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.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Black Eyed

New York Theatre Workshop is on a roll this season: Horizon was a Beckett-like allegory on religion and faith, and The Black Eyed is a Callaghan-like parable on what will happen to our faiths if we cannot learn to understand one another. Betty Shamieh's play is controversial--it features an unrepentant suicide bomber in the afterlife and has harsh words for martyrdom--but it is written beautifully, with shades of slam poetry and Greek choruses. Though the polemic is passive, the performances are passionate, and Sam Gold's direction serves as supportive punctuation for the finely crafted message already laid bare on stage.

Photo Credit/Joan Marcus
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The Black Eyed may have just opened at New York Theatre Workshop, but don't think for a second that it is a work in progress. Playwright Betty Shamieh has been working on this powerful show for five years, and it is now (like last month's NYTW show, Horizon) a masterful combination of theatrical craft and intelligent writing, and a human and political exploration of our post-9/11 perceptions, suffused with a subtle staging by Sam Gold and the rich emotions of a talented quartet of women.

The Black Eyed is an important and harshly relevant new work: controversial, but not to the point of self-combustion. Shamieh's questions are chokingly precise--"Why is violence only wrong when we [Palestinians] use it?"--and her answers range from pretty to vague and pretty vague. This is a compliment: she doesn't try to answer questions, but rather questions the answers of complacent people. Rather than settling on the easily inflammable issue of suicide bombing, she widens the scope to all of history's martyrs, and to the women that are their consequence. The angry, disillusioned, young bomber Aiesha (Aysan Celik), is met in her pink-walled limbo by Delilah (Emily Swallow), Samson's famous seductress; Tamam (Lameece Issaq), one of the many callously killed victims of the Crusades; and a young, nameless woman known only by her job, The Architect (Jeanine Serralles), and the hard-to-articulate hopes and dreams of our generation.

The Black Eyed is a hip play, though it bows to classicism. The characters double as a Greek chorus, although their interjections and echoes are used more as punctuation for Shamieh's slam-poetry verse. Paul Steinberg's stage is the audience's section of an amphitheater, all steps and levels, but it's modernized by an ominous wooden ceiling that hangs low above the audience. As for Gabriel Berry's costumes, the different outfits look less like anachronisms than evolutions in design, with similar patterns and blending colors binding these Palestinians together, even as centuries threaten to tear them apart. Director Sam Gold does such an excellent job managing the production values that the tangential nature of the show ends up being cohesive, and the individual plaints of these women add up to building the central dramatic arc.

The greatest surprise of The Black Eyed is its wit. The humor is a skirt for the passive politicizing behind the satire (like a commercial for the United States of Israel and Palestine: "Palreal"), but that doesn't stop the skirt from being pleated with increasingly complex ideas. Nor does the beauty of the gossamer language hide the presence of vulgarity: Aiesha is a bilious character who goads the other women by saying "Crudeness is necessary for clarity." Aiesha never knew beauty in her short life, and it's telling that the few moments of revered speech are reserved for her weapons: "I built something more intricate than the human heart,/hugged it to my chest,/and walked into the biggest crowd I could find."

The script is genius ("Arrogance is confidence that is snuffed out,/resuscitated,/and is never quite the same again"), but simply quoting it separates text from emotion, the too-easy escape from resolution. It also takes away from the wonderful actresses of this show, who stab these words at us with effortless grace. Issaq drops Tamam's prideful carriage just enough to let us see her relish the castration that she will one day exact on her rapists, Celik transforms Aiesha's rage into a terrifying passion, Swallow hides Delilah's guilt and shame beneath layers of silken cloth and silken seduction, and Serralles steals the show with her mastery of The Architect's intense and desperate fantasies.

The Black Eyed envelopes us in the human stories and sufferings of these beautiful, tragic women, and through their eyes, dares to question our callous answers to thoughts like, "So what if terror helped bring down apartheid in South Africa?" "So what if the Black Panther Movement got civil rights workers moving just a little bit quicker?" By no means does Betty Shamieh condone terrorism, nor is her play even about terrorism, but The Black Eyed speaks to the need to be heard beneath it all, and uses what should be the universal language of theater to poke, prod, and plead for understanding.

