Monday, January 30, 2012

THEATER: Advance Man

Photo/Deborah Alexander
Given that it recently closed after a brief run at the out-of-the-way, yet extremely charming, Secret Theater, you probably missed Mac Rogers's Advance Man. And ironically, though this review will ultimately recommend the show, it's probably for the best. You see, as the first part of "The Honeycomb Trilogy" trilogy (Parts II and III are due in early April and mid-June), Advance Man is stuck doing all of the groundwork for what promise to be more dynamic successors.

Even the plot is literally mired in gearing up for the future: Bill (Sean Williams) was the first man to walk on Mars three years ago, but quit being an astronaut so that he and his surviving crewmates -- bad boy Raf (Abraham Makany), good girl Belinda (Rebecca Comtois), and logical Valerie (Shaun Bennet Wilson) -- could better prepare their families for what they found there. The secrecy leads to some tension between Bill, his wife, Amelia (Kristen Vaughan), and his children: the artistic and soft son, Abbie (David Rosenblatt), and the tough and intelligent daughter, Ronnie (Becky Byers), especially after the interference of a private investigator (Amanda Duarte) forces them to accelerate their plans. There's also -- with some shades of the little-seen film The Astronaut's Wife -- the matter of what exactly happened to the once-vivacious Conor (Jason Howard), another member of Bill's crew, who has been so traumatized by the Mars voyage that he now lives with Bill, haltingly and hauntingly standing in his favorite corner, a bundle of nerves with a vocabulary of twenty or so words. (Shades of the little-seen film The Astronaut's Wife.)

It's a lot to digest, which is why it's for the best that most of the awkward "drama" that Rogers has cooked up to flavor this dry yet semi-necessary exposition seems fully out of the way by the end of Advance Man, paving the way for what seem like far more promising sequels. Sensitive Abbie won't have to spend all his time drawing pictures of aliens anymore, and rebellious Ronnie (the hero of this play, thanks especially to Byers's fiery presence) will hopefully find someone more suitable to snog than the creepy Raf. Nobody will have to justify themselves to Kip (Brian Silliman), a rich and literally star-struck investor in Bill's "environmental" development. Amelia will now have a genuine reason for conflict with her husband -- not just her fears of an affair (which she, admittedly, plays to the hilt). And most importantly, Conor, sidelined for so much of the play -- although in a way that still shows Jason Howard's terrific physical control (as in Rogers's last foray into science fiction, Universal Robots) -- may have the opportunity to take a more central role. Even if Rogers chooses to jump generations into the future, scrapping the characters he has only now honed, he'll at least be out of the slow, swampy mires of his Florida setting, and credibility won't be such a sticking point. (Unlikely as these particular astronauts are, their ability to smuggle samples out of NASA -- let alone to form a business using classified information -- is what's truly unbelievable.)

"The Honeycomb Trilogy" is ambitious, and perhaps Advance Man too often gets ahead of itself, but in response to its preparatory mantra -- "Are you ready for the future?" -- I find myself as excited for the uncertainty of what's to come as I am unaffected by the predictability of what's already happened.

Monday, January 16, 2012


Photo/Heiko Kalmbach
Presented by The Carol Tambor Theatrical Foundation as "The Best of Edinburgh Festival"

The wonderful thing about YouTube videos is that they tend to be short. They can present some innovative and creative concepts and then wander off while you're still marveling at the technique. Leo, on the other hand, is a sixty-minute play that doesn't overstay its welcome but ends up losing much of its charm. This solo, wordless bit of clowning revolves around one concept, and once it's exploited that, the play becomes a work of diminishing returns. Cool, but incomplete, particularly compared to some of other recent festival gems, like Paper Cut, Legs and All, or Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer

Don't get me wrong, though: for a scattered twenty minutes here and there, Leo will positively delight and flip your world upside down -- or more literally, flip it ninety degrees. To the right of the theater, a man lies on the blue floor and leans his legs against the red wall; curiously, a lightbulb juts out from the left wall. On the left side, however, we see a projection of the same thing . . . only now, the man is leaning against a blue wall, with his legs on the red floor; the lightbulb now hangs properly from the ceiling. Using his physical strength, Tobias Wegner continues to sell the projected illusion; after a while, he begins to "cheat," dancing to Juan Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola's choreography in a way that has him hurtling through the "air." Save for a reptitious middle, Daniel Briere's direction keeps building upon the concept, particularly as Wegner begins to chalk out a room of his own (along with a little help from animator Ingo Panke). Thanks to all the tricks, Wegner is literally able to pull himself up by his own bootstraps. 

