Saturday, January 30, 2010

You May Be Splendid Now

Photo/Aaron Epstein

Even if they've already grown up and left home, the question "It's 2:00 in the morning; do you know where your children are?" can leave some in a panic. Not so for the Carters: for the last six years, their twins, Lacy (Lauren Glover) and Skip (Nick Lehane), have been at Haverdale's public-access studio, taping a classy (read: undeniably cheesy) homage to Johnny Carson. But that's not the question playwright Dan Moyer's asking. Instead, recognizing that comfort can be crippling, You May Be Splendid Now begins at the end: the swan-song episode of "Up Late With Skip Carter."

It's a great premise, well-executed by director Will Brill and his chemically combustible cast, for it delivers all the unexpected surprises of a premiere as well as the high-rated drama of a finale, not to mention a wealth of rich "memories" to pull from. There's a sense of real history between the twins, and although Carl, their socially awkward sound guy, is very much on the outside of that duo, it's thrilling to watch him try to get more involved. (It's tempting to say that Gabriel Millman is criminally underused--except that he's always on stage, using his lizard-eyed expressions and silent stage presence to really add to the tension without stealing from it, the mark of an excellent actor.) The only stumbling point in the play is their guest, Branson Burger-James (Dan Wohl), who, despite being the saddest, least-frightening death-metal goth ever, adds nothing to the plot or themes of the play.

Fortunately, Moyer's concept more or less forces him to stay on topic, and the endearing goofiness of the banter between Lacy and Skip makes it easy to focus on their relationship. ("We wanted to hit the ground running," he says. "Ow," she replies, and then, as an intentionally overheard aside, "That was the ground.") And that's no surprise, given how complex these characters turn out to be: Lehane channels a mix between the daft innocence of Pee-Wee Herman and the bitter adulthood of David Letterman, while Glover starts out like a wide-eyed fan (ala Kristen Schaal on Flight of the Conchords) only to end up blossoming into a grownup with a wild streak (think Zooey Deschanal). Their strong connection and comic timing allows Brill to slowplay the crescendo in Moyer's script, which in turn makes all the action on stage feel more earned, and authentic.

Above all, You May Be Splendid Now allows that "you" to really be emphasized; it would take a hard-heart to look back on the bonds of family and friendship without our own empathy and regret.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Teaser Cow

Photo/Amanda Culp

If there's anything Clay MacLeod Chapman should have learned from researching the horrible deeds of the fast-food and livestock industries (to say nothing of the theatrical industry), it's that you can't rush it. Using a teaser cow's artificial vagina to capture prime bull semen may seem like a good idea at the time (well, an efficient idea), but in actuality, it's just a way for everyone to get fucked faster. That's what's happened here with Chapman's collaboration with the Greek-centric company One Year Lease: he's rushed to turn Crete into a corporation, and in doing so, has compromised much of his uniquely descriptive and subtle flavors.

While some of his monologues still work--particularly those focused on Minos (Gregory Waller), his wife, Pasiphae (Sarah-Jane Casey) and daughter, Ariadne (Christina Bennett Lind)--everything seems so explicit and exaggerated that it loses the texture that made it unique in the first place. It makes little sense for Daedalus (Nick Flint) to break into a song-and-dance explanation of the steroidal raising (some might say razing) of cows, and less for Theseus (Danny Bernardy) to abruptly shift from awkwardly feeling up Ariadne to turning her half-brother, the minotaur, into a pinata, save that the plot must go on. Jim Kane does a fine job as the disgruntled mascot, the Royal "We," but is far too tangential, whereas the Midwife, crucial to the plot, is masked by Babis Gousias's thick accent. Worse, though James Hunting has provided Teaser Cow with a wonderfully cruel kitchen set--cold, industrial steel and laughably "sterile" whites--director Ianthe Demos often obscures it with a scrim, or symbolic lighting, each time taking things further from the solid conditions that Chapman, and this play, work best under.

Thankfully, the central concept is largely untouched, largely on account of its cleverness: "We treat our meat like family!" proclaims Minos, but the way in which he and Ariadne shun the meat that is part of their family (the Minotaur) makes it clear that that's a less than sterling guarantee. "If you're ever wondering whether or not you were a product of love," he says, "I would have to say a product? Yes, most definitely. Of love? Maybe you should save that question for your siblings." The Minotaur's mother "loves" him so much that she needs to drink herself silly ("When you were little, you always loved it when I stood over your cradle, holding an empty gin and tonic in my hand") and his sister "loves" him to the point that "I would press that teddy bear against your face a little longer each evening, seeing just how long I could hold it there before compassion overcame me." (The midwife, too, tries to kill the Minotaur, as a kindness.) Cruelties, inflicted with the most mundane of objects, are the secret weapons of Chapman's arsenal, and there's nothing stronger than scenes in which Pasiphae explains the seismic pain of giving birth to a half-bull child, or cleverer than when Ariadne, desperate to be liked by her peers, goes cow-tipping, only to get stranded in a "living labyrinth of cattle."