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New York Theater Workshop (79 East Fourth Street)
Performances (through 8/19): Tues. & Sun. @ 7:00 | Wed. - Sat. @ 8 | Sat. @ 3 | Sun. @ 2
Tickets (212-239-6200): $50.00*
*$35.00 with code BEBLG28 [212-947-8844]
**All Sunday evening performances are $20; cash-only.
***Also, (1) $20 ticket available for any show with a valid student ID.

Exhibit This!

Get a double dose of culture with this play about the Metropolitan Museum and its works.

By Ellen Wernecke

You can’t do the Met in 90 minutes, but the series of short comedies “Exhibit This!” at the Midtown International Theatre Festival is a hilarious substitute. Egyptian statutes come alive in “Oh, Those Antiquities” to bicker about their forthcoming tour, while a coat check girl who’s all out of love cautions against workplace romance in “Dating in the Planetarium.” The clear winner is “The Curator,” a monologue about the “largest breakout of museum history” of characters from a painting, although to nitpick, the painting in question (George Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon at the Island of La Grande Jatte”) is in the Art Institute of Chicago, not the Met. A “Misguided Tour” featuring a bitter and sad curator wends throughout the play, although it certainly isn’t necessary to the show. Best of all, you can take the kids to “Exhibit This!” although you should cover their ears during “Fertility God Fugue.”


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”Exhibit This!”
Part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival
Through August 5, WorkShop Theatre, 312 W. 36th St.
Tickets $15-$18

Saturday, July 28, 2007

33 to Nothing

Photo/Jaisen Crockett

Good news? 33 To Nothing is a solid, live show. Bad news? There's a play that comes with it, and much as that play fuels the music, it doesn't do much for what increasingly becomes dead time between the musical's eight numbers. It's also almost too realistic for the stage: without any theatricality, musicals often get a little odd: at least this one can genuinely get away with it.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

33 to Nothing's billing is a bit misleading: this isn't "a play with live music" so much as a recording session with a play. There really is a band, 33 to Nothing, and they really did just release an emo-ish rock album, and they really are in a play called 33 to Nothing (with the exception of drummer Tim Valli, replaced here by actor Ken Forman). If nothing else, it's a nice branding strategy and marketing campaign, especially since the run at the newly minted Wild Project is an open one.

As it turns out, the show is actually better than the album; the only problem is that the "dramatic scenes" that fuel the raw emotion for the eight songs of the show burn all too quickly into smoke, and choke the progression of the show. The best thing would be if the play within the gig could be performed internally so that all the audience had to sit through were the songs; seeing as that's not likely, I'll settle for director Randal Myler tuning the show a little better. If in the show, lead singer Gray (Grant James Varjas - keyboards), can keep changing his lyrics; there's no reason Myler can't fix a few notes now.

Then again, Gray's an alcoholic, struggling to keep his band together as his life apart. He's lost the man he loves--his bandmate Bri (Preston Clarke - lead guitar)--he's been evicted, and his mother has just passed away. What's left of Gray's family is the band, but as Tyler (John Good - rhythm guitar) seeks more control, and Tyler's wife Alex (Amanda Gruss - bass) runs out of ways to broker piece between them, even that seems tenuous. Barry (Ken Forman), as the drummer, is well suited for comic relief, and given the stifling tension, he's called upon quite often for his misguided complacency.

What's really interesting about 33 to Nothing is how well the music is worked in to the story. Granted, setting the show within a recording studio allows you some freedom, but it's interesting to see the fictional history behind these songs: for instance, the way all of Gray's latest songs are melancholy ways of crying over Bri, or for blaming him. Of course, the problem is that there's little theatricality in this realistic staging, and the range of music is rather limited to that which best serves the story. Not much is up-tempo, and while the focus on lyrics is nice to see in a musical, the verses are erratic. There's nice poetry on "Happy Moral Suicide" ("He keeps his heart in the frozen food aisle/not because he has a cold heart/but because he wants it to last a little while") but only banality on their title track ("Don't be scared when I need a drink/It's just something that I go through/Nothing bigger than my thirst/nothing bigger than my love for you"). So far as staging goes, not to mention the big picture of drama, 33 to Nothing is a huge step back from Spring Awakening and Passing Strange.

