Friday, December 21, 2012

THEATER: The Surprisingly Heartwarming "P.S. Jones and the Frozen City"

Is there anything more important in the theater than confidence? Without it, Robert Askins could never have written his Obie-award winning Hand to God (in which a boy's Satanic sock puppet terrorizes a Christian bible group); without it, we'd never have seen his hyper-imaginative follow-up, the ode to old-school adventure comics (and perhaps a little Stephen King), P.S. Jones and the Frozen City. Without it, could you imagine Joe Paulik agreeing to walk around in a cape and goggles, smeared with the excrement that makes up his character's name, Pig Shit Jones? Or Sofia Jean Gomez trusting that Carla Bellisio's brilliant costuming and Eric Wright and the Puppet Kitchen's design could change her from a woman rolling around on an office chair into a Great Glass Spider, the menacingly sexy overlord of the titular Frozen City? (They're correct to trust: both actors come across brilliantly.)

Thankfully, there's no shell game going on in Askins's play: it's genuinely good. Jasons Simms' pop-art design (dotted storybook props that enhance Alex Koch's animated projections) sets the tone, E. Calvin Ahn's fight direction sells the idea of a giant's severed green fist going on a rampage, and Jose Zayas's direction has never felt so simultaneously loose and necessary, which is to say that while the actors appear to have freedom enough on stage for anything to happen, this is not actually a comic book, and so the action sequences and transitions must have been carefully planned out (albeit invisibly so). Few directors could so adroitly (and creatively) handle the call for an army of fire-breathing tigers, a cult of cannibalistic sirens (Jenny Seastone Stern and Diana Oh, putting the aces in menaces), and a spectral Gunslinger (Steven Rishard), to say nothing of Bobby Moreno's appearance as a befuddled giant named Lothar.

Photos/Jill Steinberg
Astute readers will note that I've jumped around plot points -- that's because P.S. Jones basically operates as a highlight reel, in which Pig Shit, our hero, accidentally stumbles onto a Quest of Great Importance that separates him from his beloved (and shriveled puppet) mother (Gomez) and sends him on a collision course with Benjamin (Preston Martin), his flamboyantly well-spoken and well-dressed opposite (his brother, naturally). Following the trail of a severed limb and a phantom cowboy through one of the many inhospitable deserts of the post-apocalypse, it's less about the plot of the journey than the experiences along the way -- eye-catching and rib-tickling stuff, and budget-stretching design miracles that ought to get terraNOVA even more nominations at the yearly NYIT Awards. (Hell, I was even impressed by the fidelity of the sound effects from Jane Shaw and Emma Wilk.)

Confidence is what allows me to wholeheartedly recommend P.S. Jones and the Frozen City: you will enjoy, or at least be impressed by, this madcap theatrical adventure.

Friday, December 14, 2012

THEATER: Fine Animal Instincts Shown in "Volpone, or the Fox"

Photo/Carol Rosegg
Greed, despite what you may have heard, isn't good. Comedies about greedy men, on the other hand are. And while Red Bull (every bit as energetic as the drink) is best known for its bloody, revenge-filled tragedies -- and this 1606 play of Ben Jonson's is known as a scathing satire -- the just desserts awarded to Volpone's supposedly above-the-law Venician one-percenters are well within director Jesse Berger's and his company's wheelhouse. The web of deceit that Mosca (Cameron Folmar) spins to convince a trio of sycophantic noblemen to make regular gifts to his "dying" master, Volpone (Stephen Spinella), so that they might buy their way into becoming his heir, is a farcical delight, but the true pleasures come at watching these suitors -- lawyer Voltore (Rocco Sisto), the befuddled old Scrooge, Corbaccio (Alven Epstein); and preening merchant Corvino (Michael Mastro) -- devolve into their animal namesakes. (Sly foxes -- volpone -- often pretend to be dead, in the hopes of catching and killing their prey: vultures, ravens, and crows.) Given how entertainingly ridiculous it all gets, you might as well dub it Bachelor: Venice 1607.

Berger eschews any hint at subtlety (John Arnone's set consists of a few hand-drawn backdrops and a single, domineering death bed: realism this is not) and wisely has his characters lay it on thick, lest we feel sorry for any of them. Clint Ramos's costumes emphasize or exaggerate each character's nature -- note Volpone's absurd pajama cod-piece; see Voltore's dashing black and white-feathered cloak -- as do the wigs and hair design Charles LaPointe uses to tart up Volpone's idle pleasures: a eunuch named Castrone (Sean Patrick Doyle), a dwarf known as Nano (Teale Spearling), and a clown/hermaphrodite known as Androgyno (Alexander Sovronsky). As you can tell by the names, Jonson wasn't attempting to mask the decadent, idle rich: he was exposing them, in all their nefarious "glory." Though Volpone starts out simply thrusting himself at the various hidden compartments in his bed that hold gold coins, pearls, and other baubles, he's soon getting all rape-y toward Celia (Christina Pumariega), whose husband, Corvino, has basically pimped out with the threat of physical violence. These cartoonish fops, who begin as curious creeps, soon become all-out villains: money corrupts, absolutely, even in a comedy.

All that said, portions of Volpone are overstuffed and more than a little repetitive, and the female characters -- like the Fine Madam Would-Be (the game Tovah Feldshuh), who is attempting to seduce Vopone for his wealth -- are all unflatteringly underwritten, neither comic or dramatic: they're just objects. After catching its breath during the intermission, the second half slows down and takes its time moralizing before the Venetian courts, rather than simply allowing Mosca's machinations to implode. (In fact, there's a notable lull whenever Folmar is off-stage; his double-takes, asides, and quick wit are needed to give all that buffoonery a direction.) You can't blame Berger for his fidelity to the script, nor the actors for their over-the-top dedication to such intentionally shallow characters (Epstein and Mastro are standouts, though the entire cast is top-notch); perhaps it's simply that this revival of Volpone is a little too timely, with ninety-nine percent of the audience racing ahead of the play to the inevitable and satisfying ending. Still, even if this production were nothing more than a fox-trap (and as a rousting bit of theater, it is more), it's a well-crafted and oiled machine; you won't mind getting caught up for several hours.

Friday, December 07, 2012

THEATER: I Heart Theater at "Hearts Like Fists"

Flux Theatre Ensemble @ The Secret Theatre
44-02 23rd Street
Long Island City, NY
through December 15, 2012
Running Time: 100 minutes (no intermission)

Photo/Isaiah Tanenbaum
Is there such a thing as a romantimaniac? Or an rom-com action flick, the sort that's satisfying for boys and girls of all ages? Right now, it feels as if Adam Szymkowicz has cornered the market on shows that feature figuratively and literally broken hearts, the closest comparison being the work of Vampire Cowboy Theater, so if superheroes or slapstick-y romances are your thing, get thee to Hearts Like Fists. As a special bonus for those in the know, you'll also get to see Flux's bold artistic director August Schulenburg bravely (and successfully) taking on fight choreography in his wide-eyed and theatrical turn as the deranged and deformed Doctor X, who imagines that his victims would thank him for killing them in their love-entwined slumber, thereby preserving their happiness before it crumbles.

At the heart of this play of extremes is the tentative relationship between heart-stopping Lisa (a confident Marnie Schulenburg), who is paid to avoid construction sites lest she cause wolf-whistling men to fall to their death, and the fragile Peter (Chinaza Uche), whose good-natured heart has been broken so often that he's working overtime to craft an artificial replacement. Fearing rejection, Peter ends up bailing on Lisa -- who's never been abandoned before -- and this role-reversal leads to a complicated courtship, one that's filled with increasing danger once the purposeless Lisa joins up with a trio of female Crimefighters (Becky Byers, Rachael Hip-Flores, and Aja Houston) to thwart Doctor X's romantic murders. But Szymkowicz has grown from earlier, over-the-top stabs at such subject matter (Nerve springs to mind), and while there are still some exaggerated and underwhelming scenarios on the fringes of the play (one of the Crimefighters plans to rekindle her romance with the Commissioner [Chris Wight]; Susan Louise O'Connor plays a hysterical [in both senses] nurse who pines for one doctor while being lusted after by another), Hearts Like Fists works best when it takes its emotions seriously and allows the poetic writing to go for the laughs: "A big boat of depression just sailing over my chest"; "You're building a wall around your candy shell; you're afraid I might eat it!"

In one of the cleverer echoes of the play, Doctor X and Peter sound off about the joys of having an obsession: "I don't have to think while I'm working. I don't have to feel." Thanks to Kelly O'Donnell's consistent direction and Adam Swiderski's humorous and exhausting fight choreography, the cast of Hearts Like Fists doesn't have to think while working, though they're clearly more than able to feel, which is the beating strength of this production.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

THEATER: I'll Be Home For "A Civil War Christmas"

Photo/Carol Rosegg
It's Christmas Eve, 1864, and Paula Vogel is shining a spotlight on three wise American men as they momentarily step back from the brink of their war and enjoy a moment of peace. Hark, a rueful Robert E. Lee (Sean Allan Krill) refuses, out of solidarity with his impoverished troops, to drink hot coffee or rest his bones! O, how General Ulysses S. Grant (Chris Henry) is prodded toward victory by his sobering aide-de-camp Ely Parker (Jonathan-David). Hear, of course, President Abraham Lincoln (Bob Stillman), in all his stove-piped glory, as he allows an enigmatic dream to worry its way under his skin. Now, forget about all these characters -- we're about to be introduced to at least a dozen more, and you'll not hear from Lee or Grant again -- because in this patchwork play, Vogel could care less about these potent historical figures. She's after that holy atmosphere found in those tales of Christmas miracles, and while she achieves it, that's no great achievement in itself: the thematic structure of "clever" conveniences, collusions, and collisions is made no less hokey by the educational setting of A Civil War Christmas.

