Wednesday, October 24, 2012

THEATER: If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It: A Review of "How to Break"

Photo/Benjamin Heller
 If How to Break were an actual hip-hop track, it would be defined by the solid chorus and rhythmic structure that bridges the dramatic beat(boxing) surrounding the cancer diagnosis and treatments of Ana (Amber Williams), a fiercely independent 18-year-old popper, and her in-hospital romance with Joel (Pedro Morillo), a brash and flirtatious DJ who refuses to be constrained by his sickle-cell. But it would also be weighed down by a contributing artist's silly and ultimately sloppy guest verse in which their street-wise and serious doctor, Aden (Dan Domingues), falls for the hospital's breezy and hippy-like artist-in-residence, Maddy (Roberta Burke). Although Aaron Jafferis is credited with the book and lyrics, he's had to tie those in with Adam Matta and Yako 440's live score (Yako 440 plays a nurse, layering in the sound from heartbeats to complex rhythms), Kwikstep and Rokafella's introductory choreography (light animation, popping, breaking), and Rebecca Hart's music (I'm assuming for the folksier, acoustic numbers that Maddy strums and sings). There are moments where this all shines under Christopher V. Edwards's direction, particularly in the piece's climax (thanks in large part to the unifying video design by Dave Tennent and Kate Freer), but the majority of How to Break is distractingly disjointed and, worse, artificial, a sad truth that's at serious odds with the play's underlying message to "be real."

Photo/Benjamin Heller
That said, props to How to Break for remixing Emily Dickinson's "Hope is a thing with feathers" and for tapping into various forms of modern teen expression to deal, often honestly, with the way we cope with disease. It's always refreshing to watch pessimism and optimism throw down; I only wish it felt a little more free-styled, It'd be nice, too, if Jafferis didn't feel it necessary to have Aden and Madden repeat the arguments already made by Ana and Joel -- particularly in a ridiculous yoga-studio setting -- and if he were able to be a little less literal with the dancing. Early on, as Ana gets her diagnosis, we see her step outside her body to release her mental tension with some dance; most other places, Joel is merely demonstrating his positive thinking by spinning a few moves through the pain.

How to Break wants to be ill, not sickly -- and I'm afraid it's going to need a stronger prescription to do so.

Friday, October 19, 2012

THEATER: Time Enough At Last: A Review of the New York Neo-Futurists' "On the Future"

Thirty plays an hour. Two to twelve new plays a week. All year long. Even with a revolving ensemble, that's a daunting task for any theater company, especially a non-illusory one like the New York Neo-Futurists. So it makes sense that they'd take some time off to . . . wait, what's that? On the Future isn't a vacation, it's a terrific evening of six aggressively meditative, earnestly inquisitive, and/or ramblingly comic one-acts? (Up front confession: I had to step out of the theater for Meg Bashwiner's "The Magnificent Meg Sees All," which confronts her "psychic" great-grandmother with the question, "Do you think it's possible to be a fraud and still be a good person?" and concludes that life -- and the future -- is more about the little moments than the big ones. Sorry to have missed it.)

Here's an interesting fact. When you started reading this review, you were in the past. The sentence you're reading now takes place in the present, but before you finish it, it will have been in the future. This is the sort of logic gaming that playwrights Joey Rizzolo and Christopher Loar enjoy humorously tripping through, but the presentation between their two plays is miles apart and serves as a perfect example of the variety one finds in any given night with the New York Neo-Futurists. Rizzolo's "Tempus Umbra" uses a shadow-play format and a snappy, pattering dialogue to discuss existence and time-travel; Loar's "The Theoretical Physics of Procrastination," features three deadpan and dour (though there is a dance break) versions of Loar (two pre-recorded on the televisions rubbling the stage, all dubbed with a Robotic Hawking voice) discussing the "undeniable reality that this play has indeed already been written."

Of course, not everything always hits home. Adam Smith's "Box" gets points for establishing a creepy, crank-flashlight-powered atmosphere as he detoxes from his digital dependence in an electric-less future, but his conclusion about what really matters is perhaps a little too cute or twee -- a consequence, perhaps, of trying to distill deep thoughts into a fifteen-minute short. Likewise, there are some good jokes (and unbridled performances from the playwrights) in Daniel McCoy and Ricardo Gamboa's self-explanatorily titled "An Introduction to the Future of an Expanding Universe as Applicable to Queer Culture, Pop Culture, and Culture Club," but here's a campy theme that perhaps runs on a little too long. 

Timing issues aside, On the Future still serves as an excellent showcase of the Neo-Futurist aesthetic, and proves that while it's possible they may someday run out of ideas -- in the future, anything is possible -- they're still scratching the aesthetic surface in the present. Even a piece like Eevin Hartsough's informative "(Y)Our IMMEDIATE Survival Strategy," which has shades of a bit from a previous show of theirs --  (un)afraid -- has an entirely original (and clever) presentation, in the way it incorporates bits of fear-mongering TV clips from the past to warn us about the future. If you take Hartsough's word (and mine) for it, there are two things that are guaranteed about that future: In the future, something will happen. And if that something is you spending eighty minutes at On the Future, that'll be a good something.

