Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Way Out West, the Sea Whispered Me

Talented and creative as the two-man troupe Cupola Bobber may be, their latest show Way Out West, the Sea Whispered Me is an exercise in patience. Those who have it--patience--don't need to see the show. Those who don't have it won't make it past the first ten minutes of awkward silence, even if they're told Stephen Fiehn and Tyler B. Myers's depiction of the slow, steady erosions of the sea (inspired by a trip to Dunwich, which is sinking into the sea) will eventually build into an absurdist storm.

If you're familiar with Beckett's "Act Without Words II," you'll be right at home with the first half of Way Out West, which like most existential comedy is exasperatingly true. The heroes are men, by and large, of inaction, and their inertia is palpable. Bound to each other (and two suitcases), they march to the crackling sound of an old phonograph, crossing a white tarp, labeling (and collecting) clumps of sand as they go. Why they do this is no more relevant than why Tyler slowly bends his starched-stiff tie until it points upward, obscuring his face. Nor is it more obvious than Steven's choice to leap into a cushion of air, to lie there as the cushion slowly deflates and collapses around him. Life is one giant, awkward pause.

The text is just as cruelly cryptic, focusing on the picture of an upside-down mountain, and the dead-pan whimsy of that image, taken at face value. What works--or at least breaks the monotony--are the ways in which the two play with their set; as Steven slowly recounts a list of objects that the sea has swallowed up, gradually growing larger in scale ("the steps of the church are on an adventure"), Tyler uses a crude pulley to whip up the tarp, revealing the blue "sea" beneath. The tidal sound of waves is conjured up by putting a powerful mic in front of a rotating fan, the wind roaring by with each new circuit.

Toward the end of the play, the two at last begin to deconstruct their performance: "It's not weird, it's artistic," says Steven, giving Tyler--who is carrying him on his back--instructions that detail the weird/artistic bit of walking that Steven's been doing, blindfolded, for the last ten minutes. The biggest problem with Way Out West, the Sea Whispered Me is that this question--is it weird or artistic? inspiring or insipid?--ends up taking over whatever existential truths the duo hoped to arrive at. Marvelous as their set's origami design may be, it's the restless creak of the theater that the audience will most identify with.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Killers and Other Family

[First posted to Show Business Weekly on 9/28]

Photo/Sandra Coudert

Not much happens during the first two minutes of Lucy Thurber’s Killers and Other Family: Lizzie (Samantha Soule) is sitting on the couch of her New York City apartment, working on her dissertation as Regina Spektor plays on the radio. Call it a last glimpse of normality, or the quiet before the storm, but it’s a clear choice by director Caitriona McLaughlin, and one that greatly informs the first ominous knock on Lizzie’s door. It’s not as immediately clear what the second, shorter silence means, as the door swings open and Lizzie sees not her lover, Claire (Aya Cash), but her brother, Jeff (Dashiell Eaves), and his best friend, Danny (Shane McRae), their thick, ragged jackets a reminder of the dangerous country they're from.

Their arrival will eventually lead to bad things — a fact Lizzie realizes and tries her best to prevent — but what this silence really represents is that recognizable violence can come as a welcome relief all that stifling intellectual tedium. Though Lizzie may protest (rightly so, given Danny's once-upon-a-time abuses), she’s simultaneously--and unwillingly--comforted by this familiar danger. Unlike the hidden struggles of the civilized world, she already knows her family’s savage rules. (Indeed, the moment Lizzie looks most frightened is when Jeff presses her to explain what she’ll do after becoming a scholar.)

It’s this trick — and the simultaneously exciting and terrifying performances of the cast (especially Soule, who has to play in both worlds) — that keeps Killers and Other Family from simply being an urban nightmare. For the first act, things are largely repressed, with the tension masked by nonchalance. The second act seems like Funny Games, in which two soft-spoken gentlemen increasingly violate the boundaries of an innocent family — except that it’s really about whether or not Lizzie can actually escape something that is an intrinsic part of who she is. Sure, Danny's a killer, but Jeff and Lizzie both shout this feeble explanation at a sobbing Claire: "He didn't mean it!"

Thurber’s wild play is justified by this familiar and haunting thought: There are some things about ourselves that we cannot control. Then again, some things are inexcusable, and those who are not a fan of in-yer-face theater may run for the doors.

Monday, September 28, 2009


Megan Riordan may be Irish, and her one-woman tell-all about casinos may be part of the 1st Irish festival, but Luck is full Vegas. This isn't a good thing--Dodd Loomis's over-the-top direction makes the show as informal as a cheap cocktail lounge; in fact, as the audience is seated, "Kim" (one of Megan's false names) passes around her favorite appetizer: a "Vegas Cheeseball." Furthermore, Shawn Sturnick's contributed text--which one assumes is some of the gambling terminology--gets in the way of Riordan's heartfelt confessional. So does the gimmicky presentation, in which the elements to be shared are selected at random by dice, coins, roulette wheels, and cards.

If Riordan's show were actually about Vegas, these effects would sarcastically enhance the show, by dint of its own needless excesses. Those odd dance breaks, choreographed with "world luck rituals and actual professional gambling signals," might take on meaning. But the story--the one you can't already find in books like Bringing Down the House--isn't really about the surface, in which Megan wears wigs and goes by false names in order to play cooperative blackjack with a team led by her father "Max." (Because this is the only way to actually have an edge on the house, which otherwise always wins, casinos will ban any players they catch doing so.)

But the show is actually about Riordan's attempt to find something real in her relationships, and one wishes she'd at last take the opportunity to do away with constitutional luck, now that she does have the power to change her circumstances. As is, the show only manages to demonstrate that old salt about luck: preparation meets opportunity. (And even this opportunity is squandered, whispering to night-vision cameras and dancing to "Female of the Species.")

Then again, people do love a good card trick, and Riordan herself is pretty charming. When she's not being interrupted, her grand storytelling is filled with lush Irish wit ("Kinsale is, and there's no way around using this word, picturesque") and a card-counter's eye for details ("Santa is wheeled from the casino, belly down on the gurney, shards of glass vertical in his ass"). Unfortunately--perhaps because there are 2,764,800 variations on this play--Riordan is stuck playing the performer, unable to escape being the actor her father raised her to be.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Boy and His Soul

Photo/Carol Rosegg

These days, if Colman Domingo (who stood out among the giants of Passing Strange) has to "bump and hustle," it's because he wants to--and what a treat to subscribers at the Vineyard Theater that he wants to. His autobiographical one-man show, A Boy and His Soul, uses the sale of his childhood home in West Philly as an opportunity to dust off the records that defined his past, and to view his coming out story with what he refers to as "adult eyes." If there's any flaw in this production, it's that Domingo's life wasn't marred by easily dramatized tragedy. Things are all too easily framed, much like Rachel Hauck's set design, which literally hangs Domingo's basement--the storage space for all his memories--in a picture frame. But as every musical interlude reminds us--especially as channeled by this exceptionally charismatic performer--the sweet, slick sounds of soul can get pretty deep.

