Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Yellow Moon

For something so simple -- four chairs, four actors, no lighting cues -- Yellow Moon is pretty complex. Subtitled "The Ballad of Leila and Lee" (though only one of the twenty short scenes is technically a ballad), the play follows the tragic romance formed between delinquent Lee and "Silent" Leila after an act of self-defense goes horribly wrong. It's a familiar story, so David Greig presents it in a mix of narrative voices, the result of which is an often muddled adventure that is defined more by language than acting -- a work of forced poetic perspective. Yellow Moon is less like a ballad than like an elaborate ballet, in which the dancers narrate every step.

So here's the familiar part: the good girl, Leila Suleiman (Nalini Chetty), is secretly naughty, an alienated Muslim girl who finds her reality between the glossy pages of celebrity magazines, and who only feels alive when cutting herself. As for the bad guy, "Stag" Lee Macalinden (Andrew Scott-Ramsay), he's just an awkward boy trying to drink his reputation to match that of the notorious father who abandoned him. The two fall in love (though it's a static sort of love, not an electric one), and, after an accidental death, find themselves at "8. . . the part of the story where Leila and Lee go on the run to the highlands and nearly die." (It's also the part where Greig strains credibility so as to better spin a tall tale.)

And here's what's new: after establishing these standard tropes -- adoration from afar, tense meetings, brief arguments, youthful conflict, and awkward groping -- Greig turns his attention to the interior, making the cast into a chorus of mental synapses that fire off alternating thoughts in response to the onstage action. Hence the inevitable sex scene comes across half as shy fumbling and half as "He puts his hand onto your hip and under your t-shirt, but he's anxious, he moves too fast. He puts his hand up your top but you move it away because you want him to slow down. He puts his hands between your legs but you move it away because you just want him to breathe, calm and slow and then he says: 'Do you want me to finger you?'"

At these moments, Yellow Moon finds an exciting momentum that is almost spellbinding. However, these scenes are constantly broken by reminders that we're watching a play, or worse, by the secondary characters -- like Holly (Beth Marshall), a B-list celebrity who mirrors Leila's obsession, but fails to flesh it out; and Drunk Frank (Keith MacPherson), the groundskeeper with a secret who forcibly befriends the two escapees, but remains a blank albeit gruff slate. These interruptions prevent the play from spiraling into melodrama, but they also tightly cap the emotions of the show. Guy Hollands uncorks things as best he can: he puts the storytellers in the round, forcing them to play out to the audience, and by restricting props, forces the glorified stage directions (mental directions is a better term) to match the physicality of the action -- hence Beth and Keith, while describing Leila and Lee's near-death experience on a frozen pass, must compete with Andrew and Nalini's physical reactions to that imaginary cold.

What you get out of Yellow Moon is really a matter of what you'll get out of Brits off Broadway: it's a chance to sample a foreign style of writing, performed at a top-notch level. Though that style may not be to your taste, as I found, there's still plenty to admire in the attempt.

Monday, April 28, 2008


As Laney reads her short story aloud, towering and hunching over her mother, she takes particular relish in her final line: "Instead of serving up lemonade, he served up bullets, straight between the eyes." What teenage daughter wouldn't want to shock their parent, especially one who blames her mother for leaving her father and moving her from comfortable Wisconsin to cruel Mississippi. (Never mind that her dad came into her room with a knife, thinking he was Abraham and she Isaac.) "Did you feel your arm hairs rise like you'd just been electrocuted?" she asks, halfway between a squeal and a gasp. "Well," her mother responds, ever the list-making pragmatist, "the ending comes out of nowhere . . . . maybe you should make it a little more realistic?" Ugh, mo-om!

The stories may be darkly fantastical (like short snippets of The Pillowman), and the teen angst may flood the set (much like From Up Here), but Catherine Treischmann never lets the clash between imagination and realism get the best of her. As a result, crooked's plot bends and twists just enough to let the characters go straight for the heart. It's this honesty that allows Laney to not only befriend Maribel -- a fellow outcast, shunned for her remedial status, obesity, and evangelicalism -- but to possibly love her. It's that naked need for acceptance that lets crooked make hell a necessity: "There has to be a punishment for people who sin and sin and keep sinning. If there isn't everlasting hell, then Hitler and Stalin and Deedee Cummings will never get punished for what they did."

It's that thought, taken one step further, that obliges us to take this blind faith seriously. In the best scene of the play, Laney genuinely opens herself up to god, aching to believe in someone who can heal her heart, or at least her hunched back. Nothing happens, but while Laney retreats into bitterness, Maribel gives Treischmann an entry point to follow real faith: "I ask that you forgive me," she says, tearfully praying for her friend, "for not being a better witness to Laney, because if I had been a better witness, I know that she would have felt you, because I know you know never say no to anybody, and if Laney thought you said no, it must be because I did something wrong." And just like that, in the sublime calm that characterizes many of the modern plays tackling religion (think 100 Saints You Should Know), the two girls share a moment of rare beauty. The playwright describes it as electric: it is.

Although crooked is billed as a comedy, Liz Diamond does the play a real service by holding the play up to this level of performance, refusing to let this important clash of world views descend into cheap comedy. Carmen M. Herlihy's Maribel is absolutely heartbreaking, a fragile, isolated girl whose belief in invisible stigmata is just a step away from self-cutting. Herlihy fills the role out, refusing to be "stupid," "religious," or any other dismissively one-dimensional adjective. Instead, she's the most sympathetic of the characters (though no-one in the play is cruel: another reason why crooked is so tearfully powerful).