And yet, without a story, Leo feels much like a tech demo for Heiko Kalmbach's video design (there are some nifty ghosting effects that blur the future and past) and an audition piece for Wegner (perhaps for Cirque?). You should still definitely see this production -- the whimsy alone is worth the price of admission -- but just know that what falls up still eventually goes down.

THEATER: Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and The Farewell Speech

Photo/Julie Lemberger
Presented by the Chelfitsch Theater Company as a co-production of the Japan Society and Under the Radar Festival.

I first encountered the work of Toshiki Okada in the Play Company's 2010 production of Enjoy; the result, deftly translated down to the last tic by Aya Ogawa and finely directed by Dan Rothenberg, was a powerful and universal study of the lost twentysomething generation. This revival of his less mature and more stylized Air Conditioner, now part of a loosely connected triptych along with Hot Pepper and The Farewell Speech, which Okada directs (with English subtitles provided by Ogawa), comes across as a more indulgent affair. The plays are not without their power -- they're timely and perfect in capturing the helplessness of temps -- but their emphatic choreography overwhelms any sense of these being actual, empathetic characters: it's as if Pinter's pregnant pauses, Beckett's dry and hopeless repetitions, and Brecht's pointed alienation have all collided to much diminished effect.

For instance: one ends up asking why the Man in Air Conditioner is the only character to introduce his scene directly to the audience, rather than questioning the significance of his anecdote (how politicians tend to talk over people) and how it relates to his own casually brutal dismissals of the Woman who is increasingly flirty as she describes the frigidity of the office's air. It's not that there isn't a valid point being made by the three temps in Hot Pepper, who have been tasked with organizing the farewell party for their co-worker, Erika, so much as it is that the way this reflects upon their own eventual firings is overshadowed by their (I want to say Kabuki-like) overwrought movements. Congratulations: you've externalized their internal insecurities . . . then again, there's a reason they're usually internalized. Moreover, we don't really need three twenty minute plays illustrating the same thing; I was personally exhausted by the time The Farewell Speech -- a powerhouse monologue -- began.

This program claims that the pieces represent "the tension or gap between . . . gestures as acting . . . and physical movements that transpire in response to the background music." On some level, I can agree, in the sense that the text/choreography matches the jazz in its scatting, improvisational qualities. But it's meaningless  to the majority of American audiences: their concentration will be too divided between the subtitles and the actors to pick up on much else . . . assuming it's even there.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Photo/Julie Lemberger
The Bee is a co-production of the Japan Society and the Under the Radar Festival.

Mr. Ido (Kathryn Hunter) arrives home one day to find that his family has been taken hostage by an escaped murderer, Ogoro (Glyn Pritchard), whose only demand is that he be allowed to talk to his family. When the doddering detective Dodoyama (Clive Mendus) proves to be of no assistance, he tracks down Ogoro's wife (Hideki Noda) and son, and takes them hostage, refusing to let them go until his own family is released. What follows in The Bee is both a mad and MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) dance, with the ridiculousness of violence on full display as Ido and Ogoro prove, as most humans will, that they are more similar than different. Further amplifying the effect is Miriam Buether's set, a non-judgmental glass house and its starkly mirrored walls, along with Hideki Noda's antic direction. (In addition to starring, Noda also co-wrote the show with Colin Teevan, based on a story by Yasutaka Tsutsui).

For the first half of the show, language and meaning are on trial, as the media and detectives provide their particular brands of illogic. The reporters insist that "People don't want reason, they want drama." As for the detectives, they are immature and sexist, and Dodoyama is a bureaucrat, through and through. He can only do the right thing if he's threatened, because a threat -- which is the wrong thing -- allows him to skirt his regular protocols, which are to do nothing. Double-talk, as you'd expect, comes up a lot:
DODYAMA: We shall resolve the situation before anyone is mailed or killed.
IDO: Maimed or killed?
DODOYAMA: Don't twist my words.
 IDO: But you said maimed or killed.
DODOYAMA: I'm saying not to worry.
IDO: But you said maimed or killed.
DODOYAMA: I'm saying it won't come to that. Most probably.
By the more stylized second half, actions themselves are what come under the microscope. Ido and Ogoro are literally mirrored in several sequences, and what follows is a series of escalating and devolving cycles in which Ido proves his seriousness by mailing the fingers of Ogoro's son and wife to Ogoro, just as Ogoro does the same to Ido, until a point is reached at which Ido is, for all intents and purposes, cutting off his own son's fingers. And this routine, not so different from that of a ruthless salaryman, when you get right down to it, leads Ido to realize that he's not at all uncomfortable raping another man's wife -- in fact (and in verse!): "It only adds to my thrill, the thought that my own wife is, at this same time, most probably, being raped by Ogoro, against her will." The denouement is even more macabre: after running out of fingers, Ido steels himself to begin cutting off his own.

