Thursday, December 31, 2009

metaDRAMA: Theater in 2009

How Soon Is Now
This play was so good, I actually offered to pay for people's tickets; the gimmick to this modern "Peter and the Wolf" involved getting the audience physically involved and invested in the process. The show begins as a lantern-lit walk through the pitch-dark second floor of a being-renovated church, with ambient sounds and shapes wafting up from the stage; it then builds as the Wolf runs through the audience, forcing members of the audience to help the cast pin him down. Thus involved--and pulse-poundingly kept there by the live band and the potent choreography--we are implicated as judge, jury, and executioner, forced to consider our own morality (and perhaps mortality) long after the show is done.

Call Cutta in a Box
I have already forgotten the name of the representative from India who guided me through this one-audience show, but I will never forget the experience, and all that's sort of the point. Who stops to consider the outsourced labor on a tech support call? Or bothers to empathize with the employee who may be just as frustrated as you? There are whole lives and worlds out there, beyond the ones we encounter each day, and both technology and theater have the ability to make us more aware and open to that--so both should.

Aftermath
Also raising awareness--and the bar--was Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's collage of interviews with ordinary Iraqi citizens, a reminder of the human costs of war. We tend to generalize, but this show, thanks to its exceptional cast, reminded us that there are individuals everywhere you go, from smug dermatologists to scrappy artists, from married chefs trying to make due to imams who cannot simply be stereotyped, or who may have reasons--like being unjustly tortured--for their anger. It's powerful stuff.

The Pride of Parnell Street
Equally powerful is this slow yet richly paced play from Sebastian Barry, an intimate look into the lives of two people who are struggling--on account of their shared past--to get past their shared past. Despite being so soaked in memories--or perhaps because of it--the show remains very much grounded in the forward momentum of the present; that is, that we can only go forward. Barry's honesty reminds us how to do so; at a time when America prides itself in the smug, self-absorbed, misanthropic anti-hero Who Nonetheless Gets Things Done (how Objectivist), it is terrific to see Aidan Kelly and Mary Murry, in the true Irish style, reminding us of the importance of the flawed hero.

Krapp, 39
Speaking of flaws, Michael Laurence managed to get rid of all of his by embracing them. His goal--to record the thirty-nine-year-old portion of Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape at the age of 39, and to then use it to fuel his performance in thirty years--not only revealed a lot about the sort of investment it takes to be an actor, but about how important the minutiae are; blink and you've missed your entire life. Fail to properly record a memory, and perhaps its gone forever. It was a meta-existential crisis, and all the better for its honesty and grace.

circle mirror transformation
Of course, no show was better at being honest this year than Annie Baker's new play. There was no exposition, no real "plot," and the pacing--six theater classes--was intentionally slow, to "mirror," if you will, what those classes are all about. (Self-discovery, learning to really listen, and more importantly, to really communicate.) And yet, through that, each character still grows--drastically--by actually doing what the play, and the class-within-a-play, demonstrate. It was the highlight of the year, for me.

Striking!

  • Clay MacLeod Chapman's Pumpkin Pie Show is still going strong, with his eerie monologues once again turning to huge disasters: in the case of Commencement, it's a school shooting, and Hannah Cheek's portrayal of three forever-affected bystanders will stick with you.

  • On a lighter note, Matthew A. J. Gregory and his company managed to produce a contemporary farce, The Hypochondriac, by working off Moliere's classic (The Imaginary Invalid); their intimate space--an actually posh two-floor apartment--sold the conceit, but the actors, who had nowhere to hide, are the ones who really sold the reality of the comedy. It's best when actors don't play for laughs, after all.

  • On the flip-side, selling the authenticity of this socioeconomic play, was the cast and crew of The Thickness of Skin, which actually managed to be frightening on a physical level, thanks to Michael Chenevert's desperate, uninhibited performance.

Beautiful!
  • Granted, Qui Nguyen's Soul Samurai was derivative of a half-dozen film genres, and yet, as a work of theater blending all of those together, it wound up being its own animal, and being the most effective of Nguyen's plays yet. Polished, engaging, and with terrific performances (including the rising Paco Tolson), you couldn't ask for much more.

  • Company XIV's Austin McCormick is also openly derivative--except that most audiences don't know what baroque dance is. Gaudy, but not tacky; burlesque, but not sloppy; picturesque, but not static, all three parts of his ambitious, genre-spanning Apple Trilogy were terrific, though a special shout out to Le Serpent Rouge!

  • And don't forget August Schulenberg's great ensemble piece, The Lesser Seductions of History, which pilfered an entire decade of United States history, processed it with the once-removed eyes of Our Town, and then truly made us feel the significance of big moments via the small, individual moments that are constantly shaping us (even as we otherwise miss them).

Original!
  • I can't leave out Josh Conkel's absurdly effective MilkMilkLemonade, in which talking chickens, terrified narrators, evil twins, and gender-reversed casting drive home the point that everything we do in life is the fulfillment of one role or another. Why not, then, choose the ones that make us happy, even if that involves becoming the next Andrew Dice Clay?

  • Likewise, Young Jean Lee's tricksy The Shipment, which used exaggerated vignettes to demonstrate the ways in which--whether we play to type or against it--we are still just playing, and should never be dismissed or simply taken at face value. Depth, people, depth.

  • And then, nailing the allegorical warnings of science-fiction, there was Ashlin Halfnight's Artifacts of Consequence, which explores what (of art) is truly important, and worth preserving, once everything else has vanished. What--in other words--is the point of living in a world in which only Twinkies have lasted? Thankfully, this production was nowhere near as blunt as this encapsulation.
Honorable Mentions!
Jailbait was a witty, villain-less play about growing up; Powerhouse was an inventive bio-drama that presented itself in the style of its subject; Electric Pear's Synesthesia '09 was an interpretive masterwork of collaboration; and Daniel Robert's Haunted House was an ode to the simpler, perhaps happier, days of childhood, before technology turned us all into smug, cynical, know-it-alls.

Clarification!
Yes, I saw Broadway shows this year. They're not up in the list above because they didn't stay with me. And of the shows that are on my list, none of them would work on Broadway (some of them don't even work in a theater). Which is sort of the point I'm making. With the exception of Sarah Ruhl's In The Next Room...or, the Vibrator Play, which had lively subject material, terrific acting, and a fabulously directed ending, most of what I saw was being played to such a big audience that it couldn't help but be a bit "broad." (I'm looking at you, Superior Donuts.) What's effective from a technical standpoint--like the television segments of Memphis--isn't as emotionally affective as it should be.

And though there were outstanding performances, like Christopher Fitzgerald's leprechaun in Finian's Rainbow, it was rare that the whole show fit together. To be fair, off-off and off-Broadway had more than their share of outright flops and follies--percent-wise, Broadway's probably doing better, even if their shows are still losing money--but at least many of those failures come from taking big risks--risks that have, for some of these companies, now started to really reward their audiences.

2009 wasn't a bad year for theater. It was a bad year for Broadway. I'm hoping everyone steps their game up in 2010; I'm looking forward to it either way. I'll see you all again on January 6th, 2010, to kick off coverage of the Under the Radar Festival. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Snow White

Photo/Daniel Perez

It's important to stress that this is a complement, especially to those unfamiliar with Company XIV's work, but their triumphant new show, a family-friendly "baroque infused" version of Snow White is Austin McCormick at his worst. Which is really to say that McCormick can do no wrong. Even though his hands are somewhat tied with all the pandering and mugging to the kids lounging on a series of pillows in the front row--he still manages to paint compelling stage pictures without the erotic tension of Le Serpent Rouge or the burlesqued energy of The Judgment of Paris.

How impressive is McCormick's aesthetic? He manages to get kids to listen, raptly, to the three-toned a capella of Charities (Brooke Bryant, Brett Umlauf, and Amber Youell), who are the voice of the Magic Mirror, and to watch Snow White (Yeva Glover) dance a chaste balletic solo. At the same time, he convinces the adults to bear with dim shadow-puppet dwarves by having the Narrator (Nick Fessette) show off his range of voices, and helps us deal with the necessarily repetitious bits by showcasing the Wicked Queen (Gioia Marchese) and her wide variety of glowers and gloats. His art--and let's call it that--strikes an elegant balance between highs and lows: contemporary music backing a gypsy-themed dance; exaggerated acting from the Queen's ruses that's well-matched by the crisp, militarily precise dancing that backs it up.

