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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

circle mirror transformation

photo: Joan Marcus

Anyone who's been around theatre games or acting classes will key right in to the humor in this new play (by Annie Baker) at Playwrights Horizons in which an acting coach (played brilliantly and with delicious detail by Deirdre O'Connell) leads four adult students through exercises. The play is heightened just enough to make even the most ordinary theatre games seem strange and funny but not so much that it mocks or belittles the craft - it's grounded in truthfulness and reveals a surprising poignancy beneath the humor. The play may be a tad overlong at this early stage in previews, but all five actors - Reed Birney, Peter Friedman, Heidi Shreck and the scene-stealing Tracee Chimo - are already spot on individually and as a team.

Monday, September 28, 2009

'Tis Pity She's a Whore


Photo: Teresa Olson

Though the script and character count have been cut, John Ford's humor, along with his audacious story and effervescent language, survive well in this fit and flowing staging, thanks to superb direction, an ace production team, and a fine cast. Michael Nathanson is a wonderfully entertaining Bergetto, and Sarah Hankins, in a fine dual performance, actually gets two death scenes. Andrew Krug as Giovanni is very facile with the high-toned language of his flowery speeches. But the big discovery here is Jessica Rothenberg, who gives a spellbinding performance in the tricky and probably exhausting role of Annabella, the incestuous sister. She is as beautiful as she is talented, and while in some roles that might be a distraction, here it adds a dimension, as one can easily identify with Giovanni's ardor. Yet through body language and makeup she transforms, heartbreakingly, into an ashen moral wreck, as the Friar's prediction – "death waits on thy lust – nears fulfillment. Read the full review.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Viral


Based on Viral and Universal Robots (see review here), I would have to say that Mac Rogers is one of the best playwrights writing today. Rogers's compassion, insight, unique point of view, and dark sense of humor combine with his prodigious talents to create remarkable evenings in the theatre. Viral, which was part of the Fringe Festival and the Fringe Encores, focuses on a woman who Goggles the phrase "painless suicide." She ends up in what she thinks is a support group with Geena (the wonderful Rebecca Comtois), Jarvis (Matthew Trumbull), and Colin (Kent Meister), three losers who have a rather unusual favor to ask of her. Viral provides genuine suprises and the characters fascinate and remain sympathetic even at their worst. Director Jordana Williams has led the superb cast to perfectly calibrated performances, and the amazing Amy Lynn Stewart is perfect as Meredith.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Thunder Above, Deeps Below

It's quite a sight, this play, with lavish costumes, grandiloquent sound design, and a spectacular set by Sandra Goldmark. It also boasts some very fine performances, led by Maureen Sebastian, who was so good as the swashbuckling hero of Soul Samurai back in February. The material, however, is somewhat lacking. The script veers from overly self-conscious poetics to cliched and unrealistic dialogue. It's a testament to the skill of the actors that we nevertheless grow to like and appreciate these homeless teens, rooting for them to get to their Promised Land of San Francisco, just as we root for the production, which has many good elements, to reach the transcendent heights suggested by Sandra Goldmark's two-level, industrial-mythic set. It never does, partly because it tries too hard to escape the base world of humanity. The play's second flaw is the way the playwright weaves a perplexing and unnecessary element of magic through the plot. The scenery may be operatic, but the characters aren't mythic heroes; in spite of their sometimes unrealistic dialogue, the cast makes them seem real to us. That's why we like them. Applying magic to point their way and solve their problems seems like cheating. Read the full review. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Henry V



A few scenes seem rushed in this Queens Players staging, but overall this is a strong production of Shakespeare's stirring history play. Danny Yoerges makes a marvelous Henry. Early in the proceedings, he seems stuck in an angry declamatory style, but his character fleshes out methodically, until by the time the young boys guarding the storehouse are killed by the fleeing French cavalry, Henry's seething, buttoned-up rage is thoroughly believable. Subsequently, after the battle is won, he transforms handily into Katherine's arch, bright-eyed wooer. The story is told straightforwardly, without extravagant sets and props, and, except for numerous cuts, in a form Shakespeare himself would probably recognize easily. The cast is very large, which makes for effective charging unto breaches. Casting the members of the French court as women, from King down to Herald, might in another production seem experimental or even outrageous, but after initially absorbing the conceit, one takes relatively little note of it, in large measure due to Jennifer Ewing's suitably regal performance as the French king. Read the full review.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Photo: posttheater

