Friday, November 28, 2008


Photo/Joan Marcus

Taken at face value, Dawn, like many of Thomas Bradshaw’s plays, is hard to digest: aside from shocking us with gratuitously long scenes of debasement, be it alcoholic or both pedophilic and incestuous, what is the play about? It must be about something: after all, religion is thrown around, as is morality. But at the end of the day, or from the beginning of Dawn, isn’t this grasping for meaning exactly what it’s all about? Bradshaw, assisted here by Jim Simpson’s exaggeratedly comic and set-less transparency, defies expectations so as to make the audience question their own ingrained assumptions.

At face value, Hampton (Gerry Bamman) is a sad clown with a violent streak. Why should anyone empathize with a man who greets his wife, Susan (Irene Walsh), in a drunken stupor, urinates in their bed, and grows violent when called on it? And yet, after watching Hampton spend five minutes hiding liquor around the bare stage (under the radiator, in a gallon jug of water, beside the audience), his desperation grows endearing. Even Bamman is exceedingly likeable, one of those upright father figures from a family sitcom, caught here after-hours. It’s all a play against type, with Bradshaw manipulating the arguments—as when his son, Steven (Drew Hildebrand), convinces him to go to AA, or when his daughter, Laura (Kate Benson), unleashes her bottled-up fury at him—so that Hampton is always likeable, so that, despite almost killing his first wife, Nancy (Laura Esterman), we can’t pass judgment on him.

As Hampton begins to atone for his sins, Bradshaw moves on to a more difficult subject, and sets about dismantling our expectations of Steven, who we are meant to like. As it turns out, however, he lusts for his 14-year-old niece, Crissy (Jenny Seastone Stern): the laundry he does so charitably for Laura is really just an excuse for him to masturbate with a pair of Crissy’s panties over his face, and another down his pants. Does it lessen the blow at all to find that Crissy has already been earning cash by streaming amateur porn? Or that Steven may actually be in love with Crissy, and vice-versa?

It’s no accident that Hampton chants the same prayer at the start and end of the play—“Teach us the eternal rituals of suffering!” All the things that happen in Dawn happen in the same world, with our morality becoming quicksilver in the scorching light of Bradshaw’s drama. That Hampton refuses to turn his son in could just as easily be the thing that finally reunites his family as it is the thing that ultimately destroys it. It is not about judging these characters so much as it is about understanding them, and in that depth, knowing that we are all connected, as much in our sorrows as in our joys.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Magical Realism: "The Fall"

Though it's perhaps not apparent from the short story that I posted last week, the majority of "art" that I love falls under the veil of what some would call "magical realism." This would explain my love of aesthetics in the theater, the illusions which transform something artificial into something real, or which take fantastical elements and use them to illustrate something truthful about life. My favorite creators are those who balance genre and the highbrow: for example, Gene Wolf or Neal Stephenson writing science fiction, or the classically defined magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Then, of course, there are film directors like Danny Boyle (most evident in Millions, and from what I hear, Slumdog Millionaire) and Guillermo del Toro (The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth). As is evident from this rambling paragraph, I'm not entirely sure how I'd limn the idea of "magical realism," but what I will be doing over the next few months is to try and highlight some clear and must-see examples, starting with Tarsem Singh's The Fall.

The story begins simply enough, in a "once upon a time" version of 1920's Los Angeles, where a young, inquisitive girl with a broken arm stumbles across a lonely, talkative paraplegic. But as the title credits hint, with their slow motion footage of men in action, hauling a drowning horse out of the river, there are other layers at work.

In this case, the modest opening is really just a Princess Bride frame in which the crippled and heartbroken Roy tells young Alexandria about the epic quest of the Blue Bandit to avenge his brother's murder. Then again, the comic tones start to shift as it becomes clearer that, like in del Toro's Spanish films, the real world is bleeding into the land of make-believe: Roy is stringing Alexandria along in the hopes that she can deliver him enough morphine to end his suffering. As Roy's world collapses, his vivid imagination (shot in an exquisitely fantasia that surpasses Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) grows darker and darker, with Alexandria entering his world, in tears, to question why his assembled band of heroes are all being killed.

It's all rather remarkably done, and Tarsem makes a point of laboring over the shots--especially those of the "exotic" Middle Eastern architecture--to make sure we get our fill of the fantastic before moving on to the necessarily bloody bits. In these moments, The Fall lives up to its name, paralleling not just the physical maladies of its real-world characters, but the mental effects of depression. It is in this double-edged storytelling, where the fantasy becomes a tool to illustrate reality, that the movie merits being called "magical realism," and also why it is so effective. It has co-opted a beloved genre, that of the adventure film, and mirrored it back on those who would use it. This is most apparent toward the final, anti-climactic (yet correct) scenes, which show clips of the early silent films of 1920, projected onto a wall for a room full of sick patients who need the slapstick, who justify the illusion.

I don't remember much of Tarsem's 2000 film, The Cell, except that it tackled a similar idea in a far tackier and more restrained fashion: a psychologist enters a serial killer's mind. But by making a film about the power of films themselves--the need, in other words, for stories--Tarsem frees himself from the cell and makes a touching film in which the exposed beauty never feels manipulative.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Farragut North

[First published to Show Business Weekly, 11/25/08]

Photo/Jacqueline Mia Foster

Stephen (John Gallagher, Jr.) is a successful, 25-year-old press secretary who somehow still has morals as he prepares to lead his client to victory in Iowa’s Democratic primary. But he’s flush with optimism, so you know Beau Willimon is going to knock him down in Farragut North. After all, “You don’t get in this game if you’re a pessimist” and “You don’t win unless you’re a realist.”

Keeping to the bland backrooms (designer David Korins favors generic furniture), Willimon writes like a down-tempo Aaron Sorkin, focusing on the Machiavellian fall of his tragic hero. To his credit, Gallagher plays the part naturally: cocky and benevolent at first, then nervous and needy, and finally frightened and violent. He’s got reason to be frightened, too: by taking a meeting with the opposite side’s political manager, Tom (Isiah Whitlock, Jr., who is every bit as smarmy here as he was on The Wire), he compromises his integrity, forcing the question: Did he ever actually have any? Reconsider the way Stevie is introduced: He manipulates Ida, a New York Times reporter, into taking an old opponent’s casual use of the word “putzhead” and declaiming it as a poll-dropping anti-Semitic attack.

The other question — one that director Doug Hughes is well-prepared for — is one of trust and loyalty. Stevie confesses the meeting to his boss, Paul (Chris Noth), and this puts his job on the line. Did his ambitious and shy 20-year-old assistant, Ben (Dan Bittner), leak it? Or was it his 19-year-old intern, Molly (the endearing Olivia Thirlby), whom he slept with last night? These confrontations transform Stevie into a petty monster, but he’s not really changing — his personality is just growing more apparent, leading to the conclusion that politics is just the next logical step for make-up artists.