And then, of course, his images, somehow managing to hold up even against the staying power of a Grimm fairy tale. When the Huntsman takes Snow White into the woods, a hart lopes by, elegant and strong. When the Queen brings Snow White a poisonous comb, it is with a troupe of dancers every bit as silly as their French wigs, including one who appears to be nothing more than a head on a pedestal. No longer is Snow White put in a silly glass coffin: instead, she sleeps, dead, in the arms of a tree, cradled near a luminous chandelier. The best moment comes when Snow White, lost in the woods, is caught by the sprites of the wood as a gentle snow blankets them. (The manipulation of the lead actor is either a staple of the baroque style or a signature move of McCormick's: either way, it's most welcome.)

There aren't "flaws" in this production of Snow White so much as there are limits. Though he stretches the story to accommodate various styles of dance (and certainly of wardrobe), it's not as free as the previous two parts of Company XIV's "Apple Trilogy," nor is it as interactive with the audience (which is surprising, given that many of them are children). And cool ideas, like the baroque opera trio, sour over time, a too-static piece of an otherwise fluid world. Snow White may not measure up to McCormack's other work, but that must not hold you back: it's still absolutely enchanting.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Terrible Things

"You're trying to pass your self-absorption off as a metaphysical experiment," says Katie Pearl, speaking as her Dad speaking to herself, so that much is true of Terrible Things. "You need to comprehend limits," she (as him) continues, "which is why you shouldn't do theater." This statement, on the other hand, is entirely false. Katie Pearl, who has created this project with her collaborator of fourteen years, Lisa D'Amour, and the help of choreographer Emily Johnson, should be doing theater. In fact, the problem with Terrible Things is that Pearl does understand limits. Too few terrible things happen and the action that does occurs is too tightly controlled by Johnson's choreography and by the audience's distance from the action to provide the immersion Pearl's chasing, a world in which every possible outcome is happening (and in which, therefore, anything and everything can happen).

The result is that things happen. Pearl, speaking via headset, connects some of these to her childhood dreams of being a ballerina, her relationship with her "action-figure" mother, and her ex-girlfriends (including Barbara), but even when she's directly speaking about things, it comes across in a refracted way to the audience, bent by the images present on stage. (This was highly effective in the last PearlDamour production I saw, Bird Eye Blue Print, but that site-specific work had no stage, and therefore no room for distance or refraction.) To that end, D'Amour has conjured up some excellent images (as she did in Stanley (2006)), using flip-panels with three-dimensional images to play with space, and various colors (yellows and reds) to snap us out of the black and white world we start in.

Sure, you could take Terrible Things as a communal out-of-body experience, with Pearl taking us along with the ride. That would explain the neat arrangement of marshmallows (like tiny, yummy graves) spread across the floor, and the fish-like way in which three dancers slowly sweep them off into piles. (If "explain" is the right word, that is. I recognize that that's not necessarily the point, but also that the play's tectonic drifts can make the audience restless, too.) That is, it allows for Jiu Jitsu wrestlers--the only male presence in this world--to face off with Pearl, and then--mid-frame, for everything to freeze and allow her to scurry out, but to what end? Here's where those nagging limits come back into play, reminding us that it is a play, that it is meant to provoke a response, or have an effect, as opposed to being the sort of infinite waking dream it wants to be.

Then again, the mind's the truly terrible thing to waste, and it's nice to see such creative muscles being flexed. If only it handled its beautiful surprises more compellingly.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Great Recession

Employment may be down, but personalities are up, thanks to The Great Recession, an anthology of six world premieres from downtown luminaries, commissioned to write about money. The price--$25, with dollar beers at intermission--is right. So is the striking variety of voices: a manic Adam Rapp seems calm next to an over-the-top Thomas Bradshaw; a thoughtful Will Eno looks much deeper beside a brash Itamar Moses; and a sweet Erin Courtney makes the relentless Sheila Callaghan all the more heartbreaking. If one's not your thing, another will be, and as a tightly performed evening they collectively accomplish the soothing/numbing task of taking your mind elsewhere. (Call it the PBR effect.)

Given the stylistic tics each author has, the short-play format actually suits them all best. Adam Rapp's longer works may buckle to maintain their credibility (as the characters increasingly lose their integrity), but his Twilight Zone-y "Classic Kitchen Timer" works perfectly. We need not explain the Host (Nick Maccarone), who looks, sounds, and acts a lot like Heath Ledger's version of the Joker, nor his cadre of capitalism-condemning cronies; instead, we can appreciate what they bring out of their "guest," Lucy Norwood (Sarah Ellen Stephens). Slowly, the significance of objects on the stage comes into focus: the knife plunged into a watermelon; the crying, unattended baby in its carriage; and of course, the ticking, insistent egg-timer, set for twelve tension-filled minutes.

It's unfortunate that Itamar Moses has to follow, with his blatant, unsubtle, and frankly unoriginal "Fucked." Reed (Dorien Makhloghi) wants to break up with Cindy (Jessica Pohly) while remaining the nice guy, only to dig himself into a deeper and deeper hole. It's true that there's no "right" way to break up with someone, but there is a "wrong" way to write a play, and that's when you make an unpolitical drama seem like agitprop.

On the other hand, this brief dip allows the provocateur, Thomas Bradshaw, to make a nice counterpoint: in his grossly exaggerated "New York Living," relationships between people are almost entirely monetary, so when Jen (Morgan Reis) stops having sex with Jeff (Raul Sigmund Julia), he throws her out: "If you're not going to fuck me, then at least blow me or let me titty fuck you." This compounds his problems as an actor; he can't stop getting erections in the middle of his scenes with Adrian (Anna Greenfield), and while she initially feels harassed by Jeff and the boundary-pushing director, David (Andy Gershenzon), she eventually gives in. Costs aren't the only thing we cut, and Bradshaw cuts to the bone when he talks about ethics.

Erin Courtney's "Severed" and Sheila Callaghan's "Recess" are at opposite ends of the spectrum, too. Courtney uses testimonials to opine about America ("Do you think America could have elected a black man if the market hadn't crashed? America does care about color; the color green!") while getting personal in the foreground, in a sweet encounter between the all-business Suit (Ronald Washington) and the more artistic Polka Dot (Amy Jackson). It ends on an uplifting note; even if things are bad, we can choose to see the best in it. Not so with Callaghan's bleak vision of "today"(/the future), in which civilization seems to have broken down within a crowded studio apartment--a girl lies dead in a puddle of her own blood, another exercises herself to death, a third satisfies the sexual urges of the queue outside her crude tarp. The "happy" moment here is when they all come together to share two links of sausage, exciting one another with a description of delicious, fancy food. It's hard to think of us being in a recession after seeing what a true, Katrina-like, collapse would look like, and there are few playwrights able to be as anarchic in plot as they are in their writing (while still being poetic). Special credit to Kip Fagan for directing the myriad pieces.

The final piece of the evening, Will Eno's "Unum" wraps everything up by following the course of a dollar bill from the US Mint through the hands of many interconnected people. Jim Simpson makes a bold statement in his direction by having each character linger on stage long after the money has moved on--echoes? memories? both?--but the play emphasizes the way in which we truly are all connected, by needs, wants, and the color of our green, green blood. It's impossible to really point out any one specific thing about The Great Recession as a body of work--it's meant to showcase diverse works and words--but that last image of the 4o-odd Bats on stage at once, bowing, is a good a point as any. We are all in this together.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

metaDRAMA: The Dangers of Group Think

Not that this is an surprise, but in the latest issue of Wired magazine, Clive Thompson reports on an experiment run by Duncan Watts and Matthew Salganik which basically showed that if enough people told you, in advance, that a product was good, then you would be inclined to like it. Similarly, if enough people told you it was bad, you'd probably dislike it. This occurred even in their devious test, in which they lied about results: i.e., if you gave something five-stars, it was reported as one-star to everyone else, and vice-versa.