Plenty of good ideas and good actors have been herded together in the making of Teaser Cow, but ultimately, beyond the scattershot presentation and crammed-together approach, what's missing is that industry catchword: synergy. You just can't mock industrial productions without it.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Luck of the IBIS

Photo/Aaron Epstein

Not since Jollyship the Whiz-Bang has such an outlandish concept actually worked, but between Jonathan A. Goldberg's eccentrically beautiful narrative and Tom Ridgely's lavishly inventive aesthetic, The Luck of the IBIS is a top-flight production. Always one comically clever step ahead of the audience, Goldberg (who could just as easily have been named Rube) manages to operate on many levels at once, satirizing young-adult literature while at the same time being sweetly nostalgic for it. Of course, that's sort of the point--he's putting weight behind what appear at first to be frivolities, reminding us from the get-go that no matter what we invent, there are always consequences.

It's a lesson learned right off the bat: Metonymy Jones (Jocelyn Kuritsky), rocking a sort of goth-chic fashion, is looking for her twin sister, Parrhesia (Jessica Pohly), unaware that she's just been thrown into the sea by the lovestruck yet intensely superstitious Captain Kraken (Nathaniel Kent). To find her, she reunites with an old friend, the former child-detective Clewrissa Baumberg (Amy Landon). So far, that's riffing on Tom Swift adventures, Nancy Drew mysteries, and that's to say nothing of the Amish ghosts, colossal squids, and--of course--the looming father figure/secret villain, He (Brendan Donaldson). It's a sort of refrigerator-box noir, in which milk crates become airplanes, and Ridgley, who normally does musical mash-ups with the company Waterwell, is built for this sort of Calvin-and-Hobbesian rhythm.

The real secret, however, is that The Luck of the IBIS isn't nearly as zany as it sounds. All these antics--and talented actors like Kent play it to the ever-lovin' hilt, especially in his role as a Clewrissa's coffee-drinking chupacabre husband--are Metonymy's way of dealing with her own personal issues. Goldberg's writing sneaks up on the audience, too, because the story is written as a pseudo-Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, so that scenes take on entirely new meanings as the past and future start to coalesce. And yet, it's never overbearing--in fact, even the most radical scene, in which a refugee shrimp (the hilarious Landon) recounts the fate of its people, is wholly believable and understandable. What it remains, however, is endlessly surprising: one scene in the play happens twice, but even though one of the characters has the same lines, the shift from her partner reveals a far more tragic interpretation.

Striking as it may seem, everything that occurs in the play is justified--even its constant references to Ronald Reagan. If you believe, as the play and the ancient Greeks do, that we create things to help forget the horrible cost of living, then The Luck of the IBIS is a terrific way to pay off that debt. And if you don't believe, well, isn't it wonderful to find a play that reminds us that it's not to late to learn to do so?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Mike and Morgan Show

Photo/Aaron Epstein

It's been three years since Mike (Brian Miskell) lost his best friend, Morgan (Emma Galvin), but at last, he's coming out of his fugue--by writing himself into a play in which Morgan's still alive, appropriately called The Mike and Morgan Show. It's not wishful thinking, at least not in the hands of playwright Raphael Bob-Waksberg; it's wistful thinking, drama-as-catharsis. Nor is it self-centered to the point of isolation--quite the opposite, for Mike wants us to love Morgan, too, so that he can justify the depths of his funk. Thankfully, Galvin is all the excuse one needs to be indulgent; from the moment she steps on stage ("Yugga yugga, Mike!"), a crass, tomboyish ball of fire, we're in for a treat.

Or at least, we would be, if it were just The Morgan Show; instead, the narrative is stiflingly rigid, locked into Mike's repetitions and neuroses (his Jewish parents, you might say, follow him around throughout the show) and too aware of its self-referential structure to build up momentum. (In fact, the play reaches a powerful conclusion about forty-five minutes in . . . and then continues for another thirty.) Lacy Post's direction struggles to resolve the give-and-take between Mike and Morgan; the set itself, which is just a bunch of meaningless lamps strewn around the stage, is an example of Mike; scenes in which the two decide to remake a bad memory as an old-school detective film are examples of Morgan.

