Friday, November 30, 2007

PLAY: "Atomic Farmgirl"

Your three sisters always make you the bashful horse, or have you go as the tepee for their Indian princesses; you live on a large farm, for which you care or know little about; your town is so small that everyone shares a party line; it's the year 1966; and, oh yeah, you live about 100 miles downwind of a nuclear power plant that's gone unregulated for years. So it's no surprise that your father gets thyroid cancer -- like you and the rest of your sisters -- and then, twelve years after recovering, comes down with a brain hemorrhage from all that rerouted blood. Or that your neighbors -- crushes and all -- start dying, moving, or both. Welcome to the world of Atomic Farmgirl, a epic by C. Denby Swanson adapted from Teri Hein's identically titled memoir. (And why not? It's a catchy title.)

However, it's not the largeness of the tale -- a story that travels from a 1952 medical emergency to a 1966 less-than-idyllic childhood to a 1978 college awakening and an eventual 1991 deposition -- that makes Atomic Farmgirl worth seeing. It's not the performances either, which range from the excellent Maria McConville to the suitable Melissa Condren to the often grating Kathleen O'Grady. Rather, it's the comic little details -- like how neighbor Mona sees herself as patriotic because there's a tumor in her head the size of a baseball -- or the wry anecdotes about how a lactose intolerance saved them from death as they had to switch from the cow's unknowingly irradiated milk to bottled milk. (From a milk-bottle shaped building, no less; a fact Teri gloats about as being one of those things you can get away with in a town like hers.) Such facts make for an entertaining account, and help to ground the play even as it jumps forward and back in time.

If only Swanson had stuck with adapting the memoir. In her haste to switch narrative viewpoints in the different times -- to give us a fuller, richer picture of the times -- she creates a bunch of theatrically shallow devices. That's right: ghosts. They all serve structural purposes; these phantasms (despite their substance) don't just apparate out of the blue. But for such a weighty topic, already leaden as much with history as with the radioactive iodine-121, is it really necessary to add in two Native American ghosts, Whiet-Alks (Karen Kitz) and Chief Qualchan (Dennis Gagomiros)? The parallel between them and their farming contemporaries, Teri Hein (Condren) and Ralph Hein (Hamilton Clancy) seems unnecessary (i.e., myths have little place in the Atomic Age). It also takes away from the hallucinations of Teri's guilt-riddled daughter, Dolores (O'Grady), who gets a visitation from an old crush, Greg Hahner (Brad Coolidge). These ghosts do everything from comically crash a coffee party to travel back in time, Christmas Carol-like, and it makes the fine, natural balance of the play more than a little tipsy. It also stretches the play out (close to three hours, all told), which would be fine if all this extra pith didn't detract from the essence of the source material.

The other place Atomic Farmgirl falters is in the presentation of the family drama. This is a low-budget production, at 78th Street Lab, and it is still in development, but even so, I've seen better work from The Drilling Company before. As is, it isn't always clear who some of the double-cast actors are: David Marantz, for instance, plays two surly farmhands (Leonard Zehm and Ed Brewer), and we're often guessing which is which until the text cues us in. Furthermore, the heart of this show -- the childhood and reunion of sisters Cheryl (Jane Guyer), Marsha (Vanessa Leigh Davis), Tracy, and Kathleen -- misses more than a few beats in the acting department. It's most noticeable in the earlier years, when the sisters play at being horses: where they should be free, they are instead fettered by what seems to be embarrassment, and that takes away from the innocence that is so integral to sympathizing with this nuclear plight.

You'll note, though, that I still say Atomic Farmgirl is worth seeing. Even through production flaws, the script itself stands up very well as a representation of life not just on a farm, but in the '60s, with the shadow of a Cold War hanging frigidly in the noontime sun. The seeds of an excellent play exist in the memoir, and Ms. Swanson (along with collaborating director Brooke Brod) has harvested most of it: there's just too much chaff in the field.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

PLAY: "Local Story"

Bubba sits beneath a cobweb of bells, pasting newspaper articles on the wall so as to remember the past, but more specifically, to do something active enough to snap out of his lovesick stupor. His sister, Amory, wants him to leave the house -- it's been three years since D'lady left him for his best friend and now roommate, Jimmy -- but he can hardly move. He's preoccupied -- "devoted to whatever it is he's studying -- but there's no form to his research, no direction." And that puts him in pretty much the same place as the playwright, Kirsten Palmer, an otherwise talented writer (Departures) who seems to be somewhere else throughout her own play, Local Story. One moment, characters are in Montana, three years ago, telling dream stories about their lives, and the next they're in town, reunited without a moment's pause. And while Susanna L. Harris takes the direction along for the ride, using dramatic shifts in lighting to literally bleed from evening to morning and scene to scene, it only confuses the claustrophobic set to have characters sitting idly through other, entirely disconnected, moments. The devotion is to home (the one that's where the heart is), but the research is loose and fragmentary, and the direction is clumped and massed together, never specific as we'd like.

This goes for the cast as well, a group filled with generalities both in the script and in their acting. Travis York, often cast as a thuggish sad-sack, holds up the best, at least consistent in his funk (and genuinely surprised by the things that smack him out of it), but even still seems unsure of what he needs. Havilah Brewster has a few moments of dashed hope and sudden grief when her character, Amory, realizes she cannot have a baby, but she buries that emotion in irrationally curt rage. As for the romantic couple, Keira Keely plays Betsy too much as a dream, so ungrounded that when she asks, "Pity me now?" the answer is a resounding no, and Mark David Watson (her beau, Jimmy) doesn't seem as consumed by love as much as by desperation. I'd be struggling to find some way to justify that part too; one moment, he's wise beyond his years in dealing with his childish roommate, the next he's petulant and dense.

The play is also fraught with a bunch of unexplained phenomenon: Roy sees ghosts, Betsy receives gifts that drop from the sky like manna, and D'lady (Sarah Kate Jackson) casually struts around without ever being taken to task for her arrogant seductions. It clashes with the very real moments: girls doing laundry, sitting on the porch, lying down on the bed, clacking on the typewriter, and as a result, Local Story never finds a voice for itself. That's sort of the problem with writing a play that deals, in large part, with the idea of entropy: when idleness is your theme, it's hard to find action and obstacles large enough to maintain anyone's interest. Especially when those characters continue to peer ever inward, refusing to connect.

Monday, November 26, 2007

PLAY: "dai (enough)"

A British newscaster walks through a sea of empty chairs and empty tables, reporting to her unseen camera crew on the wide variety of characters to be found here, a bustling cafe in Jerusalem. She's here to explore the "Israeli plight," and before long, she's found an interesting interview subject. A brief change of clothing, and Iris Bahr is now an American actress doing research for a part she's totally thrilled to be playing, a Jewish girl so beautiful that a suicide bomber falls for her. ("Let's just say there's a sex scene, but no sequel," she blithely says.) But before her career can blow up (and there's a lot of this violent punning), the cafe is blown up by a less-than-Hollywood bomber, the lights fade, screams rise, and Iris Bahr rewinds to do it all over again, this time as an Israeli man.