However, while the first half of The Bee coasts on wordplay, chaotic energy, and the absurdity of the premise, the second half, which is largely performed through devolving actions, makes its point so immediately that it's a bit tiresome to then sit through to the bitter end. Adding to this complication is the symmetry-breaking metaphor of a bee, which is trapped in the house with Ido, and which Ido fears above all else, as well as Ogoro's wife's inexplicable choice to remain a victim, though she has ample opportunity to escape and defend herself. It's one thing for her to be thrilled by this masculine stranger, for this stripper to not have to think for herself; it's another to allow Ido to kill her and her son. These psychological conditions exist, but because they're unexplored here, they distract from the central theme. (And we've already got the gender-swapping to distract us.) In other words, The Bee floats for so long that at times it fails to sting.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

THEATER: Outside People

Photo/Carol Rosegg
The well-meaning American is alive and kicking in Zayd Dohrn's Outside People, in which Malcolm (Matt Dellapina), the would-be vegan/Communist from Williamsburg, Brooklyn (who nonetheless boats a Stanford education), travels to Beijing, China, to visit (and potentially work for) his old college roommate, David (Nelson Lee), only to hook up with a local, Xiao Mei (Li Jun Li), whom he both wants to save and be saved by. His awkwardness isn't limited only by his feeble attempts to speak Mandarin, but also by his heightened self-awareness, which leads to a cringingly funny hotel-room encounter in which Malcolm is determined to confess to a half-dressed Mei that it's possible he might give her herpes. He's even further out of water in comparison to the bright, highly assertive, and quadrilingual Samanya (Sonequa Martin-Green), David's extremely well-rounded (in every sense) African girlfriend. 

The question isn't whether or not Malcolm will fall in love with Mei, nor is it about whether he loves him or his passport: it's whether his sense of guilt will allow him to walk away with the girl, and the greatest strength going for Outside People is Dohrn's refusal to translate the complex emotions of love into black-and-white text. In fact, the play's strongest scene involves no English whatsoever -- no translations, either, although director Evan Cabnet's physical choices and tonal direction help one to follow along. In this scene, David drunkenly confronts Xiao Mei, either accusing her of manipulating his friend, or threatening her (as her superior -- class is the skirted-around centerpiece of this play). I can tell you that even with the script's translations in hand, it's impossible to tell how Mei really feels about Malcolm: like the term "shui bi," which is either an unspeakably impolite phrase or the way one says Sprite in Chinese, it's a matter of how one interprets the tone. 

Malcolm's the worst sort of romantic (and I have some experience in this regard): he's the Xanax-popping, ultra-shy, unbelieving type, who literally cannot believe his own good fortune (to a fault). And while he's perhaps right to be suspicious of the job David's provided him with -- a do-nothing, high-paying role in which his whiteness is being exploited to provide the company with "face" -- it's absolutely toxic to the relationship he claims to want with Mei: "I don't want [to know] the best part. I want all of it. Everything." But one man's foul is another man's gold, and for Dohrn, Malcolm's tics and inhibitions make for a oil well of winning dialogue. Moreover, they reflect well on the entire cast, with Lee indomitably chewing through his scenes, Martin-Green providing the sharp, intellectual banter we expect of a play like this, and Li serving quietly serving her heart on a platter. 

You can tell Outside People is a fully conceived work from its natural flow and complex actions, but moreover, from the way that it allows all four characters -- not just the star-crossed lovers -- to, at times, be the titular outsiders, trapped with the fear of never fully being known or recognized, of never having a home. But most importantly, you can tell Outside People is a good play because you'll still be arguing about it on the inside, too. 

metaDRAMA: Not the YMCA, but the DMCA?

