Monday, March 29, 2010

A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick

You know how some hyperbolic critics insist that certain performers are so good that they'd be happy just listening to them recite the phone book? Well, it's simply not true. Because even though William Jackson Harper is one of those actors who is easily convincing and charismatic, listening to him level out-of-the-blue accusations about the poor processing practices of Nestle and other water bottlers isn't as enjoyable as Kia Corthron wants it to be. In fact, A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick is so all over the place, that I don't blame director Chay Yew for trying to turn some bits into pure fantasy--he needed to escape the show-killing agitprop.

In the first act, things run fairly smoothly. Abebe (Harper) has come from Africa to pursue an education in America, though we ironically first meet him in the middle of a drought in the US. (The smile on his face as he flushes the toilet--what a convenience!--is priceless.) He's been taken in by Pickle (Myra Lucretia Taylor), a boisterous woman given as much to her widowed madness as her religious squeals. He's also frequently at odds with Pickle's stubborn, atheistic daughter H.J. (Kianne Muschett), who cares little for his ecologist protests against the wasteful industrialization of what should be a free resource (well, it creates jobs for her community) and even less for his missionary preaching (well, her brother and father died because of Katrina, so where is God?). We even see Abebe care for a young, violently orphaned boy named Tay (Joshua King), to whom he has become a sort of big brother.

Everybody is so delighted to be there, especially the infectious Harper, that they gloss over the silliness of some of the scenes, like the way H.J. agrees to let Abebe practice baptisms on her in the bathtub (no, there's nothing sexual about it). But by the end of the first act, things are so weighted with false significance that Corthron essentially reboots for the second: skipping seven years ahead. However, in doing so, she cuts the good parts--the interactions between Abebe's naive high-mindedness and H.J.'s desperate practicalities--and focuses on shallow critiques of the industrial complex that are justified in their accuracy, but dramatically unjust. H.J. is religious now, which seems to have sapped her of her opinions, and Pickle isn't crazy with grief, so there's no more faces popping out of cabinet walls (a neat effect with Kris Stone's set). As for Tay, he's gone, which tells you how important he was in the first place. Instead, we get Keith Eric Chappelle, first as Abebe's dead brother, Seyoum, floating in a symbolic African river straight out of The Lion King, and then as H.J.'s ex-husband, Tich: in both parts, he's just going with the flow.

There are still charmingly clever bits, with Abebe scaring everyone with his driving skills en route to a baptismal spring, or with his buried missionary spirit, flailing a basketball around as he tries to repair what should be an eternal union between Tich and H.J. But--ironically for a play about water--they're drowned under Corthron's unsubtle significance: that spring has dried up because of the evil bottlers; instead of setting up Tich and H.J., Abebe rails against the man for doing the inventory at the Nestle plant, and even simple comic scenes in which Pickle keeps sneaking Abebe slices of cake are interrupted by the sound of tractor trailer horns pulling in and out of the industrial plant. We get it, we get it: the shadow of industry looms darkly over everything, even when we don't realize it, and we may never realize how valuable water and other natural resources are to us until they're gone (or far more expensive). But if the only way you know how to demonstrate is to pollute your own show, to create a dramaturgical drought, then you're not part of the solution--you're part of the problem, and it's a shame, because there is so much that's otherwise good in A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Tuesday Night Poker

Hold on a second: posters of Jaws, The Warriors, and an MTA subway map, a poker table with a few chips, some cards, and plenty of Colt 45 . . . are we sure Tuesday Night Poker is a play, and not just a poker game between frat brothers? Oh, wait: Brennan (Matt Brown) just came on stage, and he's talking to a cop, Daughtery (Che Walker)--with that bit of heavy-handed foreshadowing out of the way, this is pretty clearly a play. Luckily, when the show sticks to its actual title--the regular Tuesday night game these five friends have been playing since their college days five years ago--it's a fairly good, energetic, and organic play (fresh enough to bring back flashes of Blair Singer's The Most Damaging Wound). And that's as it should be: it was developed by the cast, and it wouldn't be surprising to learn that some of the more vivid anecdotes--about the lurker in the bathroom, or the vomit queen--were straight-up memories.

It's unclear how much editing Jon McCormick (who is credited with the script, but not the story) and how much directing Ray Virta (who often has characters upstage themselves, or stand idly about) have done, but let's credit them with the excellent pacing of the actual poker scenes, which not only serve to quickly establish character, but make you want to go over there and ante up. It's as Beta (Nick Hulstine), the family man of the group who tries his best not to curse, says: "Good hands don't win pots, good players do." And these are largely good players, particularly Delta (Mike Hauschild), the whinger of the group who has a soft spot for ursology, and his rival Alpha (Adam Couperthwaite), the short-fused one who thinks the world is against him: he even accuses the sports video game he plays of "cheating" against him. As for the other two, McCormick seems to have shortchanged his own character, Chi--the easy-going rock of the group--but at least plays him extremely well. The same can't be said for Brown, who never gets a grip on how to play the killjoy straight guy of the group: he keeps weighing the show down with unearned significance instead of living in the moment.

This is not to argue that Tuesday Night Poker shouldn't strive for meaning. Nor is the central plot unrealistic, with Alpha convincing his four, equally unsuccessful friends to rob bars with him. Those scenes are actually funny, because this is by no means a well-oiled or hardened group of toughs. The problem is that after playing so much of the show for laughs (and rightly so), the neo-noir interruptions with Daughtery are hard to take seriously (there's a jazzy brass playing in the background), as is the big finale, which starts with easy, impactless resolutions, and ends with the unfortunate choice to stage the climax off-stage. This is Texas Hold 'Em, not blackjack: your aces can't be ones and tens, and there's no wilds. Ultimately, the cards speak, and while Tuesday Night Poker aims to portray a full house, it ends up with just a respectable two pair.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

metaDRAMA: Why So Negative?

