Friday, May 28, 2010

New Island Archipelago

Photo/Darien Bates

"I love the sea. It is so unpredictable," says Captain Benny Zibara (Steven Rattazzi). The second part of that introduction is true, and a fair warning of The Talking Band's casually absurd bent. But it takes a certain type of weathered theatergoer to agree with the first part, to love a mercurial show like New Islands Archipelago. That's twice as true given Paul Zimet's unfocused direction (surprising, or not, considering that it's his script), which makes it even harder to follow the action--it's not just hard to make sense of certain events, like a hand crawling out of a trash bag, it's sometimes hard to even notice them. Moreover, the theatrical tricks--portholes that suddenly appear, see-sawing tables, a twisting shuffleboard court--distract from the dialogue, forcing the audience to accept the weak expository sections, and the inconsistencies in characters. If the journey actually went somewhere, the frivolity might turn to novelty; instead, the play turns to a miniature farce before ending with a literal shipwreck.

The plot of a show like this is beside the point, but since the representational meaning is lost in the fog, here goes. Pricilla (Tina Shepard) is tired of the conformity of her city home, and wants an adventure--"You can't find underwear that doesn't go up your crack, the air is un-breathable, they call every cocktail a martini." She brings her orphaned blank-slate of a granddaughter Oona (Kristine Haruna Lee) along, as well as her screechy friend, Dot (Ellen Maddow), who has her own secret motivation--her estranged son Charlemagne, more familiarly known as Lem (Todd D'Amour), works for the cruise line. As coincidences have it, Oona's lost mother, the amnesiac Virginia (Bianca Leigh) is also aboard, and there are the makings of cheap romance everywhere: between Oona and Lem, and Pricilla and Herman (James Himelsbach), an elderly con artist with a real-estate scheme. Ostensibly, everyone's looking for something, and their faith is what gets them by, especially with their vivid, vivid dreams. (Simon Tarr's videos seem nice, but are often hard to make out against the dull curves of Nic Ularu's hull of a set.)

There are some bizarrely enjoyable moments--a talent show in which the passengers bring verbs like "to protrude" to life--and some nice chemistry in the unabashedly goofy dances between Lem and Oona, but the ship refuses to stay on course. Lem abruptly turns into an anti-capitalist who wages class warfare by robbing the rich passengers, Pricilla starts looking over her shoulder like a capital Paranoid, Virginia keeps dressing up as characters from the novel she's trying to write, and Zibara turns into some weird half-fish, half-bird creature (made out of balloons). These changes are rarely acknowledged and never satisfactorily addressed: "Play Overboard!" is the warning that springs to mind.

If you're not seasick yet, New Island Archipelago might be right up your abstract alley. Just make sure you bring your own life preserver and bucket, because neither Zimet nor his company are going to bail you out.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Jack's Precious Moment

Photo/Evan Sung

Bib (Eddie Kaye Thomas) stands at a podium, wearing a heavy, baby-blue sweater with a reindeer on it, and graphically describes his brother's last moments: "These men grab him and start sawing off his head with a sword...." He continues the eulogy by explaining that he understands where these "terrorist fundamentalist whatevers" are coming from, and despite his boyish face, you can tell he's serious just by looking into his sunken eyes and listening to his question: "How could God not let this happen more often?"

Samuel D. Hunter's play, Jack's Precious Moment, is filled with dissonant moments like these, and its characters are prone to shock-value outbursts or exaggerated actions. Bib's father, Jim (Tom Bloom) insists that his electrical-contractor son is a martyr, and that an American flag draped over some refrigerator boxes makes "a memorial for a fallen soldier." Bib's widowed sister-in-law, Karen (Karen Walsh), falls back on her collection of Precious Moment figurines and a born-again innocence, hiding her life as a former junkie behind dotty mannerisms and her high-pitched voice. Most topsy-turvy of all, the three aren't mourning the loss of a loved one--Jack was an abusive asshole--but rather trying to come to terms with a world so black that a man like that can appear so angelic. So when Karen sums up her plan to have Jack made into a Precious Moment figurine--"I had a husband who drank too much and hit me sometimes, but it's okay because he was killed by terrorists"--Bib, longing for the ease of a "happy Christian" disposition, agrees to help her.

It's an unsettlingly funny play, and it grows even more so given Kip Fagan's overt direction, which hams up facial expressions (like Karen's glue-sniffing eyes) and set-pieces for extra laughs. (To be fair, the cloying sincerity of commercial, religious products is pretty funny, especially to the outsider.) At times, it is even moving, as when a lit-up Bib is driven to recreate the video of his brother's beheading--ironically the only moment of life that Thomas shows in this necessarily muted role--or when a local carny, Chuck (an endearing Lucas Papaelias), flirts with Bib by explaining the sheer randomness of life: "It's got nothing to do with God or the devil, or whatever. It's just meat. We're all just meat. And on that note, would you please put your hand on my penis?" The problem is that Jack's Precious Moment is visibly straining to contain itself, to work toward some greater meaning in spite of its wicked streak. One can't help being disappointed by the unearned significance it settles for: a life-sized Precious Moments figure (Danny Ryan) who dispenses hugs and makes everything OK, even if the hero is left penniless and in a body-cast.

Well, that's faith for you, right. At least with this play, whether you end up believing it or not, you'll leave with some precious chuckles.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Barrier Island

Photo/Antonio Miniño

Barrier Island lays some nice groundwork for what David Stallings calls his Galveston Cycle. It establishes the "regulars" of this Texas isle--or more particularly, of Cappadona's Bar--and follows these stubborn, sheltered people right up to the edge of 2008's Hurricane Ike, which devastated the residents who had refused the mandatory evacuation. However, the show remains as dramatically loose as its characters are emotionally tight, and Stallings works too hard to create meaning out of a metaphoric exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. And since he can't explain why these people choose to stay, their fate is just all the more cryptic and dissatisfying, a play that works to actively write itself into a corner.

The play is littered with dead ends: every single subplot that's introduced--one for every other character--is resolved with a bland dismissal, all of which serves to make Barrier Island feel unimportant and, ironically (in the face of a hurricane) low-stakes. Too-young Steph (Anne Clare Gibbons-Brown) has struck up a relationship with the mentally stunted Carl (Mark Emerson): when her washed-up yet sensible mother Cheryl (Carol Hickey) finds out, she simply accepts it. Susie (Alex Bond) is shown to be a fighter, first when she tries to sell out a local business for a 1-800-FLOWERS commission and again when she tries to wiggle out of back rent, but both cases are met with wishy-washy resignation from her bar-owner husband, Nate (David L. Carson), and the drama is quickly paved over with cheap forgiveness. At one point, Bob (Stu Richel), as much a fixture of the bar as the stool he sits on, has so little to do that he actually falls asleep: this, too, is ignored.

