Tuesday, May 29, 2012

THEATER: Judge Me Paris

Photo/Corey Tatarczuk

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can send Company XIV's way is that this exciting, dance-fusion troupe (under the expert leadership of Austin McCormick) continues to evolve with each new show. Though their latest, Judge Me Paris returns to the well of their 2009 Judgment of Paris, it now does so with the operatic sensibilities that were honed in 2009's Snow White and 2010's Le Cirque Ferrique (indeed, Brett Umlauf and Amber Youell are back as Pallas and Juno), with the classy eroticism mastered in 2010's near-perfect Nutcracker Rouge, and the stunning live cinematography that was utilized in 2011's Lover.Muse.Mockingbird.Whore. (There's live music, too, from the lingerie-and-wigs-clad members of SIREN Baroque: Antonia Nelson, Claire Smith, Kelly Savage, and Anneke Schaul-Yoder.)

Jeff Takacs, who often writes and narrates these shows, has developed a richly caustic tone, and his movement has grown ever more lithe, allowing him to do more with less. The same applies to Zane Pihlstrom's clever set design, which opens up the space (the dressing rooms are a visible part of the show) and then proceeds to frame the stage itself in neon-colored LEDs; likewise, Olivera Gajic's distressed corsets, polished leathers, and rich, flowing fabrics are always welcome.

And while I don't profess to be an expert at dance, the ensemble appears more than capable of the varied styles, from the baroque twirls of "Turn to Me" to the cool, slow, and inevitable temptations of Juno (if Venus in Fur were danced, this would be it); the balletic battle of Pallas Athena's shoves and thrusts; and the tender, feather-and-balloon-filled dance (set, brilliantly and anachronistically, to the Ink Spots' "I Don't Want To Set the World on Fire") with Venus (Brittany Palmer) . . . or the even tenderer a capella finale that fades out on the dance between long-time company members Sean Gannon and Lauren Careless (as Paris and Helen).

Perhaps an even greater compliment, then, is in the way the works of Company XIV remain impossible to set down and describe on the page: such transitory images are as slippery as they are beautifulDon't miss another chance to see them.

Monday, May 21, 2012

THEATER: Wonderful Town

Photo/Bella Muccari
As it turns out, Wonderful Town isn't all that wonderful: sixty years can be rough on any musical, especially one with a book as chasm-like as the one that's been adapted here by Joseph Field and Jerome Chodorov (from their play, My Sister Eileen, itself adapted from Ruth McKenney's autobiographical New Yorker stories). And while the broad stereotypes that describe the artistic communities in New York City, circa 1935, are a good fit for the equally obvious sets and costumes from William Davis and Jevyn Nelms (crooked lettering, aftermarket Halloween capes--not that there's anything inherently wrong with theater-on-a-budget!), this Gallery Players revival of Wonderful Town ain't all that wonderful neither. Leonard Bernstein's difficult orchestrations are occasionally mangled, more than a few numbers are undersung ("Ohio," for one), and Scott Cally's persistent use of the spotlight in his lighting design only makes some of the blinding issues more . . . well, blinding.

And yet, if I'd seen Wonderful Town before it closed, I'd have recommended it to you all the same, because Gallery Players, hit-or-miss, has always done a phenomenal job of building a little-show-that-could around one or two ready-for-primetime-players. (Last year's The Drowsy Chaperone is the benchmark I'm holding them to; their 2008 Man of La Mancha still makes me smile.) In this case, their star is Molly Pope (who I'll have to catch the next time she's at Joe's Pub), who plays a plucky, brash Ohioan girl determined to make it as a writer in New York City -- and to perhaps find a man who can look past her beautiful sister, Eileen (Laurie Sutton, a bright girl who doesn't quite manage to live up to her character's reputation), and not be intimidated by her direct ways. (If you could save only one thing from this show, it would have to be Ruth's wonderfully self-deprecating "One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man.")

