Thursday, July 31, 2008

UndergroundZero Festival: "The Proposal" and "The Apocalypse of John, the Rabbit Known as Chicken Little"

Just before their second annual festival began, Collective:Unconscious had to abandon their former theater due to flooding. In many ways, that's appropriate, because so far as curators go, Paul Bargetto is a man who likes to get his feet wet: how else to explain the most eclectic lineup of shows on any festival stage this year? From a revival of the re-relevant dramatization of black box recordings (Charlie Victor Romeo) to Brechtian lounge acts (The Terrible Temptation To Do Good), burlesques (Pinchbottom Declares War!), and clown poetry (Clown Axioms & The Bitter Poet), the UndergroundZero festival defies easy categorization.

For example, Seth Powers's disturbing The Proposal begins with a simple revival of the short Chekhovian farce of the same name. But the actor/director (Daniel Irizarry) isn't quite sure the message is getting across, and doesn't know how to simultaneously reach the older theatergoers looking to relive the peaceful past of passive theater and the younger iPod generation. The question he poses is a bloody difficult one--"Why can't theater be art?"--and it's made all the bloodier by the violence of good doctor Chekhov (Laura Butler) and the well-intentioned puerility of a thick-bearded, cookie-laden Nietzsche (Vic Peterson). Actor's search for truth twists into a dark farce, from an animalistic portrayal of the creation myth to a Gallagher-like climax, with a few breaks to dance the mazurka. Under normal conditions, such dangerous leaps in illogic would simply be dismissed as pretension, but Irizarry wrestles Powers's script to the floor by grounding everything in the intensely physical, and it's near impossible to look away.*

Taking another approach, the modest Freddi Price's The Apocalypse of John, the Rabbit Known As Chicken Little does for shadow puppets what South Park did for cutouts: literally and figuratively crude, his show takes an absurd Terry Gilliam-like glee in blatantly satirizing the book of Revelation. That John has been replaced with a masturbating, alcoholic rabbit who believes the sky is falling is already plenty silly, but he soon encounters "Henny Penny" ("That's the lamb of god, bitch!") and "Goosey Loosey" (the whore of Babylon), and it's only a matter of time before the scrim is overrun with demons, from a dancing, googly-eyed 666 to a snooty Frenchman drunk on absinthe ("Wormwood"). More is more, but the exaggeration of such wild contradictions is hysterical: "How many thirds can you divide the world into?" As a means of moderation, Price also performed his two-person bunraku, Frank, which while just as heavy-handed in the murmuring voiceover, was a valuable reminder of the power of silence, and the transitory power of theater.

Of course, theater doesn't have to be art, it can be recklessly entertaining instead. But to really get shaken up, it's important to venture off that beaten (to death) track, and no better place to jump off the deep end than with UndergroundZero.

[*Note: To clarify a point, when a script tackles complex ideas in a nontraditional way, the casual theatergoer is quick to label it as "pretentious." If I were to have simply read Seth's script , I might have done the same. But this is why theater works best as a collaborative effort: I very much enjoyed The Proposal, and it illustrates the positive ways in which even pretension itself can be used to enrich the very valid critiques being made about art.]

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh

The clever script often manipulates passion to make a point, but on the whole, the able cast and precise direction make Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh an entertaining play.

[Reviewed for Time Out New York]

Monday, July 28, 2008

Around the World in 80 Days

Photo/Sandy Underwood

Mark Brown's adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days is all about transportation, and not just the physical kind. Exaggerated accents, comic physical action and a briskly narrated pace (with two Foley artists for emphasis) transform Jules Verne's novel into an adventurous bit of theater. In the same vein as The 39 Steps, Brown's script calls for a small ensemble (five actors), with Daniel Stewart as the straight man, Phileas Fogg, and Evan Zes as his indomitable sidekick, the flexibly French Passepartout. They are joined by Lauren Elise McCord as Aouda, who comes across as the loveliest of plot contrivances, while the very talented Jay Russell and John Keating spin around them, filling out the other twenty odd characters.