With the utmost of respect for Vogel and her director, Tina Landau, A Civil War Christmas is a beautiful and occasionally touching tale, but it is also -- and more often -- hectic and manipulative nonsense, propelled by insistent and omniscient narrators and livened by carols. Alice Ripley, who does a fine, dare I say brave, job as Mary Todd Lincoln is at times made out to be a bipolar buffoon on the search for the perfect Christmas tree (when comic relief is called for), while at others provides a calm and somber entrance into a military hospital, where the dying soldiers call out for a mysterious figure who is half Walt Whitman, half Santa Claus. The play flits from interesting fact to interesting fact, all the while largely forgetting to itself be interesting, and the tonal imbalance and large gabs between individuals prevents any chords from standing out, let alone developing into anything close to a harmonious whole. In fact, when the entire cast sings a carol, it's difficult to determine where to even look: each character's doing their own abstract thing. There's a brief romance between a mule and a horse on opposite ends of the Potomac; there are moral reminders that some Union soldiers were Jewish, and had their own prayers and songs; there's a freeman out for vengeance on the confederates who kidnapped his wife: are we watching War Horse, Lincoln, or Django Unchained?

The few tatters of outstanding material in the play all use echoes to sustain themselves: with each stitch that Elizabeth Keckley (Karen Kandel) makes in a Christmas shawl, she is haunted by flashbacks of her dead son and her escape from slavery; Decatur Bronson (K. Todd Freeman) keeps using work to distract him from his phantasmal wife, which gives poignancy to the moment when we learn what her cryptic message means. Much like Keckley's stitching, then, these are scenes that build upon themselves and use repetition to stitch themselves more firmly into our minds. It's far harder to find significance in the misadventures of young Raz (Rachel Spencer Hewitt), who runs away from her snoring father to enlist in the Confederate army, or to feel much for the plight of the young, hypothermically hallucinating Jessa (Sumaya Bouhbal), who spends much of her time on stage smiling at would-be slave-catchers. They serve as objects for other characters to react to, or as set-up for some of the more intricate coincidences that result in Lincoln narrowly avoiding an ambush by John Wilkes Booth (Krill, who is outstandingly bombastic in this role) and in Jessa's reunion with her frantic mother, Hannah (Amber Iman, a terrific singer).

To one side of the New York Theater Workshop space, a multitude of hats and jackets dangle from hooks. To the other, there are black and white photographs of these characters, hung from long white strings. But it takes more than quick costume changes and basic dramaturgy to mount a play, especially when ambiguous and unclear choices keep emphasizing the fact that a play is being mounted before your eyes. Why bother with authentic costumes (and some distracting modern ones) when the stage is, for the most part, bare? Why keep adding characters to an already addled script -- like a pacifist Quaker -- if they're only there to provide someone else with a chance for exposition? All the props and photos in the world won't help with such choices, and despite some genuinely touching moments, A Civil War Christmas feels like a research paper that's still scrawled out on index cards.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

THEATER: Performance Anxieties: Reviews of "The Performers" and "Barking Girl"

The Performers is about adult industry stars and their large endowments, but the Broadway stage must be cold or something, because these outsize-stars are shriveling up under the lights. (The fact that the show is closing on Sunday has little to do with it, though that may explain why both Alicia Silverstone and Ari Graynor appeared to be losing their voices.) Only Henry Winkler, as the still-in-the-game-legend Chuck Wood, manages to make the jokes more than cheap. When he bellows "They give me the front row because I need the room . . . for my cock!" or makes blatant puns about his penis, you're made to understand that his pride's the one thing he has left. His young rival, Mandrew (Cheyenne Jackson), while being interviewed by an old high-school friend, Lee (Daniel Breaker), only has room to showcase his insecurities; likewise with Mandrew's wife, Peeps (Ari Graynor), whose entrance is a long tirade about her tit size.

This is the thrust of the play (pun intended, and there's not a low blow this show doesn't take -- pun again, intended), and so as Peeps worries that her old friend (and girl-on-girl co-star) Sundown LeMay (Jenni Barber) may be stealing Mandrew with her giant new knockers, Lee worries that his high-school sweetheart and fiancee Sara (Alicia Silverstone), who is meant to be an endearingly demure high-school math teacher, won't be happy with his lack of adventure, while she worries that, because he's literally a one-woman man, he won't be satisfied with her. Suffice it to say that they all come together (not literally, although the pun's still intended: do you get the groaning repetition yet?) in the cheesiest, shallowest, and most contrived of fashions. Peeps confides in Sara and suggests a Freaky Friday swap, Sara attempts to make Lee jealous by drunkenly falling all over Chuck Wood, Sundown LeMay offers Lee the Porn Star Experience (splits!), and none of this is farcical so much as sad, though adroitly performed by the majority of the cast.

There are genuine laughs in The Performers -- Mandrew attempting to prove his acting chops by reciting one of the monologues from Precious, for example, or Peeps's attempts to follow a teleprompter -- but very little else that doesn't feel plastic. The re-enactments of porn scenes (without any nudity) are awkward and unfunny (the plot of a blue film hardly needs to be spoofed, after all), the women are far too uniformly presented as dumb, and even Evan Cabnet's direction feels stilted, most notably during a cat-fight that breaks out during an awards ceremony. Consider, however, the way the play ends, with the moralizing line, "It's not your brain I want, it's your (pause) heart." This is meant to be a sweet surprise, but it's totally unearned. And while it may be a surprise that playwright David West Read at last avoids coming right out with the dick joke, it's only sweet in the sense (as Chuck Wood puts it) of a money shot that doesn't hit you in the eyes.

Susan Bernfield's Barking Girl, on the other hand, is a series of micro-scenes spanning the growth of Rae (Adina Taubman) over ten or so years, from her initial worry at what the child inside her may become (would it be like the out-of-control barking girl she sees at a museum?) to what the child itself eventually is: "You are so much like him. And so much like me." But the play is oddly devoid of action, and Pirronne Yousefzadeh's direction takes things a step further, in that the characters are almost always sitting down or standing still, as if they are locked within themselves. For Rae, this somewhat makes sense, but the result is that she's never allowed to change -- she's always tense, whether with her husband, Gil (Max Arnaud), sister Becca (Meg MacCary), or the Sexy Guy (Tom O'Keefe) who keeps flirting with her, only to be rebuffed by her sense of matriarchal responsibility.

Time flies, and it's hard to feel that we know these characters so much as the general ennui and dread that their scenarios represent: Rae worries that she's not the cool mother, gets frustrated at the projectile vomiting and the lack of a social life, doesn't know how to approach other mothers -- in fact, hates the term "mother" at all, in that it labels her. There are some fine musings, and serene, peaceful writing, but it really needs to be driven by more of a conflict or united by a tighter series of echoes. (The sparseness of the set may play a part in this: Two tin cans attached by a string are a great image, but they shouldn't be the only image.) As is, when Gil dies -- suddenly, and off-stage, with Rae alerted by phone -- it's hard to tell exactly what's happening. Neither of the two scenes addressing this take more than a minute or so (together), and such compression leaves the show with no room to breathe, let alone to scream or bark.

(One quick disclaimer: at the performance of Barking Girl that I attended, loud music from the accompanying space permeated the theater. This is problematic in of itself, but for a quiet and contemplative play like this, makes it difficult to focus. Subtleties may have been missed; emotions may have been muted. Having read through the script, I don't think it makes all that much of a difference, but it's certainly something that didn't help.)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

THEATER: If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It: A Review of "How to Break"

Photo/Benjamin Heller
 If How to Break were an actual hip-hop track, it would be defined by the solid chorus and rhythmic structure that bridges the dramatic beat(boxing) surrounding the cancer diagnosis and treatments of Ana (Amber Williams), a fiercely independent 18-year-old popper, and her in-hospital romance with Joel (Pedro Morillo), a brash and flirtatious DJ who refuses to be constrained by his sickle-cell. But it would also be weighed down by a contributing artist's silly and ultimately sloppy guest verse in which their street-wise and serious doctor, Aden (Dan Domingues), falls for the hospital's breezy and hippy-like artist-in-residence, Maddy (Roberta Burke). Although Aaron Jafferis is credited with the book and lyrics, he's had to tie those in with Adam Matta and Yako 440's live score (Yako 440 plays a nurse, layering in the sound from heartbeats to complex rhythms), Kwikstep and Rokafella's introductory choreography (light animation, popping, breaking), and Rebecca Hart's music (I'm assuming for the folksier, acoustic numbers that Maddy strums and sings). There are moments where this all shines under Christopher V. Edwards's direction, particularly in the piece's climax (thanks in large part to the unifying video design by Dave Tennent and Kate Freer), but the majority of How to Break is distractingly disjointed and, worse, artificial, a sad truth that's at serious odds with the play's underlying message to "be real."