Fittingly enough, Wonderful Town also finds its footing in the jazzy choreography from Elyse Daye Hart and Trey Mitchell, particularly with numbers like "Swing" and "Wrong Note Rag"; it's director Mark Harborth who sometimes stumbles during the silent vignettes or montages that make up songs like "Christopher Street" or in finding an energetic transition into some of the sillier bits like "Pass the Football" and "Conga." But even these moments are brighter when Pope's involved; with her powerful and resonant voice and swift yet solid footwork, she seems a hundred times more present than her castmates, with the exception of her love interest, Robert Baker: actor Adam Kemmerer doesn't quite lose himself in the melodies, but he comes close during "It's Love." That's not to lay this on the feet of the ensemble -- they blend well and dance well, and as the nebbish pharmacist Frank Lippencott, Will Roland pulls out some genuine laughs -- but more on the dated conventions of the musical itself and the enough-is-enough attitude of Harborth's direction, neither of which asks much more of nightclub owner Speedy Valenti (Brad Giovanine) than swagger, nor anything other than sleaze from Chick Clark (Alex Pagels). (Angela Dirksen and Mark Cajigao are particularly blighted by this; they're surely better than they appear to be here.)

So yes, while this production of Wonderful Town is far too sluggish and general to really hit the mark -- if it even still can -- it's worth taking a lesson from any aging town: those bright spots only get brighter.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

PREVIEW: The Summer Warm-Up

All the big shows on Broadway have opened, I've got my (mother's) subscription to the Signature Theater taking me on a wonderful tour of works -- old and new -- from Fugard, Eno, and Lonergan, and I'm well-prepared for the arrival of Soho Rep.'s UNCLE VANYA, written by Annie Baker, directed by wunderkind Sam Gold, and starring people like the Debate Society's Paul Thureen, Boardwalk Empire's Michael Shannon, and the incredible Reed Birney (Blasted, Circle Mirror Transformation, etc.). But wow, will you look at everything else that's opening up next month in what appears to be a conspiracy to keep me out of the sun: 

The Brick is back at it with their DEMOCRACY festival -- one-acts from a bevvy of people you've heard me speak of before (Gyda Arber, August Schulenburg, James Comtois, and Jeff Lewonczyk) and a bunch of people I can't wait to be exposed to . . . and that's to say nothing of full shows from Zack Calhoon, Matthew Freeman, and Chris Chappell & co.

As always, given their stellar track record this season (I'm looking at you THE BIG MEAL), I'm expecting good things from Playwrights Horizon, which has RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN starting soon. (Lee Tergesen is in it; who knew?)

Banana Bag & Bodice are back with SPACE\\SPACE, which I have fond developmental memories of from the Ice Factory Festival a few years back. So's Company XIV, with another Baroque Burlesque fusion of poetics both textual and balletic.

The Women's Project, already talented on its own, puts seven playwrights, four directors, three producers and five actors together for their latest, WE PLAY FOR THE GODS.

And last but not least, Clubbed Thumb's terrific showcase of new works, SUMMERWORKS, shows no sign of slowing down in its 17th season, and I'm glad to see returning directors like Ken Rus Schmoll and Lear deBessonet teaming up with terrific off-Broadway actors like Steven Boyer, Jennifer Ikeda, and Bobby Moreno.

If you think of any other great stuff I'm neglecting to see, feel free to drop a comment below!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

THEATER: pool (no water)

Photo/Scott J. Fetterman
Here's poetic justice for you: a successful artist invites the embittered, distant friends of her old Bohemian collective to visit her mansion, to reminisce about their happier pasts, "when it all seemed to mean so much when everything was so full of meaning yes it was all drenched in meaning and we all cared we all cared so passionately." This artist, who made her reputation by repackaging and selling the "blood and bandages and catheter and condoms" of their friend Ray, after he lost the battle with AIDS, soon finds herself in the hospital, shattered by an Icarus-like dive into an unfilled pool: now she is the subject, and now her "friends" are the ones enjoying the privilege (living in her house while she recovers) that they have, until this point, railed against. And yet, with each new photo and the shared dreams of the success they'll find in this morbid exploitation, they are filling the pools of their soul with new depths of self-loathing.

And here's theatrical justice for you: One Year Lease -- a reliable company that by now ought to merit a lengthier lease -- has taken all this shame and disgust, this blood and bile, and, like the artists described within, made something beautiful out of it. This is not to imply that Mark Ravenhill's pool (no water), which made its UK premiere in 2006, is not thrilling on its own, but more to acknowledge the excellent work Ianthe Demos has done in adapting what is essentially free verse (no characters are named, though individual threads involving sex, drugs, and fitness can be isolated within the communal text). Emotions are heightened with interpretive choreography by Natalie Lomonte: as one member of the group lets loose a series of obscenities at the unjust death of a friend, the other three artists lift and manipulate a fourth member, as if they might lift her out her coffin and fly. The atmosphere is well set by the familiarity between Mike Riggs's lighting and James Hunting's set design: five skeletally white tables collapse on one another like fractured vertebrae or extend into a makeshift runway, all while spotlights single members of this collective out in the inky depths of their shame.

