Monday, October 30, 2017

Cloud (Toronto)

As an indie theater supporter and huge fan of plays that stage science fiction, fantasy, and other genre work, I bought my ticket to Scapegoat Collective's Cloud as soon as I could.

Cloud imagines a world where technology--also named Cloud--can connect us to a new level of internet. Our individual consciousness becomes directly connected to the collective so we think and feel the same as everyone else who is connecting. Would the collective consciousness bring about world peace? Or would it strip the meaning out of the relationships that define us: friendship and love?

Cloud explores these hypotheses through three main groups of characters. The first group includes the first beta testers for Cloud: the creator Edward (Tim Fitzgerald Walker), his best friend Geoff (Jonas Widdifield), and Edward’s girlfriend Jessica (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah). After Edward convinces them test the technology and save its funding, the experience does lead to one awkward night of sexual reconnection, but then splits the three individuals onto separate paths as they try to cope with reality after they’ve been in the collective.

Roberts-Abdullah was my favorite part of the play. I enjoyed the way her constant cursing and presence threatened and challenged the two men. And I was not the only one cheering when she finally chastised Walker for casting himself as the savior in this dystopian epic instead of the Dr. Frankenstein he really is.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train

What makes a person good or bad, and what's the dividing line between the two? Is religious devotion helpful or harmful in the search for redemption, and can it be both at the same time? How much bad can a good person have before tipping the balance, and vice versa? And is anyone even listening to the prisoners who wrestle with these questions while biding their time in the solitary confinement wing of a maximum security prison? Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, Stephen Adly Guirgis's edgily compelling prison drama, can't answer any of these questions--seriously, now, what the hell can? Still, it does an engaging, unnerving job of trying.

The revival of Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train now at Signature Theater has experienced its fair share of disruption: two of its five actors left the show unexpectedly, one for scheduling reasons during rehearsals and one early in previews for what is being described as a "medical issue." When I saw it, the production had only just started up again after a halt for some emergency rehearsals. No shock, I guess, that the cast seemed a little off at first, though the actors all found their groove well before intermission. Sean Carvajal, the newest member of the company, was still on script for a few of the later (and most intense) scenes; nevertheless, his Angel is already quite good, and I assume will only get better as he sinks into the role. This goes for the whole production, really: it's a credit to all involved that the revival is already as strong as it is, considering the circumstances.

The play, one of Guirgis's earlier works, can be clunky in parts. Some of the expositionary monologues feel a little forced, and some of the plot points that propel the moral haze driving the show feel a little too easy. I had trouble buying the motives of Angel's overzealous lawyer, Mary Jane Hanrahan (ably played by Stephanie DiMaggio). And Valdez, the unambiguously self-righteous sadist of a prison guard (a game Ricardo Chavira), is ultimately all bark and no bite--both as a sadist and, alas, as a character.

But at least for me, these quibbles didn't get in the way of the production, which builds to a mesmerizing, unsettling climax. This is due in large part to scenes carried by Angel and an ostensibly eviler prisoner named Lucius Jenkins (Edi Gathegi, in a genuinely riveting Off Broadway debut), who is awaiting extradition to--and execution in--Florida. Angel, arrested for shooting a Reverend Moon-type in the ass, finds himself up on murder charges once the cult leader dies on the operating table. Moved to protective custody after a vicious beatdown by other prisoners, Angel sees Lucius daily during their allotted hour of outdoor time in cages on the prison roof. Convinced that his actions were justified because the cult has his best friend in its grip, Angel is gradually challenged by the disarmingly likable Lucius, a recovering polysubstance addict and serial killer who has become born again. The many questions the play wrestles with--who deserves to be forgiven and why, what faith means and whether it helps, whether seeing the light (both literally and figuratively, a recurring theme in the play) truly matters--converge in the second act and alter the characters' lives in ways that never feel cliched.

Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train may be a flawed play, but it delivers. And the production--which, like its characters, seems to have taken some pretty hard punches along the way--is well worth your time and consideration. Kudos to the company for turning a bad situation good.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Lonely Planet

In Steven Dietz's two-character play Lonely Planet, Jody (the subtle and smart Arnie Burton) owns a map store. He loves and is comforted by the factual information contained by maps. On an array of shelves, he moves a map over a hair; quiet exactness is his thing. Jody wears simple, nondescript clothing. Carl (the not-quite-right Matt McGrath) is anything but quiet, and what he does for a living is not clear. The jobs he sometimes claims include fixing car windows, restoring art, and dusting for fingerprints. He tells Jody that he does not make things up; he lies. Carl wears a different odd, stylish, and/or flamboyant outfit each time we see him.

Burton, McGrath
Photo: Carol Rosegg

As the play begins, Jody is alone on stage. He tells us that one day a chair appeared in his shop. He looked at it; he sat on it. We soon find out that Carl brought the chair, although it will take a while to find out why.

Friday, October 20, 2017

War Paint

I didn't stay for the second act of War Paint, and it's closing in early November, so I'll make this brief.
  • My response to Patti LuPone's first solo: "I wish they had closed captioning."
  • My sister's response to Patti LuPone's first solo: "Was she singing in English?"
Patti LuPone
Photo: Joan Marcus
Lyric interpretation: Wendy Caster

  • The dancing was lame. 
  • They have a lot of nerve having a scene at The Cotton Club with zero black performers.
  • LuPone and Christine Ebersole sounded fabulous musically--and Ebersole was frequently even intelligible. 
  • A show so completely lacking in plot really needs something else to make it worthwhile. They went for two amazing stars, having all sorts of scenery and costumes, and generally trying to be stylish. It is not enough. 
  • I am a big fan of Grey Gardens, also by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, but this show has little of that show's individuality, character, and humor. 
  • I suppose that War Paint's lyrics may be as good as Grey Gardens', but, really, who could tell? (By the way, the chorus was also pretty difficult to understand. And we were in the 7th row, so that wasn't the issue.)
  • The show curtain is ugly. It's a huge painting of a woman putting on lipstick. Only her face from the nose down, her neck, and her hands are visible. It's completely out of proportion and the color choices are awful. 
  • After I got home, I texted my sister, "Did it get any better?" She texted back, "No!!! But great fun and BAAAAAAAAD." I guess that's something...
Oh, and:

  • This isn't the show's fault, but it is part of my experience: Before the show started, the guy behind me was crinkling something. I figured he'd stop when the show started. He didn't. I gave him a look. He said, "I'm trying to make less noise." The crinkling got fainter. I figured he was getting something he needed, and he'd be done. But it kept on. So I turned again and saw that he was taking pieces of candy, one at a time, out of a crinkly bag. I hissed, "Seriously?" He did stop after that. Except...
  • After I was gone, the guy started crinkling again during the second act, until my friend turned and mouthed "Stop!" at him. Considerate fella.

Wendy Caster
(7th row, audience left; tdf ticket, around $47)

Monday, October 16, 2017

Mary Jane

The beautiful, incredibly nuanced Mary Jane, currently at New York Theatre Workshop, does what seems impossible: it burrows deep into a character who practically forces herself to be two-dimensional. Credit for one of the most finely-wrought productions I've seen in a long time seems evenly distributed across the entire company, from playwright Amy Herzog to director Anne Kauffman to a universally solid five-woman cast. This is one of those shows that grabs you quickly, and then only gets better the more you think about it. I'm still marveling over its depictions and its many smart choices, and expect I will continue to for quite some time.

Joan Marcus
Mary Jane is all the more remarkable considering the fact that as a play, it is quietly descriptive, but not at all big on Maximum Staginess or Dramatically Well-Paced Moments. More a succession of scenes depicting days in a small if very complicated life, Mary Jane doesn't go in for more exposition or subtext than it has to. Its refusal to slop into cheap sentiment is especially noteworthy considering the fact that the titular character is a divorced woman with a (never seen or heard) catastrophically ill special-needs child. If there's anything that invites melodrama, or what I have sometimes heard called "inspiration porn," a show about a single parent with a very special kid is probably gonna top the list.

