Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Tonya Pinkins' Truth and Reconciliation: Womyn Working it Out!

The cast; Photo by Katie Walenta

While much of Tonya Pinkins' Truth and Reconciliation: Womyn Working it Out, a collective of nine 10-minute plays and songs about women and oppression performed at The Tank (West 36th Street in Manhattan), from Oct. 3 to 6, was overwrought and simplistic, there are searing moments that showcase the cruelty women have faced and the strength required to find healing. 

The best vignettes, "Tierra de las Flores," written by Glory Kadigan and "Law 136" by Carmen Rivera recount historical tales of discrimination. "Tierra" tells the story of two women in Florida, set in the 1800's about 50 years after slaves were freed, and explores their uneasy navigation of class, abuse and vigilantism. 

"Law 136" recalls the covert Puerto Rican "voluntary" sterilization campaign, started in 1937 and funded by the U.S. Government, that by 1968 had operated on one-third of the female population. "The Operation" was marketed as a means of birth control and many underwent the tubal ligation procedure without knowing the irreversible consequences. "Law 136" frames the story around a first-time nurse who struggles between keeping her job and being ethical.

Pinkins--a Tony-Award winning actress (Jelly's Last Jam) and author--produced, directed and appeared in the production, as well as wrote the segment "Till Hell Freezes Over." Examining oppression--how women are both impacted by it and also hurt one another through it--is a worthy topic and Pinkins' take offers a variety of perspectives--from contemporary to historical that look at class, culture, prejudice and more--in one show. And that's admirable, but some of the stories need tightening to truly add to the discussion started by the #MeToo and #TimesUpNow movements. 

Traditional native chant sets an appropriate tone at the production's opening, reminiscent on how traditional history is often told again and again through music, but the subsequent musical interludes that connect the short works often feel amateurish with uneven dancing. The last song about the infamous "C" word, which provokes smiles as the women on stage take back the taboo with a punchy take, ultimately fails because the language is not nimble or provocative enough. This flaw permeates through the piece and removing the mawkishness and periodic overwriting would elevate the entire show as well as its songs. Perhaps in the show's next incarnation, the execution will be more taut and effective. 

Friday, September 13, 2019

Laughing Liberally: Make America Laugh Again

Laughing Liberally: Make America Laugh Again, an evening of left-leaning stand-up comedy, provides a bubble of shared beliefs, politically correct (and occasionally incorrect) commentary, incisive humor, and the comfort of being among friends (assuming, of course, that you're a liberal). With changing line-ups, it can be hit or miss; the night I saw it, the major hits were John Fugelsang (smooth and fast and surprising and witty) and The Reformed Whores (bawdy and silly and insightful and very sex-positive). Your odds of enjoying yourself will naturally rely on the combination of your tastes and the particular line-ups, but in general you can expect a fun, quick-moving evening.

The Reformed Whores
Here are the line-ups going forward:

Saturday 9/14
  • Jeff Kreisler
  • Dean Obeidallah
  • Joyelle Johnson
  • John Fugelsang
  • Elayne Boosler

Tuesday, 9/17
  • Natalia Reagan
  • Gregory Joseph
  • Mehran Khaghani
  • John Fugelsang
  • Janeane Garofalo

Wednesday, 9/18
  • TBD
  • Gregory Joseph
  • Calvin Cato
  • Scott Blakeman
  • John Fugelsang

Thursday, 9/19
  • Kevin Bartini
  • Leah Bonnema
  • Chuck Nice
  • Liz Miele
  • David Feldman
  • John Fugelsang

Friday, 9/20
  • John Fugelsang
  • Judy Gold
  • Elayne Boosler

Saturday 9/21
  • TBD
  • John Fugelsang
  • Elayne Boosler

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, 4th row)

Sunday, September 08, 2019

American Moor

When Keith Hamilton Cobb first took an acting class, he wanted to play Titania from A Midsummer Night's Dream. His acting teacher said no. Cobb continued to make creative suggestions; his teacher continued to say no. Finally, his teacher made recommendations. For some strange reason, all of them were "Moors." You see, Cobb is black, and his teacher was a jerk.