Between scenes, Joshua White projects election footage and resonant words against the blue backdrop, an over-the-top yet subtle reminder about surfaces. Willimon’s great success here is in his own ability to tell a crazy and somewhat predictable story, and yet slip in a lot of biting criticism not just of politics, but of people in general.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Hillary: A Modern Greek Tragedy With a (Somewhat) Happy Ending

Photo/Jim Baldassare

The smartest thing about recasting a familiar tale in ancient Greek terms is that it takes the need for surprise off the table. After all, like any classic tragedy, we already know what happened to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who tabled her Athena-inspired ambitions for 18 Arkansan years for the sake of an Aphrodite-sent Bill Clinton. We’ve seen her classic flaw come to the forefront not just in her uncompromising health care push in ’94 or Lewinski-blind devotion in the ’98 impeachment, but most recently in her cold ’08 campaign. It’s a relief, then, to see Wendy Weiner’s Hillary: A Modern Greek Tragedy With a (Somewhat) Happy Ending dispense with those circumstances and proceed with the comedy. After all, as many myths acknowledge, it’s not about the doing of the task itself so much as the lesson learned (or in this case, the laughs earned).

Of course, Greek mythology is a double-edged sword: it is by all means a gimmick, Chorus and all, and director Julie Kramer is constantly struggling to keep the jokes clever without coming across as slight. This is somewhat accomplished by allowing things to be campy: Lauren Helpern’s set is a flimsy mock-up of marble stadium steps, with two symmetric dresser-type shrines to Aphrodite and Athena. This also allows for some looser, SNL-like impersonations of Kenneth Starr and Monica Lewinsky, not to mention Mia Barron’s Hillary and Darren Pettie’s Bill. With seriousness sacrificed on the altar, Hillary manages to give audiences exactly what they expect: a mock history lesson.

This is where Weiner’s cleverness pays off: Bill is cast as Achilles—you can guess which part of his body his mother failed to dip into the sacred springs. The path to the underworld is, of course, in Newt Gingrich’s cellar. When on trial for perjury, Bill opens a McPandora’s Box that gets him waffling on what the meaning of “is” is. And Bill’s saxophone doubles as Orpheus’s lyre, just when all hope appears to be lost. And that’s just the farfetched part: it’s not such a stretch to imagine Athena as Hillary’s campaign manager, given the potential fallibility of gods and pollsters alike. Weiner has also liberally cribbed from existing speeches to cast the same old lines in a whole new light: after Gennifer Flowers, Hillary is able to say “I’m not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette” because—at her request—Athena has just used ravens (off-duty from Prometheus, one assumes) to peck out half her heart.

There’s also a deeper humanity to the show, thanks to Barron’s portrayal of Hillary, from a little girl, crushed at the prospect of never being able to be an astronaut, to a hyperactive debate champion in high school, a studious speaker at her Wellesley college graduation, a love-struck post-graduate, a patronizing politician introducing health care legislation, all the way to the Hillary we know and love and hate today. Bill is a real tool (literally, he’s Aphrodite’s pawn, and Pettie has fun with those faults, given that the show isn’t about him) and Hillary is far from an accurate biography of the New York senator, but that this comic modernization of a rather considerable mythos manages to be heartfelt at all is a gift from the gods.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Photo/Richard Termine

"I can't marry you," says Luciana, a prostitute in Rome, "because you're crazy. You're crazy," she continues, "because you want to marry me." This is just one of the many roundabouts in Joseph Heller's Catch-22, a brilliant anti-war novel that uses a comic tone to expose the paradoxes of fighting for peace, the logical need for war in a capitalist society, and the conflict between the individual and the country. Given those unfortunately timeless themes, it’s no surprise to see Aquila Theatre mounting a new adaptation of the book, nor is it surprising to see them attempting to stage a book which, like Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, wildly leaps from location to location, time to time. (Heller attempted this play in 1971; Mike Nichols made a film version in 1970.) Considering how much has to be cut, how much needs to be contained, the only question is whether or not Aquila is crazy enough to pull it off.

Yes, emphatically so. Director Peter Meinecke might as well be wearing a straightjacket, for he channels the best sort of madness: one which, as paradoxically as anything in Heller’s world, makes perfect sense. Stock black-and-white military footage establishes scenery that is pure propaganda; the minimalist sets (hospital beds, a life raft, a wire-frame bomber cabin) turn war into a low-budget illusion. And then there are the theatrical opposites, stylized scenes that jar our expectations, from over-the-top drama to violent romances and sublimely staged bombing missions. Save for a few overlong set changes, carefully choreographed by Desiree Sanchez, the pace of the play matches Heller’s breakneck prose. Finally, as if things weren’t mad enough, each of the six ensemble members is triple-cast (at least), which makes characters that are already flamboyantly contradictory seem even more two-faced, and gives substance to the paranoia of the central character, Yossarian (John Lavelle).

Lavelle’s measured yet manic portrayal of Yossarian is the heart of the production, both a microcosm and reflection of everything that happens around him. Lavelle resembles the Ron Livingstone of Office Space and Band of Brothers, which is to say that he is both a restless schlub and a hardened soldier. Moreover, he’s got the acting chops to oscillate bravely between the two at the drop of a hat--or more specifically, the change of a light cue. For Catch-22 to work, Yossarian must be both sane and insane, a feat that Lavelle achieves by fully pursuing clear actions—actions which just happen to change in the blink of an eye.

Lavelle’s sense of balance becomes clear whenever he leaves the stage, for the scenes that focus purely on themes—like Colonel Cathcart (David Bishins) and his sycophantic Lt. Col. Korn (Craig Wroe), who are happy to sacrifice men to further their careers—come across as preachy parodies. The weakest moments focus on Milo Minderbinder (Chip Brookes), who takes his capitalist syndicate to the furthest extreme when he contracts with the Germans and uses military supplies to strafe his own camp. Milo, with his safari-like hat and wide-eyed glasses, is meant to mock our values by showing their true costs, but alone, he's a stock character, and stock—in plays as in soup—is meant to enhance the other ingredients, not stand out on its own.

Of course, there's plenty of room in Catch-22 for actors to show off their range, and Mark Alhadeff and Christina Pumariega seize the opportunity. Alhadeff switches from a quiet, bumbling Chaplain to playing Wintergreen, a sleazy slouch who revels in the suffering he dispenses through the mail, whereas Pumariega plays every grown woman in the show, from prostitutes to nurses to grieving mothers, always capturing both the comic highs and the mournful lows. The flavors occasionally fail to mix (Richard Sheridan Willis is outstanding as Doc Daneeka, trying to convince the military he’s not dead, but lost as the bland Major Major Major), but a production this ambitious calls for an adventurous chef like Meinecke.

Here’s a catch: if you’ve read this far, you’re the audience this play is looking for. If you haven’t read this far, then you’ll never read these words. In which case, you’ve read this far, so go on, get a little crazy.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Story: "The Disinventor"

It's been a slow week for me, as I've taken a much needed vacation (a little early), and spent some time working on my own writing for a fiction class I've been taken [sic]. But as I feel guilty about not posting something in quite some time, here's a first draft of a story I've been toying with; enjoy.


