Wednesday, August 24, 2011

THEATER: Whale Song, or: Learning to Live with Mobyphobia

There are plenty of theater companies out there that produce plays about women who have lost their fathers: grief is a popular topic. But there are few that are willing to risk pursuing such a story from a different angle -- through, say, a whale-sized metaphor -- and it's a genuine pleasure to see Dreamscape Theatre (as they did for The Burning Cities Project) and artistic director Brad Raimondo behind the wheel of Claire Kiechel's Whale Song, or: Learning to Live with Mobyphobia. Maya (Hollis Witherspoon) reacts to the possible suicide of her father, James (Gavin Starr Kendall), by summoning a whale into the Hudson River; unable to confront it, she spends her days teaching her first-grade students all about the etymology of "orca" and the inevitability of death, and her nights sheltered in her apartment, listening to an increasingly surreal reporter (Rosie Sowa) who begins to address her directly.

The script's a bit unpolished, particularly with the inclusion of Shep, the "motherfucking" drummer (Jordan Douglas Smith), though that's to be expected, given that Maya hires him as a literal distraction. Maya's boyfriend, Mark (Ryan Feyk), also needs to be less of a pushover -- similar to the way Maya's sister, Sarah (Siri Hellerman), is the voice of reason; Witherspoon's a solid actress, but she's forced to self-generate much her angst. That said, Kiechel nails the ending, as we learn exactly why Maya hates whales so much -- it involves another death in the family -- and why she's so obsessed with stories and significance. In addition, Raimondo's direction is spot on, from the way Maya's thoughts are manifested in shipping boxes that gradually overflow throughout her apartment to the staging of the news segments, which is done behind Maya, so that it looks as if we are seeing her thoughts, rather than what's actually on TV. Credit's also due to Sam Kusnetz's sound design: given that the theme of the play is about finding meaning where you look for it, it helps to have some genuine whale songs echoing through the La MaMa space.

THEATER: Paper Cut

At one point, however long ago, you were a kid, and when you were, you probably spent some time playing with toys, making up intricate stories with which the various characters might interact. (If you were never a child, pick up Toy Story and see what you missed out on.) That's very much the sort of theater that Yael Rasooly's interested in making, a semi-solipsistic art that she calls "paper and object theater," a large part of which involves her manipulation of photographs, cut-out paper figures, pop-up books, and various other "flat" puppetry, all while providing the sort of exaggerated voice-over that was all the rage in black-and-white "classic" dramas. The paper-thin plot's beside the point -- Ms. Dolores is a stressed-out, solitary secretary who pines for her boss, even as he obliviously asks her to transcribe love letters to other women -- but it justifies Rasooly's flights of fantasy: creative homages to both over-the-top romances and, as her paranoia invades, Hitchcock. (In terms of inventiveness, it's a bit like a one-woman version of The 39 Steps.) Boiled down to its most simple elements, Paper Cut is a bit one-dimensional, but when she folds together a series of fast-paced accents and title cards to simulate a whirlwind honeymoon, or when she gamely attempt to sing through a bundle of quick-cut love songs (needle skips and all), one can only marvel at her theatrical origami.

Monday, August 22, 2011

THEATER: Catch Me If You Can

"Live in Living Color" boasts the opening number of Catch Me If You Can: The Broadway Musical, with Frank Abagnale, Jr., on the verge of being arrested at the Miami International Airport, convincing Agent Carl Hanratty of the FBI to let him tell his story to the audience. And yet, the show is dulled from the get-go by a by-the-numbers Sinatraesthetic style of playing it cool, which plays very much against the showier strengths of choreographer Jerry Mitchell (La Cage aux Folles, Hairspray) and the inventiveness of Jack O'Brien (The Coast of Utopia). The two are hard-pressed to do much of anything with David Rockwell's sliding bandstand of a set taking up most of the stage, and even playwright Terrence McNally seems limited, though it's hard to blame the source material, which Spielberg managed to make sparkle. The first sign of life doesn't come until halfway through the first act, with Hanratty's spastic (and Tony-winning, for Norbert Leo Butz) "Don't Break the Rules," which says a lot about the dangers of mounting a show that does nothing but follow the rules.