Photo/Benjamin Heller
That said, props to How to Break for remixing Emily Dickinson's "Hope is a thing with feathers" and for tapping into various forms of modern teen expression to deal, often honestly, with the way we cope with disease. It's always refreshing to watch pessimism and optimism throw down; I only wish it felt a little more free-styled, It'd be nice, too, if Jafferis didn't feel it necessary to have Aden and Madden repeat the arguments already made by Ana and Joel -- particularly in a ridiculous yoga-studio setting -- and if he were able to be a little less literal with the dancing. Early on, as Ana gets her diagnosis, we see her step outside her body to release her mental tension with some dance; most other places, Joel is merely demonstrating his positive thinking by spinning a few moves through the pain.

How to Break wants to be ill, not sickly -- and I'm afraid it's going to need a stronger prescription to do so.

Friday, October 19, 2012

THEATER: Time Enough At Last: A Review of the New York Neo-Futurists' "On the Future"

Thirty plays an hour. Two to twelve new plays a week. All year long. Even with a revolving ensemble, that's a daunting task for any theater company, especially a non-illusory one like the New York Neo-Futurists. So it makes sense that they'd take some time off to . . . wait, what's that? On the Future isn't a vacation, it's a terrific evening of six aggressively meditative, earnestly inquisitive, and/or ramblingly comic one-acts? (Up front confession: I had to step out of the theater for Meg Bashwiner's "The Magnificent Meg Sees All," which confronts her "psychic" great-grandmother with the question, "Do you think it's possible to be a fraud and still be a good person?" and concludes that life -- and the future -- is more about the little moments than the big ones. Sorry to have missed it.)

Here's an interesting fact. When you started reading this review, you were in the past. The sentence you're reading now takes place in the present, but before you finish it, it will have been in the future. This is the sort of logic gaming that playwrights Joey Rizzolo and Christopher Loar enjoy humorously tripping through, but the presentation between their two plays is miles apart and serves as a perfect example of the variety one finds in any given night with the New York Neo-Futurists. Rizzolo's "Tempus Umbra" uses a shadow-play format and a snappy, pattering dialogue to discuss existence and time-travel; Loar's "The Theoretical Physics of Procrastination," features three deadpan and dour (though there is a dance break) versions of Loar (two pre-recorded on the televisions rubbling the stage, all dubbed with a Robotic Hawking voice) discussing the "undeniable reality that this play has indeed already been written."

Of course, not everything always hits home. Adam Smith's "Box" gets points for establishing a creepy, crank-flashlight-powered atmosphere as he detoxes from his digital dependence in an electric-less future, but his conclusion about what really matters is perhaps a little too cute or twee -- a consequence, perhaps, of trying to distill deep thoughts into a fifteen-minute short. Likewise, there are some good jokes (and unbridled performances from the playwrights) in Daniel McCoy and Ricardo Gamboa's self-explanatorily titled "An Introduction to the Future of an Expanding Universe as Applicable to Queer Culture, Pop Culture, and Culture Club," but here's a campy theme that perhaps runs on a little too long. 

Timing issues aside, On the Future still serves as an excellent showcase of the Neo-Futurist aesthetic, and proves that while it's possible they may someday run out of ideas -- in the future, anything is possible -- they're still scratching the aesthetic surface in the present. Even a piece like Eevin Hartsough's informative "(Y)Our IMMEDIATE Survival Strategy," which has shades of a bit from a previous show of theirs --  (un)afraid -- has an entirely original (and clever) presentation, in the way it incorporates bits of fear-mongering TV clips from the past to warn us about the future. If you take Hartsough's word (and mine) for it, there are two things that are guaranteed about that future: In the future, something will happen. And if that something is you spending eighty minutes at On the Future, that'll be a good something.

Monday, October 01, 2012

THEATER: Violence Is Hard to Understand, So Let's Be Vague and Comedic About It

Photo/Sandra Coudert
Writer/director Adam Rapp's latest play, Through the Yellow Hour, has once again transformed the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater: one enters through a narrow graffitied corridor as blue-bonneted women stamp zeroes onto your neck and solemnly tell you that "You have been accounted for." Passing through a curtain made of garbage bags, the interior is a bombed-out ruin: the stage's ceiling has caved in, the walls are stripped and rusty, and emergency bulbs are strung across the walls like a most decidedly unfestive series of Christmas lights. Percussive gunfire echoes through invisible surround-sound speakers; the sound of explosions shake through the floor's subwoofer. There is, incidentally, a body on stage, sprawled in a drug-induced stupor by the clawed leg of a bathtub.

We're at some point in the future, in what remains of Ellen's (Hani Furstenberg) Lower East Side apartment; if the stakes are not already set high enough by Andromache Chalfant's amazing set design and Christian Frederickson's haunting soundscape, the play begins with Ellen shooting an insane intruder (Brian Mendes) and leaving his corpse in the corner -- "He adds texture to the room," she jokes, grimly. And so long as Rapp remains vague about things, focused more on the micro -- day-to-day survival -- and less on the macro -- the potentially Muslim "Egg Heads" who attacked the United States with germs and proceeded to castrate the men -- these textures are more than evocative enough to carry us Through the Yellow Hour.

In the first of three scenes, Ellen, a former nurse, barters for the infant child of Maude (Danielle Slavick), and it's a heartbreaking introduction to the dire toughness both women have bottled up within them. They have each turned to self-medication and have bartered their sex as needed, and the line between the two -- if any -- seems arbitrarily defined by the fact that Ellen has a stash of drugs, supplies, and a half-functional weapon. In the equally effective second scene, Hakim (Alok Tewari), brings news of the death of Ellen's husband -- with whom he was tortured and castrated -- and we see the depths of her determination as she forces Hakim, at gunpoint, to provide every detail of their treatment, even as she retches, weeps, and collapses to the floor. In a Dilaudid-dosed dreamstate, time -- and reality -- slips away.

The third and final scene, however, is on far shakier territory, and exposes the dangers of having a vague plot, a drifting story, a "lost" world. The theme is clear: whereas Ellen originally clung to the idea of having the baby that she and her husband had not been able to (and now might never have the opportunity to) conceive, she can no longer stomach having a child on her own, and turns instead to angelically untouched visitors (Joanne Tucker and Matt Pilieci) from a eugenics-like farm that aims to rebreed and rebuild the world, trading them her baby for a fourteen-year-old boy. (By which I mean an innocent, still-functioning penis.) Beyond the fact that this is a screaming deus ex machina that violates the internal logic of the play, the scene itself lacks the human connection produced by the claustrophobic scenes that preceded it (the second scene takes place largely in the dark), and falls too easily into a benevolent poetry. It also calls far too much attention to the unfleshed Big Ideas of the play -- War, Hope, Survival -- and the fact that Rapp has nothing new to say about them.

The same can be said for Jon Kern's Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want To Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them, which I didn't like any more when it was written by Christopher Durang and called Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them. (To be clear, they're different plays. Also, a slight disclaimer: I briefly worked alongside Jon Kern at a former job.) The play doesn't officially open until October 17th, so take some if not all of the following with a grain of salt, but this slapstick-y production, which asserts that its aim is to humanize its trio of terrorists -- young would-be-martyr Rahim (Utkarsh Ambudkar), embittered supporter Yalda (Nitya Vidyasagar), and the delusional brains of the operation, Qala (William Jackson Harper) -- never really manages to slow down enough to connect. Throw in their stoner neighbor, Jerome (Steven Boyer), who believes that he's finally found a purpose, and the whole thing is just a joke factory. Strong as the performances might be, Peter DeBuois's broad direction hasn't yet found a way to focus on the sweetness shared between Rahim and Yalda, nor has it managed to find a way to pave over the gaping plotholes required to keep Jerome onstage.

The problem with Modern Terrorism is that it attempts to be taken seriously -- which is a bit like expecting an episode in which Bart befriends an innocent boy whose parents are plotting to overload Springfield's nuclear reactor to actually mean something. (I bring this up because Kern now writes on the staff of The Simpsons). I'm a huge fan of William Jackson Harper; that his portrayal of Qala reeks so utterly of Wile E. Coyote seems more a failing of the script than the actor. (The same might be said of the shades of Scooby-Doo's Shaggy in Boyer's role.) The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity used the buffoonery of professional wrestling to actually make a point; Modern Terrorism can't stop snickering at the sight of Rahim wearing a tightly-pinching underwear bomb, or at his cultural obsession with Star Wars -- at least, not long enough to give emotional weight to the fact that Yalda's innocent husband was accidentally blown up by an American missile, or that culture can just as easily unite as divide us.