However, this is just one side of the racial limitations put onto to Cobb. On the flip side, in his professional career white directors would try to explain roles such as Othello to him. As Cobb says in his play American Moor, in which he also stars, they didn't trust him, a big black man, to perhaps have a fuller understanding of Othello, a big black man. Add to this that directors' suggestions often leaned toward the offensive, and it's easy to understand how and why Cobb could end up annoyed and tired and flat-out pissed.

Much of American Moor happens in Cobb's head during an audition to play Othello, with the director (Josh Tyson, in a very minor part) whitesplaining the lead character and Cobb pondering and dealing with the historical, professional, and personal ramifications of this, for him, representative life experience.

Cobb's descriptions of his life as a 6'4" black man and actor are hard-hitting. His performances of lines and speeches from Shakespeare are well-done. But I was ultimately uninvolved by American Moor. I'm not sure why, if it was the writing or the flow or that it was a Saturday matinee or that the show felt too performed. Some people in the audience were clearly touched and affected by Cobb and his show; about a dozen people gave it a standing ovation. But, for me--and I suspect for others in the audience--there was a disconnect.

Nevertheless, I am glad that the wonderful Red Bull Theatre broke from their usual centuries-old plays to produce this new show about how the classics live in today's people and how today's people live in the classics.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket; 7th row)

Monday, August 19, 2019

Art Times: Whose Opinion Matters?

My latest essay is up at Art Times:

The holy grail of New York theater is a rave review in the New York Times. It doesn’t guarantee success (and a pan doesn’t guarantee failure), but a rave certainly increases the odds of the show running. That’s why the paper is quoted all over posters and ads. “Brilliant,” says the New York Times. “Must-see” says the New York Times. “Ground-breaking,” says the New York Times. Many other cities also have professional critics whose reviews can affect the financial success of a show.

read more

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Queen of Hearts

Ian Spring and LEXXE as Alice. Photo: Mark Shelby Perry

This burlesque journey down the rabbit hole transforms Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into a circus-tinged, sexy romp. Theatre XIV’s Queen of Hearts reinterprets Alice’s introduction to Wonderland and all of its characters into lively tableaus, where performers pose and pivot — creating scenes full of beauty and eroticism that showcase conceiver/choreographer/director Austin McCormick’s inventiveness and sense of play.

It’s not for everybody — and it’s advertised as a show for over 21. While the mix of circus, opera, magic, dance and music is vastly entertaining, the show celebrates the art of the tease — with barely there, sometimes S&M-inspired costumes and a healthy appreciation for beautiful bodies highlighted by glitter, feathers, leather and whatever else will showcase their curves (Wardrobe Supervisor Lauren Brandt). Part of the show is enjoying the titillating movements of the firm, young performers on stage. Alice (LEXXE), in Theatre XIV’s version, is somewhat of a naughty girl, both minx and innocent.

The eclectic selection of music – from Neil Sedaka’s “Alice in Wonderland” to Perry Como’s “Dream on Little Dreamer” to Rossini’s “La Pastorella” adds to the fun. The tunes constantly surprise — what other version of the Alice story has the Mad Hatter (a captivating Marcy Richardson) singing Lady Gaga in it — and honors traditional burlesque, which often peppered shows with high-brow references, like McCormick’s use of opera and ballet, assuming a certain level of sophistication in its audience. 

Theatre XIV recently moved into the space at 383 Troutman St. in Bushwick, Brooklyn, launching their 2018-2019 season there, and the show uses the venue to heighten the audience’s experience: it's arranged more as a salon than a conventional theater, with even one of the numbers starting from a large champagne-shaped goblet on the bar before continuing to the stage. You can imbibe on cocktails like the Queen of Hearts (Champagne Brut, Blackberry Liqueur) or Painting the Roses Red (Rose Gin, Aperol, Lillet), among other drinks and snacks.