Dai (enough) is a cleverly transposed solo show that views the last few minutes of ten different characters. The rigid structure alone is a reflection of the lock-step tension in Israel, but the far more chilling effect is that the explosions grow expected, and repetitive. These lives are momentary breaks from a limbo of destruction, and for all the comedy that Bahr lends them, there's always something inescapably bleak over their shoulder. Even the ghostly set, littered with scraps of clothing and haunted by a giant black arch, enforces this terror. Bahr can claim all she likes that she didn't want to make a political play, but the staging (and choice of character; there's only one Palestinian) cries otherwise.

At the same time, these aren't polemic characters, and with the exception of a very busy and opinionated Jewish mother ("How many people must die for these [Arab] monsters?"), they're not really polarizing, either. Instead, Mrs. Bahr manages to capture the nuance of different lifestyles in Jerusalem, from the Russian prostitute who "don't give shit" about the problems to the ecstasy dealer out to throw a "party for peace." She embodies the snooty socialite, visiting her homeland with designer sunglasses and feeling like "the Queen of England," just as easily as she becomes a gay German furniture dealer, blindly following the love of his life. (There's some good writing here, too; the German, depressed, begins to make discomfiting furniture that expresses his angst -- like a table with an edge so sharp, it'll slit your wrists if you lean on it.)

But what the show lacks are sympathetic characters. It isn't until the end of the play that we meet our entry point, an orphaned American girl who has volunteered to serve in the Israeli army. Neither Jewish nor American, she is still alone, trying desperately to find herself, and not just the "Americocky" person they label her as. She speaks of making human connections, of how it must be nice to feel suffocated by someone who loves you, and her nervous yearnings earn her the tragic ending that eludes so many of these other briefly glimpsed people.

Dai (enough) is a strong production that makes a nice transition from the Culture Project to the 47th Street Theatre, and although it cheats the narrative to make a point (these "interviews" can't all be taking place at the same time), that end justifies the means. It's also thoroughly grounded by Bahr's plot, which neatly frames a series of parallels within the full-circle arc of the play, all while remaining so casually chatty. The routine explosions aren't subtle, but they masks all of the unspoken words (and those that will now never be able to be said), and those are subtle. These are all real people, flaws and all, and by resurrecting their ghosts each night, Iris Bahr is making the biggest political statement of all: that it's time to lay the violence to rest.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

PLAY: "The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide"

Photo/Heather Clark

What the FROG?! I knew going in that The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide would be surreal and disturbing, but I didn't expect something so Lynchian out of Sean Graney's mind. But that's what director Devin Brain has emphasized in this production, drawing all the color out of the room so that the stage looks like the white room from The Matrix and focusing on the stumbling attempts at adult talk so that the English becomes as alien as the thought of suicide. The problem that the show faces is to make us accept that this is a group of fourth graders, putting on their classmate's suicide note of a play. Instead, the faux awkwardness -- the deliberate affectations of shyness and disaffected mumbles of sound -- only serve to remind us that this isn't just a play within a play, but that these are adults playing at childhood.

And yet, the show is genuinely disturbing when it simply enacts the play. The dead Johnny may have only been nine years old, but he showed promise, with burgeoning lines like "I do not deserve the yellow cake of your love for me," the fetishization of a juice box, and the way in which he paints the character of Rachel (Jennifer Grace), a depressed young thing who wants to die because she is fat. Of course, the play manages to be this observant because it's actually been written by Mr. Graney, but his perspectives through the veil of childhood are fairly touching. The play's hero, "Johnny" (Joseph Binder) is especially challenging, as apt to provoke a bully one moment as he is to suddenly crouch into a ball in fear the next, which is, if you've ever seen children playing before, about as predictably unpredictable as it comes.

That's what makes Devin Brain's direction so chilling: he takes the innocence away from these children. He does it slowly, building up the adult themes first by exploring the relationships between popular girl Sally (Stacy Stoltz) and bully Mike Rice (Tim Simons), then by exaggerating the violence, so that blood is actually spilled in what would otherwise just be a scuffle. From there, the play grows to a bubble with a tragic dance between two students wearing a tortoise mask and a hare mask, both of which have been sealed shut with what turns out to be industrial strength glue (toxic). Another student comes out caked in rat poison, which is far less comic than the crude illustration on the box might lead you to believe. And our hero, as foreshadowed, grabs a floating gun out of the air and slowly bleeds ketchup all over the floor.

Delivery is everything, and The Hypocrites really have that down cold in this startling production. If their goal really is to make us see theater is a different light, then they've succeeded. But what the play lacks is any real feeling, buried as it is within a careful structure and intentionally suppressed emotion, and the show would be far better simply as an Unnamed Love-Suicide, with the Fourth Graders' introduction just cut out.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

PLAY: "Bad Jazz"

Photo/Carol Rosegg

"Love? What the fuck is love?" asks Gavin (Rob Campbell), squatting like a sumo-wrestler as he struggles to direct his star, Natasha (Marin Ireland). He thrusts his cock forward, aroused by his own genius, and continues: "She wants to experience something that is made up of sex, and cruelty, and blood, and shit, and not some sentimental wank that has been invented to make us feel okay about ourselves." Now he postures for a moment, his jaw molded with as fierce an imprimatur as the one he is putting onto the play-within-a-play in Robert Farquhar's Bad Jazz, and casts a castrating glance at the clueless co-star, Danny (Ryan O'Nan), before continuing: "She can smell truth. She can't articulate it, but, she knows . . ." Has there ever been a more viscerally staged (and comically directed, courtesy of the exaggeratively minimalist, Trip Cullman) discourse on the artistic endeavor (sorry, Mr. Rapp)?

If that doesn't do it for you, Bad Jazz opens with a neat little argument between Tash and her boyfriend of three years, Ben (Darren Goldstein): "I didn't think that when I read the stage direction 'she performs oral sex' that mean you were actually, actually, going to be performing a, real, fucking blowjob, for real, in a play, on stage, in front of a paying audience." The question at heart is "how much more real do you want it to get?" and the answer, some ninety minutes later, as one of the cast members lies in a puddle of his or her own blood, awkwardly pulling out his or her own intestine for a better look, is pretty damn far. In between, Farquhar looks at the dynamic between director and playwright ("You are not the only author in the rehearsal room"), unleashes a riff on the importance of Theatre (which must "always, always reserve the right to fuck over people's minds), pauses for a moment to riff (as jazz must) on the ethics of what a play can and cannot proclaim ("It's not as if we've got somebody standing up here mouthing off about Islam, have we?"), and watches carefully the bleed between actor and character, an arrestingly well made point by Tash (the phenomenal Ireland), who is so consumed by her prostitute part that she begins to live the lifestyle, too.

