Friday, February 29, 2008

Lower Ninth

Photo/Joan Marcus

Right from the start, you can tell Gaius Charles is a TV actor. As Malcolm (a fierce but too often overcooked James McDaniel) cries out evangelically over a trash-bag wrapped corpse, Mr. Charles (who plays Malcolm's malcontent son, E-Z, aka Ezekiel) chews up the stage with big rolling eyes, a tilted head of disapproval, and a clenched lip -- not at all to the benefit of the man he's standing atop a dilapidated roof with, but so that we, the audience can see that he's not happy to be there. As if things weren't obvious enough in Beau Willimon's uneven new play, Lower Ninth.

Ignoring the problems with the set (the roof is set at floor level, the lights are smooth, and the room is quietly air-conditioned, none of which allow us to imagine the wake of Hurricane Katrina), and the issues with Mr. Charles's physicality, the first half of Lower Ninth is a pretty good play. Malcolm, who is attempting to atone for his reckless abandonment of E-Z, has come back at just the right time, and with the two of them stuck on a roof with nothing but a corpse, they've got plenty of time to catch up. The script flows easily through biblical interpretations (Noah's ark offers an explanation for where white people came from), anecdotes about hardness (E-Z becoming the accidental king of an island), and character-revealing games of 20 questions, and both Mr. McDaniel and Mr. Charles have a fine way of bristling at one another, the former holding on to a newfound sainthood, the latter holding on to his survival-instinct anger.

But then, after a quiet moment in the darkness, the lights come on to reveal the corpse, Lowboy (Gbenga Akinnagbe), playing with a lighter. He admits that he's "worm food," and it's obvious that the scene is half-hallucination and half-E-Z's guilt, but the entire scene must've been cooked up by a Beau Willimon spending too much time out in the sun: everything that passes between them is either reductive of the present circumstances -- as when Lowboy predicts E-Z's future death -- or redundant, as when Lowboy reminds E-Z of the difference in their street cred, and how all that means absolutely nothing if you can't swim. There's some funny lines ("My granma could've held that corner in her walker"), but it's not real, and Lower Ninth, dealing with such tragedy, needs to be real.

And speaking of real, that's where Daniel Goldstein faces some critique as a director. It's not just Donyale Werle's set that looks fake and -- worse still -- safe; it's the staging, too. In one scene, actors are complaining of the worst effects of dehydration, in the next, they're bouncing around, climbing up onto the chimney, or stripping of their shirts in the baking heat, preparing to dive into poisonous water. If as much time is passing as the shifting sun of Ben Stanton's lighting would have us believe, then these characters should be getting less energetic and more serious as the play continues, and instead, the opposite happens. Hell, what should be the peak of drama -- a father hydrating his son by force-feeding him blood -- comes across as the stuff of soaps, only with fewer repercussions, seeing as the play has only eighty minutes to wrap itself up.

It's hard to make sense of why it took so long for disaster relief to reach New Orleans, and I admire that, for the most part, Lower Ninth focuses on faith and family rather than on blame. But the only feeling of circumstance comes from the script, not its characters or its design, which makes going to see Lower Ninth akin to heading off to New Orleans only to keep one's head buried in a book the whole time. I saw this play, but it sure doesn't feel like I was really there.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Cat's Cradle

Photo/Edward Einhorn

Just as making a cat's cradle is deceptively deeper than it looks, so it goes with adapting Kurt Vonnegut's less-than-sunny novel, Cat's Cradle. Edward Einhorn takes a pretty good crack at it, but his condensations of plot come at the expense of the characters, and his definitions of Bokononism's terms come across as anti-foma, that is, truth that hurts the narrative of the play. Worse still, while the calypso lyrics are mostly ripped from the pages, they're roughly delivered by a chorus of musicians who, quite frankly, aren't very good. And worst of all, the direction often forces the play -- most particularly the explanation of ice-9, a central conceit -- to compete with the music: to accurately quote a Bokononist, it's all busy, busy, busy.

A rowdy, loose atmosphere is perhaps not the best way to approach an adaptation of the already meandering Vonnegut's satirical work, but all that chaos does produce some nice effects. The hero, John (Timothy McCown Reynolds), is a solid block of rationality, and when he's in focus -- talking to the naive American capitalists, Hazel and H Lowe Crosby (Sandy York and Michael Bertolini) or dealing with the well-traveled and calm US Ambassador Minton and wife, Claire (John Blaylock and Jenny McClintock) -- the show is delightfully tongue-in-cheek. And both Darius Stone (as Papa Monzano, a dictator so jovial that death by 'the hook' seems pleasant) and Jerome Brooks (as a happily ignorant bellhop) are successfully kooky. But this revolving cast of characters on John's tour as a reporter also include Dr. Breed (a generic Daryl Brown), Philip Castle (a very insecure and insincere Martin J. Mitchell), and Newton Hoenniker (a sleepy Sean Allison), and that's when the sloppiness shows. The problem isn't just with the actors -- Horace V. Rogers, who plays a Cheshire-like Bokonon, has a beautiful bass voice -- but that these personalities clash so severely: though most of them wear the same cultish white-cotton outfits (they don tops or bottoms to play other roles), the whole play is dissonant, which makes the black-lit climax rather mundane, i.e., more of the same.

