Thursday, May 31, 2012

Venus in Fur

Photo: Joan Marcus
Most of Venus in Furs' critical reception has centered around the force of nature that is Nina Arianda, and on this front I have nothing but more praise to add. She is, quite simply, amazing. I say this as someone who is both enormously cynical and often willfully oppositional, and also as someone who has been hearing endless accolades about Arianda since Venus in Fur premiered Off Broadway in January, 2010. That's a lot of accolades. And yeah, she deserves them. She's dynamite.

David Ives's play, however, for all its twists and turns, ultimately didn't thrill me as much as Arianda did. This has probably been discussed to death at this point, too, but I haven't read much from a feminist angle. Which is odd, since the play--a play within a play, really--is all about gender and sexuality. Ives, a male playwright, has created a male playwright (and, from the get-go, an all-too-thunderingly obvious misogynist), who has adapted a play based on the 1870 novella Venus im Pelz by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, which, in turn, is all about gender and sexuality. Ives's fictional playwright, Thomas, is frustrated as the action begins, because he can't find a single woman to convincingly play Vanda, the idealized dominatrix at the center of his play's action: they are all, he complains via cellphone to his fiancée, stupid, needy, and crude. As he's ranting, in gusts an actress, curiously named Vanda, dressed from head to toe in bondage wear. Much to Thomas's dismay, she immediately exhibits all of the purportedly feminine traits that he has just listed as most irritating to him.

But then the two begin to read, and lo and behold, this actress, Vanda, turns out to be perfect in the role of his character, Vanda. And Thomas gets drawn in--and increasingly aroused--by her interpretation, even as he becomes more and more confused by who, exactly, this woman is. Why was she not on the audition list? Why is her name Vanda? How did she get her hands on the script, and why has she already memorized the entire thing? Why does she know so very much about his personal life? As the show progresses, Vanda slowly but thoroughly subverts Thomas's preconceived notions about women; neatly demonstrates that he is the one who is stupid, needy, and crude; challenges the deeply rooted sexism in both the Sacher-Masoch novella and Thomas's adaptation; feminizes the playwright; and finally, we assume, destroys him. Also as the play progresses, Ives sees to it that we, the audience, ask our own questions: Does Thomas, the fictional playwright, represent Ives? Or is Ives Vanda? Where does character end and playwright begin? And what, exactly, does Ives think of Sacher-Masoch's work?

Ives is clearly well aware of the overwhelming meta-ness of his creation; it's obvious in the way he's constructed Venus in Fur. For all the sexual twisting, turning, subverting and reverting, Vanda is certainly the more interesting, sympathetic, compelling character, while Thomas is a real dickhead. Vanda makes mincemeat of Thomas and everything he stands for; Thomas, evil misogynist that he is, gets what he deserves in the end. Score one for women everywhere!
But see here, now: One can't eat one's male gaze and have it, too. And that's my problem with Ives's play. It was fun, sure, and there is nothing more thrilling than watching good actors make very physically and emotionally demanding roles look fresh, easy and graceful, especially two years into a run. But never for a minute did I forget that Arianda as Vanda--powerhouse though she may be--was being triply subjected: by Ives, by his fictional playwright, by the audience. It always strikes me as both kind of funny and kind of sad that feminism goes down so much more easily when its ideals are being touted by a woman who conforms to heteronormative perceptions of Western desireability. Call me crazy, but somehow, I just don't see this show flying quite as high or lasting nearly as long had the central female role been written for a woman who doesn't spend most of the evening in black lingerie, spike heels, and lacy garters. Call me a man-hating, ball-busting, frigid bitch of a feminist if you will, but the fact that Arianda is almost never wearing more than black, bondage-themed lingerie (well, okay, and a dog collar) while she strikes a blow for women just makes me feel sort of tired at this point.
As did the ending to the show. Ives's play spends a tremendous amount of time and energy admonishing its central male character to stop being so reductive when it comes to gender roles. I suppose that Ives found himself kind of stuck at the end, but his summation struck me as tremendously reductive, and thus a particularly crushing copout. This is not entirely fair of me: the questions Ives raises through the show are far too big to be answered neatly in one 100-minute play. After all, male social constructs loom long and large in these parts. And even though Thomas gets his just desserts, Ives alone is not responsible for coming to terms with the fact that Venus--and the very civilization that spawned her--were male constructions, too.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Judge Me Paris

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can send Company XIV's way is that this exciting, dance-fusion troupe (under the expert leadership of Austin McCormick) continues to evolve with each new show. Though their latest, Judge Me Paris returns to the well of their 2009 Judgment of Paris, it now does so with the operatic sensibilities that were honed in 2009's Snow White and 2010's Le Cirque Ferrique (indeed, Brett Umlauf and Amber Youell are back as Pallas and Juno), with the classy eroticism mastered in 2010's near-perfect Nutcracker Rouge, and the stunning live cinematography that was utilized in 2011's Lover.Muse.Mockingbird.Whore. (There's live music, too, from the lingerie-and-wigs-clad members of SIREN Baroque: Antonia Nelson, Claire Smith, Kelly Savage, and Anneke Schaul-Yoder.)

