Tuesday, March 31, 2009

People Without History

Photo/Michael Shmelling

Richard Maxwell's latest play, People Without History, is one of those works of "theater" in which plot is sacrificed to the almighty god of Awkward Philosophy. (It holds little interest for me.) It's the sort where characters may say or do anything at any moment, often because so little (beyond words) has been invested in them. It hardly helps that Maxwell's aesthetic--his New York City players are a mix of amateurs and professionals--is monotonic.

That's perhaps fine for Laura Furniss's empty set (five blackboard-looking walls open or close the space, projections lend it a rustic abandon), but the lack of distraction there is confounded by Furniss's costuming, which mixes chain hauberks and coifs with old-timey one-piece pajamas--not just people without history, but people without time, and ultimately, people without people. (There's also an anonymous character, with a do rag and biker beard, who remains mute for most of the show.) And while much of the "plot" revolves around reactions to the arrival of Alice (Tory Vazquez), the solitary female in the ruins of a masculine battlefield, the choice to prounounce rather than converse makes the enigmatic nature of the show a rather brittle affair.

The strongest bits come from Rhobert (Jim Fletcher), who has faked an injury so as to explain his cowardly retreat from battle ("I have fake blood on my crotch," he whispers). His motive is clear--he wants to fuck Alice, for without that, what is there? Sadly, Maxwell answers this: "Darkness is always," says one character, who has for some reason begun to play a horn. "Doesn't mean it's always dark." As line after similarly unqualified line wafts out, People Without History grows even more dark.

Friday, March 27, 2009


It's never a good sign when the accents (Australian) are easier to believe than the play itself. And Patricia Cornelius's Love desperately needs something good, something to balance its ultra-dark triangle of users and abusers, and the even darker content they end up mired in. As the tough Tanya (Bronwen Coleman) puts it to her lover Annie (Erin Maya Darke): "Poor poor fucking things don't love. We're takers, users, bastards, arse holes." She's talking about the way the world views them, but it's not exactly moving, for the audience sees them in the same light: Tanya is, after all, Annie's pimp, and when she's high, she's even more closed off.

Cornelius's script spits out a little dirty romance every now and again, but it never shows us the characters: it just tells us about them. The play starts that way, with Tanya describing how she fell in love with Annie, and continues that way, with short, clipped dialogue illustrating power relationships, but not emotional ones. It's a wall that director Mark Armstrong can't pierce, so instead he lets Dan Henry was the stage in darkness, trying to let the words work for themselves: "We will slip back in that easily, because we fit," says Tanya, on her way to rehab. "When we lie you slip in the curve of me, we come from somewhere the same, the same shit, we were born in it." That's a pretty and ugly line, but without context, it's just a line.

The introduction of Lorenzo (Ken Matthews) hints that there will at last be some action, but it's quickly dispelled by the way he shows up out of the blue (literally) and immediately becomes the object of Annie's affection. It's obvious from Annie's dreams (of being a free-roaming horse) and reality (she's been having sex since she was 9) that she's a bit daft, but this makes it hard to empathize with how excited she is by the opportunity to marry Lorenzo and how broken-up she is to lose him. If it's meant to work metaphorically--that is, she's so broken that she clings to any kindness, even the cruel kind--it fails again, for Tanya never leaves her side. This reveals Lorenzo for the energetic device that he is, though it doesn't stop the playwright from lavishing time on his antics.

Things would be further complicated by the jumps in time but not place (April Bartlett's depressing bed haunts the center of every scene), save for the fact that every scene feels much like the ones preceding it. In fact, the play gets so mired in its own misery that even the moments of happiness--Annie, announcing that for her wedding, she's "going to wear white and fuck anyone who thinks I shouldn't"--can't break up the monotony. It's effective at conveying only what the audience believes about these loving yet loveless characters from the start, and who needs to watch an eighty minute reminder?

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Photo/Carol Rosegg

"We're fifteen," says Emmy (Wrenn Schmidt), expertly putting Chanel on her friend, Claire (Natalia Payne). "Everything fun is illegal." Well, if that's the case, then Deirdre O'Connor's clever (but not too clever) Jailbait ought to be locked up. Of course, before one throws away the key, let's acknowledge the good behavior of this exceptional four-person cast, and allow director Suzanne Agins to get off with community service--that is, the continued performance of this wonderful new play.

Jailbait is one of those shows that's suited for the stage: after all, Emmy describes what they're doing--sneaking into a club and fooling around--as "improv, but in a bar." With such casual lies and glib banter ("They're just over twenty-one. They're not like girl-crazed date-rape machines"), O'Connor is able to play a shell game with the play's stakes, hiding, under a veneer of confidence and painted-on smiles, the dangers of growing up too quickly.

Aiding this illusion are the play's male counterpoints, Mark (Peter O'Connor) and Robert (Kelly AuCoin), who, despite being thirtysomething, are hardly emotionally mature: Mark's embraced the bachelor lifestyle and Robert can't get over the end of his six-year relationship. Both pairs try to make things less scary by drinking, and both act just as awkwardly. The elegance of Agins's direction stems from the way Claire and Robert connect, as if age doesn't matter--and the wonder of O'Connor's deceptively comic writing is that she leaves enough ambiguity for one to wonder if age does always matter.

Subtle aesthetic choices help to emphasize this, like Kina Park's set, which folds Claire's bed--a sliver of innocence--into the recesses of a club's neon tubes and dirty walls. Rebecca Bernstein's costumes go a long way, too: much is made of Robert's attempt to "fit in" as he painstakingly folds his tie and unruffles his shirt; the same goes for how uncomfortable Claire is with the attention her comfortable black dress gets her. It gives the actors a lot to work with--although Payne's character resembles the childish immigrant in Aliens With Extraordinary Skills, the context shifts her energy. Wrapped in a sweater twice her size, sitting on a small bed, and wistfully clutching a stuffed duck, she's not acting alone.