33 to Nothing is, in many ways, a trivial musical playing off-off-Broadway. At the same time, it's an innovative debut for an album, and it's a concert with real meat (and some chops) on songs like the elegiac "Lost to Me" and the show-stopping "28 Bars." With more variety -- both in the staging and the song choice ("The Same Old Song" winds up standing out as anything but) -- this show might find some real soul, and not just the commercial application of one.

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Wild Project (195 East 3rd Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $45.00
Performances (Open Run): Tuesday-Saturday @ 8:00

The Purpose of Matter in the Universe: the geography of a nervous breakdown



(Part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival)




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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Joe Hutcheson's multimedia, solo performance The Purpose of Matter in the Universe is a wonderful whirlwind of exciting characters, emotions and sticky situations. In this 75 minute show, he chronicles his journey from California to Florida by car, but by his own admission in the press materials, may or may not be fudging the truth.

An enthusiastic and jubilant performer, Hutcheson's material focuses on the spiritual, with and without religious connotations. From his fascination with ladybugs to his meditation on death, he indulges in his inner child as well as his external aging with passion. He takes us on a roller coaster ride that may jostle our brains and our necks, but it is a thrilling ride all the same.

But for a stool and a flirty, pink shirt, the show lacks props and a set. However, those things would have impeded Hutcheson's freedom to dart to and fro, and would have quieted his play's whimsy.

On his road trip, he encounters family and friends, and a few attractive strangers in between. There is a healthy mixture of lighthearted and somber anecdotes, and some that don't qualify as either. There are even snippets of history such as the emergence of the West Nile Virus. He explores drug use, his mortality, his sexuality, and God, all the standard issues that you would expect a man experiencing an emotional breakdown to have.

There is purity and sensitivity in this work, and Hutcheson's ability to convincingly relive his cross-country experience under the direction of DB Levin makes it a success. The only blemish in this production is the overuse of slides, video and film projection. Some of the images logically support the unfolding drama, but because there is no break in visuals, it distracts heavily from his performance.

Hutcheson comes out of The Purpose of Matter In the Universe having encountered dams that are not meant to be penetrated and gaining hope and acceptance. It is a fortuitous conclusion that is elusive to many, and his awareness of this makes this play endearing.
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Through August 4th. $15-18. Stage Left Studios: 438 West 37th Street,



Suite 5A, New York, NY 10018. Tickets: 212-868-4444

Let Us Go Then You and I and the Ted Haggard Monologues

(Part of the Undergroundzero Festival)
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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Let Us Go Then You and I is a marvelous, one-act homage to the Dramaticules of Samuel Beckett. In it, three mysterious, cackling women gather together at a park to relive their past and dramatize their regrets. On a stage covered with rose petals, the three ladies break bread and porcelain coffee cups together in a world without consequences and rules.

Time has elapsed since the last time they were together, and they reminisce cryptically about their lives. In so doing, they cast away the conventions of womanhood, and one character even muses about killing a child, an act unacceptable for the nurturing sex. They want and wish and have unfulfilled lives, but there is no sorrow. They flee from the doldrums of cleaning households, and embrace the stillness they provide for one another. But even on the outskirts of reality, secrets are revealed and cattiness exists.

The direction by James Dacre is rigid and bordering on the nonsensical, but it is the kind of fare that works for this existential piece. For Beckett fans, Let Us Go Then You and I is a welcome addition to the genre. For the newly exposed, it is a fine introduction.

The family and associates of Ted Haggard, disgraced former pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, CO, are the subjects of performer and writer Michael Yates Crowley's material in The Ted Haggard Monologues. Ted Haggard got into hot water in November 2006 when former male prostitute Mike Jones denounced Art, his pseudonym and naughty alter ego, as his homosexual lover and methamphetamine drug buyer. Initially adamant about not ever having made Jones' acquaintance, Haggard later confessed to both of his claims after relentless media pressure.