Photo/Corey Tatarczuk
Perhaps an even greater compliment, then, is in the way the works of Company XIV remain impossible to set down and describe on the page: such transitory images are as slippery as they are beautiful. Don't miss another chance to see them.

[Read full review here]

When Half the Sphere Is Visible

The Drafts, the acting company of the Horse Trade Theater Group, recently presented When Half the Sphere Is Visible, an unusual collaboration among four playwrights, five directors, and nine actors. The four playwrights were tasked to write in response to the word dichotomy. Their work was then weaved together into one 90-minute piece.

While I admire the adventurousness of this conceit, I'm afraid the whole was less than the sum of its parts. The constant switching from one play to another ended up interrupting each's continuity and momentum. Granted, the idea of another evening of one acts isn't as interesting as the idea of this theatrical collage, but I think it would have served the writing better.

Take the TSA storyline, in which a traveler tries to develop a method of getting through airport security without losing all privacy and dignity. It's a comic piece, and of course the secret to comedy is timing. And perhaps in a movie, with quick cutting from scene to scene, the timing wouldn't have been quite so fractured. But this was a play, and between the interruptions for scenes from other shows and the moving on and off of scenery, all hope of comic build was lost.

The story of a lonely young woman who meets a spookily familiar stranger on a train was intriguing and moving--and even more damaged by interruptions. In this case, some of them were written into the play, in flashes (the woman in bed; the woman on the train; the woman at work) that couldn't actually flash because of the physical limitations of live theatre. When a scene change is longer than a scene, it hurts a play, and this one in particular deserved better.

The other two stories were less hurt by the interruptions, yet I still think that they would have been helped by being presented straight through. One, a sort of sci fi romance between a movie star and a librarian, lost some of its potential sweetness in this presentation. The other, a character-based good brother-bad brother tale, was left looking generic as the audience didn't have a chance to really get to know this particular good brother and this particular bad brother.

The writers were Jesse Cameron Alick, Matthew Gutshick, Michael McGuire, and Germono Toussain. The directors were Ilaria Amadasi, Jaclyn Biskup, Lindsey Moore Sproul, Sara C. Walsh, and Donya K. Washington. The actors were Juliana Carr, Reiss Gaspard, Paul Herbig, Alex Hodgins, Ben Kaufman, Lauren Kate Morrison, JB Rote, Marchelle Thurman, Amanda Van Nostrand, and Gary Warchola.

While this evening of plays ultimately got in its own way, there was plenty of talent involved, and I look forward to seeing more work by this company.

(press ticket; second row)

Monday, May 21, 2012


There is a moment in Evita when, with a single note, you know something magical is about to happen. Unfortunately, it happens halfway through Act I. Even more unfortunate, the actress, playing Peron’s mistress, finishes her solo and never returns. It is hard to tell just how talented Rachel Potter, that show-enlivening actress, is. The show to that point was such a lamentable mess that the audience was so desperate for some genuine entertainment that the worst liquid in that desert would have quenched its collective thirst. To be completely fair, Rachel Potter was not only the best thing in the show, by a mile; she’s damn good regardless of the context.

Also thrilling is Christopher Oram’s majestic set. Rob Ashford’s choreography is uneven but trends toward very good. When he lets the dancers dance, everyone delivers beautifully. Unfortunately, he often descends into traffic patterns with players Pied Pipering around to make the stage look busy. If that were his only goal, he was effective.

For me, that was where the joy ended.

Ricky Martin is about the happiest Che you’ll ever see. Either he is concerned about turning off fans or he simply can’t act. There is ample evidence for the latter. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands, doesn’t seem to know what his relationship to Eva is supposed to be, and is about as fired up as a match in a down pour. Every time he took the stage with Eva, it was a master class in Chemisn’try. His singing is lovely but completely without grit; and in the most bizarre choice (not sure if it was his or the director’s), he throws his full Spanish speaking proficiency into the pronunciation of only the two dozen or so actual Spanish words in the score. For the remainder of the evening, he sings and speaks as if his dialect coach was a 14 year old girl from Connecticut.