Even the main plot is haltingly fleshed out: Laura (Jennifer Laine Williams) has returned home because her father is in a coma, and her mother is growing senile. She's stayed away from ten years so as to avoid the embarrassment of being a single mother, but it's unclear why: her son, Daniel (Frankie Seratch), is a veritable angel, and it's not like she'd be the first scorned woman in this town. (After all, even the oft-drunk Cheryl's a librarian at the Catholic school.) While in town, she meets Trey (Anthony Crep), who was once too shy to ask her out, and now remains shy simply for "dramatic" purposes -- as if coy flirtations alone could save Barrier Island. (Given the almost lethargic bar that's set by this play, it almost does.) The two reveal things about themselves, most notably how changed they've been by the outside world, but these things remain empty words. As much as Trey might insist that they've got more than one shade, the fact that he keeps insisting that they leave and that she unjustifiably keeps refusing to go tells another story.

And that's where Barrier Island is stuck: it's always either refusing to tell a story, luxuriating instead with small talk, or it's telling the wrong story, one that doesn't go anywhere. Cristina Alicea's level-headed direction is stuck sparring when it wants to be boxing, and the most truthful part of the play comes from Craig Napoliello's spot-on depiction of a rustic, non-commercial bar. The nice, small moments that survive are like fragile embers that must now be carefully tended to by Stallings: he's got the makings of a fiery drama, but he can't keep backing away from letting it out--even if he's got to burn down this comfort zone of a play to do so.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Banana Shpeel

Photos/OSA Images

Over the last twenty years, Cirque du Soleil has built up a well-deserved reputation for its agile theatrics. Though the visuals and themes are ever changing, the generally gymnastic aesthetic remains the same: exotic music will create a vibrant soundscape, lush colors will form the setting, and performers will leap, twirl, and hurl themselves across the stage. At heart, their best shows are death-defyingly simple. Not so, however, with the tarted-up Banana Shpeel, a gilded lily if there ever were one. Director David Shiner begs, borrows, and pretty much steals from his own work and presents a front-loaded show that's far too heavy on story and way too light in invention--pretty much exactly the opposite of what you'd expect of this "Clowns do Soleil" performance.

Daniel (Daniel Passer) and Wayne (Wayne Wilson) are the right and left hand men of Marty Schmelky (Danny Rutigliano), and along with the hilariously all-business Margaret (Shereen Hickman), they run the Schmelky Spectacular. But Schmelky's exaggerations quickly run him into trouble--he bills every act as the best thing he's ever seen--and he's soon consumed with the agita of three runaway clowns, the not-so-ordinary Claudio Carneiro (think a clumsier Jemaine Clement), the half-naked, high-pitched, lizard-like "modern dancer" Patrick de Valette (creepily hilarious), and the elderly mime Gordon White (actually a pretty spry fellow). Their antics are fine, if often derivative; they're disappointing mainly because they reduce the amount of time spent with the more polished, far more impressive acrobatics.

Clowns are a dime a dozen, especially in this show, but you're not likely to meet anyone who can spin and juggle dough-like fabric from their hands and legs -- let alone someone like Vanessa Alvarez, who can do as much while doing a headstand. If you're a fan of tap dancing, you'll see a masterfully synchronized pair in Josette and Joseph Wiggan; if you prefer to just watch ridiculous death-drops--or as Schmelky puts it, "the precarious balancing act that is love"--you can't ask for more than the millimeters Preston Jamieson and Kelsey Wiens shave off their human juggling. There's even some fancy hat juggling from Tuan Le, though he breaks the illusion of this being easy when he drops them. These acts are all show-stoppers in their own right: they don't need literal show stoppers between them.

Hampering Banana Shpeel further is the redundant second act: simply adding black light to a routine doesn't make it any more creative, especially if it's just a modern dance (or an "eccentric" one, as they bill it). There's also more tap dancing, a straight-up gymnast (Dimitry Bulkin), and a trio of contortionists who may be able to stretch themselves, but aren't exactly stretching the same-old-same-old-same-old act. The same can be said of David Shiner's clown routines, which are not only lower-key than those of the first act, but eerily reminiscent of those from Fool Moon. The finale, which lets loose a hail of confetti and banana-shaped balloons, is both gratuitous and a page out of the far-superior Wintuk's book. It should be mentioned, too, that this isn't quite a "family" show, what with the overt references to "making love" and the frequent uses of "bastard"; perhaps this is why clowns generally stick to gibberish.

Banana Shpeel is slippery in just about all the wrong ways, and even the parts that come together, like the Act I slapstick "magic act" finale, seem like accidents: Clowns Gone Wild. In terms of spectacles, there's normal theater, there's Broadway, and then there's the circus. By setting his signs on the broadness of Broadway, Shiner and his company simply haven't gone far enough, and one pities the talented acts that are swallowed up within the interminably mediocre (at best) acting.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity

Photo/Joan Marcus

To many people, "professional wrestling" is a meaningless pit of stereotypes and aggression, a modern-day combination of the comfortable catharsis of both Greek drama and the Coliseum. It's a black-and-white entertainment, full of "faces" or "heels." (On the darker flip-side, there's drugs and corruption, though those elements of The Wrestler aren't found in this show's peppier darkness.) Those generalities are what makes Kristoffer Diaz's Pulitzer-nominated play, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity so effective: he uses wrestling's lack of nuance as a metaphor for America's lack of nuance: the one condemns the other. In other words, it uses a reductive storytelling sport to expand upon certain realities of life--particularly, for the stage, emphasizing on the sorts of characters who rarely get to tell their stories. It doesn't always work, and sometimes the conventions of his plot device upstage or overshadow the message, but it's a captivating trick.

At the heart of things lie Macedonio Guerra (Desmin Borges, channeling Lin-Manuel Miranda) and Vigneshwar Paduar (Usman Ally). The former, known as "Mace," is a hard-working, talented wrestler, but as he explains in the play's crisp narrative tone, the best wrestlers are the ones who get paid to lose and make the other guy look good. (They're called "jobbers.") Mace doesn't care much for the plastic superstars (as a child, he preferred the bendable action figures, not the pre-posed ones, the ones you couldn't really play with), but he loves the sport--especially its lucha libre roots, and so he's content to wear his mask and get power-bombed, even if it's by someone as moronically celebrated as Chad Deity (Terence Archie), the undefeated champion. This changes, though, when he meets the smooth-talking, charismatic Paduar; he senses an opportunity to write a new sort of story in the ring, to introduce the hustle of the Brooklyn streets--real-life swagger--to the stage. Instead, the boss of THE Wrestling, Everett K. Olson (Michael T. Weiss), goes with the simpler, easier-to-sell-to-America story: Paduar will be The Fundamentalist, he'll use the "Camel Clutch" finisher (later changed to the superkick, although it's called the "Sleeper Cell"), and Guerra will be his crazy Cuban-Mexican manager, Che Chavez Castro. They'll fight people like Joe Jabroni, Billy Heartland, and Old Glory (a professional Christian Litke)--people much like those trotted out on a campaign trail, only in tights.