Jailbait's not a particularly complex play--in fact, the majority of plot points are fairly obvious. However, these "big revelations" turn out to be hiding a variety of sad, small moments, from the way Robert foreshadows a miscarriage by mentioning Goodnight Moon to the way Emmy's constant needling of Claire and her pride in not being an "awkward sophomore" (she's done it twice) eventually gives way to her childhood regrets. When things are said straightout, then--"I can't find my underwear"--they're absolutely shattering, and wholly effective in illustrating O'Connor's conceit: what happens when fantasy meets reality. Given rich theater like this, who needs parole?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Venice Saved

Venice Saved, the latest work from David Levine, isn't audience interactive, it's audience dependent. One might think that this is a requirement of theater, but Levine's an outside-the-black-box thinker, and his previous "performances" have been somewhat solipsistic: a man farming potatoes in Germany for ten hours a day (Bauerntheater), or actors being paid to continue their part-time jobs (Actors at Work). To him, life is theater, theater is life, and it goes on regardless. That said, depending on the audience, Venice Saved could be just over an hour, or it might stretch close to four. Depending on the audience, Venice Saved may either be a lecture (with live "exhibitions" of point-enhancing theater), a seminar (with questions answered from the audience), or, as befits a show tackling the question of "political theater," a debate. What it is absolutely not, on all accounts, is boring. Regardless of your familiarity with, say, Black Watch or Simone Weil (or, for that matter, Bertolt Brecht, Caryl Churchill, and Lynn Nottage), the evening is an intimate and honest account of everyman's struggle for definition and--far more importantly--meaning.

Levine's no wizard behind a curtain--in fact, there's no set, just a table--and he's aided and abetted by an intriguing combination of actors (Jeff Biehl, Jon Krupp, Christianna Nelson, and Colleen Werthmann), a dramaturg (James Hannaham), and a writer (Gideon Lewis-Kraus). This mix adds a lot of different perspectives to the pot, and even though some bits are scripted (or at least well-researched and rehearsed), their honestly ambiguous contributions (there are no straight answers, which--as our audience concluded--is somewhat the point) are what help to fuel the discussion.

In the interests of sparking your interest, here's a sneak peek at the "spine" of the seminar: content makes a show political; audiences are manipulated by means of affirmation, sympathy, or graphic depiction; and impact can be delivered either through the implicit or explicit, acted or "real." Of course, that's just more words: what sells the show are the participants, actors and audience alike. During intermission, everyone is eager to continue the discussion . . . as they are after the show, too, with some free beer for added incentive. Whether it's about political theater or not, there's no way you leave the theater without learning something of value.

metaDRAMA: What NOT To Do #2

Or perhaps the evening more readily calls to mind an interminable elementary-school speaker, as the audience sits on the carpeted floor looking up at Oberzan as if it's story time (I used my miniscule pull as a critic to snag a chair).

First off, and this is aimed more at editors than writers, but try to avoid perpetuating errors. (Minuscule is the proper spelling of miniscule, though the former is now as much a variant in the dictionary as irregardless.) However, that's not a serious issue--the reader (especially the casual reader) will still understand your meaning. The far more dangerous transgression is Peikert's boast that he snagged a chair--in other words, that he did not experience the play as it was designed to be experienced. (This would be like going to Fuerzabruta and watching from the safety of the wings.) If a critic writes for readers, why would s/he want to be treated any differently from them?

One of the problems I've observed with modern criticism is that this elitism not only exists, but it extends to the reviews, which may be one of the reasons why younger readers--largely hearing only from older critics (or younger critics who parrot their ancestors)--tend to tune such comments out, filing them in the "this doesn't apply to me" category. For the longest time, my mother's insistence that I see something was the surest way to prevent me from seeing a show. On my own behalf, I think it's bad enough that I have to wrest my eyes away from the stage long enough to jot something down (and I'm getting better at writing blind), or even that my mind isn't as relaxed as those of my fellow theatergoers. But when I see another critic in the audience taking notes in the margins of the SCRIPT . . .

There's also the problem of how much ancillary material a critic is sometimes provided with. I've seen reviews that have yawning stretches that read like paraphrases of the material, as if the critic, trying to fit something incomprehensible into a frame of reference, has chosen not to do the work or to simply go with the flow. This extends to the script, too: of course things are going to be clearer when you read the script, but if your initial impression was muddied while you did your best to understand it--especially from a critical perspective--and you then write otherwise, then you are misrepresenting the production. Many clear scripts have been rendered incomprehensible by vague staging.

Now I've exaggerated things to a degree (sadly, the examples I refer to are not hyperbolic): some of these issues are unavoidable given the duality of the critic as both passive audience and active responder. But I do think that we should be doing our best to offset the biases that come of simply being a critic, and we should all--blogger, critic, and audience alike--try to do our best to be fully in the moment for as long as possible. And Mr. Peikert, you can't be fully in the moment if you've got your ass in the clouds.

[See also: What NOT To Do #1]

Monday, March 23, 2009

Rambo Solo

Photo/Simon Friedmann

Nature Theater of Oklahoma is making a phenomenal habit out of how we take the world around us for granted. With Poetics: a ballet brut, they showed us the elegance of our everyday movements, upending our perspective of the theater itself to do so (the audience sat on the stage). With No Dice, they recontextualized ordinary phone conversations by doing them in "dinner theater" style, hamming and thereby hammering the actual words and rhythms into our consciousness.

Now, with Rambo Solo, Pavol Liska & Kelly Copper have seized upon company member Zachary Oberzan's obssession with Rambo (he made his own film Flooding with Love for the Kid), and in doing so, have recreated and refocused the idea of a "memory" play. Guided by audio cues and synchronized video footage of three "rehearsals" of this story (enacted within Oberzan's 220 sq. ft. apartment), every night is a recreation of Oberzan's original stream-of-consciousness remembering of reading David Morell's book, Rambo: First Blood. By emphasizing every awkward "um," every breathtaking pause (including the actor's bathroom break), and the naked honesty of Oberzan's self-correcting, the show not only avoids the Hollywood bullshit of the film, but manages to appropriate the theatrical bullshit so that while things are obviously staged and rehearsed, they are also honest and fresh.

Such an approach is important for the audience walking a mile--or in this case, sitting storybook style on a shag carpet--through Oberzan's memory. For all the twists of his recollection of plot, he's taken an even more interesting twist on the actual narrative, giving equal weight to John Rambo and his "nemesis," Sheriff Will Teasle. In one of the goofier and stagier bits, Oberzan pulls two audience members up on stage for the climactic finale between these two kindred souls, war veterans both, but he's able to sell this--and other bits, like the gunfire of M&Ms--by being open to the "pervasive love" that "floods" the novel. In fact, that's what distinguishes Rambo Solo: it's so obviously a passion project, performed so deadpan that it has to be serious, despite the constant awkward Office-like comedy.