A metal shaft: one foot long, three inches in diameter. Two spider-like legs: thin silver, fleshed onto opposite sides of the shaft’s tip. A black arc of canvas: ripped jagged like a dead parachute. Still visible: half the familiar off-white of a corporate logo. This is what Alex brings to school for show and tell, a sharp, broken umbrella; this is why you’re stuck in the sweaty traffic of a frustrated Tuesday, honking toward Briar Peaks Elementary. Principal Thorpe calls it a weapon—right to your face—, shows you the pointy edges, like metal thorns, and says it’s “scabrous and scandalous,” as if the gold-framed doctorate above his desk were in dispute, not Alex’s latest disinvention. “Stop it,” you say, looking Alex full in his nut-brown eyes, grabbing his feet as they arc out, before he can thud them restlessly into the padded legs of that foamy chair. “I’m sorry,” you lie, expertly, turning back to Thorpe, but as you let go of your son’s harmless feet, you feel a clutch down by your seven-months-dry liver.

[Read On]

“It’s nothing to worry about,” says the principal, reading your mind. “Not really.” His sternly crossed arms turn into a weird self-hug as he continues. “Given the circumstances, that is, the lack of intent, not to mention Alex’s performance—“ Science fair, computer lab, math team, you think, muting him as you scan the trophies in the office. “—most concerned with, Mrs. Calvito.”

“Ms.,” you say, and when Thorpe shuffles some papers and raises an eyebrow, “Mary,” you add, “just Mary.” Ms., like mother like daughter, even though you make breakfast every day, cut the crusts off, twist the bag tightly, throw in grapes or apple sauce instead of chocolate. “I’m sorry,” you say, unclenching your fist and smoothing it against your pantsuit—yes, the black one, the one that doesn’t stain so easily. “You were saying?”

“When creativity manifests in this fashion…” he starts, patting Alex on the shoulder—you feel that internal tug again—, “Well, Alex, why don’t you explain it?”

“S’not a weapon,” he says. “It is not scabrous. It’s an unbrella. I made it.”

“Billy’s probably getting stitches right now.”

“Billy’s an idiot,” Alex says. “You can hurt yourself with just about anything. Poke yourself with a pencil. Bludgeon someone with a ruler. Gouge with a compass. You could choke on an eraser.”

“What you want to call it,” says the principal, “isn’t really the point.”

It’s one-thirty, and your boss can’t stand the Zurich team. “What exactly is the point?”

“I’m not accusing you of anything,” he says, “and I’m certainly not blaming your son for anything. But Alex,” he says, looking at you with at least one eye, “I think you need to ask yourself why you want to be so different.”

“You like it when I build things.”

“Of course, you’re very creative.”

“I built this, too.”

“No,” he says, brandishing the umbrella, demonstrating the snapped hinges, passing a hand through the empty spaces. “You broke this.”

“It was one thing, and now it’s another. That’s what it means to make something. Everything is part of something else.”

“But it doesn’t do anything.”

“Sure it does. If everything did what it was supposed to do already, then we wouldn’t have to make anything. Disinventing stuff is what gives us something to do.”

Your boss understands the situation, of course; as he sips the coffee you bring him at three, he pretends that it explains the unanswered messages on your phone, including the one about the Hoffmann account. “No,” you say, making a new quilt out of the square boxes on his digital calendar, then “No,” again, this time into the phone, pressing the hold button, and then looking back up. “This is where I need to be right now.”

In the next cubicle over, Alex catches up on Minesweeper, and you watch him shift-click through a blank slate of tiles. Streams of numbers drip across the screen, and then he hits a bright red X. There’s a smiley face at the top, and when he clicks it, the tiles are fresh and empty again. Again and again, he finds his way through the booby-traps; each move, even the good ones, mar the face of that perfect surface. Click, click, boom, and again.

The phone beeps—the client on hold—and you break from that dream back into the distracting world.

“Yes,” you say. “Calvito, that’s right. Mrs. His wife.” You push the pad back underneath the glass, and the buzzer swings the first set of doors open. Charles is in the next room, a familiar face, and you spread your arms wide as he walks over. The wand whispers along your bare arms, then zips down your right side and ends at your feet: like magic, it announces that you are harmless, even though nothing’s changed. “You’re getting better at this, Mrs. Calvito,” Charles says, sliding keys along his chain until he reaches the one that opens the lock. Yes, by now you can leave the Kleenex in the car with all the loose change; next time, maybe you’ll pull off the wedding ring, too.

“So we’re still married,” says Paul, waiting at the end of the hallway. There must be a dozen doors between the two of you, but they’re all open, so what’s the point? It brings that old joke to mind: When is a door not a door?

“Paperwork,” you laugh.

“Right,” he says, limping a little, either from the meds or the shrapnel. “I still can’t believe they pay you to file things.”

“It’s all gone electronic, anyway.”

“Not in my job.”

“Not yet.”

Why does that awkward silence always feel like the moment when you first fell in love? The rest of the world fades away, and you dry swallow and regurgitate something to say: “And how are things?”

“Fine.” He shrugs. “I mean, they call the people around here orderlies. That’s their whole job.”

“I meant—“

“We made small talk on the march, you know? Otherwise it would just be them shooting us and us shooting them. So what’s Alex done?”

This is how it was when you first met, at a costume ball, of all things. You knew he was the handsomest man there because his mask was so ugly, a Cyrano-looking thing, with whorls of mismatched colors. And he just marched right over, lifted you up, mauve frills and all, and set you down on the dance floor. You’d taken off your shoes because they pinched, but he never stepped on your feet, and later, when you slow-danced, you stood on his feet and let him move for the both of you.

“No, no,” you say, louder than the clutch in your gut. “He’s fine. He’s ten. He’s fine.” An orderly bumps into you, apologetically, pushing a cart of small paper cups and smaller pills. You watch him recede down the hall, as if that will keep Paul’s eyes from piercing you, and note how much is actually going on around you. In that single moment, how many houses of cards collapse and get rebuilt?

“I don’t understand why you’re in here,” you say.

“Because you can remember the good days,” he says, doing a sort of broken slow dance beside you. “And I can’t forget the bad ones.”

Alex hasn’t disinvented the house in your absence, so there’s one small miracle of television’s dimming glow. A few of the G.I. Joes are out of the packing crate, their plastic bodies splayed bloodlessly, heads buried, ostrich-like, in the beige carpet. Like their father. You pick them up and slam the desk drawer shut behind them; funny, but also a little sad: you can’t even remember their names.


“Yes, honey?”

“What did you think of my unbrella?”

“Well, I don’t think it was a weapon,” you say, slicking the hair back out of his sleepy eyes.

“You wouldn’t think a gun was a weapon either, if you were just seeing it for the first time.”

