Friday, May 14, 2010
Elizabeth Kensek, Annalisa Loeffler, and Josh Powell in Twelfth Night
Photo by David Fuller
Reviewed by Di Jayawickrema
"If music be the food of love, play on," opens William Shakespeare’s classic tale of courtship and cross-dressing, and Judith Jarosz’s new production of Twelfth Night takes this behest literally, with a needless exotic twist. Loud Middle Eastern instrumentals play intermittently throughout the show, nearly drowning out the actors’ speeches. This is a shame because the vibrant cast delivers the Shakespearean lines faithfully and with classic inflection. Besides the substitution of Moroccan airs for the traditional Renaissance music and Arabian inlays to the Elizabethan costumes, the production is quite traditional—and that’s not a bad thing. With Shakespeare’s immortal words rendered by an accomplished cast, the exotic trimmings prove superfluous.
The production opens with a shipwrecked Viola (a vivacious Elizabeth Kensek), fearing her brother is drowned, and deciding to make her way in this foreign land by assuming a masculine guise in order to serve Illyria’s ruler, Duke Orsino. Disguised as "Cesario," Viola is charged with delivering the lovelorn Orsino’s proposals to the unwilling object of his affections, Countess Olivia (a radiant Annalisa Loeffler). The production comes alive as Viola falls for Orsino and Olivia becomes smitten with Cesario, both actresses breathing comedy into this merry love chase, which soon includes a fourth party—Viola’s unwitting brother, Sebastian. There’s also the subplot of a rascally trick played on the pompous steward, Malvolio, by the drunken idlers, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and the "wise fool" Feste (an energetic Andrew Clateman). This roguish revenge scheme is also driven forward delightfully by a woman; Olivia’s servant, Maria (a lusty, shrewd Lynn Marie Macy). The men of the cast happily chew the scenery and engage in plenty of lighthearted swordplay and capers—but they can’t match the ladies in subtlety and wit.
Ernest Mier and Giles and Leslie Hogya present an elaborate stage with clever set pieces; perfect for the many intrigues behind hedges and fruitless pursuits required before all the entangled loves and plots come right. On the other hand, the Moroccan tinge to Deborah Wright Houston’s sumptuous costuming is a feast for the eyes but otherwise adds little to the production. The strength of Twelfth Night remains in the text and the actresses’ ability to tease out its inherently playful, exuberant spirit.
Twelfth Night (approx. 2 hours; 15 minute intermission)
Location: Theater Ten Ten (1010 Park Avenue, between 84th & 85th Street)
Performances: 6-10, 13-17, 19-23 (Thurs @ 7PM; Fri, Sat, Mon @ 8PM; Sun @ 3PM; Wed 5/19 @ 7 PM)
Thursday, April 29, 2010
Poor Max has had a rough time of it recently: his adulterous wife left him on account of his heroin habit, and his sister Emily keeps guilt-tripping him for not visiting their late mother in the hospital. He seems like the perfect candidate for a fresh start, a "moving day," if you will. But Emily doesn't want him to leave their ancestral Greenpoint home; she wants to take care of him, knowing that he’s the kind of guy only a sister could love. It is easy to understand her stance but much harder to sympathize with it, given Frank Nigro’s portrayal of the man: even at his most intimate he shouts at characters like a game-show host attempting to sell the banal twists of the plot. Tina Barone, who plays Emily, brings enough nuance to balance Max's grating performance, and the other two actors that round out the cast repeat this unfortunate pattern: as sleazy neighbor, Douglas Reid is just as inept as Nigro, while Max's erstwhile wife Melinda, played by Christie Zampella, almost shines enough to compensate for him. But not quite.
