Thursday, August 28, 2008
You just never know what you're going to take from a play--turns out that while I didn't care much for the acting, another critic found the acting to be just about the only good thing in the show. That leads me to think that, on the whole, things are probably even darker for this show than I painted it for Time Out.
[Reviewed for Time Out New York]
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Workshop Theater's production of A Perfect Ganesh comes across as a thrift-store version of Terrance McNally's tale of self-discovery in India: experiences are often reduced to tacky, comic statements and all the vibrant exotic color is often reduced to a bland commercial hue. However, Peter Sylvester's direction, while slow, is actually suited to some of the self-satirical cultural tones, and the two leads, Charlotte Hampden and Ellen Barry, are bright enough spots that, every now and then, we can live vicariously through them.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
The narrative spine of this play by Maggie Keenan-Bolger, in which she portrays herself and dramatizes her highly personal struggle with self-injury, is essentially a conversation with her father that leads up to her confession that she cuts herself; the scene keeps freezing so that Maggie can leave it and gather her courage, usually by re-visiting moments from her past. The theatrical conceit goes a long way toward enlivening the show, helping to keep the play from becoming overly dry while it informs, and the play certainly enlightens as it intends about the motivations of self-injurers. (Often, the motivation is to make emotional pain visible; it can't be talked about, so the pain needs to be seen.) The play is constructed to build to the breakthrough when Maggie tells us what her deepest, unspeakable pain is, but that bare honest moment comes in a projected video segment. There's thematic validity to presenting it in that way, but the price is that it unfortunately makes the final moments in the play remote.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
An excellently acted production that somehow managed to go right over my head. Inspired in parts by King Lear and today's oversaturated say-nothing do-everything media, Adriano Shaplin's Victory at the Dirt Palace focuses on the fractious relationship between bombastic James Mann (Paul Schnabel) and his ice-cold daughter, K (Stephanie Viola). What does it say that a terrorist attack triggers a war that lasts all of four minutes, and whose panic is underwhelmed by the twice-removed resolve of rivaling news anchors? How should we read into K's father issues when it turns out that despite being a successful woman, she requires being dominated by her sycophantic assisstant, Spence (Shaplin)? Truth be told, these are questions I'm too tired to try and answer: the play goes by so quickly, with such striking performances and reversals--James's jealous, bastard of an assistant, Andrew (Drew Friedman), takes control, that it's hard to put a button on it, but I'd certainly like to revisit the Riot Group.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
In the late 1970s, Walter Thompson wanted to find a way to conduct what were essentially jam sessions, and invented a language that would allow him to spontaneously compose a piece, drawing on the energies of any artist around him, be they dancers, musicians, actors, and so on. This technique, known as soundpainting, is the spine of Big Beat/Back Flow, but the visceral effect is like watching Pollock do theater. Evan Mazunik, a James Lipton-like soundpainter, eventually manages to build a lyrical jazz structure out of the chaos (kudos to Eric John Eigner's steady percussion), and that's impressive--to a degree--but the evening is meant for those who get their kicks freebasing to jam bands and Brian Eno. On the whole, the sound of Josh Sinton laughing through his saxophone or Ryan Kotler squeaking two bass bows together is slightly more entertaining and musical than nails on a chalkboard. There's a method to the madness--behold the elegant beauty of chaos--but that doesn't make it any less mad. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "More like backwash than back flow" and 5 being "A picture's worth a thousand notes," Big Beat/Back Flow gets a 1.5.
It's hard to critique a children's musical--after all, I'm not the target audience--but I will say that Jeff LaGreca's latest work is the opposite of his a capella show, Minimum Wage. That works to his advantage, since kids are more likely to tune in for the killer plot than musicality, so my stovepipe hat comes off to The Gargoyle Garden. Crossing between Mary Poppins and Harry Potter, the show follows the eccentric Edgar Allen Densmore (Patrick Henney) as he tries to evade the evil Brother Keyes (John C. Taylor) long enough to befriend Annabel Lee (Emily Bordonaro); the easily digestible moral is that it's alright to be different. With the help of the chimney-sweeping narrator (talented Allan Gillespie) and a few friendly gargoyles (headlined by Brian DePetris), the show plays like a youthful Edward Scissorhands, and although at one point it practically steals the music to Sondheim's "You Are Not Alone," the show is sincere enough at heart that such similarities comes across more as homage than plagiarism. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Not abnormal but abysmal," and 5 being "Mysterious and spooky, and all together ooky," The Gargoyle Garden gets a 3.