Music's also a great way for Domingo to make his story seem universal, especially given this up-tempo mix. Jokes keep us in the moment ("My house looked like a worn out ho after Fleet Week"), as does his delivery, which emphasizes things with an engaging, incredulous upward lilt. Music, however, transports us, which happens here when a blue light pierces the darkness to herald his remembrance of Earth, Wind and Fire--a near religious experience. (These are some very nice punctuations by director Tony Kelly, who treats the whole show with unabashed reverence.)

It transforms us, too, and it's through music that he defines his family, from stepfather Clarence (a "connegrosseur" of soul) singing sweetly, through the good times and the bad, "You're the one that I've been waiting for, forever," to his older brother Rick, who pimps, preens, and poses in his Kangol hat. There's his older sister Avery, a tomboy with a "I'ma-be-loud-as-hell-and-you'll-like-it" attitude, and himself, at thirteen, preparing for a Saturday night with the song "I'm Coming Out."

By this point, the show really hits its groove, with Domingo flying between members of his family, until he at last comes out to his brother (after an incident involving a dill pickle and a strip club, one of the many live details in this show). Teddy Pendegrass's "You Can't Hide From Yourself" and Marvin Gaye's call for love--between anyone--swell in the background; the drama is in wondering how his family will react. You may not have heard that particular track before, but the feelings expressed really are as universal as music. ("You know this song, right?" is the most frequent line in the show.)

A Boy and His Soul has its share of sorrow and loss, especially as time goes by and people grow older. But as that cabinet-sized record player and those dusty records remind us, we can take it with us: the soul spins on.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Thunder Above, Deeps Below

Photo/Cory Weaver

A. Rey Pamatmat's new play Thunder Above, Deeps Below is one of the most inventive and daring plays to be staged this year, but there's perhaps too much magic and not enough realism. Not that one's likely to complain, given the lush staging from Pat Diamond, which uses Sandra Goldmark's harsh urbanity--stripper poles, plastic-covered walls, and sharply angled platforms--to accent the more poetic moments of the play. Diamond's sense of self compliments Pamatmat's roiling text--which deals with three characters who have lost themselves--and it's this framework that keeps Thunder Above, Deeps Below from losing itself.

The plot focuses on an unlikely trio of Chicago's homeless. Loudest is Hector (Rey Lucas), who has cultivated a thuggish personality in order to cope with his own prostitution. Then there's Gil (Jon Norman Schneider), an illegal Filipino working at the Bang Bangkok club to earn enough money for the surgery that will make her Jill, the woman she knows she is. And quietest is Theresa (Maureen Sebastian), who is attempting to avoid the responsibilities of her past--the baby she gave up--by taking responsibility for her two friends. Their plan to escape for San Francisco is doomed from the start, but their struggle to define the borders between their dreams and their reality is the meat of the play, as if Sarah Ruhl had written Three Sisters.

Ironically--though they're introduced in dream sequences--it's no fantasy that these three all have princes. Hector's wound up in a sexual relationship with an older man, Locke (Rafael Jordan), whose predilections are simultaneously sweet and disturbing (he wants a son). Gil speaks fondly of her time with an actual Iranian prince, and of the brief time that she was able to hide her outer masculinity by wearing a burka. As for Theresa, the father of her now-adopted child, Perry (Darian Dauchan), pursues her across Lake Michigan in not-quite-dream sequences.

The weaker part of this play, however, is the transformation of Marisol (Phyllis Johnson), the well-intentioned mother-figure who manages the Dippin' Do these three panhandle in front of, into a mystical boatman who ferries people into their new lives, helping them to be "reborn." It's a loud, brash, and sloppy resolution to the play, and it takes away from the subtler shifts, especially in Gil, who now--with makeup, a dress, and a wig--has come to fully embody herself. Thunder Above, Deeps Below is bursting with good intentions and great potential, but Pamatmat needs to learn that magic is never as effective once the trick behind it is revealed.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Fringe Encores: Zipperface!!?! The Hobo Musical

Every single mark of punctuation is necessary in the title Zipperface!!?!--the problem Gregory Bing faces as a director, trying to stage Jon Bershad, Dave Rothstadt, and Andy Wolf's "hobo musical," is that the punctuation isn't earned from the writing. It's far easier to make fun of musicals, in other words, than it is to make good musicals (like Urinetown) and even when you try to excuse yourself with a song like "Let's Put on a Terrible Play," you've still got to at least hold up to the standards of good camp (see Matt Stone and Trey Parker's deadpan Cannibal: The Musical).

What a delightful surprise, then, to find that this New Brunswick-based trio has actually come up with something as zany as The Toxic Avenger Musical. While it's not nearly as polished in its performances, the group numbers like "What Are We Going to Do (With All These Dead Prostitutes?)" are ebullient, and some of the actors have terrific belting voices, like Lauren Perri, who plays the detective lead, Lisa Rider, and Big Rich Armstead, who plays the always smiling, robot-obsessed hobo Jeremiah. (Extra credit to Dave Rothstadt, who, as Franklin, the musical's narrator/creator, sings the entire show in a scratchy "hobo" voice.) A little can-do can go a long way, and most of the cast acquits itself well by just powering through.

Still, it's a little hard to praise Zipperface!!?!, which on account of being a meta-musical that's all jokes, often repeats itself. With a little more work on pruning away the redundant bits (the go-nowhere camp of Alley Cat and Zipperface's little mid-air leaps), tightening up the meta comedy (three "audience members" are pulled on stage to be hookers, but it loses effect when one of those "dead" bodies just gets up and walks off again), and polishing the intentionally ragged bits (so that they all hit with as much punch as the terrific twist of "Finale Song"), this show can be the guilt-free indulgence it hopes to be.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Fringe Encores: Terranova

Terranova, a new based-on-a-true-story play, serves one important purpose. It reminds us--by looking at the 1906 trial of Josefina Terranova--that court cases, even those for defendants who claim insanity, are usually boring. Writers Pamela Monk and Dennis J. Loiacono make it even more intolerable by stretching things out. Not only are there flashbacks that explain Josefina's motives for killing her abusive guardians (Lucia Grillo and Joseph LaRocca, though the only abuse they show is toward the script, which they butcher), but there are constant interruptions in which William Randolph Hearst (John Gazzale) is shown to be the puppet-master behind the trial. At least Hearst's yellow journalism stretched out the trial in a sensational style; here, Theresa Gambacorta comes off as a green director, unable to turn that wooden acting into even pulpy drama.

The one exception is Laura Lamberti, who does us the honor of allowing us to see what Josefina sees in the world around her. This applies not only to her immigrant's mistrust of her lawyer, John Palmieri (Steve DiNardo), the Napolitano to her Sicilian, but to her stance on the brusque alienist (Joseph Manscuso, who fulfills the purpose of his role), and the rebellious fire that bubbles up when she confronts weak people, like her husband Giuseppe (Emilio Tirri) and her aunt Maria (Margo Singaliese). The last fifteen minutes or so are dedicated to Josefina on the stand, and for the first time, we see the effect of placing her "victims" on stage to haunt her.

Terranova desperately needs to be polished, because right now the effect of all that sorrow is apparent only in Lamberti, and all of the cause is missing. It also needs to decide whether or not it wants to focus on the general tale of the clash between old-world values and new-world ones, or if--better--it wants to stick with the specific, and interesting, tale of young Josefina.

