Friday, December 21, 2012

THEATER: The Surprisingly Heartwarming "P.S. Jones and the Frozen City"

Is there anything more important in the theater than confidence? Without it, Robert Askins could never have written his Obie-award winning Hand to God (in which a boy's Satanic sock puppet terrorizes a Christian bible group); without it, we'd never have seen his hyper-imaginative follow-up, the ode to old-school adventure comics (and perhaps a little Stephen King), P.S. Jones and the Frozen City. Without it, could you imagine Joe Paulik agreeing to walk around in a cape and goggles, smeared with the excrement that makes up his character's name, Pig Shit Jones? Or Sofia Jean Gomez trusting that Carla Bellisio's brilliant costuming and Eric Wright and the Puppet Kitchen's design could change her from a woman rolling around on an office chair into a Great Glass Spider, the menacingly sexy overlord of the titular Frozen City? (They're correct to trust: both actors come across brilliantly.)

Thankfully, there's no shell game going on in Askins's play: it's genuinely good. Jasons Simms' pop-art design (dotted storybook props that enhance Alex Koch's animated projections) sets the tone, E. Calvin Ahn's fight direction sells the idea of a giant's severed green fist going on a rampage, and Jose Zayas's direction has never felt so simultaneously loose and necessary, which is to say that while the actors appear to have freedom enough on stage for anything to happen, this is not actually a comic book, and so the action sequences and transitions must have been carefully planned out (albeit invisibly so). Few directors could so adroitly (and creatively) handle the call for an army of fire-breathing tigers, a cult of cannibalistic sirens (Jenny Seastone Stern and Diana Oh, putting the aces in menaces), and a spectral Gunslinger (Steven Rishard), to say nothing of Bobby Moreno's appearance as a befuddled giant named Lothar.

Photos/Jill Steinberg
Astute readers will note that I've jumped around plot points -- that's because P.S. Jones basically operates as a highlight reel, in which Pig Shit, our hero, accidentally stumbles onto a Quest of Great Importance that separates him from his beloved (and shriveled puppet) mother (Gomez) and sends him on a collision course with Benjamin (Preston Martin), his flamboyantly well-spoken and well-dressed opposite (his brother, naturally). Following the trail of a severed limb and a phantom cowboy through one of the many inhospitable deserts of the post-apocalypse, it's less about the plot of the journey than the experiences along the way -- eye-catching and rib-tickling stuff, and budget-stretching design miracles that ought to get terraNOVA even more nominations at the yearly NYIT Awards. (Hell, I was even impressed by the fidelity of the sound effects from Jane Shaw and Emma Wilk.)

Confidence is what allows me to wholeheartedly recommend P.S. Jones and the Frozen City: you will enjoy, or at least be impressed by, this madcap theatrical adventure.

Friday, December 14, 2012

THEATER: Fine Animal Instincts Shown in "Volpone, or the Fox"

Photo/Carol Rosegg
Greed, despite what you may have heard, isn't good. Comedies about greedy men, on the other hand are. And while Red Bull (every bit as energetic as the drink) is best known for its bloody, revenge-filled tragedies -- and this 1606 play of Ben Jonson's is known as a scathing satire -- the just desserts awarded to Volpone's supposedly above-the-law Venician one-percenters are well within director Jesse Berger's and his company's wheelhouse. The web of deceit that Mosca (Cameron Folmar) spins to convince a trio of sycophantic noblemen to make regular gifts to his "dying" master, Volpone (Stephen Spinella), so that they might buy their way into becoming his heir, is a farcical delight, but the true pleasures come at watching these suitors -- lawyer Voltore (Rocco Sisto), the befuddled old Scrooge, Corbaccio (Alven Epstein); and preening merchant Corvino (Michael Mastro) -- devolve into their animal namesakes. (Sly foxes -- volpone -- often pretend to be dead, in the hopes of catching and killing their prey: vultures, ravens, and crows.) Given how entertainingly ridiculous it all gets, you might as well dub it Bachelor: Venice 1607.

