Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Sunday at the Circus with the Bread and Puppet Theater

Photo: Me.

Bread and Puppet Theater, a politically radical puppet theater troupe, has been around since the early 1960s. In its first years, it was based in New York City, where, presumably, it fit in nicely with the many other socially conscious, and politically active fringe theater companies that had begun to crop up in the East and West Village as part of the mighty and influential Off Off Broadway movement. While most of the Off Off companies to emerge at the time were dedicated to using theater for social, cultural, and political change, Bread and Puppet set itself apart in ways that its name implies. First, it used puppets--graceful, beautiful, hand-made ones ranging from teeny-tiny ones to ones so enormous that they relied on several troupe members to lift, let alone operate. Second, it made a practice of serving its homemade sourdough rye bread to audiences after performances.
Robert Joyce papers, 1952-1973, Historical Collections and Labor Archives, Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University.
The emphasis on puppets emerged from founder Peter Schumann's interests in dance, music, and sculpture; the practice of serving bread to the audience emerged from the company's interest in creating a sense of community among its audience members, and in encouraging spectators to think of the arts as just as central to life as food is.

Bread and Puppet left New York City in the early 1970s to become theater-in-residence at Goddard College, an innovative, low-residency liberal arts college in rural Plainfield, Vermont that was, at the time, a hotbed of radical thinking and artistic innovation. Once their residency ended there, the troupe decided to stay in Vermont. In 1974, they set up shop at a farm in Glover, Vermont, where they remain.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Dragon's Breath

It's a great concept: "the story of a Young Adult paranormal romance writer who accidentally creates a dangerous cult." The cast includes the fabulous Lorinda Lisitza and Hannah Sloat. What could go wrong?

Lorinda Lisitza
Unfortunately, a lot. Michael C. O'Day's Dragon's Breath, awkwardly directed by Mikaela Kafka, offers unconvincing characters, a meandering plot, lame satire, and endless, pointless, dull exposition. There are moments that hint at an interesting, even thought-provoking play, but they are wasted in the empty noise.

The show begins with author Justine Drake doing a reading from her new novel, Dragon's Breath. We learn quickly that she is uncomfortable giving readings and that she longs for physical copies of her book, not just e-books. We learn these facts many times. As written, Justine is a major whiner who weirdly pays no attention to her online presence, even after being told that it will determine whether her book ever sees print.

The people who attend Justine's readings represent one satirical type each and are directed to be as cartoony as humanly (cartoonly?) possible. Only two exist in two dimensions rather than one (no one makes it to three): Rocco, a self-proclaimed dragon expert who picks at every sentence in Justine's books, and Laura, who perceives Dragon's Breath and its sequels to be the genuine word of the dragon gods. It is Laura who starts the cult.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Puppet Titus Andronicus

If ever a play merited skewering, it's Shakespeare's messy, pointless bloodbath, Titus Andronicus. The delightful Puppet Shakespeare Players skewer it with great glee, fabulous puppets, silly humor, clever satire, some genuinely moving acting, and lots and lots of Silly String.

The story of Titus Andronicus, a Roman general who has captured Tamara, Queen of the Goths, and blah, blah, blah, it doesn't really matter. Here's what does: Titus's family and Tamara's family are mortal enemies, and they express their animus with the ornate nastiness of a Roman tragedy crossed with a Quentin Tarantino movie, to which Puppet Titus Andronicus adds a large and welcome helping of Looney Tunes.

Puppet Titus plays fast and loose with plot, with is okay with me. It turns the first act into a song, theoretically a great idea, except that it is unintelligible and therefore a wasted opportunity. In most other ways, however, Puppet Titus makes the most of Shakespeare's worst.

The company is excellent, with Mindy Leanse the standout as poor, beleaguered Lavina. She can make you laugh and break your heart pretty much simultaneously. The three non-puppet performers--Adam Weppler as Titus, Sarah Villegas as Tamora, and Christopher Gebauer as Titus' brother--are quite effective. The puppeteers are wonderful: A.J. Coté, Tom Foran, Ross Hamman, Alex Offenkrantz, Shane Snider, and Drew Torkelson. Ryan Rinkel's direction keeps everything bopping along. And the puppets, designed by A.J. Coté, are fantastic.

Your life would be complete if you never saw Titus Andronicus. However, it would be missing something if you never saw Puppet Titus Andronicus.

(first row, press ticket)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Varekai: Cirque du Soleil

I am a big fan of Cirque du Soleil, so it pains me to write the following: Varekai is mediocre and even kind of boring.