Apart from a news report broadcast on a television set, Crowley is the only attraction for this one-man show, but he fulfills that responsibility with ease. There are minimal sound and lighting cues, but when utilized they convey the irony, darkness or cloudiness of the characters in case Crowley's intentions are lost. They're not. In a fictional examination of the proceedings and sentiments surrounding the media frenzy, Crowley darts from one character and back again like an air hockey puck defying the slots under Michael Rau's direction. Using a podium and a super sized spiral notebook to introduce each character, he turns into Ted's wife, sons and his eldest son's fiance, several Reverends, and of course Mike Jones, represented here as the character Rick.

Crowley is multi-talented, writing entertaining monologues that blend fact with invention. An eerie depiction of Gayle, Ted's wife represented here as Christie, and Rick are particularly compelling, with Rick besting all with his indignation, pain, and derailment. The characters, however, are not all unique. Some of the nuances and inflections are shared by several, and there are lapses in and out of persona. Also, some of the characters, such as Diane and Michael, have call and response monologues to each other that interfere with the caricatures. It simply works better when the writing is not grounded in reality and the depictions are not interacting with one another.

Crowley definitely has a strong point of view about Ted Haggard and his Christianity, and it shines through in this work. Whether you share in his perspective or not is immaterial to the enjoyment of this piece. He sells his opinions, and that's what matters most.

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Collective Unconscious. $15. July 26th at 9:30pm. 279 Church Street NYC, NY 10013
Tickets: 212.352.3101Venue: 212.254.5277

The Sistahs and Why's He Drinking Coffee?

(Part of the Undergroundzero Festival)


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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

The Sistahs by Harrison Rivers is a one-act play that explores the relationship of two sisters trying to keep their mother alive by adhering to the many adages she used to instruct them before she passed away. Set in rural Kansas, their connection is immediately established by strong actresses Jehan O. Young (Retha) and Alison Weisgall (Nina), but the flurry of proverbs used to introduce them in the beginning makes them standoffish at first. Luckily, Rivers chooses to disengage from this format by segueing into a straight narrative. The distinction in their races (Young is African-American, Weisgall is Caucasian-American) is not directly addressed in the play, so it is difficult to determine whether the sisters share blood ties or even if that's a matter of importance.

The direction by Matt Torney is precise, but makes the characters' movements appear slightly unnatural in certain spots. The character George (Ryan McGlone), the object of both sisters' affections, is introduced as obliquely as they were, appearing on stage like a phantom, and going into soliloquies about the uselessness of mothers. That alone creates his role as a foe, but when he divides the sisters in affection, it further cements his status. Nina wants George, George, wants Retha, Retha is torn.

Shame washes over both of their faces, Nina because of George's rejection and Retha due to inexperience, but each actress handles this emotion uniquely and succinctly. Although there is no chemistry between McGlone and Young, due largely in part to McGlone's awkwardness with romance, the passionate scene between them is rightfully clumsy. George has the most eloquent lines of the three, sharing his feelings on Freud and the ability of unfulfilled desire to shape a human being.

The Sistahs is a bittersweet story about bridled love and desire with a future ending that should not have been disclosed. Although the fate of the characters would have been better left unsaid, Rivers reveals a knack for heartfelt drama with the events that lead to it.

Why's He Drinking Coffee? by Josh Koenigsberg is a comedy about the worlds of blue collar and white collar colliding to hilarious and ominous effect. When Pete the mechanic (Josh Sauerman, stealing everything from Karl Childers in Sling Blade) decides to have his coffee in the office, trucking dispatchers Phil (Adam Radford) and Anita (Alison Weisgall) must share their space with the help, to their amusement and dismay, respectively.

There is a great dynamic between Anita and Phil in the beginning, and the addition of Pete into the equation only amplifies their idiosyncrasies and acting craft. The cast is fully committed to their characters, and deliver performances that are sharp and entertaining. Although Sauerman is too young for Pete's voice and demeanor, he has great showmanship. Weisgall's disgust vibrates throughout her whole body, and Phil's logic is foolhardy, but also commonplace.

When Pete's blood ties to a famous writer are revealed, it is both comical of Anita's character and accusatory of her lack thereof to warm to him. She quickly founds out, however, that this warming inspires a closeness to him that she's not prepared to deal with.

