According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

SEE MORE THEATER: Developmental Theater

Because Phase Three of Cherry Lane Theater's ambitious Mentor Project is still, in part, a workshop in which revisions are still encouraged and supported, I don't feel it's fair to post an official review here. (You can read my personal thoughts on my personal blog.) Also, I can only really speak to the first production, Colin McKenna's The Secret Agenda of Trees, which was mentored by Lynn Nottage and directed by Sam Gold. What I can say is this: if Mr. McKenna's play is any indication of the quality of work being produced by new development programs, you should run to Cherry Lane Theater for its next two productions, Topsy Turvy Mouse (4/10-4/21) and Training Wisteria (5/1-5/12). There are countless other theaters putting out some great new material from their workshops, and I don't want to exclude any, but if you're looking for theater fresh off the presses, written in the ink of passionate, driven writers, and printed on the paper of blazingly talented actors, look into what's come out of Soho Rep and Ensemble Studio. It's raw stuff, but processed with the dedication of a four-star restaurant serving steak tartare. See more theater!


Rotozaza has found a way to make the avant-garde world more human: add two guest performers to it who know as little about what's going on as we do. Doublethink operates as a case study in human behavior but also as one of the smoothest and technically apt theatrical productions I've seen in New York. Remarkable; simply remarkable.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

As a study in human behavior alone, Doublethink (a creation of the U.K. troupe Rotozaza) is worth seeing. Two performers, neither of whom are privvy to the script or each other, are placed on opposite sides of a large space at PS 122; an ominously large, sanitarium-white curtain divides them. For the first thirty minutes, the audience, cleverly positioned as a "mirror" for the two guests, gets to inspect their fully flawed (and therefore natural) performance, as they do their best to follow a series of prerecorded directions (operated by the endlessly clever and flaw-less Neil Bennun and Silvia Mercuriali). Some of these are reminiscent of an actor's Alexander technique warmup, some simply allow us to see the commonplace under the spotlight; the illumination of how the mind processes information is engrossing. In the still, dimly lit moments of the opening, Steve Cuiffo and Theo Kogan would screw up simple instructions in their concentrated efforts not to mess up: it was the most human thing I'd ever seen on stage.

What's most impressive is how Ant Hampton, who directs the project, has managed to sustain this energy through the entire show. There are a lot of technically minute instructions, and a lot of ways for things to go wrong (though one gets the feeling that, like a Reeses peanut-butter cup, there's no one right way to do Doublethink), and as the show evolves into a complex avant-garde work of strangling lightbulbs, frenzied physical pantomime, and vodka-flinging antics, we're actually drawn in further: not because we understand it any better, but because our two actor surrogates don't understand it any more. They have instructions whispered to them, or scrawled out on cards, but they're as much in the dark as we are.

I wouldn't dare to guess at the meaning of Doublethink, but whereas other shows that rely on hapless guest performers often come across as gimmicks (like last year's An Oak Tree), this show's double-blind opening and quickening crescendos were too slick to be glib, and too human to see forced. Trust, communication, and committment were put to the test on Friday, and it turns out that's what makes us human most of all.

Public Space 122 (150 1st Avenue)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $20.00
Performances: 3/31 @ 5 & 8; 4/1 @ 5

Friday, March 30, 2007


Lively puppetry, lush jungle lighting, a firm and commanding sense of direction, and a playful but intelligent script are all parts of David Zellnik's marvelous play Serendib. There's a reason the title of the show sounds like serendipity: seeing this show is an instance of finding something valuable that you may not have expected.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

What is it about "science" that makes people think they have to dress it up in drama for it to be interesting? Sometimes, it's enough to just marvel in the natural magic of life itself. Thankfully, David Zellnik's new play, Serendib, does the first while simultaneously mocking it, and excels in the latter by using Emily DeCola's marvelous puppetry. The plot is a well-executed (albeit unsurprising) parallel between a rivalry between two scientists over the girl they both love, and two alpha-male monkeys, and the mate they both desire. The expositional undercurrent involves the disputed genetic and emotional similarities between the two species and it is handled deftly by the nonchalant interjections of a documentary team that has come to film their research.

The entire affair is slickly and efficiently presented by Carlos Armesto, on a verdant revolving jungle set (designed by Ryan Elliot Kravetz). There is great theatricality in the duality between these half-human half-monkey puppet hybrids: and there is great athleticism too, verbal and physical, in the way two actors can maintain a human conversation even as their monkey alter-egos screw each others brains out. (Yes, more graphic than Avenue Q.) DeCola's design is full-bodied, wrapping the monkey around the actor's arm like a second skin, and the performers live truthfully within those circumstances, swinging from actor to actor as much as the monkeys themselves. However, while credit is due to the cast, their acting is almost more natural when they portray the monkeys: they owe an ironic debt to the puppets for cutting their strings. (Two exceptions: James Rana subtly provides comic relief through an otherwise subdued part, and PJ Sosko lives up to the ebullient requirements of his cocky character.)

Serendib is also blessed with a remarkably strong script. It's not surprising, the way in which the love triangle between the attractive researcher Anna and her two rivaling bosses (a German, Fichke, and a Russian, Ramsov) correlates to the alpha-male war between Noc and Jasantha over the lovely Shivani. But the language is often poetic, and even when David Zellnik uses the device of translating the monkey language (thus taking sides in the intellectual debate over whether monkeys have personalities and/or experience happiness), it still touches us. According to the playwright, we "all eat at the same banquet of fears and desires": after experiencing Serendib (on the first night of previews, no less), I have to agree.

Serendib is a variant for Sri Lanka, where the play is set, but it also doubles as a near homophone for serendipity, which is what those theatergoers lucky enough to stumble across this performance at Ensemble Studio Theatre will experience. Carlos Armesto has managed a rather intimate illusion; it would be a shame to miss it.

Ensemble Studio Theatre (549 W. 52nd Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $30.00
Performances (to 4/22): Mon./Wed./Thurs. @ 7 | Fri./Sat. @ 8 | Sat./Sun. @ 3

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Rachel Plotkin, Kim Gainer and Brandon Bales

Combining a play about blind-dates with blind dates, Stirring is a theatrical piece that tackles the online-dating boom to explore its social fiber or lack thereof. Though its observations about the fallacies of online-meetings are right on the ball, it uses an elementary style of staging to its own detriment to bring them to fruition and the writing lacks direction.

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Comprised of seven cast members, Shoshona Currier and Charles Forbes' Stirring is an actors' field-day for expression and exhibitionism. Consisting primarily of monologues and two-person scenes, it is the opportunity for actors to flex their theatrical muscles and shine where they can. In that respect, Stirring is a triumph. In general, the cast is skillful in comedy and drama, particularly in making what is often unfocused writing seem coherent. The production, however, is inundated with cliches, pantomimes that are meant to be progressive but are juvenile, and a blocking style that is too rudimentary for its current themes.

Kim Gainer (Sasha) is believable as the statue to Matt Bridges' Pygmalion (a fun, socially inept James). As an IT professional, she is the medium used to convey the practical, though troubling reliance on the information superhighway. Though Sasha is easily the most fully-formed character, the story of Ovid doesn't have any room to breathe in this piece. It is an introduction of a weighty topic that should be a play unto itself, and its inclusion is much like a thesis without corroboration. With Sasha's introduction comes the flaws in the play's staging. The seven characters are spread out in the space, perhaps in an effort to suggest the gap in their intimacy with each other. However, with so much space separating them, the audience must dart their eyes to and fro, sometimes missing what may be pertinent gestures or movement.

“Tell me about you” retorts Trip (a wickedly pretentious Jack P. Dempsey). Therein begins his exchange with flaxen-haired and raunchy Laura (a hopeful Rachel Plotkin) in what ultimately becomes a sweet, almost-relationship. Jen Taher's Joy is a spunky blogster with a lisp, and her character has the best and most concise monologue about conformity. Joey Williamson's Daniel is full of flair in his quest for a connection with Harry-Potter look-a-like Brandon Bales' Ryan, brother to Trip and undercover homosexual.

