Monday, March 31, 2008
Faint praise for me to say that of all the current productions prizing the death of The American Dream, Silver Bullet Trailer is at least the most fascinating failure. Julie Shavers's script has some great zingers (which makes it more interesting than Paradise Park) and Dan O'Brien's direction is at least more creative (especially in its use of videography) and contemporary than The American Dream/The Sandbox. Right now, Shavers's play is being held up by her own performance as a banana-mayonnaise-eating hillbilly, and from the few moments that don't feel completely overdone. Still, far too much of Silver Bullet Trailer comes across as an overzealous, characterless mash-up of George Saunders short stories, with far less focus and far less punch. Some of that blame rests with actors like Sean-Michael Bowles, Benjamin Ellis Fine, and the three gals playing the burlesque Buckle Bunnies, for Dan O'Brien gives them a suitably creepy staging that they just don't take far enough. But most of the flaws remain with Shaver's script, which gets so focused on satire and symbolism that it loses sight of character entirely.
Watching this Encores! version of the 1959 musical based on Sean O'Casey's downbeat tragicomedy Juno And The Paycock, it is easy to see why the musical was not a success when it premiered: too much of the first act tries, counterproductively, to provide levity and merriment and the source material resists being reshaped to oblige. It is also easy to see why the musical has attained some measure of cult status: the score (by Marc Blitzstein) is a shining gem, a sophisticated and dramatically expressive collection of Irish-tinged songs that range from the stirringly anthemic to the delicately lilting. However problematic the show, this astutely directed, often gloriously performed staged-concert production (directed by Garry Hynes) showed the piece to spectacular advantage: what worked here worked magnificently, and what didn't work probably never could. As the put-upon, salt-of-the-earth matriach of the hard-luck Boyle family, Victoria Clark gave a detailed and superbly judged performance that honored the spirit of the material. This was not the kind of performance where the diva plays poor and downtrodden while winking to the audience that she's only "acting": Clark disappeared into the role. Celia Keenan-Bolger rendered the Boyle daughter with touching vulnerability: the show's musical highlight was the mother-daughter duet of "Bird Upon A Tree", a deceptively pretty but deeply sad song that expresses their mutual longing to be freed from their hardships. (A second noteworthy highlight: the lovely ballad "One Kind Word" as superbly and sensitively sung by Michael Arden.) Although the pathos in the show's opening number - in which Dublin's Irish witness one of their own being murdered in the streets - was played so broadly that I half expected to see Officer Lockstock and Little Sally among the ensemble, the cast seemed otherwise at the right pitch for the material. Of special note were the male dancers (led by Tyler Hanes, playing the Boyle son who'd lost an arm fighting for Ireland) who performed a spellbinding and physically demanding second-act dream ballet as choreographed (with vital dramatic expressiveness) by Warren Carlyle. For me, Juno's most lingering stage picture is of those five dancers leaping through the air in unison, each with an arm behind his back under his shirt.
**** (...out of 5 stars)
By this time we should all know that Juno is a flawed musical. Heck, I hadn't even known of its existance until I saw a Playbill press release with Victoria Clark's photo attached (and I call myself a show-junkie). Based on the Irish play Juno And The Paycock definitely has all the ingredients of a great musical- political drama, romance, comedy, tragedy- but it just seems like the creators didn't know how to stir it all up properly. Obviously, though, as usual City Center has dressed this production up with a dream director (Garry Hynes) and a dream cast and has fashioned a wonderful history lesson on what it was like to be a flop musical in 1959. Victoria Clark is stunning as the matriarch and title character and Tyler Hanes as the one armed dancing hot guy, continues to force me to be obsessed with him.
Sunday, March 30, 2008
"Listen to me carefully," says the ticket seller, an ominous face peering out from a small slit in the wall. "What do you want?" Benny, his back to the audience, ponders the question, then hesitatingly responds: "I guess I want to escape from my daily life, you know, from the abyss of total meaninglessness that I know lies just beneath my feet at every moment." He needs, in other words, distraction, and that's what Chuck Mee provides in his latest piece, Paradise Park, an unfocused reflection of a run-down America. However, entertainment is nowhere to be found: Mee's collaged writing has never been more jarringly disconnected than here, and even though the original script has thankfully been edited for the Signature stage, it still lacks a center to hold everything together. Mee's idea of love, a silly, childish, but ultimately fulfilling need, doesn't help: Vikram, who is dressed as the park's cloying mouse mascot, is in love with Mortimer, Edgar's dummy; Darling, daughter to the argumentative Morton and Nancy, loves Jorge, a sweetheart with a penchant for stockings; and Benny lusts after Ella, a character who, for all the sense she makes, could've skated in right out of Xanadu. The play, which runs for two intermissionless hours, only occasionally breaks out of Limboland, and that's only when Daniel Fish pulls a sight gag, such as launching fruitcake across the stage or attempting to inflate a castle-bounce in a space that is clearly too small for it. (That's not to say Fish directs this play well: most of the show takes place on a stage lit only by badly projected images, and more than a few actors, particularly Vanessa Aspillaga, seem to have no idea what they're doing.) Paradise Park feels like a work devised by Andy Kauffman; I hope Mee is backstage laughing, because from the audience, we're just prisoners in someone else's imagination.