Friday, September 18, 2009

metaDRAMA: Live from the NYIT Awards

It's my pleasure to announce that I've been invited to live blog the Fifth Annual New York Innovative Theater Awards, coming up this Monday, September 21st, 2009 at 7:00. Even if I wanted to pull a Kanye, my experience at the ceremonies last year tells me I wouldn't be able to: everybody is talented, everybody deserves to be there, and I'm glad to have the opportunity to beam a once-removed version of the events directly into your computer, you know, if you can't make it. (Extra points if you use your TV monitor to display the blog.)

And you should tune in: the NYIT Awards are a great way to discover new companies that you may not be familiar with. The live blogging will be going up here. Until then, you can catch me doing finger stretches at the Fringe Encores series.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Photo/John Alexander

In MilkMilkLemonade, neither Joshua Conkel's writing nor Isaac Butler's direction is subtle--and that's a good thing, because the centrally sincere moment is that we ought not to have to hide ourselves. Thanks to some clever costuming from Sydney Maresca, Emory (Andy Phelan) and Elliot (Jess Barbagallo) are able to be at their nakedest, physically and emotionally, when Emory says "To me, I'm not acting like a girl. I'm just acting like myself. So if this is how girls act, then I like it." For those disgruntled few who can't quite stomach that concept, Lady in a Leotard (the outstanding Nikole Beckwith) underscores the sentiment in a comic way: with a mini-guitar.

Everything--from Jason Simms's childish flat of a barn (complete with flaps that show the progression of the sun) to the hand-print chickens that make up Nanna (Michael Cyril Creighton)'s farm, to the fact that Lady doubles as Elliot's evil parasitic twin or even that Emory and Elliot are only in fifth grade (which explains their vivid dream sequences and fragile emotions)--yes, everything is designed to subvert our ideas of "normalcy" so that we can honestly listen, without attaching labels. For instance: "Do any of yous know how hard it is to get up here and take a chance on something? To be your authentic self in front of God and America and all you carnivores?" Honest words, even if they're spoken by Emory's best friend, Linda (Jennifer Harder), a giant chicken who dreams of doing stand-up like Andrew Dice Clay.

In all honesty, things should be this obvious: you act the way you feel, and shame on all the Nannas out there who quote Leviticus to their children and burn their dolls and scowl at their dancing and their dreams, determined that they play the role of "boy," no matter what. So Butler emphasizes Conkel's writing by casting men to play the female (or would-be female) parts and women to play the men, demonstrating that if it's just a matter of "playing" a role, anyone can do it. (Which is not to say that anyone could play these roles: for instance Barbagallo is quite convincing--and a little terrifying--as a bully with some serious transference issues.) He also neatly slides between theatrical styles (as in last year's The Honest-to-God True Story of the Atheist), which lets him poke fun at Tennessee Williams-like stereotypes and break into 30s dance-breaks set to "Anything Goes," which, if anything, should be truer now than it was then.

MilkMilkLemonade isn't subtle, no. But it is clever. In fact, it's so cleverly done that some of the most sorrowful lines--Elliot rolling to one side, dismissing the sexuality he knows he cannot bring up at his own home: "You can get used to anything"--won't even hit you until you one day turn 'round the corner and see the uglier, "grown-up" America where hate is made.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Photo/Sarah Krulwich

How does one adequately convey what's happening half a world away? The news itself, which swims in a sea of ink or allows us to selectively tune out in million-pixel flashes, doesn't always connect with us. First-person reportage, complete with interviews and strongly worded prose, is sometimes too dense. And even a journalist's experience, when brought vividly to the stage (as in New Yorker-writer George Packer's political play last year, Betrayed), is still just a journalist's experience.

What then, of the documentary play? Still second-hand, sure, but somehow more present, stuff that--like The Laramie Project, or Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's last show, The Exonerated--brings the so-called mountain directly to the audience. Yes, the cast of Blank and Jensen's latest work, Aftermath--now unflinchingly running at New York Theater Workshop--are still actors. But in perfectly speaking the exact words of Iraqi refugees in Jordan (well, 90% of their words), they are something more, too: they are mediums. At their best moments--and there are many--they are mirrors, too, showing us what great "heroes" we are.

Except that, while the show has obviously been edited--Aftermath pieces together moments from six different interviews--it's not blatantly agenda-driven, or accusation-based. In other words, it's a lot harder to dismiss or, Palin-like, to issue a blanket non-apology for. Instead, Blank and Jensen focus on the nature of Iraqi pride (some of them happen to be watching Iraq play in the World Cup qualifiers against Australia) and the deep, dark sorrows they have in watching their country fall from the predictable actions of Saddam to the more frightening chaos that comes of putting police uniforms on citizens who don't particularly like a given sect.

At times, Blank's direction is a little too much--Aftermath could do without the light, vibratory ambient noise in the background and the subtle shifts in color (red blood, blue sadness) against the brick back wall. (It's worth noting, though, that David Lander's lighting design, soft splashes of light that either focus on a single story or bring everyone's communal experience together, is terrific everywhere else.) The show is so quietly powerful that even subtle touches are obvious, and the last thing Blank wants to be is as visually heavy handed as Leigh Silverman. The stories are strong enough, and the actors are more convincing when we forget--for a moment--the conventions of theaters.

However, when it comes to evoking those words, Blank's a genius--and the fact that she collaborated on the script clearly helps her find a foothold (as it did with her work on April Yvette Thompson's Liberty City). The show opens in a rush of Arabic, as Rafiq (Laith Nakli) turns from the back row of dimly lit benches where the other performers sit, coming downstage (alongside a row of differently styled chairs) to address us directly. After an uncertain moment--are the supertitles broken?--a translator named Shaid (Fajer Al-Kaisi) walks on, apologizing for the delay. He explains that this man--a pharmacist--simply wants to offer us coffee or tea, and as he speaks English to Rafiq's Arabic, Rafiq slowly transitions into speaking English, a bit of theatrical magic that holds up. (This is especially true in one of the most savagely affecting parts of the play, in which Rafiq, gradually speeding up as he asks more and more mournful questions about the aimless violence he's seen, lapses back into Arabic, his voice now ragged and torn across two languages.)

Every character surprises us, even the arrogant dermatologist, Yassir (Amir Arison, much stronger here than in Why Torture is Wrong...), an educated Iraqi on account of his profession, who insists on speaking English himself and making movie comparisons that, when pressed for elaboration, wind up exposing a lot of what he tries to keep hidden. (For instance, he idolizes Richard Gere, for his ability to be "steely.") Surprising, too, are all the absolutely mundane moments Blank and Jensen have left in. Yes, there's an imam who was falsely imprisoned in Abu Ghraib (Demosthenes Chrysan), and yes, he grimly--rightly!--explains that there are some things that "cannot be solved with an apology." But there's also a sweet married couple, Naimah and Fouad (Rasha Zamamiri and Omar Koury), the sort who "negotiate" over facts, like when Fouad started working construction.