The more energetic The Mike and Morgan Show gets, the easier it is to overlook its flaws. For instance, the build-up is often cleverer than the resolution, and some of the reveals come out of left-field (like much of the second season of Friday Night Lights). While it makes sense that the second half of the play will be more tragic than the first, given Morgan's ultimate, inescapable death; it's just unfortunate that Bob-Waksberg feels the need to slow down and strip away his winning wit in order to do so. "I'm not ruthless," says Morgan, "I've got plenty of ruth." In that light, The Mike and Morgan Show is sweetly romantic (though sadly, a bit too platonic), but too reck--that is, not reckless enough.

metaDRAMA: "So What's the Big Deal?"

James Patterson, who was profiled for this week's New York Times Magazine, had this to say about his detractors ("these people who call themselves open-minded but then make judgments about what I write"): "Well, these people like it. They're happy. So what's the big deal?"

It's an interesting question, and a fair one, especially given the recent spate of critic-proof shows--both in terms of those that cannot be commercially saved by praise, and those sugary bits of pap that soldier on despite those who hate them. More people will have seen MTV's "Jersey Shore" than will have seen Young Jean Lee's "The Shipment"--even with the latter now being available online. Despite the fact that Lee's piece does as much (if not more) to talk about the dangers of stereotype as MTV's programming does to sustain and nurture its cliches. The reason why we talk about "The Shipment"--or at least, why I emphasize theater reviews as opposed to the higher-hit-generating, wider-ranged film and book reviews--is because it's important.

To get back to Patterson, the "big deal"--and reason for criticism despite its "mass" appeal is that titanic name-brand authors not only drown out other voices--they rewrite them. As David Cote wrote in his review of Lear, "we lack a critical vocabulary to evaluate badly behaved plays; that is our collective cultural failure." If we focus only on Broadway (i.e., Patterson), we lose our ability to evaluate theater (literature). There is nothing inherently wrong with "enjoying" Patterson, but to give up on other authors because they aren't like Patterson--often without even giving them a chance--that's the big deal. In fact, that's the danger. (As my father often tells me, the danger isn't in people like Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin. It's in a culture that only listens to Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin and then calls that news.)

The fact that Patterson churns out nine formulaic books a year, many of which are co-written--ala the Stratemeyer Syndicate--isn't the problem, and he should take pride in the happiness he gives people. But the fact that his blockbuster publishing strategies, honed from his years in advertising, have wound up eclipsing other authors, authors who have original and valuable things to say--well, that's troubling.

If you go to Barnes and Nobles looking for a new book, and all you see are wall-to-wall displays for Charlaine Harris and Stephanie Meyer, you might not even realize you're missing the rest of the store. (It's even worse online, where it's harder to accidentally browse.) This is akin to the issue of Broadway, which makes it hard to tell that there's anything else playing. You've heard of Times Square and Wicked, but probably know nothing about Soho and Lear. (And if you do, perhaps because you're literate enough to recognize a big Don DeLilo-esque name, how about Access Theater and Luck of the Ibis?)

That's where criticism comes in. It has to slam your book, because that's the only way to make a reader pause long enough to consider that there's other stuff out there. Provide enough comparisons, show enough discerning and taste, and maybe you can convince people to give other works a chance, remind people that delicious as ice cream might be, it's a shame to spend the rest of your life eating nothing but ice cream. The fact that people enjoy junk foods is not a reason to blithely go along with supporting the junk food industry--it's a reason to point out the failings and to attempt to explain why a Patterson book is about as nuanced as a Twinkie.

In some ways, this gets to the whole argument that was going around the theatrosphere a few weeks ago, about the value of that great overshadower, Shakespeare, and about the importance of producing new works--even if (or especially because) they were not as good. Simply for the different, inspired ideas. To be stagnant or repetitive, to be entertained just for the sake of being entertained--that is the mark of nothing more than Zombie culture, with its forever cries of "Brains! Brains!" It was not until Conan O'Brien started doing things differently that his younger audiences started watching again, rapt and overjoyed once again by the surprising appeal of possibility.