Koenigsberg's dialogue is relaxed with great media references that are fun to discern. He builds tension in his scenes well, and releases it with equal ability.

Apart from a shared actress (Alison Weisgall) and a shared director (Matt Torney), the themes for The Sistahs and Why's He Drinking Coffee? are not linked. However, they each succeed remarkably well, with Koenigsberg's contribution having the edge.
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July 21st at 5pm and July 26 at 7:30pm. $15. 279 Church Street,
NYC, NY 10013 Tickets: 212.352.3101Venue: 212.254.5277

Friday, July 27, 2007

Commedia Dell' Artemisia

By the time you read this, Commedia Dell' Artemisia's all-too-brief revival at Collective:Unconscious will be over, but in the hopes that they'll really nurture their already burgeoning ode to classical, rhyming comedy (and keep their skilled, energetic actors busy), it's important that this newly written old-school hit be recognized.

Photo/Joseph Belschner

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

That rape could be funny, not tragic, who knew? The producers and writers of Stolen Chair, that's who. With swagger and grace and a man who's ribald, the show woos us and flatters us, we're never appalled. Commedia Dell' Artemisia, what a wonderful name; if only bringing back classical comedy alone brought one fame. But I'll drop the old rhymes now (they're far better than me), as I must stress the point that this show's a must see. (Besides, it's not as easy to rhyme David Bengali's name as you'd think, nor Cameron J. Oro's, Layna Fisher's, or Liza Wade White's, all of whom are well worth mentioning.)

Like typical works of commedia dell' arte (think Moliere), Kiran Rikhye's taken what could be a tragedy (the historical rape of Artemisia Gentileschi) and made it into a comedy -- an old-school (for wives) affair, with rhyming couplets, slimming corsets, and masks, too. Follow the innocent yet willful Artemisia (the isabella) as she tries to escape her doting, daft painter of a father, Orazio (the pantalone), by accepting the advances of the lusty Agostino Tassi (il capitano). This is done at the behest of her more...ahem...experienced chaperon, Tuzia (the columbina), whose wide-eyed gapes are perfect for the double-takes required of her stock part.

Jon Stancato's direction is filled with little nuances of the form, and when he can squeeze in an extra pratfall or continue a running gag (an accidental grope, an intentional ass slap), he does so with panache. He also handles his actors well (courtesy of designer Jonathan Becker): Bengali slouches his way up from the earth into his mask, notching his head to call out in high-pitched befuddlement, and Oro finds a nice comedic clash by mixing a sincere gravitas in his posture with the monkey-like face he's wearing. On the feminine side, the ladies are lovely, their porcelain makeup giving a nice contrast with their zestier, full-bodied performances: Tuzia's a bit underwritten, which is unfortunate for the talented Fisher (she makes up for it with her body language), but White gets to play both the inamorata and the dottore, and relishes in her long-winded spiels as a drunk judge (think Boston Legal: The 1600s).

The only sad part about Commedia Dell' Artemisia is that it's condensed to stay under an hour, which means there's no romance and no real comeuppance. The climax simply dissolves into a bawdy song with a hasty conclusion: I say, if you've got it, flaunt it, and there's no reason the Stolen Chair Theatre Company can't turn this one-act into an even bigger crowd pleaser.

The Moxie Show

An open mic entirely dependant upon audience participation, The Moxie Show provides an evening so chockfull of meta-theater that it's anyone’s guess where the alienation ends and the dramatic effect begins.


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Reviewed by Cait Weiss



When I was a kid, I saw Man in the Moon, that Jim Carrey-is-a-serious-actor-stop-laughing vehicle all about the crazy antics of Andy Kaufman. I was fascinated by how offensive the reenacted Kaufman was, but I was even more intrigued by the audience, people who turned up night after night to be insulted and subjected to the art of painful, unending, and unapologetic awkwardness (and it is an art, even if some of us excel without formal training).

Later, in my college’s Intro to Drama class, I would learn that, despite all my deep-seated beliefs at the time, neither Carrey nor Kaufman created the theatrical art of awkward. No, the watching world owes that debt to Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artuad. Thank you both very much. Because of Brecht’s plays and Artuad’s pen (resulting in the actual articulation of “The Alienation Effect”) we can now all go pay money to see productions where people sing off-key, deliberately stare into the audience and otherwise outwardly antagonize us.