Though there's no comma in the title, there's equal weight given to the "solo" part of the show, primarily in the way it evokes the imagination. Though the on-stage Oberzan mostly limits himself to a narrow, raised walkway, his three video-shadows pace around his apartment. His shower rod shows the sort of torturous crucifixion Rambo underwent in Vietnam; his bathtub becomes a riverbed (a blanket represents its mud). He hangs from his lofted bed as if he's on the cliff; he splashes water from the sink as if he's caught in a flashflood. When he cooks an owl, he's really just warming up leftovers in the microwave. On the one hand, these effects remind us of how different we all are, but on the other, they also show a weird sort of everyday empathy, and once again, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma has boldly caught us taking things for granted.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Rods and Cables

One can be forgiven for thinking at first glimpse that Allison M. Keating attended a Richard Foreman show, proceeded to simultaneously get angry and horny, and then directly birthed Rods and Cables in an orgiastic fury. After all, it's a highly symbolic show, flooded with voiced-over stage directions, and both the set designer, Paul DiPietro, and costume designer, Nellie Fleischner have worked with the Ontological-Hysterical Theater. It's also terrifically crude, making the Jello-wrestling faux-misogyny of Sheila Callaghan's The Rape Play seem tame by comparison. A pillow fight here sends feathers flying into a swimming pool of apple sauce filled with ejaculated lotion, and a woman (naked save for her red high heels) pops out of what they've euphemistically labeled "the secret red accordion hallway."

As it turns out, the second, third, fourth, and fifth glimpse only reinforce that image--Keating spits on the twelfth scene of her play and leaves the 31st page of the script blank--and yet there's something in this erratic spitfire of a play that, despite being obvious, is wholly watchable. The two-tiered circus-ring set provides the perfect venue, and costumes like a donut-carrying dress insist upon titillating even the most stubborn of audiences. (The pre-show drinks don't hurt, either.) Whatever it is--though it's safe to say the seduction taking place on the film-within-a-play doesn't add much--Rods and Cables succeeds at reimagining the loss of innocence (or perhaps you've seen a five-foot-tall shit-smeared cock before).

What's interesting is that the play makes no attempt to hide its message and even less to hide its profanity. The rasping, lecherous Sexy Clown (Joshua Koehn) enters, at the behest of the Little Man with a Big Costume (Jason Lindner) and spells it out in a poem: "Good things come to those who wait / like orgasms and cum. But gracious girls are slutty / and all the sluts are dumb." That explains the abuse toward his partner, That Woman (Lucille Duncan) as well as his excitement when she gives "birth" to the Sultry Flight Attendant (Jessie Paddock). Lest the imminent rape scene catch the one pure person in the audience unaware, sirens blare and announce it well in advance. The existence of an old-fashioned TV-sized radio further embeds the tradition of this piece, though distractions--like a bicycle wheel that at one point protrudes from That Woman's crotch--aim to unbalance our perspective.

As objects, rods and cables don't actually have points; they serve only to fit or tie other things together--in large part, they are buttresses. As a show, Rods and Cables has a point, but no real support for it--only gross exaggeration. Surprising, then, how well Keating's play manages to hold up, running on the heavy musk of shock, excitement, and sex.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Secret Agenda of Trees

Photo/Ian Carmody

Colin McKenna's The Secret Agenda of Trees starts with an image of desolate realism, nicely accented by Ben Kato's beaten-down living room set. He then conjures a desperate charm, as the roguish Jack (Michael Tisdale) spars with a steely single-mother, Maggie (Lillian Wright): "Move on," she says, "I ain't what you're looking for." "If I see something better, I will," he replies. "But I doubt I will." Even Maggie's precocious teenage daughter, Veronica (Reyna de Courcy) fails to deter him, so she lowers her guard, giving way to that deep-rooted need for a connection, the poetry at the heart of McKenna's tenderly tragic writing, the stuff that asks "Why do trees claw so desperately at the sky?" and replies "Because they have nowhere else to go."

This portion of McKenna's work aches with truth, and scenes like these are the finest part of the play. Of course, the hint of sorrow is in the air--and posted on the wall, where pictures of Maggie's soldier of a son, Dixon (Brian Reilly) hang in a sort of unspoken limbo. The scent grows stronger when Maggie reveals her secret to Jack--she's a meth addict--and he, working knee-deep in the blood of a slaughterhouse's kill floor, is only too happy to join. Saddest of all is Veronica, so isolated that she has created a glamorous alter ego for herself--Lulu of the Pink Wings--and dreams of the dangerous soon-to-be gangbanger, Carlos (Christian Navarro): "I want to lick the tattoos right off your dark arms." All three get their wishes, but those wishes come with reality checks, especially for Maggie, who is terrified that her daughter will follow in her footsteps.

So far as realism goes, Michael Kimmel's direction nails it. It's one thing for de Courcy's Veronica to show her own steel when she demands cigarettes from Jack; it's another for Tisdale's Jack to reveal so much about his own character by so casually sharing. By maximizing the squalor--right down to references to "Lucky Charms breath"--he strikes the right balance for the giddying moments of escapism when Maggie and Jack light up and let loose. Likewise, by emphasizing Veronica's childishness, he's able to capture the sadness of a daughter being forced to care for her mother--a remarkable feat considering that McKenna's "dramatic" dialogue is so banal: "I don't know who you are!" "I'm your mother." "No you ain't."

However, the rest of the play falters, both in acting and writing. Veronica's dreams of her brother, Dixon, are forced attempts at conflict, and McKenna's justification for them--adding additional fantasy monologues--is unnecessary. Thankfully, de Courcy acts the hell out of them, using the opportunity to sell her character's age rather than the specific text. Navarro, however, has no such luck: every "yo" seems forced, and the whole punk attitude is as ill-fitting as his baggy jeans. Carlos is already underwritten as a character--just fuel for the fire; as played here, he all but disappears. On the other hand, Reilly, who is playing a ghost, goes way over the top--too present for his absence to really be felt. He'd do well to take a few cues from Wright and Tisdale, two fine actors who distill all of that extra energy into the flutter of a hopeful eye or the relief of sitting in a comfortable chair.

