Monday, November 30, 2009

Post No Bills

[First posted to Show Business Weekly]

Photo/Sandra Coudet

“It’s real when you hit bottom,” says Esteban (Teddy Cañez), who knows what he’s talking about. He was once the Mexican Johnny Cash and now busks in the Port Authority subway. “I don’t understand,” replies Reyna (Audrey Esparza), a nervy, orphaned runaway who—thanks to the gimmicky miracles of theatrical shorthand—has become this gruff loner’s protégée. Like all buddy dramas, in which two opposites come together and learn a valuable lesson from one another, Esteban comforts her: “Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out.” However, playwright Mando Alvarado has yet to do so. Post No Bills has some good musical bits (composed by Sandra Rubio) and entertaining co-stars—the blind, urban sage Sal (John-Martin Green) and the late-twenties hipster Eddie (Wade Allain-Marcus)—Alvarado is too carefully following in the footsteps of other plays to ever risk hitting the bottom.

Too bad: his actors certainly seem game. Esparza is a coil of lightning, able to bunch herself in and then explode outward, and her childish goofiness helps to gloss over some of the weaker plot points. (One minute she’s threatening to stick a bazooka up his ass, the next she’s staying with him?) Cañez is naturally brooding, and his deep voice helps him show the pain of his music; these qualities help him surprise us each time he reveals a third dimension: Esteban’s feelings for Reyna. And though Sal and Eddie are written largely as devices for these two, Green finds the anger behind his comic relief, and Allain-Marcus turns his energy into an outsized shyness that works for his romance with Reyna and rivalry with Esteban.

It’s also a waste of Michael Ray Escamilla’s direction; the man knows how to spin a story with visuals, and he fills the empty gaps in Alvarado’s script with cute sight gags (watch Sal), but for the majority of the play, the set is just a blue-washed wall—the sort you see for subway construction. There’s terrific storytelling, both from him and designer Raul Abrego, when those walls part to reveal Esteban’s studio apartment, so it’s a shame that the play itself still seems to be under construction.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Wolves at the Window

The problem with Toby Davies's Wolves at the Window (And Other Tales of Immorality) is that there are never any wolves at the window. Perhaps in the early 1900s, when Hector Hugh Munro (more familiarly known as Saki) wrote these trick short stories, they were surprising, the type of novel brave Dahl-ish children might delight in reading under their covers. (For instance, in "The Storyteller," two children who are tired of hearing morality tales, hear a new tale, in which a young girl is savaged by her own goodness.) But in this stage adaptation of ten Saki stories, that nervous delight is muted--first by Davies's choice to collage some stories together, which dilutes the punchlines, and then by Thomas Hescott's muddy direction, which relies more on the audience's imagination than his own. With the exception of a few stories that would be entertaining even if used as a filibuster's fodder, the night's entertainment falls entirely on the cast of four--and consequently, it keeps falling.

However, falling and failing are very different things. While Wolves at the Window suffers from an inability to commit to a style, the motley result is not without its own charms, especially when they force the actors out of their recitative or too-well-mannered states. Gus Brown, whose terrific dryness resembles something out of a Gorey painting, is perfect for this show; watch him as a sad-sack artist who agrees to help a failing business in order to marry the owner's daughter, only to find that, thanks to the cash he earns them, he's now socially ineligible. However, he's even better in animal form--as a tragically dying Goat or as the titular "Tobeymorey," one of those terrific wish-fulfillment tales in which a family, having taught a cat to speak, instantly wishes the gossiping creature would shut up. On the other hand, Jeremy Booth and Anna Francolini, who are often tapped to play slight variations on the exact same character type, desperately need the sort of loony roles that Sarah Moyle gets to play with.

What has happened, both in the writing and the directing, is that a proscenium has been built--literally, it has the sign "Naturally Depraved" affixed to it--but is only rarely played out to. As a result, the show lacks the requisite vitality to lift itself from the page to the stage, and during the more descriptive scenes--like the anti-climactic closers to each act--the show drops to a dead crawl. There is nothing less thrilling than watching an actor describe the stag they are pretending to watch rush toward them, even with a strobe light flickering for effect. The stories that comprise Wolves at the Window relied upon surprise; the play that Davies has cobbled together must not forget to do the same--if all we can expect from a night at the theater are Saki's twists, why not just read the open-source versions online?