The one wholly original device is the playful model set designed by Evolve Company (Tanya Khordoc and Barry Weil), a much needed bit of color and life among the drab curtains and plain costumes. It's also totally in sync with the text -- Mr. Weil, who spends most of the play manipulating a miniature camera along tiny streets, doubles as the elusive Frank Hoenniker, an excitable man-child who enjoys models. The crisp, clean translation of this stylistic element is what's so missing in the music -- Henry Akona's compositions, which should, given the anthem, be "Nice, Nice, Very Nice," are rough, rough, very rough.

Mr. Einhorn is on to something with his adaptation of Cat's Cradle, but at close to three hours, he needs to distill it to a greater extent, to rearrange those molecules from simply being a play (one filled with silly and superfluous scenes in graveyards or with sugar mill owners) into the sort of play-nine that forever alters the audience with the simple seeding power of a thought. If science is magic that works, then it's time for this company to look toward science, for the random hocus-pocus they've got right now isn't working.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Happy Endings

First, and most importantly: yes, there is a happy ending. It's probably not the one you'd expect from a one-act play festival that commissioned nine playwrights to share their take on the sex worker industry, but it's a pretty satisfying evening all the same. There are a few rough spots that -- pardon me -- could've used more lube, by which I mean hard (or soft -- I can't stop!) revisions, the kind that I could have used to prevent this sentence from growing . . . out of control. Luckily, the evening balances between the poetic bookends (Beauty and Yes Yes Yes), absurd slapstick (Pulling Teeth), casual comedy (Switch), and calm drama (Whenever You're Ready). Whether dealing with first-timers (Peep Show), old pros (The Guest), or the dysfunctionally kinky (The White Swallow), there's something for everyone. And given the smart directorial choices regarding ambiance and musical transitions, the whole night's quite engaging.

We open with Blair Fell's Beauty, a voyeur's (David Johnston's) monologued fantasy about the dancer (Joe Curnutte) he watches, a fantasy that, like true beauty, can only live in his mind and at a distance: "Don't risk passion by closeness," he says, and then later, "Beauty is not in actual life, but in memory. Memory you can repair." As the voyeur pours his heart out, we're left to wonder how the dancer -- swerve, swerve, head, head, jiggle, jiggle, pause -- actually sees himself: the answer comes as a rude awakening.

In David Foley's Switch, two plays collide -- a comedy about the ancient art of male prostitution, which the hysterically Italian Massimo (Phillip Taratula) takes very seriously ("I would never be no woman's plaything"), and then more awkwardly a rumination on the scientific work being done on mice to "switch" their genes from homo- to heterosexuality. Problem is, Earl (Adam Rihacek) really just wants to get laid, and so the play, while generating laughs from the former ("What is it like to have men's peepee in your bum?") goes nowhere with the latter.

Christine Whitley's Peep Show takes a quieter approach, using a lot of silence to give us the feeling of true voyeurism. Woman (Laura Desmond) pays Man (Robert Buckwalter), presumably a "talent scout" for a peep show outfit, or possibly just an honest pair of eyes, to look at her, a simple task that becomes an outpouring of need and emotion: "Admire me. Touch me. See me," she pleads, and though she's in a maid's outfit by this point, standing on a block, it's one of the most honest (and highest) points of the night.

Whenever You're Ready, by John Yearley, takes a similar approach, as Man (Carter Jackson) pays a Woman (Tracey Gilbert) for the privilege of sketching her nude. As the woman narrates, speaking interstitially to the audience as the man attempts to draw, we get the first glimpse of the bitterness some of the people in the industry have for their career: this woman is 35 years old, and only now becoming aware of her emotion, finding herself more naked in an ankle or beautiful shoulder than in the body that she has made so easily available, just to shut people up.

Finally, in the last piece of Act I, Matthew Freeman's The White Swallow, audiences get to delight in Matthew Trumbull's brilliantly over-the-top portrayal of a man, Nick, with a very curious fetish. Like another of Freeman's one-acts (Trayf, which largely used the same cast), it's a skit that has been thoroughly grounded by strong lines (that make completely fractured sense) and by his core actors: David DelGrosso, as the innocent, bewildered call-boy, is a great foil for Trumbull, and Laura Desmond, as Nick's wife, is a jagged point that manages not to puncture, but to sharpen the fine edges in this piece. Yes, it's silly: but given the production value, not at all implausible, and that's what makes its ridiculousness work.

The same can't be said of Brian Fuqua's The Guest, but this one's going for playing up familiar tropes in an endearing way, and therefore succeeds whenever it stays in check. The shock value of Link Sailor's (Alexis Suarez's) gear is as superfluous as the dildo he brings; the play works best when it's simply lovers Colin (F. Dash Vata) and Curtis (Brian Fuqua) quibbling over the small things, or drooling over the big thing. At any rate, I've never seen such a amicable three-way; I'd never considered that there could be real love -- or torte -- involved.

Speaking of fresh insight, David Johnston's closer, Yes Yes Yes, returns to the same dancer (or at least the same actor and outfit) as in the first play, only this time to find eroticism in the intellectual, as Man (Jim Ireland) accidentally piques the dancer's interest in his recondite reading: Finnegan's Wake. And why shouldn't a go-go dancer be able to soliloquize about Joyce? It's a great note to leave the theater on.