Verne's novel is practically engineered for such an adaptation: it's an endurance race, as are most farces, and Michael Evan Haney directs it as such. There simply isn't the time for a dull moment: even the exposition is punctuated by pantomime that call to mind the swaying of boats, the juddering of trains, and the galumphing of elephants. If there were even the hint of blandness, Brown has excised it from his script, with the actors either hastily "narrating" into the next bit of fun or introducing a new character just long enough for a laugh. The combustion, the steam-ups, the hot air: all of these things are consistent with the forward motion of the plot, and hence the play, and even the intermission--which hits mid-typhoon--propels the show forward.

Best of all, Around the World in 80 Days is appealing to all ages. Kids will laugh at the bumbling Detective Fix (Keating) and his attempts to hinder Fogg (who he believes is an infamous bank robber), while adults will find his mock-Sherlock affectations most enjoyable. As for poor Passepartout (Zes's portrayal is anything but poor), he resembles Clouseau, from his insistence that his watch is a "perfect time piss" to his close encounters with opium. This recognizability is intentional, especially for the rotating caricatures, and David K. Mickelsen's costuming deserves as much credit as Russell's affectations for filling each role out.

If gas prices are keeping you from traveling much this summer, why not take a trip Around the World? This slapstick adventure is far roomier than coach, not bogged down by any weather delays, and, thanks to the expert acting, there's no chance of you missing anything along the way. As Fogg would say, it's all accounted for: entertainment most certainly included.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Midtown International Theatre Festival: Three Plays

In Shaun Gunning's Writer's Block, a playwright trying to meet the expectations (and deadlines) of his latest work struggles to turn his love-hate relationship with his agent into a means of inspiration. Taking a different approach, Elisa Abatsis's Daguerreotypes stretches a metaphor about the halation of this ancient photographic technique into a play about transitory relationships and the need to let go of the past. Most daringly, Mary Stewart-David and Clive Chang attempt to revive Phileas Fogg's journey as a musical comedy set in 2011 (Eighty-1). These shows may seem to have nothing in common, but they're all selections of this year's Midtown International Theatre Festival (MITF). It's a random sampling, and an uneven bunch at that, but to quote one of Ms. Abatsis's characters, "DILLIGAFF" (Do I Look Like I Give A Flying Fuck)? And, by means of an answer, here's the rundown on some highs and lows, and the reason why it hardly matters.

In the best of the three plays, Mr. Gunning plays what very well may be himself--Daniel--a playwright tragically blocked by his ex-fiancee's sudden abandonment of him . . . for his brother. It's enough to drive anyone to drink one's deadlines away, even as the repo men take everything but an empty bookcase, and as the bathrobe starts to musk up around you. As he's egged on by his agent, Paula (Kate Dulcich), he stumbles his way through a series of comic failures, from a Shepard-like adaptation of his own life--in which Jack (Jack Marshall) loses his fiancee to his meth-addict brother, Gary (Steve Orlikowski)--to a sequel to a sophomoric gangster comedy, "Chicago, 1923," which playfully packs more fish-related puns into a ten-minute gag than a whole can of sardines (sans the stink). The play also spoofs the "murder mystery" play, but thankfully, the jokes aren't at anyone's expense, for they tie together into a classic showdown between a writer and his own creations, with a little romance thrown in for resolution.

Next up, Eighty-1, or "Around Around the World in 80 Days in 80 Minutes." Phileas Fogg IV (Daniel Lincoln) is forced to validate his great-grandfather's record by recreating the journey (that's by rail and by boat, for you Verne purists). He's joined, of course, by the descendants of that trip, JP Passepartout (Brayden Hade) and journalist "Fixey" Fix (Nicole Weiss), and yes, an Indian princess (Jen Anaya) appears. The show is in extremely good fun, but it speeds through so much that it fails to develop much character, and the songs--all piano-based--suffer from not having the strength of personality behind the words. The haste also sacrifices adventure for a shallow love story: not always a bad thing, but without the exotic danger there's a lack of obstacles and an excess of exposition. Developmentally, though, Eighty-1 is in great shape: when's the last time you saw a show whose only problem was learning how to slow down?

Unfortunately, Daguerreotypes seems as if it's frozen in time: the bookending scenes between Gemma (Storm Garner) and her beloved art teacher, Norman (Doug Rossi), were taken without the flash on, and the lack of chemistry (or even reason for those scenes) muddies the rest of the picture. There just aren't any circumstances: Cece (Jessica Morris), who is pregnant with a brain-dead baby, is unable to explain why she's come to a studio that specializes in peaceful photographs of dead babies and Henry (Alfred Gingold), who runs the studio, isn't able to express his passion for this sort of photography or for the love of his life, the country gal Darcy (Lynn Spencer). Consequently, the drama often seems slower than the lengthy (but musical) scene changes. Chase (Jared Morgenstern) is the one character she nails, an angsty employee of Henry's: of all the characters, he speaks without thinking--and that leaves him free to simply be.