Stirring manages to capture all facets of online-dating: the duplicity, the desperation, the longing for intimacy yet the reluctance to give it, the depraved, the boredom with reality, and the lofty expectations. Technology is advancing, but communication continues to decline. It is a testament to the fact that online interactions are anything but “harmless”, “not serious” and “just playing.” Some vehicles used to effectively illustrate that point are the “cacophony of lies” scene in which all the characters “mis” communicate their sentiments at once, the cast's rendition of The Smiths' “Please, please, please let me get what I want,” and the heartbeat sound used to indicate anxiety when one character asks for a meeting.

To cap off the night, single members of the audience had the option to participate in speed dating in 4-minute rounds. As I was a novice, I thought it would be fun to partake in blind-dating first-hand, and it was. Although I'm not sure how much can be gauged from someone in such a short time, the non-committal aspect of it is refreshing and takes the pressure off of making a good or bad impression. Also, speed-dating is a great opportunity to meet a variety of people and cultivate your social skills. As my spiel started to become as repetitive as a business card, it was fun to see people's reactions to learning that I was reviewing the show. It seemed to trigger either curiosity or nerves (some of the participants were cast members). Of course, I was merely there for research, ahem.

Although plagued with social pitfalls, my positive experience as a speed-dater only alludes to the fact that online-dating is here to stay. Yet, there is no evidence that lack of integrity is more rampant online than it is in regular dating. Patience is certainly an important virtue, though. After all, it takes patience to craft witty emails and photoshop photos.
Through March 25th. InterArt Annex: 500 West 52nd Street. $10, $20 for speed-dating nights (March 17th, 23rd and 24th). 212-352-3101

Monday, March 26, 2007

Betty and the Belrays

Pictured: Vanessa Burke, Nicole Patullo, and Cara S. Liander in a scene from Betty & The Belrays (photo © Jonathan Slaff)

In an era of civil rights upheaval and limited job options for women, a 60s white female singing group sign on to a black record label with anti-racist harmonies and women's liberation sentiments in tow. With the semblance and mood of a Motown concert, this musical succeeds in entertaining, but the production can benefit from some tweaking and the civil rights theme can use some amplifying.
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

With mini vinyl records suspended from the ceiling and adorning some of the costumes, it was immediately clear that drama and substance would take a back seat to the music in writer and director William Electric Black's Betty and the Belrays. It's not to say that the story is non-existent. The ennui and disagreement with the social and labor conditions of 1963 for Betty Belarosky (Nicole Patullo) is set up with her entrance. What proceeds to happen, however, is a "cautious" exploration of these themes through comical melodies and occasionally profound dialogue.

I understand that musicals are by nature, light in some respects to preserve the entertainment value. And entertain Betty and the Belrays does. In Theater for the New City's intimate space, the melodies bounce off of the walls and reverberate throughout the room because the cast can really sing. However, with such explosive themes as equal rights and women's liberation, I was expecting a more profound discussion to accompany the song and dance numbers. Instead, concern for power to the people is in the form of Betty's constant whining and elevated voice and Loretta Jones' (Verna Hampton) quasi-stern instruction of the girl group in soul music and it's origins. By selecting social issues as the crux of this musical, Black has a responsibility to represent these issues in a way that extends past songs such as “Ooh baby, baby get a job” and “My boyfriend is a Negro”, but doesn't rise to the challenge. The plot is lightly-invested in the consequences of their activism, but it never dwells there long enough to have a strong impact.

1963 is captured well with great costumes, great energy, and family fun. The substance of dreams is also aptly staged, with a wonderful scene where Betty wins tickets to a doo-wop show and engages her family in the moves and the grooves of the music. Here, the action is effectively sliced to represent the DJ, Sam the Beat (an electrifying Levern Williams), a vibrant singing group, and her family all at once. The phrases and some of the dialogue is cheesy, but in a pleasing way that you'd expect from reliving the 60s.

Where the options are “day job, factory job, getting married. Pick one”, Betty Belarosky aims to surpass what is expected of her and follow her own path. Nicole Patullo plays the loud, sarcastic brat well and every step taken in her character's shoes is with pep. As Zip Gun, Vanessa Burke is part dolt and part bulldog, and her perpetual, mischievous grin makes it funny to hear her break into song. As Connie Anderson, Cara S. Liander is a great buffer between Betty's spirited demeanor and Zip Gun's subdued one. Her boy-crazy presence is charming, and when she voices concern about the animosity generated from their social-activist songs, she reflects self-preservation and fears that are justified. As a group, Betty and the Belrays' voices blend well, and Black's lyrics amuse us as much as their vocal skills do. However, I think they need to work on the choreography as there are noticeable mistakes and they are not in sync. Although the least skilled vocally, Chris Reber (Joe Belarosky and Rex Rogers) and Lucille Duncan (Mary Belarosky) are mesmerizing and are welcome in their parental resistance and nostalgic indulgence, respectively.

Technically, the scene changes need to be tighter. There are several instances where the cast leaves the stage after a musical number, and no one is left but the impressive live band to finish with an instrumental. These “false ends” have no place in a play, and reinforce the idea that this show is much more concert than drama. It not only stalls the show, but makes no pretense to conceal the costume changes that are surely happening offstage. The reprisal of “Ooh baby, baby get a job” seems lazy and unnecessary as the group's sentiments about the female profession are already voiced in other areas. Despite Black stepping in to hype up the crowd as the master of ceremonies in the beginning, there isn't an overwhelming sense of audience engagement in this musical. One of the ways this is exhibited is their lackluster response to Verna Hampton's call for an “Amen” from the crowd. With a revisit of the themes and the production, there is no reason why the audience can't be just as excited about this show as the writer and director is.


Through April 1st. 90 minutes, no intermission. Theater for the New City: 155 First Avenue, NY, NY 10009. $15 Tickets: 212-254-1109

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Men of Steel

Billed as a story that "spins the superhero genre on its head, " Men of Steel runs, jumps, punches and kicks its way to your funny bone. This action packed evening presents comics in a whole new light; giving a human face to the men behind the masks and along the way making you smile.

Paco Tolson (Damon) and Noshir Dalal (Lukas)
Reviewed by Kristyn R Smith

I must admit being a little worried as I fumbled through my program waiting for the start of Friday night's performance. The show clearly had something to do with superheroes, that much I could tell from the title and the picture on the cover, but the more I studied my program the more I realized I may be in over my head. There on the second page, a history of "the VC Comics Universe." Is that really necessary, I wondered? I don't know the first thing about comics or superheroes. I'd go so far as to say I'm even less versed than the average joe. I haven't seen the movies or television shows. Your Spidermans, Supermans, and Batmans, just never seemed worth my time. After all, you already know what happens in the end. Or do you...?

The story at first seems simple--good versus evil. But as the play progresses, questions are raised as to what being "good" actually means. Should a superhero be held accountable for his actions based on the law, or are their actions justified because of their efforts to help humanity? One would think that superheroes have it easy, but the playwright, Qui Nguyen leads you to believe otherwise. This and many other moral and ethical issues regarding superheroes are discussed at length. Sometimes far too long. The character of Malcom, who serves largely as the narrator, is prone to long diatribes on such topics. Thankfully these attempts at seriousness are often undermined by the humor. It is here that Nguyen really excels, and the artful, clever direction by Robert Ross Parker shines through at its full potential.

Under Parker's guidance, the designers soar. Particular kudos should be given to the set designer, Nick Francone, for making such good use of the tiny space and for his ability to indicate so many different locales with minimal set changes. The video interludes were also quite inventive. One of my favorite parts of the show was a short film using only Legos. Of course, it wouldn't be The Vampire Cowboys without the fight choreography.

Fight director Marius Hanford certainly proves his talent in this show, choreographing over 80% of the action. I was a mere 20 feet from the actors, sitting in the second row and I was shocked at how authentic most of the fights appeared. The actors put a great deal of energy into every kick and punch. They were also quite invested in the dramatic aspects of the play. Despite portraying larger than life characters and even caricatures, there was a sense of real humanity and realism. Noshir Dalal and Paco Tolson especially stood out for playing so well off each other and adding lots of laughs to what was already a funny show.