Flavorpill, picking up the thread of Steve Almond's reflexive look at the use of negative reviews, posts this "Defense of Negative Reviews." The point of theirs that I really agree with is #4: "Keeping the critical conversation lively and diverse." I started blogging here (and editing for Theater Talk's New Theater Corps) because I wasn't seeing any of the shows that I saw getting covered anywhere else, and to me, that spoke to a lack of diversity in the critical conversation. I also wasn't finding many young critics, which spoke to the apathy of my generation toward theater, but also to the under-representation of my demographic in ensuring that shows like Looped don't clog up the stage.

The goal would be, then, to do whatever it took to put the word out about worthy shows--though I soon found that I couldn't write nothing about shows that I didn't like, and moreover, that I couldn't lie, either, accenting only the positives, or presenting them in disproportionately to how I felt. Eventually, I settled on the idea that as a critic, I would simply stick with One Man's Honesty--not an end-all-be-all summation of the show, but as clear a critique as I could manage of what I liked, disliked, and most importantly, WHY. (This is also why I used to write about the need for a Metacritic of the stage, and why I was delighted by StageGrade.) The hope, of course, would be that others would chime in and discuss, or take me to task for what they disagreed with, as with the lively back and forth about Inge's The Killing here.

Anyway, although the Flavorpill article is mainly about music, here's what I take from that:

1. A critic should be a fan.
You've heard this before in critiques of, say, Charles Isherwood: "so-and-so doesn't even really like theater." I'm hoping this is rarely true, but especially now that money is vanishing from the theater community, you really shouldn't be writing about a subject unless you really love it. This doesn't mean that you need to like every type of theater--I don't much care for burlesque/cabaret and I'm overly fond of clowns--but if seeing a show is a commitment to you, your writing is going to sound like that of a man desperate for a divorce, but too fearful to ask for one: passive-aggressive shit.

2. Fuck snark.
I wrote about this last week. It remains true, and often reflects my first point. This isn't "if you can't say anything nice, say nothing at all"; this is, by all means, say bad things--but more importantly, explain bad things. The artist is, by nature, surrounded by people who support their work; what's important, then, is for the artist to be able to hear honest, unbiased critiques of it. At the same time, we're reflexively over-defensive, so for your comments to be effective at all, you can't give the artist a reason to simply tune out.

3. It's all about the experience.
A lot of reviews I read--and admittedly, write--describe the show. Depending on our backgrounds, that may be in a way that focuses on the script, or on the actors, or even on the aesthetics. That's all well and good, but it's crippling theater, which is more than just the sum of its parts. The gut has been, ironically, gutted from a lot of mainstream reviews because it doesn't fit house style, or because the editor has a "just the facts ma'am" approach to anything that goes in a newspaper. But it's crucial that we find a way to preserve and provoke the feelings that we encountered while seeing a show: it's not easy, but it's important that we at least try. Often times, we may discover, in the process, what we really thought of a show, particularly some of the complex experimental works that may otherwise leave us at a loss for words.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Soup Show

Photo/Lauren Sharpe

Though both shows are a mix of gimmicks and truths, the biggest difference between The Soup Show and The Vagina Monologues is that the former, with its blend of non-illusory neo-futurism and revelation, is more sincere, more daring, and more specific. Both sample from the wide range of difficulties women face, quoting from a large pool of found text (a Disembodied Voice), but The Soup Show largely avoids anonymity, focusing on the specifics of creators Desiree Burch, Cara Francis, and Erica Livingston. Under the direction of Lauren Sharpe, it's also filled by well-paced action--including some audience interaction--that makes the show more immediately compelling (and far less tame) than Monologues.

The biggest difference, in other words, is not that all three performers are fully naked throughout the show, and that's as it should be, since to sum a show up by something that's really not that shocking after all would be pointlessly reductive. Or, as Livingston puts it at the opening of the show: "Don't assume you know me by this, this nakedness. I will show you who I am, but this is not it alone." For them, their nakedness is proof that they're not hiding anything, a high point in the unabashed repertoire of the New York Neo-Futurists.

Taking their structure from the medicine shows of old, each "scene" is based on a freak-show attraction, at the end of which, an "elixir" created during that performance is bestowed upon an audience member. After the vaudevillian Sword Swallower number, in which Francis sings about a formative experience with "good old fashioned cock," she hands a bottle to someone "for strength." During the Hysterical Woman, the actresses run the gamut of derogatory jokes against women ("What do you tell the woman with two black eyes?" "Nothing, she's already been told twice."), but from the comfort of an inflatable tub/cauldron at the center of the stage, sipping tea as they do so. The show is constantly upending expectations, most effectively during the Mermaid, which mocks pageantry: here, for the first time, they are dressed up, and here, for the first time, they skirt the truth (during the Q&A portion of the pageant), forced smiles plastered across their faces. It's funny because it's true: the women we crown "beautiful" are those who avoid, at all costs, the truth.

