Sunday, May 31, 2009

Dream of Me

Not even Chuck Mee can consistently imitate Chuck Mee, so it's a bit odd to see an under-30 company, Mainspring Collective, trying to riff on his play Fetes de la Nuit. The result, Alexandria LaPorte's Dream of Me, is an undeniably confused show, and while director Hillary Krishnan isn't afraid to plunge into that madness, she isn't always able to bring the actors with her (which might explain why the two prerecorded segments go on and on). It's easy, in other words, for her to stage the endless distractions that clusterfuck life and love, to create worlds in which characters can walk downstage center and proclaim "I'm lost." It's harder to show the stillness of a missed connection on a crowded subway, the intimacy of a role-played love affair between two gay "strangers" in the park, or to squeeze character out of a scene that's meant to be an expository lecture on the death of privacy.

LaPorte's writing never manages to connect on the specifics behind our fears of love, but Krishnan occasionally skews some of those generalities into a world of their own. At best, she finds a way to showcase Richard Saudek's excellent (and long-limbed) physical comedy, hunching him over in a red corset as he crisply spins an umbrella. It's more of an effort for Shawn Rice, who has to leap from old age to spry youth, accounting his sexual history with a showman's elan, but still an interesting departure. However, scenes between two lesbians, played by Julia Zangrilli and Laine Bonstein, are horribly overacted (that's after giving them guy points for their nude dance) and some of the worst moments stem from Jimmy Juste's stereotyped cross-dressing sass. These bits, which grasp both for significance and style, are among the more nightmarish parts of Dream of Me, for they show that the writer and director are as lost as their characters.

It's hard to praise Amy Temple's considerable charm when her characters--a girl who has trouble eating, and a girl who does a classic strip-tease in the heat of her memories--have no foundation. And it's tough to say much for the relationship between the missed connections pair played by Lila Green and Jenna Weinberg, for we know so little about them that their inevitable conversation is either an extension of their crazed normalcy or an expression of hopeless romance. The ambition of Dream of Me is a fine thing, but Mainspring Collective is still dreaming if they think this is a finished product.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Nosemaker's Apprentice

Photo/Simon Pearce

It's a sad day for puppets. Despite the hard-working comedy of the musical Jollyship the Whiz-Bang, Nick Jones, joined now by co-writer Rachel Shukert, has realized that actors can act just as manically as puppets (and they work for less, too). To their credit--and that of director Peter James Cook--it's not a sad day for theater. The Nosemaker's Apprentice (subtitled "Chronicles of a Medieval Plastic Surgeon") is a terrifically funny show that borrows as much from Monty Python as it does from Tim and Eric.

The fractured fairy tale sets off with a bang, as a plastic surgeon (Ian Lowe) tries to explain why he's not the villain his ex-wife has made him out to be. His nine-year-old daughter (Molly Ward) is forced to listen as he explains the ancient history of "nosemaking," all the way back to the daring "organic" noses (as opposed to wooden or metallic) of Wulfric (Corey Sullivan). Our touchstone for ancient times is Gavin (Eric Gilde), his newly adopted orphan apprentice, whose ignorant charm quickly seduces Wulfric's daughter, Amelia: "You're the most beautiful and only girl I've ever seen."

What starts as calm deadpan absurdism ("I lost my father before he ever met my mother," says this one-uppingly tragic orphan) soon becomes a frantic spoof, with Gavin traveling to a nosemaking academy in Vienna and a free clinic in France, where Mr. Sullivan reappears, first as a Schwarteneggering professor ("Use your hands," he screams in the same tone as Predator's "Get to the chopper"), then as a gay Frenchman. Each scene grows more insane, so that by the time Sullivan enters, face buried in a giant chocolate cake, dressed as the Queen of France, we're entirely on board. In fact, things are sometimes so silly that the play calls for straight relief, which Rightor Doyle handles with stolid aplomb.