My only complaint was the sporadic eardrum-bursting loudness. The music was often deafening. So too were the actors, screaming to be heard. For what reason I'm not sure. The house is small, perhaps 12 rows deep. Even when full it doesn't warrant the levels that were reached at Friday's performance.

But all that aside, Men of Steel, made for a fun evening of theater. The various talents employed in this pursuit are put to good use here. A superhero couldn't do better.
Playing now at Center Stage
48 West 21st Street
(between 5th and 6th Aves)
Through April 8th
Thursday-Sunday 8:00 PM
Tickets $18.00

Saturday, March 24, 2007

volume of smoke

A tragic and theatrical retelling of the various narratives of those who perished in the 'Awful Conflagration' of Richmond, 1811, Clay McLeod Chapman's volume of smoke is a wry and affecting work of smoke-silent theater that suffocates its audience with a series of blisteringly honest accounts of not only the before and after of the fire, but of the immediate panic of the evening itself. Top-notch acting and directing only further assist this fresh and vibrant work.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

As the reverend's wife puts it so well in Clay McLeod Chapman's volume of smoke, "Tragedy is nothing new ... You just wait until the next generation comes. The same will happen to them, soon enough. And the next. And the next." But while the idea itself may be unfortunately universal, the powerful expression of it, the mournful exclamation ... these have a uniqueness of sorrow all their own. This powerful play most resembles The Laramie Project in its mostly monologued presentation, but the setting (Richmond, 1811) gives it a resonant elocution and dignified declamation that is both theatrically fresh and emotionally current. Although I have not read the book from which this was adapted (John F. Watson's "Calamity at Richmond, Being a Narrative of the Affecting Circumstances Attending the Awful Conflagration of the Theatre"), the theatrical presentation lends not only an irony to the narrative, but a stark immediacy, and a relevance that links the entire audience in remembrance of seventy otherwise unremembered souls.

Clay McLeod Chapman is a dark playwright, and his lines simmer with a bitter sarcasm as this brilliant six person ensemble (3M, 3F) slowly reconstruct the fire, from the blame cast between the stagehand, property man, and carpenter to the personal stories of the actors, orchestra members, audience, and children. Some of the characters have survived and retell the story as vagrant survivors, drifting across the stage like living ghosts, but some of the characters are actually dead, and speak scornfully to the present actors who recreate the past. The lines are squeamishly beautiful, honestly sad, and filled with ash-blackened imagery (like Tim McMath's excellent set).

For instance, a musician remarks upon the way the fire burnt the instruments in such a way that "it sounded as if the fire itself were playing the music now." Rather than the expected flight, characters are transfixed in the heat of the moment, like one who runs back inside to find her daughter: "I had to turn around and force my way through the burning doors, past all the people piling up around the exit. It was like turning the tides, like some salmon working its way upstream." Or the tragically mischievous child whose spanking is interrupted only by his sudden trampling: "What it must've felt like to step on some little boy's bony frame, the snap of his ribs resonating through their shoe. What that softness must've felt like from under their foot, realizing they'd just trampled over me. If they even realized it at all."

Hand-in-hand with such exquisite text (to use John Patrick Shanley's slivering meaning) is Chapman's longtime collaborator, Isaac Butler. Butler, who also produced the show (along with Anne Love), has made it into a passion project, and all of the individual pieces of the evening are flawlessly executed, from the darkly underscored remixes of classical Richmond sounds by Erik Sanko to Sydney Maresca's dulled yet frilled costuming of the men and women of the cast. The set creeps in shadow whether the lights emanate from a single, ghostly lightbulb or from the various spotlights.

Just as Butler has gathered such excellence in the technical, he has realized the physical, too. The set is the detritus of the theatre: barrels lie gutted, chairs are there to be flung around at will (at times to echo the sounds of bodies thudding to the ground from the balcony), ladders serve as steps to heaven or, when collapsed, as the gates to hell, and chests sit around, the magic of possibility blackened out of them by fire. The actors double as props as well, highlighted occasionally for pantomiming example or as a necessary scene partner, and the overall effect is that of an eerie waltz between past and present.

On their own, the actors excel as well, each carrying a variety of roles, from Abe Goldfarb's preening ham to his counterpoint in Molly Wright Stuart's emotional "The Bleeding Nun." There are wistful memories from Brian Silliman and meticulous recounts from Daryl Lathon, disgruntled rage from Ronica V. Reddick and emotionless seething from Katie Dietz: excellent work on all fronts and by all accounts.

At just over seventy minutes, volume of smoke is a swift tale, but it manages to entangle the passion of theater with the emotion of life with a real verve and poignancy. There are observations not only on the strange beauty of fire, but comparisons between the godforsaken theater and the god-blessed Church (different only in scope, they are both stages), not to mention the recreation of a rhyming play-within-a-play. Chapman uses verbal devices, like a mathematical tallying of all the bones lost to the blaze, and Butler meets him with a theatrical blocking of the action that grows from a slow, crepitant static to a shifting, sorrowful height. It's a great partnership, and it makes for some great theater.

volume of smoke is an excellent contemporary play that has received a thrilling treatment by Isaac Butler, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys the theater.

14th Street Theater (344 East 14th Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $15.00
Performances (through 4/7): Wednesday-Saturday @ 8:00

Ernest in Love

This charming and all but forgotten show forces Oscar Wilde's upper-class twits to sing for their supper.

Reviewed by Ellen Wernecke

Oscar Wilde has been back in vogue recently -- that is, if he was ever out. His most famous play "The Importance of Being Earnest" has of late not only gotten the Merchant-and-Ivory-style Hollywood treatment (with Colin Firth and Rupert Everett playing the bachelor friends who both claim the titular name), but also an updated teen version titled "Would I Lie To You?" (The answer, in the name of the play's protagonists, is obviously yes, but more on that later.) Musicals Tonight! has rescued "Ernest in Love," the 1960 Broadway musical based on Wilde's play about intentionally mistaken identities and the virtues of lying in polite society.

Algernon (Nick Dalton) and Jack (Blake Hackler) are two chummy bachelors living outside their means in London at the turn of the century. But Jack has a secret: He's got a young ward at home, for whose sake he goes by the name Ernest while in town to maintain the appearance of a morally worthy guardian, telling the folks he's looking after a wayward brother. Algy, on the other hand, pretends to visit an imaginary invalid called Bunbury when he wants to escape the clutches of his aunt Augusta Bracknell (Deborah Jean Templin). When Jack proposes to Algy's cousin Gwendolen (Lauren Molina), Lady Bracknell forbids the marriage after she finds out Jack is an orphan who was found in a train station. Heartbroken, Jack flees to his country house -- only to find Algernon posing as his wayward brother and wooing his ward.

Packed with classic bon mots like "Ignorance is like a delicate fruit -- touch it, and the bloom is gone" and "I never travel without my diary -- one should always have something sensational to read on the train," "The Importance of Being Earnest" can't help bringing out the laughs even with the most sentimental score, so the duets with which "Ernest in Love" is peppered come out silly, not sappy. There are several important differences between the musical and the Wilde play, most importantly the avenue the songs lend to minor characters in the original material. The play opens not with Algernon and Jack congratulating each other, but on their valets toasting their masters ironically in "Come Raise Your Cup." Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble, the weedy schoolmarm and uptight priest, get their own love ballad in "Metaphorically Speaking," and the first encounter between Cecily and Gwendolen -- in which they go from best of friends to barely speaking -- is entirely contained in "My Very First Impression." But Wilde himself would have approved of Lady Bracknell's indignant "A Handbag Is Not A Proper Mother" with Jack on unwilling harmony.