It's not as if the play's final image -- two humans (nothing more, nothing less) huddled together, sharing a song through an iPod -- isn't an effective one. It's merely that, even with blood seriously splattered across a wall, it feels stale and unearned. We shouldn't just "get" the message of the play -- it should sneak up on us.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

THEATER: Red Dog Howls

Photo/Joan Marcus

The thing you need to know about Red Dog Howls, before you get frustrated or restless, is that Alexander Dinelaris is deliberately pacing his play in a fashion that will pay off, to spectacular results, by the finale. To that end, the bland narrative device through which Michael Kiriakos (Alfredo Narciso) addresses the audience -- often to repeat, foreshadow, or stress things you've just or are about to see -- can be forgiven. Likewise Dinelaris's insistence on cryptic exchanges between Michael and his so-underutilized-she-might-as-well-have-been-written-out-of-the-play wife, Gabriella (Florencia Lozano): it's the opposite of exposition. Here, characters dance, Lost-like, around things they would normally address by name -- the contents of a mysterious letter, a person's identity -- although, thankfully, never for very long. The point, ultimately, is that Michael is spending the play finding, after his father's death, a connection to his Armenian past that he never knew, thanks to his stumbling upon a believed-to-be-dead grandmother, Rose (Kathleen Chalfant).

And lo, Chalfant is amazing, a real treasure of the stage. Though she's playing a mysterious and heavily accented woman who insists on stitching strange names onto baby pillows, never eating in company, and trying to prepare her grandson mentally and physically for something horrific -- "You must be strong" -- she's at the same time almost always sympathetic and relateable, if not entirely understandable. Chalfant gets the best of both worlds in this character, too, for she inhabits the peculiar physicality of both this 91-year-old woman and her secret reservoir of strength, such that Rose can bring Michael to a stalemate when arm-wrestling him. Whether you want to call this a riddle wrapped in a nutshell or whatever, you can't keep your eyes off of her, you can't keep your heart from leaping out to her, and you can't stop listening to her -- even when, as the subject matter turns to the atrocities of the Armenian genocides, you might want to.

This Howl is not a Ginsburg-like explosion; it's a slow-burning keening that shifts from a growl to a wail to an all-too-intelligible guttural sound. And as it is a play both about identity and forgiveness, it more than earns both: despite a few early and only perhaps semi-flawed scenes (depending on your perspective), this is a production -- and a performance -- that will live screaming within you.

Monday, September 24, 2012

THEATER: Job

Photo/Hunter Canning
It doesn't feel particularly ambitious or adventurous of Thomas Bradshaw to adapt the biblical story of Job to the stage -- even the title, Job, is straightforward, and there's material excerpted straight from the New International Version of the Bible -- and yet it's certainly within his shock-theater wheelhouse, with each new deprivation graphically brought to life by director Benjamin H. Kamine in the Flea's intimate downstairs theater. If there's a somewhat paint-by-numbers-like approach to the material, which skips between Job's classically themed and God's contemporary, comic scenes, it's at least been painted with vibrant colors, thanks to a committed cast -- in particular a gleefully against-type "Uncle" Satan (Stephen Stout) and soulful Job (Sean McIntyre) -- and some clever staging, which includes not only Michael Wieser's compelling fight choreography but also Joya Powell's tribal dance sequences and Justin Tyme's dirt, bone, and blood makeup and special effects.

There's also an interesting effect in the way Job has been compressed into running a little under an hour while at the same time featuring expansive scenes of violence, as when Job's son Joshua (Jaspal Binning) strangles and then rapes his sister Rachel (Jennifer Tsay). (For an example of Bradshaw's "humor," note that two villagers later comment that this wasn't technically "rape," as Rachel was already dead at the time.) Given the story's use as a scared-straight parable about god's mercy and vengeance, I can tell you that Bradshaw's unyielding physical version seems far more effective than the page's limp warnings.

Still, while Bradshaw interjects a little modern humor and opinion into the proceedings, thanks largely to the conversations between a clearly flawed God (Ugo Chukwu) and his bickering children Jesus (Grant Harrison) and Dionysus (Eric Folks), the majority of the show is dominated by the sight of one man's suffering. Job succeeds, then, on its own merits, but that may be a Pyrrhic victory for downtown audiences looking for a little more depth and insight in their dramas.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

THEATER: Mary Broome

For my first review back after an unusually long "vacation," and for a show being produced by the normally wonderful Mint Theater Company, I wish I had more positive things to write. But this dull, uninspiring, and often muddled revival of 1911's Mary Broome should have been swept back into the closet it was buried in. The supposedly scandalous "upstairs/downstairs" relationship between feckless, prodigal Leonard Timbrell (Roderick Hill) and the except-for-this-one-instance-entirely-wholesome maid Mary Broome (Janie Brookshire) will be relevant only to those most die-hard Downton Abbey fans. Even then, playwright Allan Monkhouse's poorly sketched scenarios -- almost all of which leave the action offstage -- are more likely to bore than titillate, especially with their monotonous lessons on propriety, as blustered by Leonard's father, Edward (Graeme Malcolm), and the cloyingly snobbish (and heartless) portrayals of Leonard's siblings, Ada and Edgar (Katie Fabel and Rod Brogan), to say nothing of his soon-to-be sister-in-law, Sheila Ray (Julie Jesneck).


The insubstantial plot is only worsened by Jonathan Bank's direction, which races so quickly through each act (the entire production, with intermission, is well under two hours) that even the cast trips up on their arguments. Roger Hanna's blatant set makes little sense either: while the family portraits that limn the stage may fit the pomp and circumstance of the first two acts, the choice to reverse them in the third (just as the family has turned their back on Leonard, so have the people in the paintings) is a distractingly cheap joke, as the portraits have no place in Mary's shabby home. The same goes for the fourth and final act, which changes the pictures again: symbolic or not, it's a counterproductive embellishment, one that takes away from the gravity of Mary's loss. Monkhouse is already all over the place -- just look at the aimlessly comedic introduction of Mary's parents in Act III (Jill Tanner and the delightful understudy, Peter Cormican) -- Bank can't afford to also meander. 

All this might hold up if at least the characters changed, but either the actors are incapable of shifting or the script itself (the more likely culprit) shortchanges them of any real growth. Roderick Hill's Leonard is a fast-talking, amoral rascal: he does a fine, albeit increasingly bland and irksome, job of it. Janie Brookshire's Mary, on the other hand, is all too accommodating, matter-of-factly marrying Leonard after his father makes him "do the right thing" by the pregnant maid ("Well, I want to marry someone"), just as calmly allowing him to run off and neglect their child, and ultimately not even blaming him for their child's death. Instead, she abruptly announces that she's taking off with a milkman: this is neither a drama nor a comedy, it's a theatrical checklist. Finally, there's Leonard's mother, Mrs. Timbrell (Kristin Griffith), whom Leonard keeps insisting is exactly like him -- a wild, rebellious creature. If only. Mary Broome is in dire need of a live wire; instead, it's stuck with stiff, dry broom thistles. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

THEATER: 3C

Photo/Joan Marcus
Why are sitcoms so popular in America? Perhaps it's because nothing bad ever really seems to happen, at least nothing that can't be shrugged off and reset by the end of the episode. David Adjmi's intriguing remix of Three's Company, 3C, takes the opposite approach: nothing good happens, and the powerful spate of laughter that serves as the climax of the show is quickly followed, and ultimately stifled, by a deadening silence. 

The sitcom conventions are all there, most notably in the outlandish landlords, mentally unbalanced Mrs. Wicker (Kate Buddeke) and horrifically racist Mr. Wicker (Bill Buell). But the thematic structure of the play can be summed up by its subversion: a massive series of comic misunderstandings lead the fastidious florist Linda (Hannah Cabell) to first believe that their Night at the Roxbury-like neighbor Terry (Eddie Cahill) is sticking his dick in the nose of her ditsy, promiscuous roommate Connie (Anna Chlumsky) -- they're actually doing coke. ("How can I feel good when I have all of this white stuff coming out of my nostrils?") Her prudishness makes it difficult to explain this to her new roommate, Brad (Jake Silbermann), which leads him to believe that she's figured out that he's actually gay -- not just pretend gay, to fool the landlords -- an issue that makes her condemnations -- "I'm sick, you're making me sick to my stomach" -- wound him even more. Likewise, when Connie comforts this former Vietnam soldier, trying to get him to confront his trauma, he mistakes her solidarity as a confession that she's a lesbian: "Just today I was with someone [at the beach]. It felt nice. I love getting all wet." 

Jackson Gay does a terrific job of staging all the beats of this production: pratfalls for clumsy Brad ("Is there some sort of insupportable weight you're carrying?"), striking one-liners for Connie ("I just get lonely and needy. Boy, I hope I don't get raped!"), and a whole series of elaborate dance sequences choreographed by Deney Terrio that express the ways in which Linda attempts to get out of the body that she feels trapped in. Gay's also absolutely brutal and unrelenting in the pacing, so when Mr. Wicker abruptly starts masturbating an unwilling Linda, or when Terry's "faggot" teasing turns violent, the shifts are shocking, as if the characters in a Nickelodeon cartoon abruptly started acting as if they were in an HBO drama. The cast, without exception, is exceptional, with particular attention given to Cabell and Chlumsky, who get the lion's share of reversals and breakdowns. 

The best example of Adjimi's technique can be seen in a simple game called "Faces," which Brad and Linda play in an attempt to cheer each other up (or, more literally, to mask their true feelings). One person calls out an emotion, the other person displays it: elated, anxious. But whereas a sitcom might leave things at this level -- broad strokes of showing, not telling -- Adjimi digs deeper, demands more: carefree, with an undercurrent of fanaticism. These are things that shouldn't -- can't, really -- go together, and yet these contradictions are part of the all-too-human condition. Is it any surprise that Linda breaks down for real after attempting to convey "Anguish, with an undercurrent of sexiness"? That could just as easily be her life, or at least, it could be, if she only had the confidence to embrace her looks. 