Berger eschews any hint at subtlety (John Arnone's set consists of a few hand-drawn backdrops and a single, domineering death bed: realism this is not) and wisely has his characters lay it on thick, lest we feel sorry for any of them. Clint Ramos's costumes emphasize or exaggerate each character's nature -- note Volpone's absurd pajama cod-piece; see Voltore's dashing black and white-feathered cloak -- as do the wigs and hair design Charles LaPointe uses to tart up Volpone's idle pleasures: a eunuch named Castrone (Sean Patrick Doyle), a dwarf known as Nano (Teale Spearling), and a clown/hermaphrodite known as Androgyno (Alexander Sovronsky). As you can tell by the names, Jonson wasn't attempting to mask the decadent, idle rich: he was exposing them, in all their nefarious "glory." Though Volpone starts out simply thrusting himself at the various hidden compartments in his bed that hold gold coins, pearls, and other baubles, he's soon getting all rape-y toward Celia (Christina Pumariega), whose husband, Corvino, has basically pimped out with the threat of physical violence. These cartoonish fops, who begin as curious creeps, soon become all-out villains: money corrupts, absolutely, even in a comedy.

All that said, portions of Volpone are overstuffed and more than a little repetitive, and the female characters -- like the Fine Madam Would-Be (the game Tovah Feldshuh), who is attempting to seduce Vopone for his wealth -- are all unflatteringly underwritten, neither comic or dramatic: they're just objects. After catching its breath during the intermission, the second half slows down and takes its time moralizing before the Venetian courts, rather than simply allowing Mosca's machinations to implode. (In fact, there's a notable lull whenever Folmar is off-stage; his double-takes, asides, and quick wit are needed to give all that buffoonery a direction.) You can't blame Berger for his fidelity to the script, nor the actors for their over-the-top dedication to such intentionally shallow characters (Epstein and Mastro are standouts, though the entire cast is top-notch); perhaps it's simply that this revival of Volpone is a little too timely, with ninety-nine percent of the audience racing ahead of the play to the inevitable and satisfying ending. Still, even if this production were nothing more than a fox-trap (and as a rousting bit of theater, it is more), it's a well-crafted and oiled machine; you won't mind getting caught up for several hours.

Friday, December 07, 2012

THEATER: I Heart Theater at "Hearts Like Fists"

Flux Theatre Ensemble @ The Secret Theatre
44-02 23rd Street
Long Island City, NY
through December 15, 2012
Running Time: 100 minutes (no intermission)

Photo/Isaiah Tanenbaum
Is there such a thing as a romantimaniac? Or an rom-com action flick, the sort that's satisfying for boys and girls of all ages? Right now, it feels as if Adam Szymkowicz has cornered the market on shows that feature figuratively and literally broken hearts, the closest comparison being the work of Vampire Cowboy Theater, so if superheroes or slapstick-y romances are your thing, get thee to Hearts Like Fists. As a special bonus for those in the know, you'll also get to see Flux's bold artistic director August Schulenburg bravely (and successfully) taking on fight choreography in his wide-eyed and theatrical turn as the deranged and deformed Doctor X, who imagines that his victims would thank him for killing them in their love-entwined slumber, thereby preserving their happiness before it crumbles.

At the heart of this play of extremes is the tentative relationship between heart-stopping Lisa (a confident Marnie Schulenburg), who is paid to avoid construction sites lest she cause wolf-whistling men to fall to their death, and the fragile Peter (Chinaza Uche), whose good-natured heart has been broken so often that he's working overtime to craft an artificial replacement. Fearing rejection, Peter ends up bailing on Lisa -- who's never been abandoned before -- and this role-reversal leads to a complicated courtship, one that's filled with increasing danger once the purposeless Lisa joins up with a trio of female Crimefighters (Becky Byers, Rachael Hip-Flores, and Aja Houston) to thwart Doctor X's romantic murders. But Szymkowicz has grown from earlier, over-the-top stabs at such subject matter (Nerve springs to mind), and while there are still some exaggerated and underwhelming scenarios on the fringes of the play (one of the Crimefighters plans to rekindle her romance with the Commissioner [Chris Wight]; Susan Louise O'Connor plays a hysterical [in both senses] nurse who pines for one doctor while being lusted after by another), Hearts Like Fists works best when it takes its emotions seriously and allows the poetic writing to go for the laughs: "A big boat of depression just sailing over my chest"; "You're building a wall around your candy shell; you're afraid I might eat it!"