Elena Roger may be a trained dancer, for what that’s worth in one of the hardest scores ever written for a woman; but that proves to make about as much sense as hiring someone to redo the Sistine Chapel just because they do a nice job painting toenails. She is also authentically Argentinian. If that is the only qualification you need, perhaps she can be replaced by Laura Bush, just because she was once first lady to an impotent political puppet. Personally, I’ll take an actual singer anytime. In this case, the actress hasn’t learned the notes you’d like to hear. I have never in my life heard someone control their vibrato with their adenoids. Ms Roger makes some of the most unpleasant noises I have ever heard on a stage or in a slaughter house. She has a trill that makes her sound like the love child of Edith Piaf and a goat. Perhaps her vocal limitations would be less noticeable if she could act. Alas, no one will ever find out. I will say, Elena Roger did something I never thought possible. She made me root for Eva’s cancer. And, during Intermission, I officially forgave Madonna. It really could have been worse, Madge.

Michael Cerveris received a Tony nomination for his 15 minutes on stage. I suppose in a year when Ron Raines can get a nomination, the bar is pretty low. I anticipated that Mr. Cerveris’s usual pompousness would serve him well here. It does occasionally. He shifts too quickly into his oft- and over-used I’m-going-to cry-now voice. He started foreshadowing her death before the Mistress’s suitcase was packed.

Max Von Essen, as Migaldi, raises the bar on pompousness well before Cerveris takes the stage. He apparently thinks he was cast in an actual opera. He slows down and stretches out every note he sings. I can only imagine if he has to step out of his understudy role and go on for Ricky Martin, the show will go past midnight—and I’m talking about a matinee performance.

The entire score is slowed down to a glacial pace that serves no one. Also serving no one is Michael Grandage’s direction. He makes choices that defy sense. The Art of the Possible is about the fact that any tool in the right place at the right time can steal an election. I know, I know, it’s just theatre. It could never really happen. By staging the number as a pathetic wrestling match, he changes the tone and intent of the narrative. That this new narrative is carried out by a man barely taller than Eva Peron tackling someone twice his size is preposterous. It was one of the few earned laughs of the evening. And how you can stage And The Money Kept Rolling In with a single card or a pad or a ticket? Could they not afford a broom?

I, like the show, could drag on; but I, unlike the show, won’t. The applause the night I saw the show spoke volumes without decibels. You could count the number of times the audience applauded during the performance on one hand—or maybe they were only using one hand to clap. During the bows, applause was tepid, picking up for Rachel Potter, and exploding for Ricky Martin. People were clearly applauding him, not his work, as they were calling out his name like lovesick school girls—well, perimenopausal school girls. My friends and I were sitting next to a young man from Italy who, like all of us, grew up listening to and loving the score and Elaine and Patti and even Julie Covington. He’d been waiting to see a production for over a decade. At the end of the show, he said, “Not the show I wanted to see.”


I can only imagine that, at some undisclosed location, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s career is rolling over in its grave.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Triumphant Baby: The Songs of Iconis and Maddock

Lorinda Lisitza is amazing. And she was born to sing the songs of Joe Iconis and Robert Maddock, who are pretty darn amazing themselves.

In Triumphant Baby: The Songs of Iconis and Maddock, the Nightlife Award-winning Lisitza sings thirteen Iconis-Maddock songs, and it is no exaggeration to say that each is a full and wonderful one-act play. Lisitza is not only a kick-ass singer with an extraordinary range (both vocally and stylistically), but she is also a top-notch actor who completely inhabits each song. During Triumphant Baby, she is sad, funny, sly, rueful, crazy, suicidal, sweet, heartbroken, heartbreaking, and, yes, triumphant. With her talent, red hair, and large, attractive features, Lisitza belongs on stage. Y'know, like in a musical on Broadway. (Years ago, I saw her in Brecht and Weill's Happy End at Theatre Ten Ten, and I promise you, she is the real thing.)

Before Triumphant Baby, I was not familiar with the work of Iconis and Maddock, and all I can say is, shame on me! Composer Iconis is comfortable in any and every genre. His songs are melodic and inviting but never cliche. His arrangements beautifully support the meaning and the feeling of each song. Maddock's lyrics are some of the best I've heard in years. He is fond of rhyming across three lines, and the third rhyme is often unexpected, funny, and smart. He is also master of the simple, catchy, memorable phrase, as in "We might not get to heaven but I'm always up for hell" (from the energetic and funny "Just as Long as You and I Are in Cahoots") and "If I can't be a rising star, I'll be the kind that falls" (from the wistful "The Kind That Falls"). Iconis and Maddock also write about twarted passion ("Eddie Got a Color T.V."), loss ("Camden County Penitentiary"), enthusiastic murderers ("Yolanda at the Bottom of the Stairs"), and, well, everything.