Don't dismiss 3C, then, as being simple or silly, although it is, at times, both those things. If you like, you're welcome to try to laugh it all off -- surely we've come a long way since this 1978 setting -- but you'll most likely find, as these unlikely roommates do, that we're terrifyingly stuck in some ugly conventions and some uglier lies. Tune in, turn on, don't drop out.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

THEATER: The Bad and the Better

Photo/Monica Simoes
"I'll have like this different level thing going for me where like the revolutionaries are all sentimental lovers and they all die because of it. It'll really just be a story about love but it'll be somewhat disguised as a cautionary tale about the hypocrisies of extreme principles." So says Venus (David Nash), a man who once wrote a play about anarchists, "The Sad Singers on Stanton Street," and who now hopes to use the impressionable and irrepressible young Faye (Anna Stromberg) to help him gain entree (and authenticity) to her anarchist friends: organizers Justice (James Kautz) and Charity (Selene Beretta); hacker Scotty (Nick Lawson) and his peaceful, foreign lover Edmond (Chris Wharton); and the violent revolutionary Inez (Regina Blandon) and her punk-poseur beau Nino (Byron Anthony). Oh, adds Venus, he'll have to avoid guns ("Nobody likes gun death on stage") and large casts, since the only thing producers hate more than expensive blanks is a big cast.

As you can probably guess -- considering that Derek Ahonen, resident playwright of the Amoralists, is best known for his arrestingly good anarchist-lite family drama The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, his comically exaggerated, somewhat cautionary tales of love (Happy in the Poorhouse, Amerissiah), and his epic-in-size casts -- Venus's speech is both a foreshadowing device and a tongue-in-cheek commentary. And like The Bad and the Better itself, it's filled with angst, layers, absurdity, and -- the beating heart beneath it all -- truth. If it's not exactly subtle, who cares: Ahonen's an angry, ambitious, and intense playwright, and you can't be explosive without being a bit messy, too. And, to be fair, the political machinations of the super-rich -- represented here by developer Zorn (Clyde Baldo) -- and legislative idiocy of our representatives -- seen here as the dodo-like Eugene Moretti (David Lanson), who's more concerned with comedy than policy -- aren't exactly subtle in the real world, either. 

As The Bad and the Better continues, the stakes grow increasingly high (and almost implausibly interconnected, except that Ahonen's working in extremes): Venus is actually an undercover NYPD officer, looking to entrap the anarchists, and his girlfriend Matilda (Cassandra Paras), who runs a cop bar, isn't always understanding of his duties and absences. Venus's brother, Ricky (William Apps), is a washed-up detective, whose nagging wife and teenager daughter (Judy Merrick and Sarah Roy) are driving him to have an affair with his all-too-pliable (and stalker-like) secretary, Miss Hollis (Sarah Lemp), all of which is distracting him from properly investigating a string of odd murder-suicides that may be connected to Zorn. And then there's Julio (Jordan Tisdale), a new cop who's obsessed with Rick's "legendary" killing of three robbers, even though their unloaded guns are what shunted to a remote detective position in the first place. 

Given the scope, it's hard to say whether the play would be improved by trimming some of the excesses (a lengthy conversation between three oafish cops about how to keep a woman from cheating on you) or if those excesses are the play itself -- after all, as Eugene puts it in a campaign advertisement, we're all familiar with those movies that are so bad they become good. And, above all else, shouldn't a play about anarchists be, you know, a little chaotic? It's all at least presently nicely, with scenes layered atop other scenes both in the script and through resident designer Alfred Schatz's set, which conflates a bar, office, bookstore, and several alleyways into a singular space. But while Daniel Aukin manages to keep up the energy nicely (to the point where it appears he's been working with veteran Amoralists like Lemp and Lawson all along), a few too many scenes wind up veiled in darkness, something that worked in the more sedentary 4000 Miles, but less so in the hectic The Bad and the Better. Then again, the final image he works into the play is a good one: the road for good, bad, and better intentions is paved with bodies, no?

The Bad and the Better is profane without quite being profound and too antic to ever feel authentic, but it's interesting, often uproarious, and always entertaining. Those lured in by the title or reputation of the company will not be disappointed.

Monday, June 18, 2012

THEATER: Sovereign

Photo/Deborah Alexander
Rest assured, there are no Ewok-equivalents in Sovereign, the third and final part of Mac Rogers's epic work of science-fiction theater, The Honeycomb Trilogy. In fact, after twenty years of resistance against telepathic, communal, bug-like aliens, there's not a shred of "cuteness" left -- at least, not in Ronnie (Hanna Cheek), the once-rebellious teenager who saw her astronaut father deliberately transport clutches of eggs from Mars back to Earth and later fought against her bug-sympathizer brother, Abbie (Stephen Heskett), "winning" at the cost of fifty-one suicide bombers from each commune -- including her beloved Peck; pretty much the last person keeping her emotionally grounded. No, the action of Sovereign picks up in the Pyrrhic ashes: Ronnie's now the governor of her settlement, a idol worshiped and whispered about by the resistance, but as we see from her callous judgment of Budeen (C. L. Weatherstone), a dim-witted farmer who unknowingly breaks the law, she's all but lost her compassion -- her humanity. 


Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and having already tackled domestic (Advance Man) and action-packed (Blast Radius) dramas, Rogers now tracks the mental anguish of the war by setting up a courtroom drama. In the middle of the night, Ronnie's loyal soldiers, the besotted yet childish Wilkie (Neimah Djourabchi) and stoic veteran Sharp (Daryl Lathon), have finally captured Ronnie's traitorous brother, Abbie, leaving her with no choice but to try him for attempted genocide -- lest he be ripped to shreds by a mob-like community, an act that would trample all over their fragile, newly budding judicial system. Ronnie's ambitious underling, Zander (Matt Golden), takes up the prosecution; the defense is left to Tanya (Medina Senghore), an ardent idealist who represents everything that Ronnie has been forced to excise from herself, the sort of person who all too easily condemns the sometimes necessarily brutal decisions of others. Also along for the trial, as reminders of what's at stake, are Fee (Sara Thigpen), who lost her children under the alien occupation, and Claret (Erin Jerozal), a "skin" (i.e., alien mind trapped in a human body) who is currently carrying Abbie's child, and who now fears that these retributive humans will kill the last children of her race. 


Imagine that: trying a human for genocide, even as you yourself prepare to extinguish an entire species -- and if there's one thing that Rogers excels at above all others, it's making us sympathetic to both sides. This is one point where the change in casting is particularly effective. With no disrespect to David Rosenblatt, his version of Abbie often came across as a bullied brat, lashing back against the world; Heskett (outstanding in this and last year's Brain Explode!), on the other hand, carries a haunted and hunted look in his eyes that balances his self-assured intelligence. When he proudly advocates his role in the invasion, it's clear that he truly doesn't see it as genocide, but rather as the necessary evolution of an all-accepting, violence-free new species. Heskett's disturbingly convincing, even in spite of -- or perhaps because of -- his Achilles-like arrogance. Equally compelling, however, is Cheek's portrayal of the emotionally scarred (and physically injured) Ronnie, a state-of-mind no doubt helped by her experiences in the demanding Pumpkin Pie Show. Whereas Ronnie's been the clear hero -- if by dubious methods -- of the previous shows, she's a more complex, fallen character now, and Cheek plays through her pain like a woman tethered together with barbed wire: she's all grim determination, with a precious few happy memories ("fingerblasting") to occasionally soften her up. 


Given that this final installment has so much history behind it, it's no surprise that Sovereign is the strongest piece of the trilogy, as just as the children have matured, so have the other elements. Sandy Yalkin's set began as a once-tranquil Coral Gables home and was later transformed into a grimy, run-down pregnancy ward; it's now a combination of the two, for while it's brighter and cleaner -- the seat of Ronnie's power -- it's also dominated by a shrine to the fifty-one martyrs who took down the first hive, and filled with reminders of the arduous years -- like the reapers that remain stacked against the wall. Amanda Jenks's costumes are terrific, too: Ronnie's military garb strikes a compromise between the utility that she required during the war and the style that she misses from her childhood; Abbie's tattered clothes tell their own story, too. As for consistency, we have director Jordana Williams to thank for the way in which Claret's anthropological and diplomatic actions mirror those of Conor, the original "skin"; for keeping the potentially overly comic roles of Budeen and Wilkie entirely within reality; and for the exceptional scenes between the newly cast Ronnie and Abbie, who pick off bickering -- and reconciling -- exactly where they've left off.