Despite sounding curmudgeony, I very much enjoy a little A-Effect now and then. You just have to know what you’re getting yourself into. I wouldn’t want to show up to my high school prom naked, and I wouldn’t want to show up to an A-Effect play without a little pre-performance heads-up.

So, without further ado, consider yourself warned – and consider The Moxie Show.

To begin with, The Moxie Show is not a show. It’s an open mic, and it's part of Collective:Unconscious’ Undergroundzero Festival. Being such, the performers and material change every time the "show" is put on. The evening I went, the first of the series, only two audience members were brave enough to sign up, and both were redheaded women performing T-and-A obsessed stand-up. While each woman had her moments, a lot of those moments felt oddly similar, and the evening could have used a few more participants and a fair amount more variety. It's not Moxie's fault, though; we, the audience, were the only ones to blame. The Moxie Show’s eventual goal is to get a variety of performers up and on the stage, minimizing the role the show’s hosts will have to play, and maximizing the theatrical experience for all attendees.

And what a wonderful goal that is. The show’s host Trav S.D. is, at best, bemusing to watch, and, at worse, painful. However, Trav S.D. points out early on that this awkward alienation is exactly the point. Like Brecht, who used the A-effect to jolt the audience away from schmaltzy sympathy and into logical analysis (and, ideally, into action), Trav aims to irk us out of our cushy role of watcher and into the more active role of performer. Should you refuse, well, he is happy to perform some of the worst sketches and scenes he can scrape together. This threat is clearly stated at the start of the open mic. Attention: he isn't joking. Theater at The Moxie Show is not about easy fun, per se; it’s about participation. And if it’s not about participation, it is, quite clearly, about punishment.

So the best I can say for this show is, for all our sakes, go. Go and take over the open mic. Do your part in the name of Fringe Theater everywhere. It’s not everyday you get to play a role in a burgeoning theatrical community. And even if that movement’s fundamental tenant is alienation, well, at least you won’t be alienating alone.

If all else fails, you could always perform an emotionally-stirring dramatic monologue from Man on the Moon...

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Collective:Unconscious (279 Church St., just south of White St.)
Tickets (www.weird.org, 212-352-3101): $5.00
Performances: The second and fourth Tuesdays of every month, sign-ups at 7:30pm, performances at 8:00pm.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Webeime

(Part of the 8th Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival)

The psyche of an inmate on death row fragments into seven characters as he takes a retrospective look at the events preceding his execution. The Black Gents of Hollywood explore the gamut of emotion with zest and integrity, but the material has crucial gaps in detail and could have benefited from a linear narrative.



Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Part spoken word, part choreoplay (a play that uses considerable choreography), and part amped-up aggression, playwright, director and choreographer Layon Gray's Webeime celebrates the essence of black men without excluding other demographics. This is not an easy feat because the marketing campaign (“7 black men One story”), all black male cast, Motown choreography and Afrocentric score seem initially to cater to black men. However, the show quickly delves into a universal theme: the horrors of abuse and its subsequent side effects.



Sporting dapper, black garb with fedoras and red ties, the Black Gents of Hollywood creep in from behind the audience, chanting “We Be Who I Be. That's Me. Can't you see?” to full effect. The costume choices by Steve Moreau immediately establish them as entertainers and as the suave gents they purport to be, save for the casual sneakers that complete the outfits. The chanting and the title of this play entreat an understanding of the very multi-layered inmate character, and the diversity of his experiences, good and bad.



The Workshop Jewel Box Theater's small space can scarcely contain the cast's presence, but Gray plans their movement well to fit the limitations. In general, the performers are charismatic, led well in that regard by Thom Scott during his overextended monologue/story about Janie. They swagger one minute, agonize the next, mingling hubris with pain and cutting the tension of intense scenes with song. There is frequent reiteration of lines for emphasis, and wails of anguish to signal the beginning of scenes and further descent into self-reflection. Emotions rise in a crescendo, and fall into gut-wrenching sobs.



