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Friday, August 17, 2018

Heist!

I get invited to a lot of shows, and it's not always easy to decide which ones to see. Often I rely on a familiar name: if person A is directing or person B is acting or person C wrote the music, I know I'm likely to enjoy their contribution, at least. But then there are the shows that have no familiar names. In those cases, I make decisions sometimes almost at random, knowing I'm taking a chance.

Blair Medina and Alec Irion
Photo: Michael Kushner

So I took a chance on Heist! for the simple reason that I love heists. Oh, and the theatre is walking distance from my home. I wasn't optimistic, but I was open to having a good time.

And, I'm glad to say, I had a very good time. Heist! is uneven and needs some polishing, but the basics are there: decent plot, some good songs, a strong sense of what is being spoofed. And this particular production has two huge pluses: director James Will McBride and choreographer Jenna Haimes. McBride keeps the piece moving along at a perfect clip and helps his performers find that silly-musical-comedy sweet spot of overacting just the right amount. Haimes manages to make excellent original choreography out of cliche steps, with some fun quoting of famous shows (I caught Chicago and A Chorus Line, but I suspect there are more).

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Art Times: Choreography: Intrinsic or Replaceable?



My latest Art Times essay is up:
In some ways, it’s exciting news: Director Ivo van Hove will stage a production of West Side Story, with new choreography by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Van Hove says he aims to bring the show “into the 21st century.” De Keersmaeker says, “The challenge will be to offer a new reading.” Their ultimate goal is to revitalize a classic.
(read more)

Jerome Robbins (center) demonstrating a dance combination for George Chakiris (left) for the movie version of West Side Story.
Jerome Robbins (center) demonstrating
a dance combination for
George Chakiris (left) for the
movie version of 
West Side Story.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Possibilities/The After-Dinner Joke

No theatre is offering more bang for your buck--or return on your time--than PTP/NYC with their evening of one acts: The Possibilities, by Howard Barker, and The After-Dinner Joke, by Caryl Churchill. The first consists of four short plays, the second of 66 brief scenes. The shows are smart, thought-provoking, and often fun, and these productions are terrific. Together, they add up to an amazing evening in the theatre.

The Possibilities, from the late 1980s, includes a total of ten plays. I would be quite interested in seeing the six not included in this PTP/NYC evening.

The first play is The Unforeseen Consequences of A Patriotic Act, in which Judith (she of Holofernes' decapitation) refuses to embrace the role of heroine, despite the pleading of a woman (Eliza Renner) who wants Judith to be an example "to women everywhere." This Judith owns her sexuality, and her rage, and has no interest in censoring the blood and lust from her story. The excellent Kathleen Wise as Judith and the equally excellent Renner go head-to-head with great gusto, but, really, you can't mess with Judith and get away with it. It's a fine piece and bizarrely echoes the way that publicists may try to write a personality for a politician or actor that has little to do with the person and much to do with some goal, be it important or not, moral or not.

The Unforeseen Consequences of A Patriotic Act
Eliza Renner, Kathleen Wise, Marianne Tatum
Photo: Stan Barouh 

Monday, July 30, 2018

Brecht on Brecht

It comes as no surprise that Bertolt Brecht's most incisive and cynical writings are painfully timely, right here, right now. The PTP/NYC production of Brecht on Brecht knows this fact and utilizes it, as adding Mexicans and Muslims to a piece about Jews, emphasizing the frightening parallels between now and Germany in the 1930s.

Photo: Stan Barouh

It did come as a surprise, to me at least, that director Jim Petosa chose to present this piece as Story-Theatre-Meets-Godspell, with red noses, zooming shopping carts, and other cheerful accouterments. Much of this direction worked in its own way, but it didn't quite fit with the stories being told.

Another problem with this production is that some of the performers just aren't up to the high-level singing and acting required to do Brecht's more difficult pieces. It also doesn't help that the show ends with an extended monologue ("The Jewish Wife") followed by an extended song ("Surabaya Johnny"). It reminded me of when you've been driving for hours at 70 mph and have to slow down to 40, and how you feel as though you're frozen in place.

And yet there is much here that is worthwhile. First of all, of course, there is Brecht. His writing is razor-sharp, insightful, and full of the sort of rue that is painfully easy for the audience to share. And the cast does acquit itself well on many pieces, particularly the spoken ones. And did I mention it's Brecht?