Octavio Alegria
To be perfectly fair, I'd like to provide some context. Varekai is at Barclays Center. My friend and I got there 15 minutes before the doors opened. We were moved to different doors and different doors again, supposedly because the original doors were not being used. And then they were used. But that's a small inconvenience that I probably wouldn't have noticed if my nerves were not on edge from listening to the Barclays announcement be played again and again and again and again and again while we waited. Loudly. The announcement talked about restrictions on what you could bring in (food, drink, bottles, cans, fireworks, and weapons, in that order), their no-reentry policy, and so on. We heard it some 20 times, without even a few seconds between each playing. And did I mention it was loud? Really, really loud? And when we were let in, we were treated like people with prison records visiting a nuclear missle site.

The show itself began slowly, with forest creatures (I guess) slithering and sort of dancing. There was a lot of slithering and sort of dancing in the show. The non-acrobatic interludes were the dullest I've ever seen at Cirque du Soleil, by far. The clowns were largely annoying. The male clown did have a nice bit trying to sing a song in a, well, erratic spotlight. The female got bonked on the head and was treated as sexually desperate. At one point, her head exploded. He was presented as a sort of noble fool; she was presented as an idiot.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fosse (book review)

Bob Fosse was talented, driven, kind, nasty, dedicated, unfaithful, brilliant, limited, addicted, and unhappy. By all accounts, he was also charismatic, seductive, and a great lay. Since the reader doesn't get to sleep with him, he is a largely unpleasant companion for the 590 pages of Sam Wasson's exhaustive, repetitive, and annoying biography, Fosse. However, if you keep your bullshit detector turned to "high"--Wasson is fond of recreating conversations as though he was there; he thinks he knows what Fosse was thinking at any given moment; his interpretations of events are unconvincing--Fosse is worth reading. As for Fosse the man: hey, Gwen Verdon and Ann Reinking worshipped him, so who am I to judge?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

NYMF - Central Avenue Breakdown in Concert

I finally saw it! Well...heard/saw it.  Kind of.  Whatever.  It was a concert staging.





I first caught wind of Central Avenue Breakdown following its successful run at the 2011 New York Musial Theatre Festival (NYMF).  This show – with music/lyrics by Kevin Ray, book by Kevin Ray, Andrea Lepcio, and Dominic Taylor, and additional story by Suellen Vance – racked up four awards for excellence and the Daegu International Musical Festival Award.  It was also granted a revival run at the 2012 NYMF.  And, of course, I was out of country for that entire run.  So when I heard that the 2014 NYMF was holding a one-night only concert of the show, I was like, “[Insert expletive of choice], I gotta go.”

I wasn’t disappointed.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Long Shrift

With its even-handed, honest, and thought-provoking examination of the gray area between sex and rape, The Long Shrift has the makings of an excellent play. However, its execution is not up to its concept, and the result is a disappointment.

When the play opens, we see Henry and Sarah bickering as they move into an ugly apartment after selling their home to pay for their son Richard's legal bills. Richard is now serving ten years in prison for rape, and Henry is horrified by his growing realization that Sarah believes it is possible that Richard is guilty. In the second scene, years have passed, and Richard is home, hardened and bitter. Then Beth, his accuser, shows up, wanting to discuss what really happened on that long-ago night that exploded both of their lives into shards of pain.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Qualification of Douglas Evans

Derek Ahonen’s The Qualification of Douglas Evans, directed by James Kautz, is the second in the Amoralists' "two play repertory exploring man’s vicious cycles." (The other is Enter at Forest Lawn, reviewed here.) Ahonen is the extraordinary author of such amazing plays as The Bad and the Better, Happy in the Poorhouse, and The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side. His plays are distinguished by their passion, poetry, humor, and unique point of view. Usually.

Samantha Strelitz, Penny Bittone,
Derek Ahonen
Photo: 
Russ Rowland
The Qualification of Douglas Evans is passionate and poetic, but it is far from unique and almost totally lacks humor. The story of Douglas Evans (well-played by the author), a drunk playwright of dubious talent, The Qualification of Douglas Evans follows a familiar path to rock bottom as Evans alienates everyone in his life, including the women who inexplicably care about him. (I suspect that blondes who throw themselves at drunks exist much more frequently in the minds of men than in the reality of women, but I suppose I could be wrong. I hope not.) 