Interpretive movement, live musical underscoring, short collaged dramatic scenes: this hourlong Fringe Festival piece, inspired by the same-named poem by Randall Jarrell, gets points for theatricality and ambition. Unfortunately, the execution isn't up to the job of unifying all the theatrical business. The show's conceit is that the action moves freely between past and present and between real and imagined as the central character, a sensitive but idealistic WW II solider, comes emotionally undone on a mission. It would be a workable idea if we were made to feel that we were inside his head, but the piece isn't rigorous in its point of view.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
I'm always skeptical of a show that has to cajole the audience into participating, rather than simply trusting them to follow the undeniable afrobeats that Antibalas has laid down to Fela's music. So while I'd love to simply shout "yah, yah"--especially now that I've seen Sahr Ngaujah's tremendous performance--I simply can't: the show panders to culturally inept audiences with the hint of something exotic, and then grotesques Bill T. Jones's well-choreographed dancing into a flailing, desperate Broadway-bound monster. "Expensive Shit" is too good of a song/anecdote to let me so neatly put down some of the better intentions of Fela!, but the show often pushes too much, stretching the chronological sequence for drama, adding mystical elements for grandeur, and relying too much on the same shit, song after song, particularly in the second act, when the climactic, must-hear songs like "Zombie" have long gone, taking any sense of political turmoil or musical revolution with them, leaving only the hint of freshness behind.
With all the backhanded insults directed at the current administration, it's ironic that The Deciders, a satirical rock musical of Bush's plan to reinstate Saddam so as to stabilize Iraq and secure his legacy as a peacemaker, most deserves a backhanded compliment: this is pretty good for the Fringe. However, while Cindy Sheehan (Amber Carson) and Condi (Carla Euphrates Kelly) have terrific voices and Dubya (Erik Hogan) has the self-deprecating swagger down, the plot comes across more as a parody of an already existing parody, and, as if the winks to the audience about the "Fringe benefits" weren't bad enough, bogs down the actual message with a sub-story that features Saddam's desire to mount a musical called "Saddamn." The actual plot is tragic and familiar enough, and if Mitch Kess focuses more on songs like "Safer, Stronger" (in which Cheney feeds lines to a deceived and teary Condi) or the protest anthem "Free" and less on building Saddam up as a misunderstood Elvis ("Blues of Babylon"), this show could have some serious legs. (Getting better, less electronic instruments would help the music from being so lounge-y.) Note to the government, in re: The Deciders: there's your innovation. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Worse than the last eight years of Bush," and 5 being "Yes, we most certainly can," The Deciders gets a 2.5.
Although the frequent scene changes are handled unsatisfactorily with silent, pace-killing blackouts, and a couple of the scenes go on too long, I was amused and absorbed by this this slice of cold-hearted pulp fiction (by Tim O'Leary) which kept me guessing about each new plot twist. The trust no one, assassin vs assassin plot isn't new, but O'Leary adds a few fresh kinks and has a lot of fun with the play's structure, making some fresh suspense. (There's also a lot of fight choreography; even beyond Fringe standards, a good deal of it is impressive.) Those in the ensemble who strongly register (Will Poston, Victoria Levin and Michael de Nola among them) give heightened, stylized performances that befit the play's graphic novel feel.
In August Schulenburg's ambitious, fiercely intelligent new two-hander, a womanizing ad executive's cold-eyed pursuit of his female boss leads to his supernatural physical transformation; after he has his way with her, he wakes up in a woman's body. The superb first act, mostly focused on issues of gender identity, is thought-provoking and enormously entertaining; the second act, in which the ad exec's soul searching inspires new levels of his consciousness, isn't as smooth and feels unfinished - the dialogue begins to sound authoral. Nonetheless this is a fascinating, compelling play worth getting excited about, here featuring a brilliant, thoroughly convincing performance by Vince Nappo as the ad exec.