Wendy Caster
(2nd row, press ticket)
Show-Score Score: 70

Cast: Harrison Bryan, Christine Hamel, Carla Martinez, Jake Murphy, Miguel Castillo, Olivia Christie, Sebastian LaPointe and Ashley Michelle. Production team: Ronnie Romano (Music Director and Pianist), Hallie Zieselman (Set Design), Joe Cabrera (Lighting Design), Annie Ulrich (Costume Design) and Alex Williamson (Production Stage Manager).

Friday, July 27, 2018

Brecht on Brecht

Brecht on Brecht takes the work of dramatist Bertolt Brecht, a polarizing post-war Germany writer whose work criticized anti-Semitism and fascism, and compiles a provocative grouping of his plays, poems and essays. Hungarian playwright and adapter George Tabori’s revue premiered in 1961 and resonates an uncanny timeliness in a world where the power of dictators and intolerance is growing. "If, as our leaders proclaim, loudly over their loudspeakers that the Jews, the Mexicans, the Muslims are responsible for all our misfortune, and since are leaders are extremely wise and never cease to emphasize the fact..." as the script says at one point, could almost be a modern-day tweet.

Harrison Bryan, Christine Hamel, Jake Murphy and Carla Martinez. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The PTP/NYC revival, directed by Co-Artistic Director Jim Petosa offers an engaging yet uneven presentation of the life of the man probably most known for collaborating on The Three-Penny Opera with composer Kurt Weill. One of the best numbers is "Ballad of Mack the Knife," featuring Harrison Bryan who succeeds in projecting menace with a charming twinkle in his eye. Christine Hamel, as Judith from The Jewish Wife, offers an emotionally charged soliloquy as she speaks about needing to leave Nazi Germany and her husband behind - "Character is a question of time," she says. "It only lasts for awhile, just like a glove ... What kind of men are you? Yes, you too! You discover the quantum-theory, you invent heart-operations, but you let yourselves be ordered about by these half-savages, so that you may conquer the world, but you're not allowed to keep the wife you want."

This moment resonates and lingers - bringing the past forward to the present as Hamel projects hurt, fear of the future and the love for those Judith separates from while showing the heartbreak of the refugee, of the persecuted. But moments like this are fleeting. At times, the show seems overly frenetic with a false frivolity. When the cast enters and tosses their music on the floor and dons clown noses the pace of the show races unnecessarily so. Then, suddenly, the action falls as a more quiet pieces like "Nanna's Lied/Songs About My Mother," begin without real transition. The hyperactivity dilutes the fire of Brecht's activism.

Harrison Bryan. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The spare set (scenic design by Hallie Zieselman), consisting of criss-crossed rugs, and a piano create a nice space for the eight-member cast. Music director and pianist, Ronnie Romano, is flawless. Costumes by Annie Ulrich bridge the past and the present with outfits that represent different time periods.

Brecht on Brecht is part of PTP/NYC's (Potomac Theatre Project) 32nd repertory season that runs through August 5 at The Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16 St). For more information, see http://PTPNYC.org.

(Press Seat)


Head Over Heels

Head Over Heels is fun, charming, and a lot more complex than it initially appears. It is, after all, no garden-variety jukebox musical, but one based on Sir Philip Sidney's late-16th-century prose work The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, scripted in iambic pentameter, and used as a jumping-off point to celebrate love in all its guises. Refreshingly queer and endearingly topical, the musical features a plot that is gleefully convoluted without being a chore to follow.



In a nutshell: The citizens of Arcadia are proud of their beat, which presumably gets them on their feet, allows them to walk down the street, lets the kids be cool after school and...well, you get the drill. But lo, King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) has become pretty lousy at his job, and has also been a less-than-inspiring husband to Queen Gynecia (Rachel York, bionic at this point). Their elder daughter, the hilariously vain Pamela (a stellar Bonnie Milligan) refuses to settle down despite countless suitors who vie for her hand. Meanwhile, their younger daughter, Philoclea (Alexandra Socha), is madly in love with the lowly shepherd Musidorus (Andrew Durand). The Oracle of Delphi, here in the guise of a transgender snake named Pythio (Peppermint) appears and lays some pretty dark prophecies on the kingdom and its people, which basically boil down to the collective loss of beat--and, hence, certain death.