“Look,” you say, “I’m sorry that you’ve seen those things.”

“Why? They’d still be there.”

That was when you knew he’d be smart: four months old and you couldn’t fool him with a game of up-close hide-and-seek. Cover your eyes and he still knew you were there. Later, you had a name for it, “object permanence,” but that didn’t change things for Alex. And he was so trusting: when he was older, Paul would set him up on the bathroom sink and stand behind him, then tell him to fall back—Paul’d pretend that he suddenly had to leave to get the phone, but Alex knew that nothing would stop his father from catching him. It had taken nine years to fool him, and shame on you for doing so.

“So,” he says, “you didn’t like it.”

“No,” you say. “But I think I just didn’t understand it.”

“When you’ve got an umbrella, you can just pretend it’s not raining. But an unbrella’s realer, because you know that it is. And you know that it’s only water.”

Solo agua, as Paul’s buddies would say, clustered around the grill with their beers so that they could keep the fire going, even in the rain. “You can get through anything,” Alex says, echoing long-gone Paul, “as long as you don’t let anything get through you.”

“I love you,” you say, tucking him into bed. “Nothing’s realer than that.”

“I know,” he says. “You can’t disinvent love.”

Couldn’t you? You drank every day, waiting for him to come home, watching and hating the television for telling you things you didn’t want to know. Words like IED, or jihad, and yes, they were there whether you knew about them or not, but your husband didn’t have to be there: this nation’s guard, not that one’s. And the TV—as if they had invented HD for this—didn’t need to show it, didn’t need to tease out clips to make a 24 hour news cycle.

No, the love was still there, but the man, the man was not. Just when you’d stopped drinking—him home, home for good—you woke to the muzzle of your husband’s gun: cold, not wet. His trembling eyes behind it, not unlike the ones you’d find on a dog. You’d felt that pistol lick your skin, heard him bark out orders, but it wasn’t until you’d seen Alex in the doorframe, lit up like an angel by the nightlight in the hall, that you’d reacted. That you’d realized you—this country, this world—were an inventor, too.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Footage

Photo/Joan Marcus

Perception is a funny thing. The footage on screen is grainy, and hard to see. But, it's of a hot young girl in a white wife-beater, posing on a chair. Then again, she's handcuffed to the chair and crying. But, these clips go up every day on YouTube, and they've got a LonelyGirl15-level following, so maybe it's not real. It seems the girl is innocent, and in pain. Maybe she's not, maybe she's a masochist. A discussion on semiotics--the true meaning behind the signs that we see, i.e., is your red the same as my red--is the last thing you'd expect of Joshua Scher's dark drama, The Footage, but it's just one in a series of pleasant surprises.

Scher has an ear for language, and this helps him navigate his bumpy, multi-perspective narrative. Whether it's whimpering video clips of this so-called "death porn" footage; a real-world love story between lonely Alexa (Rachel McPhee) and JC (Michael Guagno), a reserved runaway; or even comically anachronistic machinima, in which video from "HellCraft" (I assume there's a legal issue) is edited and dubbed to make the characters talk about Jamba Juice, the characters sound real. Maya (Caroline Hurley) delivers blogs in monologue form, worrying about the implications of voyeurism that makes us implicit in a crime; her boyfriend, Chance (Jamie Effros), a filmmaker stuck doing TV, is struck by the brilliance of it, morals be damned; and the kidnapped Delilah (Elizabeth Alderfer) is a victim, but not necessarily as you expect. More surprisingly, for such a heavy theme, Scher is able to work in ROFLMAO (pronounced "roffle mao," meaning Rolling On Floor, Laughing My Ass Off) comedy by stressing the online flirting between Chance's "l33t" gamer of a roommate, Ethan (Michael Micalizzi) and Alexa's germaphobic roommate, Lauren (Blair Baker).

What's most surprising is that for a play which stresses the line between what's real and what's not, so much of the acting seems real. Even Dodge (Nicolas Flower), a friend of Chance's who is crashing for a week as he gets over a text-messaged break-up, sounds believable, even if the things that happen to him are both irrelevant and artificial. As for the rest of the cast, they all get a few moments to develop beyond their broader stereotypes--Guagno reveals a darker side, Hurley thinks outside the blog, and Baker and McPhee spend a wonderful scene getting baked together, talking about why hitting on an avatar is better than talking to a random guy at a bar. It's not just a clever moment, it's original, too.

Given all these good moments, it's an unfortunate surprise to find that the ending is more than a little contrived, although director Claudia Zelevansky finds an artistic way to handle it (as she does with Adrian Jones's budget-appropriate set). Giving The Footage such a neat ending fights the impulses of the entire show; trust Ethan, instead, who nails it when he says, of his online relationship, "I know it wasn't real real . . . But I had enough to fill in the blanks." All Scher needs is one more change in perception, just something a little more grainy at the end.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Wintuk (via Goldstar)

I got a Goldstar

There's magic blowing through the air. It might only look like flimsy pieces of paper "snow," and you can see the high-powered vent sending them through the theater in a Slava's Snowshow burst, can see the Sunday in the Park With George-level digital backdrop. But from the moment the first Cirque du Soleil performer slaloms down a hill, across an angled path center stage, and then back up a hill on the other side, you're a kid again, being utterly swept away. Wintuk is an aesthetic, intimate circus: there are no animals, and no high-flying acts. Instead, the focus is on the capacity of the human body to astound, whether through the first act's crazy gymnastic flips and acrobatic balancing acts or the second act's more subdued contemporary dances, the sort that make your single hula hoop seem lame, or shame you for not being able to climb a rope, let alone spin through the air and gyrate on one. It's also on the capacity of the human mind to imagine things: hence actors on stilts bring giant bird creatures to life, and bunraku artists lurk in the backdrop of giant ice golems that march across the stage as the actors sing foreign choral music. It is, admittedly, both an exciting and alien experience, and, as always, it is utterly spellbinding. Of particular note: a clever contortionist routine that gives new meaning to the word "rag doll" and an ever more precarious balancing act atop a tower of rolling pins. Of no importance: the plot, which introduces five breakdancing actors in dog costumes and a clown trapped in a garbage can. It's a whimsical breath of fresh air; go.

As you'll note above, I attended this performance as a guest of Goldstar, a new ticketing service that provides discounted tickets to theater (among other city events). Had I not been a guest, the normally $99.00 ticket would have cost me $59.00, plus a $7.50 service fee, a price that I would gladly pay to see the next Cirque du Soleil performance. (I'd also recommend checking out their DVD as a holiday gift; it doesn't beat the real thing, but this anniversary collection proudly demonstrates just how many different ways there are to stage the same types of basic theater, as well as how much more talented performers have grown--or at least, how much more successfully daring--in the last twenty years.) The next time a show comes around that I can't get tickets for, I would certainly look to Goldstar for cheaper tickets, not to mention their community reviews.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Most Damaging Wound

Photo/Deanna R. Frieman

The Most Damaging Wound opens with a stream of curses--"Fucking, fucking, fucking say it, G"--and a flood of Jagermeister shots, but director Mark Armstrong ritualizes these excesses into an utterly realistic depiction of male friendship. Better still, Blair Singer's script takes its characters far more seriously than Howard Korder's Boy's Life, and its dialogue is more grown up than the sort of glib posturing that one finds in works like Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things. (This is surprising, considering that Singer recently wrote for Weeds.) The secret seems to be the underlying pedigree, an epigraph from Robert Bly's Iron John: "[W]hat do men do? Collect in a bar to hold light conversations over light beer . . . Having no soul union with other men can be the most damaging wound of all."