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Liz Duffy Adams's newest play is called Or,, which makes it pretty clear that her historical farce has no intentions of wasting time with ifs, ands, or buts. (Well, perhaps a few butts.) The title--of which the comma is a part--is meant to shed some light on our innate dualities, and to that end, Aphra Behn--a bisexual spy-turned-playwright who may or may not have faked her widowhood in order to gain personal freedom--is an apt choice. Likewise, it's a smart choice to cast Maggie Siff in the role, a versatile actor (from Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy) with the ability to play a stern woman in a fluttery way, or a flustered girl in a confident fashion. Above all, Adams's best choice is to reduce the cast to three actors, using the already comic art of double-casting and quick changes to enhance the farcical elements.

Though Adams is intent on illustrating the ambiguity of character, Wendy McClellan directs with a crisp, clean hand. Even the intentionally sloppy bits, where characters are peeking only parts of their body out of the various rooms and closets in which they've hidden, are done with precision. And rightly so: the play Behn is attempting to finish is the one that she's actually in, and it would be impossible to crack as many jokes at the play's structure if it were not so impeccably upheld.

To that end, Behn has no lack of material. She begins in debtor's prison, where she churns out verse and practices her rhymes on the gaoler; when a mysterious masked man shows up to free her, she finds plenty of opportunity to sharpen her wit, too. Some months later, with the masked man revealed as King Charles II (Andy Paris), she is well on the way to being a playwright--if only she had something to submit. Luckily, her new lover, the actress Nell Gwynne (Kelly Hutchinson) comes to the rescue, for Behn's attempts to write her play, overcome her passions, and keep Gwynne from meeting Charles practically write themselves. (O for a muse of fire, indeed.)

Over the course of the lively and non-stop hour that follow this ball-in-motion prologue, we'll also meet William, a former spy and lover; Mariah, the cracking good maid (as in, she'll crack you over the head); and Lady Davening, a supporter of plays, though it often seems as though the cast is several times larger. Paris and Hutchinson, who play all these roles, are exceedingly game, so much so that the biggest laugh of the night comes from Davening's hyperactive advice that one should "never leave actors with nothing to do." (The result is either a stage manager's dream or nightmare.)

Adams might have gone a bit further--as is, the historical double-meanings are lost, especially among people unfamiliar with Behn. However, there's nothing wrong with a blatant farce, and once can't fault Adams for sticking to her game plan: "Compose yourselves for pleasure," announces Hutchinson at the start of the show. That's perhaps the one thing in Or, that has no alternative.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Lesser Seductions of History

Photos/Tyler G. Hicks-Wright

Despite being flush with the rich history and presence of the times-they-are-a-changin' 60s, August Schulenburg's The Lesser Seductions of History is, wisely, not a political play. After all, as he points out, "Politics is like music for people who have no rhythm," and boy, does that Schulenburg have rhythm. There's a thick heartbeat of communal purpose--he wrote this play for his company, Flux--, a steady patter of lyrical oratory (think Martin Luther King Jr.)--which is well matched by Heather Cohn's simple (yet complicated) direction, and a healthy dose of wit, the sort that elevates an Our Town-like lecture into an experience.

As it turns out, Schulenburg needs every bit of his talent, for this is his most ambitious play yet, a large ensemble work that is narrated by One (Candice Holdorf) who, at times, goes by the name Progress and whose "great enemy" is love. Epic, indeed, especially for a show that takes place entirely in interconnected vignettes, spanning a ten-year period. But it works, thanks to the narrator's insistence that we use our imaginations to invest as much in this play as these eleven actors have. (A timeline is included in each program, specifically for younger audience members, like myself.) It also works thanks to Schulenburg's ability to self-edit: the show seems like a short two-and-a-half hours, focused as it is on moment after gripping moment.

"Here's where it happens," says One, watching Barry (Matthew Archambault) throw heater after heater to his younger brother Bobby (Jason Paradine), too young and headstrong to consider the lasting damage he's doing to his arm. Here, too: the moment when Tegan (Kelly O'Donnell), who has started a newspaper called The Call (in honor of Kennedy's "Ask Not..." speech), meets a female rocket scientist named Anisa (Ingrid Nordstrom), falling for her at a small diner, though its not for another four years that they'll be able to tell one another. But also in the way George and Martha (Michael Davis and Raushanah Simmons), driving to a new life, wind up in different worlds, all because George was given the opportunity to play piano as a child, while Martha had to fight for her chances--especially after being raped. The doomed look between newly married Marie and Isaac (Tiffany Clementi and Jake Alexander), as she realizes his liberally wandering eye will never settle for her and her religion, or the way Marie's relative, Lee (Isaiah Tanenbaum), resigns himself to settling only for his drawings, trapped trying to find a way to communicate. And then there's Anisa's estranged, alcoholic sister, Lizzie (Christina Shipp), all but ready to throw herself off a bridge before Bobby--who is in training to be a doctor--convinces her to throw her problems off instead.