One of the artists (the ensemble consists of Estelle Bajou, Christina Bennett Lind, Christopher Baker, Nick Flint, and Richard Saudek) observes that "Science and art can work together happily," and that's precisely what occurs here, with taut theatrical staging providing a solid backbone for both Ravenhill's darkly poetic tendencies and his graphic necessities. The present-tense accounting of their "friend's" near-fatal accident in the pool is horrifyingly potent, as the jealous artists forget themselves, standing around her with their giddy "angel" metaphors; the illusory sensations of a splash that never quite comes; the cold, predatory emotions born "a life without empathy" and the absence that implies -- both for them and now for this unconscious body; until finally snapping back to reality as "A little stream of piss comes out of her now -- green from all the wine." (One Year Lease has also staged works by Ionesco and Clay McLeod Chapman; they understand how to execute rapid shifts in tone and language.)

These are our darkest unconscious thoughts, splayed naked across the bodies of this five-person ensemble and paraded around over the course of this hour-long play. Not just simple jealous or eviler envy, but murderous hatred, in all of its lunatic hypocrisy. ("Be honest -- I've done my dues -- I want to be privileged.") We see not only the artistic effects of aging, but the realization that their art is not enough to fend it off: "Sally has gone and Art did nothing and Art could do nothing and Death is big and we are small and really we're nothing, we're nothing." And if these appear to be simple statements, watch how they blend together and boil until you find yourself soaking -- drowning, really -- in a pool of fetid self-delusions. Disgusting, yes, but beautiful, and perhaps holistically revealing, too. If you're the type to sweat under such conditions (and OK, yes, the ending is a little too forgiving, underwhelming, and pat), you might want to bring a towel to pool (no water). Leave your beach reads at home.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

THEATER: A Streetcar Named Desire

It's the strength of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire that is reflected in the relative success of this all-black revival, not Emily Mann's directorial decisions. Well, and perhaps a little of Eugene Lee's taut set design, which brings an oubliette-like feel to the home of Stanley (Blair Underwood) and Stella (Daphne Rubin-Vega) that fits the melodrama of Blanche (Nicole Ari Parker), who announces that "Only Mr. Edgar Allen Poe could do it justice." As we'll learn, after all, this two-room apartment is a sort of prison, even if Stella is both too dim-witted and love-struck to notice.

Unfortunately, Mann doesn't play directly to the strengths of the text, choosing to linger instead on the incidental beats between each scene, playing up the atmospheric music (newly scored by Terence Blanchard) and throwing together silent little vignettes of the neighborhood that seem only to break the momentum of the production. While Parker's portrayal of Blanche and her deepening melancholia are able to stay fully charged (the stage directions keep her rather busy, and her actions are unassailable), Underwood's Stanley occasionally appears to be goading himself to the ever-greater depths of brutishness required of his role: the iconic "Stella!" sequence is a perfect example a man pushing himself to action, and the rape scene only half-connects (the horror of it, not the emotion of it). As for the miscast Rubin-Vega's Stella, well, it's too difficult to tell what she's thinking: suffice to say that each time she slinks back into Stanley's arms appears identical to the last. 

Despite these issues, A Streetcar Named Desire still sweats a rawness that's undeniably powerful, tinged as it is by sorrow, delusion, and naked needs. And when two powerful actors collide -- as with Wood Harris's reversal-filled Mitch and Parker's ailing and flailing Blanche -- the audience is liable to break out in sweats, too.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

THEATER: 4000 Miles

Four thousand miles: that's a whole lot of distance. Almost as much, perhaps, as the distance between any two people, not just across generations -- Leo (Gabriel Ebert) shows up at his grandmother Vera's (Mary Louise Wilson's) door after going AWOL on a bike trip across America -- but across a gamut of emotional feelings, refracted through Leo's slightly unnatural feelings for his unseen adopted sister (voiced, I believe, by Greta Lee, who appears in the play as an immature, art-freak of a one-night-stand) and his almost unbearable love for his girlfriend Bec (Zoe Winters). Unlike Amy Herzog's previous work, After the Revolution (which utilized Vera in a slightly different role), 4000 Miles doesn't appear to be interested in bridging that distance, so much as in quietly acknowledging it, a task that director Daniel Aukin (This) is well-suited for.