The running time at two hours and 30 minutes is a tad bit long (it has TWO intermissions … and it’s not even Wagner), but overall Queen of Hearts offers the joyful, entertaining respite of an old-fashioned cabaret – your troubles are left outside and momentarily disappear amid all the joyful frivolity.

Shows run Thursdays through Sundays and select Wednesdays (through Nov. 2). For exact times, visit and for more info see Tickets run from $85-$155, with VIP couches for two starting at $325.

View the Queen of Hearts 30-second promo video trailer at

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

A Fidler afn Dakh (Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish)

It took me a very long time to see A Fidler afn Dakh (Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish)--more on that in a minute--but I'm glad I pushed myself to go, because it's glorious. In slowing down the musical's often frenetic pace, cutting back on a lot of the usual schtik, and translating the dialogue into the language Tevye and his community would have spoken had they actually existed, the production puts new emphasis on collective Jewish life in the Russian shtetl. Still as warm, lovely, and ultimately heartbreaking as always, the show also feels newly urgent--and ended up feeding me in ways I hadn't realized I'd been quite so hungry for. 

Any good production of Fiddler needs a strong center, and Stephen Skybell delivers, even as he is also the most emotionally muted, physically small Tevye I've ever seen: there's not a trace of Zero Mostel's bluster or swagger to be found here. Gone too are the broad gestures, stagey asides, bits of clowning, bellowed dialogue. The same applies to all the musical's most comic characters: Jennifer Babiak's Golde is a levelheaded, calm and rather graceful balabusta who utterly lacks the harried exasperation and exceedingly short temper her character almost always seems to invite. The village rabbi is still a doddering, senile old man, but Adam B. Shapiro infuses him with enough grounded dignity and world-weariness that he is no longer a walking punchline. And as the always wonderful Jackie Hoffman has interpreted her, Yente is still a gossipy motormouth with a severely limited grasp of social boundaries, but she's also lonely, vulnerable, and concerned for her own livelihood in the face of political and cultural change.

These flesh-and-blood depictions result in a more moving (if also more painful) finale, in which Anatevka's residents are driven from what has been their home for generations on three days' notice. No wonder, then, that while the rabbi and Yente are still respectively as foggy and logorrheic as they always have been, there's nevertheless nothing cute or diverting about them in their final scenes; Hoffman, in particular, delivers Yente's last lines in a voice gritty with exhaustion, worry, and sorrow.

Havel: The Passion of Thought

Once upon a time, not all that long ago, I watched certain political plays with a sense of distance, deeply sympathetic to the characters and deeply grateful that those awful things weren't happening to me. Then a certain election happened, our country changed with breath-taking rapidity, and some of my white privilege bit the dust.

This all struck me, hard, while watching PTP/NYC's excellent evening of one acts, Havel: The Passion of Thought, which consists of three plays by Václav Havel, one by Harold Pinter, and one by Samuel Beckett. Václav Havel was a dissident playwright in Czechoslovakia who was harassed for years, spent time in jail, was beaten, and became president when communism was toppled. He didn't actually choose to be a dissident: "We simply went ahead and did certain things that we felt we ought to do, and that seemed to us decent to do, nothing more nor less.”

As assembled by director Richard Romagnoli, with the Pinter first, the Beckett last, and the Havels in between, Havel: The Passion of Thought takes us on a journey that includes terror, powerlessness, and farce. Our guide for the journey is the character Vanek (David Barlow), a man who upsets other people's balance simply by living an honest life. Vanek is the protagonist of the three Havel plays, and via Romagnoli's structure, appears in the other plays as well.

In Pinter's The New World Order, the Vanek-ish character merely sits there as two torturers discuss what they are going to do to them. Their dialogue reveals them as monsters, but human ones.

In the first Havel play, Interview, Vanek has an extended discussion with his boss. Due to a government crackdown on the arts, the best job Vanek has been able to get is moving kegs from one place to another in a brewery (this is directly from Havel's own life). His boss is overfond of the brewery's product, and the seemingly friendly conversation throbs with menace. Vanek says little and remains calm throughout.

