Monday, October 29, 2012

You Will Make a Difference

Photo by Charlie Winter

This Halloween, AliveWire Theatrics provides a sepulchral journey to self-discovery with You Will Make a Difference, a collaboratively created show more experiential than story oriented. This relentless string of unrelated scenarios offers the most chilling seasonal horror: truly bad theater.

Still, the opportunity to wander through the landmark West Park Presbyterian Church, built in 1889, makes this hodge-podge collection of material somewhat bearable. Conceived and directed by Jeremy Goren, the inaugural A/M/P Resident at AliveWire, the audience embarks on a theatrical adventure, following the performers through several floors of the darkened Romanesque Revival church—from its balcony to the musty basement—in a quest to understand exactly what is happening.

Taking inspiration from medieval pageant plays, the TV show “My So-Called Life,” Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the performer’s own stories, and other diverse sources, You Will Make a Difference, begins when the audience enters the sanctuary: a grandiose set itself. Rather than using the building to the show’s benefit, set designer Sandy Yaklin constructs an amateurish set, more appropriate for an elementary school play. The cast assembles in front of this Tree of Life facsimile and random scenes unfold: a tribal chant penetrates the silence, arms rise, bodies move, and lights flicker revealing silhouetted figures. More posing occurs than acting. Between the cloudy accents and the lack of a viable sound system, dialogue fades into a guttural verbalize. Lighting by Jess Greenberg fares better: Especially fun is the disco-like black lighting of the staircases near the show’s end, which allow the masking tape placed as a trail to reflect garishly.

As the performers finish this first vignette, disappearing in a swirl of song and dance, the audience, led by ushers’ flashlights, moves into a modern kitchen area. Again, performers arbitrarily come and go: a girl lies on the counter, another fiddles with the refrigerator door, someone else looks introspectively at the coffee pot. The silence becomes a long-winded burden, punctuated only by thumping footsteps, or the slam of a pot’s lid. Welcome to the most depressed collection of people in the world. Finally, the actors speak and, for a moment, the glorious voyeuristic pleasure of overhearing conversations sharpens the experience as a variety of characters (husband/wife, high schoolers, lovers) talk about pimples, the expendability of women, weekends, and other sundries. This feeling fades when the banality offers no resonance, no story, and no apparent reason for its utterance.

The remainder of the show takes the audience to the pits of the basement to see performers squirm their way around the peeling paint and the discarded furniture. Next, the gathering passes under a bridge of raised arms to spookily lit staircases to a ballroom area by the kitchen set where performers act like Hyde Park’s soapbox speakers, asking questions such as, “What is the American Dream?” and offering the thoughts of whatever persona captures their fancy. The show ends with a communal meal prepared by Artist/Chef Anne Apparu. After the marzipan candy, a fiddler plays hoedown and waltz music so audience and actors can dance with one another. Afterward, when the usher leading people out was asked: “How long does this go on?” She answered: “Until we drop of exhaustion.” Her line sums up best the You Will Make a Difference experience.
 (Press Ticket)

Stephanie Eiss, Tara Elliott, Nicki Kontolefa, Jeff Kitrosser,  Laura Riveros, Derek Spaldo, & Martha Frances Liv Williams, Samantha Rivers Cole, Ben Lambert, Claire Lebowitz, Rishika Mehrishi, Courtney Ross, and a rotating group of guest performers

Performances from October 19th - November 11th, 2012
Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 8pm

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche

It's 1956, and we're all at the annual quiche breakfast of the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein, and the members of the society, widows all, are salivating with anticipation. That is ostensibly the premise of the highly entertaining 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, written by Andrew Hobgood and Evan Linder and directed by Sarah Gitenstein. There is more here than meets the eye, however, and 5 Lesbians is better seen than explained. Try this: add the Five Lesbian Brothers (hmm, what is it about lesbians and the number 5?) to Steel Magnolias and Charles Busch, then subtract drag, and maybe you have a sense of 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche. Maybe.

Thea Lux, Caitlin Chuckta, Rachel Farmer, Megan Johns, Maari Suorsa
Photo: Dixie Sheridan
The show starts a little slow, treading familiar ground: food = sexual sublimation is not a new idea, nor is the concept of camp 1950's women. While the beginning is funny, it's nothing special. But then the atomic bomb explodes, and 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche goes someplace altogether different and does so with stylish insanity (insane style?).

[spoilers below]

Among its many strengths, 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche uses audience participation remarkably well. The audience is never badgered, and when the characters start asking people in the audience to announce that they are lesbians, they stick to men, where the announcement is automatically funny. And soon they have the whole audience announcing that they are lesbians, whether they are straight, bi, trans, gay, or, yes, lesbian. It is delightful, and for someone who came out in the 1977, it is also extremely moving. 

Oh, and the show has one of the funniest death scenes I have ever seen.

[end of spoilers]

So here's the bottom line: The writing varies from funny to hysterically funny (though I would cut five to ten minutes of the beginning), the direction is smart, and the acting is exactly what it should be, which I suppose is another way of saying perfect. (The performers are Caitlin Chuckta, Rachel Farmer, Megan Johns, Thea Lux, and Maari Suorsa.) No matter your gender or sexual orientation, if you're looking to spend 75 minutes laughing, 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche is for you. It's at the Soho Playhouse through late November.