As with old British farces, things are so energetic that even the sloppier, erratic bits (you know that hole in France? where the naked ladies dance?) are endearingly hilarious. At the least, it's original, although the need for narrator is rather superfluous (even if Mr. Lowe, in that role, is most certainly not). In any case, Normandy Raven Sherwood's flamboyantly enabling costumes and Jo Williamson's flashback-filled sound design keep us from ever thinking that The Nosemaker's Apprentice is just the happy accident of some excitable teens. Jones and Shukert are well on their way to becoming masters of the comedymaking profession.

Friday, May 29, 2009

metaDRAMA: Independent Theater Blogger Awards

I know, I know--another set of awards being given out to the theater community? And by bloggers, those awful, self-inflated know-nothings who are just only one step above Tweeters? Sure, I've heard that argument--but what you won't hear are any complaints about the shows that were nominated and which ended up winning the first ever Independent Theater Blogger Awards, the result of a Blogger's Night organized by forward-thinking producer Ken Davenport. (You can see the list of most people involved by going to the ITBA site.)

What I appreciated about the Blogger's Night--and therefore, the awards we all created--was being reminded of just how many ways there are to celebrate and enjoy theater. I don't shy away from the fact that I'm just dying to talk about theater--the fact that most of my friends don't go to see shows is part of why I write about them in a public, formal way. I'm looking for comments, debate, discussion--anything to expand the conversation started by the playwright, expressed by the actors, guided by the director, and run off with by me. The same goes for many of the bloggers, even if I did find some of them to be overly focused with self-promotion or the Broadway stage. The fact remains that they all bring different things to this bare-bones, stone-soup discussion that we have online.

Do I think we needed awards? Not necessarily, but as Patrick Lee points out, anything that's able to put Flux Theater and Billy Elliot in the same post is OK by me. And if awards are what it takes to spark a passive theatergoers attention--just as the term "reviewer" somehow lends credibility to something posted on a blog--then that's even better. Your comments are wanted.

As to my ends, I'm hoping that the ITBA will grow exponentially--but moreover, that this aggregate (like a pre-emptive Critic-O-Meter) will be able to identify and track the hottest off-off-Broadway companies (as I try to do with my "What Sounds Cool" monthly feature) and get out to see more of their work. I've got a "Trusted Theater" sidebar on this site--I'd like to fill it. On your end--I'd love for readers to chime in with a list of exceptional companies that they think merit watching. Then we can start to have a truly robust conversation about Off-Off-Broadway awards next year. After all, it's not hard to find a show on Broadway, or even Off-Broadway: most of them get covered. But with the volume and range of Off-Off-Broadway . . . we need more eyes in the field. And some of those eyes, hopefully, will be yours.

Many of the posts on the ITBA are unfortunately reiterations of the press release, but you can check those out at Pataphysical Science, Just Shows To Go You, Me2ism?, Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals, Visible Soul, Off-Stage Right, Theater Aficionado at Large, The Producer's Perspective, Stage Buzz, Stage Rush, Adventures in the Endless Pursuit of Entertainment, One Producer in the City, and Broadway Abridged, as these writers are likely to continue the discussion over the next few weeks.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Le Serpent Rouge!

Photo/Steven Schreiber

Company XIV's last show, The Judgment of Paris, may have set a war to the can-can, but it's their latest production, Le Serpent Rouge!, that hammers home the Moulin Rouge aesthetic. Sure, both shows put a decayed decadence behind the chintzy cheer, from the burlesqued costumes to the vinyl crackle of classic soundtracks (Eartha Kitt to James Brown). And Austin McCormick's expert choreography remains a slow, languorous seduction, enhanced by the obvious chemistry between his tight-knit Company XIV. (For what it's worth, they're also both about magic apples.) But the specificity of this retelling of the Adam and Eve story (with a primer on the seven deadly sins thrown in for good measure) puts more emphasis on solos and duets, evoking far more than just "titillating tragedy." (Last year, it was "dramatic entertainment.")