Japan, early 1950s. With his country still reeling from the war, weapons engineer Masaru Ibuka (Alexander Schröder) dreams of founding a new consumer electronics company where he will run "the ideal factory" and help "reconstruct Japan." He will "eliminate any untoward profit-taking" and in the process "elevate the nation's culture." Doesn't sound much like the dog-eat-dog world of American business, and indeed it's not. heavenly BENTO, a German production which just ran for three nights in English at the Japan Society, uses narration, dramatic conversations, dance, and innovative video to tell a stylized but engrossing version of the founding and success of Sony, first in Japan, then in the US. The audience sits above a raised white platform which is both stage and projection screen. The players – two actors and a dancer – interact with projected images at their feet. One thinks of a boxing ring. One thinks also of a giant flat-screen TV. Read the full review.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Pied Pipers Of The Lower East Side

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

Too many smart people have been urging me to catch playwright/director Derek Ahonen's giant three act play of which the postcard warns of "explicit sexual content and Utopian ideals". They were right to urge. Loaded with beautifully designed characters, crackling dialogue and non-stop action, this play of ideas sucked me in had me fully invested in the lives of this quartet of polyamorous modern-day hippies. Zooming between hysterically funny and tragically sad, the action never slows down as our tribe attempts to justify their lifestyle to a visiting relative and also to themselves. This production has recently (and deservedly) made the leap from off-off to Off, and my friends, it should be seen.

Make sure you check out the preview on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILwQVH6z3-M

Next to Normal

Photo: Joan Marcus

Some five months into its Broadway run, Next to Normal remains vibrant, polished, impressive, and heartbreaking. The actors, led by the indomitable Alice Ripley, were excellent to start with and have gotten even better, and I'm finally ready to forgive J. Robert Spencer for not being Brian d'Arcy James. I saw Next to Normal twice Off-Broadway, once in D.C., and once before on Broadway, and watching the show develop--the rewrites, the cuts, the new songs, the changes in emphasis, the maturing of the performances--has been an education in the development of a first-class musical. (My original review can be found here.)

Altar Boyz

I know I am quite a late arrival to the Altar Boyz party, but count me in. I thoroughly enjoyed its humor, warmth, and delightful silliness. A tip of my hat and thank you to book writer Kevin Del Aguila and music and lyric writers Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker. It takes a lot of talent, work, and smarts to make a piece of fluff this good!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

MilkMilkLemonade


Photo: John Alexander

The Management has become known as an edgy downtown group with notable depth. Their new production explores being gay in America, but specifically Middle America, and more precisely a chicken farm not far from the implied national nightmare succinctly summed up in the name "Mall Town, USA." Joshua Conkel's script feelingly and very humorously explores the relationship between two schoolboys, one effeminate and (mostly) liking himself that way, the other so desperately fighting his homosexual urges that he lashes out in a number of ways: "setting stuff on fire," getting into fights at home and at school, and punching and kicking the air like Cuchulain battling the waves. There's a talking chicken and a seething spider and – oh, it's all just too, too much. How it all ends isn't terribly important; getting there is where the fun is, and there's an awful lot of it – a number of moments had the audience in such stitches the cast had to wait patiently for the laughter to fade. Meredith Steinberg's energetic and funny choreography deserves mention, and the choices of music are spot-on – how can you not love a show that features "I've Never Been to Me"? Read the full review.