And yet, I'm always drawn to these festivals. Regardless of flaws, there's an earnestness in the work, some sense of purity that just needs to be worked out in front of a live, receptive, audience. Chances are, most of these shows won't move on (at least, not without heavy revisions). But at the same time, you haven't heard the last of these crews.

For a list of the 60 shows, the venues, and the performance dates, go to the MITF website, here.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac

Photo/Lucien Samaha

Taylor Mac comes to us in drag, green-faced and glittery, with a thickly clumped wig, but despite his eccentric act (high energy rants modulated by ukulele), don't mistake him for an alien. He's a wildman, a performance artist born in the crucible of gay nightclub basements. The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac is a messy sampler of his previous solo shows: by the end of the night (after opening "Pandora's suitcase"), he's standing in a sea of old costumes. The overall topic of this self-proclaimed "subversive jukebox musical" is to pierce what "the bubble of preparation," in which America (and, by inclusion, audiences) attempt to shelter themselves from harm by "preparing for the surprise." Two things are made clear by the bubble of light that surrounds him: first, that Taylor Mac cannot be contained by David Drake's direction, and second, that for all his mania--singing breasts and all--there's nothing particularly shocking about Taylor Mac.

Whether this proves Taylor's point or hinders his performance is beside the point, for the show goes on, whether you "get" it or not. For me, the show was only periodically entertaining, with Taylor's between-song explications far more interesting than the vignettes themselves. Both are performed at the same energy (dial that intensity up to eleven, but soften that bass with charm), but his stream-of-consciousness monologues seem more genuine than the rehearsed songs. This is due to his eagerness to reveal himself (though drag is an element of the show, I don't mean it like that): he jumps on and through his own lines, uncontrollable, as he tries to get it all out.

The danger is that due to the nature of the performance, some of the riskiest truth may come across as shtick. The costumes change, but they're largely superfluous, and what remains underneath never really changes: speech, song, speech, song, but nothing that would truly pierce that bubble. His mirth and amiable nature tames the "be(a)st," and though Taylor mentioned that he hates comparisons, his reliance on Mylar props and his needy direct address bring to mind a certain overly muscular redhead's stand-up routine. ("Bobby wanted to have unprotected sex, and when I wouldn't, he said 'Are you afrAIDS?'")

For all the shrill speeches about this culture of fear we live in, Taylor refuses to exploit the grotesque to make his points. Instead, he revels in it, softening the edges, and by allowing us to remain safe in our seats (save for one "lucky" participant), he allows us to easily dismiss his act as pure entertainment.

Friday, July 18, 2008

[title of show]

Photo/Carol Rosegg

It wasn't until [title of show] opened on Broadway that it was ready for Broadway. What started out as a campy homage to musicals and the writing process at the New York Musical Festival in 2004 aspired for bigger things when it was updated to include its experiences post-NYMF as it played at the Vineyard Theater in 2006. But it's the new material developed for Broadway, 2008, that has given this musical a real arc. It's still light, comic, and filled with unabashed insidery glee, but it doesn't just say that it's building to fortissimo, it really does. Before, it would've been like the first act of The Fantasticks; now, while still running at a brisk hundred minutes, it's got elements of the second act of Into the Woods--not just more serious, but more musically complex.

Things start simply enough with "Untitled Opening Number," a meta-overture that gives a sampling of the self-referential narrative style (future present/present past) that [title of show] uses to sing about its own creation. ("So we'll put in a syncopation/and we'll add a quarter note/and we'll softly start the coda from a very tiny point.") It's a gimmick that repeats, most immediately in the next song, "Two Nobodies in New York" ("What if this dialogue were set to music?/What if what we're saying could be said in a song?"), and if it were only a gimmick, [title of show] would quickly wear out its welcome. Instead, the songs are actually character-building devices, miniature star vehicles that show not just Hunter Bell's book and Jeff Bowen's music and lyrics, but Hunter and Jeff's charisma. They are two nobodies, but they're two nobodies on stage, which means from the get-go, it's a dream come true. That they happen to be funny and share an unrehearsed chemistry only helps the show.