The text is rich and deep, and there's very little that doesn't fit, beyond a small diversion between Gavin and a prostitute he hires, named Ewan (Colby Chambers), which really only serves to show Gavin's unusual predilections (he forces Ewan to become a character -- Jacob, from the Andrew Lloyd Weber production -- so that he can fuck him). The text is loaded, and the play grows darker as it gets deeper; at the same time, the play has a weird contrapuntal display of semi-absurd exaggeration to match the heightened intensity. Danny attempts to shoot up with a stage syringe, tying an increasingly desperate knot around his arm, only to keep flinching at the needle. Danielle (Susie Pourfar), Gavin's producer, slips on a strap-on to demonstrate the authenticity of a fake penis (it "pops up" elsewhere, too). And Tash, in a memorably cathartic rehearsal loses herself in the repetition of this sublimely ridiculous speech: "It was a fuck. That's all it was, because me and you, we're just two fucked-up no-hopers who got fucked up on fuck knows what, and we fucked, we fucked, we fucked." (Say that ten times fast.)

For all the foul language that jangles, Farquhar's script is surprisingly buoyant, which fits with the discordant theme of bad jazz that director Cullman has caulked into the seams of the play. There's a clash visually, too: Dane Laffrey's set design starts as the empty theater itself, so as to be a blank canvas for the growing aural chaos, and Ben Stanton's lighting cuts even the harshest of images into elegant pieces, as when the moment before a blowjob is suddenly frozen so as to give us a simultaneous scene between the depressed, pill-popping playwright and her nonchalant director.

Of course, it's not all roses: for all that Bad Jazz is a play about controversy, it often provokes itself away from art and into artifice. While Cullman's direction is sharp enough to cover this with the exaggerative staging (more provoking), the show -- especially its cafe denouement -- often seems put on, not raw, and that gives the audience a morally abnegating remove. Why waste the lines directed toward the audience, let alone the audience plants, if that energy simply becomes a comic device? Small fucking gripe, people: art marches on nonetheless, and you'd be wise to get yourself to the final performances of Bad Jazz while it's still nice and shrill.

Monday, November 19, 2007

PLAY: "A Hard Heart"

Photo/Carol Rosegg

[This is the expanded version of the post that just went up on Show Business Weekly.]

Two unnamed nations, in an unspecified time and at an uncertain place, are at war. Praxis (Melissa Friedman) is fast becoming the queen of a wasteland that is relentlessly under siege, and so she places her trust and her armies in the hands of a genius, Riddler (Kathleen Chalfant). Riddler delights in the task, finding a perverse but logical pleasure in outwitting the savages at the gates and in knowing that she is saving her whimpering son, the comically named Atilla (James Wallert), from certain death in the army. But her methods are ruthless, calling for such self-mutilating sacrifice, that she might as well be the enemy, a thought that prompts Praxis to mournfully rue her decision: "There are deaths and deaths..." So too, there are plays and then there are plays, and this magnificently perceptive look at what protecting the hearts (of our nation and of our selves) takes: that's a real play.

Howard Barker, who wrote the play in 1992, is much like Riddler: his genius writing seems to take real pleasure in running paces around its own character and running logic and politics to their bitter conclusion, yet he also finds the humanity in every character, from the muted general, Plevna (Dion Graham) to Seemore (Thom Sesma), a man insanely infatuated with Riddler's calm poise and perfect genius. Barker can just as easily play in the subtle ruination of war (like Dr. Seuss's The Butter Battle Book) as he can draw parallels between the way madness manifests itself: in Riddler's case as a pent-up and focused talent that allows her to remain aloof enough to spend human lives like inflated currency, in Seemore's case as an unleashed and erratic emotion that violently flows out of him into the absolute valuation of a single human life.

A Hard Heart finds the harsh but supple direction it needs in Will Pomerantz, who is filled with clever surprises. The play is set within and around a fortified structure that looks to be solid and tough, but its exterior unfolds, like paper, to expose an empty shell within. As the play progresses, destruction is signified not with physical damage, but by scattering heaps of tattered clothing around the stage, like bodiless corpses. More so, Pomerantz never misses a chance to include the audience in the action: Seemore is frequently dragged down the aisle, kicking and screaming, and when Praxis and Riddler talk of sacrificing their greatest asset -- the very "bottomless significance" that they fight for -- it is us that they are addressing.

Barker is not an easy playwright to perform (he calls his own theatrical style Catastrophism; the company that most frequently performs him is known as The Wrestling School). His sentences don't just run on, they run through themselves, constantly attacking themselves with sudden realizations, as when a flustered Atilla blurts out "The collar and the cuffs You are thriving on this siege and I am not so nicely stitched . . ." All the actors nail the intricacies of such text, especially Friedman, who carries herself with all the poise, grace, flair, and wit of some famous Spanish queen, only to constantly be surprised by the whispering voice of her own heart, a heart which must suddenly be heard.

A Hard Heart is not at all a hard play to highly recommend: its heroes may find only tragedy in triumph, but this remarkable ensemble will find only success in their nightly suffering.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

PLAY: "Sister Cities"

Photo/Gili Getz

Does anything say family reunion like Mom lying dead in the bathtub, wrists cut and naked? Surely there are more appealing sights when you come rushing in the house to use the bathroom, but for the four estranged half-sisters of Colette Freedman's Sister Cities, it takes something really jarring to make a point. Like poisoning your sister to educate her about how horrible a disease like ALS is, so horrible, in fact, that you had to kill your own mother (more accurately, "assist," but who's counting?). It's important to put these two plot points right on the table, as without them, the Baxters could be any family, with their in jokes, shared memories, years of gripes, and playful bickering. And the Baxters are not any family: they are specifically the product of a somewhat neglectful mother, Mary (Judith Scarpone), who couched all of her most memorable advice in men-snaring rhymes, advice garnered through four different marriages, and more than a few states.

They are of the uptight lawyerly sort, like Carolina (Ellen Reilly), who is successfully unhappy, or of the upright motherly sort, like Dallas (Emberli Edwards). They are sister cities, each named (and eerily like) the place where they were born, like Austin (Maeve York), the published author drowning in expectations, or Baltimore (Jamie Neumann), the radical contradiction who dresses like a trailer park slut but goes to Harvard, jumping from one "-ology" to another. But most importantly, Mom's upstairs, dead and naked in the bathtub, as I believe I mentioned earlier, and Austin's the one who assisted her suicide, a small fact that the stern and moralizing Carolina can't quite get past.