Thankfully, The Secret Agenda of Trees doesn't really branch far beyond its central three characters. Moreover, by putting down such deep roots for those three, it makes that clawing at the sky all the more heartbreaking. And that's worth putting on the agenda.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Photo/Stefan Radtke

"What lessons are there for me to learn in a desolate house in a desolate wood?" cries poor Christabel, victim first of Samuel Coleridge's unfinished verse poem, Christabel, and now of Monika Bustamante's less-than-fulfilling indie adaptation, Thirst. It's actually not the thirst that's the problem--the show is overflowing with creative moments. It's the lack of hunger behind them, the lack--as Christabel bemoans--of anything to learn.

This is immediately apparent from Susan Zeeman Rogers's set--a sort of Gothic Western, by way of cardboard cutouts and evil burlap--and Chloe Chapin's costuming, which makes Christabel look like Alice (of Wonderland), and Enid--the white-haired, doe-eyed, straight-backed stranger she befriends in the dark, dark woods--seem like a vampire, to say nothing of Christabel's father, Leo, a rootin'-tootin' cowboy (moonshine and all). As the play unfolds, props pop out of cabinets installed in the trees--a cute device that only further confuses what was a very much symbolic poem--and the actors ham their way through lines to the point that they only sound interesting: "Freedom relies on your will to be free," is one wasted moment, so is Christabel's recollection that she once recieved "kisses made to swallow me." Even the pancakes are exaggerated, big rubbery stacks--ironically, the only scenery that isn't chewed.

Some of the individual moments are intriguing--the seduction of Elizabeth Gross's Christabel by Lori Funk's Enid takes place in such close proximity, and on such a small bed, that the audience is titillated. Likewise, once Matthew Cowles (Leo) gets wound up, he's got the perfect energy for the ghost story he delivers at the play's end--it's just a shame that this moment is miles apart from the rest of the story, a story that is at times about trust, at other times about despair, and sometimes just not really about anything at all. In this, Thirst is like so many modern beverages: visually appealing but far from actually nutritious.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Aravind Adiga, "The White Tiger"

Having never been to India, it's hard to say what the country is actually like, but it's fair to say that Aravind Adiga's debut novel, The White Tiger, has been such a success in America because it's what one imagines we would say the country is like. The rags-to-riches narrative quickly familiarizes capitalists with the story, but it also diminishes the exoticism (how similar all suffering is). The same is true of the voice of Adiga's narrator--while his tale is unique, his glib comic voice, all too familiar (even as a protective mechanism) can at times be deadening. (It's also pretty clearly Adiga writing; for a more impressive act of ventriloquism, see David Eggers's What Is the What.)

Despite these similarities, The White Tiger is a decent read. Like its protagonist, Balram Halwai, who works as a driver, the novel moves quickly, as safely as possible, and successfully transports you from beginning to end--it even occasionally "cracks the egg" of this vehicle to expose the reader to a few eclectic sights and sounds. For the casual reader seeking a "culturally significant" beach read, The White Tiger will serve them well--after all, Halwai introduces himself as a murderer who has become a successful businessman, an enticing (although unsuspenseful hook) that makes us plow on.

Furthermore, because the story is being "told" (relayed in an unsent letter to the premier of "the Freedom-loving Nation of China"), the pacing is neatly separated into sarcastic revelations about the "real" India ("One fact about India is that you can take almost anything you hear about the country from the prime minister and turn it upside down and then you will have the truth about that thing") and his own philosophical musings ("The Indian entrepeneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, at the same time"). If there's a problem with any of this, it's that we have to take his smirky word for it; nothing grounds him to real emotion. When he chooses to actually describe his circumstances, it's then that he gets poetically creative--his grandmother, Kusum, is described as having "this habit of rubbing her forearms hard when she felt happy, as if it were a piece of ginger she was grating to release grins from." Sly and sincere at the same time, indeed--and has this entrepenurial author not succeeded in sending The White Tiger to the top of the charts?

Again, all this pandering is not a bad thing, and as a writing style, it does accurately depict the sort of false face that a member of the serving caste has to wear. The problem is that the mask rarely drops: Balram's amoral, and if he regrets condemning his family to death (for his crime), he doesn't show it. In fact, he relates his tale with such polish, such distance, that it hardly seems to have happened to him: why, in other words, should we listen?

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Good Negro

Photo/Sara Krulwich

Even in segregated Alabama, 1962, things were hardly black and white, and that's what makes Tracey Scott Wilson's meaty new play, The Good Negro, a Technicolor triumph. This radiance of nuance represents the truth: good, bad, and the ugly are just different hues. After all, to some, "good" is maintaining the status quo; to others, standing up to oppression, nonviolently, is what makes one "good"; still others will celebrate those who fought back directly, blow for blow.

It's a lesson that Pelzie Sullivan (Francois Battiste) learns rather quickly after his wife, Claudette (Joniece Abbot-Pratt), and his four-year-old daughter are arrested for using a white restroom. It isn't long before the good minister James Lawrence (Curtis McClarin) arrives, galvanized to action. Also on scene is the wiretapping FBI, Paul Moore and Steve Lane (Quincy Dunn-Baker and Brian Wallace). These are the "good" guys, though they quickly prove otherwise as they tap a local would-be hero, Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr. (Erik Jensen), to join and inform on the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, everyone succumbs: Lawrence's right-hand men--the controlling preacher, Henry Evans (the phenomenal J. Bernard Calloway) and clueless lawyer, Bill Rutherford (LeRoy McClain)--squabble over how to best fight segregation. Pelzie, after losing his job, turns to alcohol, and his wife cheats on him . . . with that "good" minster, James Lawrence.

By knocking everyone off their pedestals, Wilson lends more weight to their arguments, not less. Leveling the playing field also allows her to juxtapose scenes to sometimes terrifying effect, stripping away the easy moral signifiers of "good" and "bad" until there are only two passionate men speaking. At one point, twin sermons from Rowe and Lawrence overlap, joining on the line "Help us my friends"; their passions are identical, their audiences just happen to be different. This effect is enhanced by Liesl Tommy's expert direction--though these scenes are miles apart in content, they share the same plain wooden stage, the same chairs and tables. Scenes don't end, they just shift focus, as when Lawrence suddenly fades out, his presence overshadowed by the FBI's arrival, his voice replaced by the tape they've made of him. Additionally, thanks to quick lights from Lap Chi Chu and an excellent sound design from Daniel Baker, the audience often becomes the audience-within-a-play (i.e., the congregation), amens, murmurs, and all.