There's a widow (Leila Buck) who, at long last, pulls down the shawl around her face to show the remnants of shrapnel, which accounts for what happened to her husband and baby. But there's also Asad and Fadilah (Daoud Heidami and Maha Chehlaoui), an actor/playwright and his artistic, set-designing wife, and it's just as affecting to hear Asad quietly mention that his wife stopped painting during the bombing as it is to hear Fouad talking of his home being invaded. One realizes that a violation is a violation, whether it's physical or not.

Aftermath is a play filled with good theatrical choices, which is sort of ironic, as it depicts the slew of poor upon poorer choices that have been made in Iraq. It's the gold standard of political theater, and a shining exemplar of the documentary sub-genre, and it's absolutely must-see. No more "afters"; go now.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Photo/Christine Han

It's a little funny that when bash premiered in 1999, it had the subtitle "latter-day plays," a name which was apparently so offensive (coupled with the dark content) that playwright Neil LaBute was disfellowed as a Mormon. It's funny because two of the three one-act plays take Greek names, and all three have the sort of trick endings you might attribute to a blood-thirsty O. Henry. There's nothing "latter day," in other words, about any of these things, especially not in 2009, where Eastcheap Rep faces the difficult challenge of shocking audiences with material that, sadly, isn't all that shocking these days. (They also face the even more difficult task of dealing with their upstairs neighbors, a very loud martial-arts studio that I'll assume the producers have since spoken to and will therefore ignore for the rest of this review.)

Luckily, director Robert Knopf comes prepared with a plan: he gives the audience the opportunity to get up close and personal with LaBute's text, clustering three-chaired tabled in a semi-circle around the ground-level stage. Given the acoustics of the Paradise Factory, the dim lights, and the exposed brick, the evening becomes a sort of Overheard in New York: "Minor" Guignol style, which is to say, very natural, and chilling, but without any actual blood. (Those who have seen Clay MacLeod Chapman's intimate The Pumpkin Pie Show will feel familiar goosebumps.)

Would that the acting could hold up to such close scrutiny! The first two pieces work well enough, with Chelsea Lagos playing a 13-year-old student who ends up having her teacher's baby ("Medea Redux") and with Luke Rosen playing a well-intentioned middle-manager who makes a difficult decision in order to preserve his job ("Iphigenia in Orem"). These pieces are direct confessionals, which aids both actors. Lagos's eye-contact both ensures that we're on the same page as her and reminds us that we can't possibly understand her situation ("I just watched Hogan's Heroes on TV, what else are you going to do, right?"). Meanwhile, it's a lot easier to see Rosen's professional face for what it really is, every time he makes that horrible little "smile."

The problem they both face is in "A Gaggle of Saints," in which the characters Sue and John take turns telling the story of the night their relationship deepened on a trip to New York City. One assumes that Sue doesn't know the truth about where her ring came from, but it's hard to believe that when they're standing next to one another the whole time--and it's even harder to believe the faux-naturalism of their last moment "together." Worse, while Lagos gets to show her range as an older, more refined woman, Rosen plays his part with the same disaffected mask, which makes it really hard to believe him when he claims to have been nauseated by the sight of two middle-aged gay men in Central Park. Lack of remorse is one thing, but without any signs of disgust, this play loses the savagery that is supposed to be lurking under our rented tuxedos and arm-length gloves.

A couple of other things don't ring true--like the fact that Rosen's dress pants are too short, or that his character's supposed to have long hair--but on the positive side, you'd only notice those things because of how well the direction makes you focus on the monologues. This revival of bash isn't anything to rush out and celebrate, but if you drop by a 10:30 weekend performance, you do get a glass of Prosecco to help wash down the dirty feelings LaBute so expertly evokes.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Fringe Encores: The K of D

"I've got one, I've got one," calls a disembodied voice from the darkness, invoking the ritual with which young children begin to share their urban legends--legends which, as is later pointed out, are most often shared by those who live in decidedly non-urban areas, like The K of D's Saint Mary's, Ohio. The lights come up on The Girl, and as she slowly sets the stage ("Think x," she says, "Think y," where x and y represent the detritus of any small town), the lights slowly rise on the rest of the set--an intimidating chunk of an old wooden pier. Now that the picture's set, The Girl halts her narration and jumps into the scene as Charlotte McGraw, the sort of girl who at first glance seems to be kissing frogs in the hopes of finding a prince, but who on a second, creepier--dare I say, urban-legendier--look, may be testing the strength of her secret power, the Kiss of Death.

Laura Schellhardt's script is a nice piece that rises above genre but not camp, landing gracefully as a bloodless, sexless (but not substance-less) Tales from the Crypt-type affair, only cleverly narrated by a wide variety of townsfolk (well over a baker's dozen). And here's The K of D's secret strength: Renata Friedman, who plays all of the parts, doesn't "got" just one, and that's one of the two things that vividly brings this play to life. The other is Braden Abraham's brilliant use of aesthetics, from Robert Aguilar's aforementioned lighting to Matt Starritt's terrific sound design, which punctuates Friedman's descriptions with that extra bit of truth that every great legend needs.

On the whole, The K of D is a pretty standard tale of magical realism--very similar to another recent Fringe show that mixed broken homes with otherworldly dreams, Ether Steeds. But this one's worth seeing for Friedman's performance(s), which is more than just the overt tics necessary to help the audience follow along. (For instance, Quisp Drucker, the leader of the Pack, has such a thuggish swagger that the phrase "exaggerated bravado" isn't actually redundant; at the other end of the spectrum is Steffi Post, whose shrill "Oh my god, oh my god" is pure comic relief.) No, Friedman's got the range for subtlety amid her quick changes, the sort of skill that's necessary to plausibly carry on a conversation not just between two characters, but between five or six at once: at one point, she singlehandedly acts out a chase scene.

The only thing missing--perhaps as a consequence of such wonderful storytelling--is a deep connection to the story, in which Charlotte's twin brother is hit by Johnny Whistler's car, and the other kids plot revenge against the evil Johnny. But that fact is buried at the bottom of this review because you won't actually mind: that's how slick the performance and production are.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Infinite Jestation: A Blogthrough (p. 808-896)

Like Mr. Paris over at Infinite Tasks, I find myself actually slowing down my read as we near the end of this terrific novel, a novel which I'm glad to see that Matthew Baldwin of Infinite Summer is now attributing to being about Sincerity, which I spoke about a few weeks back. (His phrasing of it, of course, is a lot neater than mine, in both senses. I particularly like his description of Sincerity Deflector Shields, which reemphasizes the importance of the book's length, or at least gives the DFW-Needs-an-Editor detractors something to think about.)

So this week, I found myself thinking about the progression of time in this novel--and in my own life--that is, the way in which time seemed to speed up, slow down, and occasionally stop for me. This, in turn, made me think about another thematic device Wallace uses--that is, Subsidized Time. Now, if we consider that Wallace isn't making jokes *just* to be funny, then maybe there's something hidden in that calendar, particularly in its progression from America's B.S., which, if you'll recall from last week, bullshit is the Monster that Hal has finally identified (to Mario): "I believe the only real monsters might be the type of liar where there's simply no way to tell. The ones who give nothing away." (p. 774)

So, referring back to the list of years on page 223, America starts out full of shit. It then starts projectile shitting at Quebec, creating the Great Concavity (on our side) and Convexity (on their side). But you know, at least we're up front about it: it's very obvious what we're doing. It's not until the Year of the Whopper that things start to change--not that people never lied before, but now those lies are being stacked, sandwich-like, and people are attempting to sustain themselves on a diet of nothing but lies. We are losing US, and becoming ONANists.