Under that banner, even the weaker scenes, like the Human Pincushion's "Burch 2010" politics, redeem themselves with open arms and honesty, literally: "What if you had simply opened your arms and welcomed in someone who needed it?" Furthermore, thanks to the rapid pace of the show, there's always something new: this scene's preceded by the Conjoined Twin, in which Burch speaks more directly to her own relationship "issues" (not necessarily problems), and to the ideal "dreamsicle wedding" she longs for. Even scenes which some might deem crude--like Francis's meditations and demonstrations of douching--are crucial, often leading to surprising revelations. "Why do we listen to voices that just come from nowhere and make points or offer suggestions when the real smart thing is the body, 'cause the body does." Cliches like witches? Not so easily dismissed when they're up on the stage, or when you consider that as many as nine million women (and men) may have been killed for simply being wise in an unsanctioned way. (Like The Soup Show cast.)

Since The Soup Show claims to be a medicine show, let it be judged as one: these are no snake-oil salesmen; their performances really are miracle curatives. Don't miss it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Somewhere in Between

Though the context of Ryan Sprague's title ends up being a last-minute poetic turn to the audience, it's an apt description of his bi-polar play, Somewhere in Between. At first, everything's passive-aggressive and held close as Greg (Erik Gullberg) visits his brother, Joshua (Jeffrey A. Wisniewski). Then, with the arrival of Joshua's wife, Lissa (Ariel J. Woodiwiss), things loosen up, for this Christian-rocking, volunteer-crazed wife isn't afraid to speak her mind. Finally, by the end of the play, things go full-on crazy, with a LaButean twist that squanders some of show's the well-earned drama. In other words, the best parts of Sprague's play are stuck in between parts that don't work so well.

Luckily, though there's nothing particularly new about Somewhere in Between, Sprague doesn't skimp on the little details. So though we don't know at first why Greg's come to visit his brother, it's telling that he hasn't brought a coat--or any bags--with him to wintry Chicago. Likewise, there's a lot to be learned from the way Joshua offers him his coat, and by the look Lissa gives him for doing so. The banter is cute, too: when Joshua explains that Lissa finds him "colorful," Greg's resentfully jokey response--as if he could be reduced so easily--"What am I, a box of Crayolas?" (It must be in their blood: they get a laugh out of Lissa's favorite color, chartreuse.) Moreover, Sprague seems aware of his weaknesses: Joshua, who is mainly a device to get Greg and Lissa in the same room (no offense to Wisinewski), spends most of the show on a conveniently timed business trip.

So, to that excellent middle: Lissa is distrustful, whiny, and quite holier-than-thou, especially when it comes to Greg's checkered past as a jailed drug dealer (never mind that he also cared for his dying mother after Josh fled). However, when he shows up drunk in the middle of a blizzard, she can't just turn him away--nor, as we soon see, does she really want to. There's a bit of a bad girl in her, which she shows by raising Josh's forty of beer with her own petite glass of wine, and she's interested in the fact that he always says what's on his mind. Even though bold brothers and repressed wives have become the modern version of Chekhov's gun (if you put them on stage, they'd better go off), Sprague takes his time, building on the foundations of real curiosity, and through that, real audience interest. It doesn't hurt that his dialogue is also funny: the first time she slips and says "ass," Greg's there to congratulate her on "graduating to PG-13," and the looks from both the confident Gullberg and the innocent Woodiwiss are priceless--especially as their roles start to reverse.

The cross between the cliche and the original, and between the dead portions of plot and the crackling bits of a relationship, is what leaves this between being a good play and being a bad play. It's not aided by Elyse Handelman's cryptic set--an abstract series of cardboard shapes?--but it's not hurt by Brian Letchworth's crisp-but-loose direction. Ultimately, it's exactly what it says it is: Somewhere in Between.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Alice in Slasherland

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Vampire Cowboys Theatre's latest, Alice in Slasherland, is about as scary as the Vincent Price special on Saturday Night Live--but it's a whole hell of a lot funnier. Writer Qui Nguyen and director Robert Ross Parker have been refining their "geek-chic" shows over the last several years (Men of Steel, Fight Girl Battle World, Soul Samurai), and at this point, they can do no wrong. At least, not for their audiences: if you don't like pop culture references getting mixed with your martial arts and you don't want to see bad-ass puppets putting the moves on fetish-friendly girls, this isn't for you. Their olio of a show is best summed up by their winking acknowledgments that "this play does not resemble [Alice's Adventures in Wonderland] in the least bit, not even in theme." After all, like their traditional stop-motion interludes (which in this case flit through The Wizard of Oz meets Hamlet in Star Wars pulling off Die Hard resulting in Waterworld), Vampire Cowboys will not be restrained, not even by their own genre.

Accordingly, the show opens in pitch darkness, with Alice (Amy Kim Waschke) running through rain-soaked woods with a flashlight, streaks of lightning revealing her pursuer, Jacob (Tom Myers), or Leatherface with rabbit ears. Just as quickly, the action jumps to the vlog of a Wolverine-costumed fanboy, Lewis (Carlo Alban), who is talking himself up to put the Barry White smoothness on his best-friend/crush, Margaret (Bonnie Sherman), when he takes her to the slutty Halloween party of Tina (Andrea Marie Smith). Then, as if Alice showing up to save Lewis from a mugger weren't enough, Nguyen cuts to five days later, showing us exactly how "so not okay" things turn out: Big Bad demons have arrived, ala Buffy, and after these Tweedledee- and Dum-ish monsters quickly bloody the stage, then get bloodied themselves by Alice, setting things up with witty rejoinders like these: "Violence tastes yummy."