But what else do you expect from a man who can't pronounce the names of his "help"? That's the larger point Diaz is making: how can we expect America to see Indians as basketball-playing street hustlers if they're only ever depicted as terrorists of some kind? If the Mexican is always lazy or an illegal immigrant, then of course you'll hate him. This point is well-reflected in the easily recognizable signs and signifiers of Brian Sidney Bembridge's pop-cultural explosion of a set (larger-than-life images from iconic movies are recessed into the back wall; an neon orange and purple wrestling ring takes up center-stage) and of Christine Pascual's hilariously pointed costumes (turbans, sombreros, American flags). Thanks to Peter Nigrini's projections, we even get the high-octane entrance videos that, once again, make it easy for the audience to not have to think. It's evident that Director Edward Torres knows what he's doing, especially in the way he involves the audience (don't worry) in the action, getting the adrenaline pumping both on stage and off.

However, Diaz's necessarily over-the-top writing gets away from him, and the lack of nuance in his "evil" characters is a cheap trick, considering what he's denouncing. Olson is a vicious snake-oil salesman--at one point, he calls for a mafia-style beat-down--and proud of it. Chad Deity shows hints of his hard-knock rise to the championship, but in general, his arrogant, third-person attitude makes it seem as if he's just another callous businessman. Stereotypes about these sorts of improperly celebrated capitalists are a dime a dozen, and while it's not really their story, it actually makes the final line of the play much less effective. Along those lines, though Ally has some moments of perfectly indignant anger, his acting is a little halting, to the point that it makes you wonder what Guerra sees in V.P. If it weren't for Borges so solidly anchoring the show and pinning every point to the ground, the show might squirm away from them.

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity brings a lot of new things to the stage--especially to Second Stage--and that alone excuses the flaws it exhibits. But like In The Heights, its freshness is used as an excuse for much of its sloppiness (and repetition); you'll be glad you went, but you won't want to buy the merchandise.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

That Face

Photos/Joan Marcus

In her fiery, angry youth, playwright Polly Stenham gives audiences--especially older ones--plenty of opportunities to check out of That Face. The play opens with Izzy (Betty Gilpin), a vain teenager who litters her speech with empty words like "honey" and "sweetie," turning an initiation prank into a savage beating, simply to save face with her colleague, Mia (Cristin Milioti). Mia's older brother, Henry (Christopher Abbott), wakes up to find his mother, Martha (the phenomenal Laila Robins) in his bed again. A hospital visit prompts sex, not sorrow or sympathy; characters are routinely treated as objects. And just because Hugh (Victor Slezak) abandoned his family at the first glimmer of craziness, that doesn't mean he won't use Henry and Mia as pawns against Martha.

Hugh, Izzy, and the hospitalized Alice come across as very slight characters, and their scenes often seem overwritten to compensate, but it would be a mistake to ignore That Face. Stenham was young enough when she wrote this--nineteen--to understand the pressing need for her teenage characters to establish their own voices, and bleak enough to sell the assumption that "all true things are just horrible." She was hopeful, too, that actual love might be enough to redeem even the worst depravities, and while that love might be unrecognizable in the terrifically deranged finale, she makes a powerful, powerful point. And though it's certainly less cheery than Next to Normal (which is part of my problem with that flimsy piece of theatrics), Sarah Benson's rich, actor-driven direction makes this feel like a far more honest--and frightening--glimpse at a family coping with mental illness.

You wonder why Mia is such a steely student, wearing baggy clothes and yet moving and speaking so sharply? It's because her screaming mother calls her "an interruption"; for the last five years, Mia has been forced to retreat to boarding schools, squat on the coaches of "friends" like Izzy, and to grow up entirely too fast (something Milioti's particularly good at playing). And how about Henry, who has been smothered by his mother's needful incompetence? He's doubly trapped: not just by a momma's boy's desire to be the man of the house and to fix things, but by a sort of Stockholm syndrome brought about by years of unconscious mental abuse. Like Mia, he's grown up too fast, and without any friends to balance him: as his mother's 24-7 caretaker, he's dropped out of school and lives a life nearly as closeted as hers. And lest we too-easily pin all the blame for this disaster on Martha, remember that she is crazy--and has gotten progressively worse; it's Hugh who has allowed the house to fall into disarray. (David Zinn's scenic depiction of it--a square, sharply raked slab--feels prison-like, with the detritus of their life serving as the bars.)

The early scenes demonstrate these individual deteriorations; the repetitive feel of these moments actually serves the mood, making things seem more familiar. (Get it?) But it's the final scene--which could be a mighty one-act on its own--that elevates That Face. Abbott's Henry is a many-layered pile of hurt: as his mother's soldier, his father's servant, his sister's protector, he's got nothing left for himself. He has pinned all of his hopes on saving his mother, and the thought that his five-year investment of love might not pay off has led him to this, a moment mixed with desperate sanity and years-in-the-making madness. Due to a laundry mishap, he's wearing one of his mother's dresses at this point, which only emphasizes his own lost personality. Pissing himself--which he does--is pretty much the only thing he can do, and he says as much, thanks to Stenham's angry, revelatory writing.

Robins, too, has elevated Martha: whereas before we've been gripped by her playful and violent shifts (at one point, jealous of a hickey on her son, she gives him one), we at last see the beneficent mother, a wounded woman struggling to find a way far enough out of the fog that she might save the son she truly--overwhelmingly--loves. Even Milioti, who has already more than shown Mia's toughness (and repressed tenderness), goes to a deeper place, both galvanized and paralyzed by these final revelations. The audience goes there with her, voyeurs who are uncomfortably seeing too much and yet (secretly) delightedly unable to turn away from That Face.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Oliver Parker!

Photo/The Shaltzes

Growing up, "fuck" was a shocking word--especially from a child--and flipping someone the bird was actually a pretty offensive thing. But as the years went by, this constant over-punctuation took its toll, arguably reducing the English language, and certainly taking the sting out of an otherwise effective retort. Such is the case with Elizabeth Meriwether's overwritten new play, Oliver Parker! While it starts out as a breathtakingly original play, energetically directed by Evan Cabnet, once we grow acclimated to the quirks of the language and characters, reality (or the lack thereof) sets in. Though Lauren Halpern's terrifically trash-cluttered set and the cast's hyperactively barbed performances hint that there's something worthwhile under the surface, the play contentedly remains a comic mess, as if its own brokenness might somehow reveal something about its characters'.