The few bad notes: Stan Richardson's AIDS Reveal (about what you'd expect from the title, and not much more elegantly done) and Boo Killebrew's Pulling Teeth, both of which seem to suffer from going off topic. In AIDS Reveal, three unrelated groups of people receive the dreaded "I've got HIV, and so might you" phone call, and then go into their heads to discuss it with the audience -- and more awkwardly, each other. Little happens in actuality, as with Pulling Teeth, which is just a bad joke stretched out too far, from the Easter Bunny (Taratula) trying to set a hooking Tooth Fairy (R. Jane Casserly) straight to Mrs. Claus's (Tracey Gilbert's) attempts to live vicariously through the sex lives of those on the "naughty" list. I longed to be surprised by something other than campy cleverness (her group CollaborationTown has that down cold), only to be left with a toothless frown.

I think the moral of Happy Endings is clear: writing about the sex industry got these playwrights trying new positions and getting creative juices flowing, and the refusal to play by the book (I'm not talking about the Kama Sutra) is what makes most of the night so surprisingly real, so honestly funny. Who needs a massage? Go straight for the Happy Endings.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Welcome to Nowhere (bullet hole road)

Photo/Kenneth Collins

It's interesting to note that Kenneth Collins doesn't call Welcome to Nowhere (bullet hole road) a play -- he opts for "performance" instead. Well, that's true, what with the tightly framed "stage" (a pair of transparent changing-room mirrors), the languid language (mostly delivered in breathy whispers), and William Cusick's Lynchian dream projecting onto a widescreen banner above the set. I'd go with the word "experience" instead, as the whole production is so uniquely compelling -- controlled to the point of ultimate enthrallment -- that you won't soon forget this show.

The plot operates loosely around the fugue of Wyatt (Brian Greer), a drifter with blood on the dashboard, and the memories of Hunter (Ben Beckley), who may have murdered a hitchhiker. Women (Stacey Collins, Lorraine Mattox, and Jessica Pagan) filter in and out of the boxed set, eerily resembling one another in the dark, and the two men stoically wend their way around and through them. Shot as a photo-realistic noir (Cusick uses still photos as a digital background that he places behind the actors), the film plays out as a fantasia for the ghost-like actors below, who say cryptic things like "I ain't here to perpetuate your delusions" and "You're like one of them rides at Disneyland. You make me dizzy."

The set-up -- mirrors, the interplay between what's live and what's recorded, and vocal style -- all works to perpetuate the idea of the double. Even the film has symmetrical sections: scenes run backward and forward, always steadily panning to or from something; there's even a musical interlude ("Everybody's Got Their Demons") that injects a Tarantino-sized dose of adrenaline. On one level, the play is about coping with those energetic demons from the past, but that comes across from the duality of Man: Hunter sits at a campfire, forcing Wyatt to repeat his axioms about the necessity (and therefore unapologetic nature) of sin; in other scenes, Hunter and Rose (Mattox) echo the sweet-and-sour nothings of a voice track, or simply lip-sync the words, as if there were two entirely different characters there.

In terms of pacing, Welcome to Nowhere is slow, but utterly sustained, a narrative device that's justified by the endless drifting of its twinned protagonists. There are lengthy shots of highway sprawl, broken up by the ebb of superimposed memories and the occasional act of surprisingly raw violence, and these scenes -- especially paired with the lighting -- all work to maintain an ominous and moody atmosphere. If it's one that is confusing, so be it; you certainly can't blame anyone in this fantastic cast for your own perceptions.

Welcome to Nowhere is like brazenly sticking your head out the window of a car speeding through the night; it's sometimes hard to make out what's happening, but the wind slapping across your face feels so good, you don't care. Don't try to unpack the bags; just hop in the passenger seat and let Collins take you for a ride.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Emerging Artists Theatre Festival: "Claymont" and "The Play About the Naked Guy"

- Claymont

Are there really places like Claymont, Delaware, where even the name is just another metaphor for the soul-sucking town? (Sounds like a mountainous place, but it's geographically flat.) Or times like 1969? which aside from references to Funny Girl and Bewitched, seems here to be an ironically repressed period, at least if you're a gay artist, trying to sculpt something out of your formative teenage years. Even if there weren't, Kevin Brofsky's written a play so plausible that it manages to defy the cliches one normally finds in this genre. Even his overly comic devices, like Dolores (Wynne Anders), find real heart in their human concerns, while others, like Sharon Letts (Aimee Howard), succeed by playing against type.

We first meet the lead, Neil, as he caroms through the living room, happily vacuuming for a fourth time (this allows him to loudly sing Broadway show tunes). Jason Hare wisely plays him as an excitable boy whose repressed sexuality has makes him uncomfortable in his own skin, which also leaves a lot of room for cooler, subtle moments where Neil, in the presence of Dallas Hitchens (an easy-going Stephen Sherman), is so busy unabashedly relaxing -- not just with a crush, or a father-figure, or simply a friend -- that he reads like an open book. Furthermore, by adding so many layers to the relationship between Neil and Dallas, Brofksy widens the scope of the play: it's not about being closeted so much as it is about feeling alone. That's something that Neil's mom, Shayna (Glory Gallo) shows glimpses of as she talks about caring for her paralyzed husband, or that's obvious from the way Grandma (Rebecca Hoodwin) spends all of her time dreaming of Hollywood Squares, as much a prisoner of the sofa as anything else.