Complaints about Alice in Slasherland are only in comparison to the other work of Vampire Cowboys Theatre: Nguyen's fight sequences are actually upstaged this go-around by Jessica Shay's terrific costumes. Where previous sequences tackled Hollywood effects--with multiple camera angles, sword-fights--the kung-fu is blunter here, though that could be because our nerdy heroes aren't exactly tough guys. That said, the fights are still sold by their excellent music and design (thanks, Shane Rettig), and by the cast, in particular Sheldon Best, who spends the majority of the play finding ways for the teddy-bear demon Edgar (Shaft meets Teddy Ruxpin) to put his fur where his mouth is. (David Valentine's single-rod design is bringing the puppet-equivalent of sexy back.) Their aesthetic also makes it difficult to go too far: the decision to have Jacob use his machete to "play" the solo on "Total Eclipse of the Heart" after a particularly campy montage of deaths ("Turn around...") brought down the house, but in a cheap shock-value way.

Then again, it's too self-aware to be "cheap," and the cast is so into it that they're able to incorporate gag-reel content directly into the show, always squirting a couple extra pints of stage blood for good measure. (Some of the right-in-front-of-your-eyes blood effects are akin to those of the short-lived Evil Dead: The Musical.) There's even a Broadway number from a latex-clad Lucifer (Smith), and who doesn't think Damn Yankees could use a few extra gallons of blood? You don't really go to see something by Vampire Cowboys expecting a consistent or even necessarily coherent plot: you go because they're motherfucking crazy serious deadly funny, and Alice in Slasherland delivers.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Rudolf II

Rudolf II sounds like the sort of history play Shakespeare would have written: a troubled, unconventional monarch driven to his downfall by an addled addiction to the arts--a rich Bohemian. If he had, it might have been lyrically epic. Instead, he left it to Edward Einhorn, a modern, entirely too conventional writer whose play is driven to its downfall by an addiction to the arts. This blunt presentation, by Untitled Theater Company 61, is too bogged down by historical circumstance and flat exposition to illuminate the depths of an artistic, tortured soul. Rudolf II (Timothy McCown Reynolds) opens the play by confronting his mortality, a snapped noose around his neck as he speaks to the ghost of Prague's founder, Libuse (Adriana Disman). Over two hours later, he is madder, but the play ends on pretty much this same note, teaching us more about history than his story.

To those who firmly believe--as Rudolf does--that knowledge is pleasure, the facts regurgitated through the ghostly devices of Libuse and the spirit-channeling poet Elizabeth (Shelley Ray) will be delightful. The rest, however, will be deeply disappointed by Rudolf's passivity: because he spends the play confined to his bedchambers, the plot has to be explained to him by his head steward, Rumpf (Eric E. Oleson), and his valet, Phillip (Jack Schaub). Though Einhorn makes the information as palatable as possible, it is rarely dramatic; he is too focused on Rudolf to do justice to the men and women he surrounds himself with, and therefore ends up making the same points over and over again.

For instance, Tycho Brahe (Joe Gately), the famous astronomer, comes to court, but is used only to show how easily Rudolf is flattered into opening his purse strings for "art" and, later, to foreshadow Rudolf's own downfall: "Let me not seem to have died in vain." Because Einhorn does not flesh out characters--Rudolf is in every scene, crowding the others out--even good scenes, as when Rumpf resigns, seem out of the blue. Katerina (Yvonne Roen), Rudolf's mistress, points this unequal domination early in the play, and is thereafter relegated to being a sexual prop, used only to emphasize Rudolf's passions and proclivities. Literally, these characters do not achieve greatness so much as they have it awkwardly thrust upon them. This is most obvious with Phillip, who is elevated after he starts sleeping with Rudolf. However, because there is no chemistry between the actors, and no attention given to how Phillip feels about the relationship, this seems more like a re-enactment than a drama: historically accurate, but empty.

The bluntness and imbalance of Rudolf II are unfortunate, because the central questions of mortality are interesting: if we are going to die, should we not indulge our whims while we can? And attempt to leave legacies in our wake? But for these ideas to spring to life, they must come into conflict--that is, they must be challenged within the world of the play; the artist must be struggling. But Rudolf II is too well-off for that, and by the time he has been bankrupted to the point of confrontation, he is too mad to coherently speak for his ideas. So far as acting goes, this is a lonely task for Reynolds, who is forced to portray a madman without ever being pushed to it: Rudolf's legendary mood-swings seem particularly forced. And while director Henry Akona helps him to frame some of his impotent expressions--there's a fine moment when Rudolf crumples up the call for his resignation only to limply throw it at the messenger--, his "passions" are so tamely staged that they cannot help but leave Reynolds (and the audience) a bit frustrated. The components for a good play exist within Rudolf II, but this production doesn't have the alchemical skill needed to turn the many leaden parts to gold.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

metaDRAMA: Style over Substance

One of the complaints I often hear from critics (and make myself) is that modern plays (or out-there revivals) sometimes get more heavy with style (especially so-called "multimedia" plays, many of which seem done more out of a need for grant money than a need for the story) than with the substance they so desperately need. Which is why I find it ironic that James Hannaham, writing for the Village Voice, has decided to review Happy in the Poorhouse in what he believes is the vernacular of the show. He makes his point pretty clearly: that he finds the show to be nothing but a screechfest, assumedly several notches below Jersey Shore. But as that's the only point he makes (and one that he's vastly in the minority about), I wonder if he was just so put off by the Amoralist's style that he couldn't be bothered to bother to engage with the show. (And what does it say that the editors of the Village Voice ran this piece? If the Amoralists were a small group, just starting up, this sort of review could be career-killing.)