And yet, though Oliver Parker! might not go anywhere, it's guiltily enjoyable, especially when Meriwether keeps the relationships light and without definition. Jasper (John Larroquette) spends most of the first scene slumped in a chair ("Santa Claus on heroin"); he eats pie with his hands because he's too lazy to get a fork, he doesn't wear shoes anymore because he didn't have any paper towels and yet needed to dispose of his dead cat (which, hungry--and perhaps suicidal--found its way into the Draino). His status as a war veteran perhaps explains his emotional state, which swings from the depressed minimal ("I'm contemporary. [long beat] Contemporary casual.") to the fiercely deranged ("I like to wreck stuff").

He's well-contrasted by the suave, tuxedo-wearing Oliver (Michael Zegen), who rationally attempts to take care of the man, while at the same time relishing his power. But as Jasper coyly tries to get Oliver to accept a self-help book (he's been watching a lot of Lifetime, which he feels is being beamed directly into his brain), and Oliver goes into his own fit, calmed only by pretending to be a dead cockroach, it becomes clearer that their relationship is something more than that of the spoiled young know-it-all and the rotted old do-nothing. Unfortunately, their relationship is damaged in exactly the way that you'd expect, even if their means of dealing with that baggage is new. (If That Face had not also just opened, these twisted ways of coping might seem even stronger, although Albee's The Goat comes to mind, too.)

Holding up less well are Meriwether's secondary characters--not because they're badly acted, but because they don't even have a strong and skewed relationship to cling to. Johanna Day is magnificently addled as a grieving mother, Willa Cross--so much so that we can understand her sneaking off with the filthy rich and criminally young Oliver in order to score some secretive self-medication from his pharmaceutical father. But the fact that she's also a US Senator makes it less likely that she'd risk scandal so directly, especially after her first encounter with Oliver ends with him in nothing but his underwear and a skeleton mask: "Touch my bones." The same goes for Monica Raymund, who is perfectly poised as Cross's aide (attempting to smooth things over); when Jasper mistakenly identifies her as a hooker hired by Oliver, she's so businesslike that it takes her a while to even register the implication, and when she does, her retort is the hilarious "I have a Blackberry!" But when she suddenly sheds her professionalism, swayed by a sickening story, she, too, becomes a flimsy character--there to amuse us, perhaps, or to see just how far our screwed-up heroes will take things, but not a living, breathing character.

And this is where Oliver Parker! ends up, lost in meaningless antics and throwaway jokes. Jasper tells a poignant story about his limo driving days, concluding--after flirting with a transvestite--that "I don't know what anything is any more." Perhaps that's the mood Meriwether wants for her play, then: a broken world in which things that shouldn't happen nonetheless happen, and it's an admirable effort. At best, then, she's showing a coping mechanism for which the mechanics are all too obvious, especially when they get bogged down in the lazy melodramatic flourishes of the final scene. Given the subject matter, Oliver Parker! pulls off a neat trick in that we don't leave the theater hating any of the characters; however, we don't leave the theater feeling anything for them, either.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Killing Women

Photo/Ry Pepper

Things are rough for the steely, all-business Abby (Lori Prince). She's been passed over at work, her current assignment's a killer, and the best her best friend and co-worker Lucy (Lisa Brescia) can comfort her with is this: "You didn't get promoted because you're not a man, and you're ineffective because you're not much of a woman." Oh, the trials and tribulations of the modern working woman. Even more so, perhaps, in the comic world of Marisa Wegrzyn's Killing Women, for Abby happens to be a professional killer, and her "killer" assignment will quickly turn into a "kill her" one if she can't make the self-widowed Gwen (Autumn Hurlbert) do less mothering and far more smothering. The result is surprisingly charming, especially given the hapless performances from Lucy's lovestruck victims ("You gave blood for me!") and the way in which Abby's clumsy associate, Mike (Michael Puzzo), attempts to ask her out. ("What're you doin'?" "Dragging a body." "You wanna get some ice cream?") It's not particularly enlightening, particularly when it comes to the all-business relationships between the women, but it's generally entertaining, and mostly well-directed by Adam Fitzgerald (save for a few upstaged blocking issues).

There's a cheery contradiction to the show, a bright bluntness ("sunshine up the ass"), and it's great to watch Abby attempt to remain professional in the face of Gwen's grating innocence. ("You make me wish I was autistic!" she exclaims, pitting her caustic Lauren Graham attitude against the sunshine and rainbows of, say, Felicia Day.) On the opposite end of the spectrum, Lucy's the Cosmo Assassin cover girl, full of ways to kill--and look good trying. ("No more guns, not for me. The ringing in my ears keeps me up nights and, frankly, I broke a nail pulling the trigger....") As for romance, though there's nothing particularly new about watching blood-soaked people do perfectly normal things, like attend Career Day, it's refreshing to see lines like "I have to shoot a guy now, but I'll be thinking of you" delivered so earnestly.

Unfortunately, every time it comes down to actual business--dealing with their boss Ramone--the show loses the comic wit, plays it far too straight, and gets caught up in rather routine and unconvincing threats. Some of this may be due to Brian Dykstra's monotone attempts to portray an ominously jovial fellow, but more realistically, it's that Wegrzyn's treading such a thin plot that any deviations from the relationships at the core wind up either being cheap distractions or empty scenes. The conclusion could use some work, too: despite Lori Prince's best efforts to show a change in Abby's outlook on life, the role itself hems her into a more-or-less permanently grumpy state, and her final lines are so out of character that the audience forgets to applaud--startled, perhaps, that things simply end so unconvincingly. But, hey: if you came to see Killing Women, and nothing more, you won't be disappointed.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

White Woman Street

Photo/Carol Rosegg

It's easy to wax romantic for the rustic American, circa 1916, a sort of tumbleweed hero who, disillusioned by the land's bloody enterprises (particularly the Indian Wars) and enchanted by the wide open spaces (and possibilities) of the outdoors, turns to mild banditry to earn a living. It's much harder to get worked up by Sebastian Barry's ambling White Woman Street, a series of poems masquerading as monologues disguised as threadbare play. From the choppy cadence of the Ohioan syntax (e.g., "Water in winter, sweat in summer, two useless thing that everyone got") to the plodding pace (no spurs could move this dead horse of a play), the show is too slippery to focus on for more than a few minutes at a time, and it's not helped by Charlotte Moore's listless direction. (The wooden horses the actors "ride" are about as animated as some of these scenes.)