You wouldn't think so at first: Zane Pihlstrom's set is a gilded iron circus ring, with a giant chandelier in the center, and two trapeze-like swings on either side. Gina Scherr largely avoids overhead lights in favor of footlights and a wheeled-on spotlight, which creates a lovely silhouette. And Olivera Gajic's costuming leaves no doubt that the apple-wielding narrator is a Ringmistress (Gioia Marchese), from her tiny top hat and giant whip to the thrust of her bust. Davon Rainey's back in drag, too, serving up both an all-frills palate cleanser and chilling denouement with Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is." But these effects are just the comfort zone--a familiar atmosphere for Company XIV--which is why they're able to dig deeper into an all-too-familiar tale.

As she did as Helen last year, Laura Careless embodies the essence of Woman in the role of Eve, brought to the garden by the Ringmistress, and made to serve Adam (John Beasant III). However, she slowly comes to terms with her own body, losing the false smile she's forced to wear when seeing Adam and Lillith (Yeva Glover), and it's only a matter of time before she's trying to define herself on her own terms. A giant gilded mirror, a fancy ball gown, and the timeless Eve now confronts Vanity. As Adam joins her in a contemporary setting, their curtained silhouettes succumb to Greed; helpless once more, they are stripped by Sloth.

"Good weather," says the Ringmistress, "is like a good woman. It doesn't always happen." Vilified forever by the burden of one bite of an apple, knowledge can be a curse--or so says the plot. It's an interesting thought, but Le Serpent Rogue! focuses more--wisely--on the images, heating up from a chair-dance of Jealousy to a fiery duet of Wrath before smoothly rolling into a three-way moment of Lust. Even the cryptic moments of sad loss that follow the Fall are terrifically sexy: the visceral act of Adam walking over Eve, the symbolism of Eve slipping through a watery mist onto the plane of that giant mirror, the far-away sight (through a door at the back of the stage) of Eve in the dressing room with the Ringmistress, staring at that apple.

It's a sort of epic burlesque, except that McCormick and Company XIV are in the habit of stripping away the glamor--ironically, using glamor itself to get back to the humanity of these ancient tales. This apple bites back, and the taste of Le Serpent Rouge! lingers on.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Play on Words

Photo/David Burbank

One could spend a great deal of time quibbling over every line of Brian Dykstra's A Play on Words, but that would be giving into his game. Not that wordplay is such a terrible thing, but you'd be better off with a crossword: at least those don't cheat. Or at least when they do, you're eventually rewarded with the satisfaction of catching a gimmick. Here, the madcap banter between two cartoonish neighbors (and former classmates) is expected to be its own reward--"Seinfeld meets Waiting for Godot," it claims, without realizing that even if it were true, it would be redundant.

This review digresses, but mainly because it doesn't want to regress--to lower itself to Dykstra's level. (Instead, it seeks the egress.) In any case, if Dykstra doesn't "give a hang" about the ninety-minute conversation he has with co-star Mark Boyett, why should this review? Then again, the main fault of A Play on Words--aside from not being funny--is that it belabors its point--that "language is the opposite of communication"--by jumping from tangent to tangent to the tangent of a tangent. What's more, to accommodate this nonsense, Dykstra's characters are reduced to mouthpieces, and then reduced further: to mouthpieces that sound exactly the same. Boyett may be on stage with Dykstra, but it's really just to give Dykstra a chance to catch his breath. He might as easily have bounced his ideas off a wall, and given how stiffly Boyett walks, clinging to his props, it's possible that director Margarett Perry had exactly that in mind.

Only Kelly Syring's set design sets things straight, with a tire-swing so large that it reveals Boyett and Dykstra as the precociously verbal eight-year-olds that they are. (If every line were replaced with "Are too" and "Am not," the tone would be exactly the same.) In this case, Boyett is the stubborn one, who would rather insist that "I find myself wanting to hang stuff in people's houses" than admit that his etymological theory is way off base. (For the record, you may be able to confuse etymology with entomology, but if you wind up with endocrinology--as this play does--you're just trying too hard.) In turn, this makes Dykstra the bullying one, so eager to pick a fight that it's wholly implausible every time he purports to be angry at the time he's wasting. (How do you think I feel?)