I've seen plenty of cryptic shows on the off-off-Broadway circuit, but it's helpful neither to my readers, my own experience, or to the artists involved, for me to simply dismiss something that I've seen because it didn't match my standards of theater. Most recently, I was boggled by Radiohole's WHA?!, but I felt that I at least attempted to explain my difficulty with the show, instead of simply WRITING IN ALL CAPS AND DRINKING BEERS. I've similarly expressed reservations with work by Richard Maxwell, and I regretfully chose not to write about Mabou Mines' Pataphysics Penteach, but for the most part, I try to avoid cheap wit because it sets a rather lazy example for audiences--and artists. Nothing can be so utterly boiled down to one dimension, and it's a disservice to pretend that it can be. We should not be afraid to be baffled, to be provoked, to be enraged by a show: these are all things that we can learn from. Simply giving up, as I feel many people did with Young Jean Lee's Lear, cheapens theater's ability to move us, makes people forget that we have to be willing to invest something, too, or at the least, to investigate our absent response.

Especially if style continues to become the substance of America. (For instance, Zombieland, American Idol, or Spider-Man: The Musical.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Happy in the Poorhouse

Photo/Larry Cobra

Thwack. That's the sound a fist makes going through drywall. It's also an undeniable punctuation, the sort of high-energy mark that the Amoralists hit time and time again in their latest production, Derek Ahonen's Happy in the Poorhouse. The puncher in question is Paulie (James Kautz), a scrappy, small-time MMA fighter, who wears his heart on his tape-wrapped fists. He's trying to show his wife Mary (Sarah Lemp) how much he loves her, especially now, on the eve of a Welcome Home From Over There party for his ex-best-friend and Mary's ex-husband, Petie (William Apps). Problem is, he's too nervous to screw her, even though she's brassy enough to make it clear--throwing herself on to him at times--that if he doesn't, she might not be able to resist other men.

This basic concept is presented at first as a dime-store pulp, but quickly flips into a blitzkrieg romance  ("He was a sloppy, loose, under-confident lover...."). It doesn't get very deep--certainly nowhere near the message of their last show, The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side--but this melomedy is never anything less than entertaining. But sometimes more is less: that non-stop action strains the heart of the show. It makes sense for Joey (Matthew Pilieci), Mary's brother, to be there--he provides contrast between the men in Mary's life-- but the arrival of his morning mail-route conquest, Flossie (Meghan Ritchie) and her angry uncles Sonny (Morton Matthews) and Sally (Mark Riccadonna) is all bluster. Likewise, it's fine for Penny (Rochelle Mikulich), Paulie's sister, to return home--she reminds us how desperately Paulie wants to elevate his family, and how embarrassed he is by his inability to make the big leagues. But she brings baggage with her: Olga (Selene Beretta), the love of her life. Two other characters also appear, Stevie (Nick Lawson) and Larry (Patrick McDaniel), worth mentioning less for their contribution to the plot--though Larry also exhibits the charm of a man trying to make good--than for their actors, who deliver dead-on performances.

As a drama, the play feels too packed, and as a comedy, the show isn't farcical enough (i.e., there aren't enough doors) to fit it all in. The result is hilarious, yes, but also diffuse and dizzying, a strong-arming sort of comedy. However, Happy in the Poorhouse also winds up feeling wholly unique: Ahonen mixes so many bright character colors that each scene literally leaps off the page. His writing is fearless, and his cast--particularly his core actors--are, too. As a team, they keep the show from flying off the rails, muscling the wackiest of lines down to the mat of reality; "If you don't follow your dreams, Penny, you get eaten by sharks" is one of the most heartfelt lines of the evening.

It's Odets and Williams Gone Wild, and the deep-down sincerity of it all is what saves it: "My whole existence would be one unjoyfulled nothing without Mary. I got a shit job, a thousands and one bills that my brother in law has to help me to pay, a kid sister who ran far away from me the first chance she got, and a broken-down dream that I gotta defibrillate all throughout the day to keep it from dying." From Pilieci's sexual sight-gags to Mikulich's mouse-squeaking innocence to Lemp's anguished libido to Kautz's confident shyness, the whole thing feels real and, at the end of the day, is most certainly Happy in the Poorhouse.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Craven Monkey and the Mountain of Fury

Don't let the title fool you: Craven Monkey and the Mountain of Fury is filled with brave performances that will leave you feeling glad you went out to the theater. Jeff Lewonczyk, who writes, directs, and narrates, knows exactly what he wants, using trickster mythology and martial arts to explain evolution. He's also once again brought in Qui Nguyen (and Adam Swiderski), a like-minded pro from Vampire Cowboys whose fight choreography makes many of the jazzier segments pop like Sonya Tayeh's arsenal on So You Think You Can Dance. Lewoncyzk keeps the focus on our simian heroes by keeping the comic narration off-stage ("It towered above him, as only mountains can"), and the result is the sort of all-action show that's a blast from start to finish.

This storytelling choice works perfectly for Craven Monkey, because its heroes are as uncomplicated as it gets: they spend each day having sex. Craven Monkey (Adrian Jevicki) has a back problem, though, so when he finds himself teased for not being able to perform--especially since it's with the Lady Monkey (Jessi Gotta) he so adores--he flips her over and invents the missionary position. Ironically, while the other monkeys see, what they actually do is run him out of the village, where a fuming Craven Monkey decides (after observing a dung beetle) that he's going crush his rivals by rolling the giant boulder atop a nearby mountain over them. Little does he know that the Lady Gaga-looking Vital Spirit (Hope Cartelli) lives there, nor that he'll have to overcome her elemental minions to get there. Nor does he understand the strange banana-wielding Sensei (Art Wallace) and his seemingly senseless instructions to oppose his thumbs.