Weaving in and out of the larger contexts of the 60s, these can be seen either as small moments or big moments, depending on whose perspective you view them from, and Schulenburg's greatest asset is--dare I pun it--his fluxtuating narrative, which presents it as everything all at once. That's how we get to the really Big Moments--the ones that make this play, that make you think, that make for capitalized Theater--for instance, when the characters, expressing their feelings for one another, speak only the words of "I Have a Dream." Or when Cohn toys with the ten hanging bulbs--one for each character--in order to shoot backward through time, reminding us of those butterflying, domino-like choices we make, all those minute Ifs that become a present-day Is.

There are moments where Schulenburg struggles with his big ideas--and that's as it should be; that's how you know the ideas are big enough. What's important is that his writing almost always manages to keep those ideas on their feet; what's important is that he never loses those quiet, tear-soaked moments, as when Tegan sends Anise a message about the moon landing--"contact light"--or when George and Marie share a memory of Isaac. And while this review is intentionally vague, Cohn's direction--which has to juggle a lot of pieces at once--is always clear about the intents and beauty of things as simple as our presence. (And that's no lesser seduction, that's a full-bodied affair.)

"None of us knows," acknowledges The Lesser Seductions of History. "But some of us believe." And thankfully, some playwrights know enough to still believe.

Monday, November 09, 2009

What Once We Felt

Ann Marie Healy fills her latest play, What Once We Felt, with a lot of vague gestures, as characters allow themselves to regurgitate what others have said—talking, in other words, without saying anything. But there is nothing vague about Healy’s terrific plot, which like the best dramatic science-fiction passes on a specific allegory to the here and now. In this world, all the men are gone—redundancies, perhaps—and government has been replaced by the totalitarian RSS, which shows the danger of putting “more faith into algorithms than Aristotle.” Of the women left, they have been grouped—genetically—into Keepers, who can carry on their life as they please, and Tradepacks, who are slowly facing extinction, since they are unable to “download” babies.

Healy’s incredibly smart writing immediately gets to work at showing how insane it is to claim to recognize “perfection.” The play opens with a teenage girl, Violet (Ronete Levenson), “the last living Tradepack,” insisting that she’s “lived a full life,” and offering, as proof, her feelings. Cheryl (Lynn Hawley), on the other hand, has never been taught to show her feelings, and it’s not until meeting the neurotic writer Macy (Mia Barron), that she expresses anything other than the cool, professional exterior of a border guard. “Why do you get to change your life?” she wonders later that night, sitting in dim squalor, her mother writhing in unconscious pain, as Macy dines with her editor, Astrid (Ellen Parker), at the upscale Panet. In contrast like this—and these effects are heightened by Kris Stone’s coldly industrial set—it becomes clear just how subjective the word “perfection” is, and warns us not to let our given circumstances define us.

However, it’s hard not to be battered down by “reality” when fiction has all but ceased to exist. Claire Monsoon (Opal Alladin), a mogul publisher who has innovated a new form of work-free reading, “Digi-Directs,” has made a fortune off of the vapid, childish prattle of Inspector Ovid and his talking dog. Their platitudes—as hokily presented as old-time radio serials—ask readers to “believe,” but only in the world as given. That’s why Macy—who has written a book about a woman who just happens to be a Tradepack—has such trouble getting published: who can understand, let alone “believe” in something as “complicated” as that?

Except, it’s not complicated, and that’s what Healy communicates so well, using What One We Felt as a case-in-point, at least for those who are willing to listen. This dystopia is a warning: not everything can be reduced to cold logic and mathematical reason. This is shown best by Benita and Yarrow (Hawley and Parker), who, because of a computer bug, wound up with an “error” instead of the baby they’d carefully selected from online simulations. And yet, Benita falls for it completely: “Maybe we don’t [have choices],” she says. “Maybe we think we do but an Error / Is some amazing lesson / Some amazing possibility / For something / Unforeseen / Something / Beautifully / I don’t know.” It’s also shown—in a more dangerous form—by Macy’s line-editor, Laura (Marsha Stephanie Blake), who converts Macy’s more open-ended prose into what is essentially a religious pamphlet: “Help these Tradepacks to leave this world of suffering / Give them a new story / A new mythology: something better to believe in.”