Like the play, the musical basically lives or dies on the chemistry between Algernon and Jack more than that with their respective matches. Hackler's nervous wreck and Dalton's careless rake are well matched, and it's easy to believe by the end that -- spoiler alert -- they are actually brothers after all. In the second act's "The Muffin Song," Jack may express outrage at Algy's ability to calmly eat muffins while Gwendolen and Cecily remain convinced of their treachery, but what he's really saying is, How are we going to get out of this? It's like a buddy movie, with cravats. (Speaking of, this is a staged concert version; the costumes and choreography are above par, but the scripts are out for the duration.) Molina brings a prissy perfection to the part of Gwendolen, while Melissa Bohon's Cecily lends a mischievous sparkle to Cecily, the sheltered girl who secretly wants to go bad. Maybe "Ernest in Love" should have survived, maybe not, but the cast of this revival hits nearly all its laugh lines.

"Ernest in Love"
Musicals Tonight!, McGinn-Cazale Theatre
Broadway and 76th St. (elevator to 3rd floor, walk to 4th)
(212) 868-4444
Tickets $20

Thursday, March 22, 2007


The work that Anonymous Ensemble's doing as The Best is "punk"nacious and "tech"ploitive. Their current OEDI Cycle is comprised of two glibly Greek shows, OEDIrx and OEDI@:us, and for those who can't decide from the enthusiastic tenor of my review whether or not to see their work, you can wend your way through the labyrinthine video feeds posted on their website. I can only comment on the first part that I saw on Thursday, March 22nd, but for those interested, coverage from their engagement last year is available from Eric Miles Glover, here.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

OEDIrx is a rock concert, an online version of American Idol (performed live), and a trippy multimedia show all rolled into one. It's also a more-or-less faithful adaptation of Oedipus Rex, only instead of a pestilence ruling the land, it's the government's team of dedicated hackers, erasing members of the clandestine and rebellious group, The Best, and instead of a wise and prediction-fearing king, there is their Organically Enhanced Digital Inference, OEDI ("Eddy"). Eamonn Farrell is an insane man to think up such an eccentric adaptation, one that fuses punk rock with burlesque dancing (not too far a stretch) and stilt-walking emcees with online nerds. The show is enthusiastic and energetic with all that crazy power, and the combination of digitally enhanced projections of the show along with the real dancing, singing, and acting is proof that insanity is such a relative word.

Farrell also steps on board for the direction, and this is where OEDIrx gets hard to judge. Andrea Davey has carefully choreographed the production, but the hectic combination of film and movement, and the use of superimposed characters over live feeds (the way in which characters speak with OEDI, say) seems more random than planned. However, this chaos is in tune with the dystopia of the near-future the production takes place in, and there's something to be said for allowing a show's unique momentum to make the visuals anew each night. The only problem I have is that the timelapsed footage runs out of synch with the audio, and for the big rock numbers (each of the four characters has one, plus a group number and a surprise solo), it's occasionally hard to make out the vocals over the slamming sound. But just as the plot rises from the chaos of the insiderish first fifteen minutes, the emotional themes and performances bolster the coherence to the text.

The plot revolves around the secret society of The Best, an online network whose mission, summed up in five words or less, is to "make music, fight government, superlatively." To protect the security of its members, recruits are given the opportunity to move up through the ranks from the lowest level, Gate 1, to the highest, Gate 7. Those at the top filter live performance feeds down through their profiles in order to increase their own Icon status, but also to accumulate Hype for the network. As rebellion often goes, these performances are punk songs (written by Jim Iseman III and Masi Asare), the style of which changes to suit the four leads: Anne (Janelle M. Lannan), the technochic with the full-body voice; Amy (Mikey McCue), the sultry diva of the group; Melissa (Liz Davito), the polite powerhouse; and Ethan (Eirik Gislason), the sensitive shouter.

If punk isn't exactly to your liking, and the idea of seeing visually creative (but digital) images doesn't impress you, there's also a solid background of character development created by the joint investigation of these characters by Hilda (Jessica Weinstein) and OEDI (Nick Jaeger), one who is a boisterous, Indian-sounding, mustached lurker, and the other of whom is a sardonic computer program that likes to engage in facial puppetry.

The combination of all these elements makes OEDIrx one of the most curious things you can see on the New York circuit: a bold, boundary pushing work that is as joyously far from Broadway as it gets (while still being theater). Don't let the chaos fool you: this is professional theater, and I hope to see Anonymous Ensemble top The Oedi Cycle with whatever they take on next.

Ohio Theater (66 Wooster Street)
Tickets: $15.00 (
Performances: March 23 @ 8 (OEDI@:us), March 24 @ 8 (OEDIrx)

Talk Radio

Talk Radio has turned into quite an entertaining performance piece for the Broadway stage, but it has lost its edge in the transition. Part of that has to do with how the world has aged since Eric Bogosian first performed it in 1987, and part of it has to do with the unmistakable star quality of lead Liev Schrieber. But a large portion of that somewhat saddening shift has to do with the direction, which has beautified something that needs to be harsh and ugly.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The last thing Barry Champlain, the bombastic and narcissistic host of Night Talk says before signing off in a drunken stupor is "I guess we deserve one another." This, after a lull of dead air and a long string of senseless calls about pet peeves and pet crushes, is a statement that is just as true as it was when Eric Bogosian wrote Talk Radio in 1987. America, wake up and smell the cup of coffee that you've been percolating for the last twenty years: Talk Radio is a piping-hot cup of condemnation and belligerent protestation, and it's a fun, raucous play that is only slightly less racy now in the light of Stern shockjocks. America, for all the political problems that you have answered with polite parody and humorous book tours, for all the growing homeless on the street -- you deserve this play, just like it deserves its apathetic audience.

This review isn't exactly a rave for the new revival of Talk Radio. We deserve it not only for the star-stud entertainment of Liev Schrieber (which is compelling and good), but also because the play has grown tame on the looming Broadway stage, turning what was a violent attack on culture into an audience friendly meditation on society. (Bogosian will be at The Public with a new rant this year: that may very well be the real performance of the season.) Schrieber is great, no doubt, but he's also pleasant and tame: his eruptions seem choreographed, and his rage isn't always abuzz. For the first seventy minutes of this hundred-minute marathon, he coasts through the glib mannerisms of a man who is both the God of the control booth and the everyman looking for God in the static sky. (He's about as sincere as Sid Greenberg, the money market consultant who fills the earlier time slot.) So while the lines are pat, and the delivery is slick, the words don't stick and there's the sense of fun over form. Not that anything's wrong with that. We deserve it. Right?

Everything is just a little too clean. Schrieber's wearing a hoodie and some stubble, but his hair is closely trimmed; the set, which places the on-air studio in the front and the backstage through a giant glass window behind him, shines in a crescendoing spotlight or throbs with a startling fluorescent beam. At one point, Barry kicks some Chinese food against the wall and it just slides off the non-stick window and it isn't long before an obsessive-compulsive co-worker cleans it up with a just a few careful sweeps of paper. Where's the danger?

Broadway has the opportunity to scare us. There's no intermission, and the play features a brilliant bomb threat and a lot of crude, frightening ideas. But Broadway keeps letting us off the hook: director Robert Falls uses lighting cues to break from the real-time presentation to allow for some testimonial asides from Barry's coworkers that really should be cut. Not only do these monologues free us from the mire of Barry's world, but they plunge us into the monochromatic characters, characters for which Michael Laurence, Stephanie March, and Peter Hermann add almost nothing to.

The segments focusing on Schrieber's communion with the callers (some very talented vocals from an ensemble that includes Barbara Rosenblat and Adam Sietz) step in the right direction; the ones with real danger (what Oliver Stone captured so well in the 1987 film) are leaps forward. By the end of the play, when Champlain is a wreck, Talk Radio is thrilling, because anything can happen. But at the beginning, too much is played for laughs, and very little separates the play from regular late night radio talk shows (except, perhaps, for how perfectly everybody is flawed).

I have little doubt that people attending Talk Radio will be entertained by the entertaining dialog and vivid, tragic collapse of its star. But I don't think Talk Radio is meant to be a fluffy performance piece, and a film should never be edgier than its live counterpoint. So America: what's on your mind? You ready to raise hell, or do you just want to hear about it?