The strength of Sovereign's cast, the dedication of the crew, and proven talent of the playwright, are each reasons enough for me to highly recommend this show, even to newcomers. Throw in the fact that, buried within that harshness, there is still a great deal of genuine humor and hope, and I really must insist that you check out this production. Set phasers to stunning, and get your ticket today.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

THEATER: Uncle Vanya

I don't think Chekhov ever used the term "creep" to describe his characters, and yet that perfect word choice is one of the little joys that makes Annie Baker's adaptation of Uncle Vanya so enjoyable to watch. The ennui of this piece transcends time, and so under Sam Gold's more than capable direction, their production is transported -- or suspended -- into a carpeted, '70s-style den, with the cast clad in jeans and lumberjack shirts, unencumbered by accents or the exaggerated import that sometimes accompanies the melodramatic moments. Instead, Baker writes from a place of sincere desperation -- an act that has the ironic effect of extending the cruelest moments from the most bubbling: a conversation between new confidants Sonya (Merritt Wever) and her young stepmother, the enchanting Yelena (Maria Dizzia), that is shut down by selfish professor (Peter Friedman), or a drunken moment of abandon shared by the generally dour Astrov (Michael Shannon) and dwindling Vanya (Reed Birney) that is defined by the fact that it will not be remembered. 


As for the one moment of romance that does occur -- after much hemming and hawing -- between Astrov and Yelena: it lasts scarcely for a second; it's a beautiful, tragic reversal on the "true love prevails" trope in which the woman flings herself into the man's arms, and all is well. No, the world of Uncle Vanya vacillates between Sonya's two mindsets: that "Truth, whatever it may be, is never as frightening as uncertainty" and that "Not knowing is better, because then at least you still have hope." Both are crushing, and if there's a single uplifting thought in this bleak play, it the observation Astrov makes: that at least we are all creeps, that the normal mode of human life is a tough one. 


These observations, and more, are made even more accessible thanks to Gold's intimate in-the-round staging, an act that ensures you will be close enough at all times to hear the actual labor of an actor's breathing -- even in something as simple as sleep. It's important that we have these utterly unromanticized moments: Gold doesn't rush over a single action in the play, and along with the naturalistic Baker is absolutely comfortable with silence. These are the true heartbeats: Vanya's confession of suicidal despair is merely the dramatic embellishment on what has been there the whole time. (This leaves the one lingering question regarding Andrew Lieberman's wood-framed set: why are the Russian letters for "Uncle Vanya" prominently set in the wall?)


There's a reason the final sequence takes so long, with characters departing one after another until only Vanya and Sonya are left working endlessly as the lights slowly dim. Sonya has already given her final speech about how unhappy people like them will go on and live, working without reward and enduring until they die so that they might then rest. But let's not rush that: we must wait and endure so that we might then understand what it truly means to live.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

THEATER: Luther

The very funny concept behind Luther, the second of three plays running as part of Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks festival, is that Walter (Gibson Frazier) and Marjorie (Kelly Mares) have adopted a shell-shocked veteran, Luther (Bobby Moreno), whom they treat as a cross between a teenager and a dog -- an animal who doesn't know better and therefore can't be held responsible for his actions. Ethan Lipton wants you to laugh, sure, but he's got a serious end in mind, one that's well-directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, who amps up the pathos so as to make the savagery more shocking. On the one hand, the show is fixated on the artificiality of a callous business class; on the other, it's remarking on the very real difficulty in reintegrating soldiers that we've conditioned to be killers into society. By merging the two worlds at a corporate party -- which are about as far as they can get from one another -- Luther makes some salient points on inhumanity in general, and the ways in which we're desperate to connect.

Photo/Heather Phelps-Lipton
The script, however, could serve from some thematic tightening: Marjorie is having trouble fitting in, too, but her story is overpowered by that of a socially awkward technician, Morris (the excellent John Ellison Conlee), who serves as a cross between the two worlds. (To be fair, he's infectious; I can understand getting swept away by this particular creation.) Moreover, by focusing on Morris, he steps back from the extremes -- illustrated to a certain degree by the sock-people that puppeteer Crystal Finn is parading about -- and too often uses him to directly comment on themes that may more effectively be left unspoken. (Again, Conlee absolutely nails his heartfelt speech about animals, bullies, and forgiveness, as does Moreno, given his own opportunity; it just feels too direct.) Some jokes, too, are a little hard to puzzle out: what to make of Captain James (Pete Simpson) and his arbitrator, Fran Leibowitz (Finn)? There's not much of a conclusion, either: Luther voluntarily goes to prison (after maiming or murdering two people), where he's apparently having a fine time, but what's Lipton trying to convey? That we should lock up former soldiers? That, unlike Marjorie and Walter, we shouldn't ignore the psychic baggage of our wards, trusting that love alone can set it right? 

Luther is asking the right questions, then; it's just not really answering them -- just entertaining them (and us). 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

THEATER: We Play for the Gods

At the heart of Women's Project Theater's We Play for the Gods is the sense that there are untold riches at the fingertips of the fourteen playwrights, directors, and producers -- all women -- and that we ought to let them out. Is it any surprise then, that this collaborative, eighteen-months-in-the-works production begins in a different sort of laboratory -- a scientific research center -- and with a literal genie of sorts, the blue-clad Provocatrix (Alexandra Henrikson), born in a mixture of test-tube tears? This energetic, chaotic creature of pure potential is soon put into the somewhat metaphoric hands of Simi (Amber Gray) -- lets call her a tireless director, who has lost her boyfriend over one too many empty-handed late nights -- who doesn't know what to make of her discovery. Her boss, the business-savvy Lisa (Erika Rolfsrud), wants to quickly produce this bold new thing, striking while the grant-money's hot, but it's the new temp, Susan (Irene Sofia Lucio), a literal poet -- MFA and everything -- who winds up the voice of reason, torn between the need to earn a living and her new muse's brash insistence that she drop everything and write.

This chaotic, comedic, and self-reflective plot is a good choice, given how many hands are in the pot, though the show so quickly works itself into a lather that directors Jessi D. Hill, Sarah Rasmussen, Mia Rovegno, and Nicole A. Watson end up repeating themselves. After all, there are only so many levels and secret doors to Jennifer Moeller's office-room set, only so many panicked breakdowns or dreams from the characters -- or terrific straight-woman responses from the humble secretary, Marla (Annie Golden). The show gets a little scream-y, and perhaps too overtly mythological in the monologues of its God, and the playwrights -- Charity Ballard, Alexandra Collier, Andrea Kuchlewska, Dominique Morisseau, Kristen Palmer, Melisa Tien, and Stefanie Zadravec -- end up backing down from their climax in a somewhat cryptic blackout/denouement. It all looks beautiful, mind you, but the final moment's flurry of post-it-notes doesn't have quite the same impact after all the coup de theatre that's preceded it. (I couldn't help but be reminded, too, of another nervy, comic office-place romp, Assistance, which ran earlier this year.)

But is it such a bad thing if We Play for the Gods gets a bit carried away, overly amused with its muse? This isn't a character-driven play, after all: it's a broad statement, a seventy-minute balls-to-the-wall work not of reckless abandon but of deliberate embrace, a study, then, of the effects of "emotional tears" and what the untapped chemical signals might do, if ever truly given the chance. It's also a marvelous showcase of neuroses for the actresses, particularly Lucio, who spends most of the play pulling the most pitiable faces as her possessed body wreaks havoc on the room. And if the play's a bit of a hodgepodge of floods, gales, and other disasters, then it's also proof that these tough women can weather anything: as the play somewhat hopefully (or wryly) concludes, who needs job security when you've got each other?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

THEATER: The Moose that Roared

Photo/Mark Veltman
In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt, while campaigning against his former protegee William Howard Taft and the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, was shot by John Flammang Schrank. The bullet was slowed by its passage through the folded speech in Roosevelt's breast pocket, resulting not only in a non-fatal wound, but in his decision to go on and give his speech regardless, even as he bled. "Friends," he said, "I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose!"

For that lovely bit of history alone, Chris Chappell & Patrice Miller's The Moose that Roared has earned its place in the Brick's Democracy festival -- but the two playwrights don't stop there. Chappell's a sound designer, Miller's a choreographer, and the two are more concerned with the internal landscapes of these characters than with a mere footnote in history. Flashbacks take us on African hunting trips shared between Roosevelt (the flat-out presidential Col. Justin R. G. Holcomb) and his son Kermit (William Weber); these emphasize the animal within all of us, and as the play progresses, Candance Lawrence's costumes begin to show patches of fur, ears begin to point and widen, and characters occasionally snort and stomp.

Other sequences follow Schrank (a conviction-filled Paul Murillo), as he kneels in a spotlight, speaking to an unseen, echoing interrogator: how threadbare and direct his mind is. To round things out, the play also features exchanges between a frustrated/betrayed Taft (Bob Laine) and his accommodating wife, Nellie (Ivanna Cullinan); these are the more plot-heavy sections, ensnaring Jesse Wilson, too, in his portrayal of Gifford Pinchot, the Chief Forester whose firing appears to have convinced Roosevelt to run for a third term. It's interesting, sure, but also overwhelming: there's a limit to how much psychological and physical information one can absorb -- especially if you know little about the history --, to say nothing of the philosophical musings (there's a bit of Shakespeare here, too).

The Moose that Roared is a bleak and challenging production, one that's still settling on its focal points (there is, for instance, an odd coda to the play, and there are a few overlapping sections that are all but impossible to follow), but it's also an unusual and absorbing experience. After all, you don't see many dramatic moments being shared between Hippo-Taft and Moose-Roosevelt.

