Monday, December 31, 2012

Wendy Caster's 2012 Top Ten

One of the luxuries of being a blogger rather than writing for a publication is being able to pick and choose what shows to see. Because I get to focus on plays that interest me or are written by playwrights I admire or feature actors I like, I enjoy/am impressed by a high percentage of pieces that I see.

Becky Byers, August Schulenburg
Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum
Which is why I have a top 15 this year (which actually includes 18 shows total). For me, 2012 was another rewarding year in New York theater.

And, once again, most of these wonderful shows are not Broadway shows. Even in 2012, people still write about what's wrong with theatre when they're actually discussing what's wrong with Broadway. High ticket prices, stunt casting, endless revivals, safe choices: these are all Broadway issues.

Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway are fairly exploding with innovation and talent. And tickets are inexpensive to downright cheap. At $18, which is a common cost for an OOB show, you could see seven productions, in excellent seats, for the price of one ticket to Mary Poppins--and still have money left over for a movie.  

The list is in alphabetical order.
  1. Antigone: Extant Arts Company's shattering production.

  2. Court-Martial at Fort Devens: A clear, efficient, and devastating courtroom drama.

  3. Disaster!: The laugh per minute ratio at Seth Rudetsky's musical take-off of disaster films was off the charts.

  4. Flux Theatre Ensemble: Hearts Like Fists; Deinde: I imagine that at some point Flux will produce a dud, but it hasn't happened yet!

  5. The Great God Pan: Amy Herzog covers familiar territory and makes it fresh and heartbreaking.

  6. Honeycomb Trilogy II and III: Blast Radius and SovereignMac Rogers gives us meaning, feeling, compassion, humor, and giant bugs. What more could one ask for?

  7. An Iliad: A one-man tour de force that shows how little the human race has learned over the centuries.

  8. The Mikado: With Kelli O'Hara, Victoria Clark, and Christopher Fitzgerald, this Mikado was one of those evenings that makes a person feel unbelievably grateful to be alive and in New York.

  9. Once: Sweet, delicate, and lovely--and rollicking!

  10.  Slowgirl: Subtly acted, beautifully written--I hope someone brings this back for a longer run.

  11. This Is Fiction: Can a family survive the truth? It's a question that was asked in many plays this year, but This Is Fiction provided a unique, quietly realistic, and convincing exploration of the answer.

  12. Tribes: Playwright Nina Raine brought us right into the life of a deaf young man in a clueless family.

  13. Triumphant Baby: In a just world, Lorinda Lisitza would be a huge star.

  14. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike: Christopher Durang channels Anton Chekhov and, well, Christopher Durang in this hysterical satire with a heart. Kristine Nielsen’s Maggie Smith imitation is itself worth the price of admission.

  15. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf: Who knew that there was yet more to get out of this classic play?

Saturday, December 15, 2012


Four hundred years after it was written, Volpone remains a delight. Volpone is a con artist, and his con is simple. He lets it be widely know that he is dying--and choosing an heir--and the pigeons line up eagerly with expensive gifts in hopes of being his chosen one. Although playwright Ben Jonson saw Volpone's victims not as pigeons but as carrion birds, naming them Voltore (the vulture), Corbaccio (the raven), and Corvino (the crow), pigeons they are, letting their greed blind them to their own idiocy.

Stephen Spinella, Tovah Feldshuh
What could be more timely? From 1606 to 2012, the goal of the grifter continues to be getting the pigeon to want to give away her money. Bernie Madoff didn't recruit his victims. Instead, they practically begged him to be included.

But where Madoff and his victims are just depressing, Jonson's characters are deliciously larger-than-life in both their cupidity and their stupidity, and their machinations are silly and entertaining. In Red Bull's rollicking production, the reliable Stephen Spinella gives us a cheerful Volpone, happily reveling in his tongue-lolling rottenness. And among the excellent supporting case, Rocco Sisto and Alvin Epstein stand out for the vividness of their creations. The efficient direction is by Jesse Berger, with set design by John Arnone, costume design by Clint Ramos, lighting design by Peter West, choreography by Tracy Bersley, and original music by Scott Killian.

It's difficult to say whether it is wonderful or depressing that a play from 1606 remains so apropos, but it is easy to say that this is a Volpone worth seeing.