Longacre Theatre (220 West 48th Street)
Tickets (212-239-6200): $36.25-96.25
Performances: Tuesday-Saturday @ 8; Wednesday & Saturday @ 2; Sunday @ 3

Essential Self-Defense

Adam Rapp's surprising and strikingly funny new play is a modern-day fable that mostly plays like a sensationally unique black comedy. The play wrings contemporary humor out of the story of two fearful, seemingly traumatized loners who meet in a self-defense class, while sustaining a chord of dread that speaks to the fear-based anxiety in our current culture. Recommended.

photo: Joan Marcus

Reviewed by Patrick Lee

The wildly surprising and wonderfully offbeat Essential Self-Defense has the feeling of a dark fable that captures some free-floating fear in the current American zeitgeist. It's set in an American heartland anytown called Bloggs, where schoolchildren are vanishing, and peopled with deliberately exaggerated characters who get caught up in an "if you see something say something" culture of suspicion. It feels like a bleak and funny satirical cartoon and is nothing short of genuinely contemporary.

The two main characters in this strikingly funny new play seem to walk around in a heightened state of anxiety. He, amusingly named Yul Carroll, is a profoundly paranoid conspiracy-theorist type who lives in a ready-for-lockdown cement cell. She, Sadie, is a seemingly traumatized bookworm who hallucinates wolves literally at her door. They meet in a self-defense class where he works as a rubber-padded tackle dummy. When she lunges too hard and knocks his tooth out, in a moment that evokes cartoon violence (if you squint it looks like Olive Oyl landing a kick to Popeye), she's flustered and embarrassed and a relationship fearfully begins.

While playwright Adam Rapp keeps sounding a chord of dread throughout, most of the play is one variety or another of comic. As Yul (Paul Sparks) and Sadie (Heather Goldenhersh) inch slowly toward each other, there's a deadpan brand of black humor that is at its most hilarious at its most horrible: when she sleeps over at his place, he has to lay rat traps out before she can turn out the lights. So much for romance in a culture of fear.

Rapp flirts with (but stops short of) absurdism - some of Yul's worldviews (he believes his skateshoes were thrown into a toxic waste incinerator by an evil gang of kung fu rollerbladers) would be preposterous if they weren't so stone-faced earnest - and he even takes the play in whimsical directions (especially in an Act 2 musical number that I wouldn't dream of spoiling). In the scenes at the local karaoke bar where the characters sing impromptu songs (written by Rapp along with Ray Rizzo and Lucas Papaelias, who are also the on-stage band) Rapp goes for a more traditional brand of satire, poking fun at pop culture.

Yet through all this activity, Rapp never loses his gravity. I haven't seen anything as purposeful as this that chances such seismic shifts in tone since the revival of John Guare's Landscape of the Body that I loved last year. This is even better: a starrling left turn for Rapp, who was a Pulitzer finalist last year for his unflinching and grim Red Light Winter.

This production, at Playwrights Horizons but co-produced by Edge Theatre, has been astutely directed by Carolyn Cantor. The play may deceptively seem on the page to fly from one lark to another but it all moves together thanks in part to her staging; it seems hot-wired to the playwright's distinctive, unique vision. All the performances have been put on the same page of quirky heightenedness: Heather Goldenhersh's performance as Sadie anchors the play by striking notes of terrfied vulnerability under a shell-shocked exterior. As Yul, Paul Sparks is stunningly precise - he gives most of his line readings a tense robotic plainness that renders them comic, but it's also the credibly flat affect of a depressed loner on the edge.

I saw an early preview, but Essential Self-Defense is already sharp and in-shape. All it needs now is to be seen.

At Playwrights Horizons (416 W. 42nd Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $50; $20 for theatregoers under 30
Performances: Tues-Fri at 7:30pm, Sat at 2 & 7:30pm, and Sun at 2 & 7pm;
Special added performance on Monday, March 26 @ 7:30pm.

Dream of a Common Language

The natural text is just a bit too intellectual to provoke much of a rave, but the pleasant thoughtfulness of the gender ideas raised by this play make for some relaxing theatergoing. The technical aspects need to be tighter so as to keep the focus on the center of the picture, rather than the frame, but those few patches that catch the light just so are a marvel to watch.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

One of the advantages a play has over a short story is that it has more room to develop slowly. So long as it hooks you before intermission, theater gets the benefit of the doubt. Dream of A Common Language has some serious flaws under Karen Sommers' direction, and the cast is a little shaky. Fortunately, a very attractive garden set (impressionist watercolors of a forest, surrounded by more realistic rock walls and ivy), a few strong roles (Suzanne Barbetta, for one), and the flowing dialog of playwright Heather McDonald manage to keep us around for the firmer second act.

But how well does Dream of a Common Language address the theme of 3Graces' new season, "second class citizens." The women of this show did not have the equality they desire in the artistic community, but they seem to live heartily even if it is sometimes heavy heartily. For those having trouble sympathizing with a rich but artistically repressed woman in 1873, read the following epigraph: "Acceptance on someone else's terms is worse than rejection." Dreams is more a thematic play than a dramatic play, and it's interesting to weigh the mission statement of the company with the natural interplay of history and intrigue throughout the show.

Dolores, a traveling gypsy who has flitted from any man who would ask her to stay to any man who would ask to her to leave, certainly seems content playing the housekeeper and eating her Hundreds and Thousands candies. Pola, a migratory artist, travels by bicycle, seeing the sites and experiencing the adventures of the world, and while she regrets the opportunities she was barred from, she lives a better life--makes a better living, in fact--than the miserable leads. And misery is certainly a relative thing: Victor and Clovis may have grown into a loveless marriage, fostered by a feminine son, the husband's unconscious chauvinism, and the wife's teetering sanity, but they're both trying. Clovis, in a pique from the lack of acceptance in a male dominated world, has burnt her paintings and given up on her beloved craft: but at the same time, her rejected painting was anonymously submitted; it wasn't reviewed poorly out of spite.

These characters serve well to make the various points of the play; the show even comes full circle to address the marital and sexual issues presented early on (and lost during the liberating Soprano's dinner party that serves as a lengthy catharsis and return to innocence). Where Dream of a Common Language disappoints are the various imbalances in direction. The choice to interrupt the realism (or underscored it) with a cellist and keyboardist playing through floating windows is a major problem, as are the obviously recorded offstage voices of other painters. Awareness of illusion distances us from the craft: focusing on the limits results in a loss of the piece's central beauty.

Despite the aesthetic distractions and some uneven accent work (along with some uneven acting), I found Dream of a Common Language to be an original and unforced display of art in the nineteenth century, and it certainly made me consider some of my fundamental beliefs of what constitutes equality. There's not enough action to make me rave, but the still beauty of nature leaves a lot for me to think about.

Hudson Guild Theater (441 West 26th Street)
Tickets (212-279-4100): $20.00
Performances: Monday, Thursday-Saturday @ 8; Sunday @ 3

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Desire in the Suburbs

Timothy Scott Harris, Baz Snider and Dee Dee Friedman in "Desire in the Suburbs." Source: BroadwayWorld

Review by Ellen Wernecke

The cover of my program for WorkShop Theatre Company's latest play, "Desire in the Suburbs," features a cartoon of a small boy and a woman with very long legs. Someone has added a speech bubble with the hand-printed words, "Hey Mom, you're hot."

It's crude, but completely relevant to the tone and plot of the play, which at once updates and sends up the Eugene O'Neill classic "Desire Under the Elms." Mike O'Neal (Baz Snider) is a pot-smoking professor whose first wife has disappeared (or was murdered) and is now happily remarried to a salon entrepreneur named Jenny (Dee Dee Friedman). Jenny's about the same age as Mike's son Ed (Timothy Scott Harris), who moved back home three months ago after he lost his job as a lawyer and gave up his Turtle Bay Cigar Bar lifestyle. It's like "Failure to Launch," but this balding 39-year-old is more David Sedaris than Matthew McConaughey, trying to cope with his situation by needling his father and trying to curry favor with his new stepmom. In the play's opening scene, he calls her Mom just to bait Dad, while proclaiming that 90 percent of all murders take place in the home.