Now, for me, this isn't a problem. I never read a review before I see a show. Of course, this sets a rather odd double standard for myself, because I write reviews, and I'd sort of like people to read them. It's a difficult spot for theaters, too, because it illustrates how dangerous opinions can be--and, as the last year has shown, not necessarily those of critics, so much as those of an all-too-easily networked group of theatergoers. Especially those paying customers who couldn't wait to gossip about disastrous preview performances. A theater can't afford to get any negative buzz, and yet, it can't afford to not have any buzz. Worse, there are few shows--especially in theater--which totally satisfy audiences of all types. In other words, the findings of group think suggest that, to survive, theaters must go niche, culling audiences into like-minded masses, and then giving them exactly what they want.

This isn't a scientific result; I'm spit-balling. But user ratings everywhere are everywhere these days, from Audience Extras to nytimes.com. I worry, because those tiny, gold-starred pictures are not worth a thousand words, and the more that people stop thinking about what they're going to see--or thinking about what they've just seen--the faster the theater community will erode. What's the solution? Well, for me, it was the choice to abolish grades and stars this year--I let the reviews speak for themselves--and the attempt to encourage discussion on this site; i.e., to open up the blog as a place for conversation about a show, not just a place in which my word could be law. It doesn't always work, but as we head into 2010, and I start my fourth year as a theater critic, you can be sure I'll keep looking. I hope you'll join me; not as a group, but as individuals.

Monday, December 21, 2009

metaDRAMA: Free Tickets

New York Theater Workshop has those neat $20 Sunday tickets, and Soho Rep blows them away with their $0.99 version, but nobody can beat the hard-working Women's Project when it comes to initiatives: they're giving away 500 tickets to their new show, Smudge. Though they got snubbed by the NEA this year, they've been putting on exceptional shows, so I can't recommend enough that you go. And if you go because of a free ticket I encourage you to make a donation if--when--you enjoy the show.

Click here. I encourage you to sign-up for 1/4, as that'll get you started on fulfilling my new "What To See" daily planner for January 2010.

As for those of you who read this and did not try to get free tickets, leave me a comment. I'm curious as to why anyone wouldn't inundate the Women's Project servers with requests.

Romeo and Juliet

Photo/Paula Court

The Nature Theater of Oklahoma's name springs from Franz Kafka's Amerika, and boils down to this quote: "Anyone who wants to be an artist, step forward!" To that end, Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper use found texts to speak to the unconscious beauty that lies beneath our stumbling everyday selves. Never mind that they often create these texts themselves, recording phone conversations with their friends and family (No Dice), capturing their own initial enthusiasms and streams-of-consciousness (Rambo Solo), or the poetry of random movements, like Poetics: a ballet brut. The point is that everything can be artistic, can have significance, and merit--which may be why their company so often chooses to perform in the overly enunciated, amateurishly flourished style of the dinner theater.

It's this sophisticated lowbrow that dominates their latest work, Romeo and Juliet--though relax, it's not just another adaptation. Instead, it's a series of eight interviews, performed as monologues by Anne Gridley and Robert M. Johanson, in which people were asked to explain the plot of Romeo and Juliet from start to finish. It's more insular than their other work, but at the same time, less so, because they didn't speak to academics; in fact, for the most part, none of the subjects had read or seen the play in years (which people in this community tend to forget is a normal thing). That is to say, it's still mighty accessible, and though it gets a bit repetitious, it resolves itself very nicely, as Anne and Robert perform their own interviews--this time, as a duet--, questioning the very nature of a love scene in a contemporary world. The result is a work of post-comedy, which is to say that most of its humor comes from self-awareness.

To that end, Peter Nigrini's exceedingly simple stage: a wood platform and a wood backdrop, on which the stage boards and a blue curtain have been painted. Also assisting: Elisabeth Conner, who plays neither Romeo nor Juliet, and yet makes two cameos which will remain an surprise so as to maximize their awkwardness. The foppish costumes: a slightly off-size pink dress for Ms. Gridley, with a flowered crown, and a frilly black shirt for Mr. Johanson, complete with brown tights and the Dutch-buckled shoes. And of course, dramatic re-enactment, which, true to the verbatim transcript, turns "ah" and "um," not to mention coughs and laughs, into uproarious interjections. (Imagine if Anna Deavore Smith's documentary theater were performed by sixth-graders [with no experience] and directed by a zero-budget Michael Bay.)

The humor of misquoted lines like "What light through yonder window speaks; it is the east and she is the west" and oddly accented words like "myun" for "moon" or talks of the famous "balconey" scene are as fleeting as a fiery footed steed. Thankfully, the fearless delivery from Nature Theater actors Gridley and Johanson is enough to sustain the slower moments as the interviews shift to the far more interesting commentaries each subject has on the significance of Romeo and Juliet. For one, 9/11 and Anna Nicole Smith are compared to the ecstatic, necessary tragedy of the Shakespearean play; another wryly wonders why we haven't learned the lesson that we need to let our children "spank the tank" and "fuck each other silly." It's less about the actual Romeo and Juliet than it is about our groupthink perception of them: "I think that if they had lived together, they probably would have had a divorce."

The question, ultimately, isn't really "Why was Shakespeare's language so compelling?" but rather "Why isn't our language that compelling?" The answer, according to these bawds, is that, put in the right context and listened to at the right time, it surely is: Step forward, artists. Speak.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

metaDRAMA: The Cost of Niceness

It's no surprise that I like theater--I spend most nights writing about it. But what is it about theater that thrills me? It's the opportunity to view the world differently--more immediately than with the slow build of fiction, and more interactively and collaboratively thanks to the work of not just the writers, but the actors, directors, and technical staff. Sure, there's never going to be anything more "real" than the life you yourself live, but it's not easy to learn from the world around you, especially if you're limited in what you do. And even if you're one of the people that others live vicariously through, it's hard to pause in the middle of an adrenaline rush and consider the implications of it.

But theater's not the only place to get it. Films, while less intimate and often too epic (even if small in scale), can change you entirely--whether it's the whimsy of Amelie, the terror of Funny Games, or the heartbreak of Requiem for a Dream. And the small screen, too, has its strengths: well-written television shows allow you to follow people over a long series of changes, as in Friday Night Lights, or to follow an entire culture, as with The Wire. They are more flexible, in their week-to-week shifts, and so are best-fits for the complex allegories of science-fiction, be that Battlestar Galactica or Dollhouse. They aren't always good at showcasing talent--So You Think You Can Dance nails it, American Idol falls flat; Top Chef is sharp, Hell's Kitchen is dull--but that's largely because they get lost in trying to fulfill America's stereotypes, or to give voice to everyone's inner critic. I'm generalizing, greatly, but that's because I want to get to the lesson I've learned from one of the mainstays of reality television: Survivor.

Russell Hantz, 36, owns an oil company, and he's a brute. He's the bad guy of the show, the bully, the "bruiser," as Jeff Propst calls him. He lies to everyone, insults people (to the camera, but never to their face), and over the course of the game, outlasts, outplays, and outwits everybody. And yet, he loses. To Natalie White, 26, a player who remained allied with Russell from Day 1. This is no respect to Natalie--I actually admire her strategy; she knows she's not a physical competitor, so she's nice to everyone, and she lets Russell do all the work. However--and this brings me to the point I'm getting at--that's because she can afford to be nice. And this is the lesson we learn by watching this season of Survivor.

Russell's team--perhaps in part to his sabotage of it, but moreover a result of their bad luck in getting good players and winning challenges--makes it to the merge as the underdogs. 8-4. And it is entirely due to Russell's smooth-talking and penchant for finding--and knowing when to play--hidden immunity idols that they actually manage to take the lead. He has no choice but to play hard--at the cost of some feelings, perhaps--because the result is to just lie down and eventually be voted out. The moral question, though, is did a person that nasty deserve to win? Well, had it been Donald Trump doing the voting, yes. And had it been America voting, yes. But when push comes to shove, we tend to whitewash our own sins and pillory those who have done wrong. Because that's how we stay in control.

Once I've "made" it, it's easy for me to follow the rules. In fact, I want to, because I know that in following those rules, I'll ensure that nobody else will be able to take my job. Objectivism is great for those who are incredibly talented at something; capitalism is fantastic for those who have a lot of money. Communism, or socialism, well, they're terrific for people who don't have as much as others. The point is, we choose to play by the rules that will advance us, as needed, and then shift to new ones when the time suits. There's a reason why "nice guys" are supposed to finish last: because if they're genuinely nice, they'll let everyone else go in front of them. So why--especially in the context of a show about surviving, would you vote for the nice guy?