At first, all that energetic drinking conceals those wounds: on the surface, this is a play about five friends reuniting (after ten years) to have one last night of childish fun before they burn the past and become "men." But directly beneath that is a largely unspoken fear--hence the liquid courage--that they are not ready, and for that, Kenny (Ken Matthews) has called them together: a night of male bonding may not help him get over his fears of being a father, but he needs to have his "quest for masculinity" understood by other men. This leads to some rather brave revelations, the sort that aren't normally seen on stage. For instance, when Christine (Megan McQuillan) intrudes on their gathering, it becomes clear that Alan (Michael Szeles) is having an affair, but that's not what gets Kenny's goat: it's that Alan didn't confide in him.

The whole thing is naturally done, however, with small things slipping out between big comedic anecdotes--like where Dicky (Chris Thorn) was before his wedding--or rowdy singalongs to "Closer to Fine" that serve to illustrate just how tight these friends are. GG (Michael Solomon) spends most of the play being a cypher, trying to make sure that his soon-to-be restaurant isn't totally wrecked by the party, until it comes out that his desire to be a "best friend" has made him somewhat shy. If you went a second time, you'd catch the side glances, but it's best to be caught off guard by their realism (after all, why would true friends wink to the audience?). In the highlight of the evening, Dicky--the sort of crass drunk who is nonetheless the life of the party--sobers up enough to finally confront Bo (Bard Goodrich), who had been his best friend before he disappeared without a word seven years ago. Chris Thorn's performance is fantastic throughout the night, filled with hundreds of tics and tremors, but it's here, a perfectly ambiguous moment when he goes to kiss Bo (who is gay), that he is outstanding: that vulnerability is rarely seen, especially from someone who has moaned his way through taking a crap earlier in the night.

The result of all this outstanding acting, superb pacing, and impeccable direction is a show that is genuinely surprising. It's also incredibly personal, especially if you're sitting in the first row, stage left, a foot or so from the actors. Armstrong, who has worked in small spaces before, makes the most of the Manhattan Theater Source space, putting action off-stage, or from outside April Bartlett's set, as seen through a "window." The end result is that it all seems very lived in, which is to say that it goes beyond being plausible to feeling concrete--not just the "Hey, I have friends like that" effect, but the "I feel exactly the same way" connection. The most damaging wound, then, would be the theater community's self-inflicted one if this play fails to transfer.

Friday, November 14, 2008

If You See Something, Say Something

Photo/Kenneth Aaron

Forget the superficial description of Mike Daisey--Spalding Grey meets Chris Farley says so little--and don't worry about whether or not If You See Something, Say Something, his latest monologue, is worth seeing: it is. If you like storytelling, and you must if you like theater, then it hardly matters how Daisey acts or what he talks about, so long as he remains charismatic, vivacious, and funny: he does.

You go to see this sort of perfomer, a sit-down comic with considerably more gravitas (and sure enough, they're making a movie), because he has an ability to say what's on your mind, often in a way that is far cleverer and certainly funnier than you yourself would put it. But that's only half the picture, the cultural magnet part that describes a junk shop in New Mexico as Mad Max meets Brazil. The far more engaging half is the indignant Daisey, offended on your behalf, at the museum that announces, to a soundtrack that is Shaft meets electronica, that "Native Americans were happy to give us their land." The Daisey who is horrified by the way we unabashedly claim that saving one million hypothetical American lives in the Pacific was worth more than 200,000 Japanese women and children, and then go about erasing the actual deaths, turning our nation's nuclear history into a bloodless affair. As he puts it, smiling ever so slightly and then going back to a straightface that belies his depth, "We like to think of ourselves as the good guys."

The only complaint about If You See Something, Say Something is a moot one: the monologue may be artificially constructed, but it's performed to perfection. Daisey knows that his work is strongest when he speaks from personal experience; his description of a Seattle garage theater production of The Balcony (in How Theater Failed America) is an indelible moment. It's hardly wrong for the man, then, to go out into the world, all Michael Moore-like, in search of an experience that he can plug into the research he's done. Given that, his monologue consists not just of things that he's experienced (security theater at the airport) but things that he's subjected himself to (going to the Trinity test site). It is rounded out both by his research (the moral feud over atomic weapons between Sam Cohen and Herman Kahn, delivered in a fashion that the History Channel would do well to note) and by what most likely triggered this monologue, his strongest moments on stage: what he's disgusted by (Homeland Security, and its Skeletor-looking Michael Chertoff).

If You See Something, Say Something is a political play in the first-person, a unique trait that allows it to be socially responsible on a collective scale. It is first-rate theater, too--a direct story, with no mixed messages, that reminds us all of the very power we have to say something.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Paul Auster, "Man in the Dark"

"[W]hen sleep refuses to come . . . I lie in bed and tell myself stories. They might not add up to much, but as long as I'm inside them, they prevent me from thinking about the things I would prefer to forget." So speaks August Brill, who escapes his crippled life as a 74-year-old widower by fantasizing of Owen Brick, a party magician who finds himself tasked--in an alternate America that is at war with itself--with killing the man who has created this world: August Brill. Dip that pen a bit deeper, and you'll see that Man in the Dark is just an extension of Paul Auster (no metafictional stranger: he goes way back to City of Glass) telling himself stories about a violent war that he can control, so that he doesn't have to face the America that he can't.

To aid in this distraction, there are the usual Austerian topics: films are discussed (The Bicycle Thief, Grand Illusion, and The World of Apu), philosophers are mulled (Giordano Bruno), and literature is imagined (Rose Hawthorne's memoir). But in trodding over such familiar themes (Brick's adventures resemble a cheap noir) and focusing so much on the ideal of using "inanimate objects as a means of expressing human emotions," the book falls flat. Auster's prose has always been written in a procedural fashion, but here it seems professorial, too, and we are too often told things like "Brick is feeling so lonely, so discombobulated by the events of the past twenty hours, he wishes she would abandon her post behind the counter and accompany him to the hotel, but he knows she can't, and he's too timid to ask her to make an exception for him." Worse still, this short 180-page novel devotes half its space to this truly imaginary character--in fact, even pages to an alternative history that only stresses the distracted state both Auster and Brill find themselves in. Philip Roth wrote of another country in The Plot Against America to illustrate something frightening about the world today; Auster writes of another world because he's bored of this one. Poor him. Poor us.