Triumphant Baby features a wonderful band: Iconis himself on piano, happily bouncing around; Mike Pettry on guitar, mandolin, and melodica; Matt Wigton on double bass; and Tanya Holt and Liz Lark Brown on vocals.

If you enjoy excellent cabaret performances, see this show. If you enjoy excellent Broadway performances, see this show. If you enjoy excellent country performances, see this show. If you want to say, "I knew them when," see this show. (Two performances left, May 19 and 20, at the Metropolitan Room.)

(center, press ticket)

Announcement: Show Showdown Review Nominated for Media Award

The Show Showdown review for Company XIV's version of Snow White posted on December 16, 2011 written by Sandra Mardenfeld is a finalist in the Press Club of Long Island Media Award competition. The winners will be announced at the club’s June 7 awards dinner. See the following links for more information. 
Snow White Review  
Press Club of Long Island Media Awards

Monday, May 14, 2012


Jason Kempin/Getty Images North America
Like Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita was one of those shows I grew up with, but never actually saw staged. And perhaps not coincidentally, these two are the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice scores I take most seriously and love the most. I've written on Superstar elsewhere (specifically, here), but I found myself comparing it with Evita after seeing the latter at the Marquis on Friday night.

Both Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar were conceived as concept albums, and were subsequently staged. At least when it came to Superstar, this wasn't Lloyd Webber and Rice's intention. They wanted very much to develop that show as a musical, but were met with so much resistance--and were laughed out of so many West End producers' offices--that they went the sound-recording route instead. The result was an absolutely dynamite concept album about the last days of Jesus's life, featuring an orchestra that builds to Wagnerian proportions as Ian Gillan wails dynamically, Murray Head suffers miserably, and Yvonne Elliman pines appealingly. I loved the record so much that I have never seen a truly satisfying stage adaptation of Superstar (and don't get me started on the screen version); I'm convinced that one is not possible, at least for me, because I have spent so much time creating my own, highly personalized and idealized visuals to go with the album I listened to so obsessively in my formative years. I wasn't alone on this one; Superstar was so enormously popular in the United States, where it spent 65 weeks on the Billboard charts when it was released in 1970, that the 1971 Broadway version suffered. The show made its money back due to an extraordinarily huge advance, but closed after a year and a half, largely as the result of too many unflattering comparisons with the album. 

Like Superstar, Evita began life as a concept album, recorded in 1976. Julie Covington played Evita, Paul Jones was Peron, and Colm Wilkinson was Che. It, too, is awesome, but while it exceeded sales of Superstar in the UK, Australia, South Africa, and a number of European and Latin American countries, it fizzled here. The stage version that followed the concept album (in the UK in 1978, and on Broadway in 1979) did not garner as many unfavorable comparisons, and proved a lot more popular; it ran for eight years in the West End and for four years here, and made the careers of both Patti LuPone (Evita) and Mandy Pantinkin (Che).

The scores to both Superstar and Evita strike me as his richest and most thrilling. This might have to do with their concept-album origins, or with the fact that under all the treacle, Lloyd Webber really does know how to play around with lots of different kinds of music. Or maybe it's both. But even the repetitions--the frequently recurring motifs and endlessly repeated refrains that Lloyd Webber has been accused of relying overmuch on in his later shows--make sense within the narrative framework and contribute to some sense of dramatic cohesiveness and propulsion. Both shows, however, can also seem frustratingly incomplete when they are staged: Superstar essentially follows a number of characters fretting their way toward the crucifixion. Such hysterics make for exciting listening, but watching characters pacing around and fretting for two hours doesn't always make for great theater. Evita sort of goes in the other direction: characters aren't so much developed as they are described, or used to narrate important events in the short, strange life of the titular first lady of Argentina. We learn of her death in the opening scene, watch her rise to power, succumb to cancer, and die; all of this is described for us, often by Che, but sometimes by the rest of the cast. We are told repeatedly that Evita is a powerful, driven, conniving woman, but we don't really ever learn much more about her, or about Che, or about Peron. The musical thus disintegrates particularly rapidly when she dies: the score simply rehashes every number we've heard in a brief, increasingly dissonant montage, and then the lights fade abruptly. With no more Evita, there is no more show. This is not exactly a dramaturgical triumph. Rather, the show, like its title character, is flawed and ultimately doesn't function all that well. And yet both the character and the show are great fun, warts and all.

