Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Aaron's Year-End Review

Best Plays of 2008
As a bias alert, I direct you to the breakdown of the 251 shows seen in 2008. Not surprisingly, this list reflects my off-off-Broadway habits, as well as my attraction to magical realism, aesthetic direction, and refreshingly new directions. Don't be fooled by the presence of two revivals, two musicals, and a monologue: each play on this list had a unique voice, a striking presentation, and a hypodermic of adrenaline-laced honesty.

Women Beware Women - Red Bull doesn't just revive plays, it resurrects them, mounting top-notch productions that highlight the language and showcase the style, not just reminding us that it's cool to kick it old-school, but that it's where we learned to kick it in the first place.

9. Bride - Lone Wolf Tribe embraced their otherworldly vision so fully that they were able to embed social commentary in a comic nightmare, get away with straightfaced puppetry, and keep the audience perpetually surprised and delighted.

8. crooked - Catherine Treishmann captured the excited magic of storytelling in this original exploration of teen angst; by refusing to conform to stereotypes, her work fleshed out characters in the most heartwrenching ways, for the deeper they are, they harder they fall.

Rainbow Kiss - Simon Farquhar's debut play was shockingly realistic, from the visceral axe-through-a-door staging to the desperate, craving dialogue, and the unflinching tragedy of depression, shown here without tricks or metaphors: just a raw and bloody mess of a life.

6. Aliens With Extraordinary Skills - Saviana Stanescu uses a light-hearted fantasy as a means of creating empathy for the awfully dark reality illegal immigrants work in--but never comes across as preachy; the ability to be charming and convincing is no easy feat.

5. How Theater Failed America - Mike Daisey is a wonderfully talented monologist, one of those richly voiced and charismatic people who fill the nuance of each syllable with a passion so palpable that what they say hardly matters--except that in this case, the words were every bit as important as the performance, and Daisey's usual collection of anecdotal humor was flooded with a hard-earned honesty well worth listening to.

4. Passing Strange - Though there are some gimmicky moments and a few flat pieces in the second act, those things are all part of "The Real" that Stew found so hard to communicate--breaking the standard conventions of theater, particularly Broadway, as he did so; what stands out is the way the hairs on my arm stood up as his music crackled through the theater, and the way he reclaimed "Art" as something well-worth striving for.

3. Blasted - Sarah Kane's play has never been about the eye-gouging, baby-cannibalism, anal rape, and other horrifying shocks of this Beckett-busting work; by realistically, unflinchingly directing this work, Sarah Benson has succeeded in jarring the text far enough off the page that it can be seen as the painfully alive, utterly human, and angrily demanding work that it is, shocking, ultimately, only in that it is no longer as shocking on the surface as in 1995 (although it is just as emotionally scarring as ever).

Fabrik - All of the characters in Wakka Wakka's production are puppets, but like Maus and Cabaret, this only allows the ensemble to shed the pretense and melodrama that often accompanies plays about the Holocaust; puppetry, when it is as specific and deliberate as used here, can show us facets of our own humanity that we are too blind (or stubborn) to notice--we get so caught up in the magic of these miniatures that their deaths are somehow more affecting: we were no longer prepared for or protected from it.

1. Hostage Song - This aptly-described "downtown supergroup" (Clay MacLeod Chapman, Kyle Jarrow, and Oliver Butler) earned that name with this transcendental indie rock musical about a pair of two doomed hostages, their loved ones, and the beautiful dreams they once had--and still cling to, Everymen for the current human condition. In an intimate black-box theater, blindfolds freed them (and us) to think outside the box, reminding us of life's horrors while at the same time meshing them with the simplest, most fragile pleasures. Not only did I go back to see this show, but if they should ever need an investor for an encore, I'm there.

