Friday, April 30, 2010


Photos/Jim Baldassare

If thesis papers were written by creative-writing majors, they might be read more often. Such is the case with Emily DeVoti's Milk, a cry against homogenization and pasteurization, presented as a comfortable and pleasant Reagan-era parable. At the same time, however, Milk often feels like an staged essay, a fact that's not dispelled by the novelty of having Auroch (Carolyn Baeumler)--"quite possibly the last living wild cow"--present the bullet-point themes of each scene. ("Any cow I have ever owned has quickly gained control of her letdown reflex and knowing the calf is waiting, will not let me have any milk. You may have to fight for your share of the milk, or be very clever, tactful, or gifted at get it.") It's stifled a bit, too, by the mathematically logical viewpoint of its dairy farm-owning main character, Meg (Jordan Baker), at least until she starts to break loose in the second act. In spite of these flaws, the show's structure succeeds in making a convincing point--one neatly emphasized by director Jessica Bauman's deconstruction of Susan Zeeman Rogers' simple farmhouse set: without the freedom to choose--to change--we're doomed (no matter how lovely the view). ("Without choice, you're no one: a blank slate, undefined. That's what differentiates us from...animals.")

That change comes early, with the arrival of James (Peter Bradbury), a brash and cocky businessman who needs to escape the city. Playing the part of big government, with his helicopters, confusing contracts, and abundance of wealth, he inserts himself into the well-being of the dairy farm, convinced that his commercial mind is better than nature's ways. Like the snake, he tempts the family, especially Matt (Noah Robbins), showing him a world outside of Massachusetts--of great interest to a world-wanting Walkman-wearing teen--and introducing him to his daughter, Veronica (the charming Anna Kull), whose fascination with the abundant life--and death--of the farm helps Matt to see it anew. Rounding out the cast is Meg's naive husband, Ben (Jon Krupp), who gets so swept up in the sudden abundance of material goods that he loses sight of the things that matter most to him--like his wife.

Milk starts to hit its sweet spot after a Religious Moment in which James drinks raw milk for the first time. (Well, for the second time--the first time, he spits it out: "It's warm!") These accented and stylized bits, which represent internal shifts in character, are the creative juice that help to elevate the "raw" information that DeVoti has filled her play with. They also creates a dramatic shift from James's mockery of "antequainted" life to his acceptance of what can only be called the quaintessential. Now--ironically, for the set slowly begins to break into pieces--the whole comes into view, especially in the playful flirtations between Veronica and Matt.

However, it sours somewhat at the end, falling back into piecemeal form in an attempt to resolve things in a poetic tableau. James spends the last fifteen minutes milking an imaginary cow in the background, the children rush to a previously unmentioned electrical fence to connect through pain in heartbeat form, and Ben--a cipher by this point--gets left left behind, both by Meg and DeVoti. (It doesn't help that the acting is a little uneven and often exaggerated, though it's worth noting that the play is written so well that it still spins smoothly--butter-like--across the stage.) DeVoti's good intentions to show a raw, naked truth are ultimately brought down by a processed, confusing fiction.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Collected Stories

Photo/Sara Krulwich

Ruth Steiner (Linda Lavin) is a firm, whip-smart older woman who takes pride in being difficult. She dwells within a veritable Fortress of Solitude (courtesy of set designer Santo Loquasto), though a comfortable one, with sofa'd nooks nestled sweetly between the dominating stacks of books that are her livelihood (she writes short stories and--for the last twenty years--has taught them, too). Buried beside those fictions are scraps of her rich past, and one would be so lucky as to sit at her cluttered kitchen table, share a pot of tea, and soak up some of that wisdom and pain, from her Jewish childhood to her "virginal" affairs with a famous poet, Delmore Schwartz. And for a while, that's exactly what Donald Margulies's Collected Stories does, wisely dodging the dreaded "show, don't tell" credo of writers by introducing Lisa Morrison (Sarah Paulson), a graduate student who idolizes Steiner. But two things plague the show from the start: neither Morrison the character nor Paulson the actor are strong enough to steal the show from Steiner the character nor Lavin the actor, and when they inevitably do, the show sags.

Unsurprisingly, Collected Stories is at its best at the very middle--the two scenes before and after intermission. There, Steiner still dominates the picture, but does so while realizing that she is losing her power--worse, that she is running out of time. It's a difficult role (one that was last filled by the indomitable Uta Hagen in 1998), but Lavin nails it with the little things, building her plausibility in the final scene by showing sparks of her jealousy early on, and tempering her aging by filling the initial scenes with buoyant springs in her step, especially as she opts to take pride in "discovering" and "shaping" her pupil, rather than silently shutting her down. Both Morrison and Steiner use fiction to get some exposition about themselves out of the way (a necessary evil, since Margulies skips whole years between scenes), but whereas Paulson performs it so literally that it's like she's trying to shove a book through your ear, Lavin treats the story with the honest reverence of a committed actor.

Director Lynne Meadow is lucky to have Lavin (well, not lucky--they previously collaborated in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife), because without her, Collected Stories would be as blatant as Paulson. This isn't entirely an insult--the writing is smooth, and it's always very clear what's going on--but the lack of subtlety makes some of the scenes snub-nosedly bland. The point of each scene is always stressed, often more than once, and that makes the show more like an anthologized collection than a full story. (Though again, at least Lavin's portrayal of Steiner actually ages, like a fine wine.) Worse, the play ultimately boils down to two of Steiner's writing tips: "Telling relieves the need to write" and "If you forget it, it probably wasn't worth writing in the first place." There's a reason so much of this review focuses on Lavin's acting: that's the memorable bit. The rest is just a too-traditional play, one that's written with dated references and a slow pace befitting an older audience, or one that no longer wishes to think too long or too hard on any given subject.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Vigil or The Guided Cradle

If you take it from the pompous Balto (Vinnie Penna) and his bumbling assistant Aldo (Travis York), two interrogators in the Middle Ages, torture is an art. If so, then under Crystal Skillman's wandering hand, it's a spattered Pollock. How else to explain her new play, The Vigil or The Guided Cradle, a work crammed full of rushed and colliding ideas?