Eventually, A Play on Words manages to get around to politics, which at least gives it a shred of relevance. (After all, compared to the mindless ranting of two talking heads, this show is comic genius.) However, even here, development of any kind continues to elude Dykstra, so he gives up on grounding the play and goes back to gerunding it. Seinfeld (and Larry David) could talk about nothing because it had solid characters: mirrors, if you will, of the vapidity of American culture. Dexterously impressive as some of these rants may be, Dykstra needs a whole hell of a lot more to tackle the vapidity of language.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I Have Been to Hiroshima Mon Amour

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Much of I Have Been to Hiroshima Mon Amour is spent blurring the lines between 1945, 1959, and today, making a case for the collective sense of memory that belongs to us all. What is lost in Chiori Miyagawa's writing, then, is the requisite personal perspective. The sorrows that reach us are machine-made and form-fitting, as aesthetically pleasing yet predictably stated as Glenn Reed's rotoscope of a set.

It's not as much a problem that nothing in this play surprises us, after all: "We already know the ending. We've always known the ending. We'll end up with the same ending. We can't stop Hiroshima from having happened." It's that nothing in the play moves us. It's overdescriptive where it should be minimal and sincere, and it's constantly moving--Hillary Spector's expressionistic choreography--as if it were afraid to confront the tragic stillness of its core.

Each piece of the fragmented narrative trivializes the others, and the show is done no favors by the actors: Joel De La Fuente and Juliana Francis-Kelly don't have a lick of chemistry as they recreate the one-night romance of a Japanese man and French woman in the 1959 Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Sue Jean Kim is so far repressed (in most scenes, she plays an atomized shade), that when she's allowed to be more energetic in the contemporary scenes, she overdoes it.

Jean Wagner at least realizes that there's little substance to the play, and so she does her best to work within the so-called "negative space," hoping to provoke us not so much by what's shown or said in the play, but what we know is behind those shadows of actors. In some of the segues between scenes, this works--briefly--as we find images (some cryptic) projected onto the set's octagonal scrim. But the script itself is too direct, and too full of negative statements, for this to work: at one point, the Japanese Man tells the French Woman, "I like your hair and your skin. Your eyes and your lips." Predictably, the Japanese Woman in the background rebuts, with the weariness of a ghost that knows no-one can hear it, "My hair and skin. My eyes and lips. All gone."

It's a cheap sentiment--it costs nothing to say it--and the truth to Miyagawa's tame play is spoken a few scenes later by the French Woman, an actress: "I'm only interested in the concept of Hiroshima.... I'm incapable of losing more than I already have." Having grieved in private, and diluted by time and films like Hiroshima Mon Amour, Miyagawa has nothing to lose--so there's nothing for us to gain.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A More Perfect Union

[First published in Show Business Weekly.]

Photo/Carol Rosegg

“Oyez, oyez,” blurts the pre-show announcement: “Enjoy the arguments.” It’s a clever introduction to Vern Thiessen’s A More Perfect Union, a romantic comedy with a political agenda, for it allows Epic Theater Ensemble to deal with dirty little flaws of the Supreme Court while also entertaining the audience. Think of it as a toned-down version of Boston Legal, as polar opposites—the conservative Jewish woman from Cleveland, Maddie (Melissa Friedman) and the wealthy Black liberal from Georgia, James (Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr.)— come together, thanks to good chemistry and playful banter. Thanks also to Ron Russell’s rapid direction, which draws out the most of Thiessen’s paralleling gags and semantic charm: “Crazy,” he calls her. “Dedicated,” she says, amending him. Along those lines, these two law clerks aren’t fighting—they’re flirting.

It’s not all laughs, but the give-and-take between Simmons and Friedman—particularly when they role-play their Supreme Court bosses—holds us rapt even as they debate the ethical minutia of fictional Supreme Court “certs” (case submissions). The theatrical reality—every lean over a desk, crinkle of a wrapper, and slam of a book—keeps things so physical that we simply absorb the more thought-provoking ideas. It works the other way, too: the moral issues Thiessen explores are so engaging that we are willing to lose ourselves in Russell’s stagecraft. Bring on the choreographed transitions between scenes (or “articles”): swing holds plenty of sexual tension; indie rock is full of bipolar jumps in tempo. Whether you’re with James as he defends the circumstances behind a son murdering his father or with a pregnant Maddie as she files for the church’s non-discriminating right to fire an employee who has gotten an abortion, you’re at least listening.