While there is a degree of stage magic, there are no tricks going on--in fact, if anything, the lack of walls on Clint Ramos's set hints at the fact that we are meant to see everything. And we do: when a bomb goes off in Rutherford's house, a jealous Evans tries to explain that they were probably aiming for his house; when Evans and Lawrence are arrested and the police car heads for the bridge instead of the jail, we can see the fear sweating down their brows; we're sympathetic even to the FBI agents, who follow orders because it is easier to do that than to think about the morality of their actions.

In fact, Wilson shows us everything except for the actual marches and the actual violence. It's a smart move, because it helps us to keep things personal, without getting lost in the emotions of larger events. In this sense, The Good Negro seems almost Sorkin-esque, doing a better job at showcasing segregation by remaining resolutely behind the scenes, more interested in the people and the politics than the results--and it's this that makes the last twenty minutes so powerful.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Red-Haired Thomas

Photo/Carl Skutsch

Robert C. Lyons's Red-Haired Thomas is an openly cryptic new play; after all, it stars Thomas Jefferson (Alan Benditt) in a contemporary setting and deals with the most elusive and human of all human rights: the right to pursue happiness. (That's more or less the first line.) This makes Oliver Butler a wise choice for director: he has an ability to condense and clarify magical realism (as he has with his group The Debate Society) without stifling the material. Sure enough, save for a few wrinkles with a too-directly political subplot, the collaboration results in a thought-provoking evening, poking fun at our tendency to blow our problems out of proportion even as we minimize the unfortunate circumstances of others.

Where one may take issue is that Lyons has written myopically from the POV of Cliff (Peter Sprague), a symbolic capitalist, from the gunslinging attire he dons to his "job" as a freewheeling poker player, undone the second he grows a conscience--in this case, by his worries for his daughter, Abby (Nicole Raphael). This makes Cliff's counterpart, the hardworking and bitter newspaper salesman Iftikhar (Danny Beiruti) into a stereotype. Lyons wisely skirts the issue by treating him as a joke (and Butler has Beiruti ham it up), but it overpowers the truth behind Iftikhar's feeble attempt at being a suicide bomber: "In the paper, they treat us all the same!"

The play is stronger when on more serious and solid footing--Iftikhar may seem like an ass, but it's hard not to empathize when he refuses to return a portentous $20 bill to Cliff: "I will draw strength from it, knowing that somewhere, someone resents me for what I have. Then I will know the sweet taste of America." It's for this reason that the segments following Cliff's wife, Marissa (Danielle Skraastad), don't really work: while the worldview of a risk-management consultant is interesting, the presentation (PowerPoint and musical interlude) is jarring. This is also why Abby's scenes are so effective--not only is Raphael a perfectly convincing 11-year-old, but she's pure, even when playing her counterpart, Iftikhar's hajib-clad daughter.

In the end, it's the freedom Red-Haired Thomas touts that saves it. Lyons's script jumps around in an entertainingly comic way (thanks to the breathless Sprague, exasperated Benditt, and endearing Raphael), and Butler's direction accomodates it, using the entire Ohio Theater to emphasize the importance of location. There's also a neat visual effect, both in Sydney Maresca's costumes--modern times cross with Jeffersonian times as characters become what they (or others) envision them to be--and in the way Tom Gleeson's tarted up the set, creating an illusion of splendor for Iftikhar and Cliff to fight over. It's a credit to the cast and crew that when the facade is pulled down, the audience remains entranced--aware, more than ever, of the need for dreams.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Real Thing

Terry Schreiber's production of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing is a straightforward revival. When it comes to such a complicated playwright, especially when dealing with such a complicated subject, this is a compliment. After all, according to the scholarly protagonist, the Pinteresque playwright Henry (the marvelous Jason Tomarken), words are precise, and they don't deserve malarkey. That's why it's terrific to see another impeccably realistic George Allison set--this time, a clean, upscale, modernist apartment--and to have, for the most part, such clear performances.

However, as Max (Brian Drillinger) observes, "Having all the answers is not what life's about." After the first act, the technical precision of the work starts getting tiring, as it becomes clear that few of the actors feel the passion. Just as this dismantles the characters in the play, who are undone by their lack of knowledge (which Henry equates with the Greek "carnal" kind), it also slows the production down. In the first act, Max and Charlotte (Aimee Jolson) get away with it because they're appearing in Henry's play House of Cards, and before Annie (Meghan Jones) reveals her infidelity to Max, she has plenty of giddy subtext to play as she casts sidelong glances at Henry over crudites. But as this "honeymoon" wears off, Stoppard's clever language runs the risk of being what Henry's daughter, Debbie (Maura McNamara), calls "persuasive nonsense."

This is where Schreiber earns his keep: he keeps the emphasis on Tomarken's complicated portrayal of Henry, even going so far as to put Henry in the background of Annie's adulterous scenes with the actor Billy (Harmon Walsh), so that we have the sense of watching the scene through Henry's creative and increasingly emotional mind. The technical transitions are also handled well, particularly as Henry's life mirrors the opening scene-within-a-scene. It doesn't entirely excuse Annie's confused nurturing of Billy as a substitute for Brodie (Ryan Michael Jones), her first political cause, but it helps the play to focus on what's real--in all of its glory and anguish.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Unseen

Photo/Matthew Mineal

If "to be is to be perceived," then woe for poor Wallace (Steven Pounders) and Valdez (Stan Denman), who have spent the last nine years limited to what little they can glean from the stone walls of their cells. As Craig Wright's latest, The Unseen, is a comically dark play, woe, too, for their "poor" torturer, Smash (Thomas Ward), who has become a prisoner of his own empathy. The mind, true to form, plays tricks on all of them, and the only thing that gets them through the day is their ability to dream.