Michael Laurence, David Barlow
photo: Stan Barouh

In Private View, a couple who has compromised themselves into material comfort take Vanek on a bizarrely personal tour of their overdecorated apartment and supposedly wonderful lives. The couple's lady-doth-protest-too-much message, over and over, is that Vanek should be more like them. Again, Vanek says little, but it doesn't matter; the couple continue to project all of their doubts, self-hatred, and despair onto him.

Christopher Marshall, David Barlow, Emily Kron
Private View
photo: Stan Barouh

The third Havel play, and perhaps the best, is Protest. Vanek's old friend Stanekova, whom he hasn't seen in years, has summoned him to her comfortable home. Here again, comfort represents compromise. She is hoping to enlist him in a campaign to get her future son-in-law released from jail. As it happens, Vanek has been assembling signatures on a petition for just this reason. Naturally, he asks her to sign. But will she? She discusses the pros and cons at length, and is angered by Vanek's quietness, which she interprets as opprobrium; she, like the couple above, projects her self-criticism and guilt onto him.

Danielle Skraastad, David Barlow
photo: Stan Barouh
Protest is tough to watch because it invites the audience to consider what risks we would take--and, more to the point, wouldn't take--to fight injustice.

The evening ends with a brief Beckett play, Catastrophe, which Beckett dedicated to Havel. In a physicalization of powerlessness, the Vanek character is on a pedestal, silent, with no agency, as his body as moved about to please a director-dictator. It is powerful, although it is difficult to switch one's head from a Havel mode (largely representational theatre) to a Beckett mode (anything but).

Madeleine Ciocci, David Barlow, Emily Ballou
photo: Stan Barouh

When I mentioned to a friend that I was going to this evening of plays, he joked that I was likely to have an edifying evening. And I did. The evening was also impressive and painful. To say it was thought-provoking is only accurate if you picture the thoughts as being elicited by ice-pick jabs to the brain and heart.

As usual with PTP/NYC, the pieces are well-acted. In particular, David Barlow does an amazing job spending most of the evening listening, which is no small feat.

The lighting (Hallie Zieselman) is outstanding, supporting and enhancing the mood of each piece. The excellent costumes are designed by Glenna Ryer, and the smart scenery by Mark Evancho.

Thanks once again to PTP/NYC for doing work that matters.

Wendy Caster
(fourth row, press ticket)

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Summer Shorts: Series A

In Series A, the first part of Summer Shorts at 59E59, all three plays circle around death. This is a lot for a 90-minute evening.

The first show, Interior, is the most fully realized of the three. Two men stand outside a house, gathering their strength to give the people inside terrible news. Gracefully if somewhat repetitively written by Nick Payne, Interior is a sad and hard-hitting slice of life, well-acted by Bill Buell and Jordan Bellow.

Jordan Bellow, Bill Buell
Photo: Carol Rosegg
The Bridge Play by Danielle Trzcinski lives in the gray area between a skit and a play, with a simple plot: a man is getting ready to jump off a bridge and a younger man starts talking to him. The play moves along nicely and has some funny moments, but since we know that the guy isn't going to jump, the suspense is minimal. The play does offer two decent character studies, and James P. Rees and Christopher Dylan White are both quite good.

James P. Rees, Christopher Dylan White
The Bridge Play
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Here I Lie consists of two interlocking monologues that don't interlock; they just kind of interrupt each other. The characters are a young women and man (Libe Barer and Robbie Tann, both excellent) with difficult problems that aren't quite what they seem. The two stories sort of relate, but not enough to justify the constant momentum interruptions. I would have much preferred to see the monologues as standalone pieces; the writing by Courtney Baron is fluid and the characters are compelling. They just keep getting in each other's way.

Libe Barer, Robbie Tann
Here I Lie
Photo: Carole Rosegg
While none of the three plays is bad, as an evening, Series A lacks oomph. The sum of the parts is a tad smaller than the whole.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, third row)