Does anybody out there understand the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act)? I recently had a review of a show that I covered back in 2010 taken down off this site because it had in some way violated it (the DMCA), and I feel as if I've received no notice on how to actually go about rectifying my error -- if there was in fact one -- so that I might go ahead and re-post the (highly positive) review.

I've written before about my dislike of copyright acts in general, but now that I've had direct exposure to them as an independent writer who is outside of the mass media and therefore has no access to legal counsel or anything more than the flimsy and unhelpful FAQs and links provided upon receiving such a notice, I think I dislike them even more. I'm all in favor of checking piracy and preventing others from profiting directly from another person's work, but this is a site that runs no advertisements, makes no money, and, at worst, quotes only a few lines from a play -- and generally one in which I've been asked to review, as press. However, when we reach a point at which the organisms we set up to protect ourselves begin to encroach upon other people's speech, when these systems shut down the discussions they were originally established to protect, then we're at an issue.

I guess above all, I'm frustrated with how impersonal it all is. If I've made inaccurate statements in a review, playwrights, publicists, actors, directors, and even audience members are more than welcome to respond in comments or via e-mail, and I'm always willing to post an update or correction. Likewise, if photographers or playwrights think I've in some way misused their material, I'm more than willing to take something off the site if they simply contact me. The idea that you'd need to go to a third-party, to legally threaten and intimidate through a document which, mind you, I haven't even been able to see (since it goes directly to Google, I assume)  . . . well, that just seems silly.

If anybody else is out there in a similar situation, or has found themselves treading this water in the past, I'd appreciate any information you can pass along. Mind you -- I'm not in any actual trouble; as I said, the post has been automatically removed from the site, and I'm entitled to repost it if I remove the offending sections (never mind that I haven't been told what those are). This is more about the principle of thing; what happens if more of my reviews are suddenly and inexplicably taken down? What happens if this post is removed? We take our ability to blog and upload to the web as a given these days, especially me, as I've been doing this for seven years now, so I guess I'd just like a little more information.


Sunday, January 08, 2012

THEATER: How the World Began

Photo/Carol Rosegg
How the World Began is a frustrating play, both intentionally and unintentionally so. The central premise, quickly revealed, is that Susan Pierce (Heidi Schreck), a teacher-in-training who has moved to a school still being rebuilt in tornado-afflicted Kansas, has inadvertently let some of her snarky East Coast habits sneak into her biology lectures. As one of her students, the bright and traumatized Micah Staab (Justin Kruger), points out, whether it's scientifically true or not, it's not right to imply that other theories of evolution are "gobbledy gook."

This is the intentionally frustrating part, for as the five-months-pregnant Susan admits to Micah's unofficial guardian, the easy-going and rationally religious Gene Dinkel (Adam LeFevre), she's both not good on the defensive and has no way to get through to someone with such ardent beliefs. What follows, with moments of tenderness interspersed within, is the unintentional part, for the result is an unambiguous ninety minutes of religious debate in which playwright Catherine Trieschmann's only real accomplishment is in giving each of the characters the moral high ground at one point or another. Her previous play with Women's Project, crooked, used original characters and circumstances to throw us off our own firm beliefs, but we've seen people like Susan, Micah, and Gene before.

Like the equally one-note Other Desert Cities, then, How the World Began struggles to rise above being a repetitious argument centered on a misunderstanding. No matter how well-written, how realistic, how witty, it boils down to a verbal standoff, and there's only so much the talented director Daniella Topol can do without something big actually happening on stage. (The escalations occur off-stage, and are only vaguely implied by, say, transitional lighting cues.) Schreck does a fine job selling us on her intensifying stress, especially after a gorilla-masked scarecrow is burnt on her lawn, but this also makes it seem as if she's the only character with anything at stake. And while Trieschmann implies that Micah's need for a public apology is grounded in his recent history -- his mother and step-father were killed in the same storm that destroyed the school -- she also holds back so much that it's difficult for Kruger to play the role as anything less than a cipher.

The final scene -- the final moment, actually -- hints at the better play How the World Began is capable of being, as Susan once again helps to sooth Micah's internal storm ("Just breathe...'til there's nothing left inside you but breath and heartbeat"). As the lights dim, on the two of them, she feels her baby kick. Micah reaches out to feel, only to have his hand slapped away: "Don't you dare." It's the first moment of real surprise, a play on the earlier suggestion that despite our beliefs, we're all human, and therefore all connected.