The play ends in the middle of the climax, with Elise (Betsy Aidem) expressing her love for Laney (Cristin Milioti) in religious terms ("I have a love for you that surpasses all understanding"), and Maribel confronting her religion with physical action. It's a broad moment, yet sharply specific too, though it's no surprise that a play with a name like crooked refuses to be bound to the straight and narrow.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Babylon, Babylon

Photo/Ken Stein

A cast of thirty, an epic story right out of 530 B.C., a fantastical emphasis on the sexual rites of Ishtar (sexy costumes included), and compelling and tumultuous choreography. It's a wonderfully daring illusion and incredibly ambitious challenge for the small, off-off-Broadway Brick theater. And for a while, that illusion holds: it's hard not to be stunned as the entire cast enters, pantomiming the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. After that, we're lost a bit in absorbing all the characters as they return, this time as worshipers of Ishtar, paying their fearful respects to the goddess of love and war as the Persian army barks at the gates to Babylon.

But after a while, the audience is close enough to see the illusion for what it is: an assembly of unfinished thoughts. Zakiti has brought her virgin sister, Alittum, to the temple, but Rasha Zamamiri plays the elder sister as little more than a horny Babylonian, and Melina Gag-Artigas just contents herself with sitting around, waiting for the dramatic focus to turn to her, just in time for her to suddenly kick up a fight when Sharrukin turns his eyes to her. At least Kamran Khan, who plays this ruthless role, has a clear goal -- he wants to fuck a virgin, and with the brothels all closed, he'll settle for the decayed and decadent worship of the temple. These aren't bad actors, but they exist simply to make noise and provide for the illusion of substance on stage. There's no narrative force driving them on, so when it's their turn (the other actors sit idly on their cushions), they have little more to do than pseudo-historical exposition.

It's very hard to hold up such a grant act under such close scrutiny, but with the cast sandwiched between two long rows of expectant audience members, it's hard to overlook the lackluster gaps, such as the fact that Labbu (Adrian Jevicki) is just a man in a white bodysuit, a mane lashed to his head and tail tied to his ass. And it doesn't help either that the young lovers, Iltani and Timgiratee (Gyda Arber and Fred Backus) and their friends, Amata and Demeetresu (Toya Lillard and Eric Bland) sound as American as apple pie, valley girl slang and all. Looking at The Sparrow (Aaron Barker), I always felt like I was watching an actor; after the show, he stood outside in his animal skins, smoking a cigarette in the afternoon sun. All these things stack the deck against the dazzling effect Jeff Lewoncyzk is going for.

The close proximity plays other problems too: perspective goes all out of focus, as when scenes overlap at opposite ends of the stage. Acolyte Niiqquulamuusu (Robert Pinnock) tells one story of Marduk, while Ku-Baba (Michele Carlo) gives her own take on the old gods, but it's hard to figure out what's going on: it's too much, too close, like getting caught up in the Tigris. The artificial climax just makes things worse, with the violent chaos being hopelessly comedic: fight choreography always seems a little ridiculous when punches are pulled inches from your eyes. And while we're talking of perspective, introducing a modern American soldier (Adam Swiderski), whether it's through the Cassandra-like Gemekaa's (Maggie Cino) vision or not, doesn't exactly ground the show in history, and strains far too much for political relevance (the ruins of Babylon are in Iraq) that should be beside the point of a show like Babylon, Babylon.

Of course, in a show this epic, there are also bound to be spots of brilliance: the morality of slavery is exaggerated by Kullaa's (Robin Reed) reign over Yadidatum (Siobhan Doherty) and Ubar (Danny Bowes), but the two secret lovers find some nice quiet moments. The same goes for Belshazzar (Michael Criscuolo), the prince-in-hiding, who speaks politics with his cousin, the High Priestess (Hope Cartelli) just as easily as he falls for the sweet mountain girl, Ettu (Iracel Rivero), a person so non-judgmental and sweet that she might as well be the anti-me. If only there were time to develop the story instead of simply conjuring it up, Babylon, Babylon might find true magic. Instead, I found myself always looking up the sleeve and behind the curtain of every scene, waiting and wanting to be impressed. That would've been a small miracle.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

God's Ear

Photo/Carol Rosegg

"I lost my umbrella," says Ted, struggling to find a place within in the stifling normalcy from which he can speak to his wife. "You could have bought a new one," responds Mel (short for Melanoma, but more appropriately, for Melancholy). "I wanted to get home," he punches back. "I'm glad you're home," says Mel, clipping into the rhythm (a sort of verbally repetitious but vocally fresh beat, the sort relentlessly fueled by subtext). "I'm glad I'm home, too," says Ted, pausing only for a moment before adding, "I missed you." "I missed you, too," Mel replies, simply. "No, but I really missed you," says Ted, with the sort of banal logic on which the fate of the world, or at least God's Ear, hangs. "Those are just words to you," he continues, "but I mean it." And that's the miracle of Jenny Schwartz's writing: for all the patters and patterns, underneath the monologues steeped in cliché or those surrounded by trivia, she means it, every last word. (I'd expect no less from a playwright who retypes every word in every draft.)