Monday, August 18, 2008
Sunday, August 17, 2008
Green Eyes is a remarkably ambitious piece of theater for such a simple love story, but whether it's Brian Mazzaferri's music, Lizzie Leopold's choreography, or simply the performances from the two singers (Nick Blaemire and Celina Carvajal), two dancers (Ryan Watkinson and Melissa Bloch), and five-piece folk rock band (that's the classic guitar and drum mixed with the classical cello and bass, plus a piano for good measure), I'm sold. Though it's a simple story, Jessica Redish directs the work with, as the song goes, "loving ambiguity," working toward the emotionally rich experience rather than the narratively detailed musical. Given the scope of time that passes--an entire relationship in one hour--we understand that inevitable fighting and the hopeful make-ups, so having a muddled middle isn't actually a problem: the dancing mirrors the music, the music mirrors the singing, the singing mirrors the dancing, and caught somewhere in all those reflections is the teal tint of truth. There are still a few places where it's hard to focus, and, for a show that's essentially about contrasts, a few more duets (like the spectacular "I Only Know I Am"/"Hope in the Questions" finale) are needed to tie things together. But it's marvelous work all around--particularly the lift-heavy dancing--and my eyes were wide open throughout. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Green with nausea" and 5 being "Green with envy," Green Eyes gets a 4.5.
Though the three classic science-fiction stories Jon Levin has adapted for There Will Come Soft Rains are warnings of how unfortunately easy it is to destroy what is so hard to create, thanks to some imaginative direction, these shorts thankfully preserve and enhance the material instead. Whether you're familiar with Stanislaw Lem, Bill Pronzini (and Barry N. Malzberg), and Ray Bradbury or not, these works, using puppetry, symbolism, and holograms, successfully leap from the page to the stage. The performances are perfunctory, showcasing the stories rather than the actors, but Levin's direction is sublime, really capturing the powerful, lingering images of each tale, from the sight of actors slowly turning out all the lights in the universe to that of photographic flashes revealing the atomized remains of a family, emblazoned in white on an otherwise ash-covered wall. Though the stories warn us of how unfortunately easy it is to destroy what is so hard to create, this adaptation, far from robotic, thankfully preserves and enhances instead. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "I'd rather be probed" and 5 being "Out of this world," There Will Come Soft Rains gets a 4.
Although it's hard to tell that the interlaced monologues in Robert Attenweiler's Kansas City or Along the Way are taking place in the past and future before meeting up in the play's present time of the 1930s, this is an excellent character piece. Louise (Rebecca Benhayon) narrates her half from a sense of panic for her husband left for Kansas, kids in tow, and the jaws of her dreary town snapped down on her. Joseph (Adam Groves) gets the more active storytelling, for he's a traveling guitarist trying to make good, as a line cook, as a father, as whatever it takes to improve the future. Attenweiler's a talented writer, but he deals best with action, so the final scene between the two is filled with beautiful moments (Louise's knowing bribes, Joseph's weary approval, and the metaphorical observation that when you're using newspaper for a pillow, the more bad news there is, the better one sleeps). Joe Stipek evokes a desolate atmosphere with just a few boxes and shifts in lighting, and this two-hander is very well along on its way. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "I'd rather watch tumbleweeds" and 5 being "A story I don't mind getting lost in," Kansas City or Along the Way gets a 3.5.