There are plenty of big ideas thrown around, but the most important is the idea that there is no “wrong.” As one of the clerks says, “We all have our own box of crayons,” and our peers are the ones who will judge what passes as art. Now it’s time to judge A More Perfect Union: Thiessen has nothing to worry about.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

After Darwin

According to Ian (Jonathan Tindle), the actor playing Robert FitzRoy (of the H.M.S. Beagle), "Real passion comes from ideas." Unfortunately for him, his counterpart, Tom (Benjamin Ellis Fine), who is playing Darwin, doesn't have any. Such is the point of Timberlake Wertenbaker's fine intellectual drama, After Darwin. It's as hard for FitzRoy to hold on to his religious passion after running aground on Darwin's cold ideas as it is for Ian to maintain his own highbrow morality in light of Tom's unscrupulous fame-hunting. The parallel's not as tight as it could be, and Wertenbaker's plagued with the over-explainies (each scene loudly projects its theme: "Despair" one moment, "Idealism" the next), but thanks to some fine chemistry between the cavalier Fine and professional Tindle, After Darwin manages to make poor-man's Stoppard look appealing.

As such, Wertenbaker excels when in history mode and flounders when the director, Millie (Heather Grayson) or the writer, Lawrence (Tarantino Smith) annotate the action. It's just that in this case--thanks to the actual director, John Hurley--the floundering is fascinating. Much of this comes from Fine's charisma as a meandering rogue--at one point, trying to justify his lack of research, he mentions that he doesn't trust history, particularly the Holocaust, and yet he comes across more as selfish than evil. The rest comes from the bleed between the two tiers of acting, as Ian's anger ends up making FitzRoy more complete, and Tom's ability to react allows him to nail Darwin without understanding natural selection.

Toward the end, the show peters out, explaining so much that it fails to preserve the "mystery of being human" that FitzRoy fights for. However, in this case--as with Darwin's explanatory theory--having the answers isn't such a terrible thing.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Clementine and the Cyber Ducks

Photo/Jess Chayes

Clementine and the Cyber Ducks
is an odd mash-up--invigoratingly fresh while at the same time mired down in the constraints of Henry Randall Waite's 1887 song, "Oh My Darling Clementine," and the flair of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater. Krista Knight's twist merges the 1849 gold rush with the entrepreneurial tech bubble of the 1990s, which is suspensefully entertaining, but only if you can suspend your disbelief in a trio of sinisterly capitalistic ducks (Patrick Kovach-Long, Siobhan Doherty, and Jeff Seal).

Jess Chayes's electric direction keeps things swimming along--literally, there's a stream of blue bulbs and yellow wires--but the play, like Clementine, drowns in a sea of speculation. As innocent Clementine, Emily Perkins is a nerd-charmer (think of a tame Summer Glau), but her relationships don't develop, and so the larger allegories are left unresolved. Suffice to say that her sister, Regina (Cara Francis) and her boyfriend, Brian (Edward Bauer), literally jump into bed together, while her father, Clive (Ben Beckley), provides some solid Western authenticity as he sits in a wheelchair, pining away.

Brian is depicted as an earnest idiot who somehow manages to invent a Google-like search engine; considering that Knight and Chayes are earnest and not idiotic, they'd do well to follow the steps that lead to their character's success. (And I don't mean that they should steal an 1849 silver tea set from their girlfriend's father to raise the capital.) It's time to get more specific about what they want to do, and cut down on vague, de riguere downtown style. (Dance breaks? Really?) It's cute that Nick Benacerraf's set looks like a computer rendering of the dusty 1800s (look at the angular segments of his tree trunks), just as it it's cute that Brian's laptop looks as if it's made out of wood, but these concepts aren't pinging any emotional hits yet.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Way To Heaven


See enough Holocaust plays, and inevitably, one grows at least a little inured to the scenes of violence (sad as that may be). That's why Juan Mayorga's Way To Heaven makes for such an effective show: instead of showing the actual atrocities, it shows only the artificial atmosphere of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, at which Jews were forced to pretend that they had been happily resettled so that the Germans could quell the worldwide "rumors" of mass extermination. The audience, cast at the wide, parallel ends of the set--a narrow strip of dead leaves--sits on with the burden of hindsight, much like the Red Cross Representative (Shawn Parr), whose opening monologue establishes the tone of the show: "I needed one of them to give me a signal," he says. In other words, we watch Way to Heaven with the horror of knowledge, not the bliss of ignorance.

