developmental theater companies are so important: there are layers upon layers of emotion between these actors, which is why their storytelling can be so fluid and clear, even when there are no words: eldest daughter Sarah (Libby King) finally working up the guts to kiss Tracy; ten-year-old Anna (Kristen Sieh) finally pushing past her childishness to take on some consequences; disaffected Todd (Frank Boyd) finally showing the chinks in his armor when he enlists for the military -- and, best of all, the million little looks and slight touches that bring Dorothy and Robert together, along with the Springers, as a real melting pot of an American family.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Preview: Culturemart 2008 (at HERE Arts Center)

What's your New Year's Resolution? For me, it's to see more shows than ever, and I can't think of a better way to get exposure to the rapidly evolving, hybrid theater out there, than to check out HERE Arts Center's CULTUREMART 2008, a work-in-progress showcase of what their resident artists have been up to, along with the Under the Radar Festival, a collection of worldwide talent curated by Mark Russell for The Public. We'll be reporting in periodically from the festival with capsule coverage, but it's highly recommended that you simply go -- both offer shows for just $15. Some personal recommendations include the new Rotozaza piece at Veselka Cafe, Etiquette, and the return of Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Poetics: A Ballet Brut, as well as the double bill of Richard Toth's Foodstable and Alexandra Beller's What Comes After Happy.

To kick things off, here's a taste of one CULTUREMART 2008 double bill: Kamala Sankaram's Miranda 5x and Sheila Callaghan's Water (or, the secret life of objects).

- Miranda 5x

Welcome to "You Bet Their Life," a game show that lets the audience judge supposed criminals, like this week's unknown murderer. To help introduce us to the suspects, jovial host Dave (Joel Marsh Garland) and his clueless cohost, Julie Faluda (Kamala Sankaram) appear in prerecorded clips to introduce live "flashback" performances between Miranda (Sankaram) and the three men suspected of killing her. These pieces are blocked simply, with Miranda standing in front of a projection of various locales that are coupled with subtitles for her operatically cryptic conversations. She's assisted by her ensemble, Squeezebox, who provide a folksy classical spin on her arias. The most promising segment from this presentation is a fast-paced staccato song in a Starbucks that keeps Sankaram out of her falsetto, and which is coupled with some frantically edited close-ups of Miranda; as the scene continues, the melody becomes a loop for Miranda's inescapable future, and Sankaram removes herself from the role to add in a layer of gasping accordion notes, this time layered over surveillance footage from the coffee shop.

- Water (or, the secret life of objects)

This should be the year of Sheila Callaghan. Not only will we see Crawl, Fade to White later this year with 13P (and two more in early '09), but Water is the opening salvo in a much longer piece that, if this is any indication, will be a series of international vignettes (in their native languages) with the common theme of water. Hence April Mattis plays a Katrina survivor, sitting, starving, on a roof, watching the press helicopters fly overhead (her thoughts literally bubble on screen behind her); Carolyn Bost and Gerardo Rodriguez play a couple from Oslo dealing with another 100-degree day; and in a series of prerecorded events, we see possible futures (in which Bloomberg is Chancellor of Saudi-America, faux fish are in, and fresh water goes for $400 a gallon) and hysterical pasts (like a retro 1985 educational video where a scientist promotes the "hard science" that disproves all the environmental alarmists). As directed by Daniella Topol, and with videos and lighting from William Cusick (the creative team from my #1 show of '05, Dead City), the play is already a heartbreaking maelstrom of interconnected thoughts, and it's already creative, most notably in the easygoing audience participation, which I wouldn't dare spoil. I'd happily get intoxicated on this Water, hyponatremia be damned.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Frankenstein (Mortal Toys)

Photo/Sara Velas

Behind a miniature proscenium, a watercolor sky scrolls across the background, changing from the light blue sadness of one scene to the autumnal dreams of the next. From offstage, there are the sounds of wind chimes, and perhaps the fragments of a toy piano. In the foreground, walking over literally rolling hills, is a fragile man, looking like a cutout from an early Victorian fashion designer's sketchbook. This is Victor Frankenstein, pondering the death of his younger brother, William, at the hands of his creation, the Monster, and the show is a dark yet vibrantly creative retelling of Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein (now subtitled, "Mortal Toys").

