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, June 30, 2007

Mr. A’s Amazing Maze Plays

As much fun as you can hope for on a late night out in midtown, Mr. A’s Amazing Maze Plays entirely lives up to its name.

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Reviewed by Cait Weiss


Before we delve into content and quality, let’s play a game of Pros and Cons with Mr. A’s Amazing Maze Plays, okay?

Pros: The play was advertised as one-hour long without an intermission. Fabulous.

Cons: The play began at 10:30pm on a Friday night. Wait, scratch that. The play was supposed to begin at 10:30pm on a Friday night, but instead, at 10:30pm, the Chashama was still playing host to Dark of the Moon, a play written by Howard Richardson and William Berney.

Pros: From the sidewalk at 10:30 at night, you could see into the Chashama’s main window and more or less watch another play entirely for free.

Cons: That play, Dark of the Moon, included what looked (from the other side of the windowpane) a fair amount of awkward interpretive dance and very, very skimpy pants.

Pros: I guess you could put the dance and pants here too, if that’s your thing, but, honestly, at 10:30pm on a Friday night standing at 42nd Street and Third, well, I wasn’t about to stand and ovate for metaphorical jazz hands and minuscule chaps.

Cons: Once finally seated in the theater, we were waylaid another half-hour for some unexplained reason.

Pros: The cast and crew filled up the time by handing out free wine and Coors Light (something they should definitely discuss with the major airlines of America).

Once the play actually began, around 11:15pm, I was not ready to enjoy myself. I had been teased, liquored up and put on hold, and this really wasn’t my absolute favorite way of starting a weekend. I braced myself for disappointment.

Oh, how could I have been so wrong?

The Ateh Theater Group’s production of Mr. A’s Amazing Maze Plays is perhaps the most delightful show I’ve ever seen Off-Broadway. The cast’s energy is infectious, and, for a young group, the actors were able to be playful and ridiculous without seeming at all self-indulgent – quite an impressive feat.

The production, directed by Carlton Ward, is enchanting. Ward tends to veer towards a more meta reading of Alan Ayckbourn’s script and these ballsy choices pay off – the play begins with the actors literally shoving one another out of the way as soon as a role is introduced by our narrators (the hilarious Ben Wood and incandescent Sara Montgomery), evoking memories from improv workshops and investing the play with a sense of freshness and vivacity that eludes all but the most rewarding mainstream theater.

Once the parts have been divvied up, we get the storyline. Suzy (played by the formidably expressive Alexis Malone) lives in England with her mother, Mother (played by the long-legged Madeleine Maby), and her dog, Neville (played by the inexhaustible Charley Layton). Soon a stranger moves into the deserted mansion next-door. Mr. Accousticus (played by Ryan Tresser) is that stranger. Finally Ms. Passerby, a drunk has-been played Elizabeth Neptune (also the play’s jaunty pianist), rounds out the cast of characters and polishes off the whisky while she’s at it.

Tresser and Neptune stand out as the show-stealers, as much because of their one-upmanship for absurdity as for the fabulously odd material with which Ayckbourn has blessed them. Still, Malone’s stiff upper lip is enough to make even the deaf old woman in the back crack a smile, and both Layton and Maby emanate likability onstage.

Eventually the plot line leads us all into a maze – and I say “us all” because we really are involved here. Our narrators ask us where Neville and Suzy should go each time there’s an option, at one point following our advice so far as to kick the two out of the theater and back on to 42nd Street. Thank goodness we came to our sense and voted them all back in, or we would have missed the madcap culmination of an hour’s worth of incredibly good fun. And that would have been nothing but one massive Con.

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Chashama (217 East 42nd Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenue)
Tickets (www.smarttix.com 1-212-868-4444): $10.00
Performances: May 25th through August 3rd.



No End Of Blame

A passionately intellectual epic that's the all-too-real story of a political cartoonist's struggle with conformity, Howard Barker's No End Of Blame is an excitingly smart play about art, life, and the highs and lows of both.

Photo/Stan Barouh

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

"Cartoon is the lowest form of art," says Bela Veracek, a political cartoonist loosely modeled on Victor Weisz (or perhaps Philip Zee). "And the most important one." It's the latter half of this insightful statement that director Richard Romagnoli has gone with, for there's nothing low about Potomac Theatre Project's revival of Howard Barker's excellent epic No End Of Blame. Bolstered by the menacing ink of Bela's work (actually that of Gerald Scarfe), projected against an otherwise blank canvas, every ounce of this production is as carefully considered as Barker's meticulous word choice (most obvious in a scene with a cultural "critic" in Russia).

The play opens with Veracek as the most unlikely of heroes: conscripted in the Hungarian army during World War I, his logical mind tries to explain how rape might be "considerate" in certain circumstances. Though Bela's strong opinions become more acceptable (and accessible, as the play stretches through World War II into the '70s), the world around him continues to judge him as a rebel. What's fascinating about Barker's sharply satirical prose and Romagnoli's direction is how this strong personality is used to make the rest of the world a constant reflection of its own nonsense: well-mannered Russian communists try to make Bela conform in the same Inquisition-like fashion as angry loyalists to the British Royal Air Force, the pompous politicians of Churchill's party, and even the neutral professors of a Budapest art school. No End Of Blame succeeds in making Bela the hero by pitting the world against his cartoons; even as his strongest supporters fade, like Bob Stringer, his editor at the Daily Mirror, and his one friend, Grigor Gabor runs off with his wife, Ilona, Bela's art -- thick lines blown up in the background -- stands for something truer than what it represents.

No End Of Blame also features a topnotch ensemble, a cast of thirteen who are capable of showing the broad changes from era to era in Bela's journey from idealism to suicide. Alex Draper is a standout as Bela, a man so wrapped up in himself that his treats his wife's affair with patient stoicism and his own critics with nonchalant dismissals, but he's well-assisted by Christopher Duva, who plays both his innocent friend, Grigor, and, later, the unctuous censor Frank Deeds, and people like Alex Cranmer and Peter B. Schmitz, who give substance to even tangential roles, like the two PCs who fish Bela out of the river after he jumps. In their hands, Barker's debate-heavy script becomes engaging, escaping the leadenness of other intellectual plays. They also manage to find the darkness behind the politeness and match drama to the exposition, without ever seeming to emote.

The emotion of No End Of Blame is all in the passion and the struggle for culture, but even those looking for standard physical drama will get caught up in the nuanced presentation by the Potomac Theatre Project. "Give us a pencil," cries Bela, as he passes the struggle on to another generation, but he should demand more. This play is worth so much more than a pencil.

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The Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16th Street)
Tickets (800-838-3006): $18.00
Performances: 6/30 @ 8 | 7/1 @ 3 & 7:30 | 7/6 @ 8 | 7/7 @ 3 & 8 | 7/11, 7/12, 7/13 @ 8

No End of Blame

A passionate political cartoonist travels through Europe after World War I, incensed by the resignation of those in his path and forcing confrontation with the aftermath. Howard Barker's No End of Blame is a crowning achievement for the playwright in and of itself, but the Potomac Theatre Project's masterful handling of the material puts a well-deserved feather in their own cap.

Photo by Stan Barouh

Alex Draper as Bela Veracek in No End of Blame

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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre


Is art meant to serve society, or is it a vehicle to serve the arrogance of the artist? Or, can it be both? Dramatist and Poet Howard Barker tackles this philosophical argument with tenacity and intelligence in No End of Blame, the Potomac Theatre Project's latest New York production. It is a topic that is intrinsic to Barker, having devoted a large part of his body of work to the understanding of how art is forged and the factors of its composition. For Barker, pain is a necessity to art, a manufacturer as well as an extension cord, and Bela Veracek (an excellent Alex Draper), the protagonist of No End of Blame, does not escape this paradigm.