When it comes to the physical stuff, John Hurley's a happy director, and he gets a lot of mileage out of the solemn conversation between the imprisoned Jan (Joseph Mathers) and his torturer, Ippolito (Christian Rummel), a man who threatens the bloody sanctity of Balto's profession with his newfangled devices. (The inspiration for this play: a pyramid under the victim's prostate. If they did not keep themselves awake--a vigil--they would impale themselves on the tip--the guided cradle--and thereby wear themselves down mentally and physically.) But nobody knows how to handle the forced connection between these scenes, set in the past, and the modern ones between Translator (Dion Mucciacito) and Foreigner (Susan Louise O'Connor), especially when the two worlds start merging--despite having no parallels between them.

Amidst all the confusing plotting, the actual drama often gets lost, too. Prime (Alex Pappas) is meant to rule his prison with an iron fist (and apparently an iron dick, given his frequent "inspections" of female prisoners), but his request that Ippolito perform an abortion not only comes out of left field, but without any actual action. It makes a convenient sort of sense that the Translator is seeking revenge on the Foreigner's father--a covert torturer himself--but reducing him to nothing more than a mere kidnapper--well, that takes morality out of the discussion and leaves O'Connor with nothing to do, other than to play the entitled, ignorant American. Granted, torture is generally a one-sided affair (just look at the endless repetitions of 24), but shouldn't the ends at least justify the means?

In this case, The Vigil cops out and ends with a reality-blurring scene that speaks to the redemptive hope that comes only when we set each other free. If this final bit were earned instead of being tied up in a bunch of cryptic claptrap, it might actually be effective. Instead, it's just a merciful fade to black.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Aliens

Photo/Sara Krulwich

Reviewed for Show Business Weekly

Imagine you’re a shy 17-year-old boy in Vermont, waiting for your senior year to start, but really just waiting — waiting for something, anything, to happen. One day, at your new summer job, you run into a loiterer named Jasper and his friend KJ. You mumble something about the management’s rules, but Jasper just offers you a cigarette, so calmly and coolly ignoring you that it seems like a mark of respect. “You gotta’ read Bukowski,” he says, and then you realize he’s actually paying attention to you. “He cuts through all the bullshit.”

Annie Baker cuts through the bullshit, too. Her sweet and simple plays forgo plot in favor of intimate character studies, taking pleasure in small hopes and dreams. Her latest, The Aliens, centers on Jasper (Erin Gann), as he channels the depression resulting from his latest failed relationship into his novel. (“She would sleep with her head pressed so hard against his chest that he’d wake up with bruises.”) The play also follows the Dude-like KJ (Michael Chernus), who attempts to define his own depression with mathematical logic, but settles instead for the steadier diet of ‘shrooms and Zen philosophy: “The state of having just lost something is like the most enlightened state in the world.” Between these two is Evan (Dane DeHann), a shy boy hoping to find a purpose in their encouraging presence.

Baker is joined, once again, by the clear-eyed director Sam Gold (Circle Mirror Transformation), and their collaboration is mundanely profound, finding the poetry of realism by getting to the root of the text. (This is reflected in Jasper’s literary style and KJ’s floundering attempts to explain how something is explained.) KJ breaks down, repeating a single word for three minutes, but the word is just a means of communicating something deeper, richer. Likewise, when Evan sings “If I Had a Hammer,” it ceases to be a stupid song: Instead, his tone tells the story, building from embarrassment to sweet sorrow before learning to let go by the final verse.

It’s hard to watch The Aliens without falling for its characters, without getting sucked in to its so-simple world — and it’s easy to do so, with no divide between the actors and their more-than-believable characters. It’s difficult to describe Baker’s language with mere quotes: It’s just everyday dialogue. Moreover, it’s impossible not to rave about this show, whose world is simple only in lurid comparison to the Technicolor one seen on “reality” TV. Baker’s language is normal, yes, but it is riveting in its openness; her characters remind us that the “little frictions” are the ones that are hardest to bear, because they cannot be prepared for.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Noah's Arkansas

If you believe in such things, Noah built the ark just big enough for two of every species. Doing more than that would be redundant. Admittedly, Jerrod Bogard's new play Noah's Arkansas has nothing to do with animals, but then again, it's got nothing to do with religion, either: it's a waste of a clever title. What is similar between the two is that Bogard has taken a potentially decent one-act between a grandson being called upon to help his grandfather commit suicide, and he has flooded it with a series of hackneyed scenes that dilute the play beyond all meaning. Moreover, each of the three acts of this show is tonally different (more like a triptych than a cohesive whole), which makes it hard to get a handle on the actors, something that's exacerbated by the tendency of the cast to overact. (As one puts it, "We're stuck here on Jerry Springer here, aren't we?")