The production, written by Erik Ehn and directed by Janie Geiser and Susan Simpson (of Automata), is part of HERE Arts Center's Dream Music Puppetry Program, and that describes it perfectly: as visually beautiful yet elusive as a dream, and only occasionally as soporific as one, heavy with stilted dialogue ("Wandering spirits/take me as your companion/make me into breath") delivered by Chris Payne and Dana L. Wilson, two real life actors who sit, wooden as puppets, in the wings of the miniature stage. Though they are visible, their stillness makes it seem as if they are inhabiting those paper shells, as if, like us, they were lost in the drama, too.

The play floats between a series of worlds, from the artistic details of the two-dimensional puppets and the impressionistic backgrounds, to Severin Behnen's haunting electronic score (think The X-Files, but subtler), and to the mixed media of stop-motion "electric" dreams that aim to illuminate the flashbacks of what little kindnesses Frankenstein and his Monster have known. As such, it is never wholly present, not enough to affect or compel the audience toward anything specific, but enough to dazzle them as a liquid piece of art which, in snatches of scenes, are utterly compelling. Of particular note is the doubling effect Geiser and Simpson achieve, in which a puppet on stage is emphasized by a larger version, as when the Monster appears in his monolithic desolation (like an Easter Island head) to proclaim "I am malicious because I am miserable" or when Captain Walton (remember him?) uses his telescope to observe a shivering Frankenstein making his way along the Arctic coast.

The overlap of scenic layers within the boxed-in stage gives for an illusion of depth, as do the play's poetic narrative and various devices, but it all works to give the audience a sensation of freefall in which time slows, and like Alice down the rabbit hole, we are simply lost amidst our thoughts.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Yellow Face

Photo/Joan Marcus

Is David Henry Hwang capable of writing about anything other than himself? Sure, but you wouldn't be able to tell from Yellow Face, his indulgent, albeit occasionally powerful, autobifictionalography (a term stolen from comic writer Lynda Barry). It's a one-person show about DHH (Hoon Lee) starring other characters (like Lisa Kron's Well, also directed by Leigh Silverman). It's also an apology for his Broadway flop, Face Value, a farce written in response to the controversial casting of Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon, which Mr. Hwang uses within his play to launch a new contrivance: his desperate, accidental casting of an American, Marcus G. Dahlman (Noah Bean), as the Asian lead of Face Value.

To avoid embarrassment, DHH covers for his actor, reshaping him as "Marcus Gee," a Siberian Jew (that's Eurasian to you!), only to grow jealous -- and offended -- when Marcus replaces him as the theater's Asian-American spokesperson. It would be delightfully self-deprecating, except it's not Mr. Hwang up there, it's Hoon Lee, and no matter how talented Mr. Lee is (and he is very, very talented), the "self-deprecation" misses, as do many of the ensemble's characterizations (B. D. Wong, good; Michael Riedel, bad; Jane Krakowski, awful). The play becomes a device for Mr. Hwang to hide behind, and as a result, the rage that he channels -- perhaps rightfully so -- at [Name Withheld On Advice of Counsel], a passively antagonistic New York Times reporter, doesn't connect on an emotional level. It becomes rhetoric, dictated in a sleek and distantly narrated framework. It's Extras without Ricky Gervais; there's a whole level of self-satire and awkward humor that just doesn't work.

That said, Yellow Face is a satisfyingly intellectual work, though those who disliked the superior (though less personal) The Farnsworth Invention will surely hate this play, too. Mrs. Silverman handles the meta-fiction well by removing any outside stimuli: the set is a slightly raised platform surrounded by several chairs (for idle actors) and three blank brick walls. The only props are radio microphones that swing down from above for the all-too-common montages of quotes (for despite -- or perhaps because of -- Mr. Hwang's fabrications, he's forced to clearly block out what is quantifiably true). The show only pauses when DHH is talking to his father, HYH (Francis Jue), and that's simply because HYH's endearing humor is in his slow persistence.