Ed tries to warn Jenny about the man she married -- a guy who keeps multiple lovers unapologetically and may or may not have a dark past -- while she teeters on heels with a transparent pink netting apron edged with plaid. That apron, if nothing else, indicates we are in "American Beauty" territory; if she didn't laugh at the way Ed begins to hit on her in the first act, then we wouldn't be able to either. When Dad jokes, "This is why I'm afraid to leave you two alone" as he heads to a law conference (or tryst), you know a game of "Hump the Stepmom" is up ahead.

I think I detected in the play's opening the beginning of the soundtrack to Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," which is one way to look at the combination of Friedman and Harris onstage. Their chemistry simultaneously attracts and repels us, not only because of the Oedipal-by-marriage tint, but also because of the motives that naturally float to the surface. Uncovering them is a delicious undertaking, and unlike other tales of familial desire ("The Royal Tenenbaums"' adopted sibling pair, or "Arrested Development"'s desperate cousins) theirs is no pure love above the situation. At the same time, the way they play off each other makes Friedman and Snider's characters look comparatively stiff and formal, as if they had married before they even met. Mike never entirely figures out what's going on (even when Ed volunteers the information), but he, too, can sense the air crackling around them. Mom, you're dangerous.


If, in 100 years, an anthropologist unearthed Shalimar Production’s stirring, which (for those of us in the present) includes speed dating after select performances, it would provide a snapshot of what life is like for trendy 20-something New Yorkers living in Williamsburg and the East Village, looking for love. In addition to insights into the perks and perils of internet dating, he or she would get a good sense of what bands were hot on the indie scene and what kinds of clothes and hairstyles you needed to be considered cool. Watching stirring feels like opening a time capsule too soon: It’s full of witty, sharp and observant references about being young and in New York, but lacks in substance.

Rachel Plotkin, Kim Gainer and Brandon Bales in stirring

Reviewed by Ilena George

Stirring follows seven characters searching for love online, focusing on the lives of James (Matt Bridges) and Sasha (Kim Gainer), an already established couple who are drifting apart and attempting to find solace with others. Inspired by actual online personals, stirring feels like a loosely connected series of worst case scenarios, chronicling all the things that can go wrong when you pursue someone over the internet.

During bouts of unnecessarily frenetic staging in an awkward space forcibly coerced into serving as a theater, Trip (Jack P. Dempsey) and Laura (Rachel Plotkin) explore their kinkier sides, Ryan (Brandon Bales) comes to terms with his sexuality after meeting Daniel (Joey Williamson) and Joy (Jen Taher) draws the short straw in the online dating lottery time and time again.

Discussed at length is how to present yourself online: how to structure a blog entry or a personal ad, what level of deception is acceptable or necessary. The wittiness of the writing and the cast’s energy generally compensates for the play’s thinness in plot and character development. The characters are hollow, without pasts or depth, embodying types just as easily identified by their costumes (designed by Ariella Beth Bowden) as what they say or do: the hipster in a monochromatic sweater, rectangular black glasses and Converse sneakers; the tech-savvy girl in boots and a dress with buttons down the front and a big thick belt; the sleazy guy with a shirt open one button too far. Yet the ensemble’s strong performances still invoke sympathy when dating turns disastrous.

To add an extra shot of self-awareness, after several of the performances, singles who attend the play are given the opportunity to meet through speed dating. One of the issues the play addresses is how difficult it is to make a connection and giving audience members a forum to attempt this is clever. But the appeal of internet dating partly lies in its anonymity, which speed dating cannot preserve. The night I attended there were so few males signed up that cast members were roped into it as well. However, it was much like the play itself: fun as long as you don’t think too hard or look too closely.
stirring by Shoshona Currier and Charles Forbes
Directed by Shoshona Currier
March 16th-25th, speed dating after 3/17, 3/24 (straight), 3/23 (gay, men only)
InterArt Annex, 500 W. 52nd Street
Tickets: $10, $20 for speed dating,

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Men of Steel

If you don't like comic books, you'll want to stay away from Men of Steel, as all the jokes and over-the-top acting is geared toward the chicanery of superheroes. But if you've been tuning into Heroes each week and want to see a live, comic version of it, this production will surprise you with some impressive fight choreography, clever writing, and some positively campy acting.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

"You'll never get rid of us, we're like a bad smell that won't go away. And that smell, Menace, that smell is America!" Ah, cheesy lines like that remind me of what made me fall in love with comics in the first place. Over the years, the stories have gotten darker, and the narratives more interesting, but it all comes down to betrayal and courage, iced over with a healthy gloss of bad puns and even worse quips. Qui Nguyen knows what makes the comic-book world tick: his new play, Men of Steel, is both homage and parody at the same time, and it's a wonderful romp. Atop the surprisingly effective writing, his production company (Vampire Cowboy Theatre) is good with fight choreography, so there's over-the-top action to go with the over-the-top acting.

All in all, it's a fun night of theater: the first act introduces the fall from grace of three different heroes, split up into chapters and paced like the television show Heroes, and the second act unites them all in one final battle for redemption. There's betrayal, there's excitement -- there's even a bit of noir in "Chapter One: Maelstrom," a tragedy amid all the laughs in "Chapter Three: The Tragic Story of Bryant," and a stop-motion-animated showdown using Lego characters and some of the most hysterical voice-overs outside of Adult Swim.

Robert Ross Parker does an excellent job with the direction of this show, using video montages to cover up the set changes, and stagecraft to cut from moment to moment within each piece. Chapter One has Maelstrom literally pivoting from one encounter into his role as narrator, (a fast-paced way to introduce a saga), and Chapter Three reduces the action to a small neon-lit box. Some scenes overlap on stage, others remind us of the lingering evil off in the corner: it raises the stakes beyond the singular panel and onto the entire page. Chapter Two is the slow point of Men of Steel, but that has to do as much with the writing and acting as anything else: it is monotonous and loud, and hurls past with little to do but laugh at the Lucha Libre costumes of two wannabes. It's okay: there are enough jokes to keep the pace up, and because of the triple-casting of most characters, Paco Tolson is able to shine as The Mole, and Noshir Dalal as Daddy, rather than getting locked into their mediocre performances there as Damon and Lukas.

Give in to your superhero complex and check out Men of Steel; it has a few weaknesses (like any true hero) here and there, but on the whole, it's a mighty fine new play. Is Maelstrom (in Batman mode) a hero, or just a crazed vigilante? Is Captain Justice a murdering supervillain or a man with superpowers? Find out right now in this week's performances of Men of Steel!

Center Stage (48 West 21st Street; Fourth Floor)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Performances: Thursday - Sunday @ 8:00


There's a dead mother, two medicated children, and a thuggish employer in Magpie, but none of that troubles this way up-tempo show. Latin percussion gives it a multicultural edge, but the two leads, Jessica Fields and Ronny Mercedes give it a soul, and even though it's missing a unifying (or memorable) theme, the cheeriness is pretty contagious.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Magpie wants to be a cross between West Side Story and The Fantasticks, but it's too small to be epic and too realistic to be dreamy. Funny though: Magpie's greatest success is in the Act II opening: an epic parody of an opera that takes place in Maggie's dreams. This breezy musical won't be revolutionizing the musical theater, but its multicultural beats are a nice change of pace. It's as cute as it is distracting, and as light as it is unfinished. I dig the digs (a corrugated black metal cityscape that folds in and out like a storybook), but I dislike the mikes on all the cast members.

Magpie is on the right path: now it just needs enough focus to find a place for that work which the jaded male lead, Tino (a layman for the young theatergoing public) so casually dismisses as irrelevant to his life. Hip as the gritty bike messengers pretend to be, or hip-hop as they get while singing "Another Day" or step-dancing up in someone's face, they're still useless to the plot. It needs more songs like "Crazy Girl, Loquita" and "Give Her Back Her Music," and less songs like "No One Had a Clue in Santiago" and "Trust Your Heart." There's nothing better than lovesick duets or strained ballads; there's nothing worse than solos for side-characters that add nothing to the book. It could also use a few technical touch-ups with light cues and the audible static from an over-miked cast.