If there were a plot, Barry wouldn't find it necessary to open the play with a man's wistful remembrance of the Irish homeland of his childhood, nor to announce that "I can't go till peace is made, till I stand again in White Woman Street, and beg a certain ghost for her good word." But as the only thing prodding this play along is the forced camaraderie of Trooper (Stephen Payne) and his troupe of gentle outlaws--English Blakely (Greg Mullavey), religious Mo Mason (Gordon Stanley), the Russian Brooklynite Nathaniel (Evan Zes, the standout of the bunch), and their excitable cook, James (Charlie Hudson III)--Barry is forced to simply drift in and out of monologues and memories, creating a ghostly, wearisome play. Even the actual out-of-the-blue action, like a deer hunt or the robbery of a gold train, winds up looking awful--perhaps because the sight of five old men riding fake horses and whooping doesn't actually carry the weight of very much drama.

Barry's a poetic writer, and as a result he works well with monologues. But whereas that writing was focused on two characters and a story in his smashing The Pride of Parnell Street, it slops all over the place in White Woman Street. The standout images ("Sometimes her arms were just rainbows. She smelled of the fires of soap") are lost in the bland stretches of their journey toward the redemptive town of White Woman Street (so named for the single white prostitute all the men used to visit), and though every character gets their own background-boosting monologue, this added knowledge doesn't actually play out in their exaggerated interactions.

Perhaps the lack of cohesion--particularly the abrupt ending--is meant to reflect Trooper's inner disconnect with his adopted country. But that's precisely the problem with White Woman Street: it's all bottled up within a reclusive man, and there's not much fun in watching such a docile man dodder around, sharing only the safe and boring memories that allow him to remain so unaffected.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Truth: A Tragedy

Photo/Sara Krulwich

"The truth is a tragedy," says Cynthia Hopkins of her cabaret of curiosities, The Truth: A Tragedy. "Not the kind of tragedy codified and set down into rules and regulations by Aristotle," she clarifies, though that's obvious from her patchwork garb (the clothes of a sad clown). Hopkins takes an even less conventional route to this truth than Young Jean Lee's mortality grappling Lear: stand-up comedy routines; warbling songs set to springy piano music; documentary footage and other relics. (A museum installation of objects are mounted in the Soho Rep. lobby, and free for all to visit on Sundays from 12 to 6.) But it's despite all of these things that she manages to impress upon us the awful, wasting tragedy that is illness--specifically Parkinson's--and, eventually, death. In other words, the truth is so essentially tragic that it hardly matters how many showy lies Hopkins needlessly piles atop it: "The nature of my father's tragedy is partly that it is not legendary."

Hopkins has a unique style (I've never seen her work before, but she's a downtown regular), and her quirky music (think Regina Spektor) is at least as entertaining as that of Taylor Mac's or Sibyl Kempson's. But those attributes are distractingly performative: her portrayal of dyskinesia (involuntary spasms) calls attention to her, not to her father's illness or her attempts to cope with it. Her attempts to show us what her father might have felt--painful strobe lights and a mumbled monologue from a doctor--succeed, but it's a Pyrrhic victory to harm your audience. (There's a far better moment--the highlight of the play, in fact--in which potpourri and powder explode out of hidden compartments, and we are able to experience the painful shocks and degradations of aging in a more vicarious way.) During one scene, Hopkins delivers the doctor's lines, showing us how he switches from cold fact to cooler defensiveness and then to ice-cold anger; she then delivers all of her lines to the doctor (giving us, in essence, the other end of an overheard phone conversation), but it feels like a gimmick--and a poor one, considering how much of her work is emphatically visual or musical.

Independently, there are clever bits, with dementia shown as a series of sorrowful pratfalls and a wistful nostalgia for a healthier past performed as lively jigs. But these short vignettes remain carefully cordoned off: the character meant to unite them is certainly clear to Hopkins, he does not shine through for us. Instead, of his heart, we get his clutter: "This [anti-organizational] quality is simply an inherent part of his nature, like the way kudzu spreads itself out and covers everything over not because it has something to prove or issues with structure but because it's kudzu." Knowing this doesn't make the actual patchwork of a play any more palatable--just more understandable. At best, it makes Hopkins's performance more admirable, though not any more personal, which is where Lee and Lisa Kron have found success. This is not a dismissal of The Truth: A Tragedy: who am I to tell a true artist to ditch the accordion and the cliches? Rather, it is a regretfully unaffected observance.

metaDRAMA: You Have No Excuse

Unless ticket prices are eliminated entirely (as Oskar Eustice says he wants to do for the Public, though that would take more subsidization than Signature gets), you're always going to have trouble trying to figure out what the public really wants to see in the theater. In truth, what we learn from discounted performances (like SoHo Rep.'s instantly-sold-out $0.99 Sundays) is that people are eager for cheap theater, not necessarily the show that's playing. If every theater decided to make their shows free for one night (this, on a wider scale), and only "sold" tickets this way, you'd get a glimpse at what people wanted to see. (This is, more or less, what basic television does--also removing the trouble of getting to an out-of-the-way or run-down theater, too.)

But you can also learn a lot from pay-what-you-can theater (or keep-what-you-feel-you-deserve theater, ala the Mike Daisey experiment). I absolutely loved Lascivious Something, I hope you do, too. I hope you'll attend their 7:00 Sunday performance, and teach them something about the pay-what-you-can option, which should be that if the show is really good, audiences will reach back into their pockets and offer more. (I do this from time to time, especially since I'm usually not paying.)

Point being: Lascivious Something is pay-what-you-can on Sunday, May 16th, at 7:00. So if money was your objection, you now have no excuse.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Book Look: Chuck Palahniuk's "Tell-All"

According to Chuck Palahniuk's Tell-All, a tell-all biography is written by sycophants who go about "vacuuming up the thorny anecdotes they'd need to flesh out two hundred pages." At least those muckrakers had anecdotes: this awful novel only has a repetitiously self-skewering "bizarre form of name-dropping Tourette's syndrome." The plot's obvious after the first three chapters (or "scenes," since this novel is sloppily written--like a treatment--by a character with delusions of the screen), but to spare you even that Sisyphean torment, here's the plot: Hazie Coogan, an obsessed fan in a maid's costume, carefully cultivates the image of her dithering film-star boss, Katherine Kenton, and plots to have her killed at the height of her "third act" in order to save her from the public vultures that would otherwise tear her (reputation) apart. The ride involves poking fun at Broadway musicals and Lillian Hellman; at rich, younger paramours and their ulterior motives; snobbish celebrities and their empty speech.