The problem with Claymont, however, is the same as the one in the town: it's flat. It's fine to be casual, but Brofksy should take Dallas's advice to Neil and add a cave of blood to the center of his project, because right now there's not much to get people talking. (As long as we're comparing the play to its art, it also resembles the set's walls: a series of rectangular patches that are more often empty frames than spots of color.) Natural as the circumstances may be, and genuine as Jason Hare is, the play moves rather slowly, something that's not helped by Mrs. Hoodwin's lifeless recitations or by Mr. Sherman's passionless aggression. Neil, who is trying to win a scholarship out of Delaware, works like he has something to lose (or something to gain, as when he "goes to the moon"), but Dallas, who, despite facing the draft and the very bureaucracy he protested -- Mr. Ramsey, the art teacher, well-played by Ron Bopst -- hardly seems there at all.

I know, at least from the script, that '69 was a time in which people didn't have a cow, but the play needs to focus more on the clash between Neil's silent struggle and Dallas's rebellion: it doesn't matter how high the stakes are if no-one acknowledges that they're there.

- The Play About the Naked Guy

Taking into account my potential bias (Full Disclosure: I write a blog with this playwright), I'd say the only flaw with David Bell's insider satire, The Play About the Naked Guy is that if Charles Isherwood really had raved about The Integrity Players' latest play, they wouldn't have had to team up with the gleefully reprehensible producers of "Naked Boys Running Around Naked" to bring in the audiences. Then again, I hear that My First Time and Awesome 80's Prom just recouped their investments even as shows like Is He Dead? struggle to fill the houses, so there's some hard truth to the question of integrity at the heart of Bell's soft comedy. If acting is considered therapy, consider what playwriting is, especially with stone-cold lines like, "We made $90!" "Throw in $21.50 and you'll have enough for The Little Mermaid."

Aside from such mordant turnabout (worry not, there's very little fair play), the play goes above and beyond with its characters, all cranked up to 11 by director Tom Wojtunik. The Integrity Players themselves are: Harold (Wayne Henry), who, from his hilarious British lilt is obviously the actor of the group; Dan (Jason Schuchman), the upright moralist and director (sometimes his clipboard disappears, could it perhaps be up his ass?); and Amanda (Stacy Mayer), his pretty (pregnant) wife and all-around endearing ditz. In other words -- the fodder, or contrast, for the truly over-the-top characters: a trio of villainous gay men straight out of Ugly Betty by way of Will and Grace (Christopher Borg, Christopher Sloan, and Chad Austin), Amanda's deliciously DeVille-like mother (Ellen Reilly), and a cocky porn star named Kit (Dan Amboyer).

As Bell flips from disillusionment to desperation to debauchery, the jokes keep coming, staying well above the depressing underbelly of theater ("No one goes to Cymbeline because they want to") as he exposes the truth of production photos, the life of rich and carefree producers, and the secret of method acting. All this while simultaneously fleshing out Harold as a "new gay" coming to terms with himself, Kit as a wannabe actor who finds salvation in a "man" named Uta Hagen, the difficulties of working with your spouse day in and day out, not to mention all the behind-the-scenes work of "Jesus Christ, He's Hot!"

There isn't much that Mr. Bell doesn't throw at the audience, and if he has to repeat himself a couple of times while transitioning, so be it: his jokes are funny, and the cast is recklessly hysterical. He's also well-partnered with Mr. Wojtunik, who not only keeps the play building to a mercilessly funny conclusion, but even throws in a key montage or too: just enough to poke a little bit of fun at Hollywood. And if you can't laugh at that . . . .

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Thicker Than Water 2008

I see a lot of one-act festivals as part of my work with New Theater Corps -- I find that they're a great way to catch up-and-coming artists, to see boundaries being pushed in experimental short pieces, or simply to showcase artistic and directorial talents. So I'm disappointed with the output of the under-35 Youngblood group, which, if Thicker Than Water 2008 is any indication, is happier treading water, getting their feet wet, and playing in the kiddie pool, than diving into anything serious (or funny). At best, the seven plays here put the cute in dysfuncutetion (as with Amy Herzog's 508); at worst, they sing -- badly (Delaney Britt Brewer's hippie folk musical about familial reconciliation It'll Soon Be Here).

The two exceptions are Courtney Brooke Lauria and Matt Schatz's musical, Co-Op, which is at quirky enough musically to get away with a stale tale of shy strangers, and Justin Deabler's excellent Red, Blue, and Purple, which dares the audience to watch as Dylan (Miguel Govea) meets for an uncomfortably revealing coffee with his former best friend, Nina (Kelli Lynn Harrison), whose shaky mental condition and conversion to religion -- "I Heard God speaking to me at the hot buffet -- are all just a bit too much for him, especially when she tries to help him switch back to heterosexuality.

The directing is efficiently done, but that's the last thing you want to hear in a review focusing on new one-act plays. It's also not enough, as the actors so often fall back on overemoting when they run out of things to actually say. Michael Sendrow's For Candy: A Dead Letter Written has an interesting concept -- a son gets a long-lost (and forgotten) letter from his now-dead mother -- but the suspense is literally throttled to death by the father's (Grant Shaud) patented Looks of Portent. Daria Polatin's La Fete (The Holiday) is full of caustic snaps from a teenage daughter dragged along on her mother and stepfather's honeymoon, only to settle for a hastily resolved happy ending. And while I'd love to say that Thicker Than Water simply suffers from not having enough time, Emily Chadick Weiss's Both wastes the entire 50-minute second act cracking similarly embarrassing jokes until they're neither embarrassing nor funny.