Much wackiness ensues, as does some Shakespearean-style cross-dressing, deception, mistaken identity, self-realization, accidental sex with unexpected partners, plenty of 80s-inspired dance numbers (by Spencer Liff), the very funny trashing of a bedroom, a lot of wordplay, and many Go-Gos (and solo Belinda Carlisle) songs. The show is colorful, upbeat, and not out to punish anyone: it all works out well in the end, everyone falls in love and lives happily ever after, and (spoiler alert!) the kingdom thrives anew with a ascension of a female leader.

Head Over Heels has been struggling to connect with audiences, which is curious; perhaps the Shakespeare-style dialogue is a deterrent (it shouldn't be), or perhaps not everyone is totally comfortable with how very queer the show is (I wish everyone were). But if you're on the fence, get thee hither: a warm, bubbly show that promises total acceptance, happy endings for every one of its lovelorn characters, and a heaping plate of cultural wish-fulfillment just can't be....um....beat.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

2018 Innovative Theatre Awards Nominees

The 2018 Innovative Theatre Awards Ceremony is September 24, 2018. The nominees are as follows:


OUTSTANDING ENSEMBLE

Danielle Amendola, Jessica Banegas, Ryan Hunt, Kelsey Martin, Joe Marx, Todd Ritch, Alyssa Faye Smith, Jordan Westfall, Felicia Wilkins
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, 5th Floor Theatre Company

Jim Anderson, Jes Bedwinek, Amy Fulgham, Alexandra Gellner, Bethany, Patrick T. Horn, Shannon Stowe, Angie Tennant
Asylum, New Dance Theatre in association with Access Theatre

Denali Bennett, Victoria Bundonis, LaDonna Burns, Denise DeMars, Tia DeShazor, Susan Cohen DeStefano, Christine Donnelly, Andrea Dotto, Dan Entriken, Jonathan Fluck, Spencer Hansen, James Harter, Marcie Henderson, Greg Horton, Kathleen LaMagna, Andrea McCullough, Sharae Moultrie, Ben Northrup, Rusty Riegelman, Bruce Sabath, Carolyn Seiff, Cliff Sellers, Lauren Alice Smith, Lucy Sorlucco, Tina Stafford, Noah Virgile, Mandarin Wu
Follies, Astoria Performing Arts Center 


Zac Jaffee, Maurice Jones, Cassandra Paras, Leigh Williams, Justin Yorio
The Loneliest Number, Amios 

Cynthia Babak, Carrie Heitman, Emily Kunkel, Chad Lindsey, Elizabeth London, Asia MarkNylda Ria Mark, Javan Nelson, Jeremy Rafal
She-She-She, Hook & Eye Theater 

Sami Bray, Juliana Canfield, Samantha Blaire Cutler, Gregory Diaz IV, Renata Friedman, Carolyn Holding, Lynne Lipton, Austin Smith, Matthew Stadelmann, Paul Wesley
Zurich, Colt Coeur

Monday, July 23, 2018

Straight White Men

It's weird to say this about a play that premiered only four years ago (at the Public), but the revival (and first Broadway production) of Young Jean Lee's Straight White Men feels outdated and a little forced. Some of the problem, at least when I saw it, lay with what I assume was a heap of backstage disruption. Initially--and presumably all through rehearsals--Ed, the father character, was played by Tom Skerritt, who departed the production due to what were described as personal reasons just as previews began. Denis Arndt stepped in, only to quit just as abruptly, citing "creative differences." By the time I saw it--and despite the fact that Arndt was still on the marquee and in the program--Stephen Payne had assumed the role. He did fine, especially considering the circumstances, but the show as a whole felt a little sluggish and unsure of itself. I'm sure it's gotten faster and punchier, but the rapid-fire energy that shows like these demand hadn't quite locked in yet.




The bigger problem, however, has to do with the play itself, especially in relation to how it's being sold to audiences. Straight White Men comes off as remarkably conventional, despite what seem like doth-protest-too-much attempts to market it as dark, edgy, and more challenging than it actually is. I was waiting--hoping, maybe--for something pulse-quickening, or at least something to take home and chew on for a few hours after the lights came up, but what I got was a domestic comedy that didn't build much, and that ended with a message that was driven home repeatedly from the start.