These wildly uneven performances are weighed down even further by the hackneyed concerns of the story in Moving Day. Writer-director Helene Montagna indulges in the most cloyingly symbolic imagery imaginable, and even the characters themselves seem to know it: On the umpteenth time Max compares the boxes he is packing to emotional baggage of some sort, his sister Emily shoots him down: "these metaphors aren't helping." And she's absolutely right: the play isn't strong enough to rise above its fairly basic conventions. In fact, amidst the wayward tone and uneven performances that dominate the show, the Greenpoint home in front of which the action unfolds might be the most skillfully rendered aspect of the production, right down to its green shake siding and wobbly banister. References to skeletons in closets and lines like "Running, moving, what's the difference?" make one hope that the play could be somewhat self-aware regarding its familiar territory. Alas.
The show falters on motions both large and small to the point that even surefire intrigues like adultery, lust, betrayal and death simply fall flat. A moving day, similar to its well-trod cousins like the wedding and the funeral, requires a huge amount of originality and cleverness to make it worthwhile, and it's more than this sincere little play can muster.
Friday, April 23, 2010
Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis
It begins with searing guitar chords, pulsating drums, and an ensemble of outlaws singing their way onstage. The Narrator (Jason “SweetTooth” William) emerges, grabbing attention with his soulful spoken-word baritone, even as the outlaws climb onto chairs and counters, stomping around in impossible-to-ignore cowboy boots as they unapologetically shout their refrain, “Wanted here, wanted here, wanted here!”
Similar to the glib, slightly cynical world of Stephen Sondheim, who flirts with historical fiction or makes us see fairytale characters in a new light, writer Joe Iconis has reinvented the familiar. Rooted in culture yet full of inventive whimsy, disciplined yet risk-taking, Bloodsong of Love tells the story of a wronged hero known only as The Musician (Eric William Morris), and his search for his kidnapped bride, Violetta (MK Lawson).
If imitation is truly the most sincere form of flattery, this boilerplate plot shows Iconis’ dedication to the Spaghetti-Western genre. Everything from the cast, to the costumes, to the music, all play right into what has been coined as “a rock ‘n’ roll Spaghetti Western.” The Musician, for example, is a square-jawed, steely-eyed cowboy with a five o’clock shadow. However, Morris doesn’t just rely on his handsome appearance to pull off the role: he plays The Musician with a droll intelligence that feeds right into Iconis’ writing. When approached by an oversized toad one lonely night in the desert, Morris gives it one long look, then picks it up and licks from forehead to tailbone, which results in a hallucinogenic stupor. He trusts Iconis’ knack for zany plot elements, and it pays off: even this bit is believable to the audience.
The dedicated supporting cast all approach their characters with a similar blend of zest and restaint. They push the envelope to complement Iconis’ wry humor, but keep it contained enough to match the setting and archetypes they portray. Katrina Rose Dideriksen, for example steals scenes with her wide country smile and scheming eyes. Her dangerous sexiness can be seen even when aiming a shotgun with curlers in her hair as the wife of The Musician’s sidekick Banana (Lance Rubin), or hobbling around on crutches as a footless prostitute. In songs like “Don’t Ya Make Me Ask Ya Twice (Part I)” and “Shoot ‘Em Up”, she sings with rowdy, reckless conviction and perfect pitch. There’s also Jeremy Morse, who brings a frenetic energy to the kooky Le Cocodrilo, the bride-stealing bad guy. Short, blue-eyed, and Caucasian, Morse plays Le Cocodrilo with a Mexican accent and macho swagger–like Morris, he uses confidence and consistency to gain credibility. He succeeds, convincing the skeptics in the crowd that he’s “bad ass,” especially with the menacingly sick jokes and violent, seductive dance moves in his solo “Turkey Leg”.
“Turkey Leg” also highlights musical conductor and pianist Matthew Hinkley, who, seated center stage, is obviously having fun with Iconis’ original music. While each song has some elements of country music, Iconis once again provides contemporary liberties to old standards. With this blessing, Hinkley gives a hurried feeling to upbeat tempos that depict character conflict or plot setbacks, but also slows it down and draw it out, as he does for the morbid ballad “Lovesong of Blood.” Guitarists Chris “Red” Blisset and Michael James Taylor provide the band with an authentic country twang, while the percussion section (Brent Stranathan on Drums and Danny Stone on bass) keep things animated with their skilled and energetic accompaniment.