So we must be able to choose, sure, but the things we choose from must not be predetermined. Perhaps that is a little complicated, especially for a society as litigious as ours, but Healy’s beautifully paced language never makes us think so. Also worth noting is Ken Rus Schmoll’s direction, which shows the rhythm of these characters on stage, in which characters slowly burn when confronted with comic, outsized characters (like Claire and Astrid) and then begin to erupt when given a chance to speak by the quieter people (like Laura and Cheryl). Barron, who is desperately trying to remain at the eye of this storm—attempting “reserved restraint”—benefits the most from all these views around her, a perfect example of a logical person who nonetheless follows her emotions.

What Once We Felt gets only one thing wrong: its title. While it’s perhaps true of the characters in this ominously not-so-distant future, it’s not telling the audiences what they need to hear: that this is a show in which We Can Still Feel, and that they must see it.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Red Sea Fish

Photo/Ali Tollervey

Imagination is great, but it can’t be the only thing you’ve got. Matt Wilkinson’s play, Red Sea Fish, should be alive with all the colorful British idioms, language, and dreaming characters, but instead, it feels sluggishly adrift as it overly describing the relationship between Ray (Tim Blissett) and his caretaking son, Terry (Matthew Houghton). Those far-too-cerebral fish, which are the only thing Terry is able to imagine, end up more dead than red, which leaves Wilkinson and co-director Franklyn McCabe overcompensating with lyrically choreographed scene changes.

That said, imagination still manages to go a long way. Ever since the loss of his wife, Ray has been plagued with a skin condition (“erythropoeietic protoporhy”) that’s forced him to remain closeted away from the sun. As a result, Terry’s view of the world is reduced to peeks through the slats of a window shade, and his perceptions are shaped by his father’s authoritative stories. On the flip side, Ray finds that he’s losing his own memories—they are shifting—and he attempts to make up for his physical lacks by blustering through, more boisterous by the day. (He even collects obituaries, as a way of remaining present.)

The arrival of an attractive, assertive woman, Karen (Janna Fox) is what upsets their worlds: Terry’s never known anyone like her, so he’s unable to react properly, panicking when things go off book. (“I had it in my brain,” he stammers, “I had a, had a sort of picture.”) Meanwhile, Ray sees her as a substitute for his wife—perhaps his last chance to relive his memories in a physical way.

But their interactions remain bogged down in thick, talky dialogues that wend around—out of politeness, perhaps—what’s really going on. Relationships are established in minutes, but drag out for the first act of the play, more and more of the same. By the time Ray comes up with an excuse to get Terry to leave him and Karen together, you really only wonder what’s taken so long in the first place. Also, Karen doesn’t seem to have any character of her own. Fox plays her with a nice confidence and swagger, and yet the script still forces her to all but disappear into the background.

As for the staging, it often labors over the point, using mechanical gestures that distract from the natural tension of the dialogue. After finding out that his father’s slept with Karen, Terry runs off to understand what it feels like to be a thief—like his father. When he returns, though, he curls up asleep on the floor, and upon awakening, he carefully stacks the stolen quarters (from the arcade) on the table and then more carefully pushes them off the table. It’s too poetic a statement for anyone in this family, and especially for the play. The play gets much better in its final third, once the father starts speaking directly: “I’m an invalid; what do you think I can take that can’t be taken away again?”

Red Sea Fish isn’t a bad play, but it is a boring play, and that’s perhaps worse.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Children at Play

Photo/Jeanette Orlić

"IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII," say the goofy Lacey and Lancelot, "don't feel nervous about starting school today!" Of course, like most sixth-graders, their energetic insistence is a dead giveaway that they do. After all, even at the James Joyce Junior High School for the Gifted and Talented, they're afraid of the daily hassles their precociousness brings. Morgan Nickelfleck Gladystone can understand: ever since her father raped her when she was five, she's been living a far more mature--and therefore picked on--life.