This literary aestheticism is necessary, too, for God's Ear is about a family trying to cover up their sadness, first by burying it under the surface, then by refusing to talk about it, and finally by shushing it away, either with streams of directed nonsense or with an anesthetic and forced normalcy. The play pits the dark truth against the pretty fiction, at times speaking entirely from subtext (imagine a commercial Chekhov), and then turns to a magical realism in which figments like the Tooth Fairy, GI Joe, and "a transvestite stewardess with a gun to my head," take on flesh. As they burst to the surface, the characters descend into their own personal underworlds, meeting in the midpoint of reality and fantasy, though always grounded by the gentle cadence of the text. At one point, when Ted is asked what he wants by a "transvestite stewardess with a gun to my head" that he has conjured up, he faces his son's tragic death:

I want to watch my son grow up and get married. Or grow up and not get married. I don't care if my son gets married. I just want my son to grow up and be happy. I just want my son to grow old and be safe. I just want my son to outlive me by a million and one years. By a million and two years. I just want my son to outlive me by a million and three years. I just want my tears to roll up my face instead of down my face. I just want my tears to defy the laws of gravity. I just want my son to defy the laws of nature. I just want a drink.
This is the sort of exaggerated truth that leads to deep revelation, a technique on par with the off-kilter plots and characters of, say, Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone. In another scene, Mel -- provoked by the powerful prodding of her daughter's "Why?" -- quickly crescendos through a series of accusations: her husband uses call-girls because he's lonely, bored, weak, and pathetic. That this isn't true is beyond the point (Ted attempts an affair with Lenora, another lonely soul, looking for the right mix of compliments and liquor to drown out their grief); in the wake of their son's death, all that exists for these characters is what is within their own minds.

If the play sounds difficult to digest, worry not: the show is superbly directed by Anne Kauffman, who takes the text -- off-kilter as it is -- literally enough to make it work. Kris Stone's staging is a smooth blue-paneled floor, shiny and unblemished at first, but slowly pockmarked with problems, as characters surface from beneath the panels, metaphors springing to life from the repressed underground. The same goes for Tyler Micoleau's lighting, which one could almost call poetic, in the way it dabs, dashes, and caresses the action -- never brightly illuminating any one thing, but always keeping our attention fixed on the drama. Aesthetically, the design is as pitch perfect as the dialog -- even Olivera Gajic's costuming fits the characters, with loose, baggy clothing (or a disheveled suit) given to the mourners and a tattered wings for the Tooth Fairy.

As for the cast, there's a reason most of the actors from last year's production are being used again. These lines live within them, and I can't imagine hearing Mel (Christina Kirk) speak without that lisp, or Ted (Gibson Frazier) speak without that stubbly regret. The one newcomer, Rebecca Wisocky, is the right choice: she now steals the show -- so infectiously giddy that her Lenora's vulnerability is all the more sad. From the menace in Matthew Montelongo's stewardess ("There's no need to panic, but you certainly shouldn't relax") to Judith Greentree's matter-of-fact Tooth Fairy ("Aloe is nature's way of saying sorry"), these actors find otherness, but never abandon the basic humanity that anchors the entire play -- in particular, Monique Vukovic, who, as the daughter, Lanie, delivers a long monologue comprised of trivia ("Did you know that avocados are the good kind of fat?"). As she speaks, she emulates other people, but the effect doesn't make her seem too old -- rather, she seems too young, trying to hide her age with an impersonation of TV wisdom. All the actors -- and let me not leave out Raymond McAnally's rootin'-tootin' "normal" Guy -- have such remarkable ranges that the staggering scale of this script seems to be no trouble at all.

God's Ear is highly recommended, on all levels, as an alternative play that manages to be more than an original voice or a clever device. I'm not repressing anything beyond a wall of grief, so whereas Jenny Schwartz has to take the long road, I'll be direct: you must see this heartbreaking show. It is fresh, funny, poignant, and a phenomenal use of talent.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

When Is a Clock

Photo/Kyle Ancowitz

Matthew Freeman's new play When Is a Clock is begging to be reset. At its heart, there's an ornate metaphysical mystery (something of a cross between Paul Auster and Jorge Luis Borges), with the sort of creepy poetry that allows dandruff to be described as "shavings . . . like someone put a little cheese grater to his milky skull" and a woman's transformation into a clock as "Her legs curled up inside her, her arms wrapped backwards, her head lowered into her widening neck. All of this sounds so . . . thundering and bizarre. But it was graceful. Like origami." But around this well-fashioned analog core, there's a slick, winking digital comedy that seems like effluvium from Mr. Freeman's recent, pointed one-acts (Trayf and The White Swallow). A clock can track both night and day, but When Is a Clock would keep better time if it excised the shallow office scenes, toned down the exaggerated cop, and focused on the family drama. (Don't get me wrong: I like Freeman's talented usual suspects, Matthew Trumbull and David DelGrosso, but here, they are more distracting than helpful.)

Just to be clear, Gordon (Tom Staggs) describes himself as such: "I bloom. I molt. I get well. I get ill." When his wife, Bronwyn (Tracey Gilbert), suddenly vanishes, it's not a total surprise: Gordon is soft, and he has raised his idiotic son, Alex (Beau Allulli) to be the same; as he puts it, he's not even strong enough to be abusive. However, these-grand-scheme-of-things declarations ("I decided, then and there, then and there, that I was going to be in love with her") are at odds with Gordon's decisive quest to find his wife, a chronologically fragmented romp through Pennsylvania. They also don't match up with Gordon's affairs; Lucy (Megan Tusing) points out, after she's had a "towel laid under her ass," that he doesn't even bother to hide the ring. Nor do they match with the way Staggs plays the role -- how (or really, why) a milquetoast like him goes about picking up underage girls is beyond me.