Loosely based on German cartoonist Victor Weisz, Veracek has endured all and seen all, accompanied for the better part of his journey by Grigor Gabor (the magnanimous and skillful Christopher Duva, reminiscent of Scottish actor Kevin McKidd). The opening of the play explodes with the conclusion of combat, but not the conclusion of callousness and depravity. It is here that we are first exposed to the comrades, bound by the love of artistic expression and the rigors of war. Although the identification of the lead character is not immediate in this scene, both characters frame their proceedings well, Veracek as desperate and Gabor as restrainer. While neither exhibits the proper conduct, with Gabor drawing a nude, Romanian captive and Veracek attempting to rape her, together, they manage to help each other retain humanity.

Brilliantly directed by Richard Romagnoli, the show uses multimedia components such as film reels to condense the multiple settings (the Carpathian mountains, Budapest, Moscow, London) that span over 50 years, and to display both the caustic cartoons of Veracek (Gerald Scarfe) and the preferred drawings of Gabor (Clare Shenstone). After being expelled from art school, Veracek leaves Gabor behind to embark on his quest for societal unrest and blaze his trail as a nihilist. Veracek soon learns that nihilism is hard, lonely work.

Sharp, witty and purpose-driven, Barker's dialogue is as thrilling as the turmoil on Veracek's face and person. In the face of opposition from newspapers, organizations, and friends, he is fearless and relentless. His critics dare him to not only fight complacency in Europe, but to tell the full, raw truth. For his cartoons are poignant, but generalized, centered on the broad issues but not divulging of anything new. For them, Veracek not only had a responsibility to denounce the war, but he also needed to expound on the smaller scale, the soldiers and their families, etc. They urged Veracek to surpass critiquing and assign the blame. That, in turn, would give rise to the real revolution when the people “grew tired of thought”, and were compelled to act.

The supporting ensemble is fantastic, lending skepticism and hilarity to Veracek's pursuits. Megan Byrne, similar in technique and appearance to actress Patricia Clarkson, is inspired in her four roles, from decadent Stella to the unpredictable Tea Lady. Although Veracek and Gabor do not age sufficiently in appearance for the half-century time frame, the actors wax poetically with wisdom and experience garnered with time.

Art, although deliberated over for centuries, is a difficult concept to define. It is not solely a means to be free or a means to be accountable. Neither one can be divorced from the other. Even in Veracek's tirades against greatness over importance, there is hubris. The proclaimed ability to reproduce beauty or what is extraordinary is itself, arrogant. The role of the artist is one loaded with obligations to society, but it is through self-service that he or she is engendered. Veracek experiences both tangible war with World War I and internal war with his emotions. It is a beautiful, tragic war that this production handles with pride and soul.

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Through July 13th. TICKETS: $18, 1-800-838-3006. Atlantic Stage 2: 330 West 16th Street, New York, NY 10011

Friday, June 29, 2007

Politics of Passion

In Politics of Passion, playwright Minghella sets out to prove silence is golden. Too bad he's got such a stunning way with words, or he might actually have won his point...

Laren Turner Kiel and MacCleod Andrews in Hang Up,
the first of three plays featured in Poltics of Poetics.


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Reviewed by Cait Weiss

Talk is cheap. That seems to be the message behind most of Anthony Minghella’s brilliant vignettes – everyone has something to say, but no one hears it the way it’s intended. Actions may speak louder than words, but, in this world at least, the silences practically bellow.

The Potomac Theatre Project’s production of Politics of Passion, a series of short plays written by Minghella (best known, perhaps, as the screenwriter and director of The English Patient and Cold Moutain), consists of three short plays and (miracle of miracles!) no intermission. It’s a tight, compelling and utterly enjoyable ninety minutes of verbosity in vain, and, under the smart and economical direction of Cheryl Faraone, the production is pretty much all you can ask from a night out at the theater.

The first of the three plays, Hang Up, follows a couple attempting to withstand the trials and tribulations of the eleventh plague, also known as The Long Distance Relationship. MacLeod Andrews, as He, is fabulous – all the minute frustrations of love via phone line come through in his slightly strained syllables and wistful pauses. As She, played by Lauren Turner Kiel, slowly breaks his heart, Andrews' body language alone contains the constant inarticulate debate of mistrust, hope, longing and frustration that his words can never accurately communicate. With staging reminiscent of the young romantics’ window scene in Our Town, Faraone replaces the Stage Manager with a dial tone. In Hang Up, Minghella touchingly refits courtship into an environment of telephones, static and, above all, dropped connections.

In Truly, Madly, Deeply, a scene taken from Minghella’s film of the same name, distance is no longer the central tension; if anything here is making the characters uncomfortable, it’s proximity that’s the culprit. This short one act follows a couple on the rare first date where awkwardness is replaced by the purely ridiculous. With Julia Proctor and Michael Wrynn Doyle as Nina and Mark, respectively, the scene takes off without much explanation – she is rushing off to another appointment as he waits with roses in the middle of a city park. We soon learn the two were supposed to have their first date, but she’s been called away. A bit overbearing in his own bear-hug self-help kind of way, Mark eventually gets the girl, if not to have and to hold, at least to open up a little before she leaves. He wins her over, oddly enough, by requiring her to hop on one foot while she tells him about herself. The couple is communicating here, but not through their words; instead, their bond is clearly based in the absurdity of action, not the banal recounting of their personal histories. With Truly, Madly, Deeply, Minghella reveals once again the complete irrelevancy of language to communication; this time, though, we get a silver lining – the whole world of hope held in a single silly hop.

The final segment of Politics of Passion, Cigarettes and Chocolate, literalizes Minghella’s theories on the value of silence. Gemma, played by the beautifully stone-faced Cassidy Freeman, gives up language for reasons we don’t learn until the very end. The play begins with a series of phone messages from her friends, Lorna, Alistair, and Gail, and her lover, Rob. As Gemma gradually recedes into her own wordless calm, the other characters can’t help but be pulled in after her. It’s as if silence is a black hole, an abyss into something deeper than words can offer, but an abyss with an enormous gravitational pull. Everyone who comes near Gemma’s silence finds themselves confessing. By seeking solace in the inarticulate, Gemma is only met with more words.

The cast of Cigarettes and Chocolate is wonderfully strong – with James Matthew Ryan (Rob) and Jessie Hooker (Alistair) as standouts. Perhaps Ryan’s performance is too much of a standout, though. By the end of Cigarettes and Chocolate, Minghella seems to want us to side with Gemma, to see silence as a revolution in and of itself, to see language as the weapon in petty conflict. However, with Ryan’s emanating intelligence, his glib alternation of half-snear and half-smile, and his sheer stage presence, we see the glory and glimmer in the well-placed word. Yes, Gemma has her silence, and all the power that refusal to speak contains. But in the end, silence is just that – a refusal, a negative, a lack.

As much as Minghella wants to preach against language, his form under cuts his function and, with characters like Rob pulsing with both poetics and passion (even if he can only speak with tongue partially jammed in cheek), the reality behind these relationships becomes clear: language is not litter piled upon an eternity of hush. Instead, silence is a language in and of itself, as messy and deceptive as speech. But at least the words can entertain you.

That’s more than you can say for ninety minutes of silence, intermission or no.

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Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16th Street between 8th and 9th Avenue)
Tickets (www.brownpapertickets.com 1-800-838-3006): $18.00
Performances: June 20th through July 14th, Tue 6/26 at 8pm, Fri 6/29 at 8pm, Sat 6/30 at 3pm; Mon 7/2 at 8pm; Tues 7/3 at 8pm; Thu 7/5 at 8pm; Sun 7/8 at 3pm and 7:30pm, Tue 7/10 at 8pm; Sat 7/14 at 3pm and 8pm.

Politics of Passion: Plays of Anthony Minghella

Lauren Turner Kiel and MacLeod Andrews in Hang Up.