[Also blogged by: Patrick]
Saturday, March 29, 2008
Almost an Evening is the right name for Ethan Coen's three one-acts (now transferred to 45 Bleecker): it's almost an evening of theater. Unfortunately, the middle third, "Four Benches," is an empty punchline, and the strained final piece, "Debate," never achieves the effortlessly bleak comedy tackled so well in the opener, "Waiting." The slick, spirited cast keeps the show oiled enough to do more than squeak by, particularly Joey Slotnick, who, despite his character getting stuck in a hellish sort of limbo, is never static himself. Operating with a sense of the sublimely ridiculous, F. Murray Abraham plays God Who Judges with such Carlin-like brio that he earns a slap on the wrist from God Who Loves (a fine Mark Linn-Baker): "This is not David Mamet." No, it's certainly not. But by being acutely aware of that, Almost an Evening gets by with a consistently terse minimalism that's matched by Ilona Somogyi's old-fashioned costumes, Riccardo Hernandez's specific and to-the-point sets, and Neil Pepe's economic direction. (Only Donald Holder's lighting was off, but that's more a problem with the cues than the design.) You may have to stretch the metaphor that Young Woman and Young Man (Atlantic founders Mary McCann and Jordan Lage) use to discuss their relationship, but these plays fuck you in the pussy, not in the heart.
[Also blogged by: Patrick]
I saw a half-priced early preview of Cry-Baby. It would have to get a hundred times better by opening night to be worth full price. There's plenty of athletic, high-energy dances for the boys in the chorus - Rob Ashford's choreography is easily the best thing about the show - and one person in the cast (Alli Mauzey) nails the trashy tacky-fabulous style of the John Waters movie that is the show's source material. No one else seems to have been asked to even try: the bland and unsexy musical - yet another set in the mid 1950's with the good girl falling for the bad (read: misunderstood) hip-swivelling rebel - not only lacks Waters' gleeful-weirdo personality, it lacks any personality at all. It's a dull and derivative Grease wannabe that always feels been-there and done-that-better-before.
Friday, March 28, 2008
If I'm going to believe that two seemingly well socialized young urbanites - Lia, a straight black woman, and Ben, a gay white man - conduct an intimate years-spanning friendship only through written letters even though they live across the hall from each other, I'm going to need a lot more convincing than I got from Garret Jon Groenveld's play Missives. The playwright clearly intends for their letters to strike us as deeply personal and revealing, but that's where he's most wrong: nothing the two write to each other is so naked or humiliating as to forbid face to face contact, so the premise that they continue to avoid anything but letter-writing begins to grow precious. The play is mostly a flashback, framed by Lia giving us direct-address information that immediately drains any suspense out of the show: it isn't until late in the first act when Ben gets a boyfriend (played with vibrancy and endearing vulnerability by Ryan Tresser) that the play has any measure of dramatic conflict. As Lia, Shamika Cotton builds judiciously to the play's final emotional scenes and it's to her credit that she got me to feel something long after I went numb on the play (which was about half an hour earlier, with the second-act introduction of a character right out of crime-drama stock).
Thursday, March 27, 2008
In the first half of The American Dream, Edward Albee's revival of two of his early and absurd one-acts, the first thing you'll notice is probably the color scheme: a red and blue chair, divided by a love seat, with a faded background of American stripes and bars, looking more like a circus prison than wallpaper. That's all fitting, for Mommy (Judith Ivey) and Daddy (George Bartenieff) are -- though they seem tame at first -- animals, living, breathing embodiments of that savage (and soon to be savaged) American Dream. However, the ensuing eighty minutes of awkward pronouncements ("I just giggled and blushed and got sticky wet") have aged about as well as the emasculated, shuffling Daddy: they have little impact. Part of this is the acting, which is either wooden itself (granted, Lois Markle is a last-minute replacement for Grandma) or as paper-thin as the character: as Young Man, who is literally the American Dream, Harmon Walsh bears a huge responsibility on his shoulders, but he neither snuffs out his emotions nor instills the character with a sense of strength, and this leaves his role with a great deal of ambiguity, as does the play (which isn't even theater of the absurd at its finest). As for The Sandbox, which is shorter than the intermission preceding it, at least it and its Angel of Death (Jesse Williams) are swift.
[Also blogged by: Patrick]
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical about a cheery community in Washington Heights has been scrubbed clean of any hard-hitting drama, but it's still a fresh, fun new show in its own right. In The Heights is best when it's playing to the larger-than-life atmosphere, rather than when it focuses on the rather simple problems of its individual residents. Additionally, few performers beyond Miranda (Robin De Jesus as the comic relief, Sonny; Andrea Burns as the sassy salon girl, Carla; and Karen Olivo as the strong-backed but loose-limbed Vanessa) have the necessary charisma or vocal presence to carry solos or duets. Just as there's no charisma between Benny and Nina (Christopher Jackson and Mandy Gonzalez), there's no conviction behind songs like "Inutil" or "Enough," and that hurts Carlos Gomez, Priscilla Lopez, and the whole show. Thankfully, In The Heights focuses most often on the whole neighborhood, a confection that's completed by Andy Blankenbuehler's merengue-flavored choreography, Howell Binkley's fireworks in the light department, Thomas Kail's constantly moving, urban-flowing direction, and Miranda's fusion of familiar Broadway tropes with the shaken-up spasms of rap or the multicultural beats and grooves of a whole new rhythm.