Watching Survivor isn't always deep, and in fact it's cherry-picked in the editing room to be commercially entertaining and superficially satisfying. And yet, this season, we were allowed to shift our perspectives as Russell, time and time again, peeled back the layers of deceit that we usually wear, showing the truth about how we actually play. It's easy to be nice when there's no danger of you going home--and for the record, Russell wasn't a social asshole, he was a moral relativist. It's not necessarily a good feeling, to watch and realize that the conventions we hold dear are exactly that--conventions--but it's an important one. And though it's not as tightly written as a drama, it is, for one of those rare times in entertainment, something real.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

What to See: January

The dates listed below aren't the only days these shows are playing, but if I owned a theater and could bring in new shows each night, this would be what I'd curate for you all. I've included reviews for the shows that I've already seen, but in general, you wouldn't be here if you didn't already trust my taste, at least a little.

Company XIV's Apple Trilogy; reviewed here, here, and here; info here.
1/1 @ 8 - Le Serpent Rouge
1/2 @ 8 - The Judgment at Paris
1/3 @ 3 - Snow White

Rachel Axler/Women's Project's Smudge; info here. (Previous Women's Project shows reviewed here, here, and here.)
1/4 @ 7

Little Gem; info here. (Review of last year's Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh award, here.)
1/5 @ 7

Rotozaza's GuruGuru; info here. (Review of previous Rotozaza work here and here.)
1/6 from 4 - 10, hourly

National Theater of the United States's Chautauqua!; reviewed here, info here.
1/7 @ 9:30 (or 1/12 @ 9:30)

Young Jean Lee/SoHo Rep's Lear; info here. (Review of Lee's previous show, here.)
1/8 @ 7:30

Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Romeo and Juliet; reviewed here, info here.
1/9 @ 8:00

The Debate Society's A Thought About Raya; reviewed here, info here.
1/10 @ 7:30

Jollyship the Whiz Bang; reviewed here, info here.
1/11 @ 8

Clay McLeod Chapman's The Pumpkin Pie Show: Commencement; reviewed here, info here.
1/12 @ 7

Clay McLeod Chapman and Kyle Jarrow's Hostage Song; reviewed here, info here.
1/13 @ 8

Clay McLeod Chapman/One Year Lease's Teaser Cow; info here. (Review of Chapman's previous shows are listed above.)
1/14 @ 8

Pig Iron's Chekhov Lizardbrain; info here.
1/15 @ 8

Sneaky Snake's Brief History of Murder; info here. (Review of Sneaky Snake's previous show, here.)
1/16 @ 3 (Detectives); 1/17 @ 7 (Victims)

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles; info here.
1/17 @ 2

Goodbye Cruel World; info here. (w/Paco Tolson and William Jackson Harper.)
1/21 @ 8

Luck of the IBIS; info here, review here
1/29 @ 7

You May Be Splendid Now; info here, review here.
1/30 @ 4

The Mike and Morgan Show; info here, review here.
1/31 @ 4

Friday, December 18, 2009

Update: Regular Posting Resumes

I hadn't posted anything to mention that I was taking a break, but lest there be any concern, I am officially back now, and ready to catch up, not just on the new shows out there, but on some of the ones I've taken in and not written about yet. Everything's fine, and I should be back to posting reviews once a day, Monday through Friday, with the occasional observations thrown in, at the start of the new year. (The Under the Radar and COIL festivals, as usual, make a good kick-off, and there are plenty of new shows by returning artists that I can't wait to crack into: stuff by Dreamscape, Lisa D'Amour/Katie Pearl, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Company XIV, Clay McLeod Chapman, and a lot more.)

Happy Decembertivities, all. Look for me on New Year's Eve, and a local theater near you!

Friday, December 04, 2009

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Photo/Marilynn K. Yee

Carson McCullers's novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, now adapted by Rebecca Gilman, is as quietly observant as its main character, John Singer, a deaf-mute. Through his eyes, we follow four of his Georgian neighbors (c. 1939): a labor agitator named Jake Blount; Dr. Copeland, a doctor who enjoys Spinoza and Marx; the socially eccentric but well-intentioned Biff Brannon, who runs the local cafe; and Mick Kelly, a young tomboy who dreams of music. This slice-of-life is only slightly unbalanced by the dry, Clifford Odets-sounding politics that run through it, but the central theme--"The way I need you is a loneliness I cannot bear"--is too loose, and the large ensemble too compressed, for it to have much impact as a play.

I haven't read the book, so it's hard to say if something's simply missing in translation, but given that the best moments of Gilman's adaptation stem from the subtle, near-tragic growth (or perhaps "acceptance") of its youngest character, Mick (the excellent Cristin Milioti), the observational style seems a better fit for fiction than for the theater. So much is left to our imagination that what ends up on stage often is as fixed and as awkward as the "party" that Singer attempts to host in his room for these four, and it's hard not to notice how undeveloped the supporting cast is. Hughes can't spare any subtlety for Harry (Bob Braswell), who has to explain why Jake's propaganda moves him, and has to telegraph his "shy" feeelings for Mick; the same goes for Willie (Jimonn Cole), whose unjust arrest--and horrific treatment--is really just fuel for the fiery regrets of his father, Dr. Copeland (the generally bland James McDaniel). Roslyn Ruff is forced to do some posturing as Portia, but she at least sells the desperation that leads her to faith.

Doug Hughes's direction is, unfortunately, too smooth to really portray the loneliness. Neil Patel's square flats, which represent the central locations of the novel, slide as neatly to the front of the stage as the too-tidy characters make their pronouncements. His saving grace is that he is able to linger on in some of those moments, capturing the light in Singer's (Henry Stram's) eyes as he shows off for his mentally unstable ox of a friend, Antonapoulos (I. N. Sierros), or the tears of joy Mick finds in the available fantasy of radio music--and what that must "sound" like to Singer, who can only watch her react. The best moment of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter comes abruptly, out of nowhere, piercing the silent steadfastness of the show, and while the rest of the play perhaps requires some muteness to amplify this effect, it would not have hurt Gilman--who can be a dangerously direct playwright (in the best sense)--to add a little more immediacy to her adaptation.

That's where an actress like Cristin Milioti comes in, salvaging every scene she's in. Whether she's scrawling "pussy" or "Motsart" on a wall (neat projections from Jan Hartley allow for this), or unpinning earrings and loosening her shoes after a long day of work, she's made this fourteen-year-old into the most grown-up part of this production. As for Henry Stram, who should be the center of this piece, he's generally terrific, but Hughes's choice to allow him to speak the opening and closing monologues of the play strips away a great part of who his character, Singer, is. It's a tin-eared decision, and it unfortunately has the effect of making much of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter ring false--even when it looks and sounds good.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Orpheus X

Persephone stands in the underworld, "living" with a vicarious childishness through Eurydice, who follows her compulsion to write until the glass walls are bleeding with the chalk of Greek characters. "One isn't disappointed when it ends," she says of Eurydice's writing. "One isn't surprised when it begins. Like a list, you accept its terms and let it run until it stops." Mostly for worse, that's how Rinde Eckert's cold modernization, Orpheus X, goes, the few grand moments coming mainly when the four-part band's rock music overwhelms the overly operatic poetry. This isn't just the reaction of a "narrative junkie," either. It's not that Orpheus X lacks plot, it's that it lacks feeling. Lyrics aren't any less monotonous when sung in falsetto.

Eckert's terms, such as they are, involve him occasionally playing an electric guitar, squeezing his eyes shut in rejection of his world as he attempts to dream a stranger--Eurydice--into life. The one neat parallel here is that Suzan Hanson's Eurydice is trying to forget life. Persephone, who for some reason is played by John Kelly, follows in her footsteps here, too. Eckert, like Orpheus, willingly chooses to "worship things of no importance," so Denise Marika fills David Zinn's otherwise austere stage (I-beams and a tastefully small shrine) with symbolic projections of Eurydice's themes--blood, honey, and her naked body. Objects are listed until they become facts, but while Orpheus calls it "a small museum I have come to love, the signs of something I've missed," the audience is left with only the harsh feeling of absence.