Wallace is the logical one, playing memory games with Valdez to pass the time as he plans his escape. He's well-played by Pounders, who compensates for his tightly wound posture with his overly confident postulating. Valdez, on the other hand, is the man of faith, believing day after day in his gut that he and Wallace have been joined by a third cellmate. It's the harder role, and Denman struggles with the character's contradictions--for instance, sudden cowardice--but he manages to hold his own, particularly when it comes to being forlorn. Finally, there's Smash, a man who is so much an embodiment of action that his first instinct is not to free the men he empathizes with but to violently reduce them to a form of existence no longer recognizable as human.

These are some fine moral issues, but they are played too much for laughs. This clashes with the aesthetics, for Sarah Brown's set is cold and unyielding, Travis Watson's lighting is direct, and Dustin Chaffin's sound design is a simple buzzer that never ceases to be jarring. The lines have the glibness of Dirty Sexy Money and the meandering banter of Lost (both of which Wright has written for), but none of the depth. As a result, when Smash takes center stage and tells his prisoners that he's been shit on--literally--for being too "human," it's hard to feel where Ward's coming from. For all the gory descriptions, the fact that it's all unseen makes The Unseen play out like a G-rated Saw: moralizing without consequences.

All this makes Lisa Denman's direction somewhat heroic, as if she's tried to salvage a comedy from an abbreviated political play. Unfortunately, if there's a punchline, that too goes unseen, and without one, it's just artifice. Now we know why Beckett always threw in a banana or two: he wanted his characters to at least have the potential of slipping on the peel.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Frigid 2009: How Does a Drug Deal Become a Decent 3rd Date

Photo/Kevin Zemnickis

Note: At the final performance I attended, they had run out of programs, so all cast/crew information is cribbed from the listings at NYTheatre.com.

As a monologue, Kelly Aija Zemnickis's How Does a Drug Deal Become a Decent 3rd Date would be just another whining comedy about how disgusting men are. However, as a demonstrative two-person show, it's a lot easier to empathize with our desperate--but thankfully not that desperate--hero. Jesse Bond's excellent portrayal of three of these men provides us with a frame of reference (and an opportunity to marvel at one actor's range), and Carmine Lucarelli's direction modulates the exaggeration, but never to the breaking point. As a result, when Girl (Neale Kimmel) jokes about her current date isn't talking about memorization when he says he's off to do some lines, we're right there with her. Her life isn't the aftermath of the rock concert she makes it out to be, but it'd fit nicely with an comedy club.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Frigid 2009: Are We Freaks?

Bricken Sparacino titular question, Are We Freaks?, is both rhetorical and serious. This isn't bad, it's just unbalanced: the campy presentation of this Tales from the Crypt-like quartet of twisty sideshow stories overtakes everything else. At best, there's a gender-bending adventure in which Annabelle (Sparacino) unwittingly uses a two-wish death mask to turn her best friend Lizz (Uma Incrocci) into the man of her dreams ("I wish I could meet a guy just like you!")--it's clever and energetic. Not as good is the Carrie-like tale of Abby (Joy Gabriel), a socially awkward "freak" who heads off to college, knowing that she can hide her inside-out parts away. Superficial Pam and Devon (Hannah Wolfe and Annalyse McCoy) have been bribed (by Abby's mother) into letting her into a sorority (of all places), and face consequences when the truth comes out. The other two segments--involving the unconjoined Wonder-ful Twins (Sparacino and Jennie Inchausti) and Caitlin the Cat and Leslie the Lobster Girl (Melanie Wehrmacher and Kara M. Tyler)--are just silly. So what?

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Frigid 2009: Now and at the Hour

"Do you ever have the feeling that everything that is happening has happened before and will happen again?" To this question, posed by the affable Christian Cagigal, the answer can only be yes, particularly when it comes to "mental" magic tricks. And no, it's not deja vu: if you see a lot of theater, you've probably seen some of these tricks before.

And yet, thanks to his casual showmanship--the deliberate placement of objects, the metronomic pacing of his transitions and tricks, his roll-with-the-punches attitude--we're able to humor him. And, in doing so, we're able to humor ourselves, especially if one stops trying to tear down the wizard's curtain, appreciating the illusions as an extension of our imagination. What's especially nice about Cagigal's performance is that the flair isn't squandered on razzle-dazzle effects; instead, it builds a strong narrative (involving Cagigal's memories of his sick, war-veteran father), one which nicely resolves itself in a metatrick that ties together all the talk of time travel and strange childhoods.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Frigid 2009: Son of Man

The creator of Son of Man, Anna Lidia Umansky, is currently wrapping up her studies in Dramatic Literature and Fine Art History at New York University, so it's not meant as an insult to say that she still has a lot to learn. In this case, it's that dramatic tension is created by the slow revelation of information. Instead, we get six quick introductions (and that's it for character development):

  • a people-watcher (played by Alton Alburo, but by the accent, a female character?)
  • a Pakistani girl (Milan Sundresan) forced into a violent marriage after her father's death
  • a lying husband (Jonathan Abetti) and an insistently truthful Russian (Seref Njemcevie)
  • an angry sculptor (Rikki Bahar) dealing with mother issues
  • a salesgirl (Allison Ruth) and an odd lady (Michelle Kuchuck) trying to barter away her goods
  • a silent, Rabbi-like man (Scott Goldfarb), showing his assistant (Luke Gilson) how to mop
Flickering lights and the clustering of actors on stage illustrates some sort of freak accident where they all die; the next scene, in which some actors are casually sleeping in body bags, makes it even more obvious. For good measure, a painting of Magritte's "Son of Man" hangs from the ceiling, illustrating that Goldfarb, now eating apples, is actually the gatekeeper of a train station limbo. This all makes about as much sense as you'd expect, and if it went somewhere, this compression would be great (especially in an age of stretched-out reveals, ala Lost).

Instead Umanksy replays the same scene three times, going a little bit further each time. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, perhaps this is what limbo is like. However, for some reason, in the second repetition, the characters have all switched parts--considering the lack of character to begin with, this only makes things even harder to understand (as does some of the mumbled acting). Exposition from Gibson's character reveals that to "move on," these strangers will need to resolve their differences--unsurprisingly, they don't. Exposition from this review reveals that for Umansky to "move on," she'll need to first find some way to actually create tension (arguing over coffee? and a stained Burberry shirt?) and develop character . . . you know, so that there are differences to actually resolve. After all, according to her own character-swapping scene, we're all already the same.