While The Qualification of Douglas Evans is largely unpleasant, unedifying, and kind of pointless, it doesn't lack redeeming features. The cast is excellent; in particular, Penny Bittone is impressively effective in his many roles, and Barbara Weetman breathes dimensionality into characters who could easily be flat and cliche in lesser hands. The writing has moments of ugly beauty, and the show is well-paced and involving until a series of ill-conceived blackouts toward the end. 

I love the Amoralists, and it gives me no pleasure to give them not one, but two, mediocre reviews. However, their "two play repertory exploring man’s vicious cycles" comes across more as a two play rep exploring edgy-male cliches and fantasies.

(press ticket; second row) 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Enter at Forest Lawn

The people in Mark Roberts' Enter at Forest Lawn, directed by Jay Stull, fall down, squat in frozen crouches, twitch like dying break dancers, sashay, and ooze disjointedly, respectively. They spew words, plot, lie, manipulate, fuck, abuse drugs, molest children, and commit acts of violence. Love is unknown here, as are friendship, loyalty, and morals.

Lemp, Roberts, Pilieci
Photo: Russ Rowland.
Welcome to a version of show biz that I suspect exists far more frequently in the minds of male playwrights striving to be edgy than in real-life Hollywood. And, while Roberts, Stull, and the excellent cast offer vivid language, smart pacing, and never-flagging energy, this show suffers from the opposite of the emperor's new clothes: the clothes are real, but there is no emperor.

Which is not to say that the show isn't worth seeing. This production, presented by the Amoralists as part of a "two-play repertory exploring man's vicious cycles," is polished, frequently entertaining, and never boring. And it is acted with the Amoralists' signature balls-to-the-wall commitment, with author Roberts effectively slimy as the producer whose multi-million-dollar deal is at risk; David Lanson, physically and emotionally tied in knots by his inability to choose morals over money; Sarah Lemp, quivering with nerves and fear; Matthew Pilieci, skin-crawlingly creepy; and Anna Stomberg channeling Annette Bening's performance in the Grifters as the up-and-coming producer who would fuck a hyena if it helped her career.

If I never saw another play about the evils of L.A., it would be fine with me, but this one ultimately made it worth my while.

(press ticket, fourth row)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

NYMF - Searching for Romeo

I just got back from this evening's performance of Searching For Romeo, and I have to say...I was utterly charmed.


Searching For Romeo is a comedic backstory musical for the Bard's Romeo and Juliet...think of what Gregory Maguire/Stephen Schwartz's Wicked does for L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  It's kind of like that.  Our protagonist is high school student Roz, who has just been unceremoniously dumped by her jerky boyfriend Tony (potential West Side Story ref?).  Her girlfriends try to pep her up at the start of English class, as does the Boy-Next-Door type fellow Perry.  In the midst of a class reading of Romeo and Juliet, Roz finds herself transported to Verona.  She has assumed the role of Romeo's jilted lover Rosaline; Jerk Boyfriend Tony is Romeo, Jerk Boyfriend's new girlfriend is Juliet, and Boy-Next-Door Perry is Paris.  Roz's English teacher, her friends, and classmates fill a variety of roles including Friar Laurence, Mercutio, Tybalt, the Nurse, and Lady Avare (Paris's scheming rich mother).  Despite frantically searching for Romeo at the Capulet's party, she keeps running into and finds herself strangely attracted to Juliet's recent fiance Paris.  Needless to say, hijinks ensue all around the play's famous scenes as we follow Roz/Rosaline and Paris, hoping that they will get a happy ending as opposed to the star-crossed lovers' tale of woe.

The Pigeoning

Great news: the Pigeoning is back at HERE.

"The Pigeoning is 70 minutes of pure delight. . . . Do yourself a favor and go."

Photo: Richard Termine

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Cabaret

Joan Marcus
It's one thing to enter the canon; it's another to do so while simultaneously bucking just about everything the canon dictates in the first place.

I've been thinking a lot about Cabaret since I saw the Mendes revival (of the revival) last week. I've been thinking that a big part of what makes Cabaret such a masterpiece is its central dichotomy: it is an incredibly compelling, brilliantly scored stage musical that goes against everything we have been conditioned to assume we're going to get from a stage musical. Cabaret is the most ingenious, inspired, total bummer of a musical I can think of, and certainly that I have ever seen.