Bronwyn, on the other hand, has significantly more development: she longs for change, not just in her routine life, but in her own physical body. ("I'll always have only my eyes. My hands. My wrists.") As a result, she is drawn to the creepy, soft-spoken Sean (Ian Gould, who makes the role a bit too childish), the metaphorical and actual other man who is able to transform her into a clock. Unfortunately, many of these key scenes are set behind a scrim that's never transparent enough. I'd say that Kyle Ancowitz chooses this staging to represent moments that happen outside Gordon's narrative voice, except that scenes between Alex and the Cop operate without any such illusion. What's more, while these lines read well in a script, on stage, shuffled between off-handedly comic moments, it's easy to miss Bronwyn's lack of empathy: "If you can't take care of your children, you will not learn how to. If you can't cry when something terrible happens, but you can cry at Kleenex commercials, in the end, you will find yourself empty and cold and that's not something you can decide. [Pause] I cannot do anything. I could not. I could not do anything."

I make these criticisms because, for all that, When Is a Clock is a blast of originality. Mr. Freeman has a strong, richly descriptive voice that is well-served by the stretches of desolate narrative, and the complex ideas at play are the better for all the simple details. At one point, Sean describes the invention of the moving image, a device created from the pure desire to know and capture what is happening. This is what the good playwright does; as he puts it, "We watch things move, because it's impossible." However, the playwright falls into his own trap, for the reverse of that purity is what the moving image became -- simple entertainment -- and with such overt and unnecessary comic scenes weighing down that elegant motion, When Is a Clock is just going around in circles.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda

Photo/Gerry Goodstein

For a week, I've been unable to write this review, wanting desperately to do this play justice. I struggled to describe I Have Before Me . . ., for at a surface glance, it is tacky: Sonja Linden has created a pretentious yet talented poet to stand in for the playwright, and this poet then instructs (and is instructed by) a fiercely intelligent yet emotionally fragile Rwandan refugee. But it's clear from the writing that Mrs. Linden was shaken to the core by her experiences: knife-sharp slivers of detail in this play cut holes in the facile frame, allowing for a fuller picture. More so, despite some missteps by director Elise Stone (none that are serious), Susan Heyward delivers a performance so textured that the show achieves its self-proclaimed goal: "Good writing makes you see what the writer wants you to see--and feel."

At first, it isn't clear that we're meant to feel much more than "scribbles," with Simon (Joseph J. Menino) bumbling his way through his first session with Juliette (Susan Heyward). This opening is played largely for laughs, with the two actors directly describing their expectations to the audience so that we see the huge gulf between the sheltered perspective of an educated Londoner and the forced narrative of a Rwandan refugee. But it quickly gets bigger, as Simon -- himself a well-intentioned stand-in for the majority of audience members -- learns just how little he knows about Rwanda. And as Simon gets Juliette to be descriptive rather than factual, the show goes from being a silly writing exercise to being a heartrending drama. (This is not to say that there aren't overdone moments: Simon's scenes are largely aimless and self-generated, for his character is meant to be stiff and boring.)

This conceit is best illustrated by Juliette's epiphany: she is given an assignment that requires her to simply describe her room. As she begins, Mrs. Heyward is flat and reluctant, ticking off the items in her spartan hostel room. But before long, she begins to talk about the mirror in the room, through which she bitterly sees herself as an object. And soon after, she's peering back into her own painfully detailed memories, nuanced observations such as how they killed all the dogs, because otherwise the dogs would be eating the corpses, or describing how the Hutu would make their victims pay to be killed with a bullet (with the alternative being far, far worse). "Every time I write it," she weeps, "it is like I am there."

For the most part, I Have Before Me A Remarkable Document . . . manages to put us there, too. By keeping the set to a minimum, the play emphasizes the human spirit rather than the material world. This does lead Elise Stone to overdirect (a pantomimed car ride, for example) and it puts too much attention on what is present in Rohit Kapoor's design (a crescent-shaped mirror that looks like nothing so much as a guillotine in reverse), but the play ultimately rests in the quavering voice and teary eyes of Susan Heyward, and she is a remarkable actress.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Fire Island

Photo/Diego Bresani

"Sometimes it seems to me," says Lydia, "men get all caught up in what they're doing and they forget to take a moment and look around to see what effect they're having on other people." It's an accurate description of Chuck Mee's new self-absorbed meditation on love, Fire Island, a play so consumed by the technology that it distracts rather than absorbs the audience. In Mee's defense, Nikos, who walks beside Lydia both in a shaky digital film and through the audience, explains that he's just trying to work through the logic of it, fearing that if he stops, he'll never be able to finish: "They think I'm so, like determined just barging ahead -- not really a sensitive person, whereas, in truth, I am." That, too, is fair -- Mee's plays are filled with romance and charm. But here, as video assails the audience on all sides and live actors ramble or reenact fragments in the middle of it all, his passion is abstracted and removed: it's too distant to have more than a cerebral impact, assuming one can stop ogling the set long enough to listen.