Saturday, August 16, 2008
Halley Bondy's new play, The Redheaded Man, starts out as a comedy that explores the difference between illness and insight, but by repressing the drama until late in the one-act, Bondy ends up with a lot of unprescribed side-effects: exaggeration, implausibility, and senselessness. Luckily, these unpredictable moments are still largely entertaining, thanks to the relationship between Brian (David Jenkins), the "ill" architect who creates buildings by altering his symbolic memory, and his roommate, Jonathan (James Edward Shippy), whose family adopted him after his mother's death. When these two argue, it's with years of happy memories mixed in with resentment, which makes their conversations far richer than the one-sided and berating "lectures" from The Redheaded Man (Bruce Bluett), a manifestation of Brian's absent father figure, and far better than the manic scenes with Dr. Jones (Michelle Sims), a psychiatrist who is addicted to the drug she's a shill for. The final character, Lydia (Bondy), is another device, but at least she has a dramatic purpose, one that goes beyond manifesting Brian's madness or criticizing an industry that would rather medicate effects than treat the cause. Like the character she plays, Bondy arouses a lot of interest in Brian's unique condition, but despite Jessica Fisch's surefire direction (projections show us what Brian sees), the show is repressing a deeper, richer, meatier second act. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Untreated depression" and 5 being "Pill-popping euphoria," The Redheaded Man gets a 3.
No matter how complex the characters, coming up with convincing obstacles always seems to be what stands between a playwright and a natural drama. To his credit, Aron Ezra skips straight to the character building, dipping into the fertile territory of magical realism to manifest a literal (and symbolic) obstacle: a warm, wet, pulsing wall that has, one day, split the Pierce's "happy" home in half. As it turns out, the only way to dissolve this supernatural barrier is by tearing down the invisible walls of their hearts: that is, confessing their secrets. And this is where Ezra runs into a wall of his own: the premise is fine, but the characters end up being rather artificial. Dennis (Adam Richman) is a workaholic because he's bad at his job, and while he loves his wife, he's not attracted to her because he still mourns his dead first love (of eleven years). Naomi (Julie Jesneck) is, of course, pregnant, and because she's felt neglected by her husband's long hours, she's recently had an eleven-month affair (which adds just enough ambiguity to the baby). While the little lies that lead up to these big confessions are cute and occasionally romantic, it's pretty obvious where the big lies are leading: how could two people, married for four years, not know these basic things about one another's needs? Ezra's play is also dramatically unbalanced: both actors do good work, but Naomi is made into a sharp-tongued villain, and Dennis is, at heart, a victimized romantic. It's somewhat appropriate that the play comes together, with only minor repetition, up until the very end, but it's ultimately disappointing, too. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "A nasty, rusty, chain-link fence," and 5 being "A spotless, perfectly painted mural," Walls gets a 3.
Friday, August 15, 2008
Thursday, August 14, 2008
I'm a fan of bantering characters, especially charismatic ones, which makes Michael DiGioia's Ned Lowenscroft one of the things worth seeing in Elizabeth Rex. He's paired with a talented tyrant, Stephanie Barton-Farcas, and like their relationship, some of Timothy Findley's play is unbalanced, but it's almost always entertaining.
[Reviewed for Time Out New York]
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Peter Barr Nickowitz's The Alice Complex suffers from only one thing: it's a little too complex for the modest little story he's crammed into an hour. It hardly matters, as Bill Oliver's expert direction and the perfect performances of Lisa Banes and Xanthe Elbrick make this one of the slickest productions of the entire Fringe Festival '08. Here's an example of the abundant cleverness: Elbrick plays Quinn, an actress who is about to star in her theater professor Margo's new play, which is about a young girl named Rebecca (Elbrick) who, in order to work out her love/hate relationship with her idealized feminist teacher, Sally (Banes), takes her hostage. Along the way, Elbrick plays a younger version of Sally, and Banes plays an older versino of Rebecca, touching on a lot of nuances and shades, but forgoing the need to stress anything deeper in these relationships for surfacey lines ("I hate beginnings," says Quinn; "That's because you haven't seen enough endings," replies Margo) and melodramatic mania (as when Rebecca pretends to go off the deep end, hoping to wake up the Sally she is in love with). It's a brilliant showcase, though, and if the overall story winds up a little muddied, the individual choices and chemistry between these two women are terrific. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "A, my name is Awful" 5 being "I'd jump down this rabbit hole again," The Alice Complex gets a 4.