[Read on] [Also blogged by: Patrick]
Monday, March 24, 2008
More cool than kitschy, more memorable than simply memorabilia, the live stage version of What's My Line? is both irresistibly honest and hokey at the same time. Men are gentle again, wearing tuxedos and pulling out chairs, and women aren't just women -- they're dames: gowns, gloves and all. It's a throwback to another time, but the comically "risque" questions are just as funny now as when this ran on late-night TV for 25 years, and with new panelists and guests "competing" (for fun) each week, it's simple commercial fun. I admit I don't know Betsy Palmer (one of four rotating panelists), but watching her ask questions like "Can I put this piece of wood in my mouth?" was great fun, even more so considering that the line in question ("line" is an old-fashioned way of saying "job") was that of Liang Wong, the youngest oboist ever for the New York Philharmonic. I certainly wouldn't go back on a regular basis, but it's a trip down memory lane, even for those of us too young to remember how things were way back when.
Two guitars and a lot of bucket-drumming: that's the musical accompaniment in this all-male version of the classic musical now re-set in a modern-day prison. The young performers bring off the musical numbers well enough under the circumstances (although "The Impossible Dream" must be excepted: that anthem loses a lot of power sung to just strummed chords) but the production's directorial conceit is ultimately too problematic: there is so much business to tell us that these prisoners are merely acting out Alonso's story of Don Quixote that we never get the room to become involved in it, and we have no clue as to why it is powerful and inspiring. More damagingly, there is much confusion when some of the events in Quixote's story happen not to the characters in the play within the play but to the prisoners. The goal may have been to heighten the danger in the material, to emphasize the high stakes by illustrating how the story Alonso enacts with the inmates has relevance to their plight, but the result makes for a narrative mess. (The friend I saw this with, who had somehow never seen any production of Man Of La Mancha before, didn't have any idea what was going on.) Still, for those who are already well acquainted with the material, there are moments when this bold re-imagining is fascinating in its audacity: I'll never be able to hear about that Golden Helmet Of Mambrino again without thinking of its "golden" moment in this production.
Anne Bogart's tuned-in direction, G.W. Mercier's lean sets and witty costumes, Darron L. West's nifty soundscape, Mary Louise Parker's heightened, oddball performance heading up an able ensemble: everything is in place for Sarah Ruhl's latest flight of whimsy to soar. But it doesn't. After an intriguing set-up (with Parker as an awkward, disconnected introvert who begins answering calls to the cell phone of a man who's died at an adjacent cafe table) and some promising speeches that toy with the idea that our technological connectedness has actually made us more disconnected from each other, the overly precious and overlong play starts to grate on the nerves: so much quirky style to deliver so little.
Sunday, March 23, 2008
The first thing Father (Kevin Augustine, as a yellow, dessicated god) does in Lone Wolf Tribe's Bride is blow his own brains out. Unfortunately for him, as Monkey (Rob Lok) reminds him, pointing out a few key lines of the Bible, he's "everlasting," and with a shudder, he awakes. What follows is his attempt to fashion a messiah for a world that won't stop calling him with their woes. Weirdly wonderful, and filled with fantastic special effects, make-up, and the most disturbing puppets this side of R. Crumb, this show is a macabre dance between Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas and some Terry Gilliam-like Brazil. This is twisted, clever, incredible theater: I strongly recommend this stark, beautiful puppet/human hybrid.
In his introduction to The Fifth Column, Ernest Hemingway writes that "while I was writing the play the Hotel Florida, where we lived an worked, was struck by more than thirty high explosive shells. So if it is not a good play perhaps that is what is the matter with it. If it is a good play, perhaps those thirty some shells helped write it." Like the statement, his play is wishy-washy: at some points, an ironic, self-deprecating look at the lifeless insistences of counter-espionage, at others a cheesy romantic comedy styled in the mannerisms of '30s movies (the play was written in 1937), and also a play about slow, hot days -- Tennessee Williams with the booze, but without the passion. Everything about Jonathan Bank's direction of this play is slow, including the scene changes, and perhaps that's meant to help the text itself seem more urgent -- but it's a failure, even in the interrogation sequences. What once may have been a startling look at the dirty truths of war is now a passive play filled with cryptic remarks and unfinished characters.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
I respect Primary Stages for trying to open the doors to a younger audience, but they rushed into a quaint show about as full as packing bubbles with last month's Hunting and Gathering, and now they've stumbled into an unfeeling drama that reminds me of a Mitch Hedburg one-liner: "I'm against picketing, but I don't know how to show it." My primary complaint with Something You Did is Carolyn Cantor's direction, which theatrically gets things off on the wrong foot and never regains its balance: Why do maximum security visitations take place in the library? And why does this (presumably indoor) library have a barbed-wired fence? My secondary complaint is with Willy Holtzman's shallow caricatures: Uneeq (Portia), the attitudinal black female cop; Arthur (Jordan Charney), the rotund, smug, and glib lawyer; and Gene (Victor Slezak), an unfathomable asshole who writes provocative op-eds like "All African-Americans Should Be Thankful for Slavery" and is anything but grounded in fact. (OK, well that last character's about as a real as any newscaster on FOX.) Alison (Joanna Gleason), jailed thirty years ago for a explosive protest gone wrong, is a relic of the past, stilted and upright, is fighting for a cause that post-9/11 America must condemn as terrorism. Her musty idealism shines for a few moments here and there, specifically when she tries to apologize to Lenora (Adriana Lenox), daughter of the cop she inadvertently killed, but on the whole, this play is a well-crafted, well-intentioned shrug of a play. Where's the shrapnel?