The Potomac Theatre Project returns to New York with Politics of Passion, a production of three Anthony Minghella shorts from the '80s. As exhibited in his movies, heavy emotion is standard Minghella fare, but these playlets are the theatrical equivalent of a culinary amuse bouche-a small bite of food before the real meal begins: amusing but light on impression.
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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Believe it or not, the screenwriter for such movies as The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain once dabbled in the theatrical arts, penning the one-act plays from the '80s that comprise Politics of Passion. Presented by The Potomac Theatre Company as its first seasonal effort in New York since 1986, Politics of Passion is a collection of Anthony Minghella's musings on love, responsibility and earnestness. However, whether short on thought completion or short on running time, each are commentaries rather than full explorations of their given subjects.


Hang Up, the first one-act of the evening, involves a phone conversation between a couple distant in emotion and location. The piece is staged with Lauren Turner Kiel (She) perched atop a ladder, giving the charming actress a visual upper hand that mimics her character's power in the relationship. Hang up deliberates over themes of romantic possession and dysfunction, but does so with gray dialogue that MacLeod Andrews (He) peppers with flavor.


Truly, Madly, Deeply, a snippet from the movie of the same title, intersects Hang Up's ending with the energetic performance of Julia Proctor (Nina) and Michael Wrynn Doyle (Mark). Putting the hypothetical into action, the play ponders the possibility of summarizing one's essence in the time it takes to hop from one block to the next. However, this piece has no real beginning or end, and the romance at its conclusion seems contrived.


The final piece, Cigarettes and Chocolate, is the meatiest of the evening both in running time and in substance. Cassidy Freeman plays Gemma, the protagonist who decides to stop speaking, with control and sensitivity. The decision dumbfounds, enrages, and saddens her friends and boyfriend. The cast of this piece deserves applause overall, particularly since they overcome director Cheryl Faraone's choice to have them emote as Gemma listens to their recorded voice messages. Also a poor choice is to have the cast of seven present onstage at all times, enabling the fluidity of scene changes but making the actors look like sitting ducks until they are active in a scene. James Matthew Ryan as her boyfriend Rob and Tara Giordano as her friend Lorna are particularly noteworthy as the backstabbers in her life. Although the dialogue is talky and the theme is anything but subtle, Cigarettes and Chocolate does well to demonstrate that silence breeds lucidity and talking can sometimes be unintended gibberish. Not only does Gemma care about social issues in the broader sense, but she also contributes to social awareness within her own microcosm.


Because of the disparity in the running times, Politics of Passion comes off as an uneven presentation of Minghella's mediocre stage work. It is a sincere look at the reflections that preceded his film work, but nothing here, apart from Truly, Madly, Deeply, is a reasonable precursor to his later, epic work.
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Through July 14th. Atlantic Stage 2: 330 West 16th Street New York, NY 10011
Tickets: 1-800-838-3006 $18

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Dark of the Moon

It's been said by Bob Dylan that "well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody." A witchboy labors over having to choose in his quest for love and becoming human in Thirsty Turtle Productions' well-rehearsed and carefully executed version of Dark of the Moon. The Chashama is transformed into a mythical playground with a bounty of visuals where physical actors thrive in this 2 hour, message-laden presentation.
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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre


Ululating voices and the sounds of "zip, zop, zap" permeate the space as the cast of fifteen prepare emotionally and physically for their performance in Howard Richardson and William Berney's Dark of the Moon. It is a seemingly lawless scene, with contradictory costumes and a disregard for the assembling audience.

Order replaces disorder as the lights come up and the background sound effects by Duncan Cutler and Meg McCrossen, live percussion, hissing and deep breathing alike, rise in crescendo from offstage. Although lulling, they compete with the action developing onstage, but only for a moment as they blend into the scene.

Witchboy John (an impetuous and entertaining Noah Dunham) approaches Conjur Man and Conjur Woman with a weighty request: transform me into a human. He is motivated by love for Barbara Allen (angelic Sarah Hayes Donnell), a flaxen-haired, beautiful mortal that has captured his bewitched heart. The 7-feet tall Conjur beings by Puppet Designer Dakotah West are aesthetically arresting, each covered in elaborate mesh and veils and represented by four actors uttering dialogue in layered but unified tones. The request, rejected by Conjur man with stern warnings, is granted by Conjur woman with greater warnings still and a price: Barbara Allen must marry and remain faithful to him for a year, or he will return to his seething, growling, baying at the moon origin. To complicate matters, John is opposed in his desires by his former cohorts Dark Witch (Dennis X. Tseng) and Fair Witch (Renee Delio), as they skulk and trail his every move, willing him to fail and return to wickedness and loneliness. He doesn't fare any better with Barbara Allen's clan, a zealous, Christian bunch that are hip to his sorcery and aim to stamp it out, at least where their derided, wanton Barbara Allen is concerned.

Loosely based on an old European folk song "The Ballad of Barbara Allen", Richardson and Berney's interpretation of the character Barbara Allen is more invested in John than the oral tale is. John's love is unrequited in most versions, and it isn't until his death that her interest stirs. Here, Barbara Allen defends John fiercely, believes in him wholeheartedly, and is more sympathetic and victimized than her predecessor. Her persona, as exhibited by Donnell, is not quite as carnal, although there is much in the script to retain this part of her character such as public knowledge of her tendency to masturbate furiously, and her relationship with Marvin Hudgens (scrappy Matthew Hadley). The witches here are not only in practice of the dark arts, but a supernatural meld of animal, tempter, and performance artist, and their roles are tackled vigorously by Tseng (Thirsty Turtle Executive Director) and Delio. Decadence is not spared in this stylized production, and John's affinity for his past seems impossible to shake.

Under Ian Crawford's direction, the cast capitalizes on Chashama's stage, spilling unto the sides and challenging even the stage's steps to contain their enthusiasm while never missing a beat. Emily French uses a bare-bones, practical stage design with pots, pans, spoons and tools to create the illusion of the Appalachian mountain setting. In conjunction with lighting designer James Bedell, the stage is illuminated creatively with a string of light bulbs in mason jars. The in-your-face action is constant and loud with fun, folk sing-alongs, harmonies and even a Christian revival to solidify the valley's dogma.

John learns quickly that being human isn't a cakewalk, and Barbara Allen braves hostility to have a husband. But why? John could have enjoyed Barbara Allen's affections without committing to humanity, and one of his feet always remains rooted in witchhood, as he is reluctant to swear allegiance to Jesus and forbidden to step foot into a church. Also, his thirst for his perch near the moon and soaring with the eagles doesn't subside even after he acquires her in marriage. Barbara Allen, although urged by her family and friends to marry, never seems discontent without a husband. Why forsake her Christian upbringing without a second thought to marry a man who needs "time enough later to get salvation?" Both John and Barbara Allen try their best to serve two masters, but the script does not qualify their venture into this struggle.

Dark of the Moon is a tragic look at our dueling natures, and the opposition encountered when favoring one over the other. Less saccharine than Romeo and Juliet but emulating it in some respects, the suggestion that the support of your friends and family is needed in order to survive is implicit. Here, notions of of good and evil are examined, with some ironic results. "Ain't no changing a witch to a man", the script's translation of a leopard doesn't change its spots, is made true here, even if the decision is made by others with barbarity. The relevance that this piece has to what has been perceived as religious strong-arming in politics today is a little more than passing. But it is a thrilling ride to that conclusion.
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Through July 7th. Chashama: 217 East 42nd street, NY, NY 10017. http://www.smarttix.com/ $15






Friday, June 22, 2007

Badge

This dark comedy slips a stitch in its second act with the tale of a stunted adolescent.

By Ellen Wernecke

“You’re 28 and you’re still in the Boy Scouts?” That pretty much sums up Roy (Greg McFadden), the protagonist of “Badge” at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Roy lives to earn his badges even as his scout master (Darrell James) is looking for a way to politely tell him he’s too old. When a gorgeous drifter (Tara Falk) shows up to borrow some money, Roy gets a little distracted for the first time since his last girlfriend killed herself. It’s enough to distract him from his new house-cleaning job on the Upper East Side… and maybe from his meds.