Yellow Face is an intriguing work, but David Henry Hwang set out to find a face and wound up extending his farce. The play has a mask up, a highly expressive one named Hoon Lee, but it prevents the work from being personal, and while it makes us think of artistic freedom and race, it does not make us feel for that struggle.

Sunday, January 06, 2008


Yes, yes, martial arts are impressive, I get it. But in the rapidly growing "niche" of spectacles in the theater industry, Jump, like Be before it, and even Slava's Snowshow, just doesn't get a rise out of me. At best, it hops in the right direction, but just like the Old Man who dodders around for laughs rather than display his formidable gymnastic skills, Jump buries itself in slapstick. The gimmick here is the human recreation of Saturday morning cartoons -- with particular emphasis on the exaggerated reaction shots of Japanese anime (something you may see soon on the big screen with the live action Dragonball film). But the presentation is rather tame, with a simple run-down living room (you can see footprints on the walls from previous performances) as the only set piece, and "weapons" (all kid friendly, from the sheet metal swords to the cartoon-sized mallet) as flimsy as the plot. Where's the rebellious streak of those metal mashers from Stomp, the creative juices (and paints) of Blue Man Group, the all-at-once attitude of the short-lived Blast, the adrenaline of Antigravity, or even the audience involvement of Fuerzabrutza?

Granted, it isn't fair to compare Jump to rhythmic shows, but like it or not, that's what it's competing against, and its lackluster excuses for synchronized martial arts exhibitions don't work. Jump has a choreographer (Young-Sub Jin), a comedy director (Won-Kil Paek), a consulting director (Jim Millan), and an actual director (Chul-Ki Choi), and that's what shows: a melange of competing thoughts, mugging one another for laughs. Worse still, none of these directors are particularly apt: for an eighty-minute show, many of the jokes and moves are recycled, and the actors, stripped for the most part of any depth, have very little charisma to make them more charming. The Son-in-Law transforms from a silk-robed nerd into a mesh-shirted stud whenever his glasses come off, but after the fifth "reversion," even he seems bored with the loose and jittery direction. On the other hand, the Uncle's drunken fist is always amusing, as is the Father's constant clowning. But with all that, the two late night burglars seem superfluous, especially as one of them is simply a comic foil -- we laugh at his inability to do triple backflips in empathy, but he's about as dazzling as the two audience "extras."

For a play that's so sparse in plot and set, it's somewhat remarkable that Jump also manages to be so confusing. At several moments in the show, the action freezes and either fast-forwards or rewinds (again, with so little specificity that it seems sloppy), the point of which is unclear. Little solos with the Old Man eat up the clock, but don't tell any sort of story. And the relationship between the characters is a process-of-elimination guessing game between the program and the performance: there's no brother, so that must be the uncle, and I assume he's the son-in-law, although I hope that moment's in the future, as he's just met his wife-to-be; and why shouldn't Father and Mother fight all the time? It would take a whole lot more jumping to make all these random acts add up; instead, Jump falls flat on its face. And unfortunately, because the floor is one giant rubber mat, it doesn't have the grace to stay down.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Preview: "November"

Photo/David Hume Kennerly

[November opens on January 17th, 2007.]

While David Mamet and Nathan Lane may be as sharp as ever, the product of their respective wits, November, is an unyieldingly dull joke about stupid people in positions of high power. Except that their artistic creation, President Charles Smith, isn't stupid, at least not by current standards; he's just vulgar and crude, which is why his speechwriter, Clarice Bernstein (Laurie Metcalf) still comes to work in the morning. (That and the treat of being sent to bumfuck Bulgaria to be tortured; in Mamet's world, the president is an impotent bully.) It's also why he keeps a sycophantic lawyer, the quiet and corrective Archer Brown (Dylan Baker); the way his shit stinks, he knows he needs to cover his ass.