[Also blogged by: Patrick]
Friday, March 21, 2008
Thursday, March 20, 2008
A lot of so-called mature plays out there just talk about how awful life is and lapse into theatrical tricks when it comes down to showing the gritty truth. Simon Farquhar's Rainbow Kiss doesn't pull any tricks, just like it doesn't pull any punches: this is most jolting play I've seen this year. It is as unsettlingly angry as Martin McDonagh (free of farce), as comically tragic as Conor McPherson (minus mysticism) and messy only in its Scottish slang and uncompromisingly dirty view of life. It takes the best of Abby Spalleen's Pumpgirl (the grimy poetics), Mark O'Rowe's Terminus (the rhythmic cursing), and Robert Farquhar's Bad Jazz (the dissonant energy), and puts a lot of other very good shows to shame. With exceptionally physical direction from a fearless Will Frears and outstanding performances from the cast, most notably the anti-heroic Peter Scanavino, Rainbow Kiss is a must-see play.
Playwright Adam Bock has given himself a strenous exercise: he's written a play in which all of the characters are sloppy drunk right from the get-go. It's an engaging idea but at the early preview I saw it hadn't yet amounted to anything more than an exercise: once I was done marvelling at how accurately some of the actors sustained the illusion of being intoxicated (particularly good are Barrett Foa and Maria Dizzia) I realized how little room there was to care about the characters. Bock might be aiming for, but hasn't credibly gotten at, the "true nature" behavior that can be revealed by over-boozing. Although there are random, too-brief moments when the actors freeze and more soberly reveal what they're feeling, the play's tone is situation comedy, and there aren't enough funny shocks of recognition to put it over. (Two nice exceptions: the nifty entrances that begin the play, and the meet-cute between the characters played by Foa and Alfredo Narciso.)
Also blogged by [David], including a discount code.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
[Also blogged by: David | Patrick]
Monday, March 17, 2008
(As for Tommy Smith's ten-minute The Break-Up, which precedes Urban's play, I have nothing -- nothing -- positive to say. Sorry.)
Andy Blankenbuehler can plan on a Tony Award right now: the Latin-flavored, newly-transferred-to-Broadway musical In The Heights is sure to win Best Choreography this year. The numerous ensemble dance numbers are fresh and sensational, pulling from the vocabularies of hip-hop and salsa at least as heavily as from the traditional dancing we're used to seeing in musical theatre. What's more, the dances work even more effectively on a big Broadway stage than they did when the show played off-Broadway last year. The pity is that the show's book, while certainly improved and tightened since the show's previous incarnation, is still weak and wanting: the show presents its Washington Heights barrio as if it was a hip-hop tinged Sesame Street, and the story we don't care about (will Nina leave the hood to return to Stanford?) gets more play than the one we do (will nerdy Usnavi get the girl?). But there are some terrific performers in featured roles - most notably Andrea Burns and Karen Olivio - and it's always a pleasure to see Prisciilla Lopez, even when as here her role is nothing, her song is nothing. Most appealing of all is twenty eight year old Lin-Manuel Miranda, also the show's bookwriter and composer, whose infectious warmth and off-the-charts charisma put a smile on your face whenever he's on stage. This may be his Broadway debut, but without question he is already a star.
With Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon B. Johnson as its two main characters, The Keen Company's new play might sound like the kind of thing you were dragged to on your high school field trip. But the absorbing, intimate historical drama, which depicts the two leaders not as one-dimensional heroes but as men struggling mightily with their personal convictions and public responsibilities, is solidly entertaining and finally deeply moving. Not only extensively researched (with a great deal of its dialogue derived from surveillance materials that are now in the public record) but also expertly shaped for dramatic impact, the play's themes have obvious relevance to current-day events. And as we watch Dr. King's growing objections to the Vietnam conflict and we feel the escalating pressures (from Johnson and from civil rights leaders) that tempt him to keep silent about it, it's all too contemporary how even honest, peaceful dissent is demonized as "unpatriotic" in times of war. The playwright (Michael Murphy) creates an arc that convincingly tracks King's fall from popularity as a result of his alignment with the anti-war movement while it also tracks Johnson's growing irritation and impatience: the final scene between the two men is so wrenching it nearly reduced me to tears. I mean no slight at all to the fine ensemble (in which Jonathan Hogan is a stand-out) or to DB Woodside (quietly intense and altogether excellent as King) when I say that John Cullum's superb performance as Lyndon Johnson is practically a Master Class all on its own. There are many compelling reasons to see The Conscientious Objector but if you only need one, Cullum is it.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
Dead Man's Cell Phone is a marvelously quirky, beautiful love story. It's incredibly specific in tone, with poetics taking precedence over sense, but between Sarah Ruhl's easy control of language, Anne Bogart's gentle aesthetic minimalism, and the cast's unequivocal focus, the show works. It is, however, marred by a sloppier second act that reaches for extremes that end up blurring the precise magic of the first (and no wonder, given that Ruhl spent a year between acts). Sloppy or not, I've got no complaints at seeing more of the magnificent Mary-Louise Parker, who despite playing a mousy, timid do-gooder, is arresting even with her short, sparing snippets of text. Her physical control (and her powerful pauses -- I'd kill to see her do Albee or Pinter) fill in the rest of the blanks, and even seem to justify the aphorisms about cell-phones that are thrown around by the other characters, particularly the cool and direct Mrs. Gottlieb (Kathleen Chalfant) and her shadowed son, Dwight (David Aaron Baker), who anchor the show. It isn't so important that we make something of dead man Gordon's (T. Ryder Smith) monologue, or of Jean's arrival in a Beckett-like hell (think Play Without Words I), so much as we let the show, with its weird, wonderful rhythms, wash over us.
[Also blogged by: Patrick]
The Public Lab is selling itself short: not only is their production of The Poor Itch about as far as you can get from "barebones"; it's also incredibly rich, not just in content, but in the insightful glimpse it gives us of a playwright's mind. John Belluso died before completing his tale about a disabled (physically paraplegic and mentally PSTD) Iraq veteran, but his friend, Lisa Peterson, has boldly directed his play anyway, filling in the blanks by having actors read his notes for unwritten scenes, and by staging multiple drafts of scenes in quick succession. (Think of David Ives's Sure Thing, only not as a comic gimmick.) This choice also gives a nice parallel to Ian's deterioration over the course of the play: Act I is largely finished, but Act II is a much rougher beast, not just from the fragments that exist, but from the overarching attempts at symbolism and deep-rooted themes linking America and war. Especially for $10, this is a must-see.
*** (out of five)
Now in Previews.
Bachelorette party in da house! Swooning ladies loaded up with engagement rings and high heels hit the big city for a night out on the town in this playful, if a little slight play by Adam Bock. Every one's happy and every one's sane until one too many drinks have been drunk then all the hell- she breaks a'loose. Old School. There are many laughs here as our girls compare engagement rings and as our cast devolves into those loud, slurring mobs you see stumbling out of bars at 5am. We've got a very sexy cast here that keeps things moving along (a number of the actors seem as though they've actually had experience being drunk in real life!). And if the script was a little thin and predictable I left this sweaty, sloppy, blood-shot romp without one hint of a hangover.
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Friday, March 14, 2008
Thursday, March 13, 2008
The playing area seems nothing but a black void except for the loveseat where Sam (the American) and Guy (the Brit) have a man-to-man entanglement that looks like an unhealthy enmeshed love affair. But only the slightest amount of personal specificity is given and it's quickly clear that what we're hearing out of their mouths is not the talk of lovers but of two nations in bed with each other, with (Uncle) Sam bending Guy to his greedy, destructive will at every turn. The two don't even need to finish their own sentences - even their intimate, casual exchanges are jagged fragments spiked with loaded foreign policy buzzwords. They talk in commonplace, intimate tones of epic-scale horrors: the effect (most especially in one scene where Sam, curled up under a blanket, coldly lists methods of prisoner torture until his masochistic lover returns) makes for boldly provocative, politically charged theatre of a blood-curdling potency. The fourty-five minute play (yes, you read that right, and it feels precisely the length it should be) might sound in the retelling like a crafty, overly academic exercise, but it isn't: it is driven by a such a palpable moral outrage that despite its not-one-extraneous-word polish it often feels like it was borne of one explosive burst of focused anger. The playwright (Caryl Churchill) even finds mitigating moments of dark humor without letting its fueling rage below a boil. I wonder about a thing or two (shouldn't Guy be a good deal older than Sam, for instance, to keep with the metaphor?) and I must admit that the play's relentless condemnation of American policy and of Britain's spineless submission to it could easily shut down some theatregoers as it opens up others. But whether you agree with Churchill's overarching statement or not, this is jolting, must-see theatre that wants to disturb and strongly provoke us, and it does.
