Monday, May 26, 2008


“Show, don’t tell,” goes the old saying about the best writing. It’s a maxim that's important for playwrights, and even more important for political dramas, which too often come across as unimaginative sermons. It’s a pleasure to find that in his excellent play, Artefacts, Mike Bartlett has found a way both to prove and break that rule. The stream-of-consciousness of a typical, selfish teenage girl (Kelly), allows him to tell quite a bit, but what she chooses to tell—what she focuses on—shows us quite a bit about ourselves.

“I just wanted one of those Saturdays, one of those good rainy Saturday afternoons when you lie back, watch a film, call your mates, text a boy, yeah?” It’s an earnest question, one that she delivers directly to the surrounding audience as she paces the carpeted center of the stage. Instead, she finds herself preparing to see Ibrahim, her father, who she has never met, and who—get this—is from Iraq: “So I’m half Iraqi. Shit man.” Slickly directed by James Grieve, her lengthy asides continue through the dialogue, giving us an idea not just of her attention span but of what goes through a young girl’s mind: “Mum asked, do I want to get him a present or something? Do I? No. Like what? He’s come from Iraq. I could probably give him a Mars bar and he’d be amazed. But no. Yeah. Maybe I should.” In this context, especially as performed by the exceptional Lizzy Watts, this telling reinforces the drama: it also, subtly, shows us Kelly’s racist perception of Iraq.

It’s a perception that doesn’t hold up, especially in Peter Polycarpou’s delicate portrayal of Ibrahim—not a heartless monster, but a man torn to pieces by ethics and a problematic lack of class. (He undermines his gift to Kelly, a priceless Mesopotamian pot, when he says he is “killing two birds with one stone”—he is also protecting it from those politicians who would “protect it” by keeping it themselves.) The same goes for Mouna Albakry, who as Ibrahim’s Iraqi wife, Faiza, does not speak a word of English in the play. It's a bold but wise choice, necessary to keep us grounded in Kelly's world, but it's Albakry expressive nature that pulls it off.

Bartlett’s writing is clever in the best possible way, for it turns shallow thoughts into deeper observations about character and pulls apt cultural metaphors out of those depths. For instance, when Kelly is drawn to Iraq by artifacts of her own (years of letters from Ibrahim that her mother had refused to deliver), she nervously confesses to Faiza that she tried to learn Arabic off her iPod, but usually just listened to Kanye West. Her observations about Iraq are telling, too: “I’m looking out the window and it’s weird, cos I’ve got armour and security and I’m travelling through these streets like I’m going to be shot any moment but outside there’s people talking and mums with pushchairs, and people shopping and stuff. You know. There’s traffic jams and traffic lights. It’s amazing. It’s normal.”

This obliviousness is thrust back in her face as she learns that her half-sister, Raya, has been abducted—a thing that is so “normal” in Iraq that the police recommend Ibrahim pay—and that Ibrahim, the ethicist, is questioning the morality of payment ("If ten families in a row do not pay, they will stop"). Some preaching follows—“Maybe all Iraqis are stupid”—but from the perspective of an abandoned daughter, not an ignorant Brit: “As I grew up, when bad things happened I used to hide under the blankets and I’d ask God for my dad to turn up that night and protect me.” (Comparatively, these weren’t even bad things.)

By the end of the play, things come full circle. Three years later, we can see how much has changed—or not—as Kelly leaves her Iraqi past behind: “I’ll go through these glass doors and a woman will offer to help me and I’ll be shopping and I’ll be feeling great. I will feel so fucking normal. Shopping and eating and coffee and out and home. It’ll be bright and it’ll be happy and it’ll be easy. And I won’t need to worry. Just me. Just as I wanted it. Just as it should be.” How’s that for a political slap in the face?

Sunday, May 25, 2008


From the looks of the set--a hospital bed, skewed uneven with elongated legs and a cartoon-like IV angling out on the side--Ian Rowland's Blink looks to be a distorted drama about sickness. Instead, the bed is just an awkward excuse for Mam (Lisa Palfrey) to tell us the story of her wasted life with her once abusive and now life-supported husband, and a reason to bring Si (Sion Pritchard) back home, a reason for him to reconcile with his first love, Kay (Rhian Blythe). The set, like the script, is so focused on telling us things that aren't important to the story that the play itself wanders away from those blink of an eye moments that change us forever. Bogged down in recollection, the whole play seems methodical, less like a blink than a sly wink that's trying too hard to leave an impression.

At the start, Stephen Fisher's direction seems able to carry the different threads of the plot, snapping from character to character with real momentum, conjuring up the pub or the distant past by having the cast reenact everything, like hyperactive children telling a story. But that energy wanes pretty quickly, and then we're stuck in straight accounts that grope at the truth: "Anyway, she smiled at us, we smiled back," says Si. "Then she lifted up her skirt and flapped it. Lick a bit of that! she said. Cut price, two up! My father'd turn in his grave. If only he'd have the decency to lie in it." The transition from his Balham memories to his current thoughts about his father is detached from memory: these moments come across as well-rehearsed, nothing more.