But Mary Jane (an excellent Carrie Coon) has absolutely no time for pity. She's too busy putting one almost impossibly competent foot in front of the other, even as the treadmill she walks gets ever faster. She's almost exhausting in her unwillingness to budge from behind her chipper, ultra-positive facade: not when she's offered unsolicited, ludicrously alarmist (if well-meaning) advice, not when one of her son's nurses borders on dangerous incompetency, not when she's nearing termination from a job she frequently can't make it in for, and certainly not during the most terrifying of medical emergencies.

I know special-needs parents like Mary Jane. I probably even turn into her sometimes, even though I have a devoted partner and my kid has nowhere near the special needs hers does. She's built up the kind of coping mechanisms we happen to excel at developing in the face of umpteen forms, countless meetings, annual assessments, regularly scheduled tests, friendly advice from the totally uninformed, totally informed advice from the not always friendly, wellsprings of undesired and unsolicited pity, and endless judgments, less from above than from across: across the playground, the restaurant, the grocery store, the subway, the dinner party. We all cope differently; Mary Jane's unique cocktail of defense blends quick jokes, self-deprecation, displaced anxiety, a too-cool demeanor, and a stubborn refusal to think too deeply, ever, about how she feels, what she wants, how weary she is. To contemplate any of it would result in a headfirst fall into a bottomless abyss.

It is only in the second half of the play, set in the pediatric wing of a hospital during a particularly lengthy stay, when Mary Jane starts to show cracks in her veneer. Yet even these are barely perceptible: an extra beat between questions to her son's neurologist following an especially ominous response; conversations with hospital staff and fellow parents that veer into newly complicated spiritual territory; a particularly terse exchange with a hard-to-schedule music therapist. Still--no spoilers, here--the play doesn't tie up all its loose ends nicely and neatly. Lives--especially those devoted, even in part, to the very special and very sick--have a pesky way of not resolving perfectly at the well-timed end of a two-hour stretch.

Mary Jane  doesn't make a big dramatic splash, but it ripples out beautifully into ever wider circles nonetheless. It's an astonishingly good production of an astonishingly good play. If you get the chance, make this the one show you rush out to see before it closes.  

Saturday, October 14, 2017

AM I DEAD? The Untrue Narrative of Anatomical Lewis, The Slave

Anyone who regularly reads Show Showdown knows that I am a huge fan of the Flux Theatre Ensemble. The Lesser Seductions of History, Dog Act, Hearts Like Fists, Jane the Plain, and Sans Merci were all tremendous and beautiful productions, full of love and talent and insight and compassion. They are among my favorite shows of the past 20 years.

But everyone has a bad day at work now and then, and unfortunately, AM I DEAD? The Untrue Narrative of Anatomical Lewis, The Slave is Flux's.

AM I DEAD? takes place in a purgatory where people who have broken black men psychologically are sentenced to put them back together, literally, even if it takes forever. The purgatorians exist in a workroom full of rocks and tiny pieces of what look like wood or fiber and turn out to be the minute remains of the black men who have been broken. (The set, by Will Lowry, is wonderful, full of mystery and just the right amount of creepiness.) The people in purgatory--Mrs. John Gray, Isaac, and Tatiana--have to find the appropriate bits and pieces and re-form them into the men they have wronged. It is an impossible task. Mrs. John Gray has been at it since the mid-19th century and Isaac since 1991. Tatiana joins them early in the play.

The purgatorians' work is interspersed with scenes from their lives with the black men they have wronged. (They are all played by the truly amazing Corey Allen, who makes each one distinct and specific and switches from one to the other almost imperceptibly).

As AM I DEAD? unfolds, it becomes clear that this is a morality play about the mistreatment of black men in the US. Commentary on Rachel Dolezal (the infamous white woman who decided she was black), born-again Christians, and even the Egyptian Gods Isis, Osiris, and Horus is stirred in.