(press ticket; fifth row on the aisle)

Sunday, December 09, 2012


The ambitious Extant Arts Company recently presented two shows in rep: Sophocles' Antigone (translated by Sarah Sharp with Extant Artistic Director Greg Taubman) and Taubman's Progeny, a present-day take on Antigone focusing on a law that would require women to undergo transvaginal ultrasounds before having abortions. Both plays were directed by Taubman and performed by the same group of actors.

Russell Jordan
Extant's Antigone was top-notch, hard-hitting, and smart. In addition, its sung, choreographed chorus interludes provided a taste of what Antigone might have been like in Ancient Greece and were considerably more entertaining than the usual chanting. Allison Brzezinski's choreography managed to seem both ancient and new, and Shane Parks' music (nicely played by violinist Teresa Lotz and guitarist Aden Ramsey and sung by the chorus) was attractive and accessible. (On the downside, it was sometimes hard to discern what the chorus was saying.)

Antigone's main strengths were Taubman's direction and the superb performances of Pëtra Denison as Antigone and Russell Jordan as Creon. They came across as fire and ice, with Denison's Antigone passionate and intense and Jordan's Creon so calmly sure of himself that he rarely bothered to raise his voice. Brandon Tyler Harris was touching as Haemon but less so as Ismene and Eurydice. I understand that having the main actors perform multiple roles reflects the ancient tradition, but I wish that women had played those roles.

Pëtra Denison
This Antigone built relentlessly to its shattering conclusion. I have never been so emotionally involved in a Greek tragedy, including various big-deal Broadway versions with big-deal Broadway and West End stars.

Progeny was considerably less successful, although not uninteresting. Taubman would have been better served by a director other than himself to help trim the script and fix the play's rhythms.

Progeny's performances were good but not great. Quinn Warren as the Antigone figure and Tony Neil as the Creon character both lacked the gravitas necessary for a tragedy. Russell Jordan, Pëtra Denison, and Brandon Tyler Harris were effective as the media chorus.

Antigone and Progeny together displayed Extant's many strengths and fewer weaknesses; I look forward to seeing more work by this company.

(press tix, second row on the aisle)

Show Biz (Book Review)

In Ruby Preston's likeable but awkwardly written novel Show Biz, theatre critic Ken Kantor's suicide sets off shock waves that eventually change the lives of nasty producer Margolies, his ambitious assistant Scarlett, her rich friend-with-benefits Lawrence, arts editor Candace Gold, and gossip columnist Reilly Mitchell. With frequent hat-tips to current Broadway shows and people--Reilly Mitchell sort of equals Michael Reidel, Margolies' newest spectacle features as many flying effects as Spider Man, and so on--Show Biz offers some of the fun of gossiping about theatre with a new friend. And Preston knows how to keep the plot moving along.

However, the book reads like a rough draft. Moods change too quickly; there are inconsistencies in characterizations; and the obstacles that keep boy and girl apart are contrived. Sometimes the writing is simply illogical--for example, we are supposed to believe that "no one remembers" that Candace Gold and Margolies were married, even though both are famous and it's interesting gossip. And Scarlett doesn't own a computer.

Even worse, Preston's writing is sloppy on a line-by-line basis--and drowning in cliches. For example:
  • "Writing a musical was deceptively easy."
  • ". . . his words cut her to the bone."
  • "He didn't want to face his marquee just then, though he could feel the glow of it beating down on the back of his neck."
  • "Margolies saw red."
  • "The intern craned his head . . ."
  • "He said with a twinkle in his eye." (This character's eyes twinkle and twinkle and twinkle.)
  • "Here, here!" (When "hear, hear" is meant.)
  • ". . . overlooking street and sky . . ." 
The infelicities are not infrequent; in fact, they appear on pretty much every page. As a result, Show Biz  is only a somewhat fun read. If Preston had done a few rewrites, with a strong editor, it might actually have been a good book.

(press copy)

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

A Civil War Christmas

I wanted to like A Civil War Christmas almost as much as it wanted to be liked. Playwright Paula Vogel's sincerity is quite apparent, as is director Tina Landau's creativity. But this tale of Christmas Eve, 1864, tries to accomplish so much that it ends up accomplishing too little.