Two scenes linger in the memory, both sharply veiled by Japhy Weideman's lighting in a way that suggests an unassailably diaphanous distance. (Credit is also due to Lauren Helpern's set, a fine warren of rooms in Vera's apartment -- and a thin slice of the hallway outside -- that emphasize the ways in which we "share" our space.) In the first, Leo and Vera sit next to one another on the autumnal equinox; having shared a joint, they blurt out truths at one another, but decline to engage and therefore remain apart. (She: "Your grandfather never did anything for me in bed." He: "Bec has kind of a weird pussy but I like it.") In the second, Leo hides in a doorframe (as if an earthquake is about to hit), revealing the freakish truth behind his best friend Micah's death. (It is no coincidence that Micah was taking pictures of his shadow at the time of the accident.) After he's done, Vera admits that she doesn't have her hearing aid in, and therefore didn't hear everything; what's important is that she didn't want to interrupt, and in this way, she's able to comfort him, to be present for him in a way that he's only just starting to come to terms with by the play's abrupt ending.

However, for all the naturalistic charm, tenderness, and sweetness of 4000 Miles, the concluding thought is that Herzog appears to have traveled largely on a treadmill. That moment of insight, of connection? It never comes, and with both Bec and Leo running away (to one degree or another) at the end of the play and with the spectre of a life-well-lived-but-also-almost-over hanging over Vera, it feels as if a second act is missing (and this in a play that's already a bit long at a hundred intermissionless minutes). The final monologue -- a sort of eulogy -- suggests that we're not meant to know everything; the catch-22 of Herzog's talented writing is that we want to.

Friday, May 04, 2012

THEATER: You Are In An Open Field

"Play the game," yells the actor (Steven French), dressed in his finest cryptic-old-man robes. "We are playing the game," replies Kevin (Kevin R. Free), taking a moment on the sofa-fort of Chris Dippel and Lauren Parrish's grungy basement set alongside his good buddies and fellow New York Neo-Futurists, Adam Smith and Marta Rainer. "Play the game right," insists the actor, looking to his ally, a faceless dancer in a white-body suit (Cherylynn Tsushima). It's an odd thing to insist on, of course, for You Are In An Open Field, a self-proclaimed "nerd-core" musical, takes its cues from adventure games of yore (while referencing all genres, from Metal Gear to Sonic the Hedgehog to Gauntlet), and while there's a "right" way to finish them, that's rarely the "fun" way to play them.

Except . . . in this case, the actor might actually be right: even after "failing" one of the three levels (acts) of this production and then rapping their way through a recap (rapcap) of their adventures to that point, even with a script in front of me, I'm still a little shaky on what exactly is being "played." There's nothing wrong with the energy on stage, with Adam powering through early difficulties with his microphone, Marta gamely dunking her head into a bucket of water, and Kevin performing a high-stakes dance routine, but the script itself seems slapped together. Sure, Adam wants to actually throw a hadouken, Kevin wants to fly, and Marta wants to breathe underwater (you know, without diving equipment), and yes, there's a loose structure to each level, which begins with the construction of their "fort," continues with a "boss fight" that destroys it, and concludes with the discovery of "treasure" that gives them new equipment. But the childhood memories and vignettes don't mesh well to these circumstances -- there's no throughline, and the speedy lyrics are often difficult to follow -- nor do a philosophy-spewing Teddy Ruxpin and Godot-obsessed sage help to situate it. (It's hard to tell if any of this is a consequence of the missing fourth Neo, Eevin Hartsough, having to leave the production so as to deliver a baby.)

That said, I've never had a definitively "bad" time at a Neo-Futurist show (The Soup Show and The Complete and Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill are among the best of off-off-Broadway), and that streak remains unbroken, even if this production's not exactly racking up a high score. The music, composed and directed by Carl Riehl (and also performed by Scott Selig and Patrick Carmichael), is solid, catchy stuff -- especially their digital alteration/ode to Zork and accordion-fueled finale -- and Liliana Dirks-Goodman's video design is pixel-perfect in that old-school, 8-bit way. The production itself is filled with such individually, high-powered comic moments, from outrageous lines like "It's 2012 and I work my dick toad-stool-sized" to ideas like marrying the world or images like Kevin R. Free getting his Pac-Man on with a bunch of floating food-stuff (sound effects included). If it doesn't quite coalesce, well, as the show constantly reminds us, "Such is life."