A play about straight white men is all well and good--lord knows, they're so very well and good that they just keep on getting produced, all the damn time, everywhere you can possibly look! Sure, putting such specimens under a microscope and observing them from a studied distance is hardly a ludicrous exercise: step one of fighting the patriarchy, after all, is acknowledging that it's not a glorious, universal ideal--just a dumb old social construct that's as bound up with behaviors, codes, expectations and mores as any other, even if it does just happen to rule the universe. Lee's play--which in this production literally frames its straight, white, male characters behind a gigantic, stage-wide picture frame that labels them as such--points out how deeply social constructs are ingrained, even among men who have been schooled about their own enormous cultural advantages.

But...still. The gist of Straight White Men feels obvious from the outset: Three grown, white, educated, affluent brothers and their white, educated, affluent dad get together for Christmas (mom, who encouraged her boys to push against white male supremacy, has died). The brothers are reasonably successful, with the exception of the oldest and most well-educated. Despite his Harvard degree and graduate school credentials, Matt has moved back in with his dad, and now spends his time running errands, cleaning the house, and working a series of menial temp jobs. Spoiler alert: woke as they like to think they are, the rest of the men don't think this is the kind of stuff Matt is supposed to be fulfilled by, and they are very upset and bothered by his choices.

This central, driving issue doesn't so much build as get inserted between all manner of activities men tend to engage in. Through three mini-acts, the brothers, sometimes along with dad, play video games, roughhouse, dust off childhood nicknames, get drunk, reminisce, eat Chinese takeout, bond, bicker, dance, put on matching pajamas, and judge each other's choices. At a scant 90 minutes, the piece still feels too long and repetitive for what it says and how it says it. There is an attempt at further distancing the main characters by having them introduced and occasionally manipulated by two unnamed characters, one non-binary and one gender fluid (Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe, respectively; the charming T.L. Thompson was in for Bornstein when I saw the show). These two characters address the audience for a few minutes at the very start of the production, but the added framing device feels less illuminating than it does inadvertently insulting: they are way more dynamic and engaging than the characters who get most of the stage time, and yet for all their energy, wit, and dynamism, they are almost immediately--and ultimately, just so typically--sidelined...so that the audience can watch a standard-issue domestic comedy about a stage chock full of dudes.

I can imagine that Straight White Men seemed comparatively fresh in 2014, before all the shit that's gone down in the four years since. Still, it hardly struck a chord in the summer of 2018. At this point, I suppose I'd rather have the chance to learn more about the two unnamed characters that appear for about five minutes at the top than I would to spend another modicum of energy--and certainly another ninety minutes--on people who dominate daily discourse, control basically everything, and are currently driving our nation into the ground. Sue me if I'm missing something here.

When not breathlessly insisting that Straight White Men is super innovative, edgy, and dark, its marketing has been celebrating the fact that it's the very first play by an Asian-American woman to be produced on Broadway. Wow, OMG, how progressive! Way to go! Give yourselves a slap on the back, forward thinkers! Seriously, now, it's great that Broadway is trying to diversify--it's 2018, for fuck's sake--but could the choice of play in this particular case be any more disappointing? Lee has become known in less intensely commercial centers as a highly innovative, challenging, genre-shifting and disruptive playwright. I'd have loved to see something on Broadway that backs this reputation up, but I suppose that's too much to ask.

Please hear me on this: I most certainly don't begrudge Lee herself. A gig's a gig, and Broadway is as big and shiny and wonderful a gig as any playwright is ever going to get in this country. This being said, I hope mightily that Lee gets to show up there again, next time with a play that disrupts, challenges, upsets and complicates in at least a few of the ways she's become known for. I hope as much for a lot of playwrights from a lot of backgrounds, who continue to get little or no representation in the commercial realm. For now, though, there's something pathetic about a production so eager to celebrate its landmark status and its edgy, challenging darkness....by not being remotely edgy or challenging or dark at all, but instead by furthering the careers of some already well-established white dudes and focusing entirely on what Broadway has always embraced, while insisting that this time, it's totally different. It's not.

If you want to take your smitten-with-Armie-Hammer tween to see Straight White Men, by all means, go for it; they'll likely want to wait eagerly at the stage door after the show to see if he'll emerge, pose for selfies, and accept all the peaches fans seem to be presenting him with. But I assure you: this is as edgy and challenging as things are gonna get.