There are some exceptions, most of which remain focused on the young love between Si and Kay. The scene work, which melts into focus from the surrounding text, is far more earnest, and Rhian Blythe's immediate presence gives Sion Pritchard a clear context for his emotions. When Si at last explains to Kay why he'd left so suddenly those seven long years ago, his monologues are pointed, powerful things that leave Mr. Pritchard shaking, and Mrs. Blythe in tears. Unfortunately, just to their left is Lisa Palfrey, just sitting there, glass-eyed and blank, a reminder of how scattered the show's emotional current is. Mrs. Palfrey has some good turns, too, but for the most part seems like a comic afterthought, blurting out cryptic phrases like "Wolf in sheep's clothing" that, even when made clear later, remain somewhat of a distraction.

Two hours, with an intermission, is far too long for a blink (unless the show is trying to conjure up the sort of rapid blinking one gets after opening their eyes from a quick nap). Blink needs a more aggressive sort of storytelling (similar to that of fellow Brit-off-Broadway Yellow Moon) to convey all the various levels of drama; without that, it's just one more thing after another.

Friday, May 23, 2008

metaDRAMA: You're Running Out of Excuses to Not See Passing Strange

In case the $26.50 rush ticket offer I spoke about back in March didn't convince you, the recent OBIE awards didn't thrill you, and the "best-reviewed" buzz didn't intrigue you, here's another nail in your excuse's coffin: there's a free listening party going down at Saju Bistro (120 West 44th Street) on 5/27. It's at 9:30, right after the show--in fact, it's right across the street. They're celebrating the iTunes "Digital Exclusive Release" (not the first musical act to release their music online before the retail version hits stores, but certainly the first Broadway show to do so) by uncorking that rock champagne of theirs, and if you didn't download tracks off the site back when they were up--this is your last chance to bust the cherry on your virgin ears...for free, that is.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Prisoner of the Crown

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Richard F. Stockton's courtroom drama Prisoner of the Crown is filled with so many dubious distinctions about the defendant, Sir Roger Casement, that the play should be a knockout. For example, put to death in 1916, Sir Roger has the "honor" of being the last knight ever to be executed for treason. Due to a literal reading of the letter of the law, he has the syntactical pleasure of being the only man ever "hung by a comma." In his trial, he had firsthand experience with the mudslinging of the government, which used the hint of homosexuality in his "black diaries," forged or not, to bias the jury. But the play suffers from a few other dubious distinctions: Richard T. Herd is credited as a co-author (which could explain the irregularity of the writing), and Ciaran O'Reilly has abandoned his stellar work with realism (Sive, Defender of the Faith), and plunged this work into a jazz-era hokeyness that undermines the thematic structure.

Prisoner of the Crown looks sloppy and misdirected. Whereas a playful show like Chicago has cause to break into song and dance, there's no reason to break the tension of Casement's trial. It's already chopped up enough, with comic asides to the audience from Patrick Fitzgerald and the sudden shifts that turn Philip Goodwin from the man on trial into the lone juror refusing to convict him. And it already looks thrown together, with props being wheeled around slapdash to allow for "scene changes," and Charles Corcoran's set feeling very pub-like--it's got everything but the bar (festive green strands dress the four corners up like St. Patrick's Day). Add in the sad jazz that plays between scenes and you've got an vague, anachronistic show that would rather play than be a play.

As with many Irish plays, I find myself drawn to the villain, that repugnant charmer. John Windsor-Cunningham doesn't disappoint, and his scenes with Ian Stuart are what draw our attention--and our scorn. As prosecutors, the two manipulate evidence and wonderfully undermine the defense; as jurors (all eight actors are at least double-cast in this role), the two push for a "guilty" verdict, and belittle those who disagree, calling any dissenter's sexuality into question. The problem is that while Tim Ruddy, as the defense's Sergeant Sullivan, provides them with a dramatic challenge, the rest of the cast is a bit of a pushover, especially the hero. Philip Goodwin plays him earnestly, but like an erstwhile martyr--that is, like a man already dead--and it's simply not an interesting choice.

Some audiences will no doubt enjoy the history lesson, primed as it is with lines like "No empire can survive the loss of its moral authority" to cast judgment on our current political mudslinging. More likely, audiences will be bored and confused by this unimaginative and unfortunately comic "swift boat" of a play. Here's a political parallel for you: one cannot run a campaign (or a play) on cleverness: you need passion, too.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Not that Kirk Wood Bromley makes any effort to hide it, but he's a huge fan of John Ashbery. So it's no surprise that his latest play, Me, is a highly literate, linguistically comic, and utterly refracted, interrupted, and regurgitated work of theater. It's unfortunate that for all the self-deprecation at the hands of his twelve "degenerate" Me's (actors, what else is new?), so little of Mr. Bromley is visible. But who has time to think when we hit the ground running (more appropriately, punning), entering a world where Father is a golden-diapered hammerhead shark, Mother is a sponge, and placentas are symbolized by near-extinct dolphins in the Yangtze River. (To say nothing of the Chosen Fish or the begilled and beguiling Tartalisa; much respect to Karen Flood's literal costuming.)