As the show merrily rolls along, two friends are introduced: Heidi Blickenstaff, a Broadway-bound actress stuck on the "replacement understudy/ensemble/off-stage singer/dance captain/assistant stage manager track" and Susan Blackwell, an "unconventional" actress (she uses the term "handsome"). Like Jeff and Hunter, these two play themselves, and this unforced, easygoing camaraderie practically makes [title of show] a Disney musical: "dreams do come true." It's true that the next fifty minutes are best enjoyed by musical theater fans who will catch references both to Chess and Alice Ripley, but the history is played broadly, for audiences of any background. In "An Original Musical," it's funny enough that Jeff is goaded into writing by a jive-talking Blank Paper (Hunter), even if you don't catch the jokes about Broadway's "star-powered" decline. "Monkeys and Playbills" isn't just nostalgic for the golden years (Sail Away, Ride the Winds, Carnival in Flanders), but, thanks to Hunter, it's absurd, too ("See the monkey sail away on his speedboat!").

After an awkward "montage" of compressed jokes that are unfortunately forced, the play jumps to the post-Vineyard material (the new stuff), and it's here that [title of show] starts to build beyond simple good cheer. Now the show becomes about art and compromises: not far off from Sunday in the Park With George. The pressures of success cause splinters in the tight-knit group, and it's here that the metadrama takes on a second level: Heidi stands on stage as Hunter and Jeff discuss replacing her with a name, like Sutton Foster. Likewise, Jeff's music fractures just like his relationship with Hunter as the rhythmic "Change It, Don't Change It/Awkward Photo Shoot" examines the editing process that's necessary to get an OK for Broadway. The script and the actors within it are all organic, and these darker moments give the show dramatic weight while at the same time reassuring us (by their very presence on stage) that everything is going to be alright.

This optimism is [title of show]'s strongest feature, for it uses the form that it's invented (or at least perfected) to address common issues. There's no giant chorus numbers filled with flappers, no big orchestras--just the very funny Larry Pressgrove on keyboards--which means that even on the Broadway show, there's opportunity for intimacy and honesty. "Die Vampire, Die!" dresses it up in comedy, but those insecurities--they're the same ones we all face. And the final two songs, "A Way Back to Then" and "Nine People's Favorite Things" are both warm, positively glowing songs that take real memories and craft them into real songs. It's a reminder that beneath the bright lights of Broadway, there are real people, too, and it doesn't all have to be loud and glamorous to make us feel something.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Scenes from an Execution

Photo/Stan Barouh

Scenes from an Execution opens literally, with its actors frozen in tableau as the narrator, aptly named Sketchbook (Allison Corke), draws us back to Venice, 1571. Galactia methodically pencils in her lover's buttocks, quick in her maddening brilliance to observe that "dead men float with their arses in the air." She is preparing to paint the great naval battle of Lepanto for the Doge, so she drives off her childish lover and focuses on Prodo (Peter Schmitz), "The Man With A Crossbow Bolt in His Head." He is content to be a freak, but neither Galactia nor Barker are willing to paint such a one-dimensional battle: instead, they shatter the audience's "peace with life" by daring to expose Truth.

The play next wrestles with the figurative interpretation, with Galactia's struggle to look, not to simply see. This is theatrical contradiction that drives the political strife, for Galactia has no intention of making Admiral Suffici (Robert Zukerman) "glorious," as his brother, the Doge, demands. Instead, she plans to paint him with a look of indifference in a sea of corpses, daring Cardinal Ostensible (Timothy Deenihan) to punish her and hence martyr the idea she believes in. Suffici warns her that "There is no such thing as what happened. Only viewed of what happened. Just as there is no such thing as a man. Only images of him." Her own daughter, Supporta (Lucy Faust), and Gina Rivera (Patricia Buckley), warn her for other reasons: her actions may damn the cause of women painters throughout Venice. But like Riddler, an equally stony Barker protagonist (A Hard Heart), Galactia believes she knows best, and her pleasure in this allows her to gleefully cast aside as many lives as it takes.