The big deal is that there's no big idea, and people have grown to call that ideal.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Venus in Fur

Photo/Joan Marcus

"Enjoy without pity," commands Vanda (Nina Arianda), auditioning for a role in writer-director Thomas's (Wes Bentley's) new play. By this point, she's become increasingly confident--far from the ditsy, desperate actress who enters at the start--which is fitting, as the play within a play is an adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs, an author now most famous for being the root of the term "masochism." But it's less fitting for the play itself, David Ives's Venus in Fur, which is what really needs to be whipped into shape, rambling not only from comedy to drama, but from questions about gender and sexuality to those of the true nature of power. Enjoyment without pity is about as coldly fetishistic as one can get, worshiping the foibles of disconnect rather than the "operatic emotions" Thomas longs for.

Ives needs a ball-gag for his meta-masochistic impulses--a way to quiet his explanations and to let them speak for themselves. The most powerful scene is intensely silent and erotically charged (though ultimately cryptic): Thomas slowly zips two knee-high boots up Vanda's legs, and his surrendered self says more about his repressed feelings than the debates between the two over the meaning of a fetishistic memory. Ives knows that summing things up is trite, and yet does it constantly. He's also rather blatant about making his points--the doubling structure of the show aside--and so it's clear where Venus in Fur is going, straight down to the Greek mythology it pokes fun at. The one surprise of the play is achieved only by cheating, throwing away the excellent back-and-forth about symbolism to essentially theatrically blue-ball us: Vanda isn't an actress, nor a fidelity-testing spy for Thomas's fiancee, but in actually, a manifestation of Aphrodite herself (you know, Venus).

For all that, there is something exquisite in Arianda's performance--if nothing else, than the ease with which she continues to manipulate Thomas in increasingly subtle ways. Though at first Thomas is directing her--ironically at times, as when he pauses in the middle of surrendering Severin's command in order to command Vanda to stand elsewhere on stage--Vanda is soon the one giving him notes, be it the inclusion of a new scene at the start of the play, or the improvisation for how the play should end. Arianda shows both ends of her range simultaneously, cutting her coyness with steely persistence--and in general shows off, as much with her words as with her lingeried costume. (If we're going to talk openly about sex....)

However, Bentley is no match for her. He's obviously playing the submissive, but his constant ambiguity--both in character and out of it--make it hard to follow along. Nor does he mesh with Walter Bobbie's stark, fluorescent direction, which calls for decisive actions and moments. Often, Bentley simply becomes things, like the character he is reading for, but so suddenly that it hardly seems natural. It's far from being "explicable yet inextricable," Thomas's (and Ives's) central motif, that our actions can be explained, but our motives cannot. 

In any case, relationships don't need to be between equals--they rarely are, and this play knows it--but they require real passion, and too much of Ives's script comes across as artificial, using a classic novel to take swings at modern conventions, and a modern frame to talk about classic psychology. The result is analytic when it should be emotional, and glib when it should be serious, and Venus in Fur is constantly undercutting its struggle by refusing to actually have stakes that are grounded in reality.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Goodbye Cruel World

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Suicide is a joke, or at least that's the butt of Nikolai Erdman's 1928 Russian play, The Suicide. When Robert Ross Parker remembers this, his hyperactive adaptation and direction works, but when he forgets, the whole thing flatlines. To be fair, some of his actors could double as EMTs--the terrific lead, Paco Tolson (who plays the indignantly stubborn Semyon), easily resuscitates his scenes with the intensity of his intents. But Parker goes to such extremes that what should be tongue-in-cheek is more often just a quivering, salivating piece of meat, devoid of intent.

This is made rather clear at the start: rather than begin in the squalid, cramped bed Semyon shares head-to-toe with his wife, Maria (Tami Stronach), he has the actors walk around with title cards, erroneously misspelling the play's title for cheap laughs (and with an exclamation point thrown in for good measure). Instead of trusting the comic banalities of his script--"Why is he shooting himself in the head in the bathroom?" "He's unemployed; they have very few options"--he undercuts the first half with slapstick sound effects, generated by amateur Foley artists. As a result, his direction is often to just tell his actors to get bigger: Cindy Cheung, who plays Maria's mother, Serfamia, is often reduced to wide eyes and gaping mouths, and Curran Connor--who is meant to be the manly, profiteering neighbor, Alexander--just gets louder and louder (a better fit for Chekhov's The Bear). Consequently, the jokes often become more about the on-stage character/costume changes (kudos to Theresa Squire and Antonia Ford-Roberts for their iconic wardrobe choices) than about the bleakness of observations like these: "The courts can sentence you to death, but not to life" and "Those who have ideas don't want to die, and those who die don't have any ideas."