To be fair, you should know that I can hardly recall a lick of the music, nor a scrap of the dialogue. (And that's with the script in front of me.) Only the visual elements of Robert Woodruff's direction come to mind: the use of a blue, watery blanket; an infinitely long silence; a literally earth-shaking moment. (All of these things occur in the last ten minutes; you would miss little if you were to sleep until then.) Another of Eckert's terms may be Eurydice's willingness to forget--and there's a powerful moment where she is the one to make Orpheus turn, sending her back to the land of the dead--but it's not praise to call Orpheus X is as "memorable" as Lethe.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

She Like Girls

There's real meat to She Like Girls--as there should be, considering it's based on the life of Sakia Gunn, a fifteen-year-old inner-city girl struggling to come to terms with her own sexual identity. But Chisa Hutchinson, the thirty-year-old playwright, isn't quite grown up enough to handle it. She nails the youthful parts, like the faux-tough and grown-up language of the schoolyard: "You know what I’m doing at six in the morning? Gettin’ some fantabuliscious head from Taye Diggs." And she delicately handles the tentative romance between Kia (Karen Eilbacher) and Marisol (Karen Sours), which starts to boil in a hilariously danced salsa. But too much of the first half of the play is gratuitously goofy (as when a teacher mangles his students' names, or whenever we cut to a dream sequence) and the second half of the play feels rushed, compressed into scenes so explicit that they might as well be title cards.

These moments are sometimes redeemed by the actors--for instance, Adam Belvo has enough edge to him to make Mr. Keys's "I Am a Successful Faggot" speech about more than self-acceptance--but just as often drag down people, like Amelia Fowler, who plays Kia's mother, whose tentative homophobia seem to be a dramatic afterthought, or Paul Notice II, who thankfully makes the most of the one scene in which he's asked to show why he poses as a thug. Even the good moments are sometimes brought down by technical issues, like Eilbacher's quietness and Sours's accent; yes, their characters are shy and Mexican, respectively, but the magic of theater is that those who are unintelligible in the real world can find a voice on stage. (Besides, it's not like the rest of the play is grounded in hyper-realism.)

Still, I only pick at the loose threads of She Like Girls because Hutchinson's writing is interesting; even when it gets silly, it feels alive. (Working Man's Clothes has a good habit of producing shows like this.) Hutchinson may not need to have a scene in which the girls gossip about how disgusting it is to be a lesbian, especially when the girls jump Kia in the next scene, but at least it sounds about right. And though the play hardly needs to support Mr. Keys's advice to Kia with a guest appearance by the lesbian poet Adrienne Rich (Jessica Gist), such effects have the added advantage of making the really "real" moments--a flirty phone conversation between Kia and Marisol--connect on a deeper level. A stronger director might have helped: while it's true that Jared Culverhouse matches the mood of Hutchinson's scenes and nicely uses Kelly Syring's graffiti-covered set, he also kills the momentum with lengthy pauses between scenes and allows for far too many "Mac truck" moments--i.e., pauses in the dialogue that are long enough to drive a Mac truck through.

Some may be able to take the rougher edges of this production as a good fit for the rough setting of an almost-datedly homophobic inner-city, but the truth is, She Like Girls is only, at best, likeable. Here's hoping that Hutchinson gets past her own awkward-as-a-first-kiss moments and finds the deep love that this play, and Sakia Gunn, are asking for.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Meg's New Friend

Photo/Deanna Frieman

It's hard to live in New York City without the taste of leather on your tongue. After all, with the constant cultural shifts of this melting pot, if your foot isn't already in your mouth, it will be soon. Even with the best intentions--like Samuel (Michael Solomon), a lawyer--it's only a matter of time before you accidentally call a girl "honey" or a black man "brother," and all of a sudden you're sexist, racist, or both. Some people, like Sam's girlfriend of three years, Megan (Megan McQuillan), avoid the issue by covering "safe" topics--like a Philadelphia production of Wicked--while others, like Ty (Damon Gupton) use yoga to transcend. Some, like Sam's older sister, Rachel (Mary Cross), are too self-deprecating and desperate to notice the way they belittle others (like her lover, Ty).

For Meg's New Friend, being PC is a double-edged sword; playwright Blair Singer boldly tackles the issue dead-on, but this also makes him overly explicit, and ends up objectifying his supporting cast. Ty is a burst of fresh air, charming in his confident passivity, and seductively honest, even when that involves hitting on his current lover's best friend and admitting, in the process, that all relationships should have a three-month expiration date. On the other hand, Sam--no matter how well-acted by the capable Solomon--is the all-too familiar asshole who picks fights just to be dramatic. Singer asks us what leads us to connect with people--for instance, is it because we want to diversify and have a black friend?--only to announce that we can't always choose. (Hence the pending foot-in-mouth.)

The play works best when it steps back from easy labels and deals with taking a hard look at what's behind those words. In that, it's a smart move to make Megan a far-from-hard-hitting television reporter, as she knows the importance not only of words but of the images that are conjured up behind them, the intents. ("You have to have the image. Makes it real. Present. Without a photo, the audience can't connect.") She wants Ty as a friend--her first black friend, and also her first male friend--but they both immediately see each other as more. The strongest scenes are those in which characters evaluate themselves: Ty confessing his attraction to sad girls, Rachel admitting her desperation (Jewish, single, and 38, she sees herself as "invisible"), and Megan coming to terms with her attraction to Ty.

The script, at about eighty minutes, is tight, and that has unfortunately led the characters to be a bit stiff--the plot has them grow, but to see them do so is like watching them get prodded by a shoehorn. Thankfully, while director Mark Armstrong struggles to establish his characters in the early scenes (they frequently lock up when they're not talking, or aimlessly fidget with their empty wine glasses), the play opens up about halfway through, especially for Cross, who really ties the conceit of the play together when she attempts to condemn her former best friend with a canned speech, only to find that the words don't match up with the reality. ("Yeah," she says, "it doesn't feel right.")

Singer's last play at Manhattan Theater Source, The Most Damaging Wound, had an intensity and a camaraderie that managed to make the words themselves beside the point. The problem he runs into with Meg's Best Friend is that now the words are almost entirely the point, and while his ear for natural speech is still there, it feels like he's constantly skirting the issue--which is perhaps a little too PC. (His comparisons to The Seagull certainly don't do him any favors.) The play itself is fun enough, and it is nice to see Gupton avoid stereotypes, but Meg's New Friend is more of the fair-weather sort than of the best.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Post No Bills

[First posted to Show Business Weekly]

Photo/Sandra Coudet

“It’s real when you hit bottom,” says Esteban (Teddy Cañez), who knows what he’s talking about. He was once the Mexican Johnny Cash and now busks in the Port Authority subway. “I don’t understand,” replies Reyna (Audrey Esparza), a nervy, orphaned runaway who—thanks to the gimmicky miracles of theatrical shorthand—has become this gruff loner’s protégée. Like all buddy dramas, in which two opposites come together and learn a valuable lesson from one another, Esteban comforts her: “Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out.” However, playwright Mando Alvarado has yet to do so. Post No Bills has some good musical bits (composed by Sandra Rubio) and entertaining co-stars—the blind, urban sage Sal (John-Martin Green) and the late-twenties hipster Eddie (Wade Allain-Marcus)—Alvarado is too carefully following in the footsteps of other plays to ever risk hitting the bottom.

Too bad: his actors certainly seem game. Esparza is a coil of lightning, able to bunch herself in and then explode outward, and her childish goofiness helps to gloss over some of the weaker plot points. (One minute she’s threatening to stick a bazooka up his ass, the next she’s staying with him?) Cañez is naturally brooding, and his deep voice helps him show the pain of his music; these qualities help him surprise us each time he reveals a third dimension: Esteban’s feelings for Reyna. And though Sal and Eddie are written largely as devices for these two, Green finds the anger behind his comic relief, and Allain-Marcus turns his energy into an outsized shyness that works for his romance with Reyna and rivalry with Esteban.