The final section of the play plunges into a symbolic interpretation, with Galactia "blinded" in prison for her treason, and Carpeta transfixed like his own passion paintings. It's a mark of excellent direction that Richard Romagnoli so easily swims between the styles: though Barker lives by the text, his scripts would simply be essays without some sort of visual flair. Galactia shows her single-minded focus by causing a scene in a funeral procession, one body fighting a current of silent and solemn gatherers. Later, the entire width of the stage sets up a panoramic view of the "Battle of Lepanto," entirely through the eyes of its actors.

Jan Maxwell makes a perfect Galactia, playing the painter like a mature Joan of Arc. She fights like a warrior as she defends her work from three drunken soldiers, and then reverts to childish behavior as she giddily unveils her finished work to her lover. As for this lover, David Barlow provides a necessary balance for Maxwell's moodiness, exaggerating just enough to be comic, but no so much that he distorts himself beyond the needy humanity of the later scenes. The play is also aided by Alex Draper, who plays the pompous Doge with a constant menace beneath his affability. Barker's words are layered with double meanings, for his characters, politically motivated, are very clever: Mr. Draper (who starred in last year's No End to Blame) is there, word for word, but with an unctuous charisma all his own.

Howard Barker's plays are not performed often enough in New York, perhaps because the material sometimes seems dated or because the conflicts are so intellectual. Both of these things are misconceptions by those who only glance at the script: that's the mistake of seeing without looking. Potomac's strong production of Scenes from an Execution is one hell of an opportunity to really look at an artist's struggle to say something; it is far more than mere drapery.

The Critical Condition

Credit to Leonard Jacobs for pointing this out, but here's Mark Blankenship's blog, "The Critical Condition." Mark does, essentially, what I want to do for a living, and I've got no problem admitting that.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Crave/Somewhere in the Pacific

Photo/Stan Barouh

Sarah Kane's ravenous writing in Crave is a swell match for Potomac Theater Project's other show, Howard Barker's tersely plotted Scenes from an Execution, but it's done a huge injustice by being placed on a double-bill with Neal Bell's dreadful Somewhere in the Pacific.

[Reviewed for Time Out New York]

Monday, July 14, 2008

Perfect Harmony

Photo/Jim Baldassare

It's the worst kind of joke that only a few of the actors in Perfect Harmony can actually sing with the technical proficiency necessary for a capella. It's a shame, too: like the "dying duck" sound of the bassoon that Lassiter wants to artistically inject into his group, the Acafellas, this lack of musicality "contaminates the sound" of the show. Not that the comedy is pitch-perfect either: it's a little too "loosey" (and I don't mean slutty) and all over the place, which is about what you'd expect from a show that was written by and for the cast of the '06 Fringe production. Director Andrew Grosso, who has been with the show from the beginning, has squeezed square pegs into round holes as best he can (successfully with Clayton Apgar and decently with Sean Dugan).

The production shows signs of stretching in that the funniest moments are the smaller scenes and monologues that don't require such perfect harmony. Nisi Sturgis and Kathy Searle both struggle to blend with the female a capella group, The Ladies in Red, the former as a expletive-spouting klutz (who is vehement about not having Tourette's), and the latter as an ESL-singer who can't distinguish between "I travel the world/and the seven seas" and "It's the end of the world/and we're gonna freeze." But as Tobi McClintoch, an eccentric New Age voice coach ("You should have been told that if you came to me you could help you"), Sturgis is great, and Searle slays the audience as an excitable Kiki Tune, a cash-crazy "talent" scout. Even Vayu O'Donnell, who was in the original production, is at his best when his monologue devolves into a medley of depressed pop songs ("And I'm here to remind you/of the mess you made when you went away/And I'm never gonna dance again/guilty feet have got no rhythm/Just take a look at me now").

Grosso and company tackle a lot of issues, and without a cohesive melody, it's just a bunch of dissonant threads. Valerie (Margie Stokley, who originated the role, too) has confidence issues and can't stand being looked at, which should add to her sweet relationship with the nervous Simon (Mr. Dugan), and clash with the religious beliefs of Meghan (Amy Rutberg), who notes that "Jesus is always watching." It should also help to establish her brother's charisma, but J.B. (Scott Janes), despite being a central character, remains at a tangent. The best comedy requires the actors to feast, piranha-like, upon all the energy in the room. But with such flat notes, they end up savaging one another, quite missing the beat entirely.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


It's sort of a shame that in a play about sound, the visuals are what stand out the most. Rebecca Makus's lighting design casts silhouettes onto a scrim, allowing us to watch the sad tale of one of those unheard, unseen eventual suicides. To fully immerse us in that otherworld, Peter S. Petralia (who also wrote the script), has the audience don headphones, which combine Foley sound effects with spoken text and prerecorded music. Whisper comes across like an old Beckett radio play, not just for the dim narrative, but for the precise and focused vision.