Colette Freedman uses this ethical point to dissect true family values, forcing lines to be drawn and giving clear reasons for confrontation (more than an argument over, say, the placement of the word "zooerastia" in Scrabble). At the same time, she is able to progressively tease out the seriousness of the situation, which gives director Cat Parker plenty of time to establish the on-again-off-again camaraderie between the sisters. George Allison's scenic design is a great asset in this, with a deep and fully-functional den that stretches hallways behind the audience and builds stairways that function as escape hatches when the emotion gets too stifling.

The one gripe with Sister Cities is that it has also built escape hatches for the audience. Freedman's comedy serves a purpose: it works as a delayed fuse for the dynamite revelations. But her drama is broken up first by the divide between acts, and then by an unnecessary scene between Mary and Austin that all but forces us to agree that assisted suicide is a mercy. (As with the whole play, this scene is well acted; it's just already implied.) Furthermore, the play takes on a weighty attitude while going through these motions, using heavy-handed metaphors (literally pulling legs off spiders) that seem out of character with what we've already heard described. A better tact would be to make us think more on our feet, siding with one character, then with another, then, at last, torn between the two, trying to reach some cathartic resolution. It's not that any of Freedman's choices are bad ones -- they're dramatic in their own right. They just could cut so much deeper.

Then again, Sister Cities is a family play, or at least a play about a family, and there's something to be said for presenting difficult topics through cream-colored lenses, especially when the final product is still highly entertaining.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

PLAY: "Theft of Imagination"

Diplomacy, like theater, is the art of the possible: it's an act of convincing an audience, captive or otherwise, of something that does not necessarily exist. In the case of Theft of Imagination, it's a hard battle, considering that this free production, part of the PEACE ON WAR festival, is done largely with no set and an occasionally exaggerated cast. But it's also a leap of imagination well worth taking, as David Negrin's script is a sharp series of clashes between the diplomats of two opposite (but all the more similar) countries on the brink of war, and a well-planned parallel between the idealism of the youthful negotiators and their aggressive and adult handlers. And though Kat Chamberlain (who co-directs with Negrin) has little to work with on set, she plays up the split-screen action of the two sides very nicely: she really only needs a fight choreographer and some better sound effects.

Aside from a lackluster opening by a blustering priest straight out of Shakespearean dinner theater (Brad Russell), Theft of Imagination benefits most from its pacing. It opens with an ultimatum (there will be thirteen days to make peace, or the nations will go to war), quickly introduces the diplomats (an introverted boy and an outgoing boy), and then plunges them into high-stakes negotiation. Negrin's references to chess and diplomatic strategy (references to "blocks" and "cascades" are thrown around, as well as "misappraisal") keep the talks interesting, and the differences in character keep them dramatic. And don't be fooled by their archetypal names: though they begin committed to their "names," it isn't long before Outgoing Boy (Max Hambleton) is using more than his laid-back mouth, or before Introverted Boy (Kit Redding) learns to think with his heart and not just his mind.

As the days pass in a flurry of proposals and counterproposals, the two slowly begin to form a friendship, only to find that their handlers aren't looking for peace. This is where Negrin falls into a theatrical trap: he pads (unnecessarily, as it turns out) the handlers out, giving them a series of conversations outside the conference room where they speak about their hopes and insecurities. But in the second act, those characters become less human and more mechanical, with their words becoming just that -- words -- with no motivation or conviction behind them. Whereas Christopher Hurt is able to show growth (ironically, as the Outgoing Boy's Handler, he is the rigid and gaunt one), Angus Hepburn is locked into a sly and increasingly smug role. Their lines become the stuff of cheap television dramas: "If they stay on the path...." [conspiratorial pause] "Then we shall have to place land mines." As father-figures, guiding their children, they are humanized and all the more mysterious; outside of that, they're just villains.

I make these suggestions because at two and a half hours, the show runs a little long. There aren't enough subplots to require such length, and there are more than a few scenes (especially toward the end) that start to feel redundant, and while Negrin finds dozens of ways for his Introverted Boy to say "no" (he even turns it into a fun little game), the centralized action of the play doesn't give him the room to expand his initial parallels. Theft of Imagination ends up relying overly on the charisma of Mr. Hambleton and his character's outside-the-box thinking: if it can remain fair and balanced, it'll be an even better play.

Friday, November 16, 2007

PLAY: "Baby with the Bathwater"

Victor Verhaeghe, Anna Fitzwater, and Karen Culp look at the baby.
(Photo/Randy Morrison)

John (Victor Verhaeghe), a despairingly incompetent and increasingly drunk father, has a song he likes to sing: "Hush little baby, don't you cry/or Mama's gonna give you a big black eye." Those aren't the words to the song, and he despairingly knows as much, but in a world of foamy floor mats, hazardous alphabet cubes, and an LSD-inspired wallpaper of bright pink polka dots, they might as well be. Baby With the Bathwater, first penned by Christopher Durang in 1984, is a glorious satire on bringing up baby, without any childproofing, let alone adult proofing. There are sharp edges everywhere, from his wife Helen's (Karen Culp) passive-aggressive comas that say so much about our so-called "loving" relationships to their Nanny's (Anna Fitzwater) perverse, baby-shaking Mary Poppins shtick. Under Kevin Connell's crisp direction, even the pre-show is rich with the wicked underbelly of family values: a retro edutainment tape plays congratulating a family on successfully teaching their child about menstruation.

Baby with the Bathwater is a difficult sort of comedy, the kind that you'd get if George Carlin had been George Carlin instead of Mr. Conductor on Shining Time Station. It is unrelentingly funny, but repetitiously so, which requires that the actors remain fresh and absurdly perky. In this, Ground UP Productions has nailed the casting, with Mr. Verhaeghe visibly unraveling, and Ms. Culp always looking for affection (despite her own affectation) in new and unusual ways. They are gross exaggerations, but pleasantly so, and Gina Restani, playing a variety of straight women (well, by comparison at least), puts their comedy in modulation, and Ms. Fitzwater, as a literal handful of psychoses, continues to distort their well-intentioned efforts. As for their son Daisy (Jeremy King), he's exactly what you'd expect of such parents, when he eventually appears toward the tail end of the show. Standing in a spotlight, speaking to an unseen psychiatrist, he is wide-eyed, twitchy, and soft-spoken, a product of days spent lying depressed in a laundry basket or running suicidally toward buses.