It's no surprise that next up is the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad, and by now we hopefully understand that Geoffrey Day was actually right--though not to be excused--in identifying that *everyone* belongs in AA, seeing as how we're all addicted to something, and that that something we're addicted to serves as a type of self-medication. A spoonful of sugary lies helps the medicine go down, to put it another way.

And now comes the Trial-Sized Dove Bar: things do seem pretty arduous, particularly for those attempting to wean themselves off one substance (only to find that this means they need to addict themselves to another, even if that other is as innocuous as a Higher Power). I don't think there's a single character we've met who hasn't gone through some sort of transformative trial.

Of course, there are consequences to our actions. The Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken refers to genetically engineering "better" chickens, a food source which is then designed to be frozen, which could show the way in which Jim-as-E.T.A. (and he's only following in his own father's shaky footsteps) raises students to be Wonder athletes, all of whom learn early on to deep-freeze their emotions if they want to join the Show.

Another side-effect is in the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster. Not only does Wallace make silence a visual thing in his dialogue, but he has long stretches of narration that make you acutely aware of sounds--particularly squeaks, which have infiltrated many of the seemingly serene sections of the novel. And these are just the acknowledged silences, to say nothing of the fact that both Orin and Hal are clearly not saying the things they really feel inside--like most of the world, they're bottling it up. (Infinite Zombies cast the paranoid homeless man's "people-are-robots" delusion in this light, that is, our brains--rewired in the ONAN age to be even more Entertainment-seeking than usual make a whirring sound that is whisper-quiet.)

We've covered lies, addictions, medications, and their consequences--the big thing we haven't touched on yet is the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard..., which, it's been pointed out, is not only phonetically funny but also has the largest name--it obtrudes into our minds. (Not for nothing, it's also got the word "Mother" in it.) But come on, Hal's father has died, and now we're in a year about a computer that is able to project a lifelike image ("So hi-def you might as well be there"), and we're talking about people not even bothering to go anywhere anymore, to the extent that they now indulge in Spect-Ops? This is just one more thing that's eating us up inside... and we have the temerity to devote a year of our lives to this? To brand ourselves so?

Well, sure. That's what takes us to the Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland. And not for nothing, but are there any chapters that really take place during this year? We've pretty much given away everything that would make us "real," anything that would give us true substance or sustenance. No, the year we're most focused on--most predictably, given a culture filled with people who just sit there shitting themselves because they assume that they can always just get someone else to clean up the mess, is....

The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. It's a shame that nobody can actually vocalize their needs; it isn't until Gately becomes unable to communicate that we see what he's really after; and of course, when we first meet Hal, he's the clearest he'll ever be--and is of course, unable to communicate. Why is it so hard for us to simply reach out and talk to someone? Joelle thinks that Orin dumped her because of her face, but there is a sincere point at which Orin explains (to us, a figment of his imagination, really) that he's terrified of that trinity, that is, the ability to Know another person so closely that you can just reach out. There's also an element of Lyle's "Success" speech to LaMont Chu: we're afraid of ever getting what we actually want, because we may find out that it's not what we want. We depend on our ability to depend: what are we without need?

What are we? Perhaps we're in the Year of Glad, because Hal, at the start of the novel, has no more need. He doesn't seem to care about what he knows will happen, he takes it all in stride. It has happened before, it will happen again, but no single second--as per Gately's revelation--is unbearable. Of course, there are dark twists to this connotation: Glad (as the footnotes constantly remind us) is a Flaccid Receptacle Corporation in Ohio, which means that happiness is really just the ability to seal up and jettison our sorrows--for a time (that's what annular fusion does, see, it always comes right back around). There's also Gately's re-revelation:

Gately wants to tell Ferocious Francis how he's discovered how no one second of even unnarcotized post-trauma-infection-pain is unendurable. That he can Abide if he must. He wants to share his experience with his Crocodile sponsor. And plus, now that somebody he trusts himself to need is here, Gately wants to weep about the pain and tell how bad the pain of it is, how he doesn't think he can stand it one more second. (p. 885)
If I had the tears, I'd shed them for poor ol' Bim. But back to this whole chronology, a chronology that is in someways reflective of the process that these characters have undergone (albeit in a fractured, out-of-sequence narrative), is it any wonder that Wallace introduces the whole timeline to us as an "organization" of time? That is, a cold transcription ("Urgle urgle") of the way we file our emotions away, ready for mass-disposal and "clean" happiness, the Gentle way? Well, it's a thought.

PS. As of page 851, Hal has shifted into first-person mode, as if giving up drugs has allowed him to return to his body (even though he feels as if there's a hole). However, he's not quite connected to it, as the janitors point out on page 875, his face is "open-ly cach-inated" and "mirthful" (at Stice's situation) and he's not even aware.

PPS. Of course ONAN gets a burro to be its anti-Entertainment spokesperson. Only an ass would want to deny someone pleasure.

PPPS. I know that it turns out to have been a dream, but what's up with the Pakistani doctor having 112 teeth? Dental-related imagery is already pretty big in this novel, but how does one go from 32 teeth to 112?

PPPPS. Last one, I swear, but Gately was on a roll. "Because what if God is really the cruel and vengeful figurant Boston AA swears up and down he isn't, and He gets you straight just so you can feel all the more keenly every bevel and edge of the special punishments He's got lined up for you?" (p. 895) The God-as-figurant image is mighty interesting, no?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Bereaved

Considering that Thomas Bradshaw has previously tackled slavery and alcoholism, his latest bit of exaggerated theater, The Bereaved, is rather unambitious. Sure, American families are increasingly callous and disconnected units, but why bother telling us this? (Telling is the wrong word: Bradshaw's overt playwriting is really just a good, long cathartic yell.) Then again, why not? The shocksploitation of familiar territory can be entertaining (as Brian Parks showed in last year's The Invitation), especially when it's uninhibitedly directed by someone like May Adrales. (We got your nudity right here!)

Things start simply enough, as Michael (Andrew Garman) and Carol (McKenna Kerrigan) suddenly roar at one another over the chores neither one of them do, but this is just a red herring, as is their subsequent squabble over how to address the large amounts of semen Carol's found in their son Teddy's (Vincent Madero) underwear. But these slices of life are just minor bits of dysfunction, and Bradshaw, as an impishly maximal offender, is after bigger game. Sure enough, our expectations are upset when, instead of flipping out, Carol merely notes Michael's ungainly mound of cocaine, taking a few snorts herself as Michael quotes from a sex column. It's the sort of creepy normality that Bradshaw does so well, an effect that's compounded by Carol's abrupt heart attack, and Michael's choice to hide the cocaine before dialing 9-1-1.