At first, Noah's Arkansas seems to be about poor, dim-witted Wayne (Justin Ness) and his second wife, Lizzy (Kristin Skye Hoffmann), a good woman, but not a patient one. They're more than a bit of an odd couple--the actors have no chemistry, even when flirting--and their bickering has more than a bit of an edge to it ("I was just sittin' here wish'n for a cold beer" "I was just wishin' you were George Clooney"). But they're together, waiting for Wayne's irresponsible ex-wife to drop his teenage son, Michael (Michael Komala), off for the summer. However, that would be too simple (read: too short) of a scene, so instead, Wayne's father Lester (Erik Frandsen) makes a cameo (a sort of foreshadowing that there's something good to come), and then Michael runs off--just long enough to get two cookie-cutter cops, Tom and Tammy (Bennett W. Harrell and Judy Merrick) out to the house. These are unflattering, unrevealing scenes, especially since Bogard's script stresses that these are "real people, and not caricatures of what some might call 'trailer trash.'" Of course, the fact that Bogard needs to say that at all ends up proving just the opposite--especially under Neil Fennell's broad and clunky direction: this is a far cry from Sam Shepard.

By the second act, Bogard is back to his strong suit--a two-hander that cuts out the forced comedy and focuses on the strained relationship between Michael and Wayne. Though the scene starts out roughly--a bloodied Wayne waits in the dark, with a gun, for Michael--and though it dramatically cheats, turning Wayne into a more forceful and steady character for the purposes of this scene, it works. It works even in spite of Komala's hand-wringing performance, the sort that would put Tennessee Williams to shame: "Your son's been institutionalized. Is that dramatic? It was like a summer camp, but for mental kids." It works, finally, once Wayne starts connecting with Michael--and that's what's so sorely missing from most of the play. His bullheaded expectations of social life--jocks and nerds--are upset by Michael's goth appearance, but even he has to admit that if his son were gay (he's not), he'd still love him.

Unfortunately, the third act of Noah's Arkansas is the most unsteady of all, staggering between the manic aimlessness of the first and the seriousness of the second, and Bogard bites off way more than he, or the audience, can handle, constructing a final scene that shoehorns two different scenes together. It's a clear sign that Bogard's grasping for meaning, trying to use a structural shift to convince us that the weight of each character's words, or the parallels between generations in this family, are far more significant than they are. And, as if there weren't already enough examples of incompetence, Bogard literally uses his two police characters to arrest the action, handcuffing characters just before they can do anything dramatic. The quiet scene between Lester and Michael, bonding at the middle of a dried-up floodplain, is the highlight of the play--not just because Frandsen is a terrifically wry old man, but because Komala, at last, plays it calm.

Ultimately, there's something else to be learned from that biblical story (one which, again, has about as much to do with this play as its title). The next time Bogard opts to build an ark--something capable of carrying and transporting characters--he should make sure he's standing on solid ground first. A very few of the leaps in Noah's Arkansas are admirable, but too often, he's just splashing around in the water, throwing up whatever planks of scenes are at hand.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Next Fall

Photo/Sara Krulwich

At first glance, Geoffrey Nauffts's Next Fall looks like your typical Broadway drama. A tasteful shot of reddening leaves is swept up above the stage, revealing a stark waiting room; at the same time, glaring halogen strips sleekly descend from the ceiling. Holly (Maddie Corman) and Brandon (Sean Dugan) sit there in an unearned silence, eliciting the nervous titters of an audience that doesn't know what to expect, especially as Holly finally points out the obvious weirdness of it all. To further break the ice, a ceaselessly talkative old belle named Arlene (Connie Ray) enters, allowing us comic exposition like "I'm so glad they took him to a Jewish hospital." There's even a stereotypical man's man--straight down to his name, Butch (Cotter Smith)--whose portrayal of anger is so familiar that we all but miss the fact that he's raging out the rest of the plot. His son, Luke, has been hit by a taxi cab--"I'll sue the whole damn city if I have to"--and the surgeons won't let him, his ex-wife Arlene,  Luke's friends (Holly and Brandon), or Adam--a stranger, at this point--into the recovery room.

In fact, most of this first act is typical--even the smooth flashbacks that establish the relationship between Luke (Patrick Heusinger) and the older, hypochondriac Adam (Patrick Breen). The biggest twist is not that Luke is gay, or that he hasn't yet told his parents ("Next fall," he keeps promising); rather, it is that Luke is a Christian and Adam is a pompous, liberal atheist--a writer, to add fuel to the fire--and he can't help but put down the lunacy of religion every time he opens his mouth. These arguments are overly familiar, too, and they're pointless--the sort of stuff that conservatives can rightly shake their fists at. A through-line of sweetness and internal conflict--Heusinger's excellent portrayal of Luke--keeps us watching, though, and Naufft's writing--sharpened on the television show Brothers & Sisters--is just comedic and dramatic enough to keep us watching, though nothing special or particularly clever.

But by the far better second act, Luke's condition has worsened, and that's led much of the small talk and sparring to be dispensed with. Likewise, the flashbacks have progressed beyond the establishing "honeymoon" phase, in which appearances are still everything, and reached a more intimate, searching place, in which Luke and Adam are both at odds trying to reconcile their own religious impasse. The best scenes in the play, and--lately--on Broadway, are late night conversations in which Luke comes close to convincing Adam to accept Jesus and in which Adam honestly admits that he--greedily, but also understandably--needs Luke to love him more than God. The success of these moments stems not from the writing, but from the sincerity of the emotion. Here, at last, Naufft abandons the back-and-forth and allows his characters to inelegantly fumble around, attempting to find words and then--failing that--managing to express their feelings through raw emotions or needful gestures. After all, faith and conviction--the two sides of religion and logic--cannot ever be resolved in open debate. Distilled into the naked language of compromising lovers, however, this debate thrives, for it is no longer fought with mere words.