This latter thought is spoken by William Jackson Harper, the most experienced member of the cast (and it shows). Here, he plays Aristarch, a member of the intelligentsia, who--like the rest of the characters--has come to ask Semyon to die on his behalf. Actresses like Raisa and Margarita (Stronarch and Cheung) make beggars of themselves, simply throwing their bodies at Semyon so that he'll die out of love for them, and people like the butcher Pugachov or mailman Eygorushka (both played by Aaron Roman Weiner) spout lines as unconvincingly as a constipated geyser. Harper, however, commits to his character, such that he develops running gags ("I didn't cry when my mother died, but..."); he's serious enough to land his jokes. The same goes for Tolson, who gets increasingly hilarious with each attempt to remain straight-faced. His attempts to turn his life around by taking up the tuba give new meaning to the term "blowhard," and his climactic duet with a pistol cements the message of the play: "I have to live, live, live so that I can kill myself."

As Semyon learns, there is no room for inconsistency when it comes to suicide, but it's hard to critique Goodbye Cruel World for dropping that ball. After all, can one blame Robert Ross Parker for being too full of life?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Photo/Blaine Davis

It takes a few moments to realize that Lear is not an adaptation, and your cheated confusion is part of the fun. After all, David Evans Morris's set is simultaneously regal and chilling, a narrow chamber with flickering lights and sudden blackouts; Roxana Ramseur's lavish costumes are wonderfully bloated and colorful affairs; and writer/director Young Jean Lee begins in the middle of King Lear, with Regan, Goneril, Edgar, and Edmund (April Matthis, Okwui Okpokwasili, Paul Lazar, and Pete Simpson) making small talk about the nature of evil as their fathers--blinded, mad--wander about the raging storm outside. But asking Lee "Hey, what's the big idea?" is exactly the point--what, in King Lear, is the big idea, and does it require any of King Lear, let alone Lear himself, to express it? Instead of struggling with the weight of Shakespeare, Lee chooses to follow the Buddhist leanings of her characters, which is to say: "When a thought runs into your head, you just label it thinking and it helps." So why not have Cordelia (Amelia Workman) whine about bedbugs? The subtext, at least, remains true to the biggest idea of all, the one secretly under all our thoughts: our mortality.

Thankfully, though Lee's structure often provides the subtext for the entire play (as in Church's belief-questioning belief, or in The Shipment's game-changing reversal), she realizes that dramatic stasis--even when intentional--is still tedious, and shakes things up all at once, as Lazar pulls off his facial hair and implores the audience to make the most of their moments. Leave the theater, immediately, if you feel bored. (Nobody did, which shows either how rooted we are in wasting our lives or in how captivating it is when the fourth wall is broken; either way, Lee makes her point.) Simpson then enters, arms gripping legs, his head between them--he's now recreating moments from Sesame Street, particularly the episode in which they speak, to children, about the death of Mr. Hooper. This segment, too, is a "springboard" (to use Young Jean Lee's words), and works admirably well in contrast to the grandiosity of King Lear--there is nothing inherently "better" about the language of Shakespeare than Sesame Street, so long as you get something out of it. In fact, the simplicity of Big Bird's grappling with the not-coming-backness of death may be more powerful, more relatable, more present. Is it necessary to rage in a storm before we are heard?

No, and in the final minutes of Lear, Lee continues to strip away plot, character, costume, and set, speaking more and more directly to that quickening end--the play itself serving as a sort of mortal coil. Simpson stands alone--in character, but it's hard to tell--thinking about how hard it is to watch his father slowly die now, and yet how unbearable it will be when his father actually dies. The play ends at a funeral, with Simpson repeating three words, over and over again, and need there be anything more than that? Given the frustrations of the initial scenes, which now seem so far removed (though the emotions of the actors were true, particularly as a mourning Goneril channeled Lear), Young Jean Lee has distilled dramatic purity--"I'll miss you"--and that moment, inconsistent and vulnerable, is far more epic than anything in Shakespeare.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Under the Radar Festival: L'Effet De Serge

Photo/Martin Argyroglo Callias Bey

Let's not pretend this is anything other than it is. This is theater. You have come to see a show. Right from the start, Gaëtan Vourc’h ensures that we are aware of this, entering his wide, half-empty apartment in a spacesuit, gear from Philippe Quesne's previous show. As he crosses between the two, showing the fluidity of this dream-like world, he points out the wide potential of this room: yes, you can play music on the stereo, and eat food off of the ping-pong table, but you can also traverse the room by crawling under the rug.