“Badge” packs the stage with jollies aplenty, but when these crazier characters take the stage, “Badge” sputters to a halt. Roy, as addled as he is, can’t compete with the scenery-chewing former socialite (Glynis Bell) and the blustering cop (James again). He just can’t hold his own, and as he fades, so does our interest. Having seen the entire play, this seems to be writer Matthew Schneck’s point; but Roy’s peculiar foibles are never completely explained or even fully explored.

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“Badge”
Beacon NY Productions
Through July 1
Rattlestick Theatre, 224 Waverly Place (@7th Ave.)
Shows Mon, Wed - Sat at 8pm; Sun at 3pm
Tickets $18, SmartTix.com

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The House of Bernarda Alba

The Manhattan Theatre Source succeeds yet again with a meticulous production of The House of Bernarda Alba, Federico Garcia Lorca's classic play about matriarchal tyranny preceding the Spanish Civil War. Although the scene changes are choppy and the cast of 16 sometimes dwarfs the stage, the beautiful set design, firm direction and catty dialogue effects an enthralling experience. Joy Seligsohn, Stephanie Schmiderer and Joy Franz
Photo/Margeaux Baulch
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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre


Renowned actress Joy Franz (Into the Woods) strikes terror into the hearts of her oppressed daughters in the title role in Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba. Her will as a dictator with a demand for cleanliness and virtue is imposed upon us well before she graces us with her stately presence. The Maid (Maitely Weismann), a dispensable character due to underuse, sweeps and preps the stage fastidiously not only for the action that ensues, but most importantly for the perfectionist that she must please.

For all the anticipation, The House of Bernarda Alba begins quietly under Kia Roger's belated light cue. Apart from scene changes that should be shrouded in more darkness, the remainder of Roger's lighting design is punctual and wonderfully somber.

As an autono-mother raising automatons, Joy Franz is a force to be reckoned with, particularly since the recent death of her husband makes her the sole disciplinarian. However, the scenes that she shares with Olivia Lawrence as Poncia, her subordinate but flippant challenger, are volleys in the craft of acting. Lawrence, channeling Rita Moreno, is marvelous as the second warden of honor in the house, but luckily for Bernarda's daughters, her rule is more forgiving. Poncia maintains her dignity even in the midst of Bernarda's social affronts, and as a confidante, she is trustworthy.

Drew Bellware's sound effects are haunting, with Gregorian chants to match Ed McNamee's cathedral doors and authentic vines snaked around poles. And it is the sound of a horse repeatedly striking the stable walls in demand of freedom that supersedes the power of all exposition or performance to cater to its acquisition.

Religious zeal abounds in this drama, as exhibited by prayers that are helmed by a six-member chorus. Clad in black and chanting in unison with the key players, the chorus seems larger than life for the MTS stage, and perhaps should be scaled down to accommodate the space.

Chaos runs amok where there purports to be order. The spinsters and would-be spinsters, all unmarried because they outranked their past suitors, are in an uproar when Pepe El Romano, the most eligible bachelor in town, pursues Angustias (Stephanie Schmiderer), the oldest, sickliest and most homely of the siblings. Of course, this 39-year old has the largest "carat" to dangle on a stick, and her ne'er be subtle half-sisters (Angustias has a different father) kindly prick her with that fact. Unbeknownst to Angustias, her more appealing younger sister Adela (a delightful Benita Robledo) burns in a passionate affair with her betrothed. Suffering from ennui and suppressed passions, and worse yet, an 8-year mourning period inflicted upon them by Bernarda where they are confined to the house, these women are all powder kegs waiting for the slightest flicker of fire. Their tongues, spiked with jealousy and bitterness, spew biting remarks that separate station, wealth, youth and beauty. The possibility of escape looms near, and everybody wants it, particularly since doom incarnate resides in the house as their delirious grandmother, Maria Josefa (Joy Seligsohn). Yet, like crabs in a barrel, no one is allowed to crawl out.

The sisters are all lively performers, but only Robledo commits to the Spanish accent with the trill of each r. The cast thrives under the strong direction of Kathleen O'Neill, fluctuating from order to relaxed movement in sometimes a single swoop. This 90-minute production evokes Laura Esquivel's Mexican drama Like Water for Chocolate in style and theme. Joy Franz even looks like Regina Torne, the matriarch in the film, with the severe blond coiffure and steely manner.

With indecency being curbed right outside her door and her self-proclaimed clairvoyance, it is ironic that Bernarda cannot see what is brewing right inside her home. Yet, it is this very flaw in her perfect order that makes her absolute rule fallible. And the manner in which this great production handles the consequences is the substance of compelling theater.
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Through June 30th. Manhattan Theatre Source, 177 MacDougal Street, NY NY. $18 Tickets: http://www.theatermania.com/ or 212-352-3101

Dark of the Moon

Rarely professionally staged, Dark of the Moon—a mythical story of witches and farmers set in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina—enjoyed a run on Broadway in the 1940s and has since lived on mainly in high school, college and community theaters. Thirsty Turtle Production’s take on this classically problematic play conjures up a cohesive and atmospheric look at the perils of prejudice and unquestioning adherence to religious dogma.

Reviewed by Ilena George

A Southern Gothic fairy tale with a dark side worthy of a Shirley Jackson story, Dark of the Moon offers a kind of story-telling that feels much larger and more epic than the space it's housed in might suggest. Based loosely on the 17th century folk song "The Ballad of Barbara Allen," Dark of the Moon presents a Romeo and Juliet-esque story about a woman and a witch-boy who fall in love and pursue a doomed relationship that both humans and witches oppose. John the witch-boy (Noah Dunham) makes a deal with Conjur Woman, an old woman with magical powers, who agrees to make him human for one year with the stipulation that he may remain human only if the beautiful (and loosely moralled) Barbara Allen (Sarah Hayes Donnell) stays faithful to him for one year. John must learn to live like a man—chopping wood, caring for his wife—but is forbidden to enter a church, which will almost instantly cast suspicion on him in the highly religious community he attempts to penetrate.

Atmospherically, the production uses simple sound and lighting tricks to great effect, from a string of lightbulbs in mason jars during a lightning and thunder-filled barn dance to rain sticks and an eerie plinking percussion during the scenes with Conjur Man and Woman. Hands down the best new take on the play was the decision to represent Conjur Man and Conjur Woman with seven foot tall wire and cloth puppets, helmed by four actors apiece. Appearing in the first scene of the play, their otherworldliness and mythic proportions set the tone for what followed.

Some other innovations worked less well: at the beginning of the second act, when John's witchly (and wicked) compatriots draw him out to cavort with them, the heavy black drapery blocking the light from chashama's 42nd street-facing windows was pulled back and the goings-on inside theater were visible to passers-by. A risky and gutsy move, to be sure, but one that detracted from the show for its "You're on Candid Camera" prankiness.

Crawford's direction and the strong cast of vivid characters nimbly avoid many of the play's pitfalls. The townspeople as a whole, and in particular the terrifically smarmy Preacher Haggler (Jake Thomas), optimistic and flirtatious Ms. Metcalf (Jessica Howell) and Barbara Allen’s bellicose jilted lover Marvin Hudgens (Matthew Hadley), take what could have been two-dimensional characters and instead provide a chilling portrait of how fear, prejudice, and the hive mentality can push an otherwise vibrant community into terrible acts. The witches provide creepiness during the first act, but the humans dish it out in the second with the evocative and unsettling scene where Barbara Allen gives birth and the religious revival where the town sanctifies rape in the name of God.

One spot where the play does occasionally falter is with the overabundance of rural, folk-speech that easily tips over into ridiculousness. Between the dozens of uses of "I reckon" to the many "that don't make no never mind," as well as references to stereotypically hick practices—drinking moonshine made from corn, eating squirrel meat and so forth—the play becomes, at times, difficult to take seriously. This isn’t helped by the play’s odd pacing, where scenes with fighting, singing and magic will be interspersed with scenes that barely further the plot. But the strength of the two leads—who are completely riveting to watch—the often joyous (if sometimes oddly timed) musical interludes of folksy songs, spirituals and ballads combined with the unexpectedly thought-provoking themes and images that give the play life, make Dark of the Moon worth taking a chance on.