The Royal Family


photo: Boneau/Bryan-Brown

The scenic aspect of Manhattan Theatre Club's revival of The Royal Family is stunning--John Lee Beatty's set received rousing applause the moment the curtain was raised--but there's not much else happening on the stage of the Friedman to recommend devoting nearly three hours to this poorly-performed bagatelle. The play itself is quite funny and biting, but you'd never know that from watching Doug Hughes' largely miscast cast struggle through three acts of flubs, dropped lines, and seemingly iron-clad jokes landing with a resounding thud. The biggest disappointment is Jan Maxwell, who seemed perfectly cast as devoted actress Julie Cavendish, a woman who has given everything up to follow her devotion to the stage. Maxwell cuts a striking figure in Catherine Zuber's lush costumes, but delivers her lines as much enthusiasm as ordering a sandwich at the deli. Even Julie's magnificent second-act monologue couldn't rouse any emotion for her. Sadly, Rosemary Harris fared no better--she appeared lost and confused, when she was audible. Of the principles, only John Glover's Herbert Dean--a vainglorious old-timer who cannot accept that he's past his prime--hit all the right notes and reminded me how sharp and satisfying well-drawn satire can be. Still, he's not enough to recommend investing any time in this brightly colored but ultimately empty pastiche.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The River Crosses Rivers: Series A


The River Crosses Rivers: Series A is another strong evening of one acts by women of color at the Ensemble Studio Theatre (my review of Series B is below). The standout of the evening--of the whole festival--is Lynn Nottage's heartbreaking Banana Beer Bath, a monologue, brilliantly performed by Elain Graham, about hiding from the Ugandan rebels who are attacking her parents. It was breath-taking in the literal sense of the word.

During both evenings, I was struck by the variety of topics depicted: angels, history, punk rock, the pressure to get married, ungrateful children, parenting, loss, romance, dishonesty and truth, how a second can change an entire life, and more. And the characters were varied too: men and women, young and old, straight and gay, black, white, and subcontinental Asian.

I started going to theatre in the 1970s. When people of color, lesbians, gay men, and/or women had the rare opportunity to be heard, they/we generally grabbed the opportunity to talk about being people of color, lesbians, gay men, and/or women. There was so much education to do; in many cases, merely getting across the simple message, "I am a human being," was the primary--and difficult!--goal. And when they/we wrote about anything else, who would put that work on?

I look forward (with more hope than optimism, to be truthful) to a world where everyone's voices are heard. Many thanks to Going to the River 2009 and the Ensemble Studio Theatre for getting us a little closer to that world.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Aftermath

Photo/Joan Marcus

Yes, the cast of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's latest documentary play, Aftermath, are actors. But in perfectly speaking the exact words of Iraqi refugees in Jordan (well, 90% of their words), they are something more, too: they are mediums. At their best moments--and there are many--they are mirrors, too. And yes, the show has been edited--piecing together moments from six different interviews--it's not blatantly agenda-driven, or accusation-based. In other words, it's a lot harder to dismiss. The show is so quietly powerful, in fact, that even Blank's expert direction, full of subtleties, is even too much: the actors are convincing enough to make us forget the conventions of theaters. What we won't forget are their words--"There are some things for which apologies are not enough," says an imam unjustly brought to Abu Ghraib--or their surprising characters, like the arrogant dermatologist Yassir (Amir Arison), whose idolization of Richard Gere ("He is...steely") says a lot for what traits he now values. The play is also filled with a variety of wonderfully mundane moments, like a wife "negotiating" the facts her husband is laying out, and sometimes the description of how a man's wife has stopped painting (after the bombings) is just as affecting as a widow's keening over the infant son she just lost in the bombing. The news may have inoculated us against one type of sorrow, but not the other. Do yourself a favor and stop all these "afters"; go now.