But beyond being a theatrical stand-in for our political frustrations, November refuses to talk turkey. That's all the more impressive considering that the main plot involves the president's attempts to extort a Representative of the Turkey By-Product Manufacturers (Ethan Phillips) into giving him the money he needs to build a Presidential Library when he is ousted from office in next week's election. But when a comedy doesn't have a point, all it can do is pour gas on an already riled audience, poking fun at "jibberism," the inanity of thinking "slavery" and "disco" are the two greatest wrongs in recent times, or simply pointing out the extremes of political corruption. It may be true that "there are no real solutions, there are only rearrangements of problems" (especially so in a comedy), but there's no problem in the play to rearrange: President equals Bad. End of story.

Mamet soldiers on anyway, his once frightening language now barely eliciting a giggle, and adds to the play with a series of phone calls designed to show off Nathan Lane's ability for the double-take. At least the regular scenes force Lane to play off his fellow actors, but for these monologues, Lane comes unhinged: he falls into the usual high-pitched squeals, the out-of-breath gasps of incredulity, the aghast moans, the blustering rage . . . I guess this is what some people are paying for, but Lane hardly needs Joe Mantello or David Mamet to do that, and November's biggest failing is that it becomes The Nathan Lane Show. It's also easy to generate laughs from a one-sided conversation; the other character never has to justify any of the implausible stuff they're saying, and the playwright, severing human connections, can play entirely for laughs, as with Chief Dwight Grackle (Michael Nichols). Sure, it's funny to hear Smith yell, "I hope your next wife is eaten by a walrus, too!" but when Grackle actually shows up, the shallowness of both the character and the play become painfully obvious.

The few bright spots of this play come from Mrs. Metcalf, who plays an idealistic left-wing lesbian with such giddiness that she floods the theater with spots of actual humanity. If there were a point to this play, her struggle to find the good in Smith's heart would be it, even if she inevitably falls back on the same extortive tricks to get what she wants: marriage, on national television. If there's anything the last eight years have taught us, it's how the world works -- or at least how stupid people think the world works, and therefore, the way the world works -- and Mamet's comic pontificating is just hot air. I won't say I didn't laugh at November -- I believe the count was three chuckles? -- but that just makes it President Smith's favorite thing: happy horseshit.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

2008 Archive

I do not like rating shows--I prefer to let descriptions speak for themselves. To correct for bias, I've compiled these ratings between December 22 and December 26, comparatively grouping shows into seven categories, from the unmissable to the unwatchable.

Unmissable (Six Stars)
Aliens With Extraordinary Skills - [29 September] OFF
Blasted - [9 October] OFF-OFF
Bride - [23 March] OFF-OFF
Crooked - [19 April] OFF
Fabrik - [29 January] OFF-OFF
God's Ear - [16 April] OFF
How Theater Failed America - [1 June] OFF
Hostage Song - [5 April] OFF-OFF
Passing Strange - [5 March] ON
Rainbow Kiss - [20 March] OFF-OFF
Scenes from an Execution - [6 July] OFF
Southern Promises - [22 September] OFF-OFF
Women Beware Women - [13 December] OFF