Looking to have a qwarding good time? Then check out the high energy, action comedy adventure Fight Girl Battle World, a theatrical send-up of science fiction with some innovative fight choreography up its sleeve. Hot chicks, sarcastic robots, and bad-ass aliens: rarely does theater get so blatantly entertaining. Knowing your audience well enough to open with outtakes between an action-figure Boba Fett and his tonton buddy leaves the door wide open for creativity, and Vampire Cowboys Theater Company milks it for all its worth: a soundtrack ripped from Tarantino, a passively subversive riff on the creation myth, and some puppet spaceships fighting one another with karate kicks. Oh yeah, it's on.
[Read on] [Also blogged by: David]
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
This new one-act, written and directed by Susan Mosakowski and currently running at The Ohio Theatre, has the fathers of Evolutionary Science (Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace) interacting with Mary Shelley and her fictional Frankenstein monster, thanks to the conceit of Darwin's hallucinatory fevers. It's the kind of play that gently provokes questions, such as "how do we ultimately define human?" and "should we take a flying leap forward on the evolutionary chain just because we can?" By the time the first biogenetically manufactured woman arrives late in the play, Mosakowski has thoughtfully explored many aspects of the theme, sometimes with a bit of humor and always with intelligence, but the opening scenes are on the dry side and despite an able cast the play doesn't, ahem, come to life until Mary Shelley shows up. Once she does the play-of-ideas is more lively and textured, and remains engaging partly thanks to the playwright's probing tone. It's the opposite of being hit over the head sledgehammer-style with a "message".
Lincoln Center's new revival of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic is lush and beautiful: the production doesn't skimp on the number of musicians in the pit or actors in the ensemble, and the sets - from the forced perspective sand dunes to the giant rotating airplane - also look no-expense-spared. The show is rich in gorgeous classic show tunes - "Younger Than Springtime," "There Is Nothing Like A Dame," and "I'm In Love With A Wonderful Guy" are but three that have since achieved songbook standards status - and generally they are well-performed in this production. But I have to confess that while South Pacific may be my favorite Rodgers & Hammerstein score, I've never warmed to the Pulitzer Prize-winning book - everytime the military men pull out maps my eyes glaze over, and being asked to buy the dramatic convention of love-at-first-sight with not one but two couples in the story has always turned me into a tightwad. However, the show's heartstrings-pulling second act usually pulls me through (capped by the handkerchief-worthy double-hit of "You Have To Be Carefully Taught" and "This Nearly Was Mine", both splendidly performed here) as do charismatic performances. Two weeks into previews, some of the principal performers are not yet where they could (and probably will eventually) be: Kelli O'Hara hasn't yet found enough "hick" in her Nellie Forbush, for instance, and Paulo Szot - an opera singer making his natural and charming Broadway debut as Emile - needs to find more levels in his performance. Danny Burstein, on the other hand, is in ready-to-open spot-on shape as Luther.
This musical is at least a little bit ground-breaking in the sense that this is the first time that this almost 60 year old Pulitzer Prize-winner has been revived on Broadway; probably in part, due to the dated nature of the book whose themes on racism seem archaic and darling. Instead of calling in David Ives to fix it, Director Bartlett Sher, has smartly embraced the book as a relic and carefully presents it just probably had been originally. Having played Lt. Cable in my High School spring musical (Matthew Morrison decided to play him as sexy and masculine. Interesting choice.), I have every word of the score committed to memory and it was pretty heavenly listening to these songs sung so beautifully by our Broadway cast. I cannot get "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" out of my head. Nor do I want to.
Monday, March 10, 2008
Hello Failure is focused on the rich, excellent, substantive lives of seven submariner's wives who come together to discuss their feelings of isolation. However, Kristen Kosmas presents her material with overlapping text, fragments of thoughts, and gasps of self-confession that abruptly surface (and just as abruptly submerge), and the end result is often hard to grasp. The play is fixated more on the nuances of the conversation than what's actually behind the line ("sub"-text), and this self-inflicted meta-realism seems to be, like the characters, compensating for an absence of purpose. The actors are exceptional, especially given the untraditional deliveries and abrupt changes in scene (or mood), and special credit to Matthew Maher, who grounds Kosmas (and her play), despite seeming to be a figment of Rebecca's imagination. Kosmas uses many such devices, but this is the only one that forces the characters to confront their issues, the only one that isn't hiding failure behind cleverness.
How are Dianne Weist and Alan Cumming in CSC's new production of The Sea Gull? They're both woefully misdirected and often adrift, but since that's also true of nearly everyone in the cast, the blame surely belongs elsewhere. The ensemble isn't the least bit cohesive - each actor seems to be in a different production, and only David Rasche (as the Doctor, Yevgeny Sergeyevich) seems to be in a production you'd want to see. Otherwise, there are counterproductive choices made throughout that prevent this production not only from having a cumulative emotional impact but also from making any kind of thematic sense: even the notes that confidently sound in any average production of this play are missed or not attempted. There's a doozy of a directorial choice near the end of the three-hour play that I won't reveal. I'll only say that it's misguided and part of the reason why this production's climactic Nina-Konstantin scene is the weakest I've ever witnessed, unless Drowning Crow counts.