[Read on]

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Bash

Photo/Christine Han

Given the Greek names, trick endings of a blood-thirsty O. Henry, and the lack of anything overtly religious, it's hard to believe that when Neil LaBute's bash premiered in 1999, it had the subtitle "latter-day plays." But whatever; ten years later, Eastcheap Rep attempts to at least keep it present, with director Robert Knopf forgoing a stage in favor of a more intimate coffee-house set-up, an attempt to make the creepy casualness of LaBute's three one-acts even more apparent. For the first two pieces, "Medea Redux" and "Iphigenia in Orem," the acting holds up. In the first, Chelsea Lagos pins the audience to their seats with her eye-contact, ensuring that we're on the same page as her character--a 13-year-old having her teacher's baby--while at the same time reminding us that we can't possibly understand. In the second, Luke Rosen's focused nonchalance as a well-intentioned middle-manager serves him well, especially as he explains his calculated choice to let his infant daughter smother. However, the final piece, "A Gaggle of Saints," needs to abandon the naturalist staging, because while the engaged Sue and John may be telling their own sides of the same story, it's awkward to have them one standing awkwardly as the other explains the truth of what happened that night in Central Park. (Worse, Rosen's disaffected demeanor now makes his character one-dimensional and unbelievable.) This revival of bash isn't anything to rush out and celebrate, but if you drop by a 10:30 weekend performance, you do get a glass of Prosecco to help wash down the dirty feelings LaBute so expertly evokes.

[Read on]

The Hole

* (out of five stars)
The Theater At St. Clements

Circa 2002 the police were more apt to turn a blind eye to seedy East Village joints like The Hole, The Cock and Fat Cock with their hidden sex rooms, porn screens, and naked coke-head strippers. Cherished memories. Sadly, THE HOLE, a messy, poorly conceived musical, currently playing in the basement of a church (a church!), fails to capture the vibe or energy of this long lost hardcore scene. Granted, intermittently there is a low, sexy thumping beat piped in over the dialogue, however, when it is time to sing, we get a full score of corny, poppy showtunes that are less sexy/edgy and more silly/ridiculous. In its attempts to be as naughty and filthy as they can get, the whole evening becomes a numbing hodge-podge of cliche' one liners, and confusing romantic entanglements. And when you have a fully grown man cast as a baby in diapers and rolled around in a wagon, you know that the desperation for the laugh is unmistakable.

The River Crosses Rivers: Series B


The core of drama is someone desperately wanting something. In The River Crosses Rivers (Series B) the strong evening of one-act plays by women of color at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, people want--and need--to be loved, to be safe, and to be heard. Despite their similar desires, however, these people run the gamut from a woman whose husband of decades is a cheat (in the excellent Hot Mehuselah by J.e. Franklin) to a Middle-East journalist who risks her life to tell the truth (in the powerful Truth Be Told by Melody Cooper) to a wife and husband who just want to love each other (in the funny and moving Jesse by P.J. Gibon) to a couple of gay men who wish they could bring their son back (in the heart-breaking His Daddy by Cori Thomas) to a tech genius who wants to be loved for who he really is (the entertaining Sloppy Second Chances by Mrinalini Kamath). Of the generally high-level performers, standouts include Vinie Burrows, Shetal Shah, Maya Lynne Robinson, Christopher Burris, Matthew Montelongo, and the very likeable Vedant Gokhale. The Ensemble Studio Theatre and Going to the River work together to make sure that the voices of women of color are heard. By doing so, they make the theatre world a better place for all of us.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Bereaved

Photo/Louis Changchien

Look, as long as you're fine with surface-level laughs, The Bereaved satisfies. But is that all that Thomas Bradshaw's after? I mean, it's one thing to shock us into seeing slavery and alcoholism--two things we've all got pretty strong opinions about--in a new light. But we already know that American families are increasingly callous and disconnected. What's the point of Bradshaw's 80-minute bit of shocksploitation, save to let May Adrales show off her lack of inhibition as a director? Without giving away any surprises (since that's all the show has up its sleeve), just know that things quickly elevate from Michael (Andrew Garman) and Carol (McKenna Kerrigan) arguing over chores and their son's semen soiled underwear; Carol has an adverse reaction to some of Michael's casual cocaine, and their son, Teddy (Vincent Madero) is soon playing Nintendo DS by her deathbed, barely listening as she advises Michael to marry her best friend, Katy (KK Moggie), so that they can continue to support their upper-middle-class lifestyle. (And Teddy hasn't even gotten his schoolmate Melissa [Jenny Seastone Stern] pregnant yet!) The speedy delivery of plot- and comic-heavy scenes is somewhat refreshing--who needs subtext?--and the lack of hidden facets doesn't diminish the surprising effect of seeing the characters actually doing what they're talking about (like a rape scene in blackface). It's just a shame there's nothing to actually mourn in the play, let alone to feel the smallest shred of sorrow for.

