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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

2019-2020: Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Glories of Off- and Off-Off-Broadway

I was going to do a "best-of" for 2019 plus a "looking forward" for 2020, when I realized that their focus would be much the same: the treasure that is non-Broadway theatre.

I'm not denying the treasure that is on-Broadway theatre. There's something undeniably magical about those buildings, with their plush seats, ornate ceilings, and theatrical history. And there are always incredible shows running. But the prices are truly insane.

Once, when I was a kid, my parents were complaining about the price of something. I said, "But that's what it costs now." And my dad said, "Someday you'll be faced with a 'that's what it costs now' that you just refuse to pay. You just can't." I recently decided to bite the bullet and spend a small fortune to see American Utopia. But a small fortune wasn't enough. Could I have afforded the actual price? Yes, as a special treat. But I just couldn't do it. My dad was right.

Maybe it's because I'm old enough to have spent $9 on a "special treat" ticket--Debbie Reynolds in Irene, first row center. I was making $1.95/hr, minimum wage. Now minimum wage is ~$15/hr, and tickets are hundreds of dollars. Something is wrong on Broadway.

But Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-Broadway, something is right. You can see fabulous shows with brilliant casts from great seats, and it doesn't cost an arm and a leg. Not even a finger.

Here are ten of the theatre companies that I have found to provide reliably top-notch work at accessible, even cheap, prices. (All are linked to their websites; they're in alphabetical order.)



APAC. It's a pleasure to start with APAC (Astoria Performing Arts Center), which is high on my list of favorite theatre companies, mostly because the artistic director--Dev Bondarin--is one of the most reliably excellent directors in New York. In fact, when Roundabout announced their production of Caroline, or Change, my first thought was that I hoped it would be as good as APAC's!

And here's the thing: APAC's tickets for Caroline were only $25 for adults and $20 for students and senior citizens--an insane bargain. (I don't know if they will go up in the future, but even so, APAC will remain a bargain. Their Caroline was every bit as meaningful, beautiful, and heart-breaking as the original Broadway production!)

APAC has given us brilliant productions of Follies (amazing) and Merry We Roll Along (my favorite of all the productions I have seen, including the original), to mention only a couple. The rest of the 2019-2020 season includes the New York premiere of Jump by Charly Evon Simpson and a revival of Man of La Mancha. And who knows what 2020-2021 will bring?



Bedlam. I'm new to Bedlam, but after seeing their excellent revival of The Crucible (and also on the recommendation of a friend whose opinion I respect), I don't plan to miss any of their shows going forward. They don't seem to have announced their 2020 season, and I wasn't able to track down their ticket prices. (I bought my Crucible tickets on tdf.) But click here for their Facebook page, which may provide more up-to-date info than their website.



Elmwood Playhouse (Nyack, NY). I've only seen one show at the Elmwood, and to be honest I've heard some non-raves about their earlier work. But their production of The Little Foxes was solid, entertaining, and moving. Currently running is the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and tickets are only $27 ($24 for seniors and students). The rest of the season includes Born Yesterday, The Drowsy Chaperone, and Calendar Girls.


Flux Theatre Ensemble. I have been a huge Flux fan since 2009 when I saw the wonderful Lesser Seductions of History, a lovely and deeply humane play by Corinna Schulenburg, beautifully directed by Heather Cohn. In the intervening years, I've seen another 15 or so Flux productions, and an insanely large percentage of them have been amazing, incredible, thought-provoking, funny, and all the other things one hopes plays to be.

And talk about inexpensive! Flux doesn't even ask you to lay out money to get a ticket. They do ask you to support Flux in any way you can, but they don't want the price of a ticket to keep people from seeing their shows. (For more info, click here.) I donate to Flux every year.

Next at Flux: the world premiere of Rage Play by Nandita Shenoy, directed by Lori Elizabeth Parquet. Runs March 28 through April 11.


Mint Theater Company. The Mint's tag line is "lost plays found here." And what treasures these lost plays are! Also, the Mint has a truly astonishing batting average, providing excellent production after excellent production after excellent production. There was one show I hated, but about a dozen that I liked, liked a lot, or loved. And Mint productions are often eye-opening. Who knew that plays in the early 20th century were grappling so honestly with sexuality and class?

Currently at the Mint is Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories. While I prefer it when the Mint focuses on more obscure writers, I am sure that this production will be worthwhile. After all, it's the Mint! (Ticket prices: $35.00 - $65.00.)