Mayorga's script establishes all of this with excellent pacing, and David Johnston's translation nails the pitch-black humor of the show's "acting". ("What's the difference between a pause and a silence?" "Rhythm.") All of the "facts" of the first scene's description quickly show themselves as strained falsehoods, with everything--from the child with a doll at the river to the fey, Artistotle-quoting Commandant (Francisco Reyes)--giving weight to that horrible lie. It's here that the nature of the theater lends to our understanding: at the start of Scene II, we see two lovers, He (Trae Hicks) and She (Jennifer Vega) sitting on a blanket, and cannot get past how badly they say their lines. It's not until seeing the scene for a second time that we realize this is the rehearsal of the "show" within a show--none of this is real. The Girl (Samantha Rahn) begins to speed up her lines and shiver even as she tells her doll "not to be afraid," and after She freaks out ("What do you do not to hear them [the trains]?"), she is simply replaced by an identically clad She #2 (Emily Pote).

Matthew Earnest's direction doesn't nail all of the intricacies of Mayorga's script (the ominous stage directions for a package containing the lover's "future": "The noise of a train. She drops the package. It sounds empty."), but it gets enough of them. He also innovates plenty of moments that add to the effect, such as playing carnival music during the most distorted part of the Commandant's monologue, and in the very placement of the audience itself, which mimics the atmosphere of the three-dimensional Theresienstadt "stage." Earnest is also helped by the great chemistry between the passive-agressive leads, Reyes and Mark Farr, who is coerced into playing the fake mayor, Gershom Gottfried.

The lengthy center of the show, "The Heart of Europe," focuses on the relationship between these two, and the performances should more than adequately explain to horrified audiences why Gottfried might have gone along with such an insidious plan: "Focus on one thought: 'As long as I'm here,'" reminds the Commandant, as he gently tsk-tsks Gottfried, "'I am not on that train.'" Reyes is especially remarkable, using every inch of his considerable charm to make his character all the more despicable. Just the use of the phrase "considerable charm" in a review of a Holocaust play should serve to illustrate how different Way to Heaven is, and while a few people (most notably Shawn Parr) hold the show back from getting all the way there, it's a moving production all the same.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

metaDRAMA/Contest: Not Enough Winners

The How Soon Is Now? "free ticket" contest is now officially over, and while I happily have a winner (posted below), I only have one. I created this "incentive" to demonstrate the length I was willing to go for a show that I believed in, and because I wanted to see if that extra push (the gimmick, so to speak) would turn casual readers into active theatergoers. If you all went out and saw a different play instead, that's fine--but if you read the review, thought the show sounded interesting, had free time, and still decided it was too much of a schlep to go out . . . my question to you is what would it take to get you out to see a show? It's a genuine question, just like this was a genuine contest, and I'll use your responses to figure out how to do a revised version of the contest next month.

In the meantime, congratulations to Daniel John Kelley, our first official winner. My thanks (and a $20 check) to him--I'm glad he had a good time, and I hope he'll use that money to check out the next projects for Irondale and/or bluemouth inc. (or, really, any theater).

Again, I'm eager to dialogue with you all, so if you've got ideas for future iterations of this contest, want to talk about any of the shows I've reviewed, or simply want to recommend something to me, please, don't hesitate to contact me. Any critic, no matter how big their name becomes, is still just a member of a much larger audience.

Friday, May 08, 2009

metaDRAMA: Manners

Just a quick observation to theatergoers, but if someone shushes you in a theater, don't shush them back. Not only is it asinine to take offense at someone for doing so, but the fact that they're shushing you at all should make it abundantly clear that you were too loud, for too long. Let's take this courtesy one step further: in the future, let the actors do the talking, k?