That ride, however, is not a fun one. Tell-All is a lie that doesn't even come close to telling a truth: it's an braying, repetitious, inane satire--of itself as much as the sort of audience that might read it. It is a book that is lost in its own devices: Act I's over-explained puns (divorced "happily-never-afters," suicidal "marry-kiri," and adoption-crazed "offspring shopping," to name a few), Act II's book-selling luridness ("subsequent to strenuous oral contact with my romantic meat shaft...," "abandoning the sodden glory of her puckered shelter, I spewed my steaming tribute, gush upon jetting gush, the pearlescent globules of my adoration and profound admiration..."), and Act III's rushed and rote Hollywood ending (not the good kind). These devices pass for description, with a sense of time given to us by the song currently playing on all the radios, and characterization expressed in vagaries like these: "Mervyn LeRoy spread the rumor that I am the secret love child of Wally Beery and his frequent costar Marie Dressler." Actual descriptions--and flat-out exposition--repeat, endlessly, sometimes within the same paragraph. The few lines that actually work are swallowed up by all the yawning emptiness. ("The entire effect, insular and silent as sleeping tucked deep inside Mae West's vagina.")

Tell-All tells us nothing about celebrity culture, it simply reflects back at us--a hundred-fold--what we already wrongly assume. Even the worst book of this sort reveals something about human nature--the writer's, if not the subject's; by distancing himself behind fiction, Palahniuk denies us even that.

TV: The Good Guys

The recent threats in Times Square have helped to distract from the real bomb that's coming your way courtesy of FOX Television, ironically titled The Good Guys. Yes, I realize that's an awful joke. So is this show. Check out my review for Slant Magazine, here.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Lascivious Something

Photo/Carol Rosegg

For a playwright as whimsically creative and daring as Sheila Callaghan, it was only a matter of time before she attempted to literally stage the death of a dream. Wisely, she has once again paired with the visually deft director Daniella Topol (Dead City and the eventual Water), and together they have mounted a poetically stunning, emotionally satisfying, and deeply physical play, Lascivious Something. That title nails the show's slippery specificity: Callaghan's plays easily bounce between reality and dreams, either in fantastical stage directions (Crawl, Fade to White) or in abrupt tonal shifts (That Pretty Pretty, or The Rape Play), and yet they always remain grounded in an intense need. And, like the legendary wine that grows from the blood of this Grecian isle's past and stays bottled for decades, it is her richest, most powerful play yet.

Lascivious Something builds slowly--and with heavy doses of comedy--through its first act, beginning with the arrival of an American, Liza (a terrific Dana Eskelson), at a remote yet tourist-friendly vineyard in Greece. She seems like no match for the owner, Daphne (a radiant Elisabeth Waterston), especially under her steely, commanding glare, until they exchange names and a sliver of a crack appears in Daphne's mask of pleasantries. Daphne recognizes this "self-absorbed, raging lunatic" as the woman who once enchanted her husband, August (a swarthy, magnificently troubled Rob Campbell), and though the man's been content to till and experiment on the rich, wine-soaked soil, she is Greek enough to fear the old passions--the legends--that she knows lurk beneath the surface.

Over the course of the next two hours, Callaghan flirts with the will-he/won't-he tension between the three, all the while enchanting the audience with the coupling of romantic language and bullish frankness ("chewing and screwing in the dark because the sparks turned us on"). And it is through this divide that she manages to deliver on the deeper promise of the play--the smallest death of a dream. (Couple that with the image of August and his "million minor cuts.") Only one of these women can be satisfied; for the other, well, "things often burst." As staged by Topol, these deaths are the abrupt bursts of light bulbs, and after seeing a character speak honestly--often with the sorts of exaggerated passions that befit the sort of legends of people who would launch a thousand ships to Troy--they shatter and extinguish all that has just occurred, resetting--jarringly so--to an earlier moment, at which point things play out in the opposite direction, only with a depth charge of raging repression still echoing in everyone's subconscious. (It's a bit like David Ives's "Sure Thing," only with menace. One of the repeating motifs from the characters is the following exchange: "Are you alright?" "No." "Will you be?" "No.")

These small acts of cowardice, in which characters run from their own desires, is all the more important given the history shared between August and Liza (both considerably older than Daphne): they were college activists, fighting the system, and Liza has come to Greece to retrieve the "mountain" of a man she remembers from the days and weeks of shower-less, car-soaked sex. These two are the hope of 1980s America: they can either share those luminescent, wintergreen sparks of romance again, rising up to fight Ronald Reagan and the disaster they know he will bring (Callaghan foreshadows it, too), or they can sit back, rich as fatted calves, drinking wine and enjoying the beautiful sunrises. Using this artful device, even inaction fuels action, and though many of the scenes don't actually occur, they remain present, hopeful, alive, and crackling under the audience's skin.

These legends don't all work--a tale about Zeus is a little too direct (the fact that it's prerecorded seems to emphasize its awkwardness) and a fourth wheel, Boy (Ronete Levenson), is never entirely justified, even as a representation of the reckless bravery of youth that August has lost. Lascivious Something, however, inches closer and closer to its powerful climax, even on the backs of these half-truths. Several scenes are absolutely electric, from the whispered "Kiss me kiss me kiss me" of the Act I finale to Liza's own legend--the truth of why she's come to this island. (Levenson is outstanding in this bit, nailing Callaghan's clever use of stream-of-consciousness.) There are moments so charged with feeling--watch the way these actors tackle one another with kisses and pin each other to the ground with nothing more than a stare--that it's as if our breath has been stolen by the dazzling performance just as surely as Daphne, clad in a twinkling designer dress, steals her husband's breath (or, in another translation, his soul).

This show is Lascivious Something indeed--something special, something intimate, something (sadly) true.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Le Cirque Feerique

Photo/Cristina Ramirez 

Though Company XIV is too pure to stoop to such a base pun, their aesthetic choices can be summed up neatly as: "If it ain't Baroque, don't fix it." Following that unspoken credo has helped their latest work, Le Cirque Ferrique (The Fairy Circus) to be every bit as enchanting as their last, Snow White--but it has also kept them from the heights they once captured in their more sultry shows (like Le Serpent Rouge!). Their old adult works were taut--nay, supple--and their newer stuff, which skews toward kids, tends to be looser and more labored. Company XIV was built around Austin McCormick's choreographic delights, and while his strong ensemble is filled with familiar faces, the focus shifts too often to the text (never the strong point of their shows) and its clownish narrator (Jeff Takacs).