It's not easy to keep all that afloat, and yet for most of the two acts, Me succeeds with a raw, showboating intensity. The lack of pretense ("Don't tell me you're going to pretend to fish," one actor complains) justifies even the prosaic stretches into Joyce-worthy absurdity ("When someone's obliminal nodes excite your oceanic plasma, you are hookt"), and Bromley finds excellent collaborators in director Alec Duffy and musician John Gideon. Dissemble as he might from the plot (which is the point), the direction – tightly focused, like a river itself – forces the action to continue, often in a theatrical way that raises our attention to detail (particularly the lighting, or lack thereof). Likewise, whether the music underscores melodrama or punctuates text into lyrics, it brooks the sense masquerading as nonsense.

It's hard to single out members of this cast, but Arthur Aulisi's physical control as a wooden doll, Sarah Malinda Engelke's grace and venom as a humanized dolphin, and Josh Hartung's big-cheeked, childish frown help to make the tangents a little more tangible. With so many pieces fighting for attention, a little slapstick goes a long way. And so does Me: from linguistic jokes ("So my wish come true is my fish come false?") to "hairy myths," all the way to a clash of parents who agree only that hate "depends on how you define 'raped by hippies.'" Suffice to say, Me is what Me is.

Monday, May 19, 2008

metaDRAMA: Curtain Calls

You're part of a show -- say, Machinal -- and you've invested yourself in the Big Ideas, and you've worked hard every night to help that machine deliver an emotional blow to the audience. The heroine is strapped to a chair, prayers are said, barbers do their work, and then, in the final fade to black, the sound of electricity (scream optional). Silence. Now, how would you follow that up? Bear in mind, this is, unfortunately, the last thing the audience is really going to see, the thing they're going to leave the theater with. Do you really want to have the cast file back on, out of character, singing a hymnal as they bow and clap and cheer?

It's hard for me to accept this casual use of the curtain call, this dismissive "thank you" that releases the audience from the illusion of the play. We've all done our part to transport you for the last two hours . . . why so quick to give it up, with a smile and a tip of the hat? Now, I'm a fan of curtain calls, I am. For too many of the productions I see, that's pretty much all the actor gets at the end of the night. But is it wrong to ask that the curtain call be more than awkward and obligatory? Granted, it'll always be the last thing blocked, always something a little rushed (of course putting up the play takes precedence), but why all the effort if you're going to end on the wrong note? First impressions are important for dates; last impressions are key for plays.

Now, I know many of you would say that I'm nitpicking, that it doesn't ruin a show any more than a typo in your favorite novel, or a patch of static on an otherwise perfect record, or a slightly unfocused shot in an masterpiece film. But theater is made up of living, breathing images -- picture-perfect moments that we leave the theater thinking about -- and you have to be naive to think that the curtain call, which has the misfortune of being the last thing we see, doesn't affect the way an audience reacts to a show. I mean, if an unplanned cellphone can kill the mood (when I went back to Hostage Song, I'd have killed the audience member who ruined the silent ending if I'd been near them), or sudden applause at a celebrity entrance can make it harder for actors to stay in character, why is so little made of the curtain call -- the last thing you'll see in the show? You can disassociate all you want, but remember: if you can recite the pitch for "Equity Fights AIDS" but not any of the play's dialog or if you can picture the gift shop but not the set, then there's a problem with the show. If professionals talk about acting through impulses, then why do we just assume the play ends when everyone gets the bends?

There are directors who get this. David Grindley, when doing Journey's End, understood the emotional journey of the play, and turned the curtain call into a memorial. He actually built extra set for that effect, acknowledging the importance of the world beyond the curtain. (Not that it has to be complex either; for BAM's Endgame, Andrei Belgrader simply froze the actors in a tableaux before releasing them -- and us -- to their bows.) But, especially as we delve into plays that deconstruct theater, there are plenty who don't. Doesn't it cheapen the effect of the players quitting Pippin if everybody just comes out a few seconds later and takes a bow? What's the point of "really" killing someone in, say, The Actor's Nightmare, if you're going to resurrect them for the curtain call? (If I remember the stage directions from when I did that show, George is supposed to stay beheaded through the curtain call -- that's part of the illusion and part of the joke.) Again, these are different types of shows -- nobody's denying South Pacific a curtain call -- but I always feel like the effect of a curtain call goes unnoticed. For instance, when I teared up at Fabrik, a large part of that emotional response was from the respectfully solemn curtain call; had Wakka Wakka put down their puppets and come out smiling, it would've been easy to walk away, which is the natural response when confronted by difficult emotions. But as with so much commercial theater, why invest so much in the theater for such a limited effect? It seems like we'd rather numb ourselves than actually experience anything.