Friday, March 07, 2008
One of the most joyful and entertaining shows in town right now is at City Opera, where director/dance genius Mark Morris has taken Purcell's 17th century music for King Arthur, thrown out all the dialogue, sent the singing chorus out of sight to the orchestra pit, and put his wonderful dance troupe on stage with the principal singers. Now more a cheeky modern dance program set to Purcell's lovely music than a comprehensible production of the piece, the dancers outnumber the singers. But the witty and repeatedly surprising show has a lot of fun integrating the modern dancers and the classical opera singers on the same stage, and it is hard to imagine anyone but the most diehard purists having a problem with this: the music, under Jane Glover's baton, is respectfully and gorgeously rendered and the dancing, to put it mildly, brings a visual excitement and a fresh attitude not usually associated with Baroque opera. (Said fresh attitude extends to a few brief, unabashedly bawdy moments including mimed guy-on-guy oral: this isn't your Grandad's production of King Arthur!) Morris doesn't run out of ideas - there are new ones at every turn, and you leave not only delighted by the music but tickled by the production's cheerful playfulness and its high spirits.
I've posted about this before when I saw La Boheme last year but it's worth repeating: thanks to their new Opera For All program, a number of Orchestra seats can be had at City Opera for $25. The week's discounted tickets go on sale each Monday morning of the season, and yes, they can be purchased online.
This is yet another fine example of me racing to a show simply because of its title. Sexually transmitted parasites? Jerkfaces? It reeks of high drama. Dan Bernitt, one of the latest in a crop of emerging one-person-showpeople, treats us to a handful of stories many of which deal with the horrifying embarrassment of being a young adult. Topics such as tubes up the urethra to parents who talk to stuffed animals to yes, scabies, are presented in a fresh, charming and wholly engaging way by our bright hero. All the more impressing is this darling chap is only 21 years old. At 21, I also caught scabies but I wasn't nearly organized enough to write a show about it.
Thursday, March 06, 2008
In truth, Adding Machine doesn't add up. The music doesn't portray the mechanical; instead, it's tinny and dissonant, and only really effective when shrilling out of Mrs. Zero (Cyrilla Baer), who relies upon her husband's constant and considerable failures to make herself seem better. Combined with the original text of Elmer Rice's 1925 expressionistic play, the stark, dimly lit sets convey a gloom that is abject and anachronistic with the synthesizers, and even the racial slurs seem defanged. Joel Hatch, as Mr. Zero, does a tremendous job of carrying the leaden pace on his shoulders, a walking figment of defeat, but when he first sings -- a confession of murdering his boss -- he seems defeated by the song, too, drowned out and hoarse. If that's intentional, it adds nothing, and only heightens the contrast with a fellow-prisoner, a tenor named Shrdlu (Joe Farrell), who steals focus (by default; Farrell himself is quite forgettable) from what should be Zero's self-inflicted fall from grace. The staging is fun, with the lights creating a claustrophobic darkness and walls or cages creeping ever closer upstage, but overlong set changes make things like the uneasy transition from the real world to the Elysian Fields even more confusing. Adding Machine talks about efficiency and purpose in both the real world and in what passes for the afterlife; David Cromer's direction is to the point, but Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt need to learn to subtract.
[Also blogged by: Patrick]
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
Sadly, the third and final show in Signature's Charles Mee season is easily the low point of the series. An intermissionless fantasia that drifts around a group of people who've chosen to live indefinitely in an amusement park, the play has no rising action to speak of and is instead, in typical Mee collage style, organized thematically. But in the absence of a narrative spine, Mee doesn't do enough with the theme of escapism American style to sustain (much less, build) interest over the play's length, and the slow-paced production ends up feeling longer than its two hours. The play is loaded with whimsical business - a freefall of toys, a castle that inflates and deflates before our eyes, etc. - that mostly just sits on stage dead, failing to resonate. Some of the actors cut through the numbing mood now and then - Veanne Cox and Christopher McCann most effectively among the able ensemble - but Paradise Park is otherwise remote and unreal.
According to his fictional autobiography, Stew had a religious experience listening to the rock 'n' roll of his local church service; his play, Passing Strange, now passes that music back to its Broadway audience as if to make it a religious experience for us. The music is certainly big enough to do the trick -- particularly when Stew booms the words on "Keys" or "Work the Wound" -- and it's also diverse enough to play bright contrasts and colors, jumping from the pure comedy of "We Just Had Sex," to spoofs of punk ("Sole Brother") or Broadway ("The Black One"), to layered songs like "Must've Been High," and to character pieces like "Amsterdam." Stew knows the rules, he just chooses to break most of them, and as a result, his powerhouse show comes across as philosophy with a beat as his younger self, Youth (Daniel Breaker) struggles to identify himself, and to find the Real. I'm also happy to report that the Broadway transfer has tightened the gears on everything except for the finale, which feels disconnected now. Not that you'll notice, given how much better Mr. Breaker's gotten, both physically and lyrically.