Friday, March 06, 2009


Rooftops is a green production; that's great for the environment, but not so good for you. As Pixie (Randi Berry), the large, dumb "queen" of the Tops would put it, the show is "poluzzin de air wid [its] pooty mouz." The play, at times, is so hysterically awful that one's attention shifts to the volunteer cyclist who, way off stage left, is pedaling a exercise bike that powers the theater's lights. (Unfortunately, it's stationary: it can't get a flat or be derailed--the show plods on.)

On paper, Karly Maurer's Rooftops sounds decent--in the not-so-distant future, rooftop work camps have been established for society's debtors. The television spreads lies about domestic terrorism, military service extends for more than eleven tours, and drugged chicken keeps the masses in check. However, being a green production and all, there is no paper (even Michael McClain's shantytown set is made from found material). In other words, nothing holds Kimberlea Kressal's direction in check, and for over two hours, things get increasingly absurd. It's like watching a poor man's The Handmaid's Tale as acted by the cast of Simple Jack.

For those masochists who need specifics, the play begins when a hooded and screaming Emily (Mika Porro) is deposited in her new home, Top 24B. After Pixie's menacing exposition, we meet Nisey (Lauren Turner Kiel), who is sixteen going on four, and Mangle (Anna Lamadrid), a heavily medicated musician that Emily recognizes from her old job. The Man Upstairs, Mr. Fleet (Benjamin Spradley), turns out to be just as crazy as the rest of them (the purple robe and golden boxers are a giveaway): he's a debtor, too, forced to finish "insertion orders," which is basically the impregnating rape of his "accounts." Even the enforcer, Jackett (Dechelle Damien), is insane--Astrid, who sounds like a Hispanic man, and Penny, a vapid young girl, are her other personalities. Worse, because the madness is so unfocused (Kressal's direction meanders for long stretches of scene-chewing), it makes the story less and less concievable: Why run a work camp in such an inefficient way? Perhaps because that makes it easier for Jibril (Al Miro) to sneak in and save the day--even though his face is plastered all over the news: Terrorist.

We're meant to be disturbed and disgusted by Rooftops' dystopic vision: watch Emily be turned into a mindless baby-making zombie, see the lewd Mr. Fleet have his way with the women, watch Jackett torture the slightest infractions, see the prisoners rip into chicken like starved animals. But these characters are all victims of QB (Meret Oppenheim)--her cold logic and commercially justified evil is what's missing from the play, but it's not enough to just throw her into the play's coda. Instead, we're left to be disturbed and disgusted by the actual performance. Now you know why rooftops are so abandoned.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Kaspar Hauser

Photo/Ryan Jensen

When thinking about the famous foundling, Kaspar Hauser, the last thing that comes to mind is "opera"--after all, the fourteen-year-old boy had been imprisoned in the dark his whole life, was fed only bread and water, could not speak, and could hardly stand up straight at all. However, Elizabeth Swados has found the right genre for this story: the language isn't nearly as important as the voice. Furthermore, as Sondheim proved with Sweeny Todd, filth goes well with elegance: each illuminates the other.

Joining Swados is Erin Courtney, who helps to cast the story in a consistent narrative voice--that of the townspeople, every bit as curious as poor Kaspar. The contrast between their swarming, shifting perception and Kaspar's singular, growing awareness is nicely executed: visually and aurally, he is always swelling out of a flood of people and sound. It helps that Preston Martin, who plays the challenging role, is a marvel. Though he looks as if he's fresh out of Spring Awakening (Normandy Sherwood's costumes sustain this classic look), he nails the physicality of Kaspar, that ultimate fish out of water--see him drool, gape, moan, and contort. Just as the chorus freezes around him in a perfectly controlled tableau of shock, so too does he lock his own clumsy, wild actions down, learning to be more and more "human." These moments--where his eyes widen upon first recognizing himself in the mirror, where his jaw loosens a bit when seeing stars, or when he stands up a little straighter after attending a fancy ball--could justify any sort of drama; how terrific that the play's good, too.

The only thing floundering a little is the opera itself, which may be too ambitious for the Flea's space. Set designer John McDermott has wisely set the audience across the width of the mainstage, physically sacrificing depth for breadth, but the result is that the orchestra is far to stage left, and they don't always blend with the singing, especially when the actors are elevated in the cleverly constructed (but gallows-like) towers. The chorus is large and so the voices generally round things out by sheer volume, but this too presents problems, as the lyrics are sometimes reduced to "rabbles" from the crowd. Then again, this too is balanced by the purposeful mundanity of many of the lyrics--the ensemble is largely meant to be dismissed, and the characters who truely matter are generally buoyed above them, not buffetted below.

While it's a little odd to see an opera and marvel more at the physical direction and acting than the singing, it's hard to complain about two hours of solid entertainment.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

metaDRAMA: Well, That's One Way To Tighten The Belt

Economy being generous as it is right now for the arts, many companies are trying to think outside the (black) box when it comes to budgeting space. One such solution shows that you don't have to tighten the belt simply by squeezing things out--you can always keep your budgets where they are and just go up a pant-size or two. The physical solution to this metaphoric conundrum involves adapting a repertory model similar to that of the festivals: team up with other companies--preferably ones you like, trust, and complement. You can then share rental expenses, stagger performance schedules, and reduce the cost of advertising.

Come May, you'll find Theater of the Expendable's Mare Cognitum, Small Pond Entertainment's Squiggy and the Goldfish, and Cross-Eyed Bear's Ore, or Or, all squeezed into the Workshop Theater space. It's economically sound, and reminds me of the way Barrow Street Theater used to cram in late-night shows (like Eat the Taste sharing the set for Bug). As a theatergoer, I'm obviously all in favor of getting the theater up and out there, however you can. But you tell me; what's the downside to this sort of theatrical model? Why don't more companies use that fabled business buzzword ("Synergy")?

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Frigid 2009: habeas corpus

When Kim Harmon and her collaborators Denzil Meyers, Lauren Briggs, and Wilson Novitzki, ask you what you'd like to get rid of, they're not talking about our physical tendency to be consumerist pack rats. Instead, namedropping Kierkegaard, they're talking about what sort of habits, hindrances, and haunting memories we want to get past. It's PostSecret Live, performed with random musical strums on a guitar, weird renditions of the Beatles ("I'm So Tired"), and random koans ("ego is the keeper of my soul"). It's a loose collage of memories, from that of a man jerking off on a public bus ("mental rape") to a stranger's crazy, intrusive conversation while on the train. It's not that good, but it's at least interesting.