[Read on]

Liza's At The Palace

photo: Lucas Jackson

They stood at the sight of her silhouette before she sang a single note, they stood after three numbers in the first act and three more in the second, they screamed "I love you!" and "You're the best!" between songs. To see Liza Minnelli's much-acclaimed engagement at The Palace is to find yourself at a temple where the crowds, who've come ready to worship, are whipped up into a frenzy of adoration. I'm not a fan, apart from Cabaret and Liza With A Z which were both directed by Bob Fosse, and this show - one of the hottest tickets in town - unfortunately didn't convert me. However I can well understand why so many are thrilled by it. For one thing, it's yet another seemingly miraculous resurrection after a decade that included much-publicized personal turmoil and two disastrous engagements in New York. For another, Liza's style by now summons a nostalgia not only for her own artistic history but also for a brand of entertaining that we will never see the likes of again.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Photo/Richard Termine

I suspect part of the reason I see so much theater is that I dislike being at home; both of these things end up working against the all-too-ordinary production of Home being done by the Negro Ensemble Company as part of Signature's 2009-2010 season. I don't like Samm-Art Williams's artificial narrative anymore than I liked Albee's interrogatory facade in Occupant: both focus more on the telling of history than on his story. In 1979, that may have been a crucial factor: the end of providing an outlet for all-too-often glossed over story justifies the means. But this revival substitutes chaos for urgency, turning January LaVoy and Tracey Bonner into whirling dervishes that spin their 25 characters around a sedentary Cephus Miles (Kevin T. Carroll). In the quietest moments, those that tell the love story of Miles and Pattie Mae Wells (LaVoy), the play is dizzying. However, these moments are undermined by those loud ones that follow, ones where Miles is suddenly a slick factory worker pretending that he's from Philidelphia instead of North Carolina, or where Miles shouts at a God who he believes to be vacationing in Florida. There's so much going on that this sort of broad emoting is a necessary shortcut, but it's also a mistake. Just because Miles gets back to where he started doesn't make Home any less empty.

Patrick's Year-End Review

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Light Lunch

Photo/Richard Termine

(Once again, it's time for a "the difference between a blog and a review" post! Happy holidays.)

Dear A. R. Gurney:

Please stop writing plays. It is hard enough to write a political play, let alone a comedic one, let alone one that also aims to question the morality of Bush bashing, and to do this all while being smug enough to reference "anagnorisis" and talk about your own WASP-centered past, or to attempt to sculpt something out of your shallow expectations of agents and lawyers. Do not assume that because you have people on stage talking that you have created characters. It may be easy for you to be produced at The Flea, especially when you name-check Jim Simpson in the script, but do not therefore take action for granted: you must still do something in your play. Just because you have pointed out all the exposition in your script does not mean that you have the right to use it, and do not assume that we are laughing with you, and not at you. Paul Auster can talk about Truffaut-type endings, and he can quote from The Bridge Over the River Kwai: get him to write your next metadramatic play. (No, scratch that: see the first line.) Finally, if you are going to preach about theater, please take your own advice: an "interesting" idea is "the kiss of death."

- Aaron Riccio

PS. Next time, offer fries so that I can die a little faster.

[Don't read on]

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


It was snowing understudy slips from playbills as we settled in to see Hairspray one last time before it closes on January 4th: Matthew Morgan on as Seaweed, Curt Hansen as Link, Daniel Robinson as Corny Collins. (All were seamless, and I especially liked Robinson's subdued snarled-lip take on Corny; I'd never have guessed these three weren't doing these roles daily.) The show is in remarkably great shape for its final weeks, with both Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur back to reprise their Tony winning performances, and I spent the first act with the wildly enthusiastic audience marveling at how feelgood a well-directed, delightfully choreographed and terrificly scored big Broadway musical can be when everyone is on their game. Winokur didn't make it to the second act - Annie Funke took over after intermission, and we later heard whispers of a sprained ankle - but the highly rare mid-show switch in the already understudy-heavy perf just seemed to galvanize the performers anew to bring the goods. Hairspray's had a sensational seven year run; nonetheless, I'm sorry to see it go.