It’s also a waste of Michael Ray Escamilla’s direction; the man knows how to spin a story with visuals, and he fills the empty gaps in Alvarado’s script with cute sight gags (watch Sal), but for the majority of the play, the set is just a blue-washed wall—the sort you see for subway construction. There’s terrific storytelling, both from him and designer Raul Abrego, when those walls part to reveal Esteban’s studio apartment, so it’s a shame that the play itself still seems to be under construction.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Wolves at the Window

The problem with Toby Davies's Wolves at the Window (And Other Tales of Immorality) is that there are never any wolves at the window. Perhaps in the early 1900s, when Hector Hugh Munro (more familiarly known as Saki) wrote these trick short stories, they were surprising, the type of novel brave Dahl-ish children might delight in reading under their covers. (For instance, in "The Storyteller," two children who are tired of hearing morality tales, hear a new tale, in which a young girl is savaged by her own goodness.) But in this stage adaptation of ten Saki stories, that nervous delight is muted--first by Davies's choice to collage some stories together, which dilutes the punchlines, and then by Thomas Hescott's muddy direction, which relies more on the audience's imagination than his own. With the exception of a few stories that would be entertaining even if used as a filibuster's fodder, the night's entertainment falls entirely on the cast of four--and consequently, it keeps falling.

However, falling and failing are very different things. While Wolves at the Window suffers from an inability to commit to a style, the motley result is not without its own charms, especially when they force the actors out of their recitative or too-well-mannered states. Gus Brown, whose terrific dryness resembles something out of a Gorey painting, is perfect for this show; watch him as a sad-sack artist who agrees to help a failing business in order to marry the owner's daughter, only to find that, thanks to the cash he earns them, he's now socially ineligible. However, he's even better in animal form--as a tragically dying Goat or as the titular "Tobeymorey," one of those terrific wish-fulfillment tales in which a family, having taught a cat to speak, instantly wishes the gossiping creature would shut up. On the other hand, Jeremy Booth and Anna Francolini, who are often tapped to play slight variations on the exact same character type, desperately need the sort of loony roles that Sarah Moyle gets to play with.

What has happened, both in the writing and the directing, is that a proscenium has been built--literally, it has the sign "Naturally Depraved" affixed to it--but is only rarely played out to. As a result, the show lacks the requisite vitality to lift itself from the page to the stage, and during the more descriptive scenes--like the anti-climactic closers to each act--the show drops to a dead crawl. There is nothing less thrilling than watching an actor describe the stag they are pretending to watch rush toward them, even with a strobe light flickering for effect. The stories that comprise Wolves at the Window relied upon surprise; the play that Davies has cobbled together must not forget to do the same--if all we can expect from a night at the theater are Saki's twists, why not just read the open-source versions online?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Or,

Liz Duffy Adams's newest play is called Or,, which makes it pretty clear that her historical farce has no intentions of wasting time with ifs, ands, or buts. (Well, perhaps a few butts.) The title--of which the comma is a part--is meant to shed some light on our innate dualities, and to that end, Aphra Behn--a bisexual spy-turned-playwright who may or may not have faked her widowhood in order to gain personal freedom--is an apt choice. Likewise, it's a smart choice to cast Maggie Siff in the role, a versatile actor (from Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy) with the ability to play a stern woman in a fluttery way, or a flustered girl in a confident fashion. Above all, Adams's best choice is to reduce the cast to three actors, using the already comic art of double-casting and quick changes to enhance the farcical elements.

Though Adams is intent on illustrating the ambiguity of character, Wendy McClellan directs with a crisp, clean hand. Even the intentionally sloppy bits, where characters are peeking only parts of their body out of the various rooms and closets in which they've hidden, are done with precision. And rightly so: the play Behn is attempting to finish is the one that she's actually in, and it would be impossible to crack as many jokes at the play's structure if it were not so impeccably upheld.

To that end, Behn has no lack of material. She begins in debtor's prison, where she churns out verse and practices her rhymes on the gaoler; when a mysterious masked man shows up to free her, she finds plenty of opportunity to sharpen her wit, too. Some months later, with the masked man revealed as King Charles II (Andy Paris), she is well on the way to being a playwright--if only she had something to submit. Luckily, her new lover, the actress Nell Gwynne (Kelly Hutchinson) comes to the rescue, for Behn's attempts to write her play, overcome her passions, and keep Gwynne from meeting Charles practically write themselves. (O for a muse of fire, indeed.)

Over the course of the lively and non-stop hour that follow this ball-in-motion prologue, we'll also meet William, a former spy and lover; Mariah, the cracking good maid (as in, she'll crack you over the head); and Lady Davening, a supporter of plays, though it often seems as though the cast is several times larger. Paris and Hutchinson, who play all these roles, are exceedingly game, so much so that the biggest laugh of the night comes from Davening's hyperactive advice that one should "never leave actors with nothing to do." (The result is either a stage manager's dream or nightmare.)

Adams might have gone a bit further--as is, the historical double-meanings are lost, especially among people unfamiliar with Behn. However, there's nothing wrong with a blatant farce, and once can't fault Adams for sticking to her game plan: "Compose yourselves for pleasure," announces Hutchinson at the start of the show. That's perhaps the one thing in Or, that has no alternative.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Lesser Seductions of History

Photos/Tyler G. Hicks-Wright

Despite being flush with the rich history and presence of the times-they-are-a-changin' 60s, August Schulenburg's The Lesser Seductions of History is, wisely, not a political play. After all, as he points out, "Politics is like music for people who have no rhythm," and boy, does that Schulenburg have rhythm. There's a thick heartbeat of communal purpose--he wrote this play for his company, Flux--, a steady patter of lyrical oratory (think Martin Luther King Jr.)--which is well matched by Heather Cohn's simple (yet complicated) direction, and a healthy dose of wit, the sort that elevates an Our Town-like lecture into an experience.

As it turns out, Schulenburg needs every bit of his talent, for this is his most ambitious play yet, a large ensemble work that is narrated by One (Candice Holdorf) who, at times, goes by the name Progress and whose "great enemy" is love. Epic, indeed, especially for a show that takes place entirely in interconnected vignettes, spanning a ten-year period. But it works, thanks to the narrator's insistence that we use our imaginations to invest as much in this play as these eleven actors have. (A timeline is included in each program, specifically for younger audience members, like myself.) It also works thanks to Schulenburg's ability to self-edit: the show seems like a short two-and-a-half hours, focused as it is on moment after gripping moment.

"Here's where it happens," says One, watching Barry (Matthew Archambault) throw heater after heater to his younger brother Bobby (Jason Paradine), too young and headstrong to consider the lasting damage he's doing to his arm. Here, too: the moment when Tegan (Kelly O'Donnell), who has started a newspaper called The Call (in honor of Kennedy's "Ask Not..." speech), meets a female rocket scientist named Anisa (Ingrid Nordstrom), falling for her at a small diner, though its not for another four years that they'll be able to tell one another. But also in the way George and Martha (Michael Davis and Raushanah Simmons), driving to a new life, wind up in different worlds, all because George was given the opportunity to play piano as a child, while Martha had to fight for her chances--especially after being raped. The doomed look between newly married Marie and Isaac (Tiffany Clementi and Jake Alexander), as she realizes his liberally wandering eye will never settle for her and her religion, or the way Marie's relative, Lee (Isaiah Tanenbaum), resigns himself to settling only for his drawings, trapped trying to find a way to communicate. And then there's Anisa's estranged, alcoholic sister, Lizzie (Christina Shipp), all but ready to throw herself off a bridge before Bobby--who is in training to be a doctor--convinces her to throw her problems off instead.

Weaving in and out of the larger contexts of the 60s, these can be seen either as small moments or big moments, depending on whose perspective you view them from, and Schulenburg's greatest asset is--dare I pun it--his fluxtuating narrative, which presents it as everything all at once. That's how we get to the really Big Moments--the ones that make this play, that make you think, that make for capitalized Theater--for instance, when the characters, expressing their feelings for one another, speak only the words of "I Have a Dream." Or when Cohn toys with the ten hanging bulbs--one for each character--in order to shoot backward through time, reminding us of those butterflying, domino-like choices we make, all those minute Ifs that become a present-day Is.

There are moments where Schulenburg struggles with his big ideas--and that's as it should be; that's how you know the ideas are big enough. What's important is that his writing almost always manages to keep those ideas on their feet; what's important is that he never loses those quiet, tear-soaked moments, as when Tegan sends Anise a message about the moon landing--"contact light"--or when George and Marie share a memory of Isaac. And while this review is intentionally vague, Cohn's direction--which has to juggle a lot of pieces at once--is always clear about the intents and beauty of things as simple as our presence. (And that's no lesser seduction, that's a full-bodied affair.)

"None of us knows," acknowledges The Lesser Seductions of History. "But some of us believe." And thankfully, some playwrights know enough to still believe.