With the scene "set," Vourc'h steps into the shoes of Serge, a reserved, polite, and totally correct young man who enjoys inviting people over for his performances--things akin to a planetarium's laser light show, only on the most minute level. Given the intense normality, however, of Quesne's direction, these moments take on true magic. After a long stretch of watching Vourc'h sit around watching a soap opera while drinking red wine, playing with remote-controlled vehicles, and eating chips, we welcome the sudden arrival of a woman on a bike. Though what follows is similar to what he'd rehearsed on his own, the presence of an audience--evoking Grotowski's Theater of the Poor--changes it. (So, too, does the inclusion of a soundtrack: Handel, in this case.)

These miniature scenes continue--"time passes, time passes" intones a Beckett-like recording--, each time growing slightly more elaborate, but always as precisely controlled. Thanks to the glass entrance to the set, we see the front end of a car pull up outside, and chuckle as Serge uses its headlights (and Wagner) to conjure up his next display. "I didn't know you could do that with a car," says his departing guest, which is actually pretty deep, as deep as Serge's effects, if you think about it.

The climax of L'Effet De Serge is no exception--it suddenly happens, just as suddenly vanishes, and the remainder of the show is given over to the awkward wonderment of his guests--we, the actual audience, included. To say that this is an explosively soothing show, an ode to the need for stillness and focus, especially in a city that never sleeps, would be an understatement. Better to just smile and nod, like Serge's guests, as they dizzily return to the real world.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Photo/Carol Rosegg

If there's one thing Rachel Axler knows, as a writer for TV's Parks & Recreation, it's the idea of "forced normalcy," in which outrageous things happen, yet are taken in stride for laughs. Hence the first scene of Smudge, in which Colby (Cassie Beck) and Nick (Greg Keller), try to make out their baby in a sonogram, only to settle for this observation of their little blur: "Awww... it's our first time not seeing our baby together." But the cute charms of this awkwardly dark comedy fail to develop--the downside of a background in sitcoms. Nick attempts to parent his intubated, limbless, and non-responsive baby with a stuffed and smiling carrot; Colby tells her child how much she doesn't love it, chopping sleeves off of onesies and downing cheesecakes; and the nerdish Nick's outsized brother--and boss--, Pete (Brian Sgambati), shows up in order to verify that the baby is not some Albee-ish metaphor for a failing marriage. (Pete is also used, blandly, for a cheap moment of adulterous drama.)

It's not that Smudge isn't interesting--it's that it's written sloppily and executed poorly, almost as if Axler were trying to give birth to a good play, only to somehow, well... smudge it. For instance, Nick's job turns out to be at the Census Bureau--which explains Narelle Sisson's set: plain, quantifiable boxes, labeled with statistical values (from 0 to 1) but filled with physical objects that show how impossible odds sometimes become practical. This leads to some clever scenes as Nick begins to lose it, struggling to find a daughter in that .000000000001 percent chance, sending out "supplemental censuses" in which he basically asks his pool of data to give him the right to kill his daughter. Colby's attempts to cope are also deftly done, with the baby "responding" with a supernatural glow and series of electrical shocks that may or may not be all in her hopeful unconscious.

But then comes Axler, getting in the way of her own play. First off, she breaks the realism for a needless, expository monologue-fest in the second scene, a tactic she never returns to. She then throws Pete into scene after scene, mainly because he's a shallow, easy-to-write character, good for a quick laugh with his off-topic quips about purple poop or the nature of rhetorical questions (like "hasta la pasta"). Worse, she never finds a consistent voice for her main characters--though Keller and Beck are steady actors, they stumble over show-off lines like "You hiding your little burlesque?" or too-direct bits like "Living is binary."

As a result--and Pam MacKinnon's direction is perhaps too passive, given her history with controlling playwrights--the ending is entirely unearned. The two characters imagine--as on a recent episode of Desperate Housewives--what life would be like with a regular baby. In the script, this is where the two finally resign themselves to their child; as performed, it looks more as if they're escaping into the darkness of the slow fade, as determined in the ending as in the beginning to smudge things--to show without really showing.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Under the Radar Festival: Once and For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen

The first time the thirteen teenagers of Once and For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen come on stage, it's a spontaneous burst of energy. Two boys flick each other with balloons; two girls splash, spit, and pour water on one another; a boy and a girl get a little romantic while tangled up in a garbage bag; a skateboard flies by--also, a scooter; a tower of cups is stacked and smashed; chairs go flying--kids do, too. The sheer volume of things happening--to say nothing of the actual volume, particularly when there's mood-setting music playing--perfectly represents the overwhelming task Alexander Devriendt has given to his cast: to express the inexpressible.