Indeed, the revival of Evita may be a warts-and-all production, but even the warts are gorgeous. Frankly, I can't remember having as much fun at the theater as I did on Friday.

Michael Grandage, late of the Donmar, directed the revival, which is smooth and tight and graceful. The remarkably strong ensemble is, to a member, committed and compelling, and, as an added bonus, their flouncing "Dangerous Game" practically made me cackle. Rob Ashford's choreography is also terrific--the tango (surprise!) is an overarching theme, both visually and musically, and while some of the new arrangements and orchestrations did not work for me (I was particularly disappointed by "The Art of the Possible," which was slowed down considerably and infused with references to Piazzolla, which worked only to kill the momentum), the look of the production is sinewy and sexy, with plenty of undulations and intertwining limbs helping to propel the action along.

I never once forgot that Che was being played by Ricky Martin, but then again, watching Ricky Martin be Ricky Martin for two hours is hardly torture. I was a little worried for him at the start, and he really has no idea what to do with his left arm most of the time, but his voice is well-suited for the part, he seemed to be having as good a time as the ensemble, and dancing is hardly a problem for him, so I ended up being perfectly fine with him as Che.

I ended up liking Elena Roger, as Evita, a lot too, but as with Martin, I had some reservations, especially early on. Roger is a tiny woman with a highly expressive face, and her voice reminds me a great deal of Edith Piaf's. This was a good thing most of the time--Roger was fascinating to watch, and had the kind of dynamism that I am sure the actual Evita possessed. But there are times when the title character needs to be--well, to be Patti LuPone. I admit here that I have never before quite understood the appeal of LuPone, but having seen this revival, I can only imagine that she made absolute mincemeat of the role. LuPone can sustain enormous strength in higher registers, and Roger really struggled with this. As a result, some of the numbers that LuPone made famous--notably "Buenos Aires," "A New Argentina" and "Rainbow High"--suffered, here. Roger sounded, however, quite beautiful in the quieter, more contemplative numbers, and since the second act of Evita is chock full of those, she won me over in the end.

Really, though, the revival belongs to Michael Cerveris, whose Peron was not only superb, but whose utter awesomeness galvanized the rest of the cast. Cerveris is a consistently fine actor--one of the best we've got on Broadway, I think. And when the casting for Evita was first announced, I found myself somewhat miffed that Martin, and not Cerveris, was slated to play Che. But I was wrong--not because I don't think Cerveris would be fine as Che, but because he was just so unbelievably compelling as Peron. His mere presence on the stage partway through act I, in fact, lifted the energy of the show so dramatically and so suddenly that I could practically hear the rest of the cast click. In the "Charity Concert"/"Surprisingly Good for You" scene, Cerveris stands, initially, in the shadows, awaiting his cue to take the stage and address the crowd. His eyes, eerily dead, and his face, bizarrely flat, grow animated only once he steps into the spotlight; this is the portrait of a politician so cold and calculating as to send chills up your spine. And yet, once Peron meets Evita later in the same scene, his growing lust, and eventual love for her is not only entirely believable, but infectious. She's a complicated woman, depicted inaccurately in a show that doesn't always work, and yet she's dynamic enough to bring life to the coldest of cold, dead eyes.

Miracle on South Division Street

Tom Dudzick's lovely and touching comedy, Miracle on South Division Street, focuses on the working-class Nowaks of Buffalo--Clara and her three adult children--a close-knit family who nevertheless keep secrets from one another. What makes the Nowaks notably different from millions of other people who work hard and go to (or skip) mass is that they have long believed that their family is specially blessed by the Virgin Mary.

Although their neighborhood is changing rapidly, with stores closing and old friends leaving town, the Nowaks live relatively unchanged lives. Clara maintains a statue of the Holy Mother and operates a soup kitchen. Mellow son Jimmy and energetic daughter Beverly have radically different personalities but the same goals--to be happily married and to bowl on weekends. Daughter Ruth aspires to be an actress and performs small roles in local shows. Their lives go quietly on until Ruth decides to write a one-woman show about the family and forces them to question their assumptions, identity, and the meaning of miracles

Miracle on South Division Street nicely balances humor and genunine life challenges. It starts a little slowly, and perhaps could use a few fewer one-liners, but it is funny and thoughtful. It is particularly good at showing how adults always remain children in their parents' homes. Director Joe Brancato occasionally lets the actors play the jokes instead of the reality but he keeps the show well-paced and -focused. The cast is good; in particular, Peggy Cosgrave as Clara provides a strong, likeable central presence.

Miracle on South Division Street is my favorite type of comedy: you laugh and laugh, but you also shed a tear or two. 