I've seen great stuff from Youngblood artists before, so maybe this is just their way of getting it out of their system, pissing, if you will, into a wide ocean of thick, middling water. But hey, would it be too much to ask for some waves?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Politics: "Sand" and "Betrayed"

- Sand

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Watching Trista Baldwin's play Sand, which in turn features actors staring, Godot-like, at more sand, brings to mind the words of everysoldier Justin (Alec Beard): "It's like I'm thirteen, at summer camp." Aside from Anita Fuchs's blasted clay set and Traci Klainer's mirage-like transitions in light, the plight of these three US soldiers, guarding a gas station, seems like nothing so much as a camping trip in hostile territory. The so-young veteran, Armando (Pedro Pascal), watches his warnings scatter into the wind, especially off the backs of Justin, a breezy kid from Springfield, and Keisha (Angela Lewis), a quiet girl born of the Wal-Mart generation. The strength of Baldwin's play comes from their casual conversations, utterly natural and unassuming bits of grit that seem both dirty and new, all at once. The show also benefits from the expert direction of Daniella Topol, who has made the dusty desert into a dreamscape that dances through gauzy backdrops and spins in and out of time to create an echoing effect -- like that of an hourglass -- in which minute scenes each fall, into a meticulous pile, until suddenly, there's an explosive result. But Baldwin's finale, which doubles Pascal as a fleshed-out Iraqi named Ahmed (who gives lines to the invisible border and voices to the unspoken truth), is so stuck in this halfway world that neither it nor the Glass-like music of Broken Chord Collective are half as effective as the quiet before the storm.

- Betrayed

Photo/Carol Rosegg

That George Packer succeeds as a journalist-turned-first-time-playwright is a tribute to how rich and powerful the source material for Betrayed is. The number of Iraqi dead is always glossed over, especially as we try to avoid mentioning how many US troops have actually died, but that's not even considering how badly we've screwed some of the Iraqis who would help us. What Packer's play manages to do is show the ridiculous dichotomy of the Red Zone/Green Zone division of Iraq and the lack of real information that brings the government, and it does so through the idealism of Bill Prescott (Mike Doyle), a young US agent, and his three Iraqi co-workers: polite, Metallica-loving Laith (Sevan Greene); pessimistic, necessity-driven Adnan (Waleed F. Zuaiter); and the liberal, intelligent woman, Intisar (Aadya Bedi). The tragedies in this play are true, and therefore even harsher, and given the excellent acting, these human faces are even harder to ignore than when they were inked in The New Yorker. Pippin Parker's direction for the Culture Project is clear and crisp -- if it is a little too methodical, that's forgiven, along with Packer's lazy exposition, in the attempt to bring a powerful message back home.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island (or, The Friends of Dr. Rushower)

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Is it any surprise that a cartoonist's alternative musical plays out similarly to his art? In Ben Katchor's The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, or The Friends of Dr. Rushower (or, Is Indie Opera a Good Thing?), his assertively uneven lines and thin watercolor layers of thick color beam out onto flexible walls that do well to set the tone and mood of his festive anti-capitalist paean. Often sandwiched between two scrims are the actors, trilling their silly lyrics, but doing a marvelously fine job of fitting in, and behind them, the musicians, all four of whom switch handily from calypso ("GinGin's Song") to jittery jazz ("The Birth of Immanuel Lubang") to a throbbing backbeat akin to something you might hear channeled by The Postal Service ("Your Coat Will Be Ready At 9"). All told, the effect is dizzying and refreshingly new, but ultimately not all that satisfying of a production. It's as satisfying as I imagine the codeine-laced Kayrol Cola that's used to drug the stevedore population of slug bearers would be: stuporterrific in the theater, while under constant dosage, and bemusedly benign afterward. (And by "slug bearers," I mean the exploited workers [paid in date nut leaves] who load slugs of metal onto an America-bound ship, so that these ingots can hold down the nominally light electronic goods [like phones or toaster ovens] that would otherwise blow away. Seriously.)

As written by Katchor, this is all explained with a straight face, first by Dr. Rushower (Peter Friedman), and then exaggeratedly so by his daughter GinGin's (Jody Flader) depressive funk (girls and their empathy for the media's victims-of-the-moment). As the wealthy doctor casts about for a white knight to rescue his daughter (by means of some gamely sprinkled strawberry ice cream from the 33rd floor), he meets Immanuel Lubang (Bobby Steggert), an idealist who is drawn to consumer fiction -- that everyday prose poetry of the instruction manual. Steggert's the right choice for the role, laying on the same naive but determined charm that he used in 110 in the Shade, and his commitment to technical arias (not the arias themselves, but what they're about) re-enforces the limited ability of language. (This is perhaps the unspoken theme for the '07/'08 Vineyard season: The Piano Teacher avoided saying certain things, and the upcoming God's Ear speaks in Hallmark generalities.) As GinGin and Immanuel set out to liberate the minds of the slug bearers, they receive dire warnings from unibrowed George Klatter (a devilishly good Stephen Lee Anderson) and cryptic phone calls of love from Samson (Matt Pearson), who turns out (in this topsy-turvy world) to be a slug bearer himself.