The ideas in AM I DEAD? are interesting, and there's no arguing with the politics. The mistreatment of black men is a national horror of which we all must be ashamed and against which we all must fight. But a play must work on its own terms, and unfortunately, AM I DEAD? is preachy, repetitive, and heavy-handed. It outlines its messages in bold and italic again and again, and good theatrical moments (the projections; the way the people hold their stomachs after seeing scenes from their lives) go from being hard-hitting and impressive to boring and even annoying.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in AM I DEAD? is that it lacks the compassion that I consider to be the hallmark of Flux Productions. It may sound strange to expect compassion for people in purgatory, but it's a theatrical necessity for the play to work. Presented without compassion, the main characters become flat. Anything valuable they have done in their lives is dismissed; they are judged only by their faults. In real life, I have zero compassion for the cops who shoot innocent black men, but if they were in a play, I'd want them to be fully dimensional characters. (In contrast, the black men are a little too good, which flattens them as well.)

If you want the audience to accept your message, you have to give us a way in. As it is, AM I DEAD? works against our identifying with the purgatorians, and allows us a simple out: we're not that bad. And when the show ends with the actors facing the audience and accusing us, it's offensive rather than powerful. Considering that the Flux audience is likely quite aware of the great shame of racism in our country, and also that many of us are anti-racism activists, and furthermore that some of us are black men ourselves, you have a case of not only preaching to the choir, but attacking the choir.

I am nevertheless excited to see the next Flux production, and the one after that.

Wendy Caster

(third row, press ticket)

Written by Kevin R. Free. Featuring Corey Allen, Lori E. Parquet, Anna Rahn, Alisha Spielmann, and Isaiah Tanenbaum. Directed by Heather Cohn. Scenic Design by Will Lowry, Lighting Design by Kia Rogers, Costume Design by Jerry L. Johnson, and Sound Design by Asa Wember. Dramaturg-Community Organizer, Nissy Aya; Fight Director, Brian Lee Huynh; Production Stage Manager, Jodi M. Witherell.Co-presented by the Theater at the 14th Street Y from  October 7-21. 

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Time and the Conways

In J.B. Priestley's 1937 play, Time and the Conways, it's 1919 and the Conways are giving a party for daughter Kay's 21st birthday. While the guests enjoy themselves elsewhere, various Conways retreat to a side room to prepare for charades, rest themselves, chat, and freak out a bit. The Conways are well-off and happy in some ways, but the father has recently died and of course they've just been through the Great War.

Kay (Charlotte Parry, superb and unique) wants to be a writer, Hazel (Anna Camp, touching and beautiful) wants to marry well, Madge (Brooke Bloom, energetic and moving) is a socialist who wants to change the world, and Carol (excellent and tremendously likable) wants people to be nice, get along, and tell the truth. Their amiably ineffectual brother Alan (Gabriel Ebert, just right), loves their friend Joan (Cara Ricketts, quite good). The other brother, Robin (Matthew James Thomas, unconvincing), is a war hero full of promise.

And then there is their mother, Mrs. Conway (Elizabeth McGovern, not particularly impressive), an ostensibly charming woman who can--and does--devastate her children with the most seemingly innocuous of comments. Only Robin is safe from her acid tongue.

Throw in the passage of years, a little jumping around in time, a soup├žon of metaphysical philosophy, smart and insightful writing, wonderful design elements, smooth direction (Rebecca Taichman) and a largely first-class ensemble, and you have an excellent and surprisingly contemporary evening in the theater.

One thing: Elizabeth McGovern should not have gotten a solo bow. Not only is Time and the Conways an ensemble piece, but McGovern is far from the best thing in it. On the other hand, if her name and association with Downton Abbey helped get this production put on, then all I can say is, thank you.

Wendy Caster
(third row on the aisle; friend won the lottery so ticket was only $19.19)