In avant-garde tradition, these thoughts are physicalized--blue tape is laid down to map out boundaries and keep out intrusions. (So are headphones.) Meyers becomes a saran-wrapped mummy, modeling the way in which we freeze--and how we need to find the strength to move on. An abstract scene in which a woman takes a hammer to her lover's gift is replayed with several variations, as we consider what it means to so casually throw something away. And, of course, actors speak over one another, theoretically showing the way everything happens all at once--that we do not live in little worlds of monologue bubbles.

There's a nice, heartfelt twist, but it doesn't stop the play from feeling rather preachy, nor does it help the various pieces coalesce into anything more than the amateur hour. The company is grasping for something, but by so easily throwing out anything--including audience-submitted information--they fall a little bit short.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Frigid 2009: Oens

Earnest as Wilson Loria is, it's not enough for his one-man show, Oens. His ideas are thinly developed, which makes things difficult for such a broad comparison--Columbus's trip to India (which inadvertently discovered America) is conflated with Bush's modern colonization of the Iraqi savages and also with Greek mythology (although only in name, like Athena Rice).

Loria's performance doesn't give us anything more specific: his ballooned costume and clownish makeup seem to reference a foreign culture that is never addressed by the play, and this translation gap even extends to some pantomimed scenes. Even if we correctly interpret his actions to involve scuba diving, we have no idea why he is doing so. (It did not help that his transitions were filled with awkward pauses or that there seemed to be technical problems with his sound cues.)

What was most compelling about Oens was Loria's post-show plea to the audience to remember the actual atrocities that had been committed by our government. Of course, his feeling the need to emphasize the "point" of his play only serves to further illustrate that there was never one to begin with.

metaDRAMA: What NOT To Do #1

John Russo, who has been serving as a sort of narrator tying these love stories together, gets the final vignette, “Untitled Short Play.” It’s the least satisfying of the pieces — writers should never write about the art of writing — but Mr. Russo makes it relatively painless.

I'll try to avoid falling into the same trap as Mr. Genzlinger, but while James Bond has already taught us never to say never, critics should "never" say what the artist should (or should not) do. Our job is to point out what they did and, where possible, to provide context as to why they did it. On the more reviewer-y side of it, it's to say whether or not that worked. But it's lazy writing to say that an artist should have done something else instead--they took a risk, they experimented, and you're reviewing what they did. If you want to see them doing something else, doff your critic hat and go write that play.

Then again, Mr. Genzlinger could simply follow his own advice. Critics are, after all, writers, and any time he wishes to stop writing about the art of writing, he's welcome to do so.

metaDRAMA: Affiliation?

Producer Ken Davenport's got an interesting post up today about his new affiliates program for Altar Boyz--interesting, that is, because he's not the only person to start planning one of these. Chicago sent out some e-mails this weekend looking to recruit some razzling, dazzling shills. (As of now, I still refuse to post advertisements on this site, though I am always happy to run discounts for shows that I have seen or believe, based on past experience, are worth it.)

I said as much in the comment I left there, but I thought I'd broaden up the discussion to those who actually deal with marketing their shows in the off-off-Broadway community (or to those avid theatergoers who have to deal with constant e-blasts, coupons, and pop-up links). It's my personal belief that affiliate programs are bad, for they encourage positive reviews, corrupting underpaid critics (or newspapers) that see this as a perfectly acceptable form of income. After all, they might think, let the buyer beware.

If it were just a critic's personal credibility at stake, that'd be fine, but this whole process seems to be eroding criticism in general. After all, it becomes harder and harder to tell if a person is actually writing what they think or if they have been biased when such marketing schemes exist to continually cast opinions--fragile enough as they are--in doubt. Worse still is the effect agglomerates may have (like Critic-O-Meter) if the majority of critics are skewing the grade, causing the few "honest" ones to become outliers--or perceived as liars, soon to be out of a job. This last bit is one hell of an exaggeration--we're nowhere near that point (at least, not with the off-off-Broadway critics like Zinoman, Shaw, &c.)--but it does seem, a little frighteningly so, like where we're headed.

Sunday, March 01, 2009


At last, it has happened. Entertainment--with its gaudy lights and drooling lechers--has triumphed, and Intellectualism--with its gaudy brilliance and drooling lectures--has been shown the door. There to chronicle the collapse of both folk and high culture and the rise of mass culture is our very own National Theater of the United States who, from burlap potato-sacks to velvety red curtains, have brought the old-fashioned Chautauqua Lecture Circuit back to life--Chautauqua!

This, at least, is the gist of James P. Stanley and Normandy Raven Sherwood's script, presented largely in lecture format by the cast (using absurd pseudonyms) and guest artists, like the writer Samantha Hunt's tale of Nikola Tesla ("The Most Forgotten Man") and the choreographed "Culture Debates" from Faye Driscoll. Much to the dismay of the ringleader Dick Pricey (James P. Stanley), the audience seems more interested in the humorous bits--a wacky discourse on subjective cartography (ah, for that life-affirming uncertainty) and a creative example of the food chain, from puppet paramecium to faux-bunraku foxes ("In the Mud"). Though Pricey does his best to stay the course, the Chautauqua ends up being deconstructed--it falls apart during a lively re-enactment of the Hamilton/Burr duel--as does Pricey himself, succumbing to a strip-show whilst surrounded by a trio of veiled, dancing legs.

Yehuda Duenya's presentation is a clever one: each segment is so focused (giddily at times) on its own seriousness that it takes a moment to notice the gradual paring away not just of the set but of the play's own sensibility. Each segment grows less intelligent and more entertaining (though rest assured, Dickey's initial monologue is filled with enough sly humor), particularly as we travel from the history of Wall Street (in Stuyvesant's era) to the flashy red lights of Times Square (pre-Giuliani). Only rarely are there awkward transitions (a wheelchair-bound soldier's monologue is just too sedentary); on the whole, Chautauqua! earns its exclamation point, for better and, intentionally, worse.