(Full disclosure: Tom Dudzick is my brother-in-law.)

(free ticket, 8th row center)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Fort Blossom Revisited (2000/2012)

John Jasperse's one-hour dance piece, Fort Blossom Revisited, begins when an attractive, curly-haired, and completely nude white man walks calmly onstage and lies face down, hands at side. He remains that way for quite some time, then starts slithering cross-stage with a gorgeous, slow, and odd undulating motion. Three other dancers join him, carrying transparent inflatables. One dancer, another naked man, lies on top of him, with the inflatable between them. At some points the man on top just lies there. At other points, he humps the inflatable, which could be the world's largest, strangest condom; eventually, the inflatable deflates, and one man is on top of the other, with the transparent vinyl between them. The other two dancers, women dressed in red, carry shapeless orange inflatables that they lean on, caress, swing, roll, and otherwise interact with. For a large section of the piece, the women own stage right, which is white, while the men own stage left, which is black. The lighting is stark. The soundscape is largely shrill and repetitious. The movements are slow.

John Jasperse
The piece includes an extended pas de deux in which the two men--now quit of the deflated vinyl--twist around each other in what could be slow-motion sex, or slow-motion wrestling, or both. Some of their poses are beautiful; many are odd (odd is up there with slow for a useful descriptor of this show). Many are extremely intimate, along the lines of arms in ass cracks and faces almost in genitals; yet there is also a lack of intimacy as they do not look at each other. They are deadpan throughout, and when they finally make eye contact, it is startling.

At some point, the two couples finally interact, and now the slowness spell is broken. The women smash the men with the inflatables. All four dancers throw the objects, do acrobatic moves. They dance. This section is playful and joyous and great fun.

Afterward, the four interlace their bodies, looking now like a zipper, now like a horizontal version of the cygnets in Swan Lake, now like a movement that might have been choreographed by Paul Taylor or David Parsons. All four dancers (Ben Asriel, Lindsay Clark, Erika Hand, and Burr Johnson) are wonderful.

For those too young
to know who Gumby is
The slowness of the show leaves a lot of time for rumination. Some thoughts that drifted through my head while watching: The choreographer is using the dancers' bodies like they are Gumbys. I bet that vinyl sticks to their naked bodies. I hope those two guys like each other a lot! Why are the women dressed and the men nude? What is it like being naked for such an extended period? Do they forget they're naked or just not care? If your body is your art, does nudity really matter? Maybe it's not Gumbys, maybe it's bendable Legos. Living sculpture, that's what it is. Wow, those guys have really nice bodies. Is this supposed to be funny? I think yes. Or no. Hard to tell. What's that poetry where it's all about sound and not sense? Sound poetry (duh). Is this vision dance?

I like to not read about dance pieces before I view them so I can see what they say to me. This piece says that men touching men is beautiful and that bodies can be great sources of joy. But I have to wonder if it had to take so long to do so. The artistry is too frequently outweighed by the tedium.

On the New York Live Arts website, it says, "the work invites audiences to examine contemporary notions of how we experience the body as both owners and spectators." Should I have gotten that? Perhaps. How much of this form of expression is the responsibility of the artist and how much is the responsibility of the audience?

(press ticket, F101)

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

A Streetcar Named Desire

Photo: Ken Howard
It's the strength of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire that is reflected in the relative success of this all-black revival, not Emily Mann's directorial decisions. Well, and perhaps a little of Eugene Lee's taut set design, which brings an oubliette-like feel to the home of Stanley (Blair Underwood) and Stella (Daphne Rubin-Vega) that fits the melodrama of Blanche (Nicole Ari Parker), who announces that "Only Mr. Edgar Allen Poe could do it justice." Despite issues having to do with the miscast Rubin-Vega and Mann's interstitial atmosphere-draining vignettes and music, A Streetcar Named Desire still sweats a rawness that's undeniably powerful, tinged as it is by sorrow, delusion, and naked needs. And when two powerful actors collide -- as with Wood Harris's reversal-filled Mitch and Parker's ailing and flailing Blanche -- the audience is liable to break out in sweats, too.

(Press ticket; K2)

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

4000 Miles

Photo: Erin Baiano
There is a great distance between any two people, not just across generations -- Leo (Gabriel Ebert) shows up at his grandmother Vera's (Mary Louise Wilson's) door after going AWOL on a bike trip across America -- but across a gamut of emotional feelings, refracted through Leo's slightly unnatural feelings for his unseen adopted sister (voiced, I believe, by Greta Lee, who appears in the play as an immature, art-freak of a one-night-stand) and his almost unbearable love for his girlfriend Bec (Zoe Winters). Unlike Amy Herzog's previous work, After the Revolution, 4000 Miles doesn't appear to be interested in bridging that distance, so much as in quietly acknowledging it, a task that director Daniel Aukin (This) is well-suited for.