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Pretty Theft

Photo/Isaiah Tanenbaum

In the broad scheme of things, everything is stolen from us: our beauty, our senses, our minds. The far more specific now of Adam Szymkowicz's latest play, Pretty Theft, dares to show us--elegantly--what's left behind after such robberies. It tempts and taunts us by dangling Allegra (Marnie Schulenburg) before us: a truly innocent young girl, who will surely be the victim of this show. The question, then, is what will be left of her.

Aside from a lack of confidence (we see her fail as a ballerina), Allegra serves as a benchmark to model the other characters against. Her mother (Cotton Wright) has lost her youth, and cares for little other than the television. (And why should she care for her deadbeat husband, now, at last, hospitalized?) Her boyfriend, Bobby (Zack Robidas), is a demanding, insensitive prick. As for friends, she doesn't have any, which makes her desperate enough for her former classmate Suzy's (Maria Portman Kelly) purposes (which, ironically, actually turns out to be her own need of friends, having slept around with the boyfriends of all her others). Allegra winds up working at a psychiatric home, where she meets Joe (Brian Pracht), an autistic who happens to be a genius handyman, a man who truly has lost everything, and who now attempts to cling to it in a box. Under the dreamlike glow of these nested situations, Szymkowicz draws out the endearing nature of their flaws, especially the roguish Marco (Todd d'Amour), who--"elsewhere"--seduces a dead-end waitress (Candice Holdorf) with deadpan lines like "You ever been kidnapped?"

Angela Astle's direction--particularly her dream sequences and smooth transitions between the many layers of the plot--keeps the show "pretty." But what delivers Pretty Theft is the varied tone of the script, from Bobby's pompous "My kiss is devastating" to Suzy's "incredible discounts" (i.e., shoplifting) and Joe's checklist of questions--a heartbreakingly succinct attempt for him to connect with something, anything, from the outside. These different voices, set against one another, sound a dissonant chorus of disappointments and disaffections, and it's as if no-one is able to give anything, only to take. In this light, the contrived circumstances that tie the pieces of the play together end up "pretty" satisfying.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

metaDRAMA/Contest: Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

I didn't set out to become a "critic." Especially not "critic" in that tone of voice, complete with the rolling of the eyes. I wanted to write about theater because I loved seeing it, and I wanted to share that love and that passion with as many like-minded people--theatergoers--as possible. And yet, for a month or so, I fell into a funk, having burned out so much that even shows I liked--like Pretty Theft, Artifacts of Consequence, Beowulf, and Jailbait weren't enough to save me. I attended Ken Davenport's "Theater Blogger Social," saw The Toxic Avenger musical, and wondered if that was the future of theater that I had to look forward to.

So thank goodness for bluemouth inc.'s How Soon Is Now?, currently playing at Brooklyn's very nifty Irondale Center. Granted, I already think site-specific work is the future of theater, a more engaging and active effort to break younger audiences out of their "this couldn't possibly interest me" stupor, but it's great to see such an original and complete vision from this company. And as I thought about that (and started scheduling shows for mid-May to early June), I realized how lucky I was to be invited to these things at all--forget about the comps, even: just to have press releases full of enticing information sent to me, things that would help me--someone who wants to go to theater--find shows worth going to.

Which leads me to my first ever contest (which I hope to make a monthly thing). I take chances on shows all the time--because they're often free for me. Maybe that's what's holding some of you back. So I'm going to put my money where my mouth is, and do the following:

  • Go see How Soon Is Now? in its final week (this Wednesday through Saturday); you can read my review here, or just go into it blind.
  • Write your full name on the program, then take a picture of yourself WITH that program, preferably at the theater. (You must be OK with me posting this picture here, on my site, so please, nobody from witness protection.)
  • The title of the show on the program must be legible.
  • Send that photo to me, here at illogicaljoker [at] gmail dot com.
I will reimburse the cost of a ticket ($20) for the first person to send me this photo, the eighth (or last) person to send me this photo, and to one person drawn at random. (I'll do this by check or PayPal. Note that each photo can only win once.) Please be honest about entering the contest, as the money is coming out of my pocket, and because the goal is honest: I want people to see shows. Along this line, if anybody wants to talk about the show, feel free to add comments to my official review, and if the winners of this contest want to write up their own take on the show, I'm happy to post 100 words or so with their photo.