Some of this is hyperbole. I'm not calling for a revolution; nine out of ten curtain calls are fine, and comedies are, for the most part, off the hook (they could always get more laughs out of a well-rehearsed curtain call, as with Urinetown, but laughs are cheap). But then again, perhaps they're just fine because we don't know any better, just as people say that they've just seen the best production of Gypsy ever . . . until they see one that's better. Think back to the shows you've seen; think back to the curtain calls. Could they have done something differently? Could that important, but overlooked, piece of the show (and it is a part of the show) have been better?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Actor's Nightmare/The Real Inspector Hound

It's one thing to break the fourth wall -- it's another to break it well. T. Schrieber Studios takes their best shot at it with a double bill of two of the greatest (and most dissimilar) one-acts to ever deconstruct the theater, Christopher Durang's The Actor's Nightmare and Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound. It's dressed up rather nicely by miraculous set designer George Allison, who conjures up a classical theater's wooden boards, proscenium frame, red pull-curtain, and "box" seats, but Peter Jensen's direction, sharp enough for Durang, is dulled by Stoppard, and the play ultimately serves best as a primer in the differences in highbrow and lowbrow comedy.

The series opens with the completely passable entertainment of The Actor's Nightmare, in which George Spelvin (Michael Black) finds himself stuck in Coward's Private Lives, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and a mash-up of Beckett (Endgame) and Odets (Waiting for Lefty). Durang knows and loves his source material enough to properly send it up, and it's always fun to revisit this comic gem. The looseness of the play also fits the company well, as it gives plenty of room for interpretation; at some moments, Black goes with the flow, at others he damns himself. He's also got a great supporting cast, particularly Nan Wray, who dames herself with great double-takes of disgust as she tries, to no avail, to cue her partner in. The only problem is that while Black grows more panicked, especially as he starts reminiscing about his nun days, the play itself remains static, never building to the dread (or perhaps redemptive) climax of the Sir Thomas More scene.

After a brief intermission, the action resumes in the drawing room of a rather luxurious (and completely isolated) private home. A clear send-off of the murder-mystery genre (specifically Agatha Christie's long-running The Mousetrap), Stoppard elevates his message by focusing not on the rather dim-witted action, but on two critics, Moon and Birdboot (Julian Elfer and Rick Forstmann, who bring to mind the Michael Caine and Lawrence Olivier of Deathtrap). As poor Simon (Shane Colt Jerome) plods towards his inevitable death at the hands of scorned lover Felicity (Jenny Strassburg), current sweetheart Cynthia (Maggie Dashiell), or jealous cripple Magnus (Ben Prayz), the two critics play with the idea of identity -- only rather than guess at the murderer, Birdboot gushes how far his particular "expertise" will get him with the actresses, and Moon questions his own role as a second-string critic, waxing only when his partner wanes. Both find themselves on stage, paralleling the action of the first act, and they are both hilarious. However, such distorting farce requires perfect control, and none of the points are really sharp enough to drive home the comedy of the inner world; as such, we are left with just the intellectual wit of the outer shell.

Truth is, Peter Jensen holds back too much on the physical actions of both plays, forcing them to be artfully funny rather than actually so. I've never seen such reserved (read: fake) slaps, nor such underplayed cues (the dramatic underscore should never upstage the actor). The idea of a clueless Inspector Hound plodding around a dead body before finally stumbling (literally) upon it sounds hilarious, but in execution, Michael W. Murray looks as if he's straining every muscle in his body to not notice what's going on. The same could be said for Therese Tucker, who plays too much of her actions to the audience, rather than focusing on the necessary efficiency of her role -- to get on and off stage, sneaking poor George his line, without being seen. Comedy works best when there are no strings attached: here, the stress marks are too apparent. Again, the technical presentation is marvelous (three cheers to the self-effacing low-budget smoke machine), and it smooths over enough rough spots to sell the shows -- just not the comedy.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

stretch (a fantasia)

Photos/Jim Baldassare

Even though her loyalty to Richard Nixon may have resulted in the intentional deletion of incriminating minutes of the Watergate tapes, you've got to hand it to Rose Mary Woods, who, as written by Susan Bernfield in New Georges's Stretch (a fantasia), is one hell of a dame. Brilliantly rendered by Kristin Griffith, this woman, a bundle of hard-fought opinions, smiles and beams as she struts in the spotlight of her memories: "Go fuck yourself! Sure, I can say that, sure, who else?" A bright bulb in a dim room, literally, lights rise to full to show her in a tacky nursing home in Alliance, Ohio, thinking wryly of the Bush/Kerry election. It's the first of many subtle tragedies in this marvelous play, to watch such vivacity wither into a wheelchair, to see her eyes narrow, her mouth tighten, and her body scrunch up. And then there's also a third Rose, a dream of a better time, whose speeches are accompanied by the clickety-clack rhythm of an IBM Selectric, not to mention two violins, a bass, and a trumpet, peeking out cabaret-like from behind a bright red curtain.

Don't be confused by the subtitle: there are some fantastic elements (and I mean that both ways), but Emma Griffin's seamless direction makes it all so believable. In fact, the second tragedy is that it serves as a reminder of how unbelievably believable that shady 2004 election was, especially when The Orderly (Brian Gerard Murray) reads to Rose verbatim out of The Columbus Dispatch. The third tragedy is The Orderly himself, a naive and apathetic man who, having lost the ability to dream, is drawn, moth-like, to the intense fire that he can see within Rose. He and his bud-smoking Bud (Eric Clem) represent the sad apathy of Generation Y, sitting center stage in a depression which is literally their basement but works figuratively, too. "Protect and defend the Constitution of the United States," they say, joking around in the same way that they diligently discuss SpongeBob's and Bugs Bunny's sexuality. And then there's Bob (Evan Thompson), a former history teacher who, although older and wiser than The Orderly, latches onto Rose for similar reasons: she represents actual history, actual life. His liberal idealism represents another type of naivety for Rose to crush with her sarcasm: "Yellin' and screamin', creating a diversion till nobody knows what the hell is going on. Whoohoo! Fox News!"