Because the characters never speak, there are many fine moments where we're as playfully in the dark as they are, led on only by the purity of movement. The cast is quite expressive, particularly Gotti and Becky Byers who plays a rival monkey continually trying to wriggle between the Lady Monkey and the men trying to nail her. Such clear motivations, tactic shifts, and frustrations are a delight to see on stage, and there's even less subtext to be puzzled out from a fist to the face. The musical selections set the stakes for each showdown, and Julianne Kroboth's terrific costumes help to accent each character's role and their general position. The Earth Minion (Fred Backus) is a skeletal bull; the Water Minion (Mateo Moreno) is a multi-tentacled monster on moon springs; the Fire Minion (Melissa Roth) is a fiercely skin-tight creature, flinging out red ribbons; and the Air Minion (Byers) is a spry, needling creature, propelled through the air like a bunraku puppet by two black-clad assistants.

As with the best kind of action theater, Lewonczyk and company continue to increase the stakes with each battle, keeping us entertained and--more importantly--invested. The momentum never flags, and even the romantic parts, in which Craven Monkey teaches Lady Monkey to walk, are exciting to watch, filled with a scrappy, balletic magic. The sheer ambition is more than enough to overcome the occasional lapses in technical prowess; besides, the fights are hardly supposed to be realistic. By the end of the night, Craven Monkey and the Mountain of Fury has not only scaled the mountain, it has carved its name into it.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Girls in Trouble

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Hutch (Andy Gershenzon) and Teddy (Brett Aresco), two college cats from the '60s are speeding through the night. Hutch, a spoiled but connected rich kid, is regaling his nerdy friend with tales of his many conquests, and imparts the following advice about getting from first to second base: " if it were all part of one graceful, completely unexceptional movement so she won't be alarmed, onto her breast. Nothing at all dramatic. You kill it if it's all neon and 'Breast! Breast!'" And that's how Jonathan Reynold's Girls in Trouble starts, waiting a full fifteen minutes before springing Barb (Betsy Lippitt) and her impending abortion from the backseat. Arrogant before, Hutch is now fully callous and on his way to outright villainy, especially as he convinces her to go through with it by all but raping her. He's trouble, all right, and though we sympathize, her inevitable complication is a little too pat--as is the majority of Girls in Trouble. What often starts out graceful almost always turns to "Abortion! Abortion!," for Reynolds is less interested in exploring character than in exploiting circumstances.

To Reynold's credit, he gives both sides a fair run for their money, despite coming from a conservative standpoint. In his world, it's not that abortion is flat-out wrong, so much as it is that the women in this play are getting abortions for what some might call the wrong reasons. (No matter how pro-choice you are, it's hard to say that it's the right choice if you agree that it's murder but don't care.) And these moments, which are rarely seen on stage, are the more surprising and interesting ones. The second act jumps to the 80s, and revolves around a spoken-word monologue from Sunny (Eboni Booth): "I just a po' little ghetto girl nigger born and bred," is how she describes herself, though she transforms as she speaks of her lover, Danny: "Well, lots say that, 'You special,' and I know they after these bubbles, but you, Danny, you say, 'Sunny, you special to me.'" We think we know where things are going when the upward aspiring Danny abandons her (her street-talk embarrasses him), but no. Instead, she brags of alimony ("You gonna pay for not lovin' me"). It's not until Danny re-enters her life, until she sees how much he loves their soon-to-be-child, that she decides to get an abortion: "I'm gonna take this thing you say you love most and show you where the power at now." Booth's performance is both carefully considered and emotionally fraught, and that's what makes the tale so affecting: you love and hate her all at once.

This is what makes the third act so frustrating. Though this modern section starts in the middle of the action, Amanda (Laurel Holland) and Cynthia (Booth) keep interrupting the action to explain it to us. In addition, it makes Reynolds a sloppy writer: because he's got a liberal vegan chef on one side and a conservative guerrilla anti-abortionist, he can say whatever he wants without having to justify it. They're spokespersons for rejoinders like these: "A conservative is a liberal who's been mugged." "Yes, and a liberal is a conservative who's had an orgasm." The frustrating part is that Cynthia is a unique character--serenely menacing, even when she strips completely, both to unnerve Amanda and to prove that she's unarmed. Though this Cynthia turns out to be the grown-up version of Sunny (she didn't have that abortion), who was in fact Cindy, the daughter of the abortionist visited by Hutch, Teddy, and Barb, we're missing the crucial (and convincing) bit of how she got from A to B to C. Furthermore, because their motives are clearly spoken to the audience, we're never shaken up, even when things are supposed to get uncomfortable at the end.

Free speech, according to Reynolds, is "the right of every American to scare the shit out of every other American," but he's so free--so loose--that we tune out, especially when one starts to quote Freakonomics and the other tries anthropomorphizing with a pair of ptarmigans. Then again, the show runs so smoothly--especially under Jim Simpson's direction--that it does occasionally catch you off-guard, which is the biggest complement one can give a hot-button show, one for which audiences are likely to already be pretty firmly entrenched. In other words, the more the third act turns into an episode of Jerry Springer ("I'm trying to save your daughter's life!" "I'm trying to save my life!"), the more a basic fact--there are millions of people dying to adopt--comes across as profound. Girls in Trouble may be exploitative, but it's at least interesting.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Prescription Strength Theater

"Can you believe the nerve of this guy?" says Susan, talking (to the employee she has just fired) about her "absurdly long" (read: one hour) wait for the doctor. The good and bad of Prescription Strength Theater, a double-bill of short plays from 3Graces Theater, is that we can believe the nerve. We can laugh about it, too, but Sharyn Rothstein nor Patrick Link are too comfortable to properly take on healthcare: they mock it, but they don't rage about it. However, though the shows are just enjoyably straightforward, they're happily far from being anemic.