And yet, these are small disappointments that more often than not get lost in the sweeping spectacles of Company XIV's gilded fantasy world. And there are plenty of things that work better in Le Cirque Ferrique, like McCormick's use of the Baroque Opera Trio Charities (Brooke Bryant, Amber Youell, and Brett Umlauf): this time, instead of an awkwardly interjecting chorus, they're now properly mashed-up into the proceedings, delivering haunting riffs on Lady Gaga and Madonna. The shift from a single fairy tale to a series of seven short riffs also provides McCormick a wider canvas of dance styles to pull from: "The Princess and the Pea" is told with Arabian flair, all silk swoops and finger-bells; "Ferdinand the Bull" shows its Spanish roots in its leggy stomps; and both "The Frog Prince" and "The Ugly Duckling" create new styles of dance to show its two-man frog, or blind-legs duck. There are plenty of highlights in these eighty-five minutes, particularly the wolf's lascivious duet during "Little Red Riding Hood." The only piece that strains to do something unique is "The King's New Clothes," but then again--that's no surprise: Baroque is far from Burlesque.

McCormick knows how to mix-and-match looks, dances, and music, and seeing just how they'll all fit together is part of the fun of any Company XIV show. For instance, "Cinderella" mixes the text of Roald Dahl's clever, rhyming adaptation with step-sisters in pig- and cow-faced masks; Charities sings "Like a Prayer" as the Fairy Godmother's balloon-brimmed dress descends from the sky. Zane Pihlstrom's frilly costumes--especially the more abstract string-pipe bull mask, or the bedazzled wolf--are otherworldly delights that accent the technical dance moves on display. And of course, the ensemble is a game bunch, from McCormick's tongue-wagging frog to Davon Rainey's powerful yet playful bull, to the gamut of princesses (Laura Careless, Yeva Glover, Marisol Cabrera), not to mention Gioia Marcheses, who for once doesn't only play the villain.

The best storytellers--Dahl, Seuss, Grimm--invent their own stylized worlds and invite others in to take a peek. McCormick may choose to write in corsets, lace, and ballet, but he's every bit as captivating at spinning a tale--or simply at spinning, and spinning, and spinning.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Jacob's House

Photo/Justin Hoch

On the one hand, Jacob’s House is obviously a retelling of the Biblical pseudo-hero Jacob, a play meant to show us the angels—and demons—we must wrestle with in order to live and love in the world today. On the other, it is also a neat parallel for playwright August Schulenburg’s struggle to write the play in the first place. Just as Jacob wrestles with an angel, so too does Schulenburg, his back to the wall after being denied (at the last minute) the rights to Archibald MacLeish’s 1950 adaptation of the story of Job. Just as Jacob earns himself a limp and a blessing, so too does Schulenburg, producing—out of a feverish weekend of writing—a somewhat crippled but brand-new play for Flux Theatre Ensemble (his company).

It’s no surprise that the framing device for Jacob’s House focuses on Jacob’s three heirs, Dinah (Jane Lincoln Taylor), Joe (Zack Calhoon), and Tamar (Jessica Angleskahn) arguing over who gets the inheritance, and whether or not it is a blessing or a curse: these are surely the same things Schulenburg wrestled with. But sadly, whereas Jacob was blessed with time, which enabled him to fail and rebuild from scratch three times, Schulenburg has been forced to rush this play into production, and its unedited strains are evident. Too much of the play is handed over to sloppily written characters like Tamar (no offense to Angleskahn), who are nothing more than provocateurs with mouths big enough for a too-clever writer to dump his excesses out of. “Non-ninja, would that be a nonja?” she asks. Later, she coins the term “ungel” for a non-angel, and despite being treated as a low-bred country girl who calls everyone “Sug,” also says things like “She spoke with the pompatus of love.”

Even when decently acted—like Isaiah Tanenbaum’s comic appearances as the sinisterly leprechaun-like “Messenger”—it’s impossible to salvage lines like “all preggers with twins and what not.” The end result is meant to be Bible Studies for Williamsburg Hipsters, and sometimes it is, as with the description of Jacob’s relationship with Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel: “Two sisters.” “And they were both in love with him. “Kinky.” But between the staccato pacing of scenes, the uneven tone of the dialogue, and the rambling storytelling—particularly a lengthy riff from Laban—Schulenburg winds up pinned by his own creation. The story he’s updating was meant to deliver simple moral messages, and that’s lost here.

What works, and works well, is the trickster folklore that Schulenburg has appropriated, especially the way he has transformed Jacob into the ultimate con artist. The finest scenes in the play focus around tricks—like the stealing of the birthright—and these are always entertaining bits, bits that also say a lot about Modern America and the pride we take in unethical loopholes. Matthew Archambault does a fine job in the role, too, growing from the scared but prideful boy who tricks Essau (Anthony Wills Jr.) into trading his gun for some “poisoned” potato stew to the confident cow-breeder who announces to Rachel (Kelli Dawn Holsopple) that he’s going to marry her and, of course, to the swaggering man who knowingly gets hitched to Leah (Tiffany Clementi) as well. It’s no surprise that the majority of these scenes are set in the past, where they can avoid getting hung up on the exaggeratedly showy storytelling device.

Schulenburg is no stranger to having a direct narrator, as in his last piece The Lesser Seductions of History. But there, he spoke to a more personal era of change, and he had more immediate ideas to throw around—and, modeled after Our Town, a stronger theatrical basis than that of the Bible, which is (almost by definition) preachy. Only the rare moments at which Dinah, Joe, and Tamar actually get involved in their scenes—recreating an earlier, formative, intimate moment—do these characters justify their weight. These small moments also play into the talented Kelly O’Donnell’s strengths as a visual director: when past and present collide, she can neatly juxtapose the two. When they remain awkwardly separated, there is little she can do other than to store them silently in a corner of Jason Paradine’s neatly cluttered attic set, along with all the other bric-a-brac.

Through it all, the play parallels the author's struggle: in the most effectively tragic scene, Jacob sacrifices more and more of himself--legs, arms, eyes, brain--in an effort to buy the time he needs to wrap things up, to finish. Schulenburg has admirably sacrificed much to mount this play--and it's certainly better than nothing, especially for the actors who are given a chance to showcase their skills. But both he and Jacob do eventually run out of time, and so Jacob's House is left incomplete, rushing to a hasty end and a deus ex angelica, leaving threads unjustified and other threads untied. Hopefully, with more time, more editing, the cursed parts of this play will flower into lovely blessings.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Book Look: Yann Martel's "Beatrice and Virgil"

Beatrice and Virgil is Yann Martel channeling Paul Auster as he calmly relates the story of a one-hit author--a stand-in for himself--who is stuck trying to write about the Holocaust in "a new way" until he encounters a taxidermist who has written a very Beckett-like play. The rest of the short novel--which at times resembles Michael Chabon's circuitous The Final Solution--revolves around excerpts of that play, and the author's attempts to define it. The sections on taxidermy-as-history are richly written, and the play itself--which follows Beatrice, a stubborn donkey, and Virgil, a howler monkey--is an excellent means of abstracting-to-the-point-of-clarity the enormous struggle to talk about something that cannot be talked about. Martel is aware that Beatrice and Virgil's clever, minimalist devices for naming the Horrors is not enough, lacking plot and action, but he does himself a disservice by succumbing to the most lackluster resolution possible, one that distracts from the otherwise elegiac emptinesses of the novel. However, he redeems himself with the tragic, conclusive short story, "Games for Gustav," and with his "sewing kit," a list of coping mechanisms that are far more than the sum of the whole.