Naufft takes a few more liberties at the end of the play--a moment of rage for Adam that seems forced (not by him, but by the circumstances) and of catharsis for Butch, but chances are, the tears in your eyes will cloud them. And though some of his plotting still comes across as contrived--Butch deciding to drop in on what he believes to be Luke's "bachelor" pad, only to run into Adam; a scene in which Brandon explains what being a gay Christian means--Naufft makes it work. (The Butch scene adds a bit of farce; the Brandon scene puts much more weight behind Luke's unspoken choices: "He moved the line for you.") Given just how far the play comes (though it could've ended a few minutes earlier), it's hard to go back and criticize faults that are only seen in retrospect. Far better to just admit that Next Fall is an entertaining play that ends up being much more than mere entertainment.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Tender Mercies

For much of Sladjana Vujovic's The Tender Mercies, there is very little visible emotion, and even less action. This is a necessity--in fact, it is what the character spend most of their time discussing, an act that nears the presentational polemics of Brecht, but wisely holds itself in check. Unfortunately, it holds itself too much in check: the point it is demonstrating may come at the expense of its audience, especially an impatient, apolitical one. Too much of the play is wrapped up in the repetition of a single idea, that of Frank Sinatra's anthem "My Way" ("To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels"), and Jessi D. Hill's direction--purposefully ambiguous in its restraint and minimalism--doesn't pay off until late in the show. It does, however, pay off.

When we first meet Zig (Gregory Waller), he appears to be an interrogator in the year-long process of indoctrinating Alex (Jim Kane). He's succeeded in breaking Alex to a certain degree--the torture may have helped--for the man denounces himself and his family, dehumanized to the level of "a piece of shit." But they're stuck in a rut, for Alex says things, like "I shall always love the truth . . . unless otherwise ordered," but clearly doesn't mean them, able only to repeat what has been beaten into him. By the second scene, we begin to realize that Zig, too, has been indoctrinated--more successfully--as he exaggeratedly leaps to his feet to salute his commander, Rose (Christina Bennett Lind), even as she coolly, sadistically mocks him. And rightly so, for what sort of man is Zig? As things start to heat up, we learn that Zig and Alex were once friends, but that Zig ratted his partner out, leading to the current situation, in which they will both be granted freedom--and offer that Alex remains chary of--if Zig can successfully convince the Commandant that they've both changed.

To do so, Zig has put together a play--starring himself and Alex--that he will now perform for Rose, who will then decide whether or not the two of them can live. And this play happens to be very stylized, but on many levels (this is the truly Brechtian bit). Rose--the sort of dehumanized person who glibly jokes about death camps and delights in removing the veils from her own threats--rightly calls them out on their performance, pushing them to debase themselves further as they sing and dance of their own (probably exaggerated) depravities, and forcing them to skip through the play. "I've had enough of words," she says. "They're not used with care. Is there any action?"

The Tender Mercies isn't surprising--war is dehumanizing, victims are tortured (psychologically, too)--but it is effective. The further we watch Zig and Alex sink, the more we wonder whether or not they actually even deserve to live--for what are they, without beliefs and ideas of their own? Moreover, Hill makes a bold directorial choice in the final moment of the play--bolstered, no doubt, by Lind's excellent performance--that makes the audience once more question Rose's own motivations, feelings, and humanity. For as Rose steps through the fourth-wall of the box that makes up this one-roomed set, it's possible that what we have been watching is not Zig and Alex's performance--but Rose's. It's a thought-provoking moment, one fraught at last with that hidden emotion. However, one can throw the question of the play right back at the playwright: at what cost comes victory?

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Photos/Carol Rosegg

Normally, when a comedian is dying on stage, it's as bad for the audience as it is for the performer. But that's not the case in 666, a new, crassly comic show from Yllana, a group of physical humorists from Spain. You see, JO (Joseph Michael O'Curneen), FF (Fidel Fernandez), JR (Juan Ramos Toro), and RC (Raul Cano) have all recently been incarcerated and sentenced to death, and for roughly ninety minutes, they turn prison into a riot, the sort of place where their own executions will slay you.

If you're familiar with the sort of work Billy the Mime does, you'll feel right at home with their graphic pantomimes: in just the first scene, JO suggestively illustrates how to use intestines as a tie and JB juggles invisible testicles. Words aren't needed here: violence is a sort of universal language, too. On the other hand, actual props soon appear, and that's when 666 really starts to develop, toying with the sort of illusory tricks you might have seen in Slava's Snowshow, only with blood. The gross-out moments are fleeting (a skit with bedpans is potty humor at its worst), but the more substantive bits stay with you. Then again, of the ten segments, only five really stand out: no matter how well a dick joke is acted, it's still just a dick joke.

But that's why 666 ends up working: it quickly establishes expectations, and then gratuitously exceeds them. At the start of the show, the actors test the fourth wall, only to find that it's electric--but rest assured (if by nothing else other than the word "Volunteer" in the program) that at some point, that conventional wall will come down. If a joke about anal rape isn't funny the first time, it certainly is when a stuffed animal gets it, or when it turns into a running gag at a most unexpected moment. Even some of those gross-out moments earn their keep: folks, don't recycle your condoms. Feel free to recycle your jokes, though--666 revives a bit from Austin Powers involving a not-quite dead assistant--if you've got the physical control to make it worth our time. (They do.)