The Cripple of Inishmaan

photo: Keith Pattison

With only half a month left in the year I thought it was safe last week to finalize a list of the best shows I saw in 2008. Then came this superbly realized, thrillingly acted Druid Theatre production of one of Martin McDonagh's earlier plays and said list is obsolete. To those who saw this play a decade ago at the Public, with a mostly American cast misdirected by Jerry Zaks: expect a revelation. Here, as helmed by Gary Hynes, McDonagh's ironic, often bitter comedy plays out with an ensemble whose flawless performances succeed at credibly depicting a community. It's 1934, on the Irish isle of Inishmaan where Billy, a young adult cripple, yearns to escape to the neighboring isle where a Hollywood film is being shot and locals are being cast as extras. The narrative is solid but it's less important than what McDonagh uses it for - the play is a dark comedy about Irish values that finds perverse humor in the everyday cruelties of its characters. The play's funniest line may be one delivered by the town gossip, who lives with his mother and makes no secret of his plan to get her to drink herself to death: "We Irish are the friendliest people in the world".

Monday, December 15, 2008

TOMMY 15th Anniversary Reunion Concert

The 2-LP set by The Who, the hypervisual film version, the 2-LP soundtrack album starring Ann-Margret: in my flood of fond childhood Tommy memories I'd forgotten one thing: I didn't like it as a Broadway musical. I only remembered this during the first minutes of the Original Broadway Cast reunion concert, fearing a long night of chair-bound performers and weakened classic rock. I needn't have feared: the concert (a one night only benefit for Rockers On Broadway) quickly took on its own resonance. So many performers well known to us now - Sherie Rene Scott, Norm Lewis, Alice Ripley, Christian Hoff - laboring away in the chorus again, just as they had when Tommy was first on the boards. Others we haven't seen enough of since - like Cheryl Freeman, the Acid Queen - blowing the roof off the place one more time as if not a day had passed. And at the center Michael Cerveris, now a full-out Tony-winning Broadway star, bringing credible rock vocal chops to the title role. The concert, which included video projections which on numerous occasions displayed scenes of the original Broadway production, became less about the material and more about watching virtually everyone involved step up and hit the mark, turning a decade and a half into the blink of an eye.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Women Beware Women

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Women Beware Women is an explosively clear rendition of a classic Jacobean love story. No wonder the company is called Red Bull--like the drink, you can mix Jesse Berger with any drama and the results will be eye-opening, dizzying, and thrilling. In Thomas Middleton's play, the drama is a deftly staged game of love in which "vengeance [meets] vengeance like a chess match," and the Queen is Kathryn Meisle. As Livia, she hooks her niece up with her brother, breaks up a marriage between newlyweds, and buys the love of a younger man, all because she can . . . and, in this powerful production, because she has to, for she is driven by desires as well. There are big banquet scenes and bigger masques, and the whole width, depth, and height of the appropriately classic church theater is used, too. The whole production comes together so well that even fans of modern musicals will feel at home with this straight 1700s tragedy: each line sings, and the themes of empowerment and jealousy are crystal clear.

[Read on]

Improbable Frequency

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Improbable indeed, that strained puns and cloying songs should be this fun, yet Improbable Frequency manages to cross the right signals, sending up the retro-kitsch of the '40s in everything from Alan Farquaharson's noirish set to Arthur Riordan's "everyone's a spy" plot, and from Bell Helicopter's jaunty jigs to Lynne Parker's hammy direction. Even the hero, Tristram Faraday (Peter Hanly) is a joke: he's a cruciverbalist, not a spy, as is his surprise rival, his former flame and now dancing double-agent, Agent Green (Cathy White). The romance is sweet, but also comedic, with sweet Philomena O'Shea (Sarah-Jane Drummey) looking to share "The Inner Specialness of Me" in what amounts to a very tuneful sex duet, "The Bedtime Jig." Once you accept that the world is being rewritten for laughs, it's easier to get behind songs like "Ready for the Wurst" or "Don't You Wave Your Particles at Me" (in which a lecherous Schrodinger is told off). The whole thing is still thirty minutes too long and the white-faced actors are distractingly surreal, but any show that makes a character eat feathers out of a newspaper (to illustrate that the chips are down) is at least novel enough to warrant a look and merit a listen.