Magpie's strength shows every time the focus sticks to the star-crossed lovers (they--Jessica Fields and Ronny Mercedes--are also the best singers); wander around too much and it becomes clear that despite being a modern Romeo and Juliet (if Romeo took Ritalin and Juliet was medicated for seizures and mental instability), Steven M. Jacobson's script is far from Shakespeare. If the Amas Musical Theatre company must meander, let them dabble more in producing a more diverse, layered soundtrack: Act I is a rich blend of modern and classic, but Act II goes over to the old time sound of simple rhymes and simpler beats.

Ah, let them eat cake. Or in this case, let them eat pie. I came out of Magpie without a song in my head, but with a big smile on my face because of how cheery the entire show is. If Amas is willing to keep workshopping this show, it has the potential to be an urban Light in the Piazza.

The Players Theatre (116 MacDougal Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $20.00
Performances: Wednesday - Saturday @ 8; Saturday & Sunday @ 3

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Director

The Director is a creepy new play that merges great ensemble acting with the still, quiet direction of Jessica Davis-Irons, and the strong symbolic writing of Barbara Cassidy. The missteps and flaws are all relegated to the first ten minutes of this piece: after that, the work is pretty much an excellent exploration of empathy, friendship, and the horrors that too much of either sometimes brings.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The dark and subterranean space of Downstairs @ The Flea does wonders for Barbara Cassidy's new show, The Director. It's a perfect match for the multimedia work that lights up the black recesses of the cavernous hall, and the length of the room gives depth to the many different characters (well represented by The Flea's resident performers, The Bats) who echo through the chamber. This show isn't disturbing because of the lecherous (and pedophiliac) director it is named for (who we never meet); rather, it is effective because of the innocent reactions many of the actors have when discussing him. At times, the cast manages to put a gentle face on this man (a challenging task), and thankfully The Director's director, Jessica Davis-Irons clashes with their words by using contradictory video that shows the sinister and the cynical for what they are.

It's a good thing that The Director is an hour-long one-act, though. The first ten minutes make some sloppy mistakes that leave us impatient. A man sits in a corner and watches TV as the audience files in--oh, how blandly futurist--then the show plays a five-minute long taped monologue set in the flickering darkness--how abstractly avant-garde--before finally getting to the meat of the work. Luckily, after these initial set pieces, the show develops as an actual drama, introducing us to characters like Sadie (the excellent Lauren Shannon), and Milton (a wonderfully human Catherine Gowl). If anything, once we establish the strained friendship between these two, we almost hate to see the show end so soon.

But the director and writer have a mission, and they don't waste time about it. It isn't long before we meet Sadie's abusive ex-boyfriend, Snake (Donal Brophy, a Clive Owens double), and not long after that we skip through dream sequences filled with creepy androgynous modeling puppets. The show takes on symbolism so fluidly with the grounding scene-work and the bolstering monologues that the sudden stop to this ride catches you by surprise. The Director is full of surprises, the biggest one of which is its capacity to actually turn a tired story into a brilliant, new theatrical work.

Downstairs @ The Flea (41 White Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $20.00
Performances: Through March 31st (Varied)

Friday, March 16, 2007

H.M.S. Pinafore

A revitalizing restaging of the singing sailor classic, the Vortex’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore makes 19th century satire funny again through cross-dressing, baby-farming, and a good dose of Gilbert and Sullivan silliness.

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Reviewed by Cait Weiss

Thank goodness somebody finally got it right – a restaging that proves all our History of Theater professors weren't just joshing with us: Gilbert and Sullivan really were hilarious.

Vortex Theater Company’s current production of H.M.S. Pinafore (to battle the masters of musical puns with their own weapon) hits all the right notes. Gilbert and Sullivan’s work is often treated with the same stale reverence as Shakespeare’s comedies – the contrived accents, the elitist acknowledgement that we should think this is all incredibly clever, the growing struggle to hide our own boredom as the hours drag by.

The Vortex’s H.M.S. is an entirely different type of show – and enjoyable one, shockingly enough. And whether it’s incredibly witty operetta or not, what matter? At the end of the aria, it’s damn good fun.

There are many reasons to be taken with this production, not the least of which is that Vortex seems to be run by raving lunatics. What could possibly be a worse fit for a tiny theater and a seven-person cast than a lavish maritime musical extravaganza? It’s like remaking Cameron's Titanic in a bathtub with Rubber Ducky in lieu of Leo D. – yet this down-sized H.M.S. is truer to its source and more vital to the audience than any of the Oprah-endorsed or American Airlines-aided shows I’ve seen on Broadway. The money may be small here, but the pay-off is big – precisely because the risks Joshua Randall, Vortex’s artistic director, took are huge.

One such risk was double-casting (and, in one fantastic feat of entertainment, triple-casting) the show. David Macaluso, who plays Sir Joseph, Buttercup and an unnamed Sailor, makes the most of his multiple personalities, playing each one with such personalized care, it takes a few scenes to realize it’s all the same actor. Once Macaluso lets you in on the joke, though, amazement quickly flips to admiration and infectious amusement – you watch the glimmer in Macaluso's eye as he shuttles back and forth between roles, changing costumes onstage behind his cast-mates, all the while reveling in the ridiculous self-conscious witticisms of Gilbert and Sullivan’s writing.

The quintessential element of a Gilbert and Sullivan show (an element that Macaluso and his fellow cast members all aptly convey to the audience) is the wink-wink-nod-nod of cleverness. These two smarty-pants scribes aren’t simply clever, they are clever about the act of seeming clever; in other words, they satirize satire as much as they satirize anything else. Often, though, actors take this as an opportunity to put themselves above the story.

Macaluso, Nick Kauffman (an excellently satisfied Captain Corcoran played with the same sort of distorted contentment Ricky Gervais exudes in The Office), Billy Ernst (a slimy yet sympathetic Dick Deadeye), Paul Sigrist (a semi-dandy of a sailor), Jendi Tate (a fabulously fraught Josephine) and Max Miller (a dashing Ralph Rackstraw full of entirely on-the-spot, over-the-top male-lead swoons) all flesh out the action of the show by both acknowledging the satirical message while fully committing to the intricate quirks of their characters’ objectives. This cast is not above the story, but they may very well be beside it – their performances are high camp, not meta-criticism, thank God, and when they laugh, they laugh with the characters as well, and not solely with the librettists.

Dave Dalton, the show’s director, chose to shape this production on Gilbert and Sullivan’s follow-up publication The Pinafore Picture Book: The Story of H.M.S. Pinafore, instead of on the original show itself. While this choice would be fabulous if only for paring the production down to a svelte 90 minutes, the alternative source material also allowed Dalton, along with musical director Edward Barnes and choreographer Carrie Cimma, to reshape the entire show. High camp is no stranger to musical theater, but legitimate justification for high camp certainly is. By framing the production around a little girl’s favorite book, we enter into a world of boundless imagination, mirthful contrivance, and completely outlandish characters – in other words, the world of H.M.S. Pinafore – and we enter it alongside a child (played by a jubilant Sarah Hartley), willingly and without reservation.

It’s not often that a 130-year old production lives up to the hype it garnered more than a century ago. Plus they throw in seamen jokes, a falsetto-singing man in a bright red tutu and choreography that turns into a make-out session with dolls. Gilbert and Sullivan would be so proud.

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Sanford Meisner Theater (164 11th Avenue, between 22nd & 23rd St)
Tickets (, 212.352.3101): $18.00
Performances: March 5th through March 31st, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm, Sunday matinees at 5pm.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Talented: yes. Creative: most of the time. Creative enough to succeed on the competitive New York stage? It's hard to have an open-run of a dance-instrument-rhythm spectacle, especially when some of your content is aimed at an older audience. It may be drowned out by its more established peers, but until then, Be is pretty cool.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

OK, so maybe New Yorkers are a little jaded. But to open up a new dance/music/performance piece less than a mile from both Stomp and Blue Man Group, you really need to have a spectacle on your hands if you expect to stay. No-one's going to dispute the talent of Mayumana company (especially that of Boaz Berman and Aka Jean Claude Thiemele), but their latest work, Be, may be in trouble trying to find the right audience.