The actors work well together, but the eighth character, the one from which all others spring, sticks out like a sore thumb. Dressed in an orange jumpsuit, the inmate (underused but effective Don Swaby) sits quietly on stage, silently scribbling in a notebook until the last ten minutes of the play. Because his character is not established in the beginning, his closing monologue, although integral to the play, does not resonate as strongly as it should.

Gray's directing is rudimentary, but he is able to elicit some strong performances from his fellow cast. Lamman Rucker shines as the adolescent victim of repeated rape, nailing his portrayal of a vulnerable boy beset by a harsh childhood and a prevailing desire for love. In fact, love is the key ingredient lacking in the inmate's life, having a propensity to give it but never receive it. This theme reverberates through all the characters, manifesting itself in different ways. The scene that has Rucker on his back with his thighs splayed in the air is made even more gripping by the demonic figures in masks that revolve around him, ushering in the vibrations that mimic the hideous act. It is unforgettable and deeply profound.



Gray weighs in on the action himself, delivering a strong monologue about not belonging on death row, and being a product of his ill nurturing. He puts his heart into this play, but skimps on the details. The reason for the inmate's execution sentence is not revealed until 75 minutes into the show, and there is no elaboration. Gray would have done well to introduce this fact earlier to give the audience the framework necessary to assess his peaceful resolution. As it stands, guessing what the crime is lends itself to much distraction. And because there is no linear narrative and only episodic memories, one can only infer the reasons for the crime with no evidence. Memories of Janie are the only positive ones, and they are not sufficient to anchor the inmate to normalcy and temporary happiness, particularly since the memories become dour.

Webeime is a warrior cry after the bloody battle has been fought and survived. Hope springs where we dare not believe it can, and the inmate comes to terms with his life's struggles. With some fine tuning, it is possible for the plot to approximate the writer's passion and skill for drama. In its current state, it is still a mighty contender.



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$18. http://www.smarttix.com/

Through Sunday, Jul 29th.

WorkShop Theatre: 312 W. 36th St. 4th Floor


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Magic of Mrs. Crowling

Nothing quite says magic like a coke-sniffing British woman toppling over sofas and drop-kicking tables, does it? Forget the Harry Potter satire omnipresent in The Magic of Mrs. Crowling; if you've ever used your imagination, this is a rough and riotous comedy for you. Over-the-top and away we go!


Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The real magic of Brian Silliman's new play, The Magic of Mrs. Crowling, is that he's managed to work his way through the sardonic silliness of a Harry Potter/J. K. Rowling parody and find a sincere story beneath the blunt humor. This slight-of-hand works by means of an amusingly distracting first act that manages to keep raising the energy, like a magician drowning in scarves so that he can conjure up a dove. In this case, that dove is the soberer second act (just a bit too expository), which pulls the curtain back and releases all that comic tension.

Director Abe Goldfarb keeps the pace moving at a whimsical speed, and he counterbalances all of his choices to make a greater effect. The quick cuts between scenes make the long, awkward pauses stand out (silence is always a great punchline), and the exaggeratedly epic scenes from the book (complete with a movie-quality score by Larry Lees) really punch up how mundane Kicken Petchio's (Paul Wyatt) life is. Of course, it's no wonder Kicken is so obsessed with the fate of "Henry Shields and the Groglog Imperium": in real life, he's dying of a rare cancer, his mother's already dead, and his father's fear of death has made him a sports-obsessed tyrant. Also, if I had friends like Dazzelin (Patrick Shearer) and Valiaare (Dennis Hurley), who so trippingly enunciated their wizarding words while battling eye-popping evil like Charcana Charcane (Ronica V. Reddick), I'd probably "wax fantastic," too.

The charm of the play comes from combining the two worlds: Kicken's father Ramsey (Brian Silliman) brings A. R. Crowling (Shelly Smith) so that she can reveal the end of all this "geeky shit," only to find that she's on the literary steroids of cocaine, and that her case of writer's block is only worsened by her own characters' constant criticism. Smith has the choice part here, growing from an eccentric loon to a Hulk-like warrior and a defeatist New Yorker, all in powerful spasms of text. Silliman, meanwhile, has the advantage of also being the play's author, and along with Goldfarb's precise directions, manages to milk out all of his laughs without straining them. Finally, Wyatt's the heart of the show, one of those rare actors who understands the desperate need of children to believe, and his frustrations are what give substance to what is essentially a peanut gallery of wizards.