Monday, November 09, 2009

What Once We Felt

Ann Marie Healy fills her latest play, What Once We Felt, with a lot of vague gestures, as characters allow themselves to regurgitate what others have said—talking, in other words, without saying anything. But there is nothing vague about Healy’s terrific plot, which like the best dramatic science-fiction passes on a specific allegory to the here and now. In this world, all the men are gone—redundancies, perhaps—and government has been replaced by the totalitarian RSS, which shows the danger of putting “more faith into algorithms than Aristotle.” Of the women left, they have been grouped—genetically—into Keepers, who can carry on their life as they please, and Tradepacks, who are slowly facing extinction, since they are unable to “download” babies.

Healy’s incredibly smart writing immediately gets to work at showing how insane it is to claim to recognize “perfection.” The play opens with a teenage girl, Violet (Ronete Levenson), “the last living Tradepack,” insisting that she’s “lived a full life,” and offering, as proof, her feelings. Cheryl (Lynn Hawley), on the other hand, has never been taught to show her feelings, and it’s not until meeting the neurotic writer Macy (Mia Barron), that she expresses anything other than the cool, professional exterior of a border guard. “Why do you get to change your life?” she wonders later that night, sitting in dim squalor, her mother writhing in unconscious pain, as Macy dines with her editor, Astrid (Ellen Parker), at the upscale Panet. In contrast like this—and these effects are heightened by Kris Stone’s coldly industrial set—it becomes clear just how subjective the word “perfection” is, and warns us not to let our given circumstances define us.

However, it’s hard not to be battered down by “reality” when fiction has all but ceased to exist. Claire Monsoon (Opal Alladin), a mogul publisher who has innovated a new form of work-free reading, “Digi-Directs,” has made a fortune off of the vapid, childish prattle of Inspector Ovid and his talking dog. Their platitudes—as hokily presented as old-time radio serials—ask readers to “believe,” but only in the world as given. That’s why Macy—who has written a book about a woman who just happens to be a Tradepack—has such trouble getting published: who can understand, let alone “believe” in something as “complicated” as that?

Except, it’s not complicated, and that’s what Healy communicates so well, using What One We Felt as a case-in-point, at least for those who are willing to listen. This dystopia is a warning: not everything can be reduced to cold logic and mathematical reason. This is shown best by Benita and Yarrow (Hawley and Parker), who, because of a computer bug, wound up with an “error” instead of the baby they’d carefully selected from online simulations. And yet, Benita falls for it completely: “Maybe we don’t [have choices],” she says. “Maybe we think we do but an Error / Is some amazing lesson / Some amazing possibility / For something / Unforeseen / Something / Beautifully / I don’t know.” It’s also shown—in a more dangerous form—by Macy’s line-editor, Laura (Marsha Stephanie Blake), who converts Macy’s more open-ended prose into what is essentially a religious pamphlet: “Help these Tradepacks to leave this world of suffering / Give them a new story / A new mythology: something better to believe in.”

So we must be able to choose, sure, but the things we choose from must not be predetermined. Perhaps that is a little complicated, especially for a society as litigious as ours, but Healy’s beautifully paced language never makes us think so. Also worth noting is Ken Rus Schmoll’s direction, which shows the rhythm of these characters on stage, in which characters slowly burn when confronted with comic, outsized characters (like Claire and Astrid) and then begin to erupt when given a chance to speak by the quieter people (like Laura and Cheryl). Barron, who is desperately trying to remain at the eye of this storm—attempting “reserved restraint”—benefits the most from all these views around her, a perfect example of a logical person who nonetheless follows her emotions.

What Once We Felt gets only one thing wrong: its title. While it’s perhaps true of the characters in this ominously not-so-distant future, it’s not telling the audiences what they need to hear: that this is a show in which We Can Still Feel, and that they must see it.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Red Sea Fish

Photo/Ali Tollervey

Imagination is great, but it can’t be the only thing you’ve got. Matt Wilkinson’s play, Red Sea Fish, should be alive with all the colorful British idioms, language, and dreaming characters, but instead, it feels sluggishly adrift as it overly describing the relationship between Ray (Tim Blissett) and his caretaking son, Terry (Matthew Houghton). Those far-too-cerebral fish, which are the only thing Terry is able to imagine, end up more dead than red, which leaves Wilkinson and co-director Franklyn McCabe overcompensating with lyrically choreographed scene changes.

That said, imagination still manages to go a long way. Ever since the loss of his wife, Ray has been plagued with a skin condition (“erythropoeietic protoporhy”) that’s forced him to remain closeted away from the sun. As a result, Terry’s view of the world is reduced to peeks through the slats of a window shade, and his perceptions are shaped by his father’s authoritative stories. On the flip side, Ray finds that he’s losing his own memories—they are shifting—and he attempts to make up for his physical lacks by blustering through, more boisterous by the day. (He even collects obituaries, as a way of remaining present.)

The arrival of an attractive, assertive woman, Karen (Janna Fox) is what upsets their worlds: Terry’s never known anyone like her, so he’s unable to react properly, panicking when things go off book. (“I had it in my brain,” he stammers, “I had a, had a sort of picture.”) Meanwhile, Ray sees her as a substitute for his wife—perhaps his last chance to relive his memories in a physical way.

But their interactions remain bogged down in thick, talky dialogues that wend around—out of politeness, perhaps—what’s really going on. Relationships are established in minutes, but drag out for the first act of the play, more and more of the same. By the time Ray comes up with an excuse to get Terry to leave him and Karen together, you really only wonder what’s taken so long in the first place. Also, Karen doesn’t seem to have any character of her own. Fox plays her with a nice confidence and swagger, and yet the script still forces her to all but disappear into the background.

As for the staging, it often labors over the point, using mechanical gestures that distract from the natural tension of the dialogue. After finding out that his father’s slept with Karen, Terry runs off to understand what it feels like to be a thief—like his father. When he returns, though, he curls up asleep on the floor, and upon awakening, he carefully stacks the stolen quarters (from the arcade) on the table and then more carefully pushes them off the table. It’s too poetic a statement for anyone in this family, and especially for the play. The play gets much better in its final third, once the father starts speaking directly: “I’m an invalid; what do you think I can take that can’t be taken away again?”

Red Sea Fish isn’t a bad play, but it is a boring play, and that’s perhaps worse.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Children at Play

Photo/Jeanette Orlić

"IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII," say the goofy Lacey and Lancelot, "don't feel nervous about starting school today!" Of course, like most sixth-graders, their energetic insistence is a dead giveaway that they do. After all, even at the James Joyce Junior High School for the Gifted and Talented, they're afraid of the daily hassles their precociousness brings. Morgan Nickelfleck Gladystone can understand: ever since her father raped her when she was five, she's been living a far more mature--and therefore picked on--life.

Of course, Jordan Seavey, whose last play with CollaborationTown was an equally dark show about children (6969), runs the same risk as Lacey and Lancelot, with all his comic insistence often belaboring a point that audiences are either already familiar with or which they simply will not get. Thankfully, by chopping his play into short scenes, Seavey is able to harness that energy. The play is woefully under-edited, with too many repetitious monologues from principles, parents, and Chernobyl babies, but it's at least cordoned those scenes off from the main thrust of the play. And while Scott Ebersold's direction tries too hard to find visual ways to justify bits that don't work--dance sequences and curtained silhouettes--he at least does so at an equally frenetic pace.

In other words, whether they're nervous or not, they've built up so much momentum, and get such over-the-top performances from the cast, that Children at Play winds up working more often than not. In fact, because the show is so raucous, Seavey is able to get away with some blatant subtlety. For instance, Lacey and Lancelot are childish versions of SNL's Spartan Cheerleaders (though Collaboration Town's co-founders Boo Killebrew and Geoffrey Decas have just as much chemistry), but Seavey is so direct with what he wants out of them, that he ends up showing us quite a lot, like the moment of mutual anticlimax when Lacey forces Lancelot to squeeze her breast, an act that thrills neither of them.