However, for all the naturalistic charm, tenderness, and sweetness of 4000 Miles, the concluding thought is that Herzog appears to have traveled largely on a treadmill. That moment of insight, of connection? It never comes, and with both Bec and Leo running away (to one degree or another) at the end of the play and with the spectre of a life-well-lived-but-also-almost-over hanging over Vera, it feels as if a second act is missing (and this in a play that's already a bit long at a hundred intermissionless minutes). The final monologue -- a sort of eulogy -- suggests that we're not meant to know everything; the catch-22 of Herzog's talented writing is that we want to.

[Read full review here]

($40.00 ticket; H109)

Sunday, May 06, 2012

The Runner Stumbles

In northern Michigan in 1911, a nun was found murdered. In the early 1970s, playwright Milan Stitt wrote a murder mystery/courtroom drama based on this story and used it to examine love, religion, and god. And in 2012, Retro Productions and The Bleecker Company moved their solidly entertaining Off-Off-Broadway production of Stitt's play, The Runner Stumbles, to the Off-Broadway Arclight Theatre for an open run.

Casandera M.J. Lollar,
Christopher Patrick Mullen
Kristen Vaughan
The story is told in flashbacks as Father Rivard (the amazing Christopher Patrick Mullen) stands trial for the murder of Sister Rita (the terrific Casandera M.J. Lollar). We see Father Rivard and Sister Rita  thrown together when two other nuns come down with consumption, and Sister Rita has to move into the rectory to avoid contagion. We are witnesses as the two start butting heads. Rivard sees the church and god as strict and punishing; Rita sees them as loving and humane. Rivard believes in rules; Rita believes in emotions. Their disagreements spill over into other people's lives, as when they compete to console a woman whose mother is about to die; the differences in their approaches are enough to make the poor woman's head spin.

Rivard is an amazing creation. While Sister Rita is a fascinating study of someone coming to believe that maybe there is a place for her in a difficult world, Rivard is anger and fear and love and myth and flesh and blood. The writing is so good, and Mullen is so present and real, so mercurial yet subtle, that even Rivard's worst behavior is comprehensible. And while Rivard's trial examines whether he is guilty of murder, the play examines whether he is guilty of hypocrisy, rigidity, and an inability to love.

The show and this production have their flaws. The first act doesn't quite gel, and some of the characters are thinly drawn. Director Peter Zinn does a good job overall, but the show's pacing needs tightening, particularly in the transitions between scenes. The fights are awkwardly staged. The show gets a bit melodramatic here and there. But the cast is strong (standouts include Heather E. Cunningham as Rivard's housekeeper, Ric Sechrest as the lawyer who defends Rivard, and Alisha Spielmann as the woman whose mother is dying), the story is compelling, and the show is well worth seeing.

(press ticket; second row on the aisle)

An Early History of Fire

While watching the not-particularly-enthralling New Group production of David Rabe's new play, An Early History of Fire, I had to wonder if we really need yet another coming-of-age story in which a son breaks away from his domineering dad and outgrows his childhood friends, with everyone drinking amounts of alcohol that would leave them unconscious in real life. Well, if we do need another one, this isn't it.

Theo Stockman, Claire van der Boom
Photo: Monique Carboni
Although An Early History of Fire is full of incident--fights, fires, an extended case of not-quite-coitis interruptus--it is flat, with two-dimensional characters and little intensity (a surprising criticism for a Rabe play!). The heightened language rings false--not everyone of earth speaks in metaphors, and while lyrical dialogue can add much to a play, it feels forced here. Similarly, the period references that set the play in the early 1960s come across as too-knowing and even a little precious.

The set, direction, acting, etc, are all good, but ultimately, An Early History of Fire fails to ignite.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012


Rachael Hip-Flores, Isaiah Tanenbaum
Photo: Justin Hoch
In August Schulenburg's wonderful new play, DEINDE, a Flux Theatre Ensemble production, it's 2051, and a virus is decimating the human race. Scientists at QuamBi are striving desperately to find a cure, but the virus mutates so quickly that they can't keep up. Then they are given access to DEINDE, the Dineural Entangled Intelligence Network Device, which allows them to merge their minds with computers, thereby increasing their brains' processing power exponentially. "What this means," explains Nabanita Ghosh (the calmly excellent Nitya Vidyasagar), "is we can finally keep up with the virus, its mutations, that line we can’t cross because the math is too small or too fast."