As the play continues, it widens its focus toward other lovers: a Beyond Sunset-like Henry and Yvette, a David Lynchian Phil and His Girl, and a veritable Shortbus-sized cast that includes Catherine and Hiroko, and Edmund and Herbert. As in other multimedia experiments (like the far more successful Bullet Hole Road), these characters all converse on-screen and off, slipping through time so as to overlap or run out of sync with the footage, or to juxtapose and at times contradict it. But with so many characters and so much happening at once -- not just on different screens, but from different angles that blur together at the seams -- it's hard to tell how an individual scene pieces itself together. More confusing is that Mee's script has a single voice, so that even though the actors are all different people, they all sound very similar. Additionally, that voice is a strained and affected simple one that doesn't at all mesh with the surreal physical actions being three-dimensionally projected (with Eyeliner technology), nor with the deep-throated singer Albert Kuvezin, or the skeletally disfigured "clown" (Gautham Prasad).

At heart, Fire Island is a love story, but the scenes keep branching into what Mee labels "riffs" (which is at least an honest assessment of his collaging). Bob -- a punk-clad critic -- justifies this by saying that all Greek plays are love stories: despite the tragedy, everything always happens for love. Again, while the text may support these wild claims, the rhythm of the piece doesn't: the clown's molestations are tame, Susan has a knife that she never uses, and Catherine wins Hiroko back with nothing more than pity. What's missing is anything more than the love story -- that is, the impetus for us to continue watching. Fire Island is a place, not an excuse to piece together these rambling, unremarkable characters, and technology is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Nothing compels Fire Island to be a play rather than a novel (or a series of YouTube vignettes); placing the audience in the midst of the action only works if there is action, and Kevin Cunningham's direction -- heavily reliant on film -- keeps the actors perpetually out of reach.

From the collaborative effort that seems to have gone into Fire Island, it seems safe to say that Mee and Cunningham have fallen head over heels for one another -- and this is a problem. As Lydia warns, it's awful to fall in love, because at that point, "It's too late to set conditions. You can't say I'll love you if you do this or I'll love you if you change that because you can't help yourself and then you have to live with whoever it is you fall in love with, however they are." And Fire Island desperately needs some conditions, some boundaries, some form, for Chuck Mee is more an anthologist than a playwright, and he is reluctant to edit or shy away from anything he stumbles across.

That speaks toward his Theater of Life -- happening all around you, all the time, catch what you can -- but why go to a show for that? As Charles Isherwood joked some months ago, Trader Joe's works just as well for spontaneous and random drama. "[Cicadas] need no nourishment," Edmund says, describing his confusing love for Herbert, "they just sing continuously caught forever in the pleasure of the moment without eating or drinking until they die. This is the story of love. If you stay there forever in that place you die of it." Fire Island is a cicada, caught forever in a malnourished moment that, however vibrant at first, eventually dies.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Untitled Mars (This Title May Change)

Photo/Justin Bernhaut

If Miranda July made plays instead of movies, they'd look and sound like Jay Scheib's frenzied yet passionless, meticulous yet sloppy, artificial yet somehow realistic new play Untitled Mars (This Title May Change). As with his last work, This Place is a Desert, Jay relies on hyperphysical action to compensate for dry yet hammy dialogue (spam?), and uses multiple camera feeds and projections to create a visual mash-up of landscapes and emotions that's cool. But this coolness comes at a price, an arctic absolute zero that freezes out plot.

To his credit, Jay's direction grows ever more precise: the strong ensemble cast don't just talk uncomfortably to the camera, they speak through it. The show still looks very staged, but the artificiality of the project is balanced by the play's conceit: this action is a simulation of an actual Life-on-Mars simulation. (He actually interviews some of the "crew" of the Mars Desert Research Station [MDRS] during the show, a bit of metadrama that works because of how unscripted it is [or at least seems].) Also, by making a schizophrenic a central character (she is out of sync with time), the jumbling together of actions, the repetitious physical movements, and the theatrical equivalents of jump cuts seem more focused and relevant to the action.

But there's a reason I haven't written about the story yet: Untitled Mars gets lost, as Jay says, in the fiction. Arnie (Caleb Hammond), some sort of bigwig on Mars, tries to butt in on a real-estate deal being made by a new visitor (Waris Ahluwalia), which requires him to negotiate with his lover, Jackie (Tanya Selvaratnam) and his ex-wife, Anne (April Sweeny). Meanwhile, isolated crew members snap from the pressure: Norbert (Balazs Vajna) rips a hole in his suit and literally dies of depressurization, and his best friend, Sylvere (Laszlo Keszeg) cheats on his wife, Doreen (Dorka Gryllus), as a means of breaking the tedium in his life. In many ways, this play could simply be called This Place is a (Martian) Desert: for all the science, it's a parable for human behavior: we won't just terraform Mars, we'll psychoform it too, bringing Earth to Mars in every way, shape, and form.

Despite this redundancy of theme, Jay Scheib's direction is fresh and startling, and buoyant enough to carry on through things that don't make sense -- "theater of the psychotic," as I've heard others describe it. His design team (especially Peter Ksander's retro science-fiction set, constructed entirely of slick white papers and plastics) gives him ample room for surprises, and there are enough gun shots, static crackles, video interludes, vacuum explosions, and blaring sirens to keep us interested. But these blatant shocks (or, say, Oana Botez-Ban's colorful costuming, from the Seascape-like Martian to the red-dressed passions of Mannie) are never really transportive either: it's hard to be taken seriously in anti-gravity.

Monday, April 14, 2008

thirty seven stones (or the man who was a quarry)

Medically, I'm happy to have seen thirty-seven stones (or the man who was a quarry), for Mark J. Charney's comic and awful descriptions of kidney stones have scared me into drinking lots of water. But theatrically, I'm very disappointed in the latest production from Working Man's Clothes: they've lost the intensity of Penetrator and are now without even the desperate quality of acting from I Used to Write on Walls. (The lights were also broken on the night I attended, though I doubt that's the problem.)