Without giving the surprises away (since that's all Bradshaw has, here), the rest of the show revolves around Carol's desire that Michael--a lowly paid adjunct professor--marry her best friend, Katy (KK Moggie), for financial support. This turns out not to be a problem, as Katy's seen Michael checking out her spandex-clad ass (he wants to lick the crack from ass to tailbone) and as Michael is all-too-willing to satisfy Katy's rape fantasy (even if that means going in blackface). Meanwhile, Teddy jumps into a relationship with his schoolmate Melissa (Jenny Seastone Stern), whom he soon accidentally impregnates (he can't come while wearing a condom). In turn, Melissa, with her rock-star mentality and fifteen-year-old idealism, decides to keep the baby, so long as she can still get her cocaine from the suave Jamal (Brian D. Coats).

Bradshaw speedily delivers all this (and more) with a rapid series of plot- and comic-heavy scenes. It's somewhat refreshing to dispense with subtext and simply say "Get an abortion" or to just segue from Michael pounding away at Katy to then show a sickly satisfied Carol in her hospital bed, drifting off. The lack of hidden facets to the characters doesn't diminish the surprising effect of seeing the characters actually doing what they're talking about, and the spry physicality that Adrales captures is what keeps us laughing.

And so long as you're fine with surface-level laughs, The Bereaved satisfies. But just as quickly as Michael remarries--the day after Carol's funeral--so too is Bradshaw's show forgotten. That such extreme images can be so quickly buried says a lot about how empty the show really is.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Pride of Parnell Street

The Pride of Parnell Street comes on a little strong at first, with its thick Dublin accents and glossary of terms, but once past the head of that thick brew--it's an everyman's Guinness--things quickly coalesce into a positively thirst-quenching bit of theater. Sebastian Barry's writing is so strong, so from the heart, that you'll wonder why all plays aren't performed in this sparse, elegiac monologue format. (Faith Healer's a bad example of the form, but if you liked that, you'll love this.) One almost forgets to clap at the end of the show, having long since forgotten that Aidan Kelly and Mary Murray are actors, and not actually Joe, an idling dreamer, and Janet, the woman he loved, married, and drove away. The Pride of Parnell Street is hypnotically honest, at times grotesquely genuine, and above all--in matters of the head, heart, and soul--authentic.

Though Janet claims that "some things is private after all," shuddering as she recalls the night of violence that made her grab her two kids and leave Joe, the play's power lies in how nothing is hidden. Joe spends the majority of the play lying ill in bed and Janet makes a point of standing strongly behind her choices--if they fib at times, it's only ever as a back door to the truth: "I'm sorry," says Joe, honest at last when he says he isn't looking for sympathy, aboil with guilt. "I wasn't sorta ready. I'm ready now."

Barry's smart, and doesn't try to justify the tragedies; they simply occur, much like the terrorist bombing of Dublin in 1974: "They never even known who put them bombs there." So it goes with their six-year-old son, Billy, who just "catched on the back of a beery lorry the O'Connell Street end of Parnell Street, and was dragged in the back of it somehow, how it happened only God knows," and so it is with Joe, who cannot explain why, on the eve of Ireland's 1990 loss to Italy in the World Cup, 1-0, he snapped on Janet. (Janet's guess--that it woke up the Midday men and made them realize that they themselves were losers--is a good one.) It's harsh and sudden, but realistic, and it provides context for the ironic accidents that lead to Joe and Janet meeting once more.

More importantly, these natural events fill the script with emotional swings, detailed memories, and surprising moments, all of which allow Kelly and Murray to go for absolute broke. Love isn't always a happy thing, and those many facets are what pour out of these two diamond actors. Whether Murray fidgets with her fingers when unsteady or pulls at the lace of her shirt when in pain, whether her brow seems to smile as her eyes light up or seems to frown as her lips bite into themselves, she's always filled with the same passion, one that's simply refracted in a complex way. Kelly, on the other hand, is almost beatifically simple: when confined to his bed, his whole voice quietly aches at the lowest moment, and then seems to be healed by the remembering of his wife's breasts "electing me, like in an election." Later, though he leans heavily into a cane to stand, his voice grows steadier and steadier as he recounts his plan to win Janet back.

There's little to say about Sabine Dargent's set, for although it aimlessly alternates between distracting literalism (an angel statue, off to one side) and out-of-place metaphor (a window showing a rainy sky), one hardly notices it until the show is over. (In fact, Mark Galione's lighting seems designed to block out everything but the two actors.) In any case, it does the job, which in this case is simply providing a platform for Murray and Kelly and then--save for one appropriate, heartbreakingly beautiful moment at the end (which is making me tear up even as I type)--standing far, far back, the sort of choice that marks Jim Culleton as a very good director.

The Pride of Parnell Street isn't just the pride of 59E59, or of the First Irish Festival: it's the pride of New York City's theater scene, the first honest-to-God smash of the season.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Infinite Jestation: A Blogthrough (p. 714-808)

It's not really a surprise, this late in Infinite Jest--some hundred-odd characters later (and almost all of them somehow feeling fully realized, even in cameo)--and with an equal number of usages of the word "putative" and the concept of apres-garde filmmaking's distorting lenses, to say nothing of the plain old down-on-the-knees belief being borne out of the AA sections, but yes, it's safe to say that things aren't entirely as they seem.

It's somewhat fitting, then, to start with Apparitions (p. 714 - 729). Kate Gompert sees Poor Tony as "the most unattractive woman"--and by all means, he most certainly is at this point--but let's not discount P. T. Krause's own viewpoint: to him, Ruth van Cleve, in hot pursuit of her hot purse, is "the wretched creature." And then, too, there's Randy Lenz, who

wore fluorescent-yellow snowpants, the slightly shiny coat to a long-tailed tux, a sombrero with little wooden balls hanging off the brim, oversize tortoise-shell glasses that darkened automatically in response to bright light, and a glossy black mustache promoted from the upper lip of a mannequin
and yet still looks down on the Orientoid or Chinkette women and their "monkey language." This man who can still whisper to himself "Jesus what a lot of fucked-up ass-eating fucking losers." It's Poor Tony, ultimately, who ends up shouting "Help!" and "Please!" as he flees the pursuant scene of the crime, and--remaining true to that double-sided coin of opposites that Wallace has been flipping throughout the novel--no surprise that a cry of "Stop!" and a counter of "Go" are what end this section.

There's more of the same when Remy Visits Ennet House (p. 729-735, 747-755), and we're cued in by the recollection two now sober--okay, soberer--women have of their Divinely Chosen's Love Squad cult, a cult which one assumes at one point made perfect sense to them, but which now in retrospect, seems a totally alien thing. Bear in mind that Wallace begins his novel in the Year of Glad, which makes the entire rest of the novel a retrospective, an idea that somewhat supports my last-minute supposition that Hal, at the novel's start, fucked up as he is perceived to be, is actually at his sanest, most lucid point. Mario wonders, later on, whether or not sadness can make a person act "himself even more than before a sad thing happened" (p. 768); in that light, couldn't a narcotic, depending on where you're standing? (And don't think I haven't noticed how this lower-cased usage of "himself" sheds some appropriately reflexive light on their nickname for J.O.I., that is, Himself.)