The scrim is a double-edged sword, for while it enables the manipulation of size and substance, and captures the essence of anonymity with its neat little prisons of light, it also keeps everything distant, and never manages an emotional connection. At first, Whisper moves on innovation alone, with the sound of dripping water enough of a novelty that plot is unnecessary. But as the show continues, the narrative doesn't deepen: it just continues to describe things, often in a dull monotone. The bright white light is already an absence of color: the script, therefore, needs to do more.

Still, this is the sort of wild experimentation that you'll always find me an enthusiast for. The technique of the production is flawless, and Alice Booth, Gillian Lees, and Andrew Westerside give exact (although not exacting) performances. The disconnect between craft and substance makes Whisper more of an ethereal tech demo than a finished product: until that's resolved, actions will continue to speak louder than words.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Bouffon Glass Menajoree

Photo/Maike Schultz

Screw Tennessee Williams, that hack, and all his illusions that congeal to speak the truth. Instead, take the advice of Ten Directions, and buckle your seat belts for truth in the form of illusion, and their bouffon (anti-clown) adaptation of The Glass Menagerie. Eric Davis starts by throwing out the "memory play" narrative: with the use of a giant spiderweb-like dream catcher, he works in the nightmarish present.

To this end, the characters are all played at extremes: Tom (Lynn Berg) is half-Quasimodo, half-quarterback, which reflects both his work habits and his recklessness; Amanda (Aimee Leigh German) is now a grossly obese woman, which makes her fixation on her gentleman-caller days as disturbing as her appetite; and Laura (Audrey Crabtree) isn't just physically crippled, she's mentally off, too: like an infantilized version of one of the villains in a Rob Zombie film. The aggressive, grotesque acting frequently directs them toward the audience, but their barbs are more humorous than hurtful, and often accompanied by free beer.

All three actors have their distinct strengths, and they blend nicely, a real feat considering how much of the show seems to be improvised (especially with the final scene's "gentleman caller"). At the end of the show, the actors curse the audience with the memory of the show, but that too, is in good fun. From Berg's Robin Williams-like "night at the theater," to Crabtree's oversexed snarls and thrusts for her "unicorn," and German's mouthful of butter, having survived Bouffon Glass Menajoree, you won't really want to forget it.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Neal Medlyn's Unpronounceable Symbol

Photo/Steven Schreiber

One thing's for sure about the Neal Medlyn: dude's got balls. Don't take my word for it: just wait until he's dancing in his underwear on a table that's writhing with dildos and you'll see them. I'm unconvinced that gyrating half-naked while screaming falsetto lyrics makes for good theater, but at least with his Prince spoof, Unpronounceable Symbol, Medlyn's taking on someone who has soul and androgyny to spare. Then again, Medlyn seems unsatisfied with riffing on Purple Rain and B-sides like "Erotic City" and "Jack You Off" (the latter delivered with an almost evil Elvis twinge), so he plays up the Messiah and those Watchtower-loving Jehovah's Witnesses, too.

Medlyn plays both halves of the tragic love story, Jerry and Neal, and if that doesn't give you an idea of how fractured the act is, consider that Jerry, in fit of jealous rage, tries to kill Neal with a killer cum shot. Thankfully, Kenny Mellman (keyboards) and Neal's sarcastic, deadpan nemesis, the drummer Bob George (Carmine Covelli), neatly frame the absurdity, without ever limiting Medlyn's energy. (His semen won't undergo transubstantiation on its own.)