(press ticket, 7th row center)

Friday, October 19, 2012


 Full disclosure: Shawn Davis, who plays the titular--if very briefly seen--character, is a good friend of mine.

Ostensibly, however, Spaceman (playing through Sunday, October 21 at St. Marks Theater and produced by Incubator Arts Project) is a one-woman show that focuses on Molly Jenkins, an astronaut on a mission to Mars. Molly's husband, Harry, disappeared some years earlier on a similar mission, and as much as she misses him, longs for him, mourns for him, Molly remains furious with him for taking that fatal spacewalk without remembering to attach his tether. That she would literally die to touch him again, despite her wrenching anger, is just one of the many dichotomies explored in this complicated, interesting play.

Ably played by Erin Treadway, Molly is a remarkably accomplished woman, once described by her chief competition for the chance to fly alone to Mars as "a machine" that he just couldn't beat. Yet, of course, she is not a machine; she is body, mind, and soul, and she's having increasing difficulty with all three as she hurdles through space. The spaceship, her home for months now, is increasingly confining, especially now that something is wrong with the air circulation and her space suit has begun to smell as horribly as she knows she does. The people she can communicate with back on Earth have begun to exhaust and irritate her; the further she gets from our planet, the more futile and stupid and doomed it  and everything on it seems. Her daily tasks are mind-numbingly dull. And while space is empty and perfectly silent, her capsule is almost unceasingly, irritatingly loud: there are beeps and pings and sirens and robotic voices and tinny human ones and, sometimes, almost unbearable feedback that shrieks forth from the many computers, radios, and consoles with no warning. Molly longs for silence and solitude, but at the same time desperately craves companionship, connections, and intimacy. The desires for both, conflicting though they may be, eventually begin to eat away at her in increasingly dangerous ways. So too do the connections between commerce and individual freedoms; love, loss, and death; ration and emotion; sanity and insanity; and, most compellingly, spirituality and science. This is a very small play that takes on and wrestles with absolutely huge dichotomies.

I am not convinced that it succeeds as well with some of them as it does with others--as noted above, the most carefully, satisfyingly explored topics relate to the (dis)connections between space-as-science and space-as-spirit-world, as well as to the drive to make meaning out of a human existence that can seem stupid at best, and pointless at worst. "False hope can be unbearable, but it's pointless to have no hope," Molly muses near the end of the show. Yes, and yes.

I've decided that I don't care, though, that some of the themes fall somewhat shorter than others; I'm too impressed with the attempt that the whole company makes to tackle such big subjects so creatively in the first place. And anyway, it's entirely possible that some of the musings simply went over my head. As my friend Jamie (also a friend of Shawn's, and my theatergoing companion) pointed out when I noted that I found the central love story--and the depiction of gender, really--to be ultimately too conventional, it's entirely possible that Molly's love and anger for her husband was more intricately, inversely related to her sanity than I'd considered. So seriously, what do I know? The fact that I'm asking that question is, to me, the mark that I've seen something challenging and worthwhile.

Indeed, Spaceman is very well done: Erin Treadway manages to portray a woman suffering from mind-altering solitude, loneliness, and claustrophobia without dragging the audience into the maddening boredom she experiences. The sharp direction, by Spaceman playwright Leegrid Stevens, works as well to keep the audience fully engaged in--and even fascinated by--Molly's numbingly mundane tasks, despite the fact that Treadway remains seated in her tiny (beautifully designed) spaceship for most of the 100-minute show. The sound design does exactly what it should, and the weightlessness and enormity of space are depicted ingeniously.

Spaceman closes this Sunday, which is too bad; it deserves to be taken seriously. I hope, too, that the people who put it together, all of them, get taken seriously, too.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

"Hard Times" Available Now!

Hi, all. Forgive the shameless self-promotion, but the book I wrote, which is pictured above and which I blogged about in much more detail a few weeks back, is now available for purchase on Amazon, the Oxford University Press website, Barnes and Noble's website, and (maybe, if I'm really lucky) in the shrinking "theater" section of your finer, if also shrinking, local bookstores. Snag a copy, if you like, or, at the very least, page through the book online and seek out the occasional picture of nekkid actors!

Also, while I've got you: I've been on a theatergoing hiatus of late, because the start of a new semester manages to blindside me every time. But I've missed the theater, I've missed writing about what I've gone to see, and I've missed you! So I promise: I'll be back soon.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


There is a tremendous amount of talent on display at Craig Wright's play Grace at the Cort Theatre.  Michael Shannon continues his run of brilliant performances, subtly yet vividly limning the pain and tentative hope of a physically and emotionally damaged man. Paul Rudd brings energy and compassion to a man who wields his God like sledgehammer, ever trying to beat belief into nonbelievers. Director Dexter Bullard provides clear direction and good pacing. Beowulf Boritt (scenic design), David Weiner (lighting design), and Darron L. West (sound design) provide an impressive (and attractive) atmosphere of tension.

Unfortunately, the best that all of these talented people can do is build a handsome carapace around an empty, unaffecting play.