According to the crazed schoolmarm Mrs. Willoughby, such suffering never fails to produce great art, and Daisy's "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" essay truly sounds like "Donald Barthleme meets Sesame Street." (It's also suspiciously like the more adult Matt's manic monologues in Durang's 1985 play, The Marriage of Bette and Boo.) Fun as some might find the suffering prose of Woolf or Plath, Durang isn't interested in plumbing the depths of depression so much as he is in distorting them to comedic highs, and Baby with the Bathwater is a success. Here, The Brothers Karamazov is used to explain that everything is permitted because there is no God, and that there is therefore "no right or wrong, only fun": with that motto in mind, one can only delight (and even find hope) in the thought that no matter how insane your parents were, life goes on.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

PLAY: "Secret Order"

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Chemical strings like bc12 and p55 have never been so exciting to the layman before: in that regard, Bob Clyman's new Mametian play is a success. At the same time, Clyman builds medical suspense at the cost of realism, amping up the basest components of character so that for all their bellowing, they are unflappable in the dramatic wind. Thankfully, it's not all hot air: Clyman's plotting is airtight (if a bit predictable), and although the characters are obvious, when the actors are on, they're an exaggerated delight.

We first meet William Shumway (Dan Colman), the well-intentioned rube of the play, a scientist from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, who may have just stumbled upon the cure for cancer. It isn't long before he's approached by the brusque and confident Robert Brock (Larry Pine), a twice-nominated scientist, respected elder, and father figure, all rolled into one. He's quickly coerced into a job with Hill-Matheson in New York City (the pacing zips from lecture to phone call to live visit to job in under three minutes of smooth storytelling), and soon after meets an excitable undergraduate, Alice Curiton (Jessi Campbell), and irritable codger, Saul Roth (Kenneth Tigar), his jealous rival from Toxicology. As pressures mount (with high expectations generated and then manufactured by Dr. Brock), Shumway makes an unethical decision to hide his results: not lying, exactly, but far from honest. Charles Tower's direction, minimal in design, and always jumping to the middle of action, helps to make the unspoken conflict into a central character: Shumway is always caught in the spotlight.

But the play falters when the characters miss their beats: rhythms that are already artificially inflated really need to be said by an actor with a pulse. When Larry Pine is on, the show is electric, sucked into his brash and biting enthusiasm ("My grandson talks about fair, and he's five."), his manipulative wit ("Why bother lying to him if he doesn't know it's a lie?"), and his sardonic affability ("Were you severely beaten as a small boy for talking too much?"). But more often than not, Pine is stumbling over his lines, looking far from persuasive: blustery, yes, but effective, no. And this in turn spoils the dynamic between him and Mr. Colman, who is obviously playing dumb, holding his charisma in reserve so as to play a struggling scientist. Worse still, when Pine loses his humanity, he makes Mr. Tigar seem even less likeable, more a malicious force for revenge than the slighted and wrathful elder that he should be. In turn, between all these exaggerated archetypes, Ms. Campbell gets lost in the kerfuffle, a pushy character who is so likable that she's forgettable.

Ultimately, the play doesn't really say anything that's all too surprising about the medical industry, and the shallow ethics on display, all half-truths and dodges, aren't as loaded as Clyman would like them to be. The play actually works best in the awkward relationship between prideful father-figure (Brock) and prodigious son (Shumway), which again, only works when Mr. Pine is nailing his lines. But Clyman doesn't have that much of a spine to fall back on: beyond his scathing lines and accessible science, Secret Order is an actor's play, and that's no secret.

Monday, November 12, 2007

PLAY: "Archipelago"

Photo/Joanna Wilson Photography

The way an island is formed, specifically an archipelago of them, is through random tectonic shifts on the ocean floor that cause volcanic rock to rush up and solidify on the surface. That said, it seems a bit disingenuous for a company that calls itself the Intentional Theatre Group to plan out a series of isolated incidents that bubble to the surface and blot out the sea. And sure enough, some of the ten one-act islands are half-formed in execution, over-produced and controlled so tightly that they have no room to develop of their own volition. At the same time, however, this group has managed to force some undiscovered riches to the surface, commissioning new and old playwrights alike (or borrowing from rarely produced offerings) and bravely producing the results. And thanks to the smooth direction of Emerie Snyder, the evening is spent hopping from one loamy substance to the next: the bad plays are quickly forgotten, and we're willing to jump, as the set is reconfigured -- sculpted -- into a new land, waiting and wanting to see what's next.

Where the playlets stumble most is in their dishonesty, moments where either the playwright or actor fails to address the most important concerns: why tell this story, and to whom are you speaking? In Davy Rothbart's "Scarface," the imprisoned hero must convince his wife to come upstate, children in tow, to make him look good in court, but the one-sided phone conversation lacks immediacy from actor Gavin-Keith Umeh and Rothbart sticks him with false humanity in his anecdotal attempts to help his children kill and dispose of a bat. This sometimes calm, sometimes enraged man has no real life, no real environment, and it becomes impossible to place him.

On the opposite end, Brian Patrick Leahy's "Cranberry" locks onto a unique story about a suicide artist who has strapped enough dynamite to her chest to make sure that when she explodes, the four canvases that surround her will literally make her mark for her. Even when actress Therese Barbato slips into an exaggerative mania on the phone with random interviewers (who we again have no attachment to or through), the idea is captivating.

As a state of theater, Archipelago unwittingly provides a measure of how far a playwright will go to stand out in this simplest and most communicative of forms: the direct monologue. Some, like Sarah Carbiener, revert to cliches, as in her madness-stricken narrative "The Cat's Fault." Others, like Sheila Callaghan in "Hold This" break the text up so unconventionally that the fragments (at least as performed by Nick Lewis) are hard to piece together. Then again, we are also treated to the premieres of Anton Dudley's "Up Here/In Here" and Erica Rosbe's "Orbit," not to mention the classic Beckett pantomime of despair, "Act Without Words I" (a bit noncommittally performed by Daniel Owen Dungan, though the malaise works for this scene). In "Up Here/In Here," Abigail (Lethia Nall) speaks in dreamlike repetition about her broken-glass dreams of the son she has, now dead, a sing-song approach that resembles the intentional parsing of Jenny Schwartz. And in "Orbit," Jeremy (Dan Via) deals with being the last man alive by erratically confiding in us, the stars surrounding his space station, the story of his lonely narcissism. With engaging presentations and charismatic roles, it's no surprise that these are the two best actors of the evening.

Unfortunately, Archipelago never comes together, despite a bookending recording that attempts to put the collection in context. Snyder's direction is focused so much on the pieces that she avoids dealing with the whole, and as a result, the pieces jostle against one another, the better parts sinking the others, rather than merging to create a more solid whole. There's much to be said for this sort of cruise-line theater tourism (you can gain a lot from briefly visiting a series of disparate plays), but the overall message comes as a bit cheap and somewhat crude: the catharsis of loneliness everyone's waiting for never comes.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

PLAY: "Crime and Punishment"

Photo/Courtesy of Writers' Theatre

Adaptations of stories rarely work, especially when they're epic, psychological romps through a tortured psyche, as is the case with Dostoevsky's classic Crime and Punishment. But Chicago's Writers' Theatre doesn't bother trying to fit the novel onto the stage; instead, Eugene Lee's set focuses the action with a cramped series of asylum-like doors that pin Raskolnikov, like some rare butterfly, beneath high-vaulted buckets of light and two low-hanging, interrogative ceiling lamps. The story does away with the third-person narrative and traps us beside the tortured intellectual as his mind punishes him -- physically and mentally -- for his murderous sin. For emphasis, Jesus hangs from a large cross, silently observing through his own blessed pain.

What Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus have accomplished is an abridgment that lends a real dramatic arc to the structure, doubling back for emphasis on the keys to Raskolnikov's salvation (the redemptive Lazarus) or replaying, in slow motion and shuddering gasps, our hero's double homicide. As for director Michael Halberstam, by simplifying the murders to their implications and clothes-strewn, body-twitching aftermath, he enables us, as did Dostoevsky, to still relate to this troubled protagonist, a man at odds with his own convoluted theories of the extraordinary people (like Newton, like Napoleon) who are entitled to kill for the greater good, and of his own simultaneous desire to be so transcendentally powerful. (He is, as costumer Theresa Squire never lets us forget, one step from vagrancy.)

The final key in the production is Raskolnikov himself, played by an endearingly restrained and soft-spoken Scott Parkinson. He stands in a reductive way that makes him seem to take up even less space, and he slumps against walls with a visible shudder (that "cold shiver of murder"). Halberstam often uses the revolving walls to strand Raskolnikov alone, without his beloved Sonia (Susan Bennett), his would-be confessor, or free of Porfiry Petrovich (John Judd), his equally calm and mannered pursuer (think of a more patient Javert). At times like this, Raskolnikov pleads directly with us, trying to convince us of the convictions it is clear he no longer holds, pushing off his cold nightmares onto us. (Though it is too early, the ghostly flickering of the Keith Parham's lights bring to mind the foreboding atmosphere of death row.)

Crime and Punishment isn't epic anymore; it's essential. The play is direct and haunting, relevant and true, and filled with the kind of introspection rarely seen outside of Shakespearean tragedy. And best of all, because it so fairly depicts the complex ideas discussed by Dostoevsky, it makes the audience want to rush out and buy a copy of this fantastic novel. As Writers' Theater grows, Oprah may need to watch her back.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

PLAY: "A Thought About Raya"

Photo/Ericka Heidrick

Few people right now are happy about losing their Broadway tickets, but I was ecstatic, since it gave me the opportunity to catch the limited run of The Debate Society's first play, A Thought About Raya. This play, based on the work of Daniil Kharms, also provides insight (if The Eaten Heart and the upcoming Untitled Auto Play are any indication) into the largely vignette-based plays of TDS. Raya is their most nonlinear, an experimental predecessor, but the looseness of the evening allows for great stage magic. Anything can happen on Oliver Butler's stage: Kharms's unpredictability enables it, as do Butler's collaborators, the wonderfully frazzled and excitable Hannah Bos and her straight man, the deliberate yet modest Paul Thureen. The years spent as a tight-knit company have only solidified the chemistry between performers, and their dedication to Butler's staging is impeccable, allowing for realism to abruptly turn to fantasy, as when Daniel (or Daniil), who is trying to write, suddenly finds that his arms have become literal utensils.

Once the plastic curtain that divides us from the performers is ripped down, the show is an exciting romp through the absurd ideas that Daniel has covered the floor with. Each piece is wildly different from the next, and they erratically jump, loop back, and reverse themselves, just as with Kharms's own writing. It's quite enabling, so long as you stop looking for meaning: a stick of butter, swallowed in one scene and regurgitated later on, is just a stick of butter, with inherent comic value, and nothing more. Absurdism is, by nature, better suited to comedy than drama, but the melange of ideas allow TDS to dip into a little of everything, as with a tragic, almost balletic, drowning. In one moment, Bos and Thureen recounting a series of increasingly gory murders, all while gleefully shuffling around a suitcase in a vaudevillian jaunt; later, the two stand before us, silently appraising the audience in their attempt to follow the voiced-over directions on humor: "Stand silently until someone laughs." Few performers can get away with such stunts, but based on my experiences with TDS, I suspect they can get away with just about anything, and I'm happy to let them do so.

Friday, November 09, 2007

PLAY: "Bingo With the Indians"

Photo/Joan Marcus

When playing the crap shoot that is Bingo, the goal is to listen closely to the all the minute numbers called, jot them down on your game board, and hope that your numbers fit the winning pattern -- most frequently a straight line -- first. Aside from the fact that it's a crap shoot, I'm not sure what the point is of Adam Rapp's new play Bingo With the Indians. There are lots of details -- intimate ones, even -- and a ton of curses, but they don't line up in any discernible pattern, save for a few moments where they sort of look like they're making a broad statement about The Theater.

Rapp is extremely creative and talented in his provocative scenarios (a troupe of guerrilla theater artists that could be right out John Waters' Cecil B. Demented) and his artistry knows no bounds when it comes to profanity ("Oh, tongue-fuck my ass, you skanky carnivorous whale"). And his actors are certainly game for the ride, with all of them cranking out notable performances (especially Cooper Daniels, for whom "cranking" has a special double entendre). But it really just seems like Rapp is trying to shock the audience: our first glimpse, when walking in and through the lovely motel room set, is of Stash (Cooper) sitting naked on the toilet, masturbating, grunting, and pushing out a turd (which we'll later learn he's obsessed with), all from behind an ominous black ski mask. Yes, in order to finance the play he's writing and acting in ("Scrape My Colon, colon, The Ballad of the Turd Burglar"), he and his colleagues, director Dee (Jessica Pohly) and stage manager Wilson (Rob Yang) have come to New Hampshire to rob a local bingo game.

I'm with Rapp up to this point. The banter is as engaging as it is shocking, and his in-jokes set up a real twisted camaraderie amongst the thieves. Particularly effective is Rapp's mastery of understatement, the way in which his quiet recluses -- in this case, Wilson -- end up catching our attention when we grow exhausted of watching the drugged Stash and the militant Dee. For this reason, I'm still with Rapp when he introduces a new character, Steve (Evan Enderle), who is the shiest and quietest of the bunch. Steve is a townie who lives and works with his parents at the motel, trapped as the one permanent thing in a house full of transients: his father violently comes and goes, his mother, Mrs. Wood (Missel Leddington) is too far gone, sunk in depression, to be considered a resident of anything other than her mind, and his ex-girlfriend now calls herself Jackson (Corinne Donly) and trolls for women at the lesbian Bingo tables. For him, these actors, who come from New York (a place he envisions as having "a knife on every corner") are dangerously cool, and possibly his only escape.