The task is made more difficult considering the mantra of the show's few monologues: "I'm afraid that I will do the same like everyone else before me." If being young is about breaking the rules, pushing the boundaries, and exploring possibilities, how can that be done on stage? (And this Belgian cast has been performing this show, on tour, for the last three years.) The secret, apparently, is in the style, which I'll call "anarchchic." At the heart of the play is that opening five-minute scene, developed through the spontaneity of the cast: anarchic. But each subsequent scene repeats and tweaks that moment, using the rebellious music of various generations (modern techno, but also Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?"), tres chic.

The exuberant joy--and, to be fair, awkward frustrations--of the following "scenes" is in seeing how the cast copes with the loose structures being applied to their originally original performance. One version is stripped down to the stage directions; another is done with only props, the cast conspicuously absent--and sorely missed. There are slowed down versions, and sped up versions; more violent ones, more romantic ones. (The cast "rebels" against the director, wishing to stay with this "newly discovered" thing called love.) The finale, waving a giant middle finger to those who don't get it, grossly exaggerates the scale of everything performed so far. Limits exist, you see, only when we stop pushing--so please, push.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Under the Radar Festival: Space Panorama

Photo/Nitin Vadukul

Given how easily Andrew Dawson's Space Panorama conjures up the famous 1969 moon landing, using nothing other than his dexterous fingers and a flat black table, I can at last understand why some people still insist that the whole thing was a hoax. Then again, while Dawson's pulling off a sort of theatrical prestidigitation--epic mime, if you will--his act is no simple trick. Instead, it's a sublime ode to human accomplishment, aided by Gavin Robertson's jovially recorded narration and Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony. It puts the "special" in "special effect"; no matter how much money James Cameron throws at a project, it will never be as genuine.

That's because Dawson's Space Panorama forces the audience to be just as imaginative as he is. Though at first words accompany the gestures--undulating hands are butterflies, missiles are fingers whipping through the air--they are just as often left behind, allowing the triangular shape formed by connecting one's thumbs and pointers to speak for itself as it slowly moves through space. In addition, the specific intimacy of each action gives us a new appreciation for scale: if Dawson's palm represents the moon, Luna, then that ship is less than a fingernail in the air. As Shostakovich's music builds to the first crescendo, Dawson shows us a fingertip-jeep moving across the table toward a giant, towering arm-shuttle. The scene shifts and suddenly Dawson's entire body is aping that of the nonchalant driver of that jeep, a man content to just chew gum. A moment later, his fingers have turned to legs, legs that truly turn such small steps into such great leaps.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Under the Radar Festival: The Word Begins

There is a fine moment in The Word Begins in which Steven Connell helps Sekou (tha misfit) Andrews realize the insidious evil of the Hallmark store. "Words are radioactive," he says, and we shouldn't be paying $2.99 to help us tell someone that we love them in "some other dude's words." From that, we can only extrapolate--and that is what these two do in this loose and rambling show--that the same applies to religion and politics. That it is dangerous to cede our voices to another person, or to glom onto the loudest voice of someone who just happens to look the same as us. However, it feels as if much of Andrews and Connell's show has done just that: much of its 75 minutes are given over to yelling, with the occasional sample of Martin Luther King or John Kennedy mixed in for gravitas. It doesn't ask us to think for ourselves; instead, it serves us self-congratulatory nuggets as it preaches obvious things like "The only way to end war is to end war" and suggests that we all just "fuck ourselves beige."

For a show that stresses the importance of the word (and of its associated actions "made flesh"), The Word Begins ends up not only being too general with them, but downright lazy. (This is not to say that the actors are lazy, although an energetic minstrel show is still just a minstrel show.) Yes, there are white people who act black, and there are well-spoken black men who are castigated for acting white, and there are redneck preachers and bitch-hatin' rappers and nut-bustin' playas, but it's not enough to simply show us these stereotypes. That's straw-man theater, in which because a black man holds a gun to a white man's head not out of hatred but out of a need to provide for his family, this world is obviously fucked up.

