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


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.