In a series of calm and considered scenes, Wilson half-rapes Steve (it's consensual, and they never finish, but the lack of pleasure or passion -- like robotic torture -- implies otherness) in some of the most graphic staging I've seen in the theater, compacted by the intimate space of the Flea Theater. And from there, with that severance of emotion, that ultimate abnegation of self for escapism, all of Rapp's drama appears not as a pattern, but as a series of stray dots that up until now have just randomly happened to closely approximate a dramatic thought.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

PLAY: "Humans Anonymous"

Since the characters of Humans Anonymous spend so much time sharing their innermost fears with the audience (from foghorns to death, centipedes to not being liked), I'll add one of mine: I'm always afraid that the show I'm attending is going to be horrible, and that I won't be able to find anything positive to say about it. Well, while the sexy but insecure hero, Ellen, has to open the show with a false smile, nodding and holding herself as if she can simultaneously fit in and stand out, I don't need to be false at all: Kate Hewlett's written a wonderful comedy that zips through overtly comic scenes while remaining anchored to a real human connection.

Here, that connection comes via the Internet: Ellen has fallen for her soul mate, SmartyPants17, and at long last, she's going to get to meet him, the man of her dreams. Unfortunately for her, that happens to be a woman, not Lenny, but Jenny, a young, adorably persistent klutz with a penchant for typos. Worse still, Ellen's homophobic, and while she's businesslike enough to grin and bear her way through the date, she's got no interest in seeing the smitten Jenny ever again. That's where the matchmaker of this comedy enters: Ellen's sly and sagacious employee, Peter (who is also, tellingly, her gay best friend), accidentally glimpses that first date and starts pulling strings to make Ellen happy, whatever it takes. Peter and Jenny become fast friends, and it isn't long before Ellen's fallen for "A" (for Anonymous), a gift-giving secret admirer born of Jenny's heart and Peter's playful scheming.

Here's where the play gets more complicated: Ellen becomes convinced (painting the picture she wants to see, rather than looking for the riddle she needs) that "A" is Arden, an overwhelmingly shy UHB ("You Handsome Brute") who stammers his way from his seat in the audience into our hearts. Arden we can handle, even if his antics are a little thematically distracting, but Hewlett starts interjecting too much of herself when she joins the cast as Gema, Peter's socially awkward sister. None of this stops the play from being funny, but it starts to push the jokes ("Can I come out now?" says Peter; "Didn't you do that once already?" Ellen rejoins). I never saw the hour-long "Best of the Fringe" version when it played in Toronto (2006), but it's not hard to tell when Hewlett is writing for an audience instead of her characters.

To stress again, however, none of this stops Humans Anonymous from being wholly enjoyable. Robin A. Paterson's direction is engaging (directly so when Dustin Olson's amidst the crowd), and with the exception of an unnecessary intermission, the play segues well from scene to scene. All three leads (Esther Barlow, Jennifer Laine Williams, and Philip Graeme) have excellent chemistry, and they each find the nuances of their characters: with Barlow, it's the cracked smile, growing more and more genuine with every gift; with Williams, it's the sense of purpose and general cheeriness; and with Graeme, it's the dry amusement that serves to mask his genuine concern. While Hewlett and Olson both put in admirable performances, the play itself would be better served to keep the focus on the actual story: that would tighten the jokes, the pace, and with those, the show.

Don't be a stranger to Humans Anonymous, go and check it out. We're all a little bit lonely, a little bit insecure: this show's for you.

Monday, November 05, 2007

PLAY: "The Runner Stumbles"

Photo/Jennifer Maufrais

The Runner Stumbles is a contemplative drama that needs to learn from its own title; written in 1976 by Milan Stitt, this play is so stilted that it never has the opportunity to fall into any emotion. The subject is about the improper affair between a nun and her priest, so it's already chaste and tasteful: what the play needs are some teeth. Instead, it throws in a weak murder trial to frame the play, and then sends contemplative memories swinging in and out of the prison through imposing hinged gates.

The best moments are those that match Father Rivard's unstinting intellectualism against Sister Rita's practical interpretations and Mrs. Shandig's deep-seated emotional beliefs, for Stitt's proselytizing is balanced enough that at times it serves as a suitable dramatic replacement. However, as the play sluggishly continues, the audience needs something to break up the monotony, and the disconnected melodrama of the courthouse scenes is not the answer. Furthermore, there's a bland repetition in this back and forth: we see Louise and Erna testify in the present, but then also watch the memories they've just iterated being formed in the past.

When director Scott Alan Evans is allowed to drop the baggage, he manages to focus quite well on the acting; there's a great moment of restraint where Rivard, Rita, and Shandig are all sitting in the same room, giving one another the silent treatment as they go about their daily work. The three eventually argue their way into praying together, and the shocking thought is that just as religion is what splits them apart, it is also the only thing that brings them together.

Ultimately, The Runner Stumbles lacks enough life and momentum to actually illustrate how Rivard's small concession ends up making him stumble into a lie with the diocese and eventually leads to his fall from the Church. Similarly discursive plays like Doubt and the recent 100 Saints You Should Know allow their characters to use religion to work through their pain: The Runner Stumbles gets all tripped up trying to use religion alone.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

PLAY: "The Turn of the Screw"

Photo/Wandrille Moussel

In the tradition of the cryptic riddles proffered by the creepy ghosts and creepier children of Henry James's canonical tale The Turn of the Screw, let me ask you a question: What is the most frightening thing one can see on the stage? This is a question I actually can't answer this Halloween, as Jeffrey Hatcher's 1996 adaptation of James's story (now in production by Wake Up, Marconi!) is rather tame, and far from unsettling. Karl Chmielewski has the lighting down cold, filtering the governess's overexcited nerves through a black-drenched design, but the rest of the show isn't haunting, at least not in a good way.

The Turn of the Screw relies upon an unreliable narrator, one of those governesses destined to help fill a madhouse somewhere, and Melissa Pinsly does fairly well at not being believable. Her frenzy comes in an inaccessible froth, but she does not seem mad so much as to be playing mad. This exaggeration confuses the point James seemed to be making about repression becoming manifested in the flesh; more importantly, it keeps the play from maintaining any tension. And then there's Mr. Hatcher's terrible choice to make all the other characters into "The Man": no offense to Steve Cook, but it would be hard even for an excellent actor to slip from Mrs. Grose, the old maid, into the precocious child, Miles, without coming off as very pretentious and silly. Cook, who dryly drawls his words as a narrator, or lilts in a poor falsetto as the child and maid, is unable to seem anything but affected, which just makes the play less believable.