Sunday, August 10, 2008
Everything depends on context: most people would use a box full of contemporary romance novels for firewood, but not Katharine Heller. She still used those books for fuel, sparking her imagination, but the only thing on fire is her playful, hot, pulp of a tale: The Boy in the Basement. Heller's show plays to a similar crowd as last year's Beebo Brinker Chronicles, but, as an original show, takes itself far less seriously, and is unabashedly fun. When a very hot burglar (Tom Macy) gets caught in the act by four coeds, he finds himself a rather willing sex slave, out to satisfy the needs of a Venezuelan dominatrix (Heller), a holistic hippie (Anna Stumpf), and an "experienced" woman (Lynne Rosenberg). He does that, but in the process, falls for the naive Midwestern virgin (Meghan Powe) who thinks that he's doing yard work as punishment. The side plots, which involve a double-cast Michael Solis, aren't as effective, but Heller's choice to make the narrator, Catherine DuCheval (Nick Fondulis), an excitable guy is clever, and it not only provides a huge boost to the comic atmosphere but helps the show to remain uninhibited as it leaps from scene to scene. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "I pictured my mom having sex" and 5 being "I'd come again," The Boy in the Basement gets a 4.5.
Saturday, August 09, 2008
The Nightmare Before Christmas's Halloween Town seemed like a "cheerie" place to stay, but the Velvet Town of Velvet Scratch: Voyage of No Return is a dreary deathtrap. Margot (Anastasi Revi), the cackling narrator of these unhappily ever afters, sets up each scene, and her cohorts, Laura Morgan and Alexandra Dyranis-Mounis, enact the gruesome effects. Some of these are derivative, like Edward Gorey hosting The Twilight Zone: a ballet dancer chops off her toes so that her feet will fit into some new slippers; an avid reader breaks her only pair of glasses while trying to reach the beautiful books on the top shelf of the library. But when Revi sticks to the fantastic, the show picks up: a cannibalistic cook transforms her doting sister into a bed and sleeps on her; her sister, so happy to finally be useful to her sister, hugs her . . . to death. The show is unfortunately a mixed bag, more tricks than treats, and the redundancy of Revi's thick foreign accent drag down the light nuances of the pantomime that would show us the beatific beneath all that is bestial. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "A very slow death" and 5 being "Dead is the new alive," Velvet Scratch: Voyage of No Return gets a 2.
Friday, August 08, 2008
The pill-popping, self-proclaimed "Queen of the '60s" and Valley of the Dolls author Jackie Susann is given the "interview quotes cut and pasted into a monologue" treatment in this brisk, solidly entertaining solo show at the Fringe Festival. The subgenre is hardly my favorite, and I'll admit to a groan when I realized this was to be yet another biography monologue that takes place tethered to the deathbed (cancer, age 56), but playwright Paul Minx smartly keeps things moving by organizing the material thematically rather than chronologically. British actress Debora Weston is captivating as Susann, never losing touch with the character's drive and hunger for sensation.
For those of you who have been keeping tabs on this race, you know that there's only one thing I love more than aesthetics, and that's festivals--where else can you catch such an eclectic variety of shows all at once? Compressing so much work often leads to a lot of misfires, all at once, but it also means that when a show succeeds, it really leaves a mark. For Series B, that's Terrance McNally and Skip Kennon's mini-musical, Plaisir D'Amour. It's the most polished of the eight plays, with outstanding performances from Stephanie D'Abruzzo and Jonathan C. Kaplan as they chronicle a relationship from the desperate single life to the troubled married life and eventually, with their own children now married, to the comfortable afterglow of a once passionate life. Far too many one-acts, even decent ones, come across as ultimately empty etudes, but this musically simplistic piece does for a transient comedy what Prelude & Liebestod did for drama.