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Dark of the Moon
By Howard Richardson and William Berney
Directed and adapted by Ian Crawford
Collective P.A.S.T. @ chashama (217 East 42nd Street)
June 15th through July 7th
Tickets ($15): Smarttix.com or 212-279-4200

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Saint Joan of the Stockyards

Thanks to Lear deBessonet's mechanically playful direction, Justin Townsend's jaunty industrial set, Ralph Manheim's lucid and lively translation, and two great leads (Kristen Sieh and Richard Toth), Bertolt Brecht's Saint Joan of the Stockyards is stirring up a theatrical revolution over at PS122. Well, perhaps it's not all as violent or original as that, but it is fresh and powerful, and well worth seeing.

Photo/Rachel Roberts
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Bertolt Brecht was an intentionally alienating author who saw theater as a means to educate the masses. That makes Lear deBessonet one of those inspirational teachers who lights up a classroom with out-of-the-box activities. It doesn't seem challenging at all: her text, Ralph Manheim's revised translation of Saint Joan of the Stockyard, has dialogue that pops and sizzles, especially on the bloody floor of the meat-market (a primal stock exchange). Her cast, eight talented performers (albeit a few with weak "substitute teacher"-like moments), jump from playing the oppressed to being the oppressors with an eager grace. And her set, sandwiched by the audience, is a juddering industrial strip of thick barrels, swinging beams, suspended chalkboards, and slippery wires. (After seeing this, there's no doubt that Greg Kotis pulled some of Urinetown from Saint Joan, but looking at the design, it seems like Justin Townsend stole the gritty style right back.) It's still a communistic manifesto, but one that's punctuated with snipes at organized religion and mechanized humanity.

The story recasts Jeanne d'Arc, the martyred girl who followed her visions and led a revolution, as Joan Dark, a member of the Black Straw Hats, a religious relief group. While sharing what is more rainwater than soup with the poor stockyard workers, Slift (an oily Mike Crane), demonstrates the base nature of the workers: women like Mrs. Luckerniddle (Kate Benson) sell their outrage for food, while others deceive strangers into doing dangerous work for their own benefit. But Joan, so wonderfully innocent (as played by the excellent Kristen Sieh), argues that baseness has not been shown, only poverty: in this case, "righteous indignation is too expensive." Meanwhile, her rival, the meat-king Mauler, tries to reform his ways, deeply affected by Joan and the no-longer-invisible poor; Richard Toth, who plays this role, manages the sincerity required to validate Brecht's underlying sarcasm, and the righteousness necessary to balance Joan's crusade. We almost agree with him when he says that "money is a way of making things better, if only for the few." Finally, there's the sycophantic Snyder (a melodic Peter McCain), a minister who is quick to shun the poor when faced with an eviction notice: "If the Lord can't pay his rent, he'll have to move out."

In line with Brecht's style, a variety of effects are used by deBessonet to keep the audience at a distance: Mauler often speaks from a high platform or from within a glass house, and Joan is often seized with an evangelical passion that makes her vibrate across the stage (in the depressing second act, she mourns interpretively in place). There's also a slew of country songs by Kelley McRae that stir up with the masses, clash against the rich, and ultimately ebb into the background with a tender, somber hush. However, deBessonet's high theatrical style actually makes the story more accessible, especially the intimate choice to keep Joan on stage and in character through the intermission, shivering in a tiny sliver of light. Even the dimly lit second act, which makes the wide set into one long cinematic shadow, actually keeps us in touch with our needlessly suffering heroine. The avante-garde isn't eccentric enough anymore, except for perhaps in the harshly satirical conclusion, which crucifies, saints, and distorts Joan all in the same heavily choreographed number.

Saint Joan of the Stockyards, which marks the premiere of the Culture Project's three-week Women Center Stage festival, is a fusion of culture, politics, high theater, and hip style. The tennis-court staging, cool as it is, does unfortunately obstruct some of the views, and the start of the show is largely underwhelming, as if it's too caught up in the possibilities of the stage as a playground, or confused about what to do with a live musician on the stage. But deBessonet, as she usually does, finds her balance quickly, and delivers a strong adaptation of the dense Brecht, as much a spoon-fed sonata as a dust-dwelling dirge.

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Performance Space 122 (150 First Avenue)

Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00

Performances (through 7/1): Wed. - Sun. @ 8 | Sat. @ 3

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Jump/Rope

Jump/Rope follows the web of deception that entangles three men and leads to the downfall of one.

Reviewed by Eric Miles Glover

Since the single Kurt receives the short end of the stick from Cupid all the time, he wants to transform his sexual relationship with the attached Alex into a substantive one. However, Alex does not want to end his relationship with his partner, Martin. As a result, Kurt attempts to seduce Martin in hopes that the couple will separate. It then becomes clear through flashback and revelation that Alex and Martin are real masters of manipulation.

John Kuntz wrote a sophisticated thriller that captures and keeps attention. Moreover, Kuntz, who performs the role of "Kurt," provides subtle humor that compliments the unsubtle sarcasm of Nathan Flower's "Martin" and Bill Mootos's "Alex." The inspired direction of Douglas Mercer utilizes innovative dramatic techniques to stage scenes. One of the best chronicles separate interactions between Kurt and Alex and Kurt and Martin at the same time. For example, while all three men inhabit the same space at the same time, distinct changes in lighting and movement alert the theatergoer to changes in location and time. Moreover, the creative arts contributions of set designer Arnulfo Maldonado, costume designer Valerie Marcus Ramshur, lighting designer Paul Hackenmueller, and sound designer Michael Bogden capture the over-the-top and transparent temperaments of the characters and plot.

Jump/Rope is a riot. Its clever humor, strong performances, and surprise twists will not disappoint.

Jump/Rope, Square Peg Productions, Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street, through June 24, $18.

Off Stage: The East Village Fragments

Even the theatrical equivalent of the kitchen sink is represented here, from interstitial mini-happenings to musical segues to gibberish poetic rants, and, of course, the city itself. Whether you'll like it is almost beside the point; suffice to say the meal's been well-prepared. You have to taste it for yourself.

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

With this celebratory collage, a patchwork of 80 actors, 22 directors, and a dozen theatrical landmarks that is anything but threadbare, the Peculiar Works Project makes the chronicling of off-off-Broadway into an exciting evening walking tour. Site-specific performances throw hay, rugs, beds, chairs, and whatever else they can find at the audience to wake up the culture of the booming '60s and the rise of La MaMa (among others). Experimental, wild, creative pieces abound, and the atmosphere of the sultry city only adds to the mix as you realize that anybody walking down the street could be the next show.

While the project is meant to enrich the public (which it does), it also serves a second purpose for those producers bold enough to venture below Fourteenth. There's some popular pieces, like an excerpt from the musical "Hair," Jean Genet's oft-appearing "The Maids," and offerings from staples like Sam Shepard (the sexed up "The Rock Garden") and Israel Horovitz (the aggressive "The Indian Wants the Bronx"). But there are also tons of rediscovered works, like Michael McGrinder's "The Foreigners" (the disconnect of language), Leonard Melfi's sweet "Birdbath," Jean-Claude Van Itallie's brilliant satire, "America Hurrah!" (as accurate about politicians now as it was in '65), or Robert Patrick's five-minute masterpiece, "Camera Obscura." It's a veritable pupu platter of delectable and theatrical morsels. And even if a few give cause for indigestion, you'll quickly be walking it off en route to the next "stage."