The best moments, however, are those that mash-up genres--and also the moments where director David Ottone's hand can most clearly be seen. For instance, the use of lighting in "Sweet Dreams," shows RC's nightmarish flight from his inner demons--and then JR's slow-motion enjoyment, as he butchers his, accompanied by a sunny song. "Guillotine Dance" offers a balletic beheading, complete with the most absurd leotards. Not to be outdone, there's "Hanging Out," an exceedingly well-staged bit that opens with two bodies hanging by the neck, only to be brought to life as one's errant farts propel him into the other. The climax--and let's call it that--is "Inferno," for which there shall be no spoilers--except to say that this is the reason the pre-show announcement encourages audience members to take non-flash photos, so bring a camera. And perhaps a towel.

Friday, April 16, 2010

metaDRAMA: One Moment in Time

The other day, someone suggested that I might review a particularly rowdy show by live-blogging the experience. The cast and crew were on board with it, but I declined. I'm already irritated by people who take our their glowing cellphones during a show in order to check the time or text; I wouldn't want to be the smug guy stretching his legs out into the aisle while clicking away at a laptop. (Well, unless that is the show, as it was with this.) But more than that, I thought the idea demonstrated a misunderstanding of what reviews and criticism should do, and since "blog journalism" may have contributed in part to the blurring of that line, I thought it was worth at least post about it here.

Let's leave aside, for a moment, the question of "critic" vs. "reviewer," and with that the associated debate over whether the writer is there for the audience, for the show, or for theater in general. Instead, let's focus on the bigger question: does a show exist in a series of strung-together moments, or is it the sum of its parts? To me, it's obvious that it should be the latter, but as I look around me, at the appalling difference between the number of clips as opposed to the number of episodes on Hulu; as I browse the average running times of YouTube clips, FailBlogs, and memes; or just watch the signs of the apocalypse in every film trailer for a shitty film, I realize that for many people, especially of the attention-addled next generation, shows exist as anthologies of moments. And let's not forget that it's a lot easier to craft a series of disparate one-liners than it is to sustain a lengthy rant that's impressive throughout.

What's missing, however, is cool-headed reflection--the point at which we take in and process what we've just experienced, and learn something from it. If we live only in the moment, then a horrible two-hour-long show is much more forgivable: because we allow it to be instantly forgettable. If we're only looking for a few bright spots, then it's no wonder that The Addams Family is critic-proof: fans of Nathan Lane will be fans of Nathan Lane, for better and worse. Whether this makes me a theater snob, a purist, or whatever, I demand more than moments, even of variety shows and circus acts. (That's why Cirque du Soleil's sustained magic does more for me than the straightforward Big Apple Circus.) I want to see growth, I want to see things that build, hell, I want that running joke to be earned.

And that's, I guess, just one more reason why I see such a need for the critic/reviewer/blogger. Whether it's an audience member chiming in on the comments section, a theater-going fan doing their best to relate their experience to another person, a reviewer summing up the show, or a critic providing context, each of these people are making theater more than just a transitory event. They're processing and holding on to the beauty of an experience, making a memory richer by soaking it in its surroundings, not in a shallow, cast-off 140-word remembrance. Besides, how are you going to live in the moment if you're there writing about it as a thing of the past?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bloodsong of Love

Photo/Peter James Zielinski

There's a certain bartender in Joe Iconis's hip new "rock 'n' roll spaghetti Western" Bloodsong of Love who neatly sums up the show. You see, this bartender only has one eye, and it's throwing off his depth perception and range of vision. But he's aware of what some might call his shortcomings, so he compensates by simply pouring whiskey until someone moves a shot glass in range; later, he doesn't so much as shoot someone as he flat out blows them away (blood splattering over a plastic-covered front row). Done out of necessity, it doesn't feel like overkill, which is how Iconis gets away with the majority of his over-the-top characters and dialogue. Moreover, such an exaggerated appearance--swagger, if you will--is deceiving. Iconis's music has range, mashing up harsh lyrics with sweet romances ("Covered in the blood of another/I wish it were yours") and high-pitched hilarity with dangerous words ("It's not the size of the dog in the fight/It's the size of the dick on the dog in the fight"). Yes, pardner, there's even sincerity in these here parts, too.

Fans of Tarantino and Vampire Cowboy Theater will feel perfectly at home with Bloodsong of Love, for like them, Iconis manages to create something that is both an homage and parody of the western genre ("Gonna find the bastard/get my woman back"). Our hero, The Musician (Eric William Morris) could come right out of Desperado, except that his guitar doesn't shoot bullets--it just plays literally killer music. His slapsticky sidekick Banana (Lance Rubin), on the other hand, follows the code of honor, but really nothing else: he does make for an excellent Panzo-like character, cowering in a corner with his tambourine during the fight scenes, or gyrating across the stage during the musical numbers like a life-sized puppet, every limb moving in a different direction. These two are well-met by the love interest, Santa Violetta (MK Lawson), who clarifies, in Iconis's self-aware style, that she's not the coy coquette. (A fishmonger's daughter who likes to wear angel wings, she says this bit while gutting a fish and showering in its viscera.) And of course, they're outdone by the villain, Lo Cocodrilo (the excellent Jeremy Morse), a rootin', kazoo-tootin' Man In Black who more than compensates for his squeaky voice by killing everyone around him. In a particularly witty scene, Cocodrilo warns his henchman to never enter without knocking three times--then tricks him into doing exactly that.