Friday, June 08, 2012

THEATER: "Food and Fadwa"

Photo/Joan Marcus
Food and Fadwa opens with a crash course on Palestinian parties, a direct address from Fadwa (Lameece Issaq) to her studio audience that both fills us in on the premise -- Fadwa's younger sister Dalal (Maha Chehlaoui) is getting married to Emir (Arian Moayed), and Fadwa's beloved Youssif (Haaz Sleiman), who also happens to be Emir's brother, is flying back from New York for the celebration -- and then fills us up with an authentic recipe for baba ghanoush. This dish is a lesson in of itself, in that it illustrates Fadwa's tender feelings for her own "spoiled old daddy," her senile Baba (Laith Nakli); it is also representative of this deliciously stuffed play, in that food, family, and tradition are the ingredients that speak to life in war-torn, restricted Bethlehem. Fadwa's cooking show, incidentally, is fiction (it's a device that she uses to cope with the pressure around her), but the friction is real, especially when we learn how much she hates her traitorous cousin, the half-American Hayat (Heather Raffo), a Beard-winning Food Network star . . . and Youssif's employer and, now, lover.

There's no simple recipe that could be followed to describe or recreate the effects of this play; if Fadwa's secret technique involves speaking lovingly to your food, then director Shana Gold's heart must have been overflowing with (deserved) compliments to her cast and crew. That the play itself, written by Issaq and Jacob Kader, has been simmering in development for roughly five years, speaks even more to the fully realized flavors -- so much so that even the necessary table setting of plot and character establishment that consumes Act I comes across as powerful, interesting, and informative stuff. Most importantly, the cultural portion sizes -- and their presentation -- is such that you'll never feel overwhelmed; in truth, you'll feel at home. Familiarity, after all, is the way in which Food and Fadwa truly sinks its teeth into you; there may be valid political reasons for the 24-hour-curfew, or the endless checkpoints that turn the five-mile drive into Jerusalem into a five-hour affair, but from a household perspective, short on food, electricity, and nerves, it's impossible not to be moved.

Impossible, too, not to be uplifted by the hope that blossoms even in these conditions: when war postpones your wedding, turn the meal into rations for your trapped family; when your husband goes missing, show your faith and conviction by refusing to change out of your wedding dress; savor those beautiful moments of cleanliness and clarity: a shaving ceremony momentarily snaps Baba out of his fugue and has him calling for his oud; and make your own future, by planting and preserving the olive trees sacred to your family and food. That's the reason, at least, for the comic presence of Aunt Samia (Kathryn Kates), the constantly smoking and gossiping tough old broad who never ages a day and who knows that the true tragedy of a blackout is in not being able to vote for your favorite singer on Arab Idol: life goes on, no?

Even those who dismiss the cultural aspects of this play as a mere garnish -- such a humorously depicted "visual aid" of the labyrinthine checkpoint system -- and who might call this a literal kitchen-sink domestic drama would have to pause at such consistent performances. Issaq in particularly is a pleasure to watch, slowly fraying from her hyper-friendly "television" personality to a pitiably jealous spinster, her wide smile cracking each time her father slips away. Sleiman's terrific, too, swapping between a slick, jocular bravado with his family and a raw, heartfelt emotion within his attempts to get through to his soon-to-be father-in-law.  As for Nakli himself, his character's moments of lucidity (in flashbacks and occasionally in the present) are so powerful that they make his general confusion all the more devastating. It's harder to speak about Raffo and Moayed's characters: the former's is meant to be overwhelming (and distasteful), whereas the latter's is saddled with the most blatantly (and blandly) scripted portions of the show: it's hard to see Hayat and Youssif as an item.

Despite that, Food and Fadwa remains a treat for your theatrical taste-buds: sweet, sour, bitter, occasionally salty, and overall umami.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

THEATER: "No Second Acts" (A & B)

Democracy's a lovely thing -- everybody ought to have their voice heard -- but it's dangerous, too. After all, popularity, volume, and ideas aren't always enough to string together a coherent thought (as many a Republican candidate discovered this year), let alone to fill out a short one-act, as some of the contributors to No Second Acts: A Collection of Short American Lives are surely now aware of. Each of the two "bills" (A and B) features five playwrights and three directors and an abundance of energy, and while it's wholly remarkable how little common ground there is between them, that common ground is, unfortunately, the rawness of these productions.


The standouts, then, are those shows that come in with a fully developed voice, or an easy-to-convey theme. Jeffrey Lewonczyk's "Shit the Future Says" imagines a world in which Internet memes have replaced politics; our country, led by President Cat (Annie-Sage Whitehurst), goes to war with an angry troll named David (Marc Landers). It's a pop-culture battle, as the heroic Dramatic Chipmunk (Leah Carrell) and Wolverine-like Honey Badger (Timothy Reynolds) face off against Charlie Bit My Finger (Kitty Lindsay) and Pedobear (Cara Moretto), all to save the world from the embittered former YouTube sensation (David After Dentist). South Park may have gotten there first ("Canada On Strike"), but under Pete Boisvert's playful direction, the live version's an enjoyable treat. 

Likewise, while the philosophy in Eric Bland's "Tsipiras in Athens" may have gone somewhat over my head, Michael Criscuolo's steady direction does a fine job in charting this all-too-human discourse; the same can be said for the way Hope Cartelli casually handles the clever banter in James Comtois's "Moving Forward," in which two former lovers (the past) chat awkwardly while stuck in line waiting to vote (the future). There's also Gyda Arber's "Votes for Women! A Stage Play for Grades 3-8," which is, remarkably and unironically, exactly what it purports to be, complete with "Applause" cue-cards and light audience interaction, and August Schulenburg's "All Good Ending," which, as the title implies, salvages much of a tediously performed history play by throwing in a The Shipment-like twist.

More muddled or rushed, then, are plays like Stephanie Swirsky's "Quorum of Friends," in which a college girl settles important issues -- like how to respond to a booty-text -- by having her friends vote, and Justin Maxwell's "I'm in Al-Qaeda," which subverts expectations by having Man (Ryan Shams) continually shock his airline seatmate (Kari Swenson Riely) with his confessions of being a CIA-kidnapped goat-herder turned Al Qaeda member. The premises of both are fine, but the brevity of each makes the plotting seem flimsy and the conclusions unsupported, and neither rises above its own jokes. This applies, too, to Alexis Sottile's "Occupy Poofy," though its inability to make a statement might be the statement . . . it's so silly and ridiculous -- intentionally so, what with the dance montages or soap-opera revelations -- that it has to be intentional . . . but what's the intent? 

As for Crystal Skillman's "Cheer," the idea of two teachers finding love and a way forward in the midst of student protests is a fine one; I just wish it was clearer what they were fighting for. (I suspect I may have missed something here, though there's definitely a vagueness that may be unnecessary.) Finally, there's Ian W. Hill's "The States," which has a lot of blood, abuse, and pain, and is set in some sort of war-ridden world in which sirens blare and lights flicker under the stress of intermittent bombing. The title implies that it's an allegory, perhaps about the ways in which the abuses of our strong country against the weak and innocent will come back to haunt us . . . but it's ill-defined and difficult to watch. But hey, as the theater festival promises, such is democracy, and who can argue with such diverse and ever-evolving results? 

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

THEATER: Signature Theatre's "My Children! My Africa!" "Title and Deed" and "Medieval Play"

Given that Kenneth Lonergan's Medieval Play is running in the Signature's largest space, I have to wonder if artistic director James Houghton was aiming for a Dante-like vibe in the space's three current shows. Though some may argue about the occasionally muddled dramatics induced by the scholastic setting of Athol Fugard's My Children! My Africa!, the outstanding cast (and stand-out Stephen Tyrone Williams) mark the production as true Paradiso. Then there's the intentionally vague and philosophically slight nothingness of Will Eno's latest, Title and Deed, in which a stranger (Conor Lovett) speaks about transience and distance with the same weight he's given to adaptations of Beckett's novels and shorts: could there be a more fitting Purgatorio? That, of course, leaves Lonergan the ignominious honor of representing Inferno with his unredeemably bad punchline of a play, Medieval Play (the lack of ingenuity extends far beyond the title): nothing here, really, that you haven't already seen a better form of in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

You see, My Children! My Africa!, even at its worst, most lecture-y and didactic moments, has the advantage of conveying real importance to American audiences. If it falls prey to schooling us, it is at least at the hands of the very gifted James A. Williams, and it is at least motivated by the relateable frustrations of his character, Mr. M., who fears for what will happen to his country when the youth finally rebel against the inequalities of Apartheid (the play takes place in the autumn of 1984). Clear passions and heartbreaks drive these lessons, as Mr. M. attempts to take two disparate debate students -- his would-be prodigy, the roiling Thami (Stephen Tyrone Williams), and the bright and affable (and white) Isabel (Allie Gallerani) -- and show them that there can be a non-violent path to unity. Fugard has the master playwright's ability to empathize with all of his characters, but given his subject matter, it's easy to assume that he writes to instruct because he truly believes that ignorance is the true root of evil. (All of the characters expound on this to one degree or another.)