Emily


Photo: Firebone Theatre

This modestly diverting play partially succeeds in bringing Emily Dickinson to life, but less through the script's conception or realization than through the lead performance, a finely calibrated, unsentimental yet touching portrayal of the poet by Elizabeth A. Davis, and the poetry itself. In spite of the graceful cast and their lush costumes, director Steve Day doesn't develop much of interest to look at on stage; the slow pace sometimes sinks into ennui rather than expanding into stateliness. I can't deny, though, that Chris Cragin's script and Ms. Davis's sweet recitations of some of the poet's well-known works succeeded in sending me home to crack open my copy of Emily Dickinson's Collected Poems. Read the full review.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Broadway on Broadway 2009

photo: Matthew Arnold

The Broadway season officially began a few months ago but for many strong-legged tri-state area fans the real kick-off is this annual Times Square concert where most if not all of the currently running musicals are represented. As always there were numbers by new cast members in long-running shows - of these, Beth Leavel scored with "The Winner Takes It All" from Mamma Mia! and Laura Osnes did well by "I'm In Love With A Wonderful Guy" from South Pacific - and there were songs from productions that haven't opened yet. This year that meant the originals Fela! and Memphis and the revivals of Bye Bye Birdie, Ragtime and Finian's Rainbow. While "One Boy", the number from Birdie, was charming and well-sung, and the crowd very clearly responded to the title song from Ragtime, it was "Ol' Devil Moon" from Finian's Rainbow that did it for me. I can't think of two musical theatre performers I'd rather see in those lead roles than Cheyenne Jackson and Kate Baldwin, and their old-school musical comedy chemistry helped to make their rendition of that ol' showtune standard the concert's most transporting delight.

Lizzie Borden


Photo: Carl Skutsch

The songs in this new rock musical are set in heavy-metal modes, but little about the score screams "genre." It's loud, but never painfully or confusingly so, and it's edgy, with some gloomy imagery, but in essence it's comprised of simply wonderful tunes, with satisfying crunch, engaging and well-crafted lyrics, and bright (okay, dark) pop hooks. Fortunately the sound designer (Jamie McElhinney) keeps the levels sensible, mics the singers well, and mixes everything properly, so one seldom misses a lyric. Even more fortunately, the four-woman cast is absolutely stellar, wonderful actors with clear, powerful voices that cut through the tight band's rock bombast without trouble. There are no characters but the four women: Lizzie herself (a supremely confident and perfectly fetching Jenny Fellner); her older sister Emma Borden (a sharp and funny Lisa Birnbaum, who has a powerful alto); her regally coiffed but passionate friend Alice (a radiant Marie-France Arcilla); and the maid, Bridget (a fierce, punked-out Carrie Cimma). The choice to leave out the elder Bordens seems a little odd at first, but its wisdom quickly becomes apparent as we're plunged into the closed, claustrophobic world of the sisters' half of the divided household. An early song between Lizzie and Alice takes place in the barn, where Lizzie escapes her hellish home life to tend her beloved pigeons. Artfully lit and shadowed by lighting designer Christian DeAngelis, it is beautifully, movingly performed, as is most everything in this sharp-as-an-axe show. Read the full review.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Lizzie Borden