As the play gets more pointedly political, it also grows more immediate, and the dreams get less "nice-y nice"; gone are the "little tiny marines doing a tap dance" as her helicopter pulls away from the White House, present are the paranoid dreams that she may be Deep Throat, the fears of "wolves at the door." Those around Rose grow less passive, too, awakened by a world that has just reelected Bush: "Tell ya what scares me," Bob says. "These kids, now. Hell, they don't even scare themselves, they don't know power -- that it's even possible." Meanwhile, The Orderly, having outgrown his now-tweaking friend, makes a heartfelt plea for salvation: "Old people, still dreamin away, and I can't make one thing come out!"

Stretch is a powerful, painful play about power, loyalty, and dreams. It's no stretch for me to say that it's unmissable; no stretch for me to say that Gypsy doesn't have the only Rose to watch this season.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Colorful World

Photo/Amanda Schwab

The first act of Colorful World is the slipshod origin movie, a comic book trapped in exposition. The second act, however, connects the plots and hams up the action and acting. In this, it's not as successful as last year's similarly themed Men of Steel, but it does manage to tap into fan worship and the human consequences of superheroes, from the dangers of vigilantism and the despair and disillusionment that brings to humanity, to the commercial usage of the Alliance of Champions (think of a trademarked and low-budget Super Friends), to the military jingoism brought about by their Overman (a more literal translation of Übermensch). "Superman is real," brags a newscaster, "and he is American!"

James Comtois's Colorful World is too colorful: it suffers from an overexposure to the full spectrum of graphic novels that inspired him, from the gritty action of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight to Alan Moore's seminal "think piece" on so-called heroes, Watchmen. He leaps bravely into the thick of things: a Punisher-like "The Peacekeeper" (Ben VandenBoom), unable to live with the wetwork action he did with the military, commits suicide, leading his friend, the invulnerable Overman (Patrick Shearer), to question his own actions. But rather than follow him, the action jumps to a Bruce Wayne-type businessman, Jeffrey Michaels (Abe Goldfarb), who now suffers from the delusions of grandeur of his persona, Ramses. Again, the action splits as we watch the mundane epilogue to Karen's career as the sexy Tigress (Jessi Gotta), a girl who seeks to relive her fame by basking in the adoration of fans, ordinary guys like Guy (Mac Rogers). And, as if that weren't enough, the scenes flashback or turn into monologues that largely serve to deliver more exposition. There are a few moments of action, well choreographed by Qui Nguyen and Alexis Black, and a some excitable moments from Goldfarb and Rogers, but it isn't until the end of the first act, when Overman begins to shed his dispassionate mask, that we start to get interested in this world.

The first act, then, had too much of the gaudy Stan Lee superficiality and exuberance of the "golden age," and suffered from too much information (the video interludes took longer than the scene changes). But the second act, having burnt through most of the non sequiturs both in jokes and plot ("I won't be able to have sexual intercourse with you. The Pentagon has reason to believe that my sperm is toxic."), quickly gets on track, with anti-heroes that put our heroes in a moral and mortal dilemma. There are twists, of course, but more important, we see the results of such hellish good intentions. It's a bit rushed, particularly in the doomed romance of Johnny Patriot (Christopher Yustin) and the repressed Ramses, but at least the action now builds toward the conclusion we've all been waiting for.

I can't blame a self-proclaimed fanboy like James for getting a little overexcited in this foray into comic books; I only wish that more of that excitement carried over into the play. As a director, and as James's Nosedive collaborator, Pete Boisvert would do well to find ways to focus more of that energy into the work, and away from the long pauses, dead riffs, and awkward lighting that keep pulling attention away from that enthusiastic heart. Ah, well. Excelsior!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Photo/Eamonn McGoldrick

With a Seussful of allegory and a Churchill of rhythm, Torben Betts has conjured up one of the most distinct and comically unsettling shows of the season. The Unconquered gets the message across with all the subtlety of a Gorey pop-up book (grim and colorless), but the energetic bleakness of the performances make those two dimensions spring to life. Speaking of willful contradictions, the trappings of capitalism are the first to go, with Girl assailing Mother's "affectionate yet strangely passionate existence" and the "equanimity" of her routines. As Girl says, that's all "just so much . . . exhalation!" though it's important to note that the play's forceful repetitions are far more than hot air: they are the whetstone upon which the satire sharpens.