See also: Brian K. Vaughn's Pride of Baghdad. 

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Letters to the End of the World

Photo/Matthew Murphy

"Africa?" asks Bryan (Peter O'Connor), doing his best to convince his boyfriend Todd (Charles Socarides) to sleep with him. "I don't want to talk about something I don't know anything about, that's how people end up making up shit." Bryan may be poor compared to the rich, well-intentioned Todd, but at least he's honest, which is something that--for most of Letters to the End of the World--writer/director Anton Dudley is not. Though the language is fine, as one might expect from the letter-writing correspondence between Todd and his African-reporting idol Agnatha (Shannon Burkett), the play itself rarely reaches beyond the dimly descriptive, especially for the sections mired in America. Then again, what did we really expect? Agnatha writes for Vogue, and Dudley is making up--or at least falsely appropriating--shit.

Lost as the overall story may be, Dudley at least deserves credit for fleshing out his African characters, though much of that is due to actors Francesca Choy-Kee and Tyrone Mitchell Henderson. (Look at the way Henderson nails even his few lines doubling as a conscience-provoking homeless man.) Ms. Mwando starts out as a sour matriarch, clucking at the juvenile joys of Emmanuel. But it's as much a delight to see the joy peek through Choy-Kee's lips as it is a sorrow to see illness threaten to eclipse those sparks. And Henderson's buoyant energy paves the way for the pending gravity, a performance that fits perfectly with Dudley's own intent (after all, this Nike-loving man has the most serious job of all: coffin-maker). It's a shame that Burkett's portrayal of Agnatha comes across as that of a stubborn, stupid interloper (in other words, an American). It makes her too similar to Socarides's Todd, and neither one ever seems affected by the world around them, even when they've literally got the blood of babies on their hands.

Sadly, Dudley's more concerned with America than Africa, and--as if realizing that he needs to find a way to connect the two--settles on the cheapest solution he can find: AIDS. He also picks the most contrived means of doing so; while Todd is off in Africa, Bryan wallows in a drunken stupor back in America. He also starts sleeping with Tess (Burkett), absurd not just because he is gay, but because Tess happens to be Agnatha's crazy twin sister. (No, really.) If this is the way for him to show Todd his love, then romance is officially dead. So is the potential for poetry in the play: the text is sapped, strangled, and then beaten (like a dead horse), especially as scenes start to repeat themselves. (And repeat they must: since Dudley has little to say, but takes two acts to do so.)

The admirable low-budget aesthetic of At Hand Theatre Company runs into trouble, too: Eli Kaplan-Wildmann's "set" consists of a sliding bench and a crude map drawn on the wall, making it hard for the audience to connect with the things being described. (Were they described more spiritedly, as in I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given To Me By a Young Lady from Rwanda, that would be fine; here, though, they need a striking visual, like that of Roundabout's production of The Overwhelming.) It's a bold choice to stage a show in the round within the small Studio Theater at Theater Row: had there been any action on stage, it would indict us as passive observers. However, for a play about such passive observers, we wind up watching the audience as much as the actors.

At what is supposed to be the "climax" of Letters to the End of the World, Agnatha tells Todd that she is leaving--giving up on the actual people of the clinic--to pursue a story. "I do that and the better version of me--the richer, more educated, more capable version of me--will come here and take my place." That seems to be what Dudley is doing as a playwright, too: he's settling for what he's done and hastily putting it out there, for better or worse, hoping that someone will see this and be inspired enough to do better. Well, at least we can still hope.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Stuffed and Unstrung

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Henson Alternative may want to bill Stuffed and Unstrung as an uncensored "puppets gone wild" cross between Avenue Q and Whose Line Is It Anyway?--and, admittedly, it is. But those distracted by the youthfully-skewing Twitter animations during intermission, or by the beers sold in the aisles, or all the merchandising opportunities, are missing the true diamond in the rough, crass, and generally hilarious skits. Emcee Patrick Bristow even says as much in his introduction (though this may be lost given his own Red Bull-driven puppetish behavior): you see, Stuffed and Unstrung is two shows in one. There's the potty-mouthed performance being filmed and projected to either side of the stage, but then there's also the sweet, romantic glimpse beneath the curtain (the camera, in this case): the comedians themselves, exposed for the romantic puppeteers they are.

Stuffed and Unstrung isn't just a collection of fifteen improvisatory games--like the puppets, it is  more than the sum of its parts. Instead, it is a love song to the genre, akin to Jay Johnston's The Two and Only, which featured expert ventriloquism as a means of telling a deeper story. Here, Brian Henson (who you may or not see on any given night--there's a rotating cast) uses puppetry to show the evolution of the genre, beginning--appropriately enough--with the hypothetical origins of the art: Neanderthals coping with mortality by crudely manipulating the corpse of an enemy. Mixed in with the skits are precise re-enactments of classic Jim Henson and Frank Oz skits, like 1956's "I've Grown Accustomed To Your Face" and 1965's "Java," along with demonstrations of special effects (similar to the looping technology solo musicians use, only with video) and of the "future" that is digital puppetry (demonstrated this evening by the talented Allan Trautman). As for the improv, it's nothing new, but it's distinctly more charming with puppets, perhaps because of the perversion of our expectations. (For instance, this night featured the superb Leslie Carrara-Rudolph as a groundhog giving a lecture on the fine art of pimping. Caught having to justify a random slide of a weird outfit: "This ain't Oktoberfest, this is Bitchfest.")

Though there's no way to guarantee the quality of any given night, Stuffed and Unstrung is diverse enough, both in its games and its puppeteering, that the two hours fly right by. There's even some audience interaction, including a skit that emphasizes just how talented the Henson crew is, and goes a long way to explain the lasting appeal of the Muppets. Hell, it's a blast just to look at all the diverse and comical characters--roughly eighty in all--that proudly hang on the wall: aliens that only speak a word at a time, bad bunnies, grossly expressive hot dogs, etc. At the same time, it's a thrill to find that the finale--a reprise of their original intro song "Puppet Up"--is just as entertaining done with literal hand-puppets (no strings attached) as it is when those hands are masked by one-tusked warthogs and myopic turtles. There's a reason you won't find Statler and Waldorf at this show: they know they'd have nothing bad to say.