Women Beware Wome

Reviewed for Theatermania.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Photo/Alex Koch

If you buy the meta-shtick of Joe Iconis’s ReWrite (he is writing a musical to deadline, and so writes about himself, and the one who got away) then you have to accept that Joe is writing music for selfish reasons: for his friends and for the warm glow of the afterparty. If you don’t buy the three one-acts structure, loosely connected by a melody and a character, then the show is an after-school special about confidence (“Nelson Rocks!”), a musical twist on Durang-style loneliness (“Miss Marzipan”), and a self-aware but fatuous look at musicals—[title of show] without the honesty (“The Process”). The end result is charmingly underwhelming: only as a character in his own play, The Writer (Jason Williams), does Iconis succeeds at having an emotional breakthrough.

[Read on]

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Truth About Santa

***1/2 (out of five stars)

Christmas annoy the fuck out of you? Yeah, me too. Which is why I so wholly connected with this slappy, mean-spirited, Santa-bashing stocking-stuffer of a musical downtown at the Kraine. This Greg Kotis joint features him and his real wife and two lovely real children (the von Kotis family singers!.........the family von Kotis!...). The story is simple and dumb and fun. The wife and kids run off to the North Pole with Santa who is basically a big, old, fat slut. Ms. Claus wants to destroy the world and the elves well.... they're not right. Revenge. Booze. Sex. It's what Christmas ought to be (and often is). Production-wise this is a pretty tight package. The pace is speedy, the sets/costumes are thrown together and fabulously crappy and the cast is hilarious. Note to Luisa Struss (aka Ms. Claus): With your gravely voice you sound exactly like Eileen Heckart. You should play her sometime.


Reviewed for Theatermania.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Prayer For My Enemy

photo: Joan Marcus

The acting in this production of the new Craig Lucas play is of consistent high quality, but Victoria Clark, whose contribution to the first half of the one-act essentially consists of delivering monologues, is especially outstanding. When the character she's playing eventually interacts meaningfully with the other characters - an extended family whose eldest son (Jonathan Groff) is about to return to duty in Iraq - it's clear that the play is at its core about grace and forgiveness. Unfortunately, the playwright has put a lot of other distracting business in our way and dulled the power of his message.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Improbable Frequency

This much-acclaimed musical, from Dublin's Rough Magic Theater Company, is the kind of unique and wacky that inspires cults, but I'm still scratching my head as to why it didn't do much for me. On paper, I ought to love it - it's like nothing else out there, it marches with integrity to its own drum, and it certainly isn't stupid. (In fact the script is on fire with clever wordplay; it's what held my interest through the first act.) The patter-rich music is entertaining and flavorful (one group anthem, "We Are All Of Us In The Gutter", is still with me) and there's nothing to complain loudly about as far as the ensemble goes. (In fact I found two of the performances - Peter Hanly as a crossword puzzle fanatic who is pressed into service as a code-cracking spy, and Sarah-Jane Drummey as a mysterios lass who may or may not be on his side - to be entirely delightful.) And yet after about an hour I had had quite enough: the setting of the story - namely, politically neutral Ireland during WW2 - seems irrelevant by the second act, and the zany silliness that ensues exhausted rather than charmed me.

Sunday, December 07, 2008


Reviewed for Theatermania.