Yeah, I know musicals are varied and that there's no one type and that it's hard to generalize them, and all that. But still, an awful lot of American stage musicals rely on structures and tropes and trajectories that we see over and over and over again: boy meets girl, loses girl, wins girl back. Love saves the day even in times of despair. The community prevails even when terrible things happen. In the saddest musicals I can think of--Carousel, West Side Story, Fiddler, Hedwig and the Angry Inch--people die, love is denied, families and neighborhoods are torn apart, bad things happen to beloved characters. But then, audiences are always left with hope, even if just the teeniest ray of it: Billy gives his lonely, outcast daughter a star, and the whole community sings a song of strength. Maria tells everyone off after Tony dies, and the gangs imply that things will improve, or at least that they heard what she said and will take it seriously. Tevye and his neighbors are driven from their homes, but he grudgingly wishes his intermarried daughter well, and takes his traditions with him to the new world where, we presume, he'll be safe. Hedwig releases Yitzhak from bondage and gets the audience to wave their hands in solidarity with him as he sings a big rock anthem. There's always hope. Always. Even if it's very far off in the distance.

But Cabaret? Not a goddamned glimmer. The musical is set at the dawn of Nazi Germany, for chrissakes, so all there is for the characters is certain misery, angst, and fear. And Totalitarianism. Also, for many of them, suffering, torture, and death. No hope--not even, as Sally Bowles would say, an inkling. Cabaret is a musical that dangles dread in your face from the second the lights go down and the first notes of the opening number sound. Wilkommen? Bienvenue? Welcome, my ass. The music sounds great and the Emcee is beckoning, but we all already know that he's the embodiment of a country gone insane. We're in for two-plus hours with a group of characters who are manically forcing themselves to go gleefully through the motions as the city around them teeters on the brink of hell. Sure, they all get to drink, do drugs and have increasingly unsettling sex while the decline is happening, which is some small comfort for them and for us: It's nice to self-medicate in times of crisis. Anyway, it keeps the terror and the hunger at bay. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Donogoo

It's easy to see why The Mint might choose to revive Jules Romains' comedy Donogoo. In its sarcastic skewering of business and ambition, it is as pertinent now as it was in the 1920s. However, in its careless sexism and racism, it is badly outdated. I imagine there might be a way to direct Donogoo that enhances its strengths and mitigates its weaknesses--or at least puts them in context. However, director Gus Kaikkonen (who also translated the play from its original French) did not find it. In fact, his direction is cheap, gimmicky, and inconsistent, and the production is mediocre at best.

The show begins with our protagonist Lamendin (the woefully miscast James Riordan) on a bridge considering suicide. A friend sees him, convinces him to stay alive, and sends him to a physician who will cure him--as long as Lamendin does exactly what the physician says. Lamendin does and ends up on a trek that leads him deep into the jungles of South Africa, following a silly scam that has developed a life of its own.

Is Lamendin a passive--and lucky--naif? Is he a born salesman who accidentally finds his calling? Is he a megalomaniac-in-waiting? I suspect that he might be a bit of all three, but his moments of confidence and fear do not add up to a character or an arc.

Along the way, Lamendin meets dozens of people, many with their eyes on the main chance. They are played with various levels of humor and competence by 15 performers, some of whom deserve much better. (It's always a pleasure to see George Morfogen, and I suspect Mitch Greenberg might make a more creditable Lamendin.)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Side Show

Watching the revised version of Side Show (book and lyrics by Bill Russell, music by Henry Krieger) at the Kennedy Center is a multilayered experience to fans of the original, particularly those who know the CD, and even the show, by heart. It's difficult to be totally immersed when part of you is doing a running compare-and-contrast. Hmm, I like the costumes a lot. Hmm, great set. Hmm, they're not Alice and Emily , but they're pretty good. Hmm, interesting to have the "freaks" actually depicted rather than left mostly to the imagination. Oh, wait, great lyric change. Hey, where did that song go? Hmm, that new song is a really good idea.

Emily Padgett, Erin Davie
Photo: Cade Martin
Little by little, however, the show entices you in, and little by little Erin Davie and Emily Padgett win you over on their own terms, and pretty soon, you realize, wow, this is good! Wow, this is very good! And by the time the final curtain goes down, you're completely involved. Bottom line: this revision is pretty darn wonderful.

Side Show is the story of Daisy (Padgett) and Violet (Davie) Hilton, conjoined twins who spent most of their lives on display, from side shows to vaudeville to the movies. They made a great deal of money but ended up working in a supermarket in Charlotte, NC, and died very close to penniless. Side Show follows--and somewhat fictionalizes--their lives from childhood to the beginning of their movie career.