Photo: Charles Caster-Dudzick
Steve (Rudd) and Sara (the likeable Kate Arrington), religious Christians, have moved to Florida to start of chain of religious motels (Steve likes the name Crossroads Inns; Sara doesn't). Their next-door neighbor Sam (Shannon) wants to be left alone with his pain and loss, but Sara needs a friend and won't take no for an answer. Steve waits for the money that an investor has promised him (and that he perceives as proof of God's love and power). Sam and Sara hang out together. Karl-the-exterminator (Ed Asner) tells some stories. Some predictable things happen. People's beliefs in God shrink or grow. And none of it is particularly convincing or compelling.

A major problem is that it is difficult to care about Steve. If he were kind, if he really cared about other people's souls, rather than just about being right, the show would gain some much-needed complexity and balance.

[spoilers a-comin']

The decision to have the play begin at the end removes what little suspense it might have had. Not that an ending has to be a surprise--beginning at the end certainly doesn't hurt the movie Sunset Boulevard. But Grace has so little in the way of surprise or tension that the show can't afford to tip its (weak) hand.

In addition, playwright Wright can be lazy. For example, even though we know that Sara and Sam will fall in love, he doesn't bother to show it happening. Nor does he show Steve's growing frustration and fear as days and weeks pass and the money he has been promised doesn't appear

Perhaps most importantly, the presentation of questions of faith is simplistic and the characters' back stories rise little above cliché.

[end of spoilers]

All in all, Grace is a disappointment. I wanted--and want--to see Shannon and Rudd in a piece that is up to their talents. This isn't it.

(press ticket; 12th row, audience left)

Monday, October 08, 2012

God of Vengeance

The father and mother have made their fortune in less-than-legal ways, but the father yearns to be respectable. He sees their innocent daughter as their ticket into acceptance from both their neighbors and God. But the daughter has her own dreams. For one thing, she's in love, and the person with whom she's besotted is female and not exactly of the upper echelons. In fact, she's a prostitute who works in the parents' brothel.

Joy Franz, Leanne Agmon, Molly Stoller
Photo:  Jill Usdan
Sholem Asch's God of Vengeance (translated by Joseph C. Landis) judges only the manipulative and hypocritical father. The prostitutes and the lesbians, in contrast, are treated with sympathy and understanding. This is particularly notable because God of Vengeance premiered, in its original Yiddish, in the early 1900s. A production in New York in 1923 was deemed "obscene, indecent, disgusting, and tending toward the corruption of the morals of youth" by the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and the entire cast was arrested. Unfortunately, that response would not be surprising in many locations in 2012.

God of Vengeance is not a great play, but it is a compelling and compassionate one. Director Lenny Leibowitz and the able cast, led by the excellent Sam Tsoutsouvas as the father, tell the story clearly and efficiently, overcoming some of the play's lagging, repetitive moments. The scenery by Tijana Bjelajac is effective, although the scene changes could have been much faster.

The Marvell Rep has provided a great service by reviving this fascinating and surprising play, over 100 years after its premiere.

(press ticket, sixth row on the aisle)

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Patti Issues

Though a gay man dishing about Patti LuPone at The Duplex is not an uncommon occurrence, Ben Rimalower's very funny and moving one man play, Patti Issues, elevates Patti worship to a whole new level. Speaking very candidly, a chatty Rimalower opens up about the strained relationship with his gay father and his subsequent escape into all things Patti. As he analyzes and dissects different Patti recordings he makes analogies between his home-life and the lyrics Patti sings. The play gets very fun and insider when Rimalower speaks about the time when he had the dream job of assisting LuPone, herself. Rimalower, with a photographic memory, relishes in describing her every expression and turn of phrase. It must have been thrilling and nerve-wracking for Rimalower as LuPone actually attended a performance a couple of weeks ago. "He is a very talented man and I am so proud of him," she stated. I agree.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Ten Chimneys

When the superb actor Byron Jennings looks awkward and uncomfortable on stage, something is wrong. In this dreadful production of Jeffrey Hatcher's Ten Chimneys, directed by Dan Wackerman, that's the least of the problems, although perhaps the most astonishing. It takes work to make Jennings look bad.

Byron Jennings, Carolyn McCormick
Photo: Carol Rosegg

Here's the setup: theatre legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne have invited Sydney Greenstreet to visit them to socialize and get a leg up on rehearsing The Seagull. But when Greenstreet appears, ingenue Uta Hagen is with him. Lunt and Hagen flirt; Fontanne and Hagen bicker. How will this affect the Lunt's fabled marriage? Time will tell.

Ten Chimney's two hours or so include explorations of love, ambition, obsession, loss, meaning, and responsibility, and the play tries to be funny beside. It fails on pretty much all counts, although some of the discussions about Chekhov are reasonably intelligent.

A lot of the faults of this production are clearly the doing of director Wackerman. Playwright Hatcher at least makes genuine attempts to be sensitive to the complexities of people's lives. Wackerman, on the hand, keeps the performances at an almost-cartoon level, and he allows the play and the players to flail much of the time.

(six row, on the aisle; press ticket)