3 Sisters 6 Actors 12 Dollars

To clarify, while Jesse Edward Rosbrow has "adapted" Chekhov's Three Sisters for Theatre of the Expendable, this review will refer to it by its gimmicky slogan--3 Sisters 6 Actors 12 Dollars. With the naturalism destroyed, the subtext discarded, and (at best) two passable actors cobbled out of the mass, it would be criminal to link this to Chekhov. One problem is most obvious in the crowded first act, in which actor Clinton Lowe mentions "There are thirteen of us at the table!" and the casual observer has no way of telling if Lowe is speaking as Kulygin, Masha's husband, or Solyony, rival to Irina's loveless dalliance with Tusenbach. (I won't bore you with the plot any more than the show does, which is to say, you'd better be familiar with these characters before seeing the show.) To cut things short: this is more of an abomination than an adaptation, and whatever credit Rosbrow earned with Mare Cognitum has just been bankrupted.

[Don't read on]

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Truth About Santa

Photo/Colin D. Young

O, have no worries dear singing elves Jim-Jim (Jeff Gurner) and Jo-Jo (Clay Adams), and by extension, writer/actor Greg Kotis of Urinetown fame: we most certainly do not find this "apocalyptic" Christmas tale to be boring, stale, or slow. The lump of coal in my heart-stocking thinks that there are problems with this script, the hammiest and most aimless of Kotis's works, and that's something that not even John Clancy's positively berserk direction can fix. However, by casting himself and his family and friends, Kotis manages to justify everything with a piping hot helping of sincerity. After all, it's a Christmas tale meant in heart for children but graphically for adults, and by melting our hearts, he makes it a lot easier to enjoy The Truth About Santa for exactly what it is.

[Read on]

Pal Joey

photo: Joan Marcus

Bothered and bewildered but not a bit bewitched am I by Roundabout's botched revival of this Rodgers-Hart musical (in its last days of previews). Stockard Channing can not sing, and her otherwise sharp performance sags everytime she shifts from snappy dialogue delivery to meek emote-on-pitch mode. The production has far more pressing problems, such as the revised book that creates as many problems as it solves, and depressing on-the-cheap production values. (The set is horrendous - you'll get the idea if you imagine the roller coaster track from Assassins and the staircase from Nine competing with a mirrored crescent-shaped pylon - and the costumes are worse.) The musical, edgy in its day, is problematic even now to put on - it centers on an ambitious, scumbag ladykiller who behaves badly but who we, like the women in the story, are meant to find magnetic. Jersey Boys' Christian Hoff departed the role after about a week of previews under his belt, defaulting the role to his understudy Matthew Risch. (Under the circumstances, I'll say only that Risch, at this late point in previews, is at least headed in the right direction and, although only a serviceable singer, seems in striking distance of nailing the role before opening night.) The production is fatally short on both pizazz and sex appeal: everyone is so busy over-emphasizing the darkness in the material and mining it for contemporary psychological truth that concerns about entertainment value seems to have been forgotten. There are two mitigating factors though: Martha Plimpton proves a delightful musical performer, and easily steals the evening with her rendition of "Zip". Also, the females in the chorus are spot-on: in general, each looks appropriate to the period and each is deliciously individuated in the dance numbers.

Friday, December 05, 2008


Photo/Joan Marcus

Well, at least they didn't use any Smash Mouth for the curtain call in Shrek. However, just as David Lindsay-Abaire seems to have written the book by watching the film over and over again, Jeanine Tesori must have been listening to those songs as she wrote the music, for it's largely redundant pop. In fact, sometimes it seems like watching a Disney week on American Idol--the jokes are certainly dumbed down for that crowd. (Cleverest lyric: "This ass o' mine is asinine.") But while it seems derivative (a parody of a parody that uses parody as a device), there are some great moments in Act I, and both Christopher Sieber and Daniel Breaker are outstanding as Lord Farquaad and Donkey. Sutton Foster, as Fiona, isn't bad either, especially when going slightly crazy as she sings "I Know It's Today" from her tower prison--but the tap-dancing "Morning Person" is too Millie for my tastes: the play is better when it gets a little gross, as in the farting duet "I Think I Got You Beat" (Shrek and Fiona) or midget Farquaad's "dance" number in "What's Up, Duloc?" Or, say, any time Donkey gets to sing, as in the excellent "Travel Song" (in which director Jason Moore is able to bust out Avenue Q-level sight gags that mock, among other things, The Lion King On Broadway) or his Stevie Wonder R&B number with the Three Blind Mice, "Make a Move." As we all learn in the movie and now the musical, beauty ain't always pretty--but what the creators of Shrek have forgotten is that pretty ain't always beautiful.