Most of what Seavey decides to focus on, ultimately, is sexuality, and he does so in an absurdly unambiguous way. We meet Morgan's brother, Martin Jr. (John Halbach), early in the first act, when he's hilariously effeminate and going by Mary. In the second act, it takes a few minutes to realize that he's actually playing a new character--Maximilian--who just happens to look exactly like Martin. (Lest you get the impression that the jokes are lowbrow, there are a few great zingers about whether or not this constitutes a narcissistic relationship.) Maximilian immediately starts coming on to Morgan, while Martin Jr. continues to flirt with Morgan's friend, Jeremy (Drew Hirschfield), and while at first Halbach runs back and forth between "scenes" to do so, by the end, it's culminated in all "three" of them basically kissing one another. Two other scenes duplicate this effect, in which characters come to a literal crossroads, each eying the person they're actually in love with.

The other theme is that of broken dreams. Early on, the children meet Morgan's father, Martin Sr. (Jay Potter), who is so adamantly unhappy with his life that he takes it out on his family with awful comedy. This is what will happen to all of these children, if they are not careful; and yet when Jeremy tries to switch his "talent" from science to art, he is told to stick it out until E. coli samples in the third year, and when Morgan confesses that despite all her genius, she'd kill to be a ballerina, she is ridiculed into becoming bulimic. Susan Louise O'Connor is well-suited for such harsh juxtapositions; she has a commanding stage presence, and yet her body seems so fragile. When Morgan confesses that when someone showed up for Halloween as her, she went out and gave a twenty-eight-year-old a blow job, it's utterly devastating, especially sandwiched between events as innocuous as "the discovery of masturbation" and a sleepover's game of Truth or Dare.

Seavey subtitles Children at Play a tragic farce, and with more tightening, it would succeed: tragedia dell'arte. The climax is utterly successful, as it's the grim insistence on comedy that reminds us that what we're watching has actually become a blatant tragedy. But the rest of the play, which is still in it the experimental flush of childhood, isn't mature enough to be much more than funny.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Creature

Photos/Jim Baldassare

1401 was not an easy time to be alive. Even if you're fortunate enough to have a stable job--or, in this case, to be married to someone who owns a brewery--that doesn't mean that you'll be understood. It's therefore a smart choice for Heidi Schreck to revisit the true story of Margery Kempe (Sofia Jean Gomez) in our modern time, when we are readier to listen to her heaving, all-or-nothing attempts to find meaning in her life.

Her Nurse (Tricia Rodley) certainly doesn't understand her--in fact, she's guiltily jealous--and so she takes pleasure in Margery's sudden, post-pregnancy illness. Nor does her husband, John (Darren Goldstein), know what to do with her: her liberated, dominating ways are about 500 years too early for him to deal with, though he loves her all the same. Feverish, and tormented by the devil Asmodeus (the gentle Will Rogers is a great against-type choice), she lashes out at those around her, which only serves to make things worse; until, that is, she finds a kindred soul in Father Thomas (Jeremy Shamos), a young priest with such little standing with the Church that he is able to try the unorthodox method of actually talking to Margery.

No one is prepared for what his innocent teachings awake in Margery, who soon claims to have been visited in bed by a purple-clad Jesus and is now determined to pledge herself to him, wearing white though she is obviously no virgin. (Again, 1401 was a quaint time.) Having recently seen Heidi Schreck in Circle Mirror Transformation, it's neat to see Gomez playing the role of Margery, for their vivacious energies are infectiously similar. Gomez makes the most of the opportunity, too, so fully committed that there are times when one feels she should be committed, given the ways in which she battles her own weaknesses not just with her own squealing voice and big bright eyes, but with her full body, grasping a table and licking it, as if that might help her to fast. With ample assistance from Theresa Squire's costumes (the colors of which help to signal Margery's moods and gradual transformation) and Leigh Silverman's top-notch direction, it's a guilty pleasure to delight in watching a poor person attempt to rediscover themselves as a saint.

Schreck has also done a terrific job in spinning a great deal of research on this era into comic gold. Silverman would never have been able to add so much physical comedy if it were not for the richness of the script itself, in which a drunk, worn down John can have a serious conversation with Father Thomas regarding the safety of his wife (they're burning women for heresy) one moment, and then ask whether it's true that priests have "extra large merchandise" the next. Without throwing in Margery's mood swings--particularly one where she attempts to cry, as a saint would, only to laugh at her success, working herself into a fit--we would not be able to make as much of her attempts to quote Juliana of Norwich (Marylouise Burke, commandingly dotty): "For me, Love has always been terrible and implacable, devouring and burning."

As is, the play does a fine job of confounding the audience at every turn, making us question its sincerity as much as Margery and Father Thomas grow to question the world's. If the world is, as Thomas claims, "pregnant with God," then Schreck and company have made good midwives, filling this Creature with surprisingly poignant observations on how miraculous it is simply to live.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Hypochondriac

Photo/Amy Knutson

Why does this bold company call itself "The Cell"? Their performance space is a converted luxury apartment, and even if it were a prison, nightly entertainments like The Hypochondriac would quickly encourage even the grumpiest of theatergoers to lock themselves in and throw away the key. Of course, true fans of comedy might do that simply upon finding a passable production of Moliere; this takes it a step further by updating The Imaginary Invalid to modern times. As a result, this satire has bite again: in fact, its teeth are so sharp that some bits--like Justin Stasiw's videos of late-night medical commercials--come across more as accurate imitations than spoofs. (Though part of that's the fault of over-the-top conditions in America today.)

Those "teeth" have also been further sharpened by the crew of adapters, from the director Matthew A. J. Gregory to actors Shira Gregory and Chris Harcum, and the playwright Greg Tito. (Based on Charles Heron Wall's English prose, though nothing is lost in translation.) Everyone brings a unique skill to the table, and that helps them both to identify the crucial bits and to cram them full of the little lazzis that make commedia dell'arte so quick and fun. Furthermore, they know when to call it quits--knowing that their audience is likely to already agree with their belittlement of overpriced, overprescribed health "care," they focus more on characters and zingers than on belaboring or "proving" their points.

Argan, the hypochondriac, is so wealthy that he spends all of his time protecting the one thing he needs to enjoy his money: his health. He's even marrying off his daughter (the beautiful Shira Gregory, who nails the character's girlish eagerness) to a doctor, despite her wish to marry the artistic Clay (Chris Critelli, who pulls off a damn good Cheyenne Jackson). With the help of Argan's skeptical, liberal brother, Barry (Douglas Scott Sorenson), the maid Toinette (Vivienne Leheny) attempts to expose Argan's doctor (Sheila Jones) and second wife, Beline (Cate Bottiglione, channeling Real Housewives everywhere). It's a classic comedy, so you know how it'll end.

What you don't know is just how far those characters will go, especially the scene-stealing Kyle Haggerty, who plays Angelique's proposed husband. Shuffling in with a constipated grin frozen on his face, speaking in blatantly-rehearsed and lisped rushes, he's already more than hysterical. And yet, he finds a way to push further; after pestering his mother for a juice box, he winds up struggling with the plastic straw-wrapper for nearly five minutes, and Gregory milks it for all its worth, making more of a point about the inanity of modern medicine with that than the doctor's monologue (which, admittedly, was drowned out by laughter).

Everyone has a moment to shine, especially thanks to some double-casting (and disguises). Clay, attempting to see Angelique, impersonates an overseas scholar, which gives Critelli the opportunity to have fun with an accent. Later, when Toinette pretends to be a learned doctor, Leheny goes a step further, slurring together Italian and Russian, and having a great struggle with her recalcitrant stick-on mustache. As Beline's unscrupulous accountant, Sorenson plays against his nebbish type, all but jumping Beline as the two try to change Argan's will--only to come on later as the very solid and serious Barry. Last, but certainly not least, as the childish Argan, Harcum has the hard task of remaining interesting, blathering on as he does about enemas; yet he does, using the double-take on himself, whenever he realizes, mid-rant, that he's supposed to be sick. (In his best moment, after tumbling down a flight of stairs, he continues to rage for a minute before suddenly realizing he's fallen.)

If the proximity of the adaptors to the script has helped them, so too does the proximity of the actors to the audience. Gregory masterfully uses the natural sight lines of the space, then squeezes every joke he can out of it. Carpets are slipped on, pills are ravenously ingested, the bathroom is used (as is the bar), always with the audience just a few feet away. Ironically, the quality of The Hypochondriac makes a strong case for unnecessary medicine: nobody needs to see this play, but you'll absolutely be sold on wanting to go back again and again and again.