Bloodsong of Love goes for style over subtlety or substance, and these choices--along with the whip-cracking direction of John Simpkins--enhance the comedic effect of the show. A small treadmill buried in the stage allows our hero to do that Signature Walk that Westerns are known for; characters like Whore in Boots (Katrina Rose Dideriksen) are actually elevated beyond cliche through their devotion to their archetype. Even the Narrator acquits himself well, though you can tell Jason "SweetTooth" Williams gets more of a kick out of doubling as the more overtly comic characters in the play. After all, the telling of the story isn't the interesting part: it's the way in which the story is told. So bring on the blood, the songs, and the love; keep it simple and make it catchy. The only thing missing from this cartoon musical is Yosemite Sam, but to be fair, it has a dream sequence inspired by licking a bullfrog's ass, so let's trust that Iconis knows what he is doing.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Realm

Photo/Sam Hough

In the "future not so far from now" of Sarah Myers's muddled The Realm, ignorance isn't just bliss, it's a necessity. Nestled underground to avoid the deadly rays of the sun and on harsh water rations, most of humanity has given up its language, hoping that by forgetting the words for the things they can no longer have (like "cookies"), they will be able to content themselves on the Approved Speech of their group life. It's a bold and interesting concept, but a difficult one to stage: not just because of epic stage directions that call for a flood of water and a transition from dank, claustrophobic tunnels to a gloriously bright and grassy outdoors (none of which is realized in this production), but because the characters cannot adequately communicate.

This would be fine, too, except that Myers has far too much to say--and has left herself less than an hour in which to do so. The first full scene, between Mr. Father (Timur Kocak), Mrs. Mother (Amy Temple), and their son, James (Aaron Simon Gross), hints at the drama of a rebellious teen--one who makes unruly sounds and disturbs the perfect synchronization of their dinners--learning the truth of his plastic-masked parents. But Myers also wants to talk about how in this world, children are raised to believe that it is an honor and a duty to kill their parents--population control and responsibility, rolled into one. She also wants to communicate the history of this world, so James's real mother Laura (Amy Bodnar) periodically sneaks onstage--a somehow-survivor of the linguistic purge--to explain it to us. And then on top of that, there's the contrast offered by Kansas (a fierce Emily Olson), a dreamer brimming with language that has made her a marked child by the totalitarian Mind Review and its mouthpiece, Ms. Analyst (the cool Jessica Pohly). Perhaps Myers's own logic gets twisted in all the different threads, none of which are adequately addressed, but suffice to say, Kansas befriends James, the two run off together, and despite apparently getting captured, they both also escape?

Some of the issues with The Realm are production issues: Jessica Fisch, the director, never finds the right tones for alternating between the different moods, let alone the locations. (She does, however, nails the oppressive creepiness of the underground, from the atmosphere sounds to the actors-as-walls effect.) As for the cast, Bodnar either doesn't understand what her character's talking about or doesn't connect to it, and Gross remains at one quizzical note throughout the show. Without more active, apparent motives, their scenes--which take up the majority of The Realm--suck the life out of even the more creative or poetic bits (like Laura's attempts to cling to language). The scenes between the well-matched Pohly and Olson are at least intriguing and tense, allowing us to get past the more confusing moments.

The biggest problem with The Realm, though, is not that it doesn't have the words it needs to communicate: It's that it has no characters with which to speak. There are people standing there who point out that words are as dangerous as they are important and necessary and that our imagination is what defines us. But these are philosophical thoughts--not actions--and they tell us nothing about the characters on stage, nothing about why they're suddenly doing the things they're doing. That sort of lazy, exploitative writing gives science-fiction a bad name, and this is a far cry from similarly themed work like Artifacts of Consequence or similarly styled shows like What Once We Felt. Concepts without characters should remain on the page and off the stage.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War

The Mad Ones are crazy, but in the best possible way. Though their current motto is "Up with robots, Down with people," they haven't forgotten that every play needs some sort of human heart, and that's given them the freedom to pursue the sort of theater they'd like to make. Why not a play about Russian radio stars who like to sing American country songs and romanticize the good old days, you know, before giant robots tunneled out of the ground and destroyed America? Such is the thinking that leads to Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War, a sweetly apocalyptic tale.

Stationed amidst piles of old, analog radio equipment sits the Host (Joe Curnutte) of the At Home Field Guide, flanked by his acoustic guitarist Alexi "Tumbleweed" Petrovya (Michael Dalto), the lovely singer Anastasia (Stephanie Wright Thompson), and the resident genius, Dr. Mischa Romanav (Marc Bovino). None of them are quite what they once were, frazzled as they are by electrical outages and suspensions of train service, but they put on their game faces, playing whimsical sound effects even in the middle of a most-serious Science Saturday reminder of the Invasion.

So, why not tell a story? In this way, the bold mission of these radio hosts parallels the goal of the theater company--perhaps the goal of all artists--and what follows is as sincere as it is weird. "Amidst an invasion. But there was still love." It's very Golden Age in presentation and flourish, especially with the radio elements of Stowe Nelson's genius sound design, yet flush with hipster cred (particularly in Evan Prizant's costuming of Bovino) and Mike Inwood's dusky aesthetic, which deftly balances the necessary focus on language for the story-within-a-story, but still allows for the visual enhancements of the contemporary plot. Above all, it's so consistently handled--by director Lila Neugebauer--that we are sucked in to this alternate world, curious and eager and excited to see what will happen next.

It doesn't all work--sometimes the forced jollity comes across as too forced, and the back-stories of our Russian heroes are so meagerly developed that some of their glances and actions remain cryptic. But these are minor problems with the framing device: the central story, that of brothers Samuel and Alasdair and the girl they love--in the last months before the 1959 Invasion--is filled with enough parallels to propel the whole thing along. More importantly, this story (written by Bovino and Curnutte) is filled with wonderfully rich language--not dialogue, but miniature poems that entrancingly patter back and forth. One moment, a sort of haiku: "I’ll give you the facts: The fireworks in their eyes. Prairie grass at their knees. Music sifting from parked car windows." The next, a cleverly structured ode: "Susie lived down the road from us. Two houses and a barn between Susie and us. Two houses, a barn, a field, a window, a curtain, and a pebble tap between Susie and us." With all the repetition, onomatopoeia, and shifts in rhythm, the whole thing becomes like a song.