The problem is that unreeled acts like this, eccentric to the max, don't have much of a range beyond the camp crowds that delight in Rocky Horror-like antics. To be fair, they really can't: what Neal does is as undefinable as Prince's symbol is unpronounceable. But if you're not a member of the Nerve-loving, gender-curious "experimental" youth demographic and can't identify a downtown "luminary" like Murray Hill, then you've probably got no business at this show.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Passing Strange: The Movie

Well, I'd rather see Spike Lee turn Passing Strange into a movie than direct Stalag-17 for Broadway, but to be honest, I feel as if a huge opportunity is being missed. Sure, he made The Original Kings of Comedy, but stand-up makes a natural translation to the screen; concert films rarely do (and I'm talking directly to my copy of the short-lived Blast!, a spectacle that seemed confined and studied when I watched it on DVD). A musical like Passing Strange is no doubt difficult to make into a feature film, especially if you're trying to go direct to HBO, but I fear that, in a rush of justifiable excitement, this critically acclaimed musical may end up the next Futuresex/Loveshow. And no, I'm not talking about the live show, which was already sold out. I'm talking about the HBO special.

Why not give Passing Strange the same treatment as Chicago, Mama Mia, or (inevitably) In the Heights? To directly film the stage version--especially with audiences in the house--can only cheapen the effect of actually being there, whereas creating a pure film version can at least put Spike Lee's talents to good use. Wouldn't you love to see him find the gritty contrast between Amsterdam and Berlin? Between the perception of South Central, LA, and Youth's actual slice of sunny suburban life?

Again, I'm not against a film version of Passing Strange: but a staged concert seem to dilute the idea of "the Real." I mean, that's not even a live broadcast, ala the final show of Rent (which, by the way, has already been fully adapted for film): it's two steps removed, and, given that Lee plans to film at least four productions from which to cull the best takes and angles, will probably be processed, too. Even full-on film can't capture the wall of sound that Stew conjures up (and if it could, the casual viewer would just turn the sound down), but at least it could break film conventions. How is a straight reproduction going to capture the way Stew breaks the Belasco's fourth wall? You need some movie magic, some creative energy, and some entrepreneurial spirit to find that.

Funny. Between Spike Lee, Steve Klein, and Stew, I'd have thought it was all there. That said, I'm hoping for the best, and you crazy fans who want to show your support for the production, tickets are still on sale for the July 19th performances.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Washing Machine

Photo/Michelle Enfield

The show is still just as aesthetically stunning as when I covered the premiere in 2007, but it didn't carry the same punch as last time. It's still a pretty nifty production, though, and I guess one should expect a washing machine to be somewhat mixed.

[Reviewed for Time Out New York]

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Palace of the End

[Reviewed for Show Business Weekly]

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Lynndie England: accidental torturer. David Kelley: heartsick weapons inspector. Nehrjas Al Saffarh: trusting member of the Iraqi Communist Party. With the allegory of Alice’s looking glass, Judith Thompson not only connects these desperate and disparate characters, but also turns a sharp mirror on society by revisiting the infamous abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. Built by invisible, arbitrary borders (like Iraq itself), Palace of the End isolates all three of these characters on stage and then, monologue by monologue, uses their fractured realizations of the world to tie them together. Thompson takes liberties with her mix of research and storytelling skills when explaining Lynndie’s infamous “thumbs-up” pictures, Kelley’s suicide, and Saffarh’s struggle to resist Saddam. But these “invented” characters hold fast: Her writing is seamless and every bit as breathtaking for the audience as it is for the actors who labor for breath, fogging up that looking glass.

The monologue “My Pyramids” quickly dispenses with the stereotypes of Lynndie by making her funny: She’s more offended by being called ugly than she is by posts that threaten to kill her. It just as quickly humanizes her: She was out of her depth at Dairy Queen; what did they expect from putting her in charge of “terrorists”? Teri Lamm deserves a Purple Heart for all the emotional blood behind her portrayal of this likeable, delusional martyr. Rocco Sisto deserves one, too: As Kelley lay dying, he struggles to find the strength within his soft-spoken self to call out “the truth” behind the senseless killings his report helped to “justify” in Iraq. As for Heather Raffo — bathed in a golden light, she reflects both happier and darker times. Her account of Saddam’s torturers is almost as heartbreaking as the thought of all that wasted perseverance. These are strong, charismatic performances, layered with the compressed depth and insight of three wholly different plays.