In addition to the historical annotations crammed into the program, East Village Fragments also provides audiences with immediate visualizations for different styles of theater, not to mention the ways in which directors can give life to a text, as with Casey McLain's row of flashlight illuminated women in "The Mulberry Bush," Belinda Mello's intimate proximity of the cast in "A Corner of a Morning," or the way Halina Ujda turns a narrow street into the final walk on death row in "Lullaby for a Dying Man." The creativity occasionally bleeds into confusion, as with the absurd "The Conquest of the Universe (or When Queens Collide)," which, in order to pay respect to the two visions that split the play into two theaters, has two casts and directors working at the same time. It's a valuable lesson in what the Playhouse of the Ridiculous was all about, and a nice compliment to the Theater of the Absurd parody (which is, by nature, just as absurd), "The Bundle Man."

Not that anyone's judging, especially this critic. The East Village Fragments is meant to be experienced as a whole, and given that, the only thing this two-and-a-half hour, literal tour-de-force is missing is a bathroom break. Aside from that, I think you'll find that even the theatrical equivalent of the kitchen sink is represented here, from interstitial mini-happenings to musical segues to gibberish poetic rants, and, of course, the city itself. Whether you'll like it is almost beside the point; suffice to say the meal's been well-prepared. You have to taste it for yourself.

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"Alamo" (The Cube) @ Astor Place
Tickets (212-352-3101): $15.00-$18.00 (TDF vouchers accepted)
Performances (through 6/30): Thurs. - Sat. @ 7:00, 7:30, 8:00, and 8:30

The House of Bernarda Alba

The Manhattan Theater Source’s production of The House of Bernarda Alba does what its characters cannot. Deep and boiling with intensity, it breaks down the walls and soars beyond them.

Photo/Margeaux Baulch
Reviewed by Matthew Barbot

In The Manhattan Theater Source’s new, slightly abridged production of Gabriel Garcia Lorca’s most famous work, Bernarda Alba’s domineering presence looms even before the show begins. Shortly after the house opens, the Maid character emerges and begins to obsessively clean the courtyard of the large Spanish house that makes up the set. She sweeps up detritus from the floor, sets up tables, glasses, and chairs and straightens them all, making sure they’re exactly right. What at first seems to be nothing but a cute bit of pre-show business later becomes an important piece of characterization, and the audience wonders what this poor Maid must worry will happen to her at the hands of the house’s matriarch if her work is anything less than perfect.

And she's quite the matriarch. The House of Bernarda Alba tells the tale of a home under the thumb of repressive tyranny. After the death of her husband, Bernarda Alba announces an eight-year period of mourning, during which no one in the family shall leave the house. Her five daughters, already straining under the yoke of their mother’s religious fervor and iron-fisted, fascist rule – patterned after the emerging ideologies that led to the Spanish Civil War and the regime of Francisco Franco – are horrified. None of them are yet married, as their mother has rejected all suitors, and none of them are getting any younger – the eldest, Angustias, is 39. This all changes, however, when Pepe el Romano, the best looking man in the town, proposes to marry Angustias – for her money – while clandestinely carrying on an affair with the youngest daughter, Adela. What follows is a harrowing descent as the women--caught up in sexual tension and repression, condemning others while quietly envying them, yearning to break free but pent up together, struggling against the infantilizing presence of their cruel and violent mother--find their only outlet is to be at each others’ throats.

The cast of the production is excellent, and holds the promise of getting even better. Bernarda Alba is a play whose beauty is what’s between the lines. It’s about secrets, lies, hypocrisy, jealousy, insecurity and hidden truths, and the actresses populating the Theater Source’s playing space are spot on. The daughters, who are sometimes hard to distinguish when merely reading the play, each come alive, deep, well rounded, and fully realized. Joy Franz, as the titular mother, is absolutely perfect in the role from the moment she thunders on stage to her final cry of “Silencio!” The strength of the cast is that they manage to imbue every moment with layers upon layers of subtext; each line, each action, each furtive gaze is silently boiling with hidden meanings and agendas. No one can trust anyone else, and no one really likes anyone else, and each one’s reasons are more complicated than even they themselves know. It’s a credit to the cast and to Kathleen O’Neill’s wonderful direction that this production is able to maintain – without an intermission – a constant state of underlying tension and foreboding that manages to be subtle even while balancing at the breaking point. Nowhere is this clearer than in a scene where Bernarda, her daughters, and a friend of the family sit together at a table for a snack. In this production, the scene begins, not with the friend’s line, but with a long, sustained period of silence. The women merely eat, drink, and sit there, but rather than get bored the audience remains rapt, holding its breath, wishing someone would say anything to break the awful quiet brought on by the characters’ unspoken disdain for one another. It’s a beautiful piece of theater.

The Manhattan Theater Source has put together a great rendition of this classic play. It’s a must-see, if only for Franz’s excellent performance. The production seems larger than the Theater Source’s tiny space, but there’s something alluring about doing this play in such an intimate setting. The audience is right there within Bernarda’s house (represented with a beautiful set) and we are forced to live with her, face to face, and witness the drama as if the next one the daughters will turn on might be any of us.

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The House of Bernarda Alba
Manhattan Theater Source
(Until June 30th)
Wed. through Sat. – 8:00 PM
Sat. Matinee – 3:00 PM
Tickets: 212.352.3101

I Google Myself

In the new play “I Google Myself,” a Theatre Askew production at Under St. Mark’s, this ordinary act fuels a bizarre encounter which takes on ever creepier proportions in a show both hilarious and gothic.

By Ellen Wernecke

Birds do it, bees do it – well, they would if they had Internet access. The practice of self-Googling, unheard of a decade ago when Google was just another search engine, has become a metaphor for expressing one’s anxiety in the digital age. When a man Googles himself and finds that a gay porn star shares his name (a name that is never given), he might react in a number of ways, but in “I Google Myself,” the 38th result (Tim Cusack, listed in the program as One) invites the 1st result (Nathan Blew, or Two) out to coffee on the pretext of interviewing him. Two claims to have never Googled himself; the nervous One, red-faced and squirming, admits, “I do it whenever I’m stressed or cranky... It helps.” In fact, having some of Two’s porn -- in which he’s a cocky sadist who specializes in slapping -- is what ruined his marriage, or so he claims.

But One isn’t really a journalist -- that’s a means to an end, just like Two claims to only do gay porn because it pays better. They don’t actually share the same name, but Two cribbed his porn star name after a junior-high bully. Intending to avenge Two, One meets the erstwhile bully Three (John Gardner), now a pot-smoking, bad-poetry-writing loser, and pretends to be Two: “Let’s play a game,” he says baldly, “Tell me what you remember about me.” When Three can’t bring him closer to Two, One lashes out in a way that his mild-mannered, Home-Depot-employed alter ego didn’t seem capable of.

Director Jason Jacobs wastes no time in this 75-minute show, punctuating the short scenes with voiced-over Google revelations (“Someone with my name…”) When all three characters are onscreen, it’s hard to know whether to watch the meek-seeming Cusack or the smirking, muscular Blew. Savvy costume design by Daniel Urlie puts each of the characters something yellow to wear in the first half of the play, visually tying the three dissimilar men together. “I Google Myself” occasionally resembles a “Dateline” episode without panicked voiceover (“There are bad people there, and they can get you in the Internet!), but what happens after the initial act can hardly be blamed on Google. The Internet didn’t create the tension between One, Two and Three, just amplified the malice and misplaced lust that was already there. (If the three men of similar name had lived in a small village in the 17th century, the same passions would be there, although it may have taken them longer to find each other.) It’s not the computer, it’s what you do with it.

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“I Google Myself” Theatre Askew
Through July 7, Thursday & Friday 8pm, Saturday 8pm and 10:30pm
UNDER St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place
(btw. First and Ave. A)
Tickets, $18/$15, 212-352-3101 or OvationTix
For more information, visit Theatre Askew’s Website.

The Devil on All Sides (Le Diable En Partage)

Slow-paced but sure-footed, The Devil on All Sides is a competent performance piece about war. But competence isn't enough when dealing with poetic dialogue, and for all the salvos of satire, drama, and love, the show remains a quiet, steady affair, and not an explosive bit of entertainment.