To keep things grounded, director Muriel Romanes makes a series of wise artistic choices. First, she extends the exaggeration of the text to Keith McIntyre's set: a crudely sketched pop-up house, hung from a perspective-cheating wire-frame. Next, she puts the actors in whiteface, a dehumanizing device that, when coupled with Catriona Maddocks's proper middle-class costumes, makes them into walking caricatures. Finally, with a painter's touch, she adds in Peter Vilk's gluttonous sound effects and Jeanine Davies's helicopter-like spotlight, and is able to neatly turn the wire-frame home into a gutted, chaotic mess.

With the circumstances so well established, the language is free to skirt between absurdism and realism, which is where The Unconquered makes the most of its allegorical plot. Mother and Father (Alexandra Mathie and Neil McKinven) -- two meek, materialistic fops -- watch as their daughter, Girl (Nicola Harrison) gets caught up in the consequences of a revolution that they have tried so hard to blissfully ignore. Unfortunately for them, the Free World (which "will not tolerate governments with unconventional philosophies") comes knocking on their door, a cardboard assault rifle that bears the standard of homogeneous violence. Worse, this childlike Soldier (Neal Barry), is so smitten with Girl that his determined lust turns to rape; worse still, the parents are bought off with a string of sausages and the promise of comfort. "I'm now not so concerned for the state of the world," says Father, trading in his suit for golf wear; "A good Christian man," repeats the Mother, selling herself on the soldier-cum-rapist. As for Girl, she is slowly moved backstage, behind the house's transparent back wall, where her screams to "Get out of my house" and "Get out of my country" can be better ignored.

Who said a play had to be subtle to be effective? In this case, The Unconquered makes its point best by being completely, brutally true to form: a play following in the footsteps of many nations before it.

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928)

Photos/Sara Krulwich

How does one begin to describe Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, let alone Elevator Repair Service's adaptation of the first fourth, April Seventh, 1928? One starts, for better and worse, with a kaleidoscope, for ERS has assembled the fragmented narrative of Benjy, a 33-year-old half-wit, into a series of fleshy set pieces which shake, slide, and blur into place. The result is certainly novel, but like the novel, the effect wears a little thin. Fortunately, thanks to John Collins's vivid direction, the ways in which the text comes to life are always surprising. (Sort of a necessity, considering the adaptation is more or less word for word, though there's room to nitpick.)

A painstaking recreation of The Sound and the Fury, however, is bound to cause some pain. In order to stay true to Benjy's unconsciously unreliable narration, the cast plays a shell game with the roles, and though ERS pins the events of the play down to seventeen separate dates, that don't make it none easier to follow. Like the old-fashioned cabinet-radio resting against the wall, scenes crackle in and out, as if Collins is literally tuning us (or turning us) into Faulkner. What's more, because Benjy understands so little of the world around us, the actors frequently exaggerate their lines, either caterwauling or deadpanning their way around our "straight" man. (The double-casting of this castrated invalid -- both Susie Sokol and Aaron Landsman play the role -- is a particularly apt one.) In fact, when taken to the extremes of imagination, we find Mike Iveson and Ben Williams cutting an awkward jittery rug.

Whether or not you end up enjoying The Sound and the Fury really depends on whether or not you can see the beauty present in an actor speaking their dialogue in the same breath as their he and she saids. It depends on whether or not you are as willing as Benjy to lose yourself in the hypnotic glow of a flame, to invest yourself in this reinvention of the mundane. For me, I found the production to be triumphantly emphatic of all the flaws in Faulkner's work, the most all-encompassing work of love that I've seen in some time. It's ridiculous to say that, as much as it is to reflect on the absurd beauty of a cake-cutting ceremony, but for all the lumps and grumbles I jotted down during the play, it's only that beauty that I remember now.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Rafta, Rafta

Somewhere between the second and third whiskey drunk in celebration of his son's wedding, Eeshwar Dutt blurts out how much he's in favor of integration. It's a fitting thing for him to say (though it's got little to do with the plot) because Rafta, Rafta is little more than an ethnic adaptation of Bill Naughton's All in Good Time. (Irony: that play was made into a film; there are talks to do the same to this one.) The resulting comedy feels forced, as does the drama. Scott Elliott does his best to dress things up with bright lights, cultural knickknacks, and his use of Derek McLane's two-story set, but the story isn't big enough to fill the house, nor is the acting firm enough to make it seem lively.

The excellent first scene, itself almost as long as the rest of the play, shows the production's potential. Atul (Manish Dayal) has just been married, and yet his father is making him carry leftovers into the house before the party can continue. Then, as the guests arrive, Eeshwar begins teasing his son, an act made crueler (but more human) by the fun-loving obliviousness that Ranjit Chowdhry brings to the role. Atul is far from the center of attention on this, his day of days, and he sits sullenly as his father berates him for not being enough of a man to dance the bhangra. Atul's new wife, Vina (Reshma Shetty) laughs a bit; even his mother, Lopa (Sakina Jaffrey) gets caught up as Atul and Eeshwar arm-wrestle. The room is abuzz with energy, from the women gossiping in the kitchen to the men drinking in the living room, and there are enough distractions both to make this seem like a happy family, and also like a well-made play.