Catch Me If You Can is perfectly inoffensive: with neither the shock of The Book of Mormon nor the "awe" of Spider-man, there's nothing here you can't see elsewhere. Or perhaps it is offensive, in that it wastes the talents of Kerry Butler, who, as Frank's girlfriend, has but two songs in the second act, one of which ("Fly, Fly Away") gives Butz's heart-wrenching solo, "The Man Inside the Clues," a run for its money. Both actors play characters from the inside-out, an asthmatic cough and wobble in his step there, a fluttery prayer and resolute stomp from her there. Problematically, it's the total opposite of how Aaron Tveit and Tom Wopat (Abignales Jr. and Sr.) play their roles, which is entirely with a rocky, unflinching surface that puts all the work on their voice -- beautiful tenor and solid baritone, but as emotionally flat as the rest of the show. (To be fair, Tveit may be held back by the show: he nails his final song, "Good-Bye," in which reality catches up with his character -- the first time he's ever really tested.)

Perhaps the biggest flaw of the show is the structure, which insists on reminding the audience that it's a musical. When The Drowsy Chaperone breaks the fourth wall, it's to welcome you to a world of imagination; when Catch Me If You Can does, it's because it can't find any other way to frame the narrative. At least the former knew that it was an homage to classic archetypes and melodies; it's unclear what the latter thinks its doing when three members of the chorus sing a quick ditty while dressed up as Frank's trusty scissors, India ink, and glue. It's one thing to paint neon targets on the backs of some dancers so as to morph scenery into a song; it's another to trot out dancing girls in wreathes for "Christmas Is My Favorite Time of Year," or are not supposed to be taking any of this seriously?

They say that all criminals secretly long to be caught, so perhaps that's why Catch Me If You Can keeps daring the audience to notice how cheap and tacky it is. (Or is the two-dimensional "plane" that swings down in the background supposed to make Frank's forged Pan Am license seem more authentic by comparison?) If that's the case, consider this show a success . . . in that enough people have caught on to its mediocrity: the show closes September 4th.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

THEATER: Red Cloud Rising

Who is Charlotte Gaffney, and why is she trying to get me to work as an analyst for Bydder Financial? You pause for a moment, scratching your head, pouring over your e-mails, and then you remember: some time ago, you signed up for an interactive theater experience called Red Cloud Rising, which purports to be a friendlier, safer, communal version of that Michael Douglas film The Game: might this be it? So it is that you dress comfortably for your "job interview," heading down to the Financial District to meet the other potential inductees. Across a conference table from them (in my case: a reporter, Samantha; two friends, Wendy and Zahra; and an Australian tourist, Cristian), Ms. Gaffney gives you a little background on your new, potential employer -- which you'll want to pay close attention to, given that there's no director nor lighting cue to keep you focused -- before sending you on a "team-building" exercise designed to test your qualifications.

This is no mere scavenger hunt that has you searching graveyards, park benches, and laundromats, however: before long, you'll encounter a conspiracy theorist, Rene, who seeks to recruit you to another organization, Red Cloud, that wants to reveal the "truth" about bottom-line oriented corporations, the sort who manage to sell a country its own natural resources, or which makes its products with ever more cut-rate ingredients. No, under the watchful eye of creator Gyda Arber (who has been running the "You Are the Star" multimedia noir adventures that go by the Suspicious Package moniker), you'll spend the day receiving cryptic text messages and suspicious (and sometimes hard to hear) phone calls that provide you with just enough information to get you to the next location (or "scene").

As a work of pure theater, it's perhaps too diffracted -- there's a lot of walking and talking amongst yourselves, and there are a few technical difficulties that sometimes lead to confusion -- but so far as entertainment goes, it succeeds as an actual team-building event. It's a technologically updated version of Accomplice: New York, another theatrical walking-tour experience. The largest difference between them is that Red Cloud Rising is the more ambitiously plotted (and affordable), whereas Accomplice is slightly more engaging (and filling); both are well worth doing, though not on the same day. The real asset to Red Cloud Rising, however, and this speaks to Ms. Arber's experience as a director, is in the way it will transform the way in which you view its slice of the city -- which is ostensibly what theater's meant to do in the first place. This sort of site-specific engagement, which encourages Internet-based world-building outside of the show (which is already out of the theater), speaks to a very bright future of theater.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

THEATER: Brain Explode!