So, back to Susan (Chelsea Silverman), the hero-by-default of Rothstein's play, Susan's Medical Blog. Dr. Jim Darvish (Sean Modica) has finally arrived, and he's a tongue-depressor-in-cheek sort of guy: "I'm a doctor, we don't really do sorrow." He's not such a bad guy; he's just riled up by his premiums ("I could've been a valve in the anus guy, they're raking it in now!"). And after dealing with Susan, he's all the more on edge: despite (or perhaps because of) being in charge of a major pharmaceutical company's advertising, she uses the Internet to self-diagnose her symptoms, blogging in that self-centeredly selfless way, about the whole thing. However, what at first appears to be a fed-up doctor's revenge--he makes up a life-threatening ailment for her--is taken so seriously by Rothstein that it becomes fact, with Susan's eager, sex-selling assistant Lucy (Julie Leedes) showing up to help convince her to be a guinea pig. ("It's new, it's very expensive, we're not entirely sure what it does.") The dialogue bounces too-smoothly along, and as satire goes, it lacks bite.

Link's The Benefits of Elsewhere, on the other hand, has the benefit of being a more straightforward drama. It's less witty, but it also comes across as less forced, and though it's filled with the jaded proselytizing of Linda (Suzanne Barbetta), an ex-nurse-turned-ex-health-insurance-claims-adjuster, Link's remains on-topic as he asserts that "Life is not about benefits"--it's about life. Abigail Zealey Bess's staging enforces this from the get-go, with Gwen (Georgia Southern), wedged between the desks of her manager, Bev (Kelli Lynn Harrison), and Linda, who she is replacing. "There's death and taxes," as one puts it, "and between that, there's us," and it works well to show these middle-men, these corporate vultures, roosting in their tiny office. At the same time, Ms. Harrison gives a very fair portrayal of Bev--though she's callously dispensing life and death in those little folders of hers, she's at worst a "9 to 5" villain, and more representative of American culture than we'd like to admit.

This may be Prescription Strength Theater, but what these two placid plays really teach us about theater and health care, it's that more aggressive treatments are called for. Next time, bring on the electric shocks.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Miracle Worker

Photo/Sara Krulwich

In a cruelly ironic jab to Circle in the Square's theater-in-the-round production of The Miracle Worker, many of the audience members will, at one point or another, be entirely blind to what's happening on stage. Thankfully, William Gibson's script--which has aged surprisingly well--is far from deafening, and is neatly delivered by a talented cast.

The tear-jerking plot, as you've surely seen (or seen parodied) before, is based on the true story of the attempts of twenty-year-old Annie Sullivan (Alison Pill) to teach the blind and deaf Helen Keller (Abigail Breslin) to understand words. Along the way, she must deal with Keller's coddling mother (Jennifer Morrison), strict yet spoiling father (Matthew Modine), as well as with her own youth and inexperience. Of these four main characters, Morrison has the least the work with; that she still finds a way to show a heartfelt resolve beneath those manners is a sign of how well Kate Whoriskey works with her actors. (In other words, anyone would struggle to stage The Miracle Worker in the round: a play built around still, quiet, and tentative moments has few opportunities to cheat out.)

In any case, The Miracle Worker leaves little room for directorial "meddling," and the production is very smoothly and straightforwardly done, so as to leave the emphasis on the story itself. Derek McLane's set slides up as easily from the floor as it glides down from the sky, and Kenneth Posner's lighting neatly focuses the action during Sullivan's nightmares of childhood (even when her back is to the audience). It's all so functional, in fact, that we forget the old-timey bits (the social status of the 1880s) and focus entirely on the bravura performances from Breslin and Pill.

It's no surprise to find Pill entirely capable of playing this strong woman--her rigorous convictions were cemented in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, her determination in Mauritus, and her fiery doubts in Reasons To Be Pretty: she's been engineered to crisply say things like, "You think I'm so easily gotten rid of? I have nothing else to do." Her steeliness is abetted by those killer shades of her (the ones for her own ocular conditions): "The room's a wreck, but her napkin is folded," she says, staring down an increasingly flustered Modine. It's a delight to find her matched by Breslin, who has the near-impossible role of playing a wild child without sinking to cheap melodrama. Though she has no vocabulary, she is filled with an expressive language, a wide range of frustrated emotions. When she fights with Sullivan, unwilling to use a spoon, there is a moment when she realizes how useful the spoon can be--her face lights up--and then quickly hides that, and, rebelliously determined not to give in, she flings it to the ground again. These action-packed moments bring out the best of the cast and the director, even if the nuance is unfortunately always lost on a quarter of the audience.