Add to this sense of perception the thought of distance, and now we're getting closer to the truth of it, because for all our platitudes, it's not so much the walking in another's shoes that's the important part--it's the seeing in another's mind that sets us apart. Joelle Behind the Camera (p. 736 - 747) is interesting in this light: she's entirely able to dissect Orin's messed-up childhood (including Avril's possible molestation of Orin-as-child) and to find the heart of Jim's early oeuvre, and yet she can't confront her own personal Daddy issues. And what was James's goal? "Freedom from one's own head, one's inescapable P.O.V.," which, to be fair, a microwave oven would achieve.

And hey, here's the sad irony--what Molly Notkin claims Joelle felt guilt about later was for forcing Jim to lay off the sauce, as the loss of that diluting agent seems to have forced him to take a more permanent mental vacation. Of course Madame Psychosis prefers to be behind the camera--"She'd do the capturing, thank you very much" (p. 739). It's a great way to avoid behind imprisoned by it. Actually Notkin and Psychosis are both correct: J.O.I.'s work is "like conversing with a prisoner through that plastic screen using phones" and "like a very smart person conversing with himself"; all that means is that dear old Himself was depressed by the realization that a part of him was held prisoner within himself.

Mario Behind the Camera (p. 755 - 774), on the other hand, is a very different creature. It's hard to tell at first, as he speaks much like all the other characters, which is to say that he seems not to be really responding to the other person, so much as he is following his own train of thought. But while Hal pegs him as sounding sort of like Avril, he also acknowledges that "with you, I can feel you mean it" (p. 772). This is a form of perception, too, and it's the one that divides that narrow line between Avril's creepy simulacra-like assertions of love ("I am right here with my attention completely focused on you," p. 763) and Mario's less direct but more comprehensive connection to what sadness really is. (A thing which Avril can only define--and not for nothing is she a militant grammarian.)

The thing about this form of perception--a perception formed of language, and which can dangerously turn to visual Muzak (as in the Q.R.S. building some pages hence), and just as easily simply be filled with lies, lies that a wisening Hal understands are what create the real monsters. It's what Todd Possalthwaite Realizes (p. 787's footnote #324), i.e., that "nothing's true." A sub-set of this is the experience the E.T.A. 16s face: "Am I true?" (p. 1071), a phase in which, it's important to note, Hal started to ingest drugs on a daily basis, trying to define that Hal-shaped hole inside of himself, the sort of empty hole one gets not simply from not being dandled enough as a child (as Kevin Bain nightmarishly assumes), but from being lied to on a continual basis.

This here's the crux: what destroys all of these characters, or deforms them, is not anything actually real, not really. It's simply perception that overwhelms them, or redefines them, or changes them. Assuming that Joelle is actually scarred by the acid (which assumes that the Thanksgiving story related by Molly Notkin is actually true), is it that which deforms her? Or is it Orin's reaction to her? By wearing a veil, one removes the potential for perception, and creates, in its place, a sort of Schroedinger duality (and it's a great way for Wallace to create that infinite space, by allowing opposites to co-exist): Joelle is both scarred and perfect.

Perception has dangerous physical connotations, too. This section ends with two (or three) explosive shifts in perception: Joelle's (or is it Lucille Duquette's, according to p. 795) father abandons the world of infantilizing silence that he'd created, and in doing so, writes a different reality upon the old one. Nothing has actually changed--if anything, everyone is just confirming what they already knew--and yet by facing it, Joelle's Thanksgiving (p. 787 - 795) really goes to shit. A similar experience occurs--accidentally--when John Wayne (p. 795's footnote 332), dosed with tenuates, unloads all of his internal thoughts. (Similar to how a drunk can sometimes be an entirely different person, which may explain why Jim drinks so much.) John hasn't changed at all as a person--he's always been this hateful--and yet to everyone else, he's somehow a new man. How odd, the way the world works.

And how interesting (and sort of sad) to read this book freshly, for the first time (sad because it will never be virginal again), finding my perception shifted again and again. But in honor of my original perception of this novel, way back in my first Jestational post, let me briefly revisit the theme of infinity. Is there any doubt that David Foster Wallace, by shifting perceptions with every page, has managed to make the novel infinite after all? To use a tennis metaphor, imagine the way in which the court is limned by boundaries: there are still an infinite number of ways to hit the baseline, always getting a little closer to that limit between out-of-bounds and in, but never quite crossing it. Now add to that infinite number of moves an expansion of the court--a fresh way of perceiving the court (for instance, the transition between singles and doubles) and you've opened up another infinite set of moves. Shift that perception once more, and again, and again, and, well, you see where this is going. Or rather, you don't: it's infinitely far away, even as the end nears.

PS. As to whether or not Joelle's the Medusa or the Odalisque, we may never know. But I find myself continuing to lean toward the latter: we are talking about improbably deformed people, and a simple Two-Face-like disfigurement is hardly unbelievable.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Spinning the Times

For those of you out there who don't quite understand why one should bother with "plays" when the "real world" is out there, Spinning the Times is for you. Each of the five monologue plays is based on a headliner from the New York Times, and each demonstrates the rare gift fiction has to enhance the truth--that is, to be the lie that tells the truth. That's not to say that all five of the female Irish playwrights excelled at Origin Theater Company's challenge--some of the plays make deeper interpretations, or have a more ferocious topic at hand--but make no mistake: there's something in each piece that'll make you spin.

In Rosemary Jenkinson's "The Lemon Tree," it's the way Kenny (Jerzy Gwiazdowski), a young Irish Protestant punk, makes the secondhand account of troubles between Israel and Palestine--which he picks up when dragged to his mother's Church--into a firsthand response when his own house (or "settlement") is firebombed by his fellow Catholics. Gwiazdowski is wise not to translate the angstier parts of Jenkinson's script as being jaded; it's his innocent sense of wonder--turned to bewilderment, and then rage--that makes the piece so fulfilling.

That openness is the heart of Ethan Hova's performance, too, in Lucy Caldwell's "The Luthier." It's what allows him to recount a 10-year-old child's memories of being shelled in Gaza with an adult's perspective; that cold, calm, weary sadness that is all the more effective when it follows the benign misadventures of five young boys purloining their very first piece of pornography. Caldwell's writing also has a haunting (if slightly heavy-handed) metaphor book-ending it: Dawood is in training to become a luthier, and wishes that he might repair the broken husks of his friends as easily--albeit time-consumingly--as he can repair a violin. As the lights fade on Dawood, he is listening to sad klezmer music: another reminder that sorrow is universal.

After those richly dramatic pieces, Geraldine Aron's "Miracle Conway" seems a bit too light. It's a rather individualized piece of news, the story of a woman--Miracle--who winds up falling for her musically gifted boss. Unable to distinguish her dreams from his reality, she clumsily tries to kill her wife, ending up in the madhouse, from which she narrates this tale. Still, it's expertly performed by Rosemary Fine, who is so embarrassingly unembarrassed that we ache for her, especially when she throws away confessions like, "You can guess by my name that I was a premature baby," and adds that her mother didn't want her.

Taking another approach, then, is Rosalind Haslett's subtle "Gin in a Teacup," which starts out with the most superficial of approaches--the story of a fashion blogger named Romayne. However, as the fine Aysan Celik continues to explain how she fell into that line of work, a larger narrative begins to develop--Romayne's actually an Iranian-American by the name of Nooshn, and she seeks to "write a novel" with the clothes she wears not because she wants to reveil herself, as her narrow older sister misinterprets, but because this is the language she chooses to speak; that is, the way in which she reveals herself.