Costume and set designers Michelle Eden Humphrey and Michael Schweikardt provide the visuals for a true Western setting, already outlined by the characters and music, with well-integrated wardrobes and scenery. The women wear skirts and corsets, the men don cowboy hats and ties. Everything they sit or stand on is made from hardwood, and there are even Wanted posters of each character covering the stage right wall. Schweikardt has also installed a treadmill in the stage floor to simulate endless, tireless walking. Lighting designer Chris Dallos updates these visuals with rock star glamour, including white-hot spotlights, electric purples and pinks, and warm blues and yellows. Before it gets moved to a larger venue with pricier tickets, see this show and order whiskey at intermission. Bloodsong of Love is wanted here.
Bloodsong of Love (2 hours 30 minutes; one intermission)
Ars Nova (511 West 54th Street)
Performances (through 5/9): Weds.-Suns. @ 8pm
Friday, April 16, 2010
Reviewed by Di Jayawickrema
“I don’t want to give away the plot…but I think I die at the end,” comes the inflexibly dry announcement of Vivian Bearing, bald, clad in a hospital gown, and clutching an IV stand. Bearing, a 50-year-old professor of 17th century poetry (specializing in John Donne) is dying of stage IV ovarian cancer and has no time to mince words. However, in her final hours in a hospital room, she is forced to confront the fact that she has spent a lifetime doing just that. In the scholarly pursuit of wit—“for wit is way to see how good you really are, and no one is as good as [her]”—Vivian Bearing finds she has missed out on the simple connections that make life meaningful. W;t is as rigorously intellectual as its protagonist, but unlike Dr. Bearing, it does not shy away from emotional truths—it cuts to the quick of human existence with searing honesty.
Alvaro Sena’s direction is as controlled and impeccable as writing of this caliber demands. The capable cast hits every cue needed to maintain the wry tone of the play. “I’ll never forget the day I found out I have cancer,” Bearing says. Her doctor appears upstage: “You have cancer.” As he delivers the prognosis, Bearing pontificates on the etymology of his medical terms. She has an “insidious” cancer and to combat it, she’s given the strongest treatment possible, which has “pernicious side effects." Tough and uncompromising, Vivian Bearing, played luminously by Stephanie Barton-Farcas, holds fiercely to the only weapon she has—her words. As the play progresses, you see what she doesn’t have—family, children, friends—not a soul to visit her until an old professor drops by on the way to see a sick grandson.
Through a series of flashbacks, we learn how Vivian Bearing has come to live a life without “a touch of human kindness.” As an ardent graduate student, Bearing failed to understand that truth, not wit, is the meaning of Donne’s work—that intellect and emotion should not be separate in poetry or life. This is a lesson the unsympathetic lab technicians and ambitious young doctor, Jason Posner, have also failed to learn. In Jason (the able Sammy Mena), Bearing finds her counterpart. His passion is all for his research—because “cancer is awesome”—and he finds the care of patients an annoying distraction. He sees her as nothing more than a way to advance his research, and as a researcher herself, she fully understands. Throughout, Bearing consciously comments on the action of the play and compares the sterile nature of modern medicine to literary scholarship. But when at last she drops her lecturer’s biting, impersonal voice and dips into the sad truths of her situation—“I’m in so much pain”—the contrast is all the more heartbreaking.
In this clinical environment, Vivian finds that it is only the head nurse, Susie (a touching Rebecca Challis), who shows her the “kindness and simplicity” she needs as her life draws to a close. With tears glittering in her eyes, Barton-Fracas delivers the last of Vivian’s most wrenching soliloquies; reciting Donne’s “My playes last scene… my minute’s latest point,” she realizes that she has missed the point. With Stephen Wolfe’s blinding white lighting illuminating the backboard of her hospital bed, completely unclad, no longer hiding behind wit, Vivian Bearing disappears. It’s a brilliant play’s final transcendent moment.