The real miracle of The Miracle Worker is that, despite being entirely predictable, it is still filled with the desperate hopes that make for engaging drama. Though many of the scenes between Keller and Sullivan are based on the same spelled-out repetitions ("It has a name"), neither actress is at a loss for finding new tactics or deeper motivations. When Sullivan pushes to take Keller away from her family and the crippling nature of pity, Captain Keller rebukes her: "This is hardly a war." But Sullivan (and Whoriskey) know better: "Well, it's not love. A siege is a siege." By keeping such high stakes and refusing to indulge in platitudes, the production remains dramatically sound, even when the staging slips.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Legs and All

When is a box not a box? The moment you decide it's not. Problem is, while it was easy to imagine our way into other worlds as a child, at some point, we outgrew our refrigerator-box spaceships and saw only the utility of a packaging crate. So it's a pleasure to report that Legs and All, a comedic bit of imagineering by Summer Shapiro and Peter Musante, is rooted in the pleasures of the past, and successfully spreads the joy of whimsy throughout the theater, much as the clowns Bill Irwin and David Shiner did way back in 1993's Fool Moon (or, more recently, like Lorenzo Pisioni in his autobiographical Humor Abuse). The result is black-box theater at its finest, for the exquisite physical comedy from this pair refuses to acknowledge their set as a black box--even the actual box they use becomes so much more.

Subtitled "a magical look at the mundane," Legs and All begins with a firm fusing of the two. A recorded voice speaks in a sort of French gibberish language as our clownish heroes pop up and spin around within the confines of a tiny box, summoning up the elasticity of The Triplets of Belleville (particularly in their connection to Brandi Brandes's music). Then, as they freeze, Rico Rosseti's lights cleverly shift from angle to angle, showing off all the different angles and dimensions available to the show. Rules are simultaneously being established and broken, and as the lights dim on the prelude, the audience is filled with an eager anticipation for the "anything" that may follow.

At first, the two are solo performers: Musante attempts to steal a bright orange ball that has been left unattended, drawing more and more attention to his incredibly precise attempts to be subtle, and Shapiro, lurking within the box, seems to be two discrete entities--her ravenous head, which slowly pounces on unsuspecting crackers, and her spidery hands, which keep catching her by surprise. There is a pleasure taken in every moment, every gesture, and the two are expertly trained enough to sincerely broadcast their intents in the slightest of facial twitches, so much so that when a cracker falls on the floor, Shapiro's eyes flicker from sadness to anger to resolve all in a few seconds, and all without a scrap of dialogue. Surprising, too: Shaprio cannot simply reach down to grab the cracker--having established that these are to be picked up with her mouth, she winds up in a hand-stand atop the box, slowly lowering herself face-first toward the food.

These moments are enrapturing; if they're later exposed as bagatelles, it is only on account of how much higher the two elevate their craft in the ensuing scenes, in which Musante--attracted to the fey Shaprio--is sucked through the box and into her world. Now dimensions really do shift: first, just the box (which is now, upside-down, a table), then the actors themselves, contorting their bodies so as to make the side of the box appear to be the top of it. It's here, too, that the mundane becomes magical: napkins dirty one's face instead of cleaning it, and objects stick in mid-air.

All of this leads to the climactic final act, in which Shapiro follows Musante back out of the box and into the "real" world--tentatively, at first, afraid to step on the ground, then exuberantly, with the two whooping in increasingly higher pitches about how everything's OK. There's the downbeat, as shyness and insecurity sets in, but also the happy ending, with the two reminding us that everything is simply a matter of perspective, imagination, and the combination of the two: perspicacity. Legs and All is the sort of show that leads one to gush, a relentlessly charming, overwhelmingly beautiful piece of art.

Monday, March 01, 2010

metaDRAMA: That Which Shall Not Be Named

Okay, I lied. The name of the worst play that I have ever seen, currently running at the Frigid Festival, is Uncorseted. Masochists, get your tickets now.

There's nothing constructive I can say about the show; I mention it by name to make a larger point: the theater community has a responsibility to ensure that work like this is not supported. Something this doddery and self-indulgent is likely to convince audience members not only to avoid future work by DC's Shark Tank Players, but to avoid the other offerings from the Frigid Festival, and by association, Horse Trade. And that would be a mistake, because Frigid's mounted great shows (like this year's Legs and All, or, two years ago, the Great Hymn of Thanksgiving), and Horse Trade's been a great home for consistent work like The Pumpkin Pie Show.

When I started covering the downtown scene four years ago (mainly because there was so little coverage of it), the big question was "Why don't audiences come out?" That question is still being asked, and the answer still boils down to the same thing: publicity. Either they don't know about it (and with young, unestablished companies and playwrights, how could they?), or they do know about it (read: there is such a thing as bad press). So far as the former goes, that's what I hope to do here: covering the shows that you may not have heard of. But so far as the latter goes, that's on the  community.

And I get it. I've been there--you want to work with people in the future, or you're friends with them, so you come to their show, and you say good things about it. But there's a price for that dishonesty: audiences who have their respect for theater eroded because it's not "real" enough. Or audiences who attended a show because of misleading marketing, and are chary about genuine offers in the future. It's the worst sort of Pyrrhic victory, because the company that "wins" by knowingly putting up a poor show is burning a lot of bridges for other struggling companies. Note: I'm not saying that you can't put up a sub-par show, but you should be honest about it--perhaps don't hire a publicist, and invite only the friends who will love you anyway. Or target audiences who enjoy seeing bad work: they are out there. I'm also not saying that every show needs to be a masterpiece (we often learn by trying and failing): I'm saying that there needs to be a bottom line.

Anyway, I don't mean to go on and on--I'd just like to see better curated festivals and some higher standards among those I generally trust. Because I honestly have no idea how such an ill-prepared company, one that genuinely seemed uncomfortable even to be on stage, manages to mount a show at all, if not for the good-will and support of their friends.