Of course, Jordan Seavey, whose last play with CollaborationTown was an equally dark show about children (6969), runs the same risk as Lacey and Lancelot, with all his comic insistence often belaboring a point that audiences are either already familiar with or which they simply will not get. Thankfully, by chopping his play into short scenes, Seavey is able to harness that energy. The play is woefully under-edited, with too many repetitious monologues from principles, parents, and Chernobyl babies, but it's at least cordoned those scenes off from the main thrust of the play. And while Scott Ebersold's direction tries too hard to find visual ways to justify bits that don't work--dance sequences and curtained silhouettes--he at least does so at an equally frenetic pace.

In other words, whether they're nervous or not, they've built up so much momentum, and get such over-the-top performances from the cast, that Children at Play winds up working more often than not. In fact, because the show is so raucous, Seavey is able to get away with some blatant subtlety. For instance, Lacey and Lancelot are childish versions of SNL's Spartan Cheerleaders (though Collaboration Town's co-founders Boo Killebrew and Geoffrey Decas have just as much chemistry), but Seavey is so direct with what he wants out of them, that he ends up showing us quite a lot, like the moment of mutual anticlimax when Lacey forces Lancelot to squeeze her breast, an act that thrills neither of them.

Most of what Seavey decides to focus on, ultimately, is sexuality, and he does so in an absurdly unambiguous way. We meet Morgan's brother, Martin Jr. (John Halbach), early in the first act, when he's hilariously effeminate and going by Mary. In the second act, it takes a few minutes to realize that he's actually playing a new character--Maximilian--who just happens to look exactly like Martin. (Lest you get the impression that the jokes are lowbrow, there are a few great zingers about whether or not this constitutes a narcissistic relationship.) Maximilian immediately starts coming on to Morgan, while Martin Jr. continues to flirt with Morgan's friend, Jeremy (Drew Hirschfield), and while at first Halbach runs back and forth between "scenes" to do so, by the end, it's culminated in all "three" of them basically kissing one another. Two other scenes duplicate this effect, in which characters come to a literal crossroads, each eying the person they're actually in love with.

The other theme is that of broken dreams. Early on, the children meet Morgan's father, Martin Sr. (Jay Potter), who is so adamantly unhappy with his life that he takes it out on his family with awful comedy. This is what will happen to all of these children, if they are not careful; and yet when Jeremy tries to switch his "talent" from science to art, he is told to stick it out until E. coli samples in the third year, and when Morgan confesses that despite all her genius, she'd kill to be a ballerina, she is ridiculed into becoming bulimic. Susan Louise O'Connor is well-suited for such harsh juxtapositions; she has a commanding stage presence, and yet her body seems so fragile. When Morgan confesses that when someone showed up for Halloween as her, she went out and gave a twenty-eight-year-old a blow job, it's utterly devastating, especially sandwiched between events as innocuous as "the discovery of masturbation" and a sleepover's game of Truth or Dare.

Seavey subtitles Children at Play a tragic farce, and with more tightening, it would succeed: tragedia dell'arte. The climax is utterly successful, as it's the grim insistence on comedy that reminds us that what we're watching has actually become a blatant tragedy. But the rest of the play, which is still in it the experimental flush of childhood, isn't mature enough to be much more than funny.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


Photos/Jim Baldassare

1401 was not an easy time to be alive. Even if you're fortunate enough to have a stable job--or, in this case, to be married to someone who owns a brewery--that doesn't mean that you'll be understood. It's therefore a smart choice for Heidi Schreck to revisit the true story of Margery Kempe (Sofia Jean Gomez) in our modern time, when we are readier to listen to her heaving, all-or-nothing attempts to find meaning in her life.

Her Nurse (Tricia Rodley) certainly doesn't understand her--in fact, she's guiltily jealous--and so she takes pleasure in Margery's sudden, post-pregnancy illness. Nor does her husband, John (Darren Goldstein), know what to do with her: her liberated, dominating ways are about 500 years too early for him to deal with, though he loves her all the same. Feverish, and tormented by the devil Asmodeus (the gentle Will Rogers is a great against-type choice), she lashes out at those around her, which only serves to make things worse; until, that is, she finds a kindred soul in Father Thomas (Jeremy Shamos), a young priest with such little standing with the Church that he is able to try the unorthodox method of actually talking to Margery.