Alice Ripley
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Its very concept works against it: presenting the Civil War in story theatre form with frequent singing of Christmas carols, and including a huge swath of the people of the time, from slaves to free blacks, poor people to wealthy, illiterate to well-educated, soldiers to generals to the president of the United States and his wife Mary. Its an ambitious concept, but also a scattered one.

While many of the characters would seem to demand our interest (a lost girl, a Quaker soldier, a dying soldier, Walt Whitman, the Lincolns, etc, etc), they come and go so quickly that it's hard to care about them. Everyone plays multiple roles, and it occasionally takes a moment or two to figure out which character is being depicted in a particular scene--and then the scene is gone (there are over 60 scenes!).

And while it's a sweet and playful conceit to have men play women and vice versa, it adds to the general sense of confusion and lack of focus. Add to this the singing and the tropes of story theatre (people talking about themselves in the third person; people narrating what other people are doing; a man playing a cutesy horse; the aforementioned multiple casting), and the stories are diluted and interrupted further. (On the other hand, much of the singing is lovely.)

The cast is largely strong, although not all of them are easy to understand, and some are more effective as some of their characters than as others. They include Sumaya Bouhbal, K. Todd Freeman, Chris Henry, Rachel Spencer Hewitt, Antwayn Hopper, Amber Iman, Jonathan-David, Karen Kandel, Sean Allan Krill, Alice Ripley, and Bob Stillman. (If you'd like to see a trailer for the show, click here.)

(press ticket; 6th row center)

Monday, December 03, 2012

Hearts Like Fists

The Flux Theatre Ensemble continues their hot streak with the delightful Hearts Like Fists, currently at the Secret Theatre one subway stop into Queens. Three masked crime fighters, all women, have rid the city of all of its murderous miscreants save Dr. X, who expresses his hurt and anger at being rejected by killing cuddling lovers in their sleep.
Becky Byers, August Schulenburg
Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

Author Adam Szymkowicz has written an extremely funny script that alternates long lyrical monologues with staccato noir-ish one-liners. It's both poignant and hysterical when Dr. X, speaking of his long-lost love, explains, "And we drank and we drank and we went to my place and we made love like normal people." And then there's this exchange, between a cardiologist with a (literally) broken heart and a cheery femme fatale:
PETER: When they saw you, I felt all their hearts stop for a second. They all skipped a beat. Something about your eyes or your lips or the way you walk. Something about your shoulder or your hair or the color of your skin. Something inside you, just below the surface: a musical, a roller coaster, a sledgehammer.

LISA: I used to work in construction, but too many men fell to their deaths.

PETER: What do you do now?

LISA: They pay me to stay away from all the construction sites in the city.

PETER: They pay you not to work?

LISA: It‘s not fulfilling.
This is dialogue that could easily be overdone, hyper-camped-up, but director Kelly O'Donnell keeps the goings-on at exactly the right level of restrained insanity. The physical comedy is brilliant, thanks to O'Donnell and fight director Adam Swiderski. I won't give any examples--they would all be spoilers--but I will tell you that the audience laughed pretty much continuously throughout the fight scenes.

And then there is the amazing cast. The wonderful playwright August Schulenburg gives a perfect performance as Dr. X, making him both creepy and perversely likeable. His sister Marnie Schulenburg is also excellent as the femme fatale, a woman who wants to be appreciated for how she looks and for what she accomplishes. Susan Louise O'Connor's open-mouthed crying is brilliant;  Becky Byers, Rachael Hip-Flores, and Aja Houston kick ass as the crime fighters; and Chinaza Uche is sweet at the doctor who wants to save the world.

A couple of teeny-tiny complaints: the music before the show is annoying and doesn't set the right tone, at least to my middle-aged ears, and it's close to impossible to understand what the DJ says. And maybe the show could be tightened a bit. But, again, these are just details. All in all Hearts Like Fists is fabulous and smart fun.