No, what's fucked up is a spoken-word play that is all talk. Without characters to develop, or plot to guide things, even the zingers lose their effect: "Babies are born dead from wombs like coffins" or "If people who kill in the name of God go to heaven, then who goes to hell? Gandhi?" Robert Egan's direction tries to generate some sense of consistency between segments, but it's not enough and actually just makes the show seem stagier. (Given the lack of a set, it's actually a poor choice.) Perhaps the greatest gripe with The Word Begins is that it is content to simply be a beginning.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

COIL Festival: GuruGuru

Everybody has their own reasons for going to the theater, but most are variations on losing oneself. Rotozaza's latest show, GuruGuru, understands this; the second you arrive, clipping on one of five name-tags, you are meant to become someone else. The moment you step inside the sterile studio space, drop your baggage (coats, at least) in the corner, and take a seat, you are one step closer to tuning out. As you slip on those inauspicious earbuds, a comforting voice ensures that you are not alone, that--for the next fifty minutes--you need not think for yourself, need only follow the cues of your brand-new consciousness.

When I first saw Rotozaza at PS122, with their Doublethink, an audience watched as two actors who had never before performed the play, followed cues, but they quickly evolved to a more immersive technique. With Etiquette, performed at a booth at Veselka, pairs of audience members would sit across from one another, put on headphones, and simply follow cues themselves, becoming a part of the "moment"; so close, at times, that you didn't understand the poetry of the piece so much as you felt it. Pure theater, if you will. With GuruGuru--giving away as little as possible--the work is much more a mediation on our current cultural abyss and our worship of drone-life. It's no surprise that a television is the central object in the show, nor that it is placed on a pedestal, dead-ish flowers beneath it. Forget nature, forget nurture; simply forget, and do as you are told.

GuruGuru is a fully realized world, though you may not realize it at first. (It's not a sink-or-swim show, but it might take some time to stop struggling to stay afloat.) As you are told things about your character, it is inevitable that you make your own observations about the other characters, and about the Guru, a comic-sinister avatar who is there to guide you all. Bound to the "script" as you are, there is a truly liberating--or frightening--moment when the show "ends" and you find yourself back in the real world, more aware than ever of your own thoughts, and their importance.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Under the Radar Festival: Versus-In the Jungle of Cities

Photo/Teatr Nowy

Upon the facsimile of a wrestling mat, and before a bright red curtain, a woman stands in a black tank, black panties, and black heels, swaying silently, confidently. Perhaps knowing that this is a Polish adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's In the Jungle of Cities explains this; perhaps her supertitled text does. In Versus, four actors will become--as in the Epic Theater--wrestlers, filled with "performative exaggeration," fulfilling the contract the audience secretly holds with them, in that they want not to see actual suffering, but the honest simulacrum of it.

The result of this very physical adaptation is an examination of how we beat ourselves up, both in and out of love, so in that light, it's fair that the audience should itself suffer through "non" mots like these: "After a drink, I will love." Or to a naked, blindfolded woman singing to "Help! Help! Save the perishing love!" But to be fairer, Brecht's tough even in English, and especially so with this show, in which Garga (Tomasz Nosinski) and Szlink (Tomasz Szuchart) face off, more or less, without motive. The successes, then, of Radoslaw Rychcik's adaptation, are in the small moments that transcend the text. For instance, Jane (Anna Gorajska) and Maria (Natalia Kalita), representing all the women of the play, stand in a brothel and attempt to out-do one another, with Dominika Knapik's choreography emphasizing the same event in three different speeds. Or, better, the doomed relationship between Garga and Maria, which starts off with a brash exuberance but--upon each of the three repetitions--grows more and more violent as love turns to disgust to hatred.

Soul music (like "100 Days 100 Nights") is also used for some of the interludes, moments which make explicit what the Teatr Nowy company is after--that inner self. Also, the choice of drawn-out, repeated, or sustained physical actions--the only interruption to text that is otherwise delivered from a straight line, and directly to the audience--emphasizes the different states, from Garga's frenzied finale to, at last, Jane's genuine grief over Szlink's death (she rolls his body across the stage, then over herself). These moments, the best in the play, use the illusion of performance to show things that are not illusions.

Sadly, though the actors are half-naked and fully committed throughout Versus, it's quite hard to follow between the supertitles and the action, especially when there is deliberate contrast between the two. The clear body language of a power struggle--Garga, for instance, grabbing at Szlink, only to slide to the floor, over and over again--can sustain an individual moment, but it is quickly swallowed up by flat text that follows, flying by. It is a battle, in other words, that means nothing, and while that may be true of so many fights, it is ultimately a theatrical let-down.

Friday, January 01, 2010

metaDRAMA: New Year's Eve!

Tonight's the night that I find out if it's going to be cool or cold, as I bunker down with five other bloggers--live from Times Square, mind you--to write about New Year's Eve.

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