Monday, March 03, 2008
The problem with Year One of the Empire, aside from the fact that it's three acts long, is that it bloodlessly tackles a large American injustice. Elinor Fuchs and Joyce Antler have assembled hundreds of texts for this "play of American politics, war, and protest taken from the historical record," but one begs for some measure of Chuck Mee-like elaboration to this collage, for without some boundary pushing flair, the show flatlines through the paces. At its best, the show is history up on its feet, but those unwilling to read a New Yorker essay about the water cure are unlikely to sit through three hours of back-of-your-seat drama; at its worst, the show features actors who would make your seventh-grade history teacher look good. Due to illness, a stand-in went on for Lee Dobson: understandably, he read lines off a clipboard. (I'm can't say why John Tobias was using a script, only that it looked very unprofessional.) It says a lot about the passivity of the play that these recitations sounded no different from anything else.
Sunday, March 02, 2008
Justin Bond's show at PS 122, on the occasion of his Ethyl Eichelberger Award, is a queer-cool cabaret-style evening in which he generously shares the lounge-lit stage with several other gender-bent performers. The show is instantly downtown hip but it's pleasurably unpretentious and laid-back: no one is trying to one-up anyone else and a palpable sense of fabulous but humble community makes itself felt. (So much so that it almost seems redundant when Bond's banter becomes briefly political.) Accompanied by a small combo led by downtown star Our Lady J at the piano, Bond goes through almost as many costume changes as he does songs: respectively, my favorites were the mesh gown and the cover of Traffic's "Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys". His guests provided more variety than I expected: in their appearance and movement, a group called The Pixie Harlots paraded a distinctive blend of masculine aggression and feminine flourish, Nathan Carrera played acoustic guitar in a glitter loincloth, Glenn Marla performed a memorably vulnerable monologue on gender body issues. Is it too much to hope for, that this kind of transgender variety show could be an annual event?
Lesbians are disproportionately under-represented on New York's gay-friendly stages, and for that reason I'm inclined to stress that this off-Broadway one-act (which adapts Ann Bannon's 1950's-era lesbo pulp novels) has some girls-night-out value. (And David loved it too.) It's a lively and sometimes amusing show, although it lacks the strong point of view that the purple material demands for current audiences. The play wants to have it both ways by gently playing the then-tawdry exploits in the books for camp, while mining them for a now-typical gay-is-okay coming out story. The result is that the show doesn't do a bang-up job of either: the tone is all over the place. (I was reminded how much more successful Nosedive's Halloween show was, on a shoestring budget, at staging pulp fiction style). The production, which hasn't been adequately re-imagined to work in its new, bigger space after its hit run last year downtown, looks underfurnished and on-the-cheap. Yet it isn't boring, and the performers often get to look like they're having fun. That, and the fact that gay girl stories are relatively uncommon on stage, gives it some coolness points.
The Nonsense Company is exactly why I go to festivals: they're a fresh, vibrant group, producing theater that's unlike anything else out there. That it's politically themed adds an extra edge, but I'm giddy enough to pronounce this the must-see play of the FRIGID Festival. Their first play, Great Hymn of Thanksgiving looks like Chuck Mee slamming into Philip Glass, and features "three speaking percussionists" (more like Foley artists here) who use ordinary dinnerware (and a few musical instruments, like a cymbal and harpsichord) to create a thankless Thanksgiving. Their second play, Conversation Storm, presents a series of non-linear scenes that, nonetheless, escalate and oscillate between humor and drama as three friends go at one another over the morality of using torture in the so-called "ticking time bomb" situation. A little dinner talk, a little nuclear apocalypse, a fancy meal, a torture session -- wow. What's most impressive is how human the cast is, despite the machine-like precision of their shifts between on only scenes but entirely different plays.
Saturday, March 01, 2008
No one is too cool and blase for The Blue Man Group. Sometimes silly, sometimes performance-arty, sometimes just funny, the show is by now an institution that most New Yorkers leave to the tourists. Score one for the tourists. There's a very good reason why. more than a decade into the show's run, the blue-latexed aliens are still very often a tough ticket: the show is loads of playful, high-stimulus fun for all ages. Set to highly percussive music, three mute blue men (my friend dubbed them "noisy mimes") perform a varety of acts ranging from the strange (drumming on liquid) to the weird (catching marshmallows in their mouths) but always with disarming mock-gravity and sharp comic timing. It's like losing a staring contest for ninety minutes: the Blue Men don't blink, but you're a hot giggling mess.
There's a moment where the text of Ann Bannon's 50s lesbian pulp novels is really turned to flesh -- a hot, torrid scene of tangled emotions that feels real, despite the intentionally cheesy writing. But Leigh Silverman's sparse direction ends up focusing too much on the swaggering one-liners, and while Marin Ireland, David Greenspan, and Carolyn Bauemler find ways to balance witticisms like "We can't think straight because we always think gay" with honest lines like "Do you think some pretty twenty-five year old is going to fall for a bald, middle-aged bastard without a bank roll to offer?" the same can't be said for Autumn Dornfeld, who relies too heavily on telegraphed actions, or Jenn Colella, who has to work so hard to make us buy her brutish turn as Beebo that she has little energy left to do anything else. For all that, I guess I'm a sucker for camp, because I still had a good time at Beebo Brinker Chronicles; I just wish the play had found better ways to balance the threads.
[Read on] [Also blogged by: David | Patrick]