W;t (95 minutes; no intermission)
Location: Nicu’s Spoon Theater (38 West 38th Street; Fl. 5)
Performances: 4/7-4/25 (Weds-Sats @ 8PM, Suns @ 2PM)
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Photo by Melynda Woodward
Reviewed by Di Jayawickrema
“First there are words/then comes the laughter/and the meaning of it all comes after,” Chris Wallace warbles in a pleasant baritone, introducing the works of Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. The Mark Twain You Don’t Know only partially fulfills this promise—there is an overabundance of words, a smattering of laughter, but the “meaning of it all” remains elusive. The lengthy, obscure pieces Wallace performs are meant to illuminate Twain’s unexplored views on the follies and graces of “the damned human race,” but the works feel unconnected to each other and only succeed in illustrating the Twain most of us already do know; a man of wry wit, absurdity, and flashes of feeling. Consequently, despite a faithful and impressive performance, Wallace cannot impart the palpable enthusiasm he feels for the writer to the audience.
Demonstrating an enviable memory, Wallace performs excerpts from Twain’s works word-for-word, opening with Letters from the Earth, which features Satan as a cigar-wielding Southerner (not unlike Twain himself) expounding on humanity’s absurd religious notions. Full of big ideas and Twain’s classic satirical tone—“Many people have the reasoning faculty but don’t use it in religious matters”—the distillation of these essays is a laborious intellectual effort, both for the performer and the audience. As the editor and writer of the one-man show, Wallace often comes across as a lecturer.
As an actor, however, Wallace is flawless. The ribald comic piece, 1601: A Conversation as it was by the Social Fireside in the Time of the Tudors, gives him a chance to air his considerable range of facial, body, and vocal expression. He plays a theatrical Shakespeare, a crotchety old Dame, a dignified Dr. Johnson, and more, always with aplomb and humor. The background music and Brett Maughan’s lighting is impeccably timed to the actor’s movements, and Amada Carr’s costuming; the crisp white suit we’ve come to associate with Twain, is likewise perfectly turned. Yet despite these merits, the show still feels like it’s stuck in a vacuum; “The War Prayer,” while well-written, –performed, and –staged, feels curiously detached.
Worst is when Wallace ceases to provide insight as with his musical summary of Huckleberry Finn. While this vignette features the highlight of the show (a hilarious tuneful jumble of Shakespeare’s plays titled “Hamlet: King of Moors”), much of it feels like musical theater SparkNotes. This sort of succinct summary and analysis would be helpful to a high-school student but is tedious if you’ve already read the book. It’s not until the somber ending—a letter on the death of Twain’s daughter revealing the tragedy in Clemens’ life never hinted at in his work—that we catch an affective glimpse of the Mark Twain we don’t know.-------------------------------------------
The Mark Twain You Don’t Know (2 hours; 15 min intermission)
Location: Richmond Shepard Theatre (
Tickets: $20; students and seniors $15
Performances: Through 4/5 (Wed-Sat @ 8PM, Sun @ 3PM)
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis
The heroes of Matthew Freeman’s Glee Club may be singing barbershop music, but as the dark comedy quickly establishes, they’re far from in perfect harmony. These are not your bright-eyed, well-groomed, cable-ready singers; these are creepy introverts, weepy cancer survivors, unemployed alcoholics, and divorced, bankrupt fathers. They swear too much, threaten to disembowel one another, make ill-mannered homophobic jokes, and storm offstage after losing arguments.
They've gathered to prepare for the next evening's recital, but with their best singer absent, they'll have to muddle through instead. The conductor Ben (Stephen Speights), not so much a fearless leader as a bad-tempered nitpicker, abruptly interrupts any attempt at singing, spouting complaints about harmony or timing. When Hank (Tom Staggs) finally arrives, he’s incapable of a pitch-perfect performance.