From there, however, the scenes are shorter and more focused on the problems under the surface; Act II, if you will, of The Fantasticks. Six weeks pass in the blink of a stage light, and what started as an awkward wedding night -- imagine trying to be romantic when you can hear your father pissing in the next room -- becomes more serious, with Atul unable to perform. It's a clear manifestation of his father issues, but rather than resolve them, he broods and leaves his wife to complain to her parents, Laxman and Lata (Alok Tewari and Sarita Choudhury, two waxen character actors who occasionally flicker to life). These scenes all feel a bit silly, and the tense mood doesn't work well with Ayub Khan-Din's jokey script: for instance, what are we to make of Atul's brother, Jai (Satya Bhabha), taking Vina out every night, especially after we catch him talking to a half-naked Vina? And how are we supposed to take seriously the thought that Atul might be gay when the parents can't even bring themselves to say the word "intercourse"? By the end, Rafta, Rafta accepts that it's farce and tries to have some fun with itself: Lopa single-handedly stops anyone from going upstairs, for Vina has brought Atul "a cup of coffee."

There are plenty of good moments, but the play isn't cohesive, and it's considerably limited at times by the acting, which ranges from the passably funny Ugly Betty-like overemoting (Bhabha and Choudhury), to the rigidly dull self-seriousness of Dayal, not to mention the villainy of Sean T. Krishnan (fresh out of some Boogie Nights-like affair), who, as Atul's boss, Jivaj Bhatt, has nothing to ground his perverted malice in. Only Atul's father is given a shred of deeper dignity, and Chowdhry makes room beneath his boisterous charm to deal with real culturally repressed issues. (He's also the only thing about the show that seems new and worth displaying.) Personally, I'd rather see an original show struggle and fail, like Chuck Mee's cultural smörgåsbord Queens Boulevard, than to see something like Rafta, Rafta succeed at mediocrity.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Photo/John Castro

Brecht is a good choice for the Hipgnosis Theater Company: the master of alienation and didactic drama melding with an ensemble that has strong opinions about their texts and illusory free staging in their craft. And of Brecht's plays, The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a fine drama, a series of vignettes about social class driven by the struggles of a heroic maid, Grusha (Rachel Tiemann), to care for the abandoned child of the governor's wife (Ayanna Siverls) in the wake of revolution. The play benefits from enthusiastic acting -- especially the hammy turns from John Castro and Richard Ugino -- and though the underground space at 45 Bleecker is too large for clear theater-in-the-round staging, Margot Newkirk's clever direction helps us navigate each arc, and Demetrios Bonaros's music (and voice) mixes neatly with Brecht's lyrics.

At its best, The Caucasian Chalk Circle is drawn as broad farce: a mother charges a fee to offer her deathbed son up for marriage -- this way, Grusha can legitimize her child while still remaining "free" for her true love, the soldier Simon (Douglas Soctt Streater) -- but complains when the monk she hires (cheaper than a priest) turns out to be a drunk, and mourns the loss of the respect she received as a widow when her son, Yussup (Hal Fickett) rises from the dead. At worst, when the energy dies down and Grusha is left to tend to a vague and demanding Yussup, the show meanders. Brecht gets away with much by leaving his exposition to song, but he litters the play with repetition (as you might expect in a circle), and such slow curves only work when they're carried by an actor like John Kevin Jones, who makes Azdak, the rogue judge, into a joyfully corrupt saint.

This production is perhaps a bit too smooth, though: the sardonic edge and peasant panic seems to have been rounded out, and the ensemble often seems to treasure emotive humor over than forceful opinion. As Azdak screams, "If only order had been neglected!" The cast does fine without props and with the bare minimum of costume, but that makes it harder for the audience to conjure up The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and a little more specificity would've gone a long way. That said, and for better or worse, Hipgnosis has put the "fun" in Brecht, and it's an interesting ride.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Vengeance Can Wait

According to playwright Yukiko Motoya, Vengeance Can Wait. But the punchline to her overlong play didn't make me feel like the wait was worth it. Truth is, with such a stiflingly dry comic style, the direction of the play comes as no surprise (even less, considering that the play opens in the middle of a climax). You know everything you need to know about the play, in fact, from an early scene in which Hidenori (Paul H. Juhn) drowns out his amicable roommate, Nanase (Jennifer Lim), by blowdrying his face. Every time Nanase gets a word in, she is lethargically cut down, and when Hidenori finally speaks, he turns a lesson in comedy into a series of koans. The two are perfectly matched, for his comedy is so deadpan that even the slightest strain on her part to emulate him becomes absurd.

But where do you take a relationship like that? In Motoya's case, nowhere. She can take us out of the stifling room -- to Hidenori's job as a state executioner, say -- but she can't change the temperature of the characters. It's no surprise that when Hidenori's excitable partner, Banjo (Pun Bandhu), can't bring himself to pull his switch, Hidenori just pulls both. Nor is it a surprise that Nanase, who is profoundly unwilling to disappoint others, is as likely to piss herself before leaving a guest as she is to let the guest rape her. With no surprises, and no real changes in character, Vengeance Can Wait becomes a comic waiting game, one which isn't actually all that funny. Mr. Juhn delivers on his marvelous voice -- not just with one-liners, but with one-worders -- and Mrs. Lim is talented enough to be verbally and physically self-effacing. But there's little for them to do with the puckish Mr. Bandhu or the pushy Azusa (Becky Yamamoto), except for the same old, same old, same old.