Photo: Carl Skutsch

Can murdering one's parents with an axe be a woman's path to empowerment? In the excellent rock musical Lizzie Borden, it certainly can. Lizzie, abused, in danger of being disinherited, and lacking options, finally decides that freedom lies in ridding herself of her incestuous father and her horrid stepmother. After an attempt at poisoning them fails, she grabs an ax and, well, takes matters into her own hands. Lizzie Borden (with book, lyrics, music, concept, direction, and musical direction by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Tim Maner, and Alan Stevens Hewitt) beautifully combines a kick-ass score, strong lyrics, surprising humor, sweet sexiness, cheerful anachronisms, and an eerie atmosphere. The multitalented designers Caleb Levengood (scenery), Christian DeAngelis (lighting), Jamie McElhinney (sound), Bobby Frederick Tilley (costume), Carrie Lynn Rohm (hair and makeup), and Zoƫ Woodworth (video) manage to evoke a vivid, attractive, and affectingly creepy time and place in a small space on what must have been a small budget. And the four actress-singers--Marie-France Arcilla, Lisa Birnbaum, Carrie Cimma, and Jenny Fellner--are heartbreaking, satirical, funny, sexy, real, and larger-than-life, sometimes all at the same time. And can they rock! Special notice must be paid to the superb Jenny Fellner as Lizzie. Fellner's transition from repressed to explosive is calibrated perfectly, and she performs with her heart, body, and soul--and with great intelligence. (A few small quibbles: the lyrics were occasionally difficult to hear; both acts end with whimpers rather than bangs; playing unrelated rock music during intermission hurt the mood.) At The Living Theatre at 21 Clinton Street in the Lower East Side.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Our Town


Having always believed that Thornton Wilder's Our Town is one of the few irreproachable works in the American dramatic canon, and always lamenting the fact that I'd never seen a truly terrific production of it, I attended David Cromer's ridiculously acclaimed production at the Barrow Street Theatre with something greater than the highest hopes that I, too, would be mesmerized by it. And, well...I wasn't. The magic of this particular play is two-fold: the language is beautifully simple but also theatrical, and the play itself, which premiered in 1938, is unapologetically progressive, meta-theatrical before the term existed. That's the idea that Cromer seems to be pursuing with his deconstruction here, but I couldn't help but feeling that three-quarters of this production felt no different than any community theatre mounting of the play. It isn't until the coup-de-theatre in Act Three--which I won't reveal, but which happens to be the most un-Wilderian aspect of the production--that the audience somewhat understands the feeling Cromer was trying to achieve. It doesn't help that Emily Webb (Jennifer Grace, dreadful) speaks her lines as if she were a mental patient, or that her suitor, George Gibbs (James McMenamin) acts like he's in the slow class at Grovers Corners High. Thankfully, two pitch-perfect performances stand out: Jason Butler Harner, the first Stage Manager I've seen who is neither glib nor overly earnest; and Lori Myers, simply heartbreaking as Mrs. Gibbs.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Spinning the Times



Part of the Origin Theater's 1st Irish festival, this production brings together brief new works by five female playwrights. Though the writers all hail from Ireland, it is a highly international evening, and director M. Burke Walker seems to have chosen the order of presentation with care, as one might map out a world tour. It begins with Rosemary Jenkinson's The Lemon Tree, which takes place in a modern-day Belfast where violent echoes of the Troubles linger, and linger. Young Kenny likes to stir up mischief with his pals and harass the local Catholics, but he's affected more than he'd like to admit by an encounter with an American relief worker drumming up aid for Palestinians in Gaza. As embodied by the lanky, magnetic, and focused Jerzy Gwiazdowski, who dominates the stage seemingly effortlessly, Kenny is not merely a fully realized creature, but bigger than life in that believable, language-soaked Irish way. Ms. Jenkinson has the exceptional storyteller's talent of deriving large truths from small fictions. Her play is a compressed, polished marvel, practically a poem, with not a word out of place, nor, thanks to Mr. Gwiazdowski and the exquisitely skilled direction, an extraneous gesture. Read the full review, covering all five plays.