For all the physical manipulations of the walls that make up Jim Findlay & Jeff Sugg's set, there's very little attempt made by director Bob McGrath to unpack anything, which is what saves the musical. The heft of the play is meant to be ridiculous, to be a specific sort of gravity (not gravitas) that allows us to simply bask in the satire of our society's ruthless manipulation of foreigners for labor ("They're not like you and I," sings Mr. Klatter, a benevolent rictus giving truth to the lie). And yet, I can't stop drawing comparisons to Urinetown -- the anti-musical twists, the abandoned idealism, the contrasts between social worlds -- and thinking that Slug Bearers is almost a little too out there to stick with audiences. The lyrics are mostly mundane, the music -- while excellent, and varied -- not at all catchy or memorable, and there's almost nothing in the way of character development.

It's a bold new world, and thankfully, the presentation is assertive enough to guide us through the uneven strokes. But The Slug Bearers comes down to being an extreme exercise in style that is entertaining largely in the face of being so defiantly different, not for being extraordinarily engaging.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Killing the Boss

Photo/Martin Snyder

Eve, the activist cum educator cum playwright at the center of Catherine Filloux's new play Killing the Boss, goes missing in an unnamed Southeast Asian country after trying to assassinate its dictator and then appears in a dream long enough to tell her mother that her vision's been poisoned: she keeps seeing what others don't have. This is akin to the empath's woe: she feels too much, but in this case, without her MS-ridden husband Doug around to check her math (and check her), she's taken matters into her own hands. It's an admirable concept, and it allows Filloux to refract elements of her own life (she's French, politically active, has fought for more rights in Cambodia, and is a playwright) into the play.

Unfortunately, that effect isn't just figuratively nightmarish, it's also literally so. Director Jean Randich seems imprisoned by a text that's stretching for dark humor (the ambassador, explaining to Doug that he is now "on the ground," has her words punctuated by Doug falling out of his chair onto the floor, and his wry retort, "I guess so"), and whereas her last collaboration with Filloux, Lemkin's House, brought out their best, Killing the Boss just drags across the stage. Little is done with Sandra Goldmark's tantalizing set (goldfish bags of water are suspended in an arc across center stage, transparent tarpaulins hang like grim scrims), and Matthew E. Adelson's lights are so often used that they detract from what's happening.

The effect Filloux seems to be after is what Doug labels "a strange existential kind of hilarity," one in which the author inserts specific objects (the song "Lady in Red," a red monkey mask, or a singing Superman lunch box) to try to disassociate us from what's really happening while at the same time grounding us through cultural landmarks. And in a void, these choices might work, helping us to distinguish the dross ("In this country there are ways . . . and means." "Is this a committee?") from the gold ("Do you know what's so special about evil? . . . The way people get away with it"). Instead, the shifts in and out of narrative viewpoints and between dream and reality (far too cleanly done to make us feel much of anything) become the emphasis of the show, and not the powerful sarcasms of an exchange like this:
AMBASSADOR: The leg has caused more than a certain kind of instability . . .
DOUG: Wouldn't you call the whole country "unstable"? What's a leg . . . ?
AMBASSADOR: No, we called it calm. Comparatively. (To herself.) Abject poverty does have a calming effect.
Another problem with Killing the Boss is the lack of substance -- Eve's parents, Pierre and Monique (Edward Hajj and Dale Soules) are remarkable only in that they are French and irate at Bush, but otherwise rendered irrelevant by Doug's presence; the same goes for Sal and the Boss's bodyguard (played at bipolar ends by Alexis Camins), who are more ideas and plot points than actual flesh and blood. Sue Cremin plays the role of Eve evenly, which keeps her from making any strong choices, and John Daggett is all too entrenched in the aimless petulance of Doug. It's not altogether surprising that the strongest characters are actually the shadier ones: the entertainingly evil dictator, The Boss (Orville Mendoza, quietly channels the menace he held in Blind Mouth Singing), and the graspingly neutral Ambassador (Mercedes Herrero).

It's worth mentioning, too, that the strongest moment of Killing the Boss comes during the play within the play, the one which Sal has written for his teacher, and which Eve describes as "a brutal play [coming] from such a sweet person." The brutality both of this vignette, and the way in which Eve is forced to reenact it for The Boss, are the only moments where something actually seems to be on the line, and is accordingly the only point at which the audience is truly listening. The rest of the play, passive and uninvolved (there's no sense of the unnamed country's plight or culture -- the red monkey myth could be from anywhere), is simply killing time.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The Lifeblood

Photo/Gerry Goodstein

For a moment, there's a brief lilt of classical music, a spotlight on an elegant tapestry, and the glimmer of hope -- and then the crushing sound of a cell door slamming shut. It's an abrupt introduction to Mary Stuart's world, a place where wire fences incongruously mesh with Elizabethan costuming. It's also a good way for the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble to kick off their new season with Glyn Maxwell's The Lifeblood, for it allows them to show both the beauty in this British poet's dialogue and the dark intrigue of his drama. It's also a chance to mix the broad strokes of the plot -- the delicious machinations of spymaster Francis Walsingham (Craig Smith) to find an excuse to execute former Queen Mary (Elise Stone) -- with their subtle exchanges.