PTP/NYC. The PTP/NYC is yet another theatre company that provides excellent production after excellent production. Here's how they describe themselves on their website:
PTP/NYC is an Off-Broadway powerhouse of veteran and emerging talent creating socially and politically acute theatre for the 21st century. In its 27 seasons [actually, it's 33 now], the voices of PTP/NYC’s writers have addressed the necessity and difficulty of art, homelessness, censorship, pornography, AIDS, totalitarianism, apartheid and gender wars—always in passionate, deeply human terms. Playwrights whose work is often seen on the company’s stages include Howard Barker, Caryl Churchill, Harold Pinter and Neal Bell. 
I have been blown away again and again by PTP/NYC, particularly by plays directed by co-artistic director Cheryl Faraone. Faraone's productions are lucid and smart; she lets the plays tell their stories with a subtle and smooth hand.

I don't know what PTP/NYC has up their sleeve; unfortunately, their website is terrible. But I do know that, whatever they produce, I'll be there.


Red Bull Theater. The Red Bull focuses on past centuries--often far past. For example, their next (one-night) event is a January 27 reading of Women Beware Women, Thomas Middleton's 17th century social satire. (There are $47 tickets left, and the reading has a very classy cast. For more info, click here). Sometimes I wish Red Bull productions were clearer; sometimes I wish they were truer to the original plays. But I'm always grateful to have seen their productions, feeling entertained and/or educated. And sometimes I'm blown away.


Signature Theatre. The Signature has a unique role in NY theatre, focusing largely on living playwrights but often including revivals of their earlier works. Signature used to pick one playwright per season; now they combine "legacy" and "residency" playwrights. The 2019-2020 season includes plays by Anna Deavere Smith, Horton Foote, Katori Hall, and Lauren Yee. And tickets are $35. Thirty-five dollars! (And ticket packages eliminate any fees, while providing a generous exchange policy.)



Voyage Theater Company. The VTC is brand-new to me, but I'm putting them on this list based on their production of The Hope Hypothesis. There's no way to know if their future productions will be as good, but I do know I'll give them a try.



York Theatre Company. The York is devoted to musicals, old and new, with main stage productions (such as the wonderful Desperate Measures and Unexpected Joy), concert readings (the fabulous Mufti series, recently including the very entertaining The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter), and a developmental series of over 30 readings a year. (Shows developed or partially developed at the York include Avenue Q and the brilliant, insanely funny Musical of Musicals: The Musical.) Some York shows are flat-out wonderful; minimally, the Muftis are of of historical interest; the casts are often top-notch; and the voices are unmiked. Main stage tickets are $67.50 - $72.50; Muftis are $45 - $50. Plus you can get a York membership, which reduces the ticket prices significantly, and there are various forms of rush tickets.

***

Strange to think that, for a price of a pair of tickets to a Broadway show, you could see a show or two at all ten of these theatre companies! And I hope you do.

Wendy Caster

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Jagged Little Pill

There's a lot going on in Jagged Little Pill, which has to be the wokest jukebox musical you're likely to see on Broadway lately. Built around the era-defining third album of the same name by Alanis Morissette, the production departs from the '90s in its setting and aesthetics, even as it remains rooted in women's concerns--and the women's rage that was so fresh and exciting in the pop music world back then. The musical usually works, and even when it doesn't, I can't criticize it too much; like Morissette's album, it's not perfect, but its heart and mind strive to be, and that counts for a lot.




Focused on the Healy family, a comfortable suburban foursome who seem on the surface to have it all, Jagged touches on an impressive host of contemporary social issues in its two-and-a-half hours. Mom Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley) puts on a brave face as she exercises, shops, tidies, and competes with other suburban mothers, but she's got a growing dependency on painkillers following a car accident that took place about a year before the action begins. Her husband Steve (Sean Allan Krill) works all the time, and the two are becoming increasingly estranged. Their golden-child son Nick (Derek Klena) just got into Harvard, but also has no clear sense of his own needs or purpose in the world. Their activist daughter, Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding), was adopted at birth; now a teenager, she has grown tired of her mothers' constant criticism and of feeling like she doesn't belong in suburban Connecticut.