Photo/Rachel Roberts
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Here's an interesting show for you: a play about war by way of Yugoslavia (1993) by way of a French author (Fabrice Melquiot) by way of a San Fransisco physical theater troupe (foolsFURY) now touring at PS122. To say that something's been lost in translation would be an understatement, but what's left is a functionally surreal drama about war, which, as Ben Yalom directs it, has a language all of its own.

The Devil on All Sides has an eerie suspense to it, but the dialogue seems to be about as successful as a shelling exercise: some of the lines are right on target; some resound, but only from the shrapnel of afterthought; others fall flat; and some seem to have been written simply to help the playwright find the mark he wants to hit. The scenes bleed rapidly into one another, but there's never an adjustment in tone. Our elegiac hero, Lorko, flees from conscription, hitching rides first with an Italian, then with a Frenchman; at the same time, his brother Jovan and his best friend Alexander keep returning from evening skirmishes to commiserate with Sladjana and Vid (Lorko's parents) over a bowl of bouillon. As the characters evolve, Lorko starts to hallucinate them, especially his Muslim wife, Elma, but because these scenes are all so similar, they often take up the redundancy of war.

That's where the direction comes in: The Devil on All Sides works hard to build beauty from routine, which is a fitting style for a war play. A series of Tetris-shaped rubble is manipulated into various objects, a large tapestry serves either to project ominous shadows or to reveal more intimate spaces, and popular music (like "Bridge Over Troubled Waters") helps to close the distance between Them and Us. The best scenes do even more to break these barriers: early on, Alexander and Jovan flee the enemy, but they do so while sitting, doing a jerky series of movement that almost looks like they're playing a video game. When the lights come on and we see that Alexander's eyes have been gouged out, it's shocking. This is then turned to farce (he continues to fight and continues to be mutilated) and then to reality, when the bombs start dropping on Jovan's house and the childishness turns to an uglier coming of age. Of course, we also get flowers bursting out of people's mouths and some inexplicable blocking choices involving crawlspaces and reverse trust-falls, so it's not all brilliant work.

Between the strained language and occasionally excessive staging, The Devil on All Sides is a bogged down in theatricality. However, it's extremely successful in its casting, as the actors understand the need for silence and balance, and don't try to emote their way through poetry. I just wish it didn't seem like such a fight just to put up a show about the state of fighting.

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P.S. 122 (150 1st Avenue)

Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00

Performances (through 7/1): Wednesday - Sunday @ 8:30

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Escape from Bellevue

Rocking music and a heartfelt autobiographical confession about a rocker who falls prey to drug and alcohol addiction and finds a way back from the abyss, Escape from Bellevue is one not to miss.


Christopher John Campion in Escape from Bellevue
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Reviewed by Ilena George

“It’s like a surprise party for fuck-ups,” Christopher John Campion says of the intervention staged by his friends and family to try and get him into rehab. Campion, lead singer of the band Knockout Drops, recounts his experiences with drug and alcohol addiction, hospitalizations in the psychiatric ward of New York’s Bellevue Hospital and eventual recovery in Escape from Bellevue—a series of monologues interspersed with rock songs currently in an open-ended run at the Village Theatre.

Campion is charming, frank and wryly funny as he candidly explains the consequences of his former lifestyle, from losing his spot in his band, to losing his connections with family and friends. “I call these years the wonder years, because I’m still wondering what the hell happened,” he says. That’s not to say Campion does not seem to get a kick out of recounting some of his wacky encounters with rodeo clowns, psych patients, and benevolent deli owners. The show grew out of Campion’s autobiographical asides to the audience during Knockout Drops performances and the Drops’ music punctuates and adds depth to the narrative while the venue’s relatively small size makes the production feel like a personal rock concert.

The intimacy of the Village Theatre perfectly serves Escape’s confessional tone, as does Cameron Anderson’s spare but evocative set, reminiscent of an abandoned building—complete with stained old windows and exposed rivets—gives the production that unexpected but not unwelcome closeness of a stranger spilling out his life story in a dark bar. Between Escape’s content and settting, it is as if Campion and the Knockout Drops are speaking directly to each member of the audience; this connection and Campion’s charisma allows him to get away with discussing faith and “finding [his] light” without coming off as corny or clich├ęd.

Running at about ninety minutes without an intermission, Campion manages to cram in a lot of material, from the origin of the Knockout Drops, to three hospitalizations at Bellevue for threatening suicide (including one attempted hospitalization that ended instead with Campion being the first man in years to smooth-talk his way out of the hospital—giving the show its name), to drunken antics on the streets of New York. Lighting designer David Weiner similarly finds a way to unobtrusively fit in a range of neat tricks. Particularly effective are the harsh fluorescent lights signaling Campion’s first incarceration within Bellevue, which nicely bookend the show and provide a visual context for Campion’s eventual commitment to rehabilitating himself and his life, when they return during Campion’s third and final stint at Bellevue. This time, the fluorescents are joined with some warmer floor lamps as Campion discusses his change of heart. Although the ending feels a bit abrupt and less detailed than some of his other exploits, Campion’s compelling humor and pathos brings a dark time of his life into the light.

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Escape from Bellevue
By Christopher John Campion
Directed by Alex Timbers
The Village Theatre (158 Bleecker Street)
Thursday-Friday 8 pm, Saturday 8 and 11 pm
Tickets ($30-45): Ticketmaster, (212) 307-7171

Romeo and Juliet in Central Park

For some, summer means Yankee Games and over-airconditioned subway cars. For others, it means loads of free theater - the best being The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park.
This year's season includes Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Micheal Greif directs Lauren Ambrose and Oscar Isaac as the star-crossed lovers in this earnest, well-crafted production.

Lauren Ambrose strikes us as the most innocent, pure Juliet one can imagine. With her awkward blushing around Romeo and her (often comedic) impatience, she reminds the audience of being fourteen and having that rush of emotion we call our first crush. Oscar Isaac is an arresting Romeo - his manly confidence and charm breaks just often enough that we see a boy who desperately wants to be a man.

The rest of the cast is equally believable as the friends and families that mar this otherwise-perfect love. But it's Christopher Evan Welch (Mercutio) who steals the stage, taking a character often portrayed as hot-blooded youth and creating a complex life behind his ramblings and rages. His death marks the turn to tragedy in the plot of the play, but also a sad moment for the audience, as his command of both the stage and the text brings a freshness to every scene he is in. One of the best moments in the show is the exchange between Mercutio and the Nurse (the delightful Camryn Manheim).

Moments like this, the taunting of authority by a youth, remind us how very young the boys (and Juliet) are. Romeo and Juliet's passion for one another is not the comfortable, trusting love that leads to marriage in our society today, but you leave wishing that they had the chance to grow up and try it.
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Romeo and Juliet run through July 8th at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.
Tickets are free, see publictheater.org for details.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Second Tosca

All three definitions of diva take to the stage for the comedic new play, The Second Tosca. There are the very talented ones with their high maintenance and freakish quirks, there are the temperamental prima donnas, and then there are the goddesses, able to spin even the humblest of arias into gold. Passion, love, drama, and not a bit of diminuendo (only innuendo): what more do you want?

Photo/Neilson Barnard

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

"What's the point of having an obsession unless it damages you?" With such an insightful comment not just about art, but love, playwright Tom Rowan could have made his new play The Second Tosca into a drama or a comedy. Thankfully, he chose the latter. The story is filled with hopes, aspirations, and charismatic yet technical banter about opera, but the pace remains light on its feet. In opera lingo, the show is presented with spinto tonality: that is, it rests somewhere between the dramatic soprano and the lyric, soubrette, soprano, and it has mastered the portamento, a technique of gliding smoothly from pitch to pitch.