Thing is, the rest of the novel isn't bad. Brill doesn't just dream of Brick's dead-end life, he remembers--with lived-in details that specify right down to the special deals on dinner rolls--people from his family. His sister, Betty, leads him to think about her marriage to Gilbert Ross, and consequently to describe Gil's life--from the Newark riots in the 60s to his law practice in California and the "more than twenty pills a day to keep himself alive." In eight pages, Auster fleshes out two full lives and uses them to reflect upon his protagonist's own situation, so is it any wonder that the sections with Brick seem so irritatingly leaden?

Ultimately, Man in the Dark turns into the sort of book Gilead might've been if it were a dialogue, with Brill talking to his granddaughter, Katya, about how he'd married, divorced, and then reunited with her mother. It's a happy story, another distraction in the dark, meant to turn Katya's grief away from the love of her life's death in Iraq. All of us are in the dark, goes the logic, and we must all of us turn to stories to save us. So far as one's reading a book goes, however, why would anyone want to stay in the dark?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

metaDRAMA: Stop Celebrating Celebrity

Yes, Grace Gummer is Meryl Streep's daughter. So what? I don't even mention that in my review of Electric Pear's production of The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents. In fact, after reading Leonard Jacob's NY Press feature, I looked back on information I received from the publicist, and found her heritage mentioned only in passing. In any case, I thought, I was going because of Electric Pear; barring that because New York magazine hyped up director Kristjan Thor; at the least, then to support the Wild Project (whose first project, 33 to Nothing, was hyped for being done in NY's first "all-green theater"). All of those are valid reasons for a theater critic to be attending a show; starfucking, on the other hand, should be left to the audiences, and out of a review, where it distracts from a critical discussion of the play itself.

Let's leave it at this: the publicist is entitled to draw critics to an off-off-Broadway theater (which are notoriously under-covered) by any means necessary. The critic, then, must choose what to discuss (as Mark Blankenship points out about Corpus Christi). Hopefully, they're going because they're familiar enough with the scene to go without being pulled by celebrity crushes. However, it's all fair game for discussion, particularly in a feature, so I'm confused as to why this would lead a publicist to withhold tickets from a critic. For my part, I'm going to stick to theater; as the recent explosion about Proposition 8 and the Scott Eckern situation has shown (do read Kel Munger's insightful post), it's too easy to get distracted.

As We Speak

Photo/Leigh Celentano

There was a time in this country when I believed that negative reviews were pointless, but As We Speak--which must immediately shut up--has awakened me to my duty as a critic--no, as an American. Revere-like, I must warn each and every one of you away from this awful production. There's nothing wrong with (re:) Directions Theatre Company commissioning a play based on Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, especially given the political climate in 2007 and some of the fervent, barely restrained fascism ("Country First") in the recent presidential race. But if director Tom Berger feared that Lewis's satirical play might "move a bit slowly for a modern audience," then he has a lot to account for (two acts worth, in fact).

Anything taken to extremes is dangerous, so John Patrick Bray ignores research and common sense and simply makes the Minutemen a legalized militia across all of America; uses the Patriot Act not just to tap phones, but to remove people's phones and televisions (which is a bit redundant); and then initiates martial law in order to round up all the illegal immigrants (or sympathizers) into concentration camps. But it's impossible to be scared of something so laughingly plotted and abysmally produced. No wonder the actors spend most of the time shrouded in darkness (Tim Kaufman's lighting), mumbling their lines (Kyle-Steven Porter and Anthony Rand), or simply blowing their cues (either Kathryn Lawson or Sarah Engelke): they don't want to be identified. Even the good things--David Bengali's YouTube projections and feed of Election Night newsrooms--are bad, for they make the live performances more unbearable.

Noreen (Alisyn Brock), a liberal/English-major/Jew (covering all the bases), has moved back to Buffalo to get a master's degree in something that involves her idling at a computer, chatting and blogging about voting trends (action-packed!), and indignantly watching clips of Reverend Harrison (Michael Bertolini, who, by making the religious Right sound plausible, is the one good actor in this play). She brings her husband, Travis (Anthony Rand), along, but he is mercifully abducted right after the election on account of the illegal immigrants he's hired to cook in his restaurant. Unfortunately, this leaves Noreen to confront her former husband, Chad (Michael Littner), in a series of increasingly shrill scenes in which neither Brock nor Littner speaks with a scrap of anger, fear, or personal opinion--to say nothing of dignity.

To be fair, none of the actors have any emotion: they bray and bray (the playwright is aptly named) until the play is reduced to sheer parable, which would be mildly effective if it were in the least plausible. When Jennifer (Michelle Rabbani), Chad's current girlfriend, breaks curfew to post anti-government propaganda, she is tortured and made an example of by Man 2 (Case Aiken), who likens the pulp-horror act of pulling out all of her teeth to an act of mercy he once performed on a dog that would have otherwise been killed. This is the play's methodology: stretch a scene to fit an anecdote that is blandly recited and you make a point. And that's a "good" scene: there's plenty that just doesn't make sense, like the chief of staff, Stanz (Rajesh Bose), born and raised in India, never being suspected of being anything less than American.

As We Speak is too interested, ultimately, with saying things rather than actually speaking for something. Ensemble members throw out lines like "If progress is moving forward, then what is congress?" as if they were being clever (or original); they walk carefully to their marks on stage and dryly recap all the horrors happening off stage, which perhaps we might care for, were we not already in so much pain ourselves. This one-dimensional play (and that's giving it the benefit of the doubt) deserves its one-dimensional characters: neither show the slightest ability to penetrate the surface, let alone speak on it. As disgusted as I am by people like Sarah Palin, she at least speaks for something she believes in (even if she knows nothing): the entire company behind this mess ought to take a few cues from her example and disappear.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents

Photo/Thomas Hand Keefe

The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents
throws around the word "fuck" a lot, especially from the mouth of its protagonist, Dora (Grace Gummer), an emotionally challenged girl who is, for the first time in ten years, "pulling down the pharmaceutical curtain." The writer, Lukas Barfuss (translated here by Neil Blackadder), painstakingly describes sexuality, using the Doctor (Peter O'Connor) to stress the sheer normalcy of even deviant behaviors--Dora shows up one day with bruises--and concludes, after five minutes: "Don't go for more than two at once, and don't change partners more than a week." But the play is about a sexual awakening in the same way that fucking is the same as making love: what it's about goes much deeper, and this is where Kristjan Thor's direction is invaluable.

It's about the moment when the Fine Gentleman (Max Lodge) asks Dora's Boss (Jim Noonan) how much the government subsidizes his grocery stand--and how the Boss turns to his mother, Woman (Kathryn Kates), taken aback not by the thought, but of how it's been said out loud. It's about the moment when the Fine Gentleman--who is actually a sleazy door-to-door salesman--having lured Dora to his neon-lit hotel, explains that perfume is made from ox shit, and soap from pig fat. It's about the moment when Dora catches Mother and Father (Laura Heidinger and Charlie Mitchell) having sex in a trailer, and not with each other.