What saves the show from feeling like an overstuffed after-school special are its working parts. There is, of course, a rocking score--and a cast of voices that is consistently able to handle it. The zippy, typically good-humored book, by Diablo Cody, is respectful and serious about the many issues tackled, but never feels preachy or histrionic. There are some excellent performances (Lauren Patton as Jo, Frankie's best friend with benefits, is a huge standout). And mu favorite part of the production were the dance and movement sequences, courtesy of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. I appreciate, as well, just how focused this production is on the desires, relationships, and contradictions of its female characters.

I saw Jagged Little Pill with my teen daughter, who pointed out that its upbeat ending felt a little forced, considering the ocean of issues the characters encounter in what is meant to be a single holiday season. Then again, a musical devoid of hope--especially in these dark times--is a serious breach that I suspect even peak '90s Alanis wouldn't go in for. Ultimately, I appreciate what this production tries to do, how it tries to do it, and how groovy it looks and sounds in the process.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Where Are We Now

Sven Ratzke; Photo by Hanneke Wetzer
Dutch-German performer Sven Ratzke is the best kind of David Bowie fan. When he sings his Ziggy Stardust songs, he closes his eyes, softens his face and tries to interpret the artist, not just mimic him. Ratzke's committed enough to don the skintight catsuit with the plunging v-neck and high-heeled black boots (costume design by Thierry Mugler and Armin van Zutphen). Fans of Bowie will enjoy both hits like "Heroes" and some lesser-known numbers such as "Sweet Thing/Candidate" at the U.S. premiere of Where Are We Now at La MaMa's Downstairs Theatre.

Ratzke is the cabaret version of Bowie. Pianist Christian Pabst plays beautifully, but the only rock you'll get is when he rhythmically knocks on the wood for "Let's Dance." Each song is presented after some banter where Ratzke mixes fact with fiction. Last night's show was amazing, he recounts early on, it was nine hours long with everyone rolling on the floor naked. The conversation, while often entertaining, becomes long-winded -- a wandering path of a story. 

The song list seems aimless at times, too, with no discernible order or theme. Ratzke cannily seems to pick songs that match his evocative voice, with most of the selections offering intimate versions of Bowie's softer side. Most impressive is Ratzke soulful encore of "Absolute Beginners," where he showcases Bowie's prowess as a storyteller with a nuanced, personal rendition. 

Directed by Dirk Groeneveld, the show's sparse set with bared brick walls and a simple divided curtain relies on lighting to heighten and slow the mood. This is not Ratzke's first Bowie outing, in 2016 he toured with Starman, including a run at Joe's Pub.

Through Dec. 21 at La MaMa Downstairs Theatre at 66 East 4 St. Two hours with one intermission. For more information, see http://lamama.org/where-are-we-now or http://sven-ratzke.com

(press seats)

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Nutcracker Rouge

Ashley Dragon. Credit: Mark Shelby Perry
Even when Company XIV produces a problematic show, it’s vastly entertaining. While the Nutcracker Rouge’s version of this well-known holiday tale loses some of its magic — relegating the role of Clara to more of an assistant narrator rather than a girl on the cusp of discovery — its vignettes provide constant amusement and titillation.

Most of the show is situated in the kingdom of sweets and the traditional first act is quickly dismissed onstage, removing most of the Staulbahm’s party (dubbed here after Clara’s godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer) and rushing through the Mouse King’s challenge of the Nutcracker. 

“Snow,” Rouge’s second scene, featuring Vivaldi’s “Winter,” beautifully reinterprets “The Waltz of the Snowflakes,” which usually closes out Act I, with snow trickling from the rafters. Then the show’s tone changes as it becomes more vaudevillian with each holiday treat participating in its own sideshow for three acts. Some are readily recognizable from its source material, including numbers with Mother Ginger and the Sugar Plum Fairy. Others like Ashley Dragon on her Cyr wheel or arialist Nolan McKew, while graceful and thrilling, never offer that Nutcracker-holiday feel. 

Company XIV’s artistic director/founder and choreographer often mixes genres to great success — his versions of Alice in Wonderland and Snow White, for example — but Ballet Rouge’s storyline falters, and the additions of burlesque, circus and opera limit the tale rather than exploring it in a new way.

But, there’s a reason why the show is marking its eighth year — even with its fragmented story, each scene entertains as performers sing, strut and even escape elaborate bindings Houdini style. Acts like Marcy “Operagaga” Richardson’s astound — how does she belt those notes suspended upside down? 