Excellent (Five Stars)
ANGER/NATION - [13 September] OFF-OFF
Around the World in 80 Days - [26 July] OFF
Bound in a Nutshell - [9 August] OFF-OFF
Catch-22 [23 November] OFF
The Cripple of Inishmaan [19 December] OFF
Dawn - [14 November] OFF-OFF
Edgewise - [30 July] OFF-OFF
Fifty Words - [2 October] OFF
The Glass Cage - [1 November] OFF
Great Hymn of Thanksgiving/Conversation Storm - [2 March] OFF-OFF
If You See Something, Say Something - [31 October] OFF
The Invitation - [8 September] OFF-OFF
Jollyship the Whiz-Bang - [11 June] OFF-OFF
Liberty City - [24 February] OFF
The Most Damaging Wound - [12 November] OFF-OFF
Palace of the End - [21 June] OFF
Poetics: A Ballet Brut - [11 January] OFF-OFF
The Pumpkin Pie Show - [18 October] OFF-OFF
The Sexual Neuroses of our Parents - [11 November] OFF-OFF
Small Metal Objects - [14 January] OFF-OFF
The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928) - [27 April] OFF
Suspicious Package - [17 June] OFF-OFF
Stretch (a fantasia) - [12 May] OFF-OFF
There Will Come Soft Rains - [17 August] OFF-OFF
[title of show] - [14 July] ON
Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind - [N/A] OFF-OFF
The Unconquered - [14 May] OFF-OFF
Welcome to Nowhere (bullet hole road) - [23 February] OFF-OFF
Wintuk - [13 November] ON

Recommended (Four Stars)
The Alice Complex - [12 August] OFF-OFF
Amazons And Their Men - [7 January] OFF-OFF
Artefacts - [25 May] OFF-OFF
As You Like It - [9 August] OFF-OFF
Betrayed - [2 February] OFF
Bouffon Glass Menajoree - [11 July] OFF-OFF
The Boy in the Basement - [10 August] OFF-OFF
Brew of the Dead - [7 October] OFF-OFF
Cape Disappointment - [28 November] OFF-OFF
Cherubina - [16 February] OFF-OFF
Crawl, Fade to White - [16 October] OFF-OFF
Dead Man's Cell Phone - [16 March] OFF
The Drunken City - [19 March] OFF
Etiquette - [19 January] OFF-OFF
Farragut North - [15 November] OFF
Fight Girl Battle World - [13 March] OFF-OFF
The Footage - [14 November] OFF-OFF
From Up Here - [20 April] OFF
Green Eyes - [17 August] OFF-OFF
Hillary: A Modern Greek Tragedy With a (Somewhat) Happy Ending - [25 November] OFF-OFF
The Honest to God True Story of the Atheist - [13 June] OFF-OFF
House - [26 April] OFF-OFF
I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me By a Young Lady from Rwanda - [13 April] OFF-OFF
In Spite of Everything - [12 January] OFF-OFF
Kansas City or Along the Way - [17 August] OFF-OFF
Kindness - [11 October] OFF
Like You Like It - [25 October] OFF-OFF
Man of La Mancha - [8 May] OFF-OFF

The Night of the Iguana - [1 March] OFF-OFF
Noon Day Sun - [18 August] OFF-OFF
The Parent/Teacher Conference Plays - [24 September] OFF-OFF
Particularly in the Heartland - [10 January] OFF-OFF
A Perfect Couple - [18 June] OFF-OFF
The Play About the Naked Guy - [8 February] OFF
Rattlers - [7 November] OFF-OFF
Sand - [9 February] OFF
Sunday in the Park With George - [14 February] ON
The Underpants - [19 September] OFF-OFF
What To Do When You Hate All Your Friends - [21 July] OFF-OFF