Like the unnamed characters themselves, the play is about these unacknowledged surfaces, and that's what makes the slow build toward Dora's true awakening so tragic. Beyond the dull "I dunno" and her energetic parroting, this girl, described as "almost not being involved," actually has feelings (although the sadism is a bit cliche--"I like it rough, otherwise I don't feel anything"), as do the people around her, who can only face their own damages in front of her. "No big deal," she says, after revealing that she hates wearing pants, but also after talking about the bruises on her body, or after describing what it felt like to have her baby sucked out of her; it's not until the final injustice to her that her casual response becomes choked, at last, by visible grief.

To this end, it is really Grace Gummer's play, and she utterly commands the stage in an immaculately restrained performance. At first, she is locked inside herself, largely talked at by her family and reduced to short monotone responses. But as she leaves the numbing drugs behind, her deadpan is interrupted by her sarcastic but spot-on repetitions from the world around her, something that only serves to make her even more of a mirror. By the end of the play, she is still fairly still, but her words are more and more her own, like her needs. That is far from a neurosis, and far too near to tragedy.

Trailer: Cape Disappointment

I haven't exactly hid the fact that I'm incredibly excited about the upcoming Debate Society show at PS122, Cape Disappointment, and here's a perfect example of why. It doesn't look as if there's much happening on the surface of this trailer, but the charm of this group's aesthetic is that they can capture the little losses in unique and highly expressive ways. The symbolism here is also just a hint of the sort of theatricality the group relies upon to tell their stories. Enjoy!

Cape Disappointment Trailer - Extended from Ian Savage on Vimeo.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Made in Poland

Photo/Carol Rosegg

There's a Holden Caulfield anger brewing inside Bogus (Kit Williamson), and if you can't tell from the way he slams his iron pipe against the metal scaffolding that metaphorically represents his life as an unfinished construction site, he's got the words "Fuck Off" tattooed across his forehead. Good Father Edmund (Ed Vassallo) is willing to forgive him his reckless youth, provided Bogus is willing to work off the damages he's caused to the local phone booths and cars. But the real gangsters, Grzes, Tekla, and their suave boss Fazi (Ryan O'Nan, Eva Kaminsky, and Jayce Bartok), broken up about the ruined car they've stolen, aren't so forgiving. Just as Bogus terrorizes Emil (Jonathan Clem), a and mentally deficient cripple, the thugs turn on his mother, Irena (Karen Young), leaving Bogus to temporarily give up on his revolution so that he and his former teacher, an alcoholic named Viktor (Rob Campbell), can settle up.

Was something lost in Alissa Valles's transition? It's possible: there's no American parallel for the strange devotion and peace these characters all find in Krzysztof Krawczyk, a real pop singer. But even universal moments, like Bogus's awkward pursuit of his beloved Monika (Natalia Zvereva), don't sound right. Granted, this is a boy desperate to find something to believe in, but it's hard to take him or his circumstances seriously when he's perpetually in a mad rage.

The lack of levels in Jackson Gay's direction are ultimately what hurt Made in Poland the most. The violence is farcical, the situations are implausible, and there isn't a single character who acts rational: as Viktor puts it, "I think you're just acting out a part. And you're just as bad as those TV actors you hate so much." Trapped in the mode of a hyperviolent soap opera, Viktor's sucked into that as well, inexplicably drinking himself into a stupor and then quarreling with his ex-wife, who shows up just long enough to throw a box of records at him. What little substance there is is crammed into a out-of-the-blue clash between the atheistic Viktor and the religious Edmund, with Bogus caught looking for a better way, realizing (after getting the shit kicked out of him) that perhaps violence isn't an effective solution.

The anarchist impulses of Fight Club were at least directed by broader statements about society, but Przemyslaw Wojcieszek's writing is focused so narrowly on a punk/sharpskin aesthetic that it's impossible to get inside Bogus's head, or to extract something resonant from him. "How does one live?" is a question well worth exploring; unfortunately, that tattoo on Bogus's head seems to be the answer--at the least, those big, black, gothic letters prevent us from seeing anything else.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Angel Eaters Trilogy (Angel Eaters, Rattlers, and 8 Little Antichrists)

Photos/Johnna Adams

After seeing all three parts of Johnna Adams's ambitious, generation-spanning Angel Eaters Trilogy, I can't shake the image of the playwright as a smarter version of the evil "Mama" who shows up in Part Three. She sits in a giant vat, but rather than absorbing nutrients, she takes in the pop culture of the last thirty years, and instead of churning out clones and selling them for organs, she fires out plays. Her distinct voice shines through this batch of trips: comic exposition often well-hidden by clever circumstances. Nor are her jumping genres striving to be August Wilson; instead, Adams is writing for Goldilocks. One play does too little, failing to develop its characters and leaping to an abrupt ending (Angel Eaters); one play does too much, with characters flailing all over the place (Antichrists); and one manages to be just right, finding a middle ground that captures the Southern Gothic vibe and runs with it (Rattlers). Each play succeeds (and fails) on its own, which means there's something for everyone, especially fans of Flux Theatre Ensemble, who will spend twenty days straight being just as ambitious as Adams.

Angel Eaters

The first part, Angel Eaters (which most appropriately appropriates the rickety wooden set), takes place in Oklahoma, 1937, as we meet the cursed Hollister family. Myrtle (Catherine Michele Porter) is in mourning for her husband; her older daughter, Nola (Tiffany Clementi) is drinking turpentine to wash her baby out; and her youngest, Joann (Marnie Schulenburg), thinks that birds are angels, which is great for the local ornithologist, Doc O'Malley (Ken Glickfeld), who gets to play games like "bird in the bush" with her. There's a con artist named Fortune (Gregory Waller), too, and he's selling resurrections courtesy of his "nephew," Enoch (Isaiah Tanenbaum). None of these, as evinced by the lurking, black-eyed Azazyel (Cotton Wright) have to do with the curse: like on the HBO show Carnivale, the real problem is that Joann's latent power to resurrect things comes with a terrible price, a price which unfortunately explodes in a Tales from the Crypt ex machina sort of way.

In truth, Johnna Adams appears to be stretching through most of Angel Eaters, first evoking the depression-era atmosphere (nicely colored by lighting designer Jennifer Rathbone), and then slowly building up Joann's character, enough to make us feel sorry for her victimization. But she leaps into implausible scenes, making Fortune the father of Nola's kid, and turning Enoch into a one-dimensional sounding board: chained up to the Hollister porch as collateral on the resurrection, he's able to listen and watch in fear, but is never given any room to grow. In the climax, characters flip their motivations on a dime, with O'Malley giving Fortune a small fortune to clear out of town, but then showing up with a gun to make sure that he does--not to mention the fact that nobody seems to think they can outrun a 60-year-old with an ax.