There are clever scenes involving flippers and guitars, and there's a marvelous piece involving glow-in-the-dark balls that soar in fast succession from invisible hands to invisible hands, like meteors being juggled to percussive music in the sky (a little night music indeed). There are some great feats involving the blisteringly swift percussive ability of co-creator Berman's patty cake maneuvers. And one moment, involving some glistening water and the sound created by a glass dunking and surfacing in rapid success, is a testament to the creativity, persistence, and passion of artists out there who refuse to let the world be mundane. There's even a beatboxing/drum number that relies on audience on participation to supply a few beats (it's harder than it looks). All of these things will appeal to the mindset of younger audiences, and it will excite their imagination, too.

There are a bunch of filler scenes too, ambling numbers that have slight punchlines, like one involving an tennis match with an invisible ball that the actors provide the sound effect for. And cool as the snaky and sinuous movements of expert drummers may be, when there is a lack of variation between the numbers -- that is, the only difference being the object used as the drum -- it ceases to fascinate, and simply bewilders. There's also a perhaps too great an emphasis on borrowed staging: Be needs to exist as a wholly original work, but a neon didgeridoo calls up Blue Man, some dumpster drumming revives Stomp, and one scene with a clunky, long-necked walk of some costumed aliens reminds us of the late Slava's Snowshow.

I suspect the real problem for Be will be in the rest of its content: stimulating as the aforementioned may be to younger crowds, the play also has a wide variety of erotic dancing, including a scene straight out of the party monster scene (white fur coat and underwear, nothing else), and one of the mundane objects called upon for sound is a giant bong. What's worse is that the scenes, while interesting to watch, have no cohesion with the rest of the show. Each segment lives independent of the others, and fascinating as it may be to leap from tribal song to primal dances to modern percussion to futuristic movement, the show is really just a hodgepodge of Mayumana's ideas.

The talent isn't a question: just watch the synchronized opening scene, which involves lots of minute movements to the ticking of a clock. The content, unfortunately, is; without a running theme or gimmick, Be is out of focus and quickly forgotten, and without the charm and personality of its New York rivals. Cirque du Solei changed their marketing to do burlesque work in Vegas, and De La Guarda delivered on specialized thrills for an older New York crowd. Be exists this moment, but unfortunately, I don't see it lasting for long.

Union Square Theater (100 E. 17th Street)
Tickets (212-505-0700): $20.00-$60.00
Performances: Tuesday-Friday @ 8; Sat. @ 7 & 10; Sun. @ 3 & 7

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Theatre Art Japan's It is said the men are over in The Steel Tower

From left to right: Josh Peters (Kogure), Christopher Loar (Jonouchi), and Gili Getz (Sasakura)

In this Japanese to English translation, The Happy Lads, a vaudeville troupe that escapes from guerrilla warfare to a nearby steel tower, pass the time and soothe their fears by incorporating an AWOL soldier into their comedy act. Unfortunately, what could have been a weighty piece with light overtones is thwarted by questionable casting, production elements that are too risky, and a general lack of entertainment value.


Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Japanese playwright Hideo Tsuchida's it is said the men are over in The Steel Tower has a great premise, but falls short on execution. In it, five men, 4 relief performers and one soldier, grapple with impending doom from deserting their military base by hashing out new bits for their comedy routine. At least that's what we're told. A heightened sense of danger, however, is never really created until the closing sequences, and as a result, the juxtaposition of the “humorous look at the nature of conflict” lacks an opposite for measure. That the dialogue is neither engaging nor humorous further slams an anvil down on the playwright's intentions.

The steel tower, designed in a most dismal, but aptly war-torn way by Tomoyuki Ikeda, should be a clear indicator of peril and a small ration of comfort. The actors and script, translated by M. Cody Poulton and adapted by Matthew Paul Olmos, work diligently to present the opposite. The opening scene, running for more than 15 minutes in snooze-inducing darkness, presents unintended lethargy in the actors where they should be at least moderately manic. The energy remains diffuse from there.

The fact that they're in a steel tower and the reasoning behind it should be immediately revealed. Instead, the dialogue meanders on without a particular aim other than to frustrate the audience. This does not bode well on a flashlight-lit stage that already dulls the senses. If Lighting Designer Rie Ono introduced this risky lighting choice after the characters had already been established, their identities wouldn't be so enshrouded in mystery and nonchalance. Also worth a second look is the sharpness of the light cues that do not allow for distinct scene changes.

The original Japanese names are retained for this production, and it is a strange choice because the cast is completely Caucasian. I'd prefer to see Japanese actors in this english translation, as Tsuchida's perspective would be preserved even if the original tongue isn't. Caucasian actors calling themselves “Jonouchi” and “Kamioka” is just too much of a stretch, even if actor Gili Getz (Sasakura) attemps to say the names with a Japanese inflection.

With very little action and no stimulus, It is said the men are over in The Steel Tower drags without a payoff. Although the sound effects by Udi Pladott are done well, his cricket chirps seem to be set to a timer, fading in and out without purpose. Originally titled “The Happy Lads”, the only thing lending itself to that name is their fun, but hokey theme music. Still, the title It is said the men are over in the Steel Tower is a mouthful that should be revisited. With so many structural issues in this production, there are far more things to be remedied than the semantics.


Through March 18th. TBG theatre:312 West 36th Street, 3rd Floor (Between 8th and 9th Avenue). Smart Tix: Phone (212) 868-4444 $18

The Director

The Director, premiering at The Flea Theater, is a woman's odyssey to regain her sense of self after falling prey to a notorious sexual predator. In a search for answers she pursues the women -many and from all walks of life -who also succumbed to his advances, and so ensues a psychological battle with her as pursued versus her as pursuer. This thriller will no doubt leave you breathless and wanting more. Go see it while you still can.

Reviewed by Kristyn R Smith

There is much The Director gets right. For starters, the acting is top notch. The Bats (resident company of The Flea Theater), an ensemble of eight women and two men, were excellent. The women, particularly, stand out. Partially because they carry the show; partially because I can't remember the last time I saw so many amazing actresses on one stage. It was a pleasure. So too was the commitment of this cast to their characters. All embodied their character every moment of the play. The physicality, glances, and other gestures of non verbal communication spoke volumes. That's important in a work centered on passion and sexual tension, but here it proved invaluable because so much is left unspoken.

I can appreciate playwrights seeking thinking audiences, provided there is something to think about. Barbara Cassidy generally excels here. One exception is the character Shoot. Shoot silently watches tv in one corner of the stage, while the audience take their seats and throughout most of the play. Except for a few brief interludes of comic relief, he does little more than stare blankly and take up space. I'm not certain of his purpose. I found his presence onstage distracting. Perhaps such a device would be better suited to a larger theater, where there's more space between this loafer and the action. However, this play isn't served by his presence.

The designers, by contrast, use the resources of play and theater to full advantage. The set, by Neal Wilkinson, lends an eerie tone to the piece; its multiple shadowy corners allow for characters to instantly emerge and disappear. The video design too was quite masterful and certainly a highlight of the show. Without revealing too much, all I can say is I found the last video clip haunting, both in content and style. I think the play would have benefited from more. After all the designers had two large wall sections for video projections, and the title character, the subject of nearly every discussion in the play, was a film director. Perhaps that will come about in future incarnations of this work.

Even without the added video, there is great beauty in this production through its attention to detail and bold approach to a disturbing reality. Cassidy takes a penetrating look at victim and victimizer, shedding light on issues such as sexual harassment, rape, child molestation, lesbianism and male and female stereotypes. That alone more than pays for admission. But when you also consider the performers and production value, the total is well, priceless.

The Director runs through March 31
at The Flea Theater
41 White Street
between Broadway and Church St
Tickets are $20
Call 212-352-3101 for reservations