Decent (Three Stars)
2.5 Minute Ride - [19 January] OFF-OFF
The 39 Steps - [17 January] ON
Angel Eaters - [3 November] OFF-OFF
The Apocalypse of John, the Rabbit Known as Chicken Little - [27 July] OFF-OFF
B-Alive! - [6 April] OFF-OFF
Beast - [7 September] OFF
Beebo Brinker Chronicles - [1 March] OFF
Blue Before Morning - [20 October] OFF-OFF
Boeing Boeing - [15 July] ON
The Caucasian Chalk Circle - [30 April] OFF-OFF
Cherry Docs - [2 May] OFF-OFF
Church - [11 January] OFF-OFF
Crave/Somewhere in the Pacific - [6 July] OFF
Dance at Bataan - [20 July] OFF-OFF
A Dangerous Personality - [9 June] OFF
Democracy in America - [2 April] OFF-OFF
Diversey Harbor - [2 March] OFF-OFF
Endgame - [11 May] OFF
Eighty-1 - [27 July] OFF-OFF
Elizabeth Rex - [14 August] OFF
EST Marathon: Series A - [19 May] OFF-OFF
EST Marathon: Series B - [2 June] OFF-OFF
Fela! - [19 August] OFF
Frankenstein: Mortal Toys - [8 January] OFF-OFF
Generation Jeans - [13 January] OFF-OFF
Hair - [15 August] OFF
Happy Endings - [26 February] OFF-OFF
In the Heights - [25 March] ON
Heist - [22 June] OFF-OFF
The Hired Man - [8 June] OFF
Hospital 2008 (episode one) - [2 June] OFF-OFF
Improbable Frequency - [13 December] OFF
The King is Dead - [7 August] OFF-OFF
King of Shadows - [7 September] OFF
The Lifeblood - [6 February] OFF-OFF
Mare Cognitum - [13 August] OFF-OFF
Me - [8 May] OFF-OFF
Nightmare: Bad Dreams Come True - [11 October] OFF-OFF
Offending the Audience - [1 February] OFF-OFF
Oh What War - [11 September] OFF-OFF
A Perfect Ganesh - [27 August] OFF-OFF
The Proposal - [24 July] OFF-OFF
Rafta, Rafta [3 May] OFF
Rock 'n' Roll - [28 February] ON
RUS(H) - [29 February] OFF
Summer Shorts: Series A - [3 August] OFF-OFF
Summer Shorts: Series B - [8 August] OFF-OFF
Terminus - [13 January] OFF-OFF
This Place is a Desert - [12 January] OFF-OFF
Tiny Feats of Cowardice - [8 August] OFF-OFF
Untitled Mars (This Title May Change) - [12 April] OFF-OFF
Victory at the Dirt Palace - [21 August] OFF-OFF
Washing Machine - [29 June] OFF-OFF
What's My Line? - [24 March] OFF
Whisper - [11 July] OFF-OFF
Widows - [16 January] OFF-OFF
Wig Out! - [30 September] OFF
Writer's Block - [20 July] OFF-OFF
Yellow Face - [6 January] OFF
Yellow Moon - [24 April] OFF-OFF

Flawed (Two Stars)
8 Little Antichrists - [6 November] OFF-OFF
Adding Machine - [6 March] OFF
The Actor's Nightmare/The Real Inspector Hound - [18 May] OFF-OFF
All Kinds of Shifty Villains - [22 June] OFF-OFF
All The Rage - [31 July] OFF-OFF
Almost an Evening - [29 March] OFF
BASH'd: A Gay Rap Opera - [19 June] OFF
The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac - [17 July] OFF-OFF
Benefactors - [6 June] OFF-OFF
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea - [17 January] OFF-OFF
Blink - [25 May] OFF-OFF
A Body of Water - [3 October] OFF
The Break-Up and the Happy Sad - [17 March] OFF-OFF
Cat's Cradle - [24 February] OFF-OFF
Claymont - [8 February] OFF
Colorful World - [15 May] OFF-OFF
The Deciders - [19 August] OFF-OFF
Disinformation - [13 January] OFF-OFF
Eureka! - [5 October] OFF-OFF
The Fall and Rise of the Rising Fallen - [10 January] OFF-OFF
Heistman - [1 August] OFF-OFF
Hello Failure - [10 March] OFF-OFF
Fire Island - [18 April] OFF
The Four of Us - [17 May] OFF
The Gargoyle Garden - [20 August] OFF-OFF
Home - [21 December] OFF
Hunting and Gathering - [27 January] OFF
Made in Poland - [5 November] OFF-OFF
The Main(e) Play - [24 January] OFF-OFF
The Master of Horror - [11 October] OFF-OFF
Monster - [25 April] OFF-OFF
Neal Medlyn's Unpronounceable Symbol - [9 July] OFF-OFF
Nemesis - [4 October] OFF-OFF
Night Maneuver - [28 August] OFF-OFF
North - [19 January] OFF-OFF
November - [3 January] ON
A Number - [10 September] OFF-OFF
Occupant - [24 June] OFF
Perfect Harmony - [10 July] OFF-OFF
Port Authority - [24 May] OFF
Reasons To Be Pretty - [29 May] OFF
The Redheaded Man - [16 August] OFF-OFF
ReWrite - [11 December] OFF
Shrek - [5 December] ON
Slaughterhouse-Five - [21 January] OFF-OFF
Six - [28 March] OFF-OFF
Something Weird . . . In the Red Room - [10 October] OFF-OFF
Something You Did - [22 March] OFF
Thicker than Water 2008 - [9 February] OFF-OFF
TRACES/fades - [16 July] OFF-OFF
Two Rooms - [6 October] OFF-OFF
The Uncanny Appearance of Sherlock Holmes - [4 December] OFF-OFF
Velvet Scratch: Voyage of No Return [9 August] OFF-OFF
Vincent River - [15 June] OFF-OFF
Walls - [16 August] OFF-OFF
Waves of Mu - [12 October] OFF-OFF
When Is A Clock - [23 April] OFF-OFF
Yellow Electras - [18 July] OFF-OFF