Think that's funny? If so, then this is the play you've been waiting for.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

metaDRAMA: On Sets

Just a quick question to all the directors and set designers out there working for low-budgeted off-off-Broadway and off-Broadway shows. Is a set really necessary for your show? I ask this in all honesty, because I don't know how budgets are handled or artistic decisions are made (is there a stigma with bare-bones?), but I've seen far too many shows lately that shoot themselves in the foot by trying to put something cheap and flimsy up on stage.

For instance, I took some criticism lately for criticizing the periaktoi used in Barcinda Forest, and I just called out the nondescript distraction of the set in Cherry Docs. I'm not calling for elaborate sets, however. I'm calling, in these cases, for a blacker box. The sort of audience that goes to off-off-Broadway isn't expecting to be blown away by a set. They're going because they believe in the power of theater -- in action itself -- or because they want to see something radical, something too experimental to be seen as commercial viable.

I'm not saying sets aren't a nice touch, but would theatergoers have been disappointed at The Happy Sad, an underground show at The Flea, if there hadn't been a faithfully reproduced sign for the Atlantic Avenue subway stop? Shouldn't the emphasis be on getting the play itself up? That's why I commend big shows like The 39 Steps, or directors like Leigh Silverman (Yellow Face, Beebo Brinker Chronicles, Well): they remind us how creative we can be with so little. That's what's great about independent groups like The Debate Society: they know enough about working with a little (as with A Thought About Raya) that when they get a lot (The Eaten Heart) it doesn't feel wasted. So it goes with puppet-ensembles that work on a small enough scale to know exactly what they need: Lone Wolf Tribe knew it needed a warehouse of material for Bride; Wakka-Wakka shaved blocks into exactly what they needed for Fabrik.

This must seem a bit odd to read for those of you who know me as a huge supporter of aesthetics in the theater. But understand: the shows I've found sublimely beautiful, like The Cataract, or transFIGURES, or The Thugs, or God's Ear -- they knew the exact cost, the "heft and weight" if you will, of each plank, scaffold, elevator, or tile on that set. And if a show is going to spend money just to have a set, or is going to splurge for a mediocre show (as happens a little too often on Broadway -- Young Frankenstein anyone?), it gets to be distracting. It takes away from the art, which, if you read too many blogs, is apparently dying on a daily basis.

So really, to all the set designers, directors, and companies out there: what sort of thinking goes into your stance on the visual production elements of your shows?

Friday, May 02, 2008

Cherry Docs

"In an ideal world, I'd see you eliminated," says the young Neo-Nazi prisoner to his older, liberal Jewish lawyer, "but here, I need you more than anything." It's an incredibly cheesy line, almost as ridiculous as the presumptive plot, but David Gow's Cherry Docs is actually a pretty good play. Scripted lines like those simply help to smooth over the exposition and set the stage for a rough confrontation between two more or less racist people who will have to come to terms with their weaknesses.

With Mike, all the racism is out in the open: he regrets that the Pakistani Burger King employee he stomped on with his steel-toed "cherry docs" died of complications, but he refuses to give value to the man's life. With Danny, it's all internalized into a smug veneer: he is fearful of the local "punks" who seem far more than a generation apart, and carries himself so as to always be looking down on those around him. Mike's the sort of guy quick to physical action, with a short temper and a body vibrating with rage; Danny's a meticulous man, well-dressed, deliberate in his movement, and the sort of person to prod with words. After Mike says something offensive about Jews, Danny simply glares back at him and then laughs, a genuine mirth that turns to harsh barks: "You're killing me." he says to Mike's face -- and though it's another ridiculous moment, it's also a very telling one.

By the halfway point of the show, most of David Gow's problems have disappeared. (Caleb Levengood's set, unfortunately, continues to hang there: its plastic-draped windows and art-studio curtains far from the look of a prison conference room.) The play grounds itself on preparing a defense for Mike, which requires Danny to keep pushing him, both to prepare him for the eventual grilling from the prosecutor and to arrive at some honesty, if not regret. And it's here that the excellent Maximilian Osinski really shines (Pablo Schrieber, watch your back), all of his anxious energy focused on resisting the urge to snap. When that moment finally comes, it's more than catharsis, it's utterly transforming, and I dare you to not shed a tear during his wild rebuttal and anguished confession. Even Mark Zeisler, who is far too emotionally distant to make Danny into anything more than a walking ideal (his dismissive nature makes him easy to dismiss), seems genuinely riled by this point; he doesn't falter over his lines at all.

The play ought to end there, with a beautifully directed moment in which the two characters stand on opposite sides of the stage, each in their own spotlight, looking out at the audience and struggling to catch their breath. At this moment, vulnerable and exhausted, the two are clearly standing as one -- humanity on the stand, with all our biases stripped away. Instead, the play tries to wrap things up with a neat little bow, for the rest of the preachy, artificial monologues, even the actors look as if they are apologetic for having nothing left to say. Cherry Docs is a play about letting go: to David Gow, then, I say the same.