The neuroscientist leading the DEINDE project (the delightful Matthew Trumbull) proceeds to explain the rules, which are straightforward: when using DEINDE, think only of work; do not keep the connection live outside of work; do not use DEINDE to communicate with each other; and do not use DEINDE to access the world online. (This being theatre and this being science fiction, we know that all four rules will be broken; the fun is in learning how.)

Since DEINDE is new technology, the scientists are allowed to decide whether or not they want to participate. The younger scientists are eager to get started, while the oldest scientist declines the opportunity. Whether he is wise or close-minded, too much in love with the past or right to distrust the future, becomes one of the many intriguing questions in this play. I'm still not sure of the answer.

Schulenburg has a deep understanding of how people think and feel, and he writes convincing characters full of deeply human contradictions, as epitomized when one of the scientists becomes violently enraged and switches, frighteningly quickly, from apologetic to blaming to dangerous and back again. While the physicality of the scene as staged could be more effective, it is nevertheless chilling because the violent man's behavior and emotional changes are so real.

In DEINDE, Schulenburg explores technology, relationships, that old standby hubris, and, oh yeah, the meaning of life. That's a lot to cover in a two-act play, and he does it with humor, compassion, and some gorgeous dialogue. There's a monologue spoken by a character who has just learned that her life is going to change profoundly; it is a thing a beauty. In the emotional sense, the monologue is full of fear and joy and humanity. In the theatrical sense, it is full of movement and character development. Schulenburg takes on a lot, and he delivers. (Schulenburg also knows how to take care of business. DEINDE begins with a great deal of exposition, which could be deadly if not well-presented. Schulenburg is wily enough to have the person delivering the exposition be a bit of a silly character, excited, overenthusiastic, and amusing. The character is so entertaining that the exposition just slips on in. A spoonful of sugar does make the medicine go down.)

DEINDE is intelligently directed by Heather Cohn, who mines the emotions and themes of the plays, guides her wonderful cast to wonderful performances, and manages the traffic of changing scenes in a way that actually adds to the play's momentum (this may sound like a trivial thing to mention, but badly staged scene changes can damage a show); I would only wish that some of the tricky sight lines had been dealt with better. Isaiah Tanenbaum, an actor who is always a pleasure to watch, reaches new heights here in a very demanding role. Sol Marina Crespo makes much of a relatively small part; Rachael Hip-Flores starts a little weakly but ends up giving a strong performance; and Alyssa Simon nails the monologue discussed above.

The Tony Award nominations were announced today. What a pity that they are limited to Broadway when there is work of this caliber being done just across the river.

(press ticket, second row center)

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Another Year, Another Tonys

Today's Tony Award nominations underline that, in its own way, the Fabulous Invalid isn't dead yet, despite its attempts to commit suicide via obscenely high ticket prices. It has recreated itself as the most prestigious stop for productions that have started elsewhere. The word "Broadway" still has a shine to it, and Broadway theatres, particularly the most ornate ones, are houses of theatre worship. The thrill when the lights go down is like no other.

Random Thoughts on the Nominations
  • None of the plays nominated were as good as some of the shows I've seen Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway this season, such as Mac Rogers' Blast Radius,  and Jeffrey Sweet's Court-Martial at Fort Devens.
  • I hope Once wins a ton of awards.
  • I wish that Nicole Ari Parker had received a nomination for A Streetcar Named Desire rather than Stockard Channing for Other Desert Cities.
  • I'm not as shocked or disappointed as many people that Bernadette Peters failed to receive a nomination for Follies, as I didn't think she was effective in the role. However, for Ron Raines to get a nomination and Peters not to is strange. However, Peters' category was more competitive.
  • I like the combination of old guard and young'uns in Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical. I assume Audra McDonald will walk home off the prize for Porgy and Bess--her first Tony in a leading role.
  • I was surprised to see Christian Borle in the supporting category, but quite glad to see that he received a nomination. His performance in Peter and the Starcatcher is sheer pleasure.
  • The category Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play is good reminder of how bizarre acting competitions are in the first place. How can one judge the relative merit of, for example, Linda Emond's dramatic performance, Spencer Kayden's energetical silliness, and Celia Keenan-Bolger's wry combination of sweetness and strength?
  • Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical is a tough one--too bad they can't all win. Plus many good performances were left out--in particular, Natasha Yvette Williams from Porgy and Bess.
So, come June 10th, I'll gather with my sister Holly and her tribe at my friend Susan's, where we will make predictions, throw out bon mots, criticize people's clothing, eat ourselves silly, and maybe even enjoy a speech or a number or two or three. No matter the specifics, a good time will be had by all.