As alliances form and conspiracies develop to push Hank back into his singing groove, the level of cutthroat dedication to this glee club becomes clear, pathos at its most comical. It’s the perfect setting for a clash of personalities, and strong, original personalities are where Freeman’s writing shines. Take Paul (Steven Burns), for example, a frail and monotone guy whose deadpan non-sequiturs have knack of breaking the tension. Just as fun to watch, if even more offbeat, is Stan (Matthew Trumbull), and his quavering, meek deliveries: a rambling question, followed by an apology, and then an onslaught of explanation. Together Burns and Trumbull set the standard for the cast’s chemistry, most of which rise to the challenge. Speights’ Ben explodes with red-faced outbursts, egocentric male diva Nick (David DelGrosso) has a complaint about everything, and eager-to-please, off-key Fred (Bruce Barton) just wants a chance at the solo.
Each character has an empty and despondent life, filled with disease, divorce, and/or debt. While the leads are built up enough for these flourishes to help, they reduce the co-stars to a string of sarcastic or shock-factor superfluous one-liners. Freeman’s dialogue here does little more than riff off the more original, standout roles, and don’t have much use. Mark (Robert Buckwalter) is constantly on the phone with his ex-wife’s lawyer, and Greg (Carter Jackson) may or may not be dying of cancer, both repeating the same melodramatic laments over and over again. Regardless, director Kyle Ancowitz still manages to draw impressive, real performances out of every actor. The characters exhibit startling tension as they get angry, gossip, raise their voices and then simmer down again. The friendships formed at the Glee Club of Romeo, Vermont, however mangled and dysfunctional, are also clearly genuine.
Despite such depressing material, the script succeeds in being laugh-out-loud funny, which can also be attributed to the show’s original song. Speights’s “The World Will Make You Smile” is surprisingly catchy and upbeat. When Hank sets aside his personal agenda to perform the song, he nails the solo and his sweet, powerhouse tenor wins over audiences. While Glee Club is a club that harbors very little glee for its members, the play itself, as its original song promises, will make you smile.
Glee Club (One hour; no intermission)
Access Theater (380 Broadway)
Performances (Through 4/3): Weds.-Sats. @ 8pm
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Reviewed by Nicole C. Lee
Revivals are tricky business for lazy actors. Audiences—especially those at T. Schreiber Studio—are likely to have seen some version of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard before (though perhaps not Carol Rocamora’s translation), so comparisons will be made. The Cherry Orchard centers on the Ranevskaya family, as they return to their beloved estate, which has been mortgaged and soon to be auctioned. The play is a comment on materialism and its shortcomings, using the family matriarch Madame Ranevskaya as its prime example. For some, like the excellent Julie Garfield, that’s fine: her Madame Ranevskaya is an organic triumph, from her nonchalance over her estate’s pending auction to her tragic memories of her dead son. But for actors like Jamie Kirmser, that’s bad: he interprets the iconic Lopakhin’s idiosyncrasies with the generalities of a weatherman.
Terry Schreiber and Carol Rocamore attempt to bring heartbreaking humor to this classic play. Perhaps this is an attempt at a unique interpretation of the text. Yet, many of these iconic characters are played one-dimensionally, diminishing the actors’ believability. Lopakhin (Jamie Kirmser) says at one point, “I don’t know what to do with my hands; isn’t it strange, look, they’re hanging there as if they belonged to someone else.” Kirmser seems to have interpreted this as always gesturing like a weatherman whenever he is on stage as Lopakhin. Instead of his movements being a small aspect of his character, it seems to define it and we can concentrate on little else. A stark contrast is Peter Judd as the butler Firs. Judd’s Firs twitches his face and seems to mouth things to himself as he stands in the background. Even when he is the focus of a scene, his movements are not distracting. Instead it is a perfect example of incorporating external attributes in a way that appears natural. Marcus Lorenzo as Trofimov is also very one-dimensional. He delivers his lines with a whininess befitting a petulant child. It is difficult to believe he is the idealistic, philosophical student of intellectualism when he sounds like a poor caricature of Malcolm X.