Opening Night

photo: Jan Versweyweld

The script is by way of John Cassavettes' screenplay of his same-named 1977 film which centers on a stage actress who has what seems like a nervous breakdown while in search of the character she's rehearsing. This multi-media stage adaptation, directed by the brilliant Ivo van Hove, is miraculously even more compelling than the film: the near-constant use of video screens retains the intensely intimate Cassavettes close-up style. while theatrical devices depict the actress' forays into the hallucinatory more effectively than the original film, where they seemed stilted. The playing space may seem at first like a mad meta playground - we're backstage, on the stage, and in the wings, with live cameras ever hunting and gathering as Neil Young songs are cued in and out as if supplying a film soundtrack - but it's all disciplined, effective and involving rather than distancing and pretentious. The director has zeroed in on Cassavettes' love of the danger of theatre, and more specifically his insight into the actor's process, and has transformed the screenplay into a riveting theatrical triumph which explores the paradox that performance is both real and unreal. The cast is uniformly superb but special mention must be made of Elsie de Brauw, whose central performance is so fully realized and engrossing that she did what I would have thought impossible and chased all memory away of Gena Rowlands in the original film. In Dutch with English subtitles and, fair warning, two hours and twenty minutes with no intermission. Don't let that stop you from making the trip to BAM this weekend for this; it's one of the best shows of the year.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Uncanny Appearance of Sherlock Holmes

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Brad Krumholz’s play, The Uncanny Appearance of Sherlock Holmes, wonders what would happen to the world's greatest sleuth if the signs he relies upon turned out to be false. He does so by introducing Jacquline Derrida (Sarah Dey Hirshan) as a rival for Holmes (Brett Keyser), and by murdering Nietzsche and Freud. However, Krumholz, in adapting his own short story, relies so much upon theatrical trickery that the show never reaches the "deep, inner complexity" promised at the play's opening by a sexually ambiguous Dr. John Watson (played by Tannis Kowalchuk).

[Read on]

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Only Tribe

Photo/Sheree Hovsepian

How does such a simple concept get so conceited? There hardly seems the room for so much stuffiness given the plain stage, gray one-piece outfits, and white minimalist masks (each with a pixilated Katamari Damacy-like cut-out that gives it a “personality”). But sure enough, there’s a trademark in The Only Tribe’s logo. The “simple” stage actually houses 3LD’s Eyeliner technology, which lets Reid Farrington clutter it with commercial images and dancing holograms. Roland Gebhardt’s masked modernity is well-matched by Peter Kyle’s geometric choreography, and they move nicely to Stephen Barber’s chic electronica, but all this conjures is a high-brow Alexander movement class. Perhaps most damning is that Rebecca Bannor-Addae is credited as a writer for this silent piece: you can read her “story” at, but why bother? A few pretty moments and a solid back-beat can’t mask The Only Tribe’s flaw: after all, what is pretension but the meaningless grasp for importance?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Out Cry

Photo/Czerton Lim

While performing Two-Person Play, the play within Tennessee William's metadramatic cry for help, Out Cry, the "audience" walks out, leaving Felice (Eduardo Machado) and his sister, Clare (Mia Katigbak) alone, lost in their own world. That’s no surprise: after all, Felice reveals early on that their company has left them: “Your sister and you are—insane!” reads the charming letter. What is surprising is that nobody walks out on NAATCO’s revival of this troubled play. As it happens, the second act is much better: having dispensed with the circumstances, it brushes the madness of “artists [who] put so much into their work that they’ve got little left over for acting like other people.” It is not enough, however, to excuse Machado’s atonal line readings, Thom Semsa’s listless, restless, and senseless blocking, or the constant textual stumbling.

[Read on]