Thirty-seven stones opens on a bright note, with heroic Nathan trying to pass a thirty-seventh stone as his wife, Erin (Emily B. Murray) berates him -- rightfully so, as we'll learn -- for his behavior. But from there, the play runs like a frightfully unfunny episode of Family Guy: every reference gets an emphatic and unnecessary flashback. Some of these memories are essential to the heart of this play: Edna, unstable in the wake of her now-divorced husband's abuse, is a cruelly possessive mother, and she sabotages his son (or tries to convince him that he's gay) so that she can hang on to him. The majority of scenes, however, are simply uncomfortable examples of how dysfunctional Nathan's life has been, all of which play at the same dim level. They also abandon the kidney stone conceit, which ends up just being a dramatic bookend and an easy device that helps transition through bulky scene changes.

Will Neuman strains plausibility as he tries to pull laughs out from a cast incapable of being serious enough for this sort of dark comedy, and there's little reason to think that the unbalanced script would come across any better with working lights. Mary Round, as Edna, is far from a controlling force (her equally bullish sister, Fanny, played by Ellen David, hits the opposite extreme), and Steven Strobel, as Nathan, seems incapable of playing different ages (his six-year-old is his twenty-five-year-old, just bouncier). If you crave the uncomfortably immature, look no further, but this is far from a working show.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Free Tickets? That's No "Crooked" Offer!

It doesn't really get cooler than this: a thousand ticket giveaway during the previews for Women Project's latest show, a comedy called Crooked. I haven't seen anything by playwright Catherine Trieschmann or director Liz Diamond before, but I trust the name that Women's Project has built up for itself (from on-site shows like The Cataract and transfigures to site-specific work at the World Financial Center).

Here's the information you need:

For the preview period (April 11 through 19) of Women's Project's new show, Catherine Trieschmann's comedy crooked directed by Liz Diamond, 1000 free tickets will be downloaded from the Women's Project web site, www.WomensProject.org.
The logic behind that is simple, according to Artistic Director Julie Crosby: "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Recording companies are routinely offering free downloads of cuts from new albums. Television is offering free clips and episodes. Newspapers are offering all their content free. Google is offering everything for free. Women's Project is now offering the free downloading of Off Broadway."

Whether or not this is a sound strategy or not remains to be seen (after all, real downloads, free or not, often come attached to streaming ads and other money-making devices). However, if this doesn't at least get butts in the seats, promote good will and buzz for Women's Project, and generate a brand-new mailing list and sample of the demographics willing to see a show for free (but perhaps not for their current and comparatively cheap Off-Broadway price of $42). The audience is out there; for everyone wondering how to get people there -- young and old alike -- free still seems, to me, like the best way to bring people out. (Just ask anyone who's ever waited in line for Shakespeare in the Park.)

Our Dad is in Atlantis

Photo/Carel DiGrappa

There’s something admirable about the way Working Theater has extended their usual focus on the working class in order to look at two of the children left behind by an illegal immigrant. But you can’t admire a concept: their execution of Javier Malpica’s Our Dad is in Atlantis sinks from a lack of imagination. Jorge Ignacio Cortinas’s translation is flat and repetitious (he wrote far better in his own Blind Mouth Singing), Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams’s set is a bland reddish lump of rubberized gravel, and Debbie Saivetz’s direction is slow and restrained. Even the actors – ten-year-old Sergio Ferriera (Little Brother) and twelve-year-old Steven D. Garcia (Older Brother) – seem uncomfortable: they lack a sense of play. There’s the occasional squeal from Ferriera and the momentary flash of a hard, steely presence in Garcia, but most of the play seems like a forced march through a desert.

That’s because Our Dad is in Atlantis is forced: at heart, it’s just a play about stuff. (Each scene is even labeled as such: “Stuff about the Countryside” and “Stuff About Terror” are the first two scenes.) All the drama takes place off stage – their father’s departure, their mother’s death – and the scenes just reinforce what the first scene establishes: that Older Brother must look out for Younger Brother. It’s less a play than a series of vignettes about brotherly affection – like something out of Junot Diaz’s Drown, only with less style and considerably less energy.
Our Dad is in Atlantis would greatly benefit from a sense of perspective. It’s hard to feel sad when their grandmother’s dies, for neither child ever grieves; it’s hard to believe that a bully drove a nail through Older Brother’s shoulder, for there’s so little physicality in the play; and it’s hard to understand what would drive these two children to cross the desert on their own when neither one shows any initiative. (At one point, Ferreira accidentally fell out of his chair. It was the most exciting moment of the play.) Without another character to shake things up, it’s just seventy minutes of the same old, same old.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Democracy in America

Photo/Yi Zhao


Forget Obama and Hillary -- I want Annie Dorsen answering that phone at 3 in the morning. Proving that it takes a bit of a dictator to successfully run a democracy, Dorsen (who deftly directed Passing Strange) has taken a million (well, okay, 130) disparate voices and melting-potted them into a cool, excitingly unpredictable bit of theater. It's more performance art than theater, but only subjectively -- see Erika M.'s $100 purchase of "Two iconic images from Abu Ghraib enlarged to poster size, one of them captioned 'This is theater,' the other captioned 'This is not theater,' visible throughout the piece." As with the Neo-Futurist's Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, this is sense born -- sometimes forcefully -- out of nonsense, and pure piece of profit, to boot.