The idea is, everybody's a winner with this contest. Go see some theater! It may be on me!

Monday, May 04, 2009

How Soon Is Now?

Celebrated as Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf may be, it's wondrously clear from the first steps inside the pitch-black Irondale Center that bluemouth's highly physical twist on it, How Soon Is Now?, is going to be a bit darker. With each step spent following a lantern-swinging, foreign-language-speaking villager down the balcony path--as sounds well up in the distance and shadows loom large on a giant two-story scrim--it becomes clearer that, despite the imposing gloom, the show itself is brilliant. A roughly sketched animated short (from Heather Schibli) pierces the darkness, providing the childish frame of Prokofiev's original--the wolf, caught by a noose--but things are rarely as two-dimensional as they seem. And such is the accomplishment of this collectively created work: it's thrillingly three-dimensional, which you'll note when the Duck (Cass Bugge) and Bird (Stacie Morgain Lewis) force you to help pin the rampaging Wolf (the terrific Stephen O'Connell) down.

It's an impressive way to turn the audience into a jury, and what follows is a stark lesson in morality, as Pussy (Daniel Pettrow) calls Peter (Lucy Simic) into the court to watch justice be done. However, this serious talk is balanced by expressive dance, the deep philosophy diluted by classic jokes (have you heard the one about the devout, drowning man, who ignores the boat, waiting for God to save him?), and a vaudevillian exchange establishes the sort of characters that make up the defense and offense--the "lame" Duck's logic is no match for the "song" Bird's emotional warblings, a sort of revenge dirge sung on behalf of her (and the town's) dead children. In addition, the inventive use of space (and the physical interactions with it) give more weight to each actor's plaints, especially as the Wolf, suspended from the balcony, howls that he cannot be blamed for his "irresistable impulses."

"What are you?" cries the Wolf. "A bunch of animals?" In this case, yes and no: Rachel Jones's ruinous costumes (tattered pants and dirty shirts) help to humanize the "animals," and casting a female Peter draws the most out of a fierce tango-hybrid between "him" and the Wolf, especially given the emotional heft of the work. In a slick move, the projected images serve, at times, to reflect the audience with black and white stock footage of angry crowds--at other points, they emphasize Richard Windeyer's choice in music--and Omar Zubair's on-stage presence as a visceral Drummer Boy. All these aesthetic pieces play well off one another, filling the space and squeezing every second out of this hour-long tour-de-force.

How Soon Is Now? is as vivid and off-the-page as theater can get (without breaking the law). It's also earnest, which makes bluemouth inc. one of the few companies that's able to pull off cross-disciplinary work as they search to redefine the "walls" (and in this case, ceilings and floors) of theater. This sort of work can't come soon enough: see it now.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Quote of the Month

"To paint what you see is a good rule in art, but to see what is worth painting is better." - Oscar Wilde

Friday, May 01, 2009

What Sounds Cool: May 2009

Sometimes these lists are full of information, sometimes they're just lists. This one's "just" a list.

A More Perfect Union (5/5 - 6/7) Epic Theater Ensemble's production of A Hard Heart.
The Colonists (5/7 - 5/23) It's a double-bill of Nick "Jollyship" Jones's latest.
Coraline (5/8 - 6/20) Leigh Silverman directs Stephen Merritt and David Greenspan's musical adaptation.
American Hwangap (5/9 - 6/7) The Play Company joins Ma-Yi at the hip Wild Project.
Le Serpent Rouge (5/15 - 6/6) Company XIV's last show, The Judgment of Paris.
Marathon 2009 (5/22 - 6/27) Every year, EST puts out surprising new one-acts.
Night Sky (5/30 - 6/20) Director Daniella Topol at the nice Baruch College space.