Imbibing is encouraged, with one number celebrating the wonder of absinthe before selling it during intermission, and small tables make your cocktails easily accessible at your seat. Lilin Lace even saunters in a champagne glass as part of one routine.

Nutcracker Rouge plays through January 26 at 383 Troutman St. in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Running time is two hours and 25 minutes. For more information, see: http://CompanyXIV.com

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Let 'Em Eat Cake

The narration for the MasterVoices production of the Gershwins' Let 'Em Eat Cake mentions that (1) it was the very first musical sequel (to Of Thee I Sing), and (2) it set the precedent for musical sequels flopping (see, e.g., Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, Bring Back Birdie, and Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge). It failed, however, to include point (3), which is that the sequels mostly aren't as good as the originals (exception: Falsettoland).

Bryce Pinkham, Mikaela Bennett
Photo: Erin Baiano

It's not that Let 'Me Eat Cake is bad. It just isn't . . . good. The plot is all over the place, even for a silly satire, and Ira Gershwin is in full twee mode. (Complicated rhymes that don't quite make sense get boring quickly.) But, and this is a huge but, the score by George Gershwin is gorgeous.

And any show sounds terrific when presented by the 150-person MasterVoices and the Orchestra of St. Luke's, directed and conducted by the fabulous Ted Sperling. It's always a treat to see them perform. In addition, they generally have amazing guest stars. This time, the cast included Bryce Pinkham, Mikaela Bennett (delightful), David Pittu (stealing the show), Kevin Chamberlin, Christopher Fitzgerald, Fred Applegate, Chuck Cooper (wasted!), and Lewis J. Stadlen (mumbling through his one-liners).

It's a little odd to review MasterVoices shows, since they're always gone before the reviews come out. So let me predict that their entire season will be well worth seeing and leave you with a link to their website: MasterVoices.

Wendy Caster
(row R, press ticket)


Monday, November 18, 2019

Fires in the Mirror

Midway through Fires in the Mirror, Anna Deavere Smith's moving and generous one-person show about the 1991 Crown Heights riots, Robert Sherman, the head of the City of New York's Increase the Peace initiative, talks about bias. "I think you know the Eskimos have 70 words for snow," he notes. "We probably have 70 different kinds of bias, prejudice, racism, and discrimination, but it's not in our mind-set to be clear about it. So I think that we have sort of a lousy language on the subject and that is a reflection of our unwillingness to deal with it honestly and to sort it out." In some ways, Sherman--one of many real people Smith interviewed and worked into Fires, which premiered at the Public in 1992--nails the landing: bias underscores the monologues of almost every person Smith has worked into the show. But then again, there's so much more to the piece, and to the people in it, than the ways bias shapes our thinking. And Fires in the Mirror would be a far weaker piece if Smith had allowed her own biases to influence the ways the many characters in the piece consciously or unconsciously air theirs.



A mild stir went up at the initial announcement that Smith would not be performing her celebrated play this time around, but then, Fires in the Mirror very much deserves to live on whether she's involved or not. Michael Benjamin Washington holds his own in the Signature production, moving easily between characters with the lighting of a cigarette, the donning of a headscarf or hat, or the careful preparation of a cup of tea. Like Smith in the original production, Washington disappears into each of the many people he portrays, all the while keeping his own opinions off the table. Some of the people portrayed are angrier and less tolerant than others, and a few have especially strong--and not especially kind--opinions about Blacks, or Jews, or the incidents that sparked violence and rioting. But in letting them all speak for themselves--whether about the role of hair in black culture, complications that can arise during Shabbat, which cultural group has been treated most cruelly through human history, or who specifically was to blame for the violence in Crown Heights in summer 1991--Smith has created a quiet, moving, kaleidoscopic reflection on race, culture, and personal identity. While the riots at the heart of the production certainly took me back to that strange, sad summer, I found Fires to be, for the most part, curiously uplifting and even hopeful. Bias might occasionally slop over into violence and hatred, but then again, as one character muses, no matter who they are, most people want the same things: to go freely about their days; to experience more joy than pain; to live in quiet, peaceful neighborhoods; to get along with one another more often than they don't.   

Saturday, November 09, 2019

The Hope Hypothesis

In the excellent Voyage Theater Company production of The Hope Hypothesis, running through November 15 at the Sheen Center, playwright-director Cat Miller deftly shows how easily innocence can be misread as guilt when the authorities involved neither understand the people involved nor care to.