The play starts deep into the eighteenth year of Mary's imprisonment/banishment in a modest mansion in Staffordshire (a place where "even the name is a form of punishment"). Though she keeps up her own appearance, her tapestries are damp and in disrepair, and Sir Amyas Paulet (Mark Waterman), her bitter jailer (as much a prisoner as she), has just sent away all of her staff, save for her loyal (although also bitter) aide, Claude Arno (Joseph J. Menino). Unable to physically prevent the deterioration around her, Mary turns to her hopes and dreams, seizing on a cypher provided by Thomas Gorge (Jason O'Connell) to help her communicate an escape. She becomes a woman of letters and subterfuge, and her every insult and thought is parsed and hidden beneath her broad smile, a tact that Elise Stone well embodies in the role. Though she stands diminutively, she cuts her enemies down ruthlessly, as when she remarks to Paulet, who has been reading her letters, "The ink is acid, so read them closely, dear." How comically caustic. Unfortunately, Sir Gorge actually works as a double-agent for Walsingham, and though he repents his betrayal later, after falling for the beautiful queen -- "Did you fuck her?" roars the delightful Walsingham, a crude yet absolutely methodical villain -- Mary's fate is sealed.

Robert Hupp's staging goes a long way to make all these betrayals work: he uses the shadows of the background to present ominous figures listening in during the happier moments of the first few acts, has them creep to the foreground, flittering from under the stairs and behind the wire fence. The space never changes, but Hupp's use of it keeps changing the way in which we perceive Mary's circumstances: as with the classical music that opens the show, there's the hint of beauty, a beauty which is stripped away more and more until Mary is left standing alone on the stage, desperation snaking its way into her voice, as she pleads with us -- the audience -- to exonerate her. (This neat trick is done by seating Walsingham and his fellow jurors behind the audience.)

The play rests on Mary's shoulders, and Stone's mix of sarcasm, sadness, and stubbornness carry that weight rather well. It should come as no surprise, though, that after her eventual beheading, the play falls apart: the final scene magnifies some of the inconsistencies in acting that are glossed over by Maxwell's clever writing. This brief moral of an ending doesn't ruin the show, but it does weaken The Lifeblood, and that's a shame, for it otherwise runs so clearly.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Offending the Audience

Photo/Max Ruby

The bad news is that after forty years, Peter Handke's play, Offending the Audience, no longer does so. The good news is that after forty years, Peter Handke's play, Offending the Audience, no longer does so: instead, it's an lively bit of non-theater that's been stripped down to negations and contradictions, and then dressed back up in turtlenecks and flawless dictions. In fact, it's so elegant that it's rarely shocking, unless you're surprised to find what could very well be a mixed-gender group of Deal or No Deal models speaking lucidly about the world of the stage that they are deconstructing: "We have no need of illusions to disillusion you."

But for a mob of 21 young actors -- playing themselves as they play with Handke's words -- they don't do much to smash through our staid conventions. They stand in place a lot, or sit, parallel to us, on a long bench across the wide-screen space of the Flea's underground theater. When they come up to the knee-high divider between us and them, they only occasionally cross it, and though they make eye contact, most of the crowd responded in kind, enough to the point where it actually seemed to unsettle some of the actors -- a few refused to acknowledge us at all, throwing their insults away on empty chairs instead. (Not that they weren't ever successful; I think I did fairly well matching Ronald Washington's gaze considering he was inches from my front-row face, but I eventually flinched.) Perhaps director Jim Simpson meant for this to happen: perhaps this unoffensive bit of play (that is not, they repeat, not a play) is meant to break down our barriers by not breaking them down. It is, after all, a play of contradictions.

The biggest and most delightful reversal is that all this talk of inaction is brought to life in a wonderfully active way: the actors trill their lines, merge powerfully together as a Greek chorus, and all look extremely attractive while doing so. Out of respect to the hard-working cast (and as practice for the few cast members who seem flat), I recommend that you stick around for Act II. If you can get past their intimidating wall of silence, you'll realize at last that once all the fun and games are over, the essential truth of the show -- that audience and actor are intrinsically no different -- shines through. That is, we may be "Merovingian dark agers," or "bimbos and bimbets," hell, even "killer pigs," but then again, so are they. So are we.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Hunting and Gathering

Photo/James Leynse

Brooke Berman's new play, Hunting and Gathering has the personal connection -- the playwright's been in and out of homes since the '90s (she writes about it on her blog) -- the hipster street cred of a YouTube tie-in, and a ticket initiative at the occasionally musty Primary Stages ($20 tickets through 2/2 with code PS35 if you're under 35). It features the teenage wonder of a LED stripe that announces the title of each scene, the young adult release found in playing the arcade game Buck Hunter, and the sad truths of life in New York City, painstakingly accounted for from couch surfing to housesitting, from brokers fees to subletting, from Craig's List to the Classifieds, and it does so pretty wittily. It's even got some dynamic personalities, from the transient "gatherer" Ruth (Kiera Naughton) to the young, in-the-moment "hunter" Bess (Mamie Gummer), both of whom are or have been involved with the man-child Jesse (Jeremy Shamos), a literary professor who doesn't know how to live on his own. And there's a breakout performance from Michael Chernus as Jesse's brother, Astor, a free-loving self-proclaimed Buddhist who's looking forward to his new career as "Man With a Van." (Who wants the "corporate sponsorship of a salary"?) So why does Hunting and Gathering seem so shallow?

