Thursday, June 21, 2012
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Monday, June 18, 2012
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
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
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.
Thursday, June 14, 2012
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
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
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
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.
Tuesday, June 05, 2012
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.)
Friday, June 01, 2012
|Photo/Heather Phelps Lipton|
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.