No one is prepared for what his innocent teachings awake in Margery, who soon claims to have been visited in bed by a purple-clad Jesus and is now determined to pledge herself to him, wearing white though she is obviously no virgin. (Again, 1401 was a quaint time.) Having recently seen Heidi Schreck in Circle Mirror Transformation, it's neat to see Gomez playing the role of Margery, for their vivacious energies are infectiously similar. Gomez makes the most of the opportunity, too, so fully committed that there are times when one feels she should be committed, given the ways in which she battles her own weaknesses not just with her own squealing voice and big bright eyes, but with her full body, grasping a table and licking it, as if that might help her to fast. With ample assistance from Theresa Squire's costumes (the colors of which help to signal Margery's moods and gradual transformation) and Leigh Silverman's top-notch direction, it's a guilty pleasure to delight in watching a poor person attempt to rediscover themselves as a saint.

Schreck has also done a terrific job in spinning a great deal of research on this era into comic gold. Silverman would never have been able to add so much physical comedy if it were not for the richness of the script itself, in which a drunk, worn down John can have a serious conversation with Father Thomas regarding the safety of his wife (they're burning women for heresy) one moment, and then ask whether it's true that priests have "extra large merchandise" the next. Without throwing in Margery's mood swings--particularly one where she attempts to cry, as a saint would, only to laugh at her success, working herself into a fit--we would not be able to make as much of her attempts to quote Juliana of Norwich (Marylouise Burke, commandingly dotty): "For me, Love has always been terrible and implacable, devouring and burning."

As is, the play does a fine job of confounding the audience at every turn, making us question its sincerity as much as Margery and Father Thomas grow to question the world's. If the world is, as Thomas claims, "pregnant with God," then Schreck and company have made good midwives, filling this Creature with surprisingly poignant observations on how miraculous it is simply to live.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Hypochondriac

Photo/Amy Knutson

Why does this bold company call itself "The Cell"? Their performance space is a converted luxury apartment, and even if it were a prison, nightly entertainments like The Hypochondriac would quickly encourage even the grumpiest of theatergoers to lock themselves in and throw away the key. Of course, true fans of comedy might do that simply upon finding a passable production of Moliere; this takes it a step further by updating The Imaginary Invalid to modern times. As a result, this satire has bite again: in fact, its teeth are so sharp that some bits--like Justin Stasiw's videos of late-night medical commercials--come across more as accurate imitations than spoofs. (Though part of that's the fault of over-the-top conditions in America today.)

Those "teeth" have also been further sharpened by the crew of adapters, from the director Matthew A. J. Gregory to actors Shira Gregory and Chris Harcum, and the playwright Greg Tito. (Based on Charles Heron Wall's English prose, though nothing is lost in translation.) Everyone brings a unique skill to the table, and that helps them both to identify the crucial bits and to cram them full of the little lazzis that make commedia dell'arte so quick and fun. Furthermore, they know when to call it quits--knowing that their audience is likely to already agree with their belittlement of overpriced, overprescribed health "care," they focus more on characters and zingers than on belaboring or "proving" their points.

Argan, the hypochondriac, is so wealthy that he spends all of his time protecting the one thing he needs to enjoy his money: his health. He's even marrying off his daughter (the beautiful Shira Gregory, who nails the character's girlish eagerness) to a doctor, despite her wish to marry the artistic Clay (Chris Critelli, who pulls off a damn good Cheyenne Jackson). With the help of Argan's skeptical, liberal brother, Barry (Douglas Scott Sorenson), the maid Toinette (Vivienne Leheny) attempts to expose Argan's doctor (Sheila Jones) and second wife, Beline (Cate Bottiglione, channeling Real Housewives everywhere). It's a classic comedy, so you know how it'll end.

What you don't know is just how far those characters will go, especially the scene-stealing Kyle Haggerty, who plays Angelique's proposed husband. Shuffling in with a constipated grin frozen on his face, speaking in blatantly-rehearsed and lisped rushes, he's already more than hysterical. And yet, he finds a way to push further; after pestering his mother for a juice box, he winds up struggling with the plastic straw-wrapper for nearly five minutes, and Gregory milks it for all its worth, making more of a point about the inanity of modern medicine with that than the doctor's monologue (which, admittedly, was drowned out by laughter).