The show starts off simply enough, with the three game actors -- Okwui Okpokwasili, Anthony Torn, and Philippa Kaye (and David Neubert, who doesn't appear, but bought a "starring" credit for $100) -- lip-syncing purchased text. There's the political ("Rudy Giuliani?!? He didn't fucking rise to the occasion. (pause) Events stooped . . . literally . . . to his level."), the critical ("Judd Apatow's film Knocked Up is the perfect representation of the complicated inner life of a Modern Woman"), absurdly commercial ("Limited quantities no other coupon instant savings tax staples reserves the right offer non transferable"), and artsy ("I was at a motel by I-80, waiting for my girl to get out of shower when I saw the velvet landscape over the bed, and . . ."), all of which I quote because it is so American. But while such lines continue through the night (including some personal lines -- "Seth Lane, Kyle loves you!"), the show slowly builds from a soundscape into a work of art. The loose interpretations of consumer demands inevitably lead toward comic shortcuts ("Okwui 20 stories high, Tony in her basement" is cleverly done with a shadowy projection), as do straightforward presentations under certain circumstances (Daniel S.'s $5 "rim job" is given to a dinosaur during a $15 conversation "about a toy dinosaur with the first line 'I have a confession to make . . . I'm sexually attracted to you, Dino'").

Of course, the problem with Democracy in America is that it's slick, clever, and commercial, and absolutely nothing else, which is sort of a statement about the sort of theater that gets produced when money is creativity's bottom line. It's ADD as entertainment, and for all the fiercely directed moments, such as a high-stakes game of Russian roulette (pantomimed with a single, ominous bullet), there are plenty of moments -- "One performer on top of the others, with the text 'Ilan Bachrach is a sex god'" that have no room to maneuver, whether they're done with puppets or not. The element of surprise -- "A one minute scene lit entirely by the glow of audience cell phones" -- is wasted on a scene without any meaning, and the constant shifts in theme prevent the show from building to anything beyond the sarcastically delivered finale: "Buy NASCAR in America."

I support the idea of Democracy in America, but ultimately, it fails to represent America. Only the left-wing half is adequately covered (perhaps right-wingers, having already bought major news outlets, see theater as a state they can afford to skip in the general election). As such, there's little dialog provoked by all the views -- all of which skew to the comic, save for a brief quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes -- and the show serves as little more than a self-indulgent in-joke. A funny, quite funny in-joke, at times . . . and perhaps that's enough of a reason, coupled with Annie Dorsen's direction, to see it.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Hostage Song

Photo/Samantha Marble

Out of context, it's just a precious, awkward moment between new lovers as, over dinner, Jim meets Jennifer's parents for the first time. The banter is genuine, as is the way the two (Paul Thureen and Hanna Cheek) bask in each other's presence, and the way the father (Clay McLeod Chapman) develops a distaste for Jim's work as a private contractor while the mother (Hannah Bos) thinks everything he says is cute. Familiar territory, to be sure, but then again, that's Chapman's style (as in volume of smoke). Horror is expressed in beautiful images of poetry, and violence -- never quite explicit -- turns beauty into a thing of fear. For you see, in context, Jim and Jennifer are actually blindfolded, and the two other actors -- clad entirely in black -- are simply a dream (and at other points, memories, or their captors).

This cruelly imaginative device works a sublimely sorrowful magic -- a magic that's even stronger when side monologues from Jim's wife (Bos) and son (Abe Goldfarb) reveal that Jim has already been killed, and that even the plot's onstage fantasy (magical realism, without the hope of magic) is nothing more than the past. It also fits the style of Hostage Song, an indie-rock musical (with music and lyrics by Kyle Jarrow) that dwells in active contradictions -- where the sensation of being beheaded is likened to that of a balloon floating freely into the sky, or where characters run the risk of being abducted from their songs, mid-note.

These moments are all starkly directed by Oliver Butler, who distills his cleverness (The Eaten Heart) into the sort of minimalism necessary to hold the distinct pieces of the show together. He uses empty space (and a few eerily out-of-place objects, like an upturned file cabinet) to close in on the characters, forcing them, in essence, to displace all that terrifying emptiness with their imaginations. (Mike Riggs's lighting helps, too, to focus our attention on the elegiac monologues.) Furthermore, by acknowledging the artifice of the show -- the band (Drew St. Aubin, Paul Bates, Jonathan Sherrill, and Mr. Jarrow) is just behind the back wall's three revolving panels -- Butler is able to use Jarrow's music to add the emotion that Chapman's exceedingly smart but necessarily restrained text lacks. This is another contradiction that works, as the deliberate script bleeds into the emotionally charged lyrics of the show.

Within those contradictions, Hostage Song also finds a rare sort of honesty that allows it to be affecting despite the marked lack of realism. When Cheek and Thureen sing, Goldfarb often harmonizes with them (in either a solid baritone or ethereal falsetto), but whereas Goldfarb -- as an outsider -- sings with the once-removed perfection of a recording, the hostages burst out with a rawer, coarser sound. Jarrow's music jags them onward with a false hope that turns even upbeat melodies into starkly pessimistic tunes given their unavoidable fate. Even through that, these Everyhostages find glitter even in the dark of death. (The final image of the play, stripped of illusion, is worth the ticket.) Now, if the characters can make the best of a bad situation, just imagine what this creative team -- a veritable "downtown supergroup" -- is able to do given the best of a good situation. Better yet -- don't imagine it. Go downtown and see it for yourself.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Better Late Than Never: "Six" and "B-Alive"

Just because the expectation that I'd be able to single-handedly review every production in New York City was more than a bit naive, that doesn't mean I'm not going to try. Here are some short reviews for two shows -- both worth mentioning -- that I caught on their closing nights.