As the two stories--then and now--reach a sort of present-day collision, the tension in the theater continues to build, and there's an earned belief that anything may in fact happen. That's the sort of freedom that the Mad Ones earn by tackling their own type of story on their own terms, and it results in the best kind of theater: the surprising sort.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010


Photo/Carol Rosegg

"Ah, yes." Such a simple phrase, a line of communication, agreement, understanding, and yet, there's so much more to Enjoy. Toshiki Okada uses a stream-of-conscious, fourth-wall-breaking narrative--best described as the awkward indirect--in order to capture that elusive "more." In execution, the actors simply describe their thoughts and actions in the third-person. But in style, this serves to exaggerates their own self-effacing tones, which in turn amplifies the overall theme of displacement, particularly in relation to age, which is itself simply a matter of perception. In other words--and this play is all about other words--Okada's choice to avoid action/drama is a perfect one, for it so utterly describes the listless fixations and small tragedies of its characters. Having Dan Rothenberg (Chekhov Lizardbrain) direct and the hollowing, postmodern playwright Aya Ogawa (Oph3lia) translate is just icing on the cake.

Deadpan only as much as Beckett, and as driven by the everyday as Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Enjoy is a beautifully reflective production, the unblemished center of a Zen garden. That "Ah, yes" spoken by Actress 1 (the totemo kawaii--very cute--Kira Sternbach), is a response to a reminder from Actors 1 and 2 (Kris Kling and Frank Harts) that her character, Ogawa, is eight years younger than their characters, Kato and Kawakami. She continues along these lines:
I said "Ah yes" even though there is this feeling that like I shouldn't say "Ah yes" myself but.... But it's no, as a way of being told that, ah, yes, yes, this is all stuff I know, obviously, I mean even if I pretended not to know I know, that's the truth, so by saying 'ah, yes' it was just that, I thought it would be more honest, and I'm not just being defensive....
Actress 1's attempts to rationalize her actions while remaining in the moment grow unbearably hysteric as they continue--like a brainy version of Family Guy--as we realize that this is exactly what it is, that it really is sadly funny because it's true. By clinging to the little things, Okada and his characters expose just how shallow they are, unpacking the small talks and anecdotes we exchange with one another.

Thankfully, Okada doesn't follow his own logic to the points of discomfort, merely to the brink, at which point he switches to a parallel set of narrators. Actors 3 and 4 (Steven Boyer and Joseph Midyett) offer the cynically defensive view of the 26- and 27-year-old co-workers; Actor 5, Actress 2 and Actress 3 (Alex Torra, Stacey Yen, and Mary McCool), flesh out the doomed relationship and suicidal thoughts of a yet another 30-year-old co-worker; and then there's Actress 4 (Jessica Almasy), too young--she carries around a teddy bear on her date--to have the "laser-like" worries and focus of a 30-year-old. In another good move, Rothenberg avoids reducing the players to the sort of wincing humor that made Ricky Gervais famous: though he begins with a hyper-realism that draws out the nuances of discomfort--averted eyes, quick smiles, disdainful sneers--he soon shifts to a more malleable sort of abstracted movements that physicalize those emotions.

Enjoy doesn't show an ounce of hyperbole or slapstick, and benefits from avoiding the overwrought wit of the mumble-core genre. Instead, we get the unrelenting realizations of someone like Actor 2, in all its circumlocutory glory: "I am panicked about turning 30 but it's not as simple as that, or like, I actually have turned 30, but to be honest it really hasn't hit me at all, it's like I'm completely deluding myself... and that's where I look at myself and I'm like, wait, is this OK?" He's not deadpan, just serious--even when he adds props, trying to pose for a video camera or to find the right background music for this, the intentionally pretentious video will he records "in anticipation of impending misfortune." Such realizations strike all the characters in different ways: Actor 1, repelling a homeless customer, sees himself in those displaced eyes; Actor 4 and Actor 5, at times speaking as other characters, are obviously able to picture themselves in other shoes; and the Actresses are all, at one point or another, in and out of love.

Enjoy is about the attempt to come to terms with oneself at the current moment. The commonality it discovers--of mortality, of self-awareness, and yet also of life, of romance--is what Okada focuses on at the marvelously poetic conclusion:
"The words come out sounding totally trite," I said, but I was actually thinking how extraordinary this feeling actually is, like don't lump me with anyone else who thinks they can express their feelings with words...but then when you think about all the other people in the world who have used these words throughout history, and their feelings, perhaps each and everyone one of them was experiencing as profound an emotion as I was, actually...and if so, then these trite words...maybe these words are actually enough. 
They are more than enough. They are: Enjoy.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Why do people read diaries, memoirs, and personal letters? Perhaps it is because we hope to catch a reflection of ourselves, and thereby learn something in the process. In its own sense, theater operates on a similar level, which makes Marielle Heller's adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl quite an understandable project. Even though the tale of a 70s girl who falls for her mother's boyfriend--and worse--is billed as fiction, it feels real and relevant--especially to a new generation of young, sexual rebels. It is also immensely aided by Heller's fierce connection to the project--she also plays the diarist, Minnie--and the ways in which co-directors Rachel Eckerling and Sarah Cameron Sunde have maintained the artistry of the tale, projecting a variety of images across this large, shag-carpeted, lived-in space. (It's a scenic designer's dream, one that Lauren Helpern has made a reality, basically imprisoning the audience in a blown-up version of Minnie's bedroom.) However, the show falters in its reluctance to be as graphic as the novel, shying away from nudity and relegating certain characters and scenes to off-stage voices and too-distant illustrations. At times, it is still a powerful play, but like Crumb and American Splendor, the great grotesques of life do not easily transition from one medium to another.