Everyone has a moment to shine, especially thanks to some double-casting (and disguises). Clay, attempting to see Angelique, impersonates an overseas scholar, which gives Critelli the opportunity to have fun with an accent. Later, when Toinette pretends to be a learned doctor, Leheny goes a step further, slurring together Italian and Russian, and having a great struggle with her recalcitrant stick-on mustache. As Beline's unscrupulous accountant, Sorenson plays against his nebbish type, all but jumping Beline as the two try to change Argan's will--only to come on later as the very solid and serious Barry. Last, but certainly not least, as the childish Argan, Harcum has the hard task of remaining interesting, blathering on as he does about enemas; yet he does, using the double-take on himself, whenever he realizes, mid-rant, that he's supposed to be sick. (In his best moment, after tumbling down a flight of stairs, he continues to rage for a minute before suddenly realizing he's fallen.)

If the proximity of the adaptors to the script has helped them, so too does the proximity of the actors to the audience. Gregory masterfully uses the natural sight lines of the space, then squeezes every joke he can out of it. Carpets are slipped on, pills are ravenously ingested, the bathroom is used (as is the bar), always with the audience just a few feet away. Ironically, the quality of The Hypochondriac makes a strong case for unnecessary medicine: nobody needs to see this play, but you'll absolutely be sold on wanting to go back again and again and again.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Americana Kamikaze

With last year's Welcome to Nowhere (bullet hole road), Temporary Distortion made a strong case for theatrical fusion: their East (theater) meets West (film) sensibility smashed together in a symmetrically shaped installation/set-piece that left them stranded somewhere in the middle, drifting in a poetic wasteland. Kenneth Collins has now turned his eye to the Japanese ghost story, aided once again by William Cusick's video projections, but their success is also their downfall. As with Welcome to Nowhere, the film takes on the sensation of the subject material, but whereas the road picture was physical, their supernatural leaning leaves Americana Kamikaze feeling ethereal.

The work is successfully moody, and Collins's affected direction--in which actors stand perfectly still, being as careful with their emotions as their enunciation--helps us get lost in this world. Furthermore, the choice to project images between the characters rather than above them helps to keep everything at the same level, often provoking eerie resonances between the actors on stage and their doubles in the film. However, such actions take a toll on the plot, which is hard to follow, refracted as it is between film and stage. It's also a lean show--at just over an hour, there's no room for exposition: we learn everything about Ryosuke Yamada's character from his actions--the way he longs to quell his hunger by killing and eating something--and by the way his wife, Yuki (Yuki Kawahisa), fixates on her idea of romance, to the point of blocking her husband out completely.

Cusick's videos change the mood even more drastically, cutting to some lush (albeit severely drained of color) shots of a hallway, down which we see a woman (and this could be right out of Ringu) slowly drawing near, only exposing her face--her slashed open mouth--at the very end. Contrast this with a country song in the middle, which is something Rob Zombie might do for juxtapositional thrills, and you'll see not only the range of technique and talent in the show but also its befuddling nature. Lorraine Mattox and Brian Greer round out the cast--I believe someone's having an affair?--and they toss around lines about love and the nature of stories as if they're doing Jim Jarmusch, but it doesn't click--or perhaps the visuals (for instance, a looped shot of a receding subway tunnel; an image of a woman standing atop a roof) are just so overpowering.

The point is, Americana Kamikaze's unique effect remains embedded with its audience, in a more immediate way than film alone can hope to achieve. Though the climactic subway station shot is confusing and admittedly low budget, it's weirdly compelling, too. And the image of (presumably) Yuki's self-mutilation and suicide ("Do you find me beautiful?") is far more effective in that not only does her body lie there on screen, but it remains standing still in its portion of the box. It's not fully fleshed out yet, but then again, it's a ghost story.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

metaDRAMA: As If You Needed An Excuse!

Apparently this is not only NaPlWriMo (National Playwriting Month) but it's also NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month). I'm hoping that in blogging for NaPlWriMo's opening day kick-off--"Every Way Is the Right Way"--I'm on the path toward fulfilling my quota for NaBloPoMo. And I'm hoping that over the next month of reviewing shows--it's a pretty full slate, despite the time I've been losing to my impending move, seasonal illness, and some unfortunate postponements of plays--I'll actually find the time to turn all of that into some sort of small play, thus fulfilling an obligation I now feel I have to write something for NaPlWriMo. Most freeing for me, with both the idea of writing a play and of writing this criticism, is that I have nothing on the line (financially, that is); I wonder if that's the way writing should be, or if that's why I sometimes have a hard time finding direction.

Whether we're for high-stakes or not, the broader point is that you never need an excuse to start writing, so even if you're a few days behind, just past-date a few posts and get into the swing of things.