In one of the cleverer echoes of the play, Doctor X and Peter sound off about the joys of having an obsession: "I don't have to think while I'm working. I don't have to feel." Thanks to Kelly O'Donnell's consistent direction and Adam Swiderski's humorous and exhausting fight choreography, the cast of Hearts Like Fists doesn't have to think while working, though they're clearly more than able to feel, which is the beating strength of this production.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

THEATER: I'll Be Home For "A Civil War Christmas"

Photo/Carol Rosegg
It's Christmas Eve, 1864, and Paula Vogel is shining a spotlight on three wise American men as they momentarily step back from the brink of their war and enjoy a moment of peace. Hark, a rueful Robert E. Lee (Sean Allan Krill) refuses, out of solidarity with his impoverished troops, to drink hot coffee or rest his bones! O, how General Ulysses S. Grant (Chris Henry) is prodded toward victory by his sobering aide-de-camp Ely Parker (Jonathan-David). Hear, of course, President Abraham Lincoln (Bob Stillman), in all his stove-piped glory, as he allows an enigmatic dream to worry its way under his skin. Now, forget about all these characters -- we're about to be introduced to at least a dozen more, and you'll not hear from Lee or Grant again -- because in this patchwork play, Vogel could care less about these potent historical figures. She's after that holy atmosphere found in those tales of Christmas miracles, and while she achieves it, that's no great achievement in itself: the thematic structure of "clever" conveniences, collusions, and collisions is made no less hokey by the educational setting of A Civil War Christmas.

With the utmost of respect for Vogel and her director, Tina Landau, A Civil War Christmas is a beautiful and occasionally touching tale, but it is also -- and more often -- hectic and manipulative nonsense, propelled by insistent and omniscient narrators and livened by carols. Alice Ripley, who does a fine, dare I say brave, job as Mary Todd Lincoln is at times made out to be a bipolar buffoon on the search for the perfect Christmas tree (when comic relief is called for), while at others provides a calm and somber entrance into a military hospital, where the dying soldiers call out for a mysterious figure who is half Walt Whitman, half Santa Claus. The play flits from interesting fact to interesting fact, all the while largely forgetting to itself be interesting, and the tonal imbalance and large gabs between individuals prevents any chords from standing out, let alone developing into anything close to a harmonious whole. In fact, when the entire cast sings a carol, it's difficult to determine where to even look: each character's doing their own abstract thing. There's a brief romance between a mule and a horse on opposite ends of the Potomac; there are moral reminders that some Union soldiers were Jewish, and had their own prayers and songs; there's a freeman out for vengeance on the confederates who kidnapped his wife: are we watching War Horse, Lincoln, or Django Unchained?

The few tatters of outstanding material in the play all use echoes to sustain themselves: with each stitch that Elizabeth Keckley (Karen Kandel) makes in a Christmas shawl, she is haunted by flashbacks of her dead son and her escape from slavery; Decatur Bronson (K. Todd Freeman) keeps using work to distract him from his phantasmal wife, which gives poignancy to the moment when we learn what her cryptic message means. Much like Keckley's stitching, then, these are scenes that build upon themselves and use repetition to stitch themselves more firmly into our minds. It's far harder to find significance in the misadventures of young Raz (Rachel Spencer Hewitt), who runs away from her snoring father to enlist in the Confederate army, or to feel much for the plight of the young, hypothermically hallucinating Jessa (Sumaya Bouhbal), who spends much of her time on stage smiling at would-be slave-catchers. They serve as objects for other characters to react to, or as set-up for some of the more intricate coincidences that result in Lincoln narrowly avoiding an ambush by John Wilkes Booth (Krill, who is outstandingly bombastic in this role) and in Jessa's reunion with her frantic mother, Hannah (Amber Iman, a terrific singer).

To one side of the New York Theater Workshop space, a multitude of hats and jackets dangle from hooks. To the other, there are black and white photographs of these characters, hung from long white strings. But it takes more than quick costume changes and basic dramaturgy to mount a play, especially when ambiguous and unclear choices keep emphasizing the fact that a play is being mounted before your eyes. Why bother with authentic costumes (and some distracting modern ones) when the stage is, for the most part, bare? Why keep adding characters to an already addled script -- like a pacifist Quaker -- if they're only there to provide someone else with a chance for exposition? All the props and photos in the world won't help with such choices, and despite some genuinely touching moments, A Civil War Christmas feels like a research paper that's still scrawled out on index cards.