(press ticket; second row center)

The Great God Pan

There is nothing new under the sun, yet a truly excellent playwright can make a familiar story new and vivid and surprising and heartbreaking. And Amy Herzog is a truly excellent playwright, as shown by her new and vivid and surprising and heartbreaking play, The Great God Pan. Focusing on such well-worn themes/topics as childhood abuse, the fragility of relationships, whether to have children, and the power of denial, Herzog compassionately depicts the  cost of being human and how a seemingly happy life may turn out to be built on shaky foundations. She also shows how easily we can all misunderstand one another. And how being honest is not an easy goal. And she does this all amazingly economically--it's a short play.
(Note: although I saw an early-ish preview, I am reviewing this now because I paid for my ticket and because I want to give you as much opportunity as possible to get tickets!)

Jamie's career as a writer is moving along. He has a wonderful girlfriend, Paige, and odd but loving parents. His life is not perfect, but it is good. And then his girlfriend gets pregnant, and he is faced with his ambivalence about the future.  Also, he has coffee with an old friend--and suddenly he has to reevaluate his entire life. Paige too has to deal with life-changing decisions and realizations, and must also face the limits of her ability to help people as a social worker.

The Great God Pan has seven characters, which is not a small cast in these financially tight days. The story could have been told with fewer people, but much would have been lost. The play has an airiness, an ability to breathe, that gives it more humanity than a tightly measured three-person play might have had. It's a sad and beautiful play, with no heroes or villains--just painfully human humans.

Herzog has been gifted with an excellent director, Carolyn Cantor, and a superb cast. In particular, Jeremy Strong depicts Jamie's unraveling subtlety yet vividly; you can almost see him age in the short time period of the play. The rest of the wonderful cast comprises Keith Nobbs, Sarah Goldberg, Becky Ann Baker, Peter Friedman, Erin Wilmhelmi, and Joyce Van Patten.

As I write this, it has been announced that Herzog won the New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award for her play, After the Revolution. I wish I could go back in time and see it.

(member ticket; first row audience left)

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Estrogenius Short Plays: Program C

A woman giving up on her marriage; the last lesbian on earth; breasts whose feelings are hurt because their owner finds them too small; a mega-multi-tasking woman with a mysterious past; and an 86-year-old former Rockette who lives happily in the past. These characters reflect the intriguing range of the most recent Estrogenius Festival, Program C. 

Books Not Now: written by Kira Lauren, directed by Sharon Hunter, featuring Kate Dulcich and John Say. This break-up tale covered familiar ground, but it succeeded at showing the sadness of missed chances. 

Life on Mars: written by Trish Cole, directed by Sara Lyons, featuring Libby Collins, Marcie Henderson, and Patrick Walsh. All lesbians, save one, have been sent to Mars--and now the last one, hand-cuffed and guarded, is about to be put on a transport out. Played mostly for laughs, the play was also touching in its own way, and it was nicely directed and acted. 

Bazookas: written by Sharon Goldner, directed by Olivia Kinter, featuring Sabrina Blackburn, Yvonne Gougelet, and MaryLynn Suchan. This tale of a woman's complaints about her breasts--and their complaints back--was very much not my cup of tea and it went on too long; however, it was effective, the rest of audience was clearly amused, and the breasts managed to be more than boobs. 

Jennifer Bourne Identity, written by Hilary King, directed by Kathryn McConnell, featuring Jeff Johnson and Annalisa Loeffler. This well-directed and well-acted satire of both the Bourne Identity and modern overbusy women earned all of its many laughs through nice writing, excellent pacing, and perfectly calibrated performances. A well-oiled machine, indeed. 

Rosie the Retired Rockette, written by Daniel Guyton, directed by Heather Cohn, featuring Monica Furman, Vivian Meisner, Marianne Miller, and Kristen Vaughan, choreographed by Stephanie Willing. When Dawn and her two daughters visit Dawn's mother, Rosie, in a nursing home, Rosie believes that she is in her dressing room at Radio City and that her granddaughters are two new Rockettes. While the granddaughters enjoy Rosie's scandalous stories--Rosie was a wild one--Dawn needs her mother to see and recognize her. The acting was lovely, the direction was quite good, and the story was moving, but something kept this show from achieving its full potential--perhaps the lack of a real ending, perhaps the sentimentality and abruptness of the music at the end, or perhaps simply that this play wants to be longer.

($18 full-priced seat; second row)