Soraya Broukim, William Ragsdale
Photo: Beowulf Sheehan
The plot is simple: When Amena, a long-time resident of the United States, goes to a governmental agency to complete some immigration paperwork, the clerk freaks out at the flag on her birth certificate. She is soon caught in a bureaucratic nightmare that also ensnares her boyfriend and an ACLU lawyer.  Unfortunately, reality these days is scary enough that Miller needed to write only the smallest twists on reality to drag Amena into an insane and frightening world from which she may never return.

In addition to being tense and suspenseful, The Hope Hypothesis is funny, warm, and pleasingly clever. Its 75 minutes fly by. Miller and her excellent cast imbue potentially stereotypical characters with humanity (only the character of a dumb CIA agent fails to take life), and the characters' interactions ring true in a way that brings further dimension to Amena's adventures in Kafka-land.

Connor Carew, Wesley Zurik, Charlie O'Rourke
Photo: Beowulf Sheehan
The scenery, by Zoë Hurwitz, provides a coolly anonymous setting while also allowing quick and effective transitions into other locations. (I have a personal bugaboo about slow scene changes in multi-scene plays, but The Hope Hypothesis moves quickly due to Hurwitz's scene design and Miller's smooth direction.) The costumes, by Katja Andreiev, suit the characters, and the lighting, by Bailey L. Rosa, and sound design, by M. Florian Staab, nicely support the general sense of dread.

While we constantly hear about the insane prices of Broadway, it is important to remember that all over New York and the entire country, top-notch work can be seen for the price of a movie ticket, medium soda, and medium popcorn. The Hope Hypothesis deserves way more attention than it is likely to get in its short run Off-Off-Broadway, but you have a week to catch it before it goes.

Wendy Caster
(2nd row, press ticket)

With Soraya Broukhim,* Wesley Zurick,* Charlie O’Rourke,* William Ragsdale,* Greg Brostrom,* Connor Carew,* Mary Hodges*

*Member of Actors’ Equity Association

Scenic Designer: Zoë Hurwitz
Costume Designer: Katja Andreiev
Lighting Designer: Bailey L. Rosa
Sound Designer: M. Florian Staab
Production Stage Manager: Sarah Biery
Stage Managers: Erika Blais and Morgan Eisen
Assistant Director: Ann Kreitman
Technical Director: Eric Zoback
Press Representative: Glenna Freedman PR
Casting by: Stephanie Klapper

Graphic Design by: Youness El Hindami

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Molly Sweeney

What is a play? There are many definitions, of which this one (from the Merriam-Webster website) is a representative example:
A composition in verse or prose intended to portray life or character or to tell a story usually involving conflicts and emotions through action and dialogue and typically designed for theatrical performance [emphasis mine]
This is clearly a simple and perhaps simplistic definition; it ignores the many ways that great playwrights have broken the boundaries of theatre. But it's also a good starting place.



I was pondering this definition while watching the Keen Company's revival of Brian Friel's 1994 two-act play, Molly Sweeney. The story of a blind woman who undergoes surgery to partially restore her sight, it consists of alternating monologues by Molly, her husband Frank, and her surgeon Mr. Rice. As the play went on, I just kept wishing they would talk to each other!

The device of alternating monologues can provide conflict by having the characters give differing accounts of what happens; however, Molly, Frank, and Mr. Rice are largely in agreement. It can add dimensions to characters by allowing us to see them through varied points of view; again, there is little disagreement among the three characters. Monologues could also, theoretically, provide suspense by carefully doling out information, but Molly Sweeney telegraphs its aims, meaning, and ending early on.

So we're left with the language and the performances. The language is often lovely, as Friel's language generally is, but there's just too damned much of it. On and on the characters drone, well past the point of having anything to add.

And, in the Keen Company's production, directed by Jonathan Silverstein, the performances are disappointing. Molly (Pamela Sabaugh), Frank (Tommy Schrider), and Mr. Rice (Paul O’Brien) never bloom into characters. In addition, the actors fail to vivify the anecdotes they tell and the people they describe.

Molly Sweeney is not one of Friel's best works but I'm sure it has more to offer than evidenced by this sadly flat production.

Wendy Caster
(third row, press ticket)