Though it seems unfair to censure the actors in this production, a successful revival of such a classic play relies on the quality of the acting. The actors are overly theatrical; they try too hard to create intense moments, instead of internalizing their characters and letting moments occur organically within the script. Even the near-proposal of Lopakhin to Varya at the end is made too comical for such a dramatic moment. The high stakes for Varya are undermined by the ridiculousness of watching Lopakhin’s failed attempts at kneeling to propose and then switching legs when it appears his legs are uncooperative. Sadly, the magic tricks performed by Charlotta (Julia Szabo) in Act Two are more believable than the actors in this production.
When audiences attend a theatrical production, they are aware that what they witness on stage is not real; when someone dies on stage, it is the character and not the actor who dies. Yet it is when the audience is able to forget their reality and become invested in what they witness on stage that a production succeeds. Shakespeare termed this phenomenon a suspension of disbelief. T. Schreiber Studio’s production is by no means terrible, but the suspension of disbelief in The Cherry Orchard takes a while to kick in. It is difficult to become invested in these characters and in the story when it is quite clear that the actors are acting.
The Cherry Orchard (approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, one 10-minute intermission)
The Gloria Maddox Theater, 151 W26th Street (between 6th and 7th Avenue)
Tickets: $25 (www.tschreiber.org)
Performances: through April 4, 2010 (Thursday through Sunday at 8PM and Sunday at 3PM)
Saturday, March 06, 2010
Shark Tank Players present a ribald comedy about gender bending at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The result is an entertaining farce, but is too frivolous to do justice to its underlying themes.
Reviewed by Di Jayawickrema
Set in the context of the 1893
Holding all these plots together is the beleaguered chambermaid who turns to fencing after she kills the rapist in self-defense, assumes his identity, and heads to the World’s Columbian Exposition. (She rechristens herself George Sand; the scriptwriter’s sly nod to the 19th century authoress infamous for her male attire.) It is there that Penelope has taken Felicity, purportedly to win the love of
A freshly trained Felicity underscores this idea when she spars with
Aside from the infectious exuberance of the cast, and the occasionally skilled scripting, the execution of the production is uneven, and the ideas are often lost in the gags.
Uncorseted (1 hour; no intermission)
Location: The Kraine Theater (
Tickets: $10, $9
Performances: Fri 2/26, 5:30 PM, Sat 2/27, 2:30 PM, Sun 2/28, 1:00 PM, Sun 2/28, 5:30 PM, Sat 3/06, 5:30 PM
Friday, March 05, 2010
Photo by Rebecca Chiappone
Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis
Writer/performer Penny Pollak plays two young girls with a flair for the dramatic in No Traveler. The first attempts to validate her existence in her recently-remarried father’s life by pretending to end it, only to wind up in purgatory. She has the chance to rejoin the living, but only if she can talk another suicidal girl out of making a similar decision.
If only the writing were as dramatic: instead, it gets bogged down by the thematic darkness and by Pollak’s unconvincing acting. Her first role consists of flippant confidence and grating pay-attention-to-me amateur acting, an overdone and one-dimensional portrayal of a petulant daddy’s girl. As the second girl, who fawns over the romance of suicide, she is simply naïve and whiny, far from the seriousness of death and the level of sadness she claims to be feeling.
The melodramatic monologues don’t help her as writer or performer: they’re a bunch of clichés, from the jealousy caused by a young new stepmother to the trauma of being abused by a mother’s new boyfriend. Wracked by a silence alternated by screams and sobs, trapped in a dimly lit theater, the audience loses sympathy and instead begins to hope that they simply end it and go straight to hell.
No Traveler (50 minutes)
Under St. Marks Theater (94 St. Marks Place)
Tickets: $12; Students and Seniors $9
Performances: Saturday 3/6 @ 5:30pm