Palace of the End works best, however, as one show, and this is where Daniella Topol shines. The best sort of director, she enhances Thompson’s work not by reinterpreting it, but by focusing on the mournful humanity behind simple actions: rubber stamping a document, shaking dirt off one’s pants, sipping a cup of tea. In this light, the abstractions both of the monologue form and Mimi Lien’s jaggedly pointed mirrors, become inescapably real.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

All Kinds of Shifty Villains

All Kinds of Shifty Villains may be a little shifty in its direction, but thanks to some comic villains, Robert Attenweiler's new show is far from bad. The play opens in full-blown noir, a chiaroscuro cityscape chalked in the background, and a sultry showgirl, Precious Jones (Elizabeth Stewart), singing sweet exposition. By her first chorus, the black and white has fallen away to reveal a cartoon-like world, where villains like Fonzy and The Fonz (Nathan Williams and Bret Haines) hide whiskey in cereal boxes, loyal assistants like Therese Trueblood (Kari Karchock) have their kinks, and hallucinatory heroes like Max Quarterhorse (Joe Stipek) go through nicotine withdrawal. It's a live-action Who Framed Roger Rabbit (that is, no cartoons), kept aloft by a cast that knows not to look before leaping.

In an increasingly absurd plot, a mime (Christopher Loar) goes about killing the "good" citizens of the town, forcing Max to interrogate the usual suspects, from Filthy Matthew Ginske (Michael Porshe), an obsessive bomb-maker, to Hamish Cornish (Rob Richardson), a blind thief. It's the good sort of madcap, but Rachel Klein's direction isn't always able to keep up. Ironically, Klein has no problem with the action sequences: a zombie hallucination and a rooftop showdown are the high points. However, straight scenes sag, with the actors stretching not just their faces but their characters to try and funny up some of the more redundant jokes. Also, for a show that's so emphatic on sight gags, when technical cues are missed (like the pimp's "Death by Rubber Nose"), it's sometimes hard to know what's going on.

Of course, it's just as easy to let go and have fun, following the cue of actors like Christine Holt (who plays the saucy Powder Keg) who shoot first and never ask questions later.

Thursday, July 03, 2008


Photo/Jaisen Crockett

I'd like to think that I'm bad ass, but I do get shocked by shows all the time--most recently, Simon Farquhar's Rainbow Kiss. Last time I saw an Anthony Neilson play, Penetrator, my knuckles went pretty white: that's why it's so disappointing that Neilson's new play, Stitching, is as "in-yer-face" as a G-rated horror film. The content is far from childish: this two-hander deals with soft-core sadism in the wake of a psyche-shattering moment. But the cast is too cute and cuddly to be much of a menace, the slow-paced direction gives us far too much time to get off the hook, and the scenes distractingly jump about in time.

Both Neilson and director Timothy Haskell are active artists: the adagio atmosphere benefits neither of them. The play opens with awkward silence--turns out that Stu (Gian Murray Gianino) is trying to find the words to respond to Abby's (Meital Dohan) pregnancy--and doesn't get much better from there. Abby plays cat and mouse with Stu (artificial acting: she's never really engaging or responding to him), and he responds with negative choices: "It's not about what I don't want, it's about what you don't want." When things get heated, they turn to therapeutic devices and actually write down what they want to say before speaking it. When will Neilson pull the knife? When will Haskell (who directed the martial-arts spectacle The Jaded Assassin and does a yearly haunted house) scare us?

There's exactly one climactic moment: the role-playing goes too far, and Stu--tired of pretending that he's a client and that his wife's a prostitute--snaps. But rather than breaking apart Garin Marshall's tidy living-room set, fight director Maggie Macdonald uses the safeword right from the get-go, with all the violence choreographed out of the scene. And then there's Dohan, who plays the role with such self-awareness that she isn't able to show us the transition from fear to satisfaction. Dohan, who has made a habit of playing strong characters (like the dominatrix on Weeds), doesn't know how to let go: even when hallucinating about her dead son, tears dripping from her eyes, she's completely in control.

As if a final nail were needed, Haskell goes out of his way to emphasize the distance between characters, both chronologically and physically. Scenes alternate between pregnancy and the prostitution, and each time, the two actors leave the apartment, go to opposite ends of the stage, and in this "empty" space, change their clothes as dissonant music weighs heavy on the soul. This serves only to dress the show up even more, and it's a little like watching an experiment on NOVA, with each step carefully planned out. But even here, Stitching fails, for it demonstrates nothing.