Last but not least, there's "Fugue," by Belinda McKeon, which is the interesting tale of an illegal immigrant from Ireland. The surprising spin here is of how human David's (Mark Byrne) story is--McKeon builds things up slowly, with David narrowly escaping a fire in his Brooklyn sublet, and then expands to explain how David, seeking to protect his younger brother, wound up mortally offending the IRA. In other words, we've all got our reasons for being here, and as the Times shows, we've all got our stories to tell.

The entire evening is well-executed under M. Burke Walker's direction, who keeps the stories unified in 59E59's black-box Studio C with the simple extravagance of a dozen or so light bulbs suspended from the ceiling (Jonathan Spencer's design). He's also aided by Christian Frederickson's terrific sound effects--loud explosive shelling, crackling fire burning--and Lex Liang's bare necessities of set, both of which force the actors to be fully present in the space. Ultimately, that's the edge that these theatrically driven pieces have over their print-confined equivalents: when the facts beneath Spinning the Times make eye-contact (or soul-contact), you can't just set the paper down.

Saturday, September 05, 2009


Why are they called Sinking Ship Productions? Their latest show, Powerhouse, is absolutely buoyant--in fact, it's a downright elastic twist on the biographical drama. It's what Aaron Sorkin's The Farnsworth Invention would have been if set to music: thrilling. Rather than give us an exacting recreation of "the brilliant but forgotten composer Raymond Scott," they recompose his life in the same way that his catalog of music was used when sold to Warner Brothers. The play opens with Scott (the excellent straight-man, Erik Lochtefeld) addressing the audience, explaining his interests, but what we're drawn to is the cast, which is briskly assembling a many-drawered set behind him--in time to one of Scott's songs. It's the first of many overlaps or exaggerated scenes that spring Powerhouse forward, all larger-than-life.

There are a lot of congratulations in order, here. Josh Luxenberg and Joshua Morris have written a wonderfully creative play, which neatly bounces from narration to scenes, often doing both at the same time, so as to remind us how much Scott remained in his own world. A perfect example--and one that also illustrates Jon Levin's distinctive direction--is Scott's first wedding, in which he is suddenly whisked up in his chair, spun around on a desk, and still trying to conduct (and conduct interviews) as his wife looks for him. Given the span of the show, it's necessary to compress events into montages like this; it's impressive that these montages are so expressive.

Another of the nice balances in the show is between the slowed-down quieter moments--for instance, when Scott teaches Dorothy (Hanley Smith), his future second wife, to sing--and the quick and noisy ones, in which members of the ensemble each grab a limb of their cartoon puppets and cohere to perform slapstick shorts. (Eric Wright does a terrific job as the voice of both the egotistical blue-footed booby and the suave otter he's in competition with.) In truth, everything comes together: Carolyn Mraz has festooned the desks with drawers for every occasion, from the magical televisions within (each with their own mini-puppet shows) to a cache of clothing buried within Scott's time-consuming invention, the Electronium, which is used to great effect when Scott's second wife walks out on him.

This isn't just an ambitious show for the Fringe festival: it's the creative standard to which companies should be pushing themselves. There's no need for a scale of 1 to 5 on this review: Powerhouse is back for the Fringe Encores series, and it should go on to an extended run.

Thursday, September 03, 2009


The most addictive thing about Mac Rogers's writing is that even when his characters say the darnedest things, you never for one second doubt that that's exactly what they'd say. In his new play Viral, the line that hits home is when the tightly wound Colin (Kent Meister) turns to his sweetly nervy sister, Geena (Rebecca Comtois), and warns her to be very careful "not to give [Meredith] any idea that there might be a reason to stay alive." Meredith (Amy Lynn Stewart), by the way, is a commandingly rational and direct depressive, who has come to Colin looking for a way to painlessly die...and Colin desperately wants her to go through with it so that he can film her final moments. And no, it's not sweet or anything, as their associate Jarvis (Matthew Trumbull) reminds us every time he gets that wide-eyed look and runs off stage to go masturbate. Or--and this is how good and oddly plausible Rogers's writing is--maybe it is sweet: Colin wants the footage because it's the purest form of their sexual fetish (a snuff film being the exact opposite of what they want).

The entire production is terrifically done, from Jordana Williams's staging of an Internet chat room to her comic uses of props (like a pizza box, a sofa cover, or the video camera), all of which enhance our understanding of each character, and drastically expand the canvas on which Rogers is so fervently painting. The only element that seems a bit over-the-top, all things considered, is Snow (Jonathan Pereira), a sleazy underground film producer who Colin plans to sell the tape to. Still, even these scenes serve a valuable purpose; in this case, they provide us with a deepened understanding of Meredith's condition--her willingness to do whatever it takes to simply die.

Of course, nothing's that simple--and that's where the cast really shines. Trumbull and Comtois often get typecast (because they do it so well) playing neurotic or ditzy--but in Viral, they play full-on characters, all the more richly human for the fact that they're allowed to acknowledge their embarrassing glory. And then there's Stewart, who manages to show the complexities of her inner conflict without ever losing her surface cool--until it's appropriate to do so, that is. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Absolute box-office poison," and 5 being "More addictive than love," Viral gets a 4.5.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Fringe/Stress Positions

There's nothing pleasant about torture, but that doesn't mean a play about torture can't be fun to watch. The problem with Daniel Sweren-Becker's Stress Positions is that it's a little too fun to watch. Terrence (Duane Cooper) is a United States soldier, undergoing the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training necessary to join Delta Force. As presented to him, he knows that he only needs to last ten days, and as shown to us by director Robin A. Paterson, that shouldn't be that hard: after all, he's clothed, in an interrogation room, and only has one hand cuffed to a chair. As a result, he's one-dimensionally glib to his interrogator, John (Jed Dickson)--he's simply never pushed far enough. (After having hot coffee thrown in his face: "Sorry, I don't take cream or sugar." After being waterboarded: "Is that Aquafina? I hate that shit." He's like the Rambo of comic one-liners.)

Instead, the drama of the play comes from watching John collapse. As the commander of the SERE program, he starts breaking rules and turning off cameras, even going so far as to waterboard Terrence. Sweren-Becker lets the cat out of the bag a bit too early, too: while we start in the middle of his ninth day, we soon flash back to the first day. Normally, this would be a good dramatic choice, but understanding why John feels the need to break Terrance makes his actions less stressful (to us), not more. This goes a step further with John's second-in-command, Buzz (Matt Walker), who reminds us that John isn't acting entirely on his own: just one more level of danger removed. Ideally, we'd be thrust into Terrence's shoes, unable to tell if John's a racist, and wondering if he can trust Buzz, or if that's just a trick to get him to talk. Instead, all the cards are on the table, and the only question is whether or not John will snap or not.

It's an interesting premise, but a low-budget performance may not be the right medium for it: it's hard enough to fake a fight scene on stage, let alone to simulate torture. (David Mamet's show, The Unit, executed a similar premise in a far more convincing and affecting fashion.) On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Torturous to the audience" and 5 being "More effective than Guantanamo," Stress Positions gets a 2.5.