However, what does do well on stage (as it always has) is language, and Heller fills her characters with such awkwardness that we sympathize with them, even when they're wrapped up in drug-addled gang-bangs. (Perhaps even more, at these points.) Moreover, because Minnie continues to record her diaries throughout the show, we constantly see the shifts in perception between her world and reality: "Monroe Rutherford is the handsomest man in the world. As for myself, I am not particularly attractive at all." Neither of these things are true, but one can understand how a fifteen-year-old girl who finds herself the focus of her mother's boyfriend Monroe (the always excellent Michael Laurence) might think so: "I know it seems weird, but I have this strangely calming feeling that even if he touched my tits on purpose it's probably all right because he's one of our best friends and he's a good guy and he knows how it goes and I don't." This naive curiosity, coupled with a teenage girl's energy, is sickly comic gold, though like true graphic novels, it is deeply wedded to a serious heart. The drama slowly builds, often having to chip through facades of childish dreams, but pays great rewards when it does--as with Charlotte (Mariann Mayberry), Minnie's desperately trying to hold-on single mother: "Why me?" Even the underdeveloped ex-step-father Pascal (Jon Krupp) and best friend Kimmie (Neill Mooney) make the most of their moments, at the least giving us a clearer picture of Minnie's development (or lack thereof).

It's thanks to the actors that the dreamy narrative works, for as things quickly leap from significant moment to significant moment (with plenty of awkward, mundane, or comparative ones along the way), the actors remain on hand as touchstones. In this sense, Sunde and Eckerling are able to segue from a comic moment with the girls (they lick an album cover of David Bowie's crotch, convinced they can feel his dick) into a confessional between Minnie and Monroe: "I like it when he kisses me in the little kisses that are not just sexy...I am a little bit scared...I wouldn't know what to do if he really got serious about me...this fear makes me feel all alone." Heller's range in these scenes certainly helps, not to mention her expressive eyes and her lithe frame, which accents characters doe-like vulnerability but also panther-like fire. (It is impossible to discuss her character in ways that do not boil down to sex.) She's confused, but not, angry, but not, prey, but not--and the show is worth seeing just on the strength of Heller's ability to shift between those instantaneous shifts and doubts.

In other words, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is worth seeing as a performance piece, which is as it should be, considering that it cannot hope to recapture all the image-memories of the novel itself. Taken this way, it's also easier to accept the out-of-the-blue revelations about certain characters, the result of theatrical compression and the conventions of the stage. Taken this way, it's also easier to find that glint in a character, that reflection or revelation of self, that makes theater worth living for.

Thursday, April 01, 2010


Letters and numbers are inadequate, state the dueling monologues of G.B.S. There are too many fucking numbers, says Rich. And, adds his brother Sam, letters can stand for just about anything, from grievous bodily harm to George Bernard Shaw. These two would be perfectly happy to stand at opposite ends of the stage, content in their own complaints, except that G.B.S. stands for Guillain-Barre Syndrome, and their father has been paralyzed by it. As a result, Rich and Sam are forced together, though they remain apart, with Jason Hall's script slowly pulling the shared, alternating narrative of these two brothers together. 

Because it would otherwise be a very short play, a lot of things happen as Rich drives Sam to the hospital. Rich uses Sam to "break in" to his ex-wife's apartment complex, hoping to steal back his daughter; one flat tire later, they wind up stranded outside an old classmate's house, each with very different takes on the meaning of "fucking Matthew Wheeler." They even take a literal trip down memory lane, watching the children sled down Indian Hill. Thankfully, Hall fills these scenes with original anecdotes (a major cigarette faux pas), telling details (not just the way Sam reacts to some kids who "rather look like hoodlums," but the way Rich reacts to Sam's unconsciously elite shudder), and a very active voice that allows both actors to jump into the other's monologue (as themselves or other characters, as needed). Because of him, the script avoids the inadequacies of mere "letters" and becomes a tender and comic thing.

Unfortunately, it's a bit rougher on stage: Jay Rohloff is too literal, and he fills the monologues with unnecessary and often goofy action, which in turn contributes to the overacting. For Jason Jacoby, this is less of a problem, as Sam is meant to be a bit dramatic--he's the emotional, gay son, fleeing a town and family that don't understand him. Things work out less well for Curran Connor, who plays Rich so pathetically that it's hard to see why anyone--especially himself--thinks he's tough. As if it were not bad enough that his ex-wife beats him up in an early scene (i.e., Connor throwing himself to the floor), he spends the rest of the play hamming up his "crippling" back injury. Even Josh Windhausen's set gets a bit distracting: those random letters and numbers stare us down, a symbolic choice in an otherwise literal play.

The overt stuff works for Jacoby--particularly when he gloats about his formative sexual experiences--because we don't expect Sam to be that bold, but it actually cripples Connor's portrayal of Rich. It's not until they reach the ICU that Rich becomes more than the sum of Sam's demeaning descriptions. Rich suggests that Sam rub his comatose father's hand, in the hopes that this might help their father's nervous system to "wake up"; this is the sort of delicate touch in G.B.S. that Rohloff is missing, and instead of the clear impression gained by a gentle rubbing, we get a shakier view.