Much like classical comedies, Rowan introduces, in quick succession, a series of familiarly quirky stock characters. From the hyperactive, wannabe diva, Darcy Green (Melissa Picarello) to her full-blown prima donna of a mentor, the sassy Gloria Franklin (Vivian Reed), to the innocent, goddess of a singer, Lisa Duvall (Rachel de Benedet), this show throws every sort of personality it can find into the mix, including an Italian ghost from the '50s (Eve Gigliotti). As for love interests, you've got Lisa's fiancee, an uptight maestro named Aaron Steiner (Mark Light-Orr), the nebbish, wunderkind composer Nathaniel (Jeremy Beck), and the strapping ASM, Ben (Tug Coker, who could double for Desperate Housewives' Mike). And while Lisa's trying to find her inner Tosca by flustering these men, her brother Stephen (Carrington Vilmont, a far less creepy version of Six Feet Under's David) is there to lend the wry, sage advice of an old gay soul. Or just to hit on all the guys.

The idea of using one art form to parallel that most ancient of art forms, love, is hardly anything new, but Rowan has found a way to put his passion for opera into a sublimely comic form, and the story feels fresh. I didn't even mind the occasionally superfluous and moralizing scenes, although credit for that is due to the fantastic cast, the likes of which I could watch for hours more. This is true especially of Ms. de Benedet, a true gem of the stage. With her sparkling, Chenoweth-like personality and effortlessly charming grace, it's no wonder all the men--and women--are crazy for her. Between her and the play, this is the most down-to-earth play to ever involve something as surreal as opera. Lisa may have discovered that every actor must learn to find their own Tosca, and to live their own life (not that of their brothers or fiancees), but it's hard to imagine any other actor getting a better grip on this role than Rachel.

As for direction, I couldn't ask for more than what Kevin Newbury has done to the modest 45th Street Theatre. Charlie Corcoran's wall-less backstage lets us see what's going on in both the green room and the dressing room, but Newbury's the one who fills that space with energy. He's also taken the script to heart, especially the comment that "Perfect isn't the same as good." The pacing is tight, but not artificial; the ghost is haunting, but not distracting; the characters are over-the-top, but always human. Unlike the ghost, the life hasn't been staged out of this wonderfully funny show.

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45th Street Theatre (354 West 45th Street, 1st Floor)

Tickets (212-868-4444): $18.00

Performances: Thursday-Saturday @ 8 | Sunday @ 3

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Passing Strange

Please, read past my first paragraph, just as you should stay past the rocky first few scenes of Stew's Passing Strange. This rock musical is wildly uneven, but the personal connection makes it a wild event, as does the gradually crescendoing story, and Stew's ever-deepening growl.


Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The first third of Passing Strange, due to technical problems with the microphone levels or physical problems with the three-pronged staging, passes by more than strangely; it's downright bad. If there is a difference between "the sacred and the profane," Stew doesn't connect to it until deep in the second act, and the only reason I stayed through intermission was because some of the lyrics were cute ("We just had sex/there's nothing nasty about a reflex") and because Annie Dorsen's direction, as subtle and submerged at times as the band, showed a lot of promise. On all other accounts, this coming-of-age story could just have well pulled its title from the next line of Othello's monologue and gone with "Wondrous Pitiful."

But don't let the dancing lights and neon choreography of the background's light wall fool you, and don't be thrown by the way Stew alternates between spoken word and verse, or the way he uses scenes as the bridges for his songs. By the time our hero alights in Amsterdam, he truly has left behind the puerile and pot-headed choir and his erstwhile garage band, and when Stew starts with the gospel-rock repetition of "It's Alright," we're as convinced as he is. The music has managed, as promised in the opening, to go right over my head and to my soul.

There's one more twist when our protagonist, Youth, heads to Berlin. Stew's still there with the meta- jokes: "There was supposed to be a showtune here, but then I remembered, we don't write those," he apologizes, and then goes on to satirize art-house noir. And his triple-cast actors (De'Adre Aziza, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge, and Rebecca Naomi Jones) are really flexing their ranges here, particularly Domingo, as a Riff-Raff-like Mr. Venus ("What's inside is just a lie"). But it's here that the Youth's quest to realize the Real (which is really Stew's quest, and any true artist's quest) is fulfilled, in a heartbreaking parallel between Daniel Breaker (Youth) and Stew. His breaking of the forth-wall isn't just an epiphany, but it's a genuine connection with the audience, and a dropping of the "theatrical haze" (that's a double entendre) that threatens the overall show with general malaise.

"When paradise takes no effort/when the Real becomes routine," is an early warning sung to our hero, and it's a message that Stew should simply taken even further to heart. His final act is a tremendous accomplishment, and if he can find a way to maintain the narrative journey while keeping us as rapt as with the end, Passing Strange will be staying strange. For instance, Breaker shines at the end, but as with his supporting role in Well, he's forced to hold back his talent to that point: unfair, both to the audience and to the actor.

Structural nitpicks aside, Passing Strange is an invigorating coming-of-age story and a visceral imperative to all the artists out there who are afraid or restrained by their dreams. Funny, quirky, and, sure, strange, there's a big and meaty musical adventure hidden behind the cute comedy, and you'd be wrong to pass this show up.

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The Public Theater (425 Lafayette Place)
Tickets (212-967-7555): $60
Performances (through 7/1): Wed.-Sat. @ 8 | Tues. & Sun. @ 7 | Sun. @ 2

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The House of Yes

A Kennedy-idolizing household gets a troublesome guest for Thanksgiving dinner during a storm. Wendy MacLeod's The House of Yes returns to New York with Sweeter Theater Productions, a new not-for-profit theater group founded by women for female talent. This production is a modest success for the new venture, with a great set, effortless run-through and witty, though frivolous material to work with.

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

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What Jackie O wants, Jackie O gets, even if it falls outside of moral standards and societal acceptance. If you can absorb that, then you are well on your way to understanding the premise of Wendy MacLeod's The House of Yes. As Jackie O, a relentless Colleen Allen, sharp in black from head to toe, emulates a Norma Desmond persona minus the age with histrionics and a loose grip on reality. And she's spoiled and rich to boot. Maura Farver directs Allen through a frenetic intro to the stage, and her energy hardly drops a notch throughout the performance. With an unnamed emotional disorder, Jackie O is an amalgam of crazy and sexy, but never cool. As she struts about the stage, however, there are instances where her face is completely hidden from view by a section of the house. A simple reconsideration of her movements can remedy that.

20 years after JFK's assassination, the Pascal household hosts Thanksgiving dinner and a welcome home of sorts to Marty (an unremarkable James Hutchison), Jackie O's generously affectionate twin brother. There is the fawn-like Anthony (sweet and earnest John Buxton), the baby of the siblings, and their mother Mrs. Pascal (Margret Avery, reminiscent of Katey Sagal), an aristocratic, bland bore. Marty has brought home his fiancee, doltish but kind waitress Lesly (Robyn Frank, displaying a quiet, reserved strength), and the family, i.e. Jackie O, is in an uproar. Not a family member, living creature or circumstance can take her precious Marty away from her. And the rest of the family all condone her behavior, one way or another.

With a passive hostility, Jackie O sticks it to Lesly at every turn, waving class differences and her relationship with Marty in her face, but Lesly does not necessarily, ahem, lie down and take it. To thicken the plot, the family harbors a "secret" that could change the course of the impending wedding.

Although the secret is disconcerting, it is hardly camouflaged and does not come as a shocking revelation. For something so explosive, a little more tact could have been utilized by MacLeod, but very little else mars her smart writing. The characters lobby quick dialogue back and forth as they traverse Adrienne Kapalko's busy but practical set design. The eerie violin music by sound designer Greg H. Hennigan is just the right touch needed to link one creepy scene to another. As dysfunctional as the family is, I found it rather difficult to swallow that every single family member was so passe about their dirty little secret and the aftermath of its disclosure. Also, despite the well-oiled, entertaining production, the material is as flippant as the characters themselves. But if you like your theatre all froth and no broth, this show is a must-see.

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Through June 10th. Neighborhood Playhouse 340 East 54th Street, New York, NY 10022 Tickets: 212-352-3101. $15