Monday, October 01, 2012

THEATER: Violence Is Hard to Understand, So Let's Be Vague and Comedic About It

Photo/Sandra Coudert
Writer/director Adam Rapp's latest play, Through the Yellow Hour, has once again transformed the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater: one enters through a narrow graffitied corridor as blue-bonneted women stamp zeroes onto your neck and solemnly tell you that "You have been accounted for." Passing through a curtain made of garbage bags, the interior is a bombed-out ruin: the stage's ceiling has caved in, the walls are stripped and rusty, and emergency bulbs are strung across the walls like a most decidedly unfestive series of Christmas lights. Percussive gunfire echoes through invisible surround-sound speakers; the sound of explosions shake through the floor's subwoofer. There is, incidentally, a body on stage, sprawled in a drug-induced stupor by the clawed leg of a bathtub.

We're at some point in the future, in what remains of Ellen's (Hani Furstenberg) Lower East Side apartment; if the stakes are not already set high enough by Andromache Chalfant's amazing set design and Christian Frederickson's haunting soundscape, the play begins with Ellen shooting an insane intruder (Brian Mendes) and leaving his corpse in the corner -- "He adds texture to the room," she jokes, grimly. And so long as Rapp remains vague about things, focused more on the micro -- day-to-day survival -- and less on the macro -- the potentially Muslim "Egg Heads" who attacked the United States with germs and proceeded to castrate the men -- these textures are more than evocative enough to carry us Through the Yellow Hour.

In the first of three scenes, Ellen, a former nurse, barters for the infant child of Maude (Danielle Slavick), and it's a heartbreaking introduction to the dire toughness both women have bottled up within them. They have each turned to self-medication and have bartered their sex as needed, and the line between the two -- if any -- seems arbitrarily defined by the fact that Ellen has a stash of drugs, supplies, and a half-functional weapon. In the equally effective second scene, Hakim (Alok Tewari), brings news of the death of Ellen's husband -- with whom he was tortured and castrated -- and we see the depths of her determination as she forces Hakim, at gunpoint, to provide every detail of their treatment, even as she retches, weeps, and collapses to the floor. In a Dilaudid-dosed dreamstate, time -- and reality -- slips away.

The third and final scene, however, is on far shakier territory, and exposes the dangers of having a vague plot, a drifting story, a "lost" world. The theme is clear: whereas Ellen originally clung to the idea of having the baby that she and her husband had not been able to (and now might never have the opportunity to) conceive, she can no longer stomach having a child on her own, and turns instead to angelically untouched visitors (Joanne Tucker and Matt Pilieci) from a eugenics-like farm that aims to rebreed and rebuild the world, trading them her baby for a fourteen-year-old boy. (By which I mean an innocent, still-functioning penis.) Beyond the fact that this is a screaming deus ex machina that violates the internal logic of the play, the scene itself lacks the human connection produced by the claustrophobic scenes that preceded it (the second scene takes place largely in the dark), and falls too easily into a benevolent poetry. It also calls far too much attention to the unfleshed Big Ideas of the play -- War, Hope, Survival -- and the fact that Rapp has nothing new to say about them.

The same can be said for Jon Kern's Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want To Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them, which I didn't like any more when it was written by Christopher Durang and called Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them. (To be clear, they're different plays. Also, a slight disclaimer: I briefly worked alongside Jon Kern at a former job.) The play doesn't officially open until October 17th, so take some if not all of the following with a grain of salt, but this slapstick-y production, which asserts that its aim is to humanize its trio of terrorists -- young would-be-martyr Rahim (Utkarsh Ambudkar), embittered supporter Yalda (Nitya Vidyasagar), and the delusional brains of the operation, Qala (William Jackson Harper) -- never really manages to slow down enough to connect. Throw in their stoner neighbor, Jerome (Steven Boyer), who believes that he's finally found a purpose, and the whole thing is just a joke factory. Strong as the performances might be, Peter DeBuois's broad direction hasn't yet found a way to focus on the sweetness shared between Rahim and Yalda, nor has it managed to find a way to pave over the gaping plotholes required to keep Jerome onstage.

The problem with Modern Terrorism is that it attempts to be taken seriously -- which is a bit like expecting an episode in which Bart befriends an innocent boy whose parents are plotting to overload Springfield's nuclear reactor to actually mean something. (I bring this up because Kern now writes on the staff of The Simpsons). I'm a huge fan of William Jackson Harper; that his portrayal of Qala reeks so utterly of Wile E. Coyote seems more a failing of the script than the actor. (The same might be said of the shades of Scooby-Doo's Shaggy in Boyer's role.) The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity used the buffoonery of professional wrestling to actually make a point; Modern Terrorism can't stop snickering at the sight of Rahim wearing a tightly-pinching underwear bomb, or at his cultural obsession with Star Wars -- at least, not long enough to give emotional weight to the fact that Yalda's innocent husband was accidentally blown up by an American missile, or that culture can just as easily unite as divide us.

It's not as if the play's final image -- two humans (nothing more, nothing less) huddled together, sharing a song through an iPod -- isn't an effective one. It's merely that, even with blood seriously splattered across a wall, it feels stale and unearned. We shouldn't just "get" the message of the play -- it should sneak up on us.