It would take an excellent director to salvage this poorly planned (but well-written) adaptation, and there are moments where Don K. Williams strikes upon a nice bit of staging, using the lightly raked floor to play with distance and darkness. But he, too, falls into unintentional comedy with the choice to make the sound effects verbal rather than recorded (even though he opens and closes the play with a classic tune): Mr. Cook is forced to plunk on the piano with sounds whispered through his clenched teeth, and later to literally "footfall" and "creak" across the boundaries of a darkened stage. How could there possibly be ghosts under such ridiculous circumstances, and if there were, how could one possibly be frightened of them? That's the riddle I leave you with, readers, though I'm sure you already know my answer.

Friday, November 02, 2007

PLAY: "Milk 'n' Honey"

Photo/Benjamin Heller

It's a little ironic that Milk 'n' Honey best illustrates American eating habits with the structure of the play itself: an "a little of this, little of that" melange that throws together anecdotal monologues, hyperactive school-play presentations, comic PowerPoint demos, and a few unconnected vignettes. It's nice to see LightBox gorge itself on the different art forms out there, but the finished product achieves only the ephemeral sweetness of the honey bun our unfortunately diabetic hero so craves. That said, the honey bun, as depicted by the five writers of this play (C. Andrew Bauer, Ellen Beckerman, Shawn Fagan, Madeleine George, and Bray Poor) still happens to be pretty filling.

That's because the play has real characters, the integral ingredient of any show. Never mind that the plot comes in bite-sized portions that can't sate our appetite: we've got Audrey, a rebellious grocery store clerk; her would-be-boyfriend, Ambrose, a dumpster diving stockboy; then there's Renee, a glutton forced to change her lifestyle after a diabetic scare; Jesus, an immigrant trying to keep pace with the tomato trucks in the field; and Fred, a flavor chemist who turns from processing jellyfish jellybeans toward manufacturing a new taste, that of light itself. In addition, the cast also doubles to provide testimonials -- slices of life -- as if this were The Fajita Monologues: farmers, waiters, homeless men, grandmothers, even the Secretary of Agriculture speak out about food problems in America. And because more is better, we get to meet some anorexic children, watch the reactions of students watching slaughterhouse footage (i.e., an animal snuff film which, in its thirdhand descriptions, is the sliest portion of the night), and muse over a 6th grade Thanksgiving presentation that mines Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma for exuberant comedy:
"Did you know that corn is what feeds the cow that turns into a steak?" "And also the cow that makes the milk that turns into cheese and yogurt and also ice cream." "Amazingly, soda is also corn, as it is made out of High Fructose Corn Syrup, so when you enjoy a Coke...or a Pepsi...that is also the enjoyment of corn!"
I've read Pollan, and I must say, this is the more immediately digestible diatribe. But Pollan actually made his points, and LightBox glosses over far too much, avoiding any real sympathy for its characters, with the exception of Vaneik Echeverria's tender depiction of Jesus. Here the illegal immigrant is not shown as an alien or as a hard worker, but as a man suffering to support the family that he has had to leave behind. It's in total opposition to Shawn Fagan's goofy performance as Fred, a role which -- while appropriately comic -- has no spine to it (which, perhaps is also appropriate, since its main focus is on a jellyfish).

What is more impressive with Milk 'n' Honey is the plating of the play: audiences are seated at picnic tables, treated to popcorn and sucking candies, surrounded by groceries (White Rose Vegetarian Beans, Luigi Giovanni Plain Tomato Sauce, Honey and Oat Blenders, Bavarian Dutch Style Pretzels), and then blitzed by a technologically savvy space. Ellen Beckerman turns the 3LD space into an abandoned factory floor, a tall and wide chamber that keeps the focus on the machinery within it (in this case, the actors). Multimedia usually comes off as a gimmick, but for a show like this that is already so subsumed by Americana, it works as a reflection of the constant imagery of the food industry, not to mention a really great way to focus all of the information being heaped onto the audience's plate.

Milk 'n' Honey is ultimately a tasting menu, a sampler of what LightBox and its team of writers-cum-chefs can do, and as such it's very satisfying. But I wouldn't ask for seconds: next time, I'd rather just have one main course, cooked to perfection.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

PLAY: "Hoodoo Love"

Photo/Jaisen Crockett - Art Meets Commerce

You don't have to be a young playwright to get down and dirty in your text. But it helps. Just sit down and talk with Candy Lady, the saucy and grandmotherly conjuror of Katori Hall's brash new play, Hoodoo Love. She'll tell you that the best way to keep that shiftless blues singer man of yours around for the nine days it'll take to put a love hex on him is to menstruate in his coffee. She's not juggin' you either: go to church all you want, but she's the one who gets shit done.

It's a shame that you--that is, that Toulou, the bright young heroine, doesn't know enough to be careful of what she wishes for. She pins down a piece of Ace of Spade's heart, and in return finds something to really make her turn to the blues. Shackled to her small shack, she's as far from Memphis as anyone, and her needy (and somewhat incestuous) contradiction of an older brother, Jib, doesn't want her running off any time soon. The moral, told in a combination of Candy Lady's passed down wisdom and Toulou's dramatically earned experience, is that freedom must come freely, and yet is never actually free. Ace of Spades and Jib, who wander around squandering their talents for singing and preaching (mirrors of one another), are free, but they're bound as much by their gambling and drinking as they are by the necessities of the road. And Candy Lady, despite possessing magical powers and knowing volumes of hoodoo lore, can't actually save Toulou from the troubles that plague her: as she points out, there's no such thing as a backward potion.

The issue with Hoodoo Love, however, is that all of these thoughts and ideas are evoked without ever really being provoking. Maybe it's the rhythmic lull of the sentences, or the way in which everyone around Toulou is just a little too exaggerated. More likely, it's the build of the play, which has two separate climaxes, both of which are clumsily telegraphed and emotionally void. At times, Angela Lewis, who plays Toulou, only seems as if she's half there, and though her plight isn't hard to empathize with, it's veiled in darkness both by the director and by the playwright, moments that are set just out of reach. Where the play works far better are the dangerously tense moments directly before the storms, much of which is contributed by Keith Davis, who plays Jib as such a solid block of sternness that when he teeters, it is with a frightening force and an unsettling vulnerability. You can tell these moments are effective not just by the palpitation of your heart, but by the choice of director Lucie Tiberghien to step back and not clutter the truth with unnecessary illusions (as when Candy Lady casts a shadow over the golden light illuminating the tragic end of Act I).

Not to say that Hoodoo Love is any less watchable for these moments: while it may not always engage our guts, it still manages to portray a dirty South, circa 1930, a nasty world where African-American men are more likely to pick cotton than pluck guitar strings. The set is vague (the shack looks as if it is caught mid-hurricane, all odd angles and suspensions) but the setting is specific and the dialogue is era-appropriate. Like the stray musical numbers, or Toulou's infectious bellyful of hope, Hoodoo Love is catchy. It just needs to catch on something deeper.