Susan Bernfield's mundane fears (of everything) aren't nearly as interesting as the political musings of Rose Mary Woods (from Stretch). However, that makes her latest play exactly what it claims to be: a tiny feat, for Bernfield is captivating throughout, an Everywoman who, aided by Rachel Peters's music (a nice trick that has not yet become a gimmick), denounces single engine Cessnas, the constant worry of being a mother, the neverending precipices of the world and its possibilities: "Stolen passwords/stoned bikers/hungry sharks/malignant cysts." Her narrative jumps from a trip to Belize to her friendless childhood and surprisingly (but not that surprisingly) to 9/11, and the end result comes across like a Sondheim chamber musical, buttressed by charming lines like, "I think, ah, for you my dears, the sky's the limit. Please don't be astronauts." Daniella Topol, who directs, could help Bernfield a lot by helping to vary the levels of fluttery yet functional fear, but on the whole, it's a very winning performance, and a very winning play. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "My fears were completely justified," and 5 being "Frighteningly good," Tiny Feats of Cowardice gets a 4.
Thursday, August 07, 2008
I'm not surprised that a play inspired by Stephen King is a little goofy and B-movie-like, but I do wish that Caroline V. McGraw hadn't gotten distracted by the superfluous and spangled Elvis motif, and that she spent more time focusing on her strong central character, Farrah; then perhaps director Jerry Ruiz wouldn't end up trying to maintain a creepy atmosphere all on his lonesome.
[Reviewed for Time Out New York]
Wednesday, August 06, 2008
Sunday, August 03, 2008
For those of you who have been keeping tabs on this race, you know that there's only one thing I love more than aesthetics, and that's festivals--where else can you catch such an eclectic variety of shows all at once? Compressing so much work often leads to a lot of misfires, all at once, but it also means that when a show succeeds, it really leaves a mark. For Series A, that show was Roger Hedden's Deep in the Hole, a nonstop satire of the partying life--that is, what is "too much"? Billy Hopkins builds the action slowly, going from an argument about the deadening woes of bottom-shelf liquor to a rousing game of spin the bottle and ultimately to its logical conclusion: accidentally possibly snorting anthrax. (That sentence makes more sense in context.) The whole thing is held together by the four actors, especially the carelessly suave David Ross, but it's the everyday tone that defines this piece.
Saturday, August 02, 2008
Vulgar, grotesque, over the top and laugh out loud funny - all the things that Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie is not is this late-night send-up in which Amanda's telephone solicitation is of the sex line variety and Laura's gentleman caller is plucked from the audience. It's like Williams' play has been hijacked by trailer trash and all the subtext has been put rudely on display. The concept of the show is so strong that you can't look away from it, even in the overindulgent moments here and there, and the cast (directed by Eric Davis) is a scream. The only thing I'm sorry to have to report is that I came late to this party and caught the final performance of the run.
Friday, August 01, 2008
Of all the shows at Soho Think Tank's Ice Factory, Heistman is perhaps the only one that shouldn't be open for review: not because it's bad, but because it's still very much in the midst of percolating. Matthew Maher's script is fantastically daring: a philosophical assessment of Personal Happiness and The Fear, and Steven Ratazzi's portrayal of Heistman--this manifesto-spouting bank robber, a hostage to his own heart and insecurities--is top-notch, calling to mind Wallace Shawn. But Gabriella Barnstone's direction, created and performed by el gato teatro, takes the work in a different direction, with four scantily clad actors dancing on stage. Or should I say, distracting, for there's nothing interpretative about their movement, and the vivid physicality prevents us from focusing on Maher's syllogisms, which read as a smartly punctuated David Foster Wallace essay, full of meandering side points and examples. The manifesto is a tough sell, and I can't fault the company for wanting to experiment with the text, but the play has been stolen from the Heistman, and it may take a one-man show to get it back.
After following their video series on youtube, I made sure to see the first VGL Gay Boys live show at D-Lounge. Billed as a "live sitcom", Party 'n' Play is essentially a goof on the age-old "young hopefuls in the big city" story that's been tricked out with cocktail-hour sauciness and smiling homo-fabulous snark. (Imagine a twink Odd Couple where the punchlines are about piss parties in the Poconos and you're on the right track.) The boys (Jeffery Self and Cole Escola) write from a post-queer point of view that is more concerned with having fun than with demanding or apologizing for anything, and they put their material over on stage with infectious charm and plenty of appeal. I'm a fan.