- Six

A one act is certainly the right place to experiment, and this festival of Six one-acts (part of Second Generation's Eleven series, which also premiered a full-length play and four staged readings) serves as both a warning and a shining example to playwrights looking to find their voice. A sad and simultaneously uplifting story about the trappings of style, each play tries something a little different, a little wild.

With some, like Sung Rno's The Trajectory of a Heart, Fractured, the presentation throws the plot: you know you've gone too far when the characters are taken over by the central metaphor. With others, like Moustache Guys, it's enough just to hold on for the ride: Michael Lew's Fight Club spoof spends so much energy trying to build on its cascade of mustachioed cameos (where else can you find video-game icon Mario and Gangs of New York's Bill the Butcher) that it never grounds its protagonist's plight. (Tail, Ralph B. Pena's stalker monologue, forgoes a plot, and succeeds simply as an over-the-top character piece, thanks to Jodi Lin's performance.)

But when style melds with substance, as in Julia Cho's Round and Round, the result can be heartbreaking: George (Joel de la Fuente) plays a linguist who simply can't find the words to stop his wife, Mary (Jennifer Ikeda), from leaving him. Kate Whoriskey's direction completes the picture, changing genres where appropriate to emphasize the Romance of it all, or the Tragedy, and this device allows Cho to reset time or to speak to the audience without ever seeming cheesy or out of place.

- B-Alive

Photo/Worldwide B

There's really not a lot of ballet in B-Alive, a story (told in dance) of the love between a hip-hop youth and a prim and proper lass. But you won't hear anybody in the audience complaining: they're too busy vibrating in their seats as the b-boy Gorilla Crew breaks down the house. The plot is a little ridiculous, but then again, so are the moves, and B-Alive b-eats out shows like Jump! because it is willing to take itself seriously, backing up the tricks with actual emotion (as shown by the fifteen-minute free-style curtain-call/encore).

Not that the show isn't willing to fool around: the thuggish dancers, who have a more vibratory and harsher stomp to their rhythms (but still a fluidity all their own), are great comic relief, even as bad guys to the heroic dancers who just like to freestyle. And Ahn Byungkoo's direction gets pretty inspired at times, with a black-light battle in which our hero confronts comes into our distressed damsel's dream and fends off an army of glowing, sinuous, spider-like dancers. There are plenty of moments of simple cheese, too -- as with the pompous self-seriousness of the local record shop owner or the playful sternness of the whip-like ballet teacher. The choreography (from Han Sangmin, Kim Woosung, and Shin Ilho) always evens things out, and while there are a few numbers that could be pared down in the interests of specificity, the show only lasts about seventy minutes -- I say, if you've got it, flaunt it.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Almost an Evening and The American Dream/The Sandbox

Photo/Doug Hamilton

Almost an Evening
is the right name for Ethan Coen's three one-acts (now transferred to 45 Bleecker): it's almost an evening of theater. Unfortunately, the middle third, "Four Benches," is an empty punchline, and the strained final piece, "Debate," never achieves the effortlessly bleak comedy tackled so well in the opener, "Waiting." The slick, spirited cast keeps the show oiled enough to do more than squeak by, particularly Joey Slotnick, who, despite his character getting stuck in a hellish sort of limbo, is never static himself. Operating with a sense of the sublimely ridiculous, F. Murray Abraham plays God Who Judges with such Carlin-like brio that he earns a slap on the wrist from God Who Loves (a fine Mark Linn-Baker): "This is not David Mamet." No, it's certainly not. But by being acutely aware of that, Almost an Evening gets by with a consistently terse minimalism that's matched by Ilona Somogyi's old-fashioned costumes, Riccardo Hernandez's specific and to-the-point sets, and Neil Pepe's economic direction. (Only Donald Holder's lighting was off, but that's more a problem with the cues than the design.) You may have to stretch the metaphor that Young Woman and Young Man (Atlantic founders Mary McCann and Jordan Lage) use to discuss their relationship, but these plays fuck you in the pussy, not in the heart.

Photo/Gabe Evans

In the first half of The American Dream, Edward Albee's revival of two of his early and absurd one-acts, the first thing you'll notice is probably the color scheme: a red and blue chair, divided by a love seat, with a faded background of American stripes and bars, looking more like a circus prison than wallpaper. That's all fitting, for Mommy (Judith Ivey) and Daddy (George Bartenieff) are -- though they seem tame at first -- animals, living, breathing embodiments of that savage (and soon to be savaged) American Dream. However, the ensuing eighty minutes of awkward pronouncements ("I just giggled and blushed and got sticky wet") have aged about as well as the emasculated, shuffling Daddy -- they have little impact. Part of this is the acting, which is either wooden itself (granted, Lois Markle is a last-minute replacement for Grandma) or as paper-thin as the character: as Young Man, who is literally the American Dream, Harmon Walsh bears a huge responsibility on his shoulders, but he neither snuffs out his emotions nor instills the character with a sense of strength, and this leaves his role with a great deal of ambiguity, as does the play (which isn't even theater of the absurd at its finest). As for The Sandbox, which is shorter than the intermission preceding it, at least it and its Angel of Death (Jesse Williams) are swift.