Photos/Kimberly Craven
"Ray Pinter has a problem," reads the mocked-up Infocom-esque box art to the live interactive-fiction hybrid Brain Explode! "In sixty minutes, his brain is going to explode." His problem is our present, for the show -- written by Stephen Aubrey, Danny Bowes, and Richard Lovejoy -- is a lovingly (and painstakingly) crafted homage to both games and theater, a genuinely immersive experience that's leagues ahead of Sneaky Snake's previous foray into this field. (In geek theater parlance, Brain Explode! is to Adventure Quest as the Wii is to the Nintendo Entertainment System. The original one.)

The "gimmick" -- though one hesitates to call it that, justified and critical as it is to the story -- is that after a Tron-like accident at a life-changing game-design conference, Ray (Stephen Heskett), finds himself trapped within his own game, and it's up to the audience to guide him to the exit . . . before the chip implanted in his head causes his brain to explode. But this isn't simple problem-solving: Ray's goal was to design a truly interactive work of fiction, in which you could ask the computer to do anything, without ever being limited by the phrase "I don't know what you mean" or "I can't do that."

The result, then, allows six volunteers to fool around with Ray's life as much as they'd like. For example, the evening I attended the show, the audience had spent nearly thirty minutes encouraging Ray to perform with greater than usual charisma, providing him with basic psychoanalysis, and referring to him as "Storm King," before finally figuring out how to open the locked door. Did they then instruct him to walk through said door? No, they did not. Instead, they threw object after object through the open door, much to Ray's increasingly snarky (and incredibly well ad-libbed) disapproval. (Most impressive is the way Heskett spent much of this scene with a blanket wrapped around his fist and a purse clutched in one arm -- because the audience had never countermanded their instructions for him to do so in the first place.) Such was the genius of the show, for while it had a clear structure -- and a literal countdown clock -- it refused to be bound simply to the scripted scenarios: it might point, push, and eventually prod the players in the right direction, but it wouldn't force anything to occur. Whatever happened, happened: Will Wright would be proud; there are even alternate endings (four in all) depending on the audience's progress (and morality).

The show skews toward comedy (as most semi-improvisational shows do), and in a nod to the necessities of plot, each of the three interactive scenes (represented as "puzzle rooms" from which our hero is attempting to escape) provides the audience with less and less freedom. (Ray begins in an open room, spends some time on a closed boat, and is then chained to a table.) And yet, the creativity of these three writers, and the confidence of their director, Paige Blansfield, is such that you'd never notice it in the moment: the two hours of Brain Explode! (there are some untimed scenes) fly by faster than a marathon session of, say, Plants vs. Zombies. The difference here, of course, is that Brain Explode! does more than distract you as it introduces new elements of "gameplay" (theaterplay?): it aims to teach us, through Ray, about ourselves: Jesse Wilson shows up as all the male figures in Ray's life (distant father, deceased brother, former best friend) and Megan Melnyk plays Ray's hyperactive mother and steadfast yet steely girlfriend. (To say nothing of the puppets and robots designed by Jim Hammer and Marc Borders.) Winning involves more than solving puzzles; it requires empathy.

Special above-and-beyond credit also goes to Sneaky Snake for their dramaturgic commitment: the program's worth saving, from the retro design to the five-page "excerpt" from an 1987 Computing World article about Pinter, a gem that discusses both the failed interactive fiction adaptation of James Joyce's Ulysses and provides an example of Pinter's successful first game, Perilton, which was known for its elaborate death sequences: "You are stabbed by the bear and the samurai. Repeatedly. They seem to be intentionally avoiding vital organs...," begins one, before relating the long chain of events in which your near-dead body is possessed by a ghost which flings you onto sharp rocks in the ocean from which a shark devours you before being caught up in a hurricane and being subsequently used as target practice by a fireball-casting wizard. If that fails to convince you of the incredible love put into Brain Explode!, then you might as well shut down your heart right now; as for me, I'll be standing in a room with exits to the north, south, and southwest, waiting patiently, desperately, for this show to be remounted.