Awful (One Star)
The Accidental Patriot - [27 April] OFF-OFF
American Buffalo - [30 October] ON
The American Dream/The Sandbox [27 March] OFF
Apartment 3A - [30 January] OFF-OFF
Babylon, Babylon - [26 April] OFF-OFF
Big Beat/Back Flow - [20 August] OFF-OFF
Daguerrotypes - [27 July] OFF-OFF
Dirt - [9 April] OFF-OFF
Estrogenius Festival: Series A - [1 October] OFF-OFF
The Fifth Column - [23 March] OFF
Jump - [6 January] OFF
Kidstuff - [4 September] OFF-OFF
Killing the Boss - [12 February] OFF-OFF
Low: Meditations Trilogy Part 1 - [12 January] OFF-OFF
Lower Ninth - [27 February] OFF-OFF
The Only Tribe - [3 December] OFF
Our Dad Is in Atlantis - [6 April] OFF-OFF
Out Cry - [2 December] OFF-OFF
Prisoner of the Crown - [18 May] OFF
Refuge of Lies - [18 September] OFF-OFF
Silver Bullet Trailer - [31 March] OFF-OFF
Standing Clear - [16 June] OFF-OFF
Stitching - [29 June] OFF-OFF
To Be Or Not To Be - [14 October] ON
Trojan Women - [20 January] OFF
Vengeance Can Wait - [3 May] OFF-OFF
Year One of the Empire - [3 March] OFF-OFF

Unredeemable (Zero Stars)
3 Sisters - [7 December] OFF-OFF
As We Speak - [10 November] OFF-OFF
Artfuckers - [21 February] OFF-OFF
Barcinda Forest - [18 April] OFF-OFF
Damascus - [11 May] OFF
Do Not Do This Ever Again - [12 July] OFF-OFF
A Light Lunch - [20 December] OFF-OFF
Louder - [27 September] OFF-OFF
Mindgame - [2 November] OFF
Paradise Park - [30 March] OFF
Regurgitophagy - [12 January] OFF-OFF
thirty-seven stones (or the man who was a quarry) - [14 April] OFF-OFF

A.N.T. Fest - [15 October]
Chekhov Lizardbrain - [19 October]
Crime or Emergency - [11 January]
Don't Fuck With Love - [14 January]
Greendale - [23 July]
Miranda 5x - [9 January]
Of All The People in the World: USA - [14 January]
The Poor Itch - [16 March]
Red Haired Thomas - [6 August]
The Truth About Santa - [6 December]
Uncensored - [1 May]
Water (or, the secret lives of objects) - [9 January]