And yet, Angel Eaters strings us along on its unconvention, led by Marnie Schulenburg's ability to play a clueless character in a sympathetic way, and by director Jessi D. Hill's use of space and timing, creating an odd mystical tension while at the same time rooting firmly into familar Southern territory. It's a mark of good direction (and swift pacing) that we spend so much time being entertained by relatively soulless characters.


Being dragged over to a wooden box filled with rattlesnakes while you're bound and gagged is never a good way to start your day, but it's a great way to start a play, and in Rattlers, Johnna Adams finds her bite, sinking her teeth in quicker than the eye can follow, and never letting up. The unfortunate victim here is Osley (Jason Paradine), and he's been kidnapped by his ex-girlfriend Ernelle (Amy Lynn Stewart) and her hyperactive boyfriend Snake (Scott Drummond); they expect him to resurrect Ernelle's murdered sister, regardless of the cost. Meanwhile, at the funeral home, Ernelle's brother-in-law, the rascal Everett (Richard B. Watson), is having a casual conversation with the creepy undertaker, Ted (Matthew Crosby), in which it seems more and more likely that one of them is the murderer. And in yet another connected but distant scene, Ernelle's mother, Mattie (Jane Lincoln Taylor) is looking for vengeance, although Shane (David Jackson) is hoping she'll just accept his devoted love instead.

By splitting the action (Jerry Ruiz's direction helps it hop along), Adams is able to do her entire trilogy on a micro level, from the comic horrors that the Bonnie and Clyde-like Snake and Ernelle are cooking up to the morbid romance between Shane and Mattie, and the True Blood-like subtexts in the easygoing twangs between Everett and Ted. It also gives her a chance to really focus on more than exposition--there's less plot and more character development, and that's a gift given the outstanding actors, every last one of them, in this production. Things amble along, instead of rushing to conclusions, and part of the fun in Rattlers is trying to guess what these tight-lipped characters will do next (or, with Snake, what he won't do).

Adams has a terrific voice, and her stories actually work on multiple levels. For instance, Ted's tale about sleeping next to the corpse of his obsession is rooted in the subtext in Everett's face as he listens--after all, he was married to her. The same goes for the look of resignation in Shane's eyes when he realizes that the woman he loves has drugged him, or the way Ernelle's good humor evaporates when she realizes that threatening to hurt Osley's daughter won't help--that she'll have to kill one girl to bring back another. This last bit captures the full effect of the trilogy, too: what price won't we pay to get back the ones we love?

8 Little Antichrists

If 8 Little Antichrists is supposed to be taken seriously--which it might seem, if you've seen the first two parts of the trilogy--then it has some very hefty problems. Thankfully, Flux takes it only as seriously as it needs to--and the thought of black-winged angels facing off bloody-horned heroes in California, 2028, is already sort of ridiculous--and takes a tongue-in-cheek approach that lets us suspend our disbelief in a cheesy Max Headroom sort of future.

The hero this time around is a Philip K. Dick-brand detective, Claudia (Candice Holdorf), who is investigating the death of her clone sister, Sara Jane, only to find that there may be more to the murder than she suspects. Along the way, she falls for one of the suspects, Jeremy (Zack Robidas), but not before he is kidnapped by fallen angels Sem and Zaz (Felicia Hudson and Elise Link, channeling a fashionably authoritative Mod Squad vibe) and forced to resurrect the octuplet antichrists, cloned from the Dahmers and Gengis Khans of the world. To make things more convoluted, the clone mother is Claudia's Mama (Nora Hummel), a self-obsessed nag who lives in a nutrient-pumping vat and dreams of the day when she'll have sold enough of her offspring to upgrade. Oh, and Jeremy's paranoid sister, Melanie (Rebecca McHugh) has actually found the vessel of God in a happy meal--if only she can pry it away from the Clockwork Orange-like drizz-heads, Thump and Fibber (Jake Alexander and Joe Mathers, high-octane comic relief). Cue the over-the-top action.

8 Little Antichrists is the most creative of Johnna Adams's trilogy, but all her inventive satire is totally caught up in the relentless (and nonsensical) plot. The clever observations--for instance, Sony's Worker Retrieval Program, which copyrights the DNA of productive employees for future use--don't mesh with action sequences in which Holdorf plays at least four different clone versions of herself as they battle one another in a fight sequence that would make Qui Nguyen jealous (though by no means intimidated). This dystopic future is frightening enough without Sem and Zaz harmonizing their ode to Satan, nor is there room for romance. After a while, the self-satire runs on fumes, although August Schulenburg certainly gives it his all as Ezekiel, managing to savor hammy lines like "Evil is a hobby of mine" right up there with Mr. Applegate himself. But to stick with Damn Yankees, for a moment, you gotta have heart, and for all the energetic laughs, this play doesn't have one.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Blue Before Morning

Lights up on a chintzy-looking car and a wall made out of black suitcases: consider this re-enforcement of the positives and negatives of Kate McGovern's new play, Blue Before Morning. Over the next ninety minutes, a lot of things are squeezed into that car and rather showily discussed, but very little actually opens up, and that wall of baggage never comes down. In truth, the play is a little well-planned for a spontaneous road trip, one caused when the young Ava (Kether Donohue) hails a cab driven by the amiable Jerry (Chris McKenney), and manages to guilt him into driving her from New York City to South Carolina. Along the way, he picks up a third-trimester hitcher, Ella (Jenny Maguire), as he can't stand to see her get soaked. While Gia Forakis's neatly choreographed segues work (accelerated video shows the passage of time), McGovern's short scenes ("Doughnuts," "Obstacles," "Birthdays,") come across as overplanned.

And yet, none of this really seems to matter until the unresolved ending: the trip itself is very pleasant, and McGovern's manages to keep her rather broad characters interesting by giving them all flashbacks--detours, if you will--that shed light on their motivations. Ava, of course, is in a hurry to see her estranged, former-addict of a mother, Eileen (Jennifer Dorr White), and that explains her prickly needs; Ella, on the other hand, is fleeing from her boyfriend, Steve (Flaco Navaja), though not--as we learn--because of any flaws on his loving part. These aren't especially deep explanations, but they're what we want to hear, and most importantly, they're easily digestible discoveries. The heart of the play, however, comes from Jerry's relationship with Rita (Phyllis Johnson), for it's a sad tale of a marriage in decline from a lack of aspirations, something Blue Before Morning knows a thing or two about, always stopping short of anything real.

Instead, a large chunk of Blue Before Morning is spent cramped inside a melodramatic car, with emotions flickering on and off as easily as the radio--there's even a musical accompaniment from Jerry, a Beatles fan. In many ways, the play is about the need to grow up, but perhaps too much time is spent worry about whether or not everyone's gotten there yet. The best moments in the play come from when McGovern takes her hands off the wheel and just lets the characters drift naturally through their memories. After all, as that famous saying goes about travel, if you really want to have an experience, you have to be willing to get lost.