If only we knew each other, if only we were willing to listen, we might be able to actually move forward -- which is how the play begins, with Isabel's arguments in favor of women's equality beating out Thami's societal defense (in an all-boys school, nonetheless). The other argument Fugard makes is that "Without words, a man can't think": that's what makes the pending student boycott so awful. In order to fight for freedom, Thami must now give up certain other freedoms, including the most important of all: the ability to think for one's self, to be something other than an animal. This is how the didactic dialogue transcends itself: it is spoken with breathless conviction and staged, by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, with real sparks flaring up, despite the lack of actual contact between any two characters. 

The opposite is true of Will Eno's Title and Deed, which seems to operate in a vacuum. Christine Jones's set hangs geometric shapes in mid-air, looking like shrapnel frozen in time, and Ben Stanton's lighting is plain and straightforward: no tricks up these sleeves, it announces. The same can be said for Andrea Lauer's unassuming costume: Conor Lovett's character, after all, can be from anywhere except here, and is meant to be as nondescript as possible. Personally, this sort of work makes me uncomfortable -- fidgety -- and structurally, the show has even less of a narrative than Eno's Thom Pain. At the very least, however, one can appreciate how far away Lovett appears to be, even when he's standing on a narrow sliver of stage near the front row. (Or how dedicated he is: even as a fire alarm interrupted the performance I attended, he remained all but frozen on the stage, to the extent that if not for the momentousness of the alarm, you could easily have assumed it was a part of the show.)

In any case, Title and Deed hints at a sign-signifier sort of relationship, or the noun and verb, the connection between the here and there, the way in which things are done. Eno's choice, then, to do so little is a brave one, as are his imprecise "translations" of famous idioms: "The eyes are the windows of the eyes" or "Home is where the placenta is buried." But it's also a dangerous one: the lack of momentum or real connectivity between moments means that you could basically run the show in any order, and that's not exactly a mirror of life . . . more an example of lifelessness. (Once you're dead, every moment is the same.) Being a critic here is more like being a dream analyst . . . but then again, sometimes dead air is just dead air. 

And of course, sometimes noise is just noise, as is the case with Kenneth Lonergan's Medieval Play, a work that had to have been produced under threat of thumbscrews. The work begins with Sir Ralph (Josh Hamilton) and Sir Alfred (Tate Donovan) shooting the shit in a weird hybrid vernacular that lazily mixes "ye" and "fuck" (one assumes for shock value). The two soldiers are pillagers of the lowest order -- though they're wise enough to think through the sociopolitical changes the current Hundred Years' War (it's 1376) will bring about: anything to get a laugh, right? Things change, however, when Sir Ralph, motivated by a sudden sense of morality, refuses to rape an abbey full of nuns, and instead contracts his company to Cardinal Robert of Geneva. Unfortunately for him, the church is just as bloody, and his attempts to leave it behind to do real good -- let alone to define it -- are constantly undone by his baser instincts and his poorer timing. This, incidentally, is Lonergan's point, which he gets around to after two-and-half long-winded hours; Catherine of Siena (Heather Burns) narrates as Pope Clement VIII (John Pankow) and Pope Urban VI (Anthony Arkin) send their armies to fight the Great Schism, and as Ralph faces his once-loyal companion, Alfred, he announces "Oh well, some day things'll be better." (Except they're not. Get it?)

The script offers slim pickings to its actors, and only the oversexed and Valley Girl-like Halley Feiffer really tackles it with enough energy to bring home the laughs. (Okay, C. J. Wilson and Kevin Geer have a few fine character moments, too.) As for the rest of it, it's undone -- like Ralph's attempts to do good -- by Lonergan's self-indulgent direction. Admittedly, the show doesn't open for another three days, but there isn't a single joke that doesn't go on at least fifty percent too long (the bland fight sequences, especially between Niccolo and Ralph; a sequence detailing the importance of "modern etiquette"), to say nothing of all the material that's been left in far beyond its expiration date (the whoring and bullying done by some French cardinals, the idol-worship directed at Catherine of Sienna). The most genuine laugh is an ad-libbed one, when the knights draw their swords on the audience after a cell-phone rings: "What the fuck is that?" 

The South Park creators can be forgiven for occasionally plucking the low-hanging fruit that surrounds them -- they're often writing, directing, and producing an episode in only seven days. Walt Spangler, who has designed an un-impressive cardboard set, can be forgiven, as his work is still more substantial than (and compliments) the playwright/director's. It's hard to forgive Lonergan, however, for anything here: this underacted, overwrought, repetitive, juvenile, and largely unfunny Medieval Play deserves nothing less than a swift excommunication.

Friday, June 01, 2012

THEATER: Takarazuka!!!

Photo/Heather Phelps Lipton
Japan's Takarazuka Review appears to be such a glorious contradiction of ideals that it seems almost impossible that it's never been the subject of a play before. Consider: it's a school of theater in which young girls (and girls only) are trained, almost militarily, to play both the male and female roles in soap-opera-like adaptations of Western musicals (and the occasional cultural folktale). That is, a rigidly controlled zone of utter freedom and expression; a place where the poor daughter of a fisherman, Yuko (Jennifer Ikeda), can become a James Dean-level "top star" of the company -- but only for two years, before she's replaced (as is tradition).

Playwright Susan Soon He Stanton can be forgiven, then, for gushing a bit enthusiastically through Takarazuka!!! (look at those exclamation points!), choosing an overtly expository device for her entree -- Nigel (Paul Juhn) is a half-Japanese British filmmaker, here to observe Yuko's 1975 "swan song" and subsequent replacement by Rui (Angela Lin) -- and inserting some jarringly artificial explanations of Japanese concepts of truth and identity into her scenes, most notably one in which a random old man on a train (Glenn Kubota) demonstrates the difference between tataemae (the facade) and honne (the truth). Moreover, by pairing her physical plotting -- Yuko's mental breakdown, Nigel's besotted behavior, the fine line between the obsession and escapism of a fan, Junko, or the closeted feelings of a fellow Takarisian (a well double-cast Brooke Ishibashi) -- with a metaphysical ghost story involving a "cursed" and suicidal former star, Akane (Lin), whose path mirrors Yuko's, Stanton is stylistically excuse some of the rougher patches. (To say nothing of the appropriate use of melodrama and song in the piece: there's a terrifically unsettling rendition of Tom Jones's "Delilah.) It says a lot -- credit surely due in part to the visually gifted director Lear deBessonet -- that the repeating motif of tataemae/honne manages to sneak under the audience's skin, despite being so baldly presented.

All that acknowledged, Takarazuka!!! would do well to ease back and stop rushing -- perhaps to split over two acts that do more to parallel the shifts between Yuko's on-stage control and off-stage collapse. We learn, toward the end of the play, that Nigel's mother was a Takarisian; it'd be nice if this detail appeared to inform more of his actions or to drive his (perhaps Oedipal) desires. And while deBessonet adroitly stages the supernatural occurrences (a red scarf falling from the sky; candles/lives snuffed in the darkness; the eerie echoing between Akane and Yuko), the show's depictions of actual sequences from Takarazuka could stand more rehearsal: the songs, dances, and performances from the play-within-the-play are not dissimilar enough from Takarazuka!!! to sustain the desired illusion.

To be fair, this production is a part of Clubbed Thumb's always ambitious Summerworks series, and there's more than enough meat here to merit further productions. It's only that, having caught a glimpse of real magic and powerful insights into the psyche, it's impossible not to ask for more.


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

THEATER: Judge Me Paris


Photo/Corey Tatarczuk

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can send Company XIV's way is that this exciting, dance-fusion troupe (under the expert leadership of Austin McCormick) continues to evolve with each new show. Though their latest, Judge Me Paris returns to the well of their 2009 Judgment of Paris, it now does so with the operatic sensibilities that were honed in 2009's Snow White and 2010's Le Cirque Ferrique (indeed, Brett Umlauf and Amber Youell are back as Pallas and Juno), with the classy eroticism mastered in 2010's near-perfect Nutcracker Rouge, and the stunning live cinematography that was utilized in 2011's Lover.Muse.Mockingbird.Whore. (There's live music, too, from the lingerie-and-wigs-clad members of SIREN Baroque: Antonia Nelson, Claire Smith, Kelly Savage, and Anneke Schaul-Yoder.)

Jeff Takacs, who often writes and narrates these shows, has developed a richly caustic tone, and his movement has grown ever more lithe, allowing him to do more with less. The same applies to Zane Pihlstrom's clever set design, which opens up the space (the dressing rooms are a visible part of the show) and then proceeds to frame the stage itself in neon-colored LEDs; likewise, Olivera Gajic's distressed corsets, polished leathers, and rich, flowing fabrics are always welcome.

And while I don't profess to be an expert at dance, the ensemble appears more than capable of the varied styles, from the baroque twirls of "Turn to Me" to the cool, slow, and inevitable temptations of Juno (if Venus in Fur were danced, this would be it); the balletic battle of Pallas Athena's shoves and thrusts; and the tender, feather-and-balloon-filled dance (set, brilliantly and anachronistically, to the Ink Spots' "I Don't Want To Set the World on Fire") with Venus (Brittany Palmer) . . . or the even tenderer a capella finale that fades out on the dance between long-time company members Sean Gannon and Lauren Careless (as Paris and Helen).

Perhaps an even greater compliment, then, is in the way the works of Company XIV remain impossible to set down and describe on the page: such transitory images are as slippery as they are beautifulDon't miss another chance to see them.