The answer lies in all these brand-name woes: from Ikea to Park Slope ("a place where everyone pretends its Woodstock") to MapQuest, it's all just glittery surface. I mean, we're introduced to Ruth not as a character, but as a slide-show presentation of the former apartments where she's lived (this play got its start as a ten-minute one-act for MCC in which Berman did just that), and although she speaks of how she's been affected by the various places where she lives -- settling into the culture of each resident's book collections, their taste in movies, &c. -- there isn't an ounce of that in the way she stubbornly interacts with her best friend, Astor (who has such a big thing for her that he's willing to sleep on an air mattress for her -- an air mattress!). A lot of this play follows that same disconnect between what's said -- or rather, referenced -- and what's experienced.

This works rather well for the slick director, Leigh Silverman, and the nifty set designer, David Korins, as they're able to conjure up just about any prop they need from a giant wall of cardboard boxes. The script's about as deep as a hundred square foot studio, but Silverman makes it work, realizing, more than the characters in the play, the concept of Woolf's "A Room of One's Own." Since there are no walls, just wide open space, she allows the actors to make their own walls and limitations, which heightens the truth of Berman's play: home is what you make it.

By definition then, the play's also what the actors make it, and here, they're on good terms. Even though Bess has little purpose in the play beyond being Ruth's opposite, and Jesse's girlfriend, Mamie Gummer plays her with real gumption -- when Jesse points out that she's his student, she reminds him, "I'm only auditing," and then, with a twinkle in her eye, "Want to make out?" Ultimately, it's not much of a surprise that the best moments are those that stand back from Berman's glib writing and hyper modernity -- in a scene called "The Middle of the Night," the focus shifts from Ruth's side of the stage, weird noises and dead, headless birds on the roof, to Jesse's side, where he gobbles down Swedish Fish, trying to get over his loneliness. Both move for the phone, both put it down, and it's only now, with the house cleared of all that distracting clutter, that we actually see them as people. Only Michael Chernus manages to channel that same feeling into his lines, decorating each one with a Christmas-lighting of subtext.

Perhaps the shallowness of the play is necessary to express the sorts of characters that Berman is dealing with. And maybe I'm naive in thinking that Ruth and Jesse are a little too old to be so passive and adrift (the 30s are the new 20s). But I wish there were less packing peanuts in this big-box play, because underneath all the Styrofoam wit, these lonely characters are aching to make a connection.

Friday, February 01, 2008


Photo/Nordland Visual Theatre

At times reminiscent of the best in both Cabaret and Maus, Wakka Wakka's puppet-driven drama, Fabrik, is no less heartbreaking on its miniature scale. The play begins innocently enough, with a lighthearted song from the proud Jewish businessman Moritz Rabinowitz (David Arkema), and an introduction to some of his forty rules for success, and slowly grows darker. The first glimpse of something amiss is when socialite Mrs. Hansen (Gwendolyn Warnock, who plays all the female parts) deliberately snubs him -- in his own suit-making shop -- choosing instead to talk with Moritz's soft-spoken, Beaker-like assistant, Mr. Askeland (Kirjan Waage, who also created the puppets and masks). For a puppet, the expression on his face is quite complex -- almost as if he's eating his lower lip -- and then with only a pause of resignation, he gets back to his work.

We meet his daughter, Edith, as she pirouettes through the air (a dazzling effect achieved by having one black-suited actor manipulate the hand-and-rod puppet, as another delicately adjusts the feet), and soon after, his wife, Johanna, a gentle soul driven to depression because of how ostracized they are in the community. These small details help to humanize the puppets, as does the visual presence of the actor as a shadow, a ghost-like presence that brings, for a moment, the past to life.

The puppets also bring a high level of visual creativity to the show: Moritz is a visionary, and he predicts early on what the rise of the Nazi part will mean for the Jews living in Norway. In one dream, he flies through the air, being chased by strafing fighter planes, and he is saved -- after some initial confusion -- by a red-capped Norwegian; in another, he plummets to the bottom of the sea, and even there he isn't safe. Furthermore, Waage's puppets have some real menace to them behind, a darkness you won't find on Sesame Street. Hitler speaks comically, but glowers with more than plastic, and Winston Churchill, who appears like a phantom from a radio tube, seems all the more real despite his intense cigar-chewing caricature. In the best scene, a masked actor, appearing as a menacing, inhuman SS soldier, holds two rods above a prisoner puppet and forces, in a sequence of meta-marionette action, that character, Fritjolf Koehler, to crack jokes ("Take my wife, please. Oh, wait . . ."). It may just be a puppet, but the tears he chokes back in a veil of bitter, forced laughter are real.

Save for a repetitious song by an old man with an accordion (the antisemitism is already in plain view), Fabrik pulls every single string with real brio that I can hardly express on paper. The show comes full circle, recasting the opening number in the much harsher light of a camp in Sachsenhausen, and explodes in a moment that is both cathartic and traumatic. But more importantly, it nails one of the most tragic elements of this story: Moritz is not a Jewish businessman; he's a businessman. No, not a businessman: a man.