Right now, The Magic of Mrs. Crowling can ride the cusp of Pottermania to draw audiences who feel a bit ashamed of their own fervor for more "Pot." Even after the glamor fades, Silliman's show can hold up: he just needs to cut out his unfortunate mimicry of Rowling's all-too-real exposition.

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The Kraine Theater (85 E 4th Street)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $18.00
Performances (through 8/5): Tuesday-Saturday @ 8 | Sunday @ 2

Monday, July 23, 2007

Swim Shorts 3

Jump into this clever site-specific series which is performed in a Midtown pool.



By Ellen Wernecke

Sitting in a deck chair before the Impetuous Theater Group’s production of “Swim Shorts 3,” a series of short plays taking place at the rooftop pool at the Holiday Inn on West 57th, I thought, “Why even bother to put on a show?” With a view of the sunset over the Hudson, I would have been contented to watch a turtle, or perhaps a precocious baby, swimming in the pool. And that was sans cocktails.

I’m glad they bothered anyway, because the five original works presented, all of which use the pool in some way, were pure, hot-summer-day fun. Particular highlights of the first slate are Janet Zarecor’s “Forgiveness” in which the pool represents quicksand in which two friends are sinking, while a guardian angel tries to decide who to save; in Joe Mathers’ and Brian MacInnis Smallwood’s “Der Eisbar,” teams of swimsuit-clad soldiers enact Cold War battles, with lots of splashing. Yet all the plays somehow nudged at the limits of what “stage” means, simply by virtue of the body of water for which they were written.

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”Swim Shorts 3”
Impetuous Theater Group
Through July 29 (series 1; series 2 runs Aug. 1-12), 7PM
Holiday Inn Midtown, 440 West 57th Street (between 9th & 10th Ave.)
Tickets $18 (plus $7 if you want to swim), Brownpapertickets.com

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The People vs. Mona

A bar owner becomes the prime suspect when her newlywed, wealthy husband is murdered in Jim Wann and Patricia Miller's whodunit, trial-by-hysteria musical. Although this effort is thin on substance and plausibility, the interactive format and goofy characters make the experience modestly entertaining.




Photo/Randy Morrison

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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre


Mona Mae Katt( Mariand Torres) is hell-bent on being defiant. She is defiant in posture, tone, spirit, and most certainly in response to Tippo, Georgia's demand that she admit to murdering her husband 10 hours after their nuptials. Unfortunately, boldness and sometimes the pretense of boldness is the only dramatic key that Torres achieves in Jim Wann and Patricia Miller's The People vs. Mona. Torres sings beautifully, but has minimal thespian weight, lacking presence and a connection with the audience. Yet, the weakness in her performance is not entirely her fault. Wann and Miller's silly material does very little to come to Torres' aid.

In general, the musical numbers, touching on various genres from country to gospel, are amusing, but repetitive and trite. There are incessant references to animals that are not necessarily linked, most notably to frogs, the "mascot" of Mona's hangout, the Frog Pad. The Frog Pad, inspiring several peals of annoying ribbits, is in danger of becoming the site for a riverboat casino should Mona be carted off to jail. This most important revelation is delayed for 45 minutes with antics and superficial filler.

Mona doesn't seem to mind that she's stuck with defense attorney Jim Summerford (Richard Binder), a lawyer who has never won a case and who is romantically linked to Mavis Frye (Karen Culp), Prosecutor and supporter of the riverboat casino development. The characters often communicate using a melodic call and answer scheme, but the ridiculous line of questioning for the trial illuminates very little. Save for a recycled but engaging debate about the dueling nature of God, the dramatic brace supporting the songs is absent. Some of the ensemble, however, trump the material to deliver good performances.

Omri Schein, in four roles as different as night and day, sets himself apart as the most versatile performer of the show. Schein embraces his role as the butt of jokes with aplomb, and has the where with all to amuse and excite the audience. You'll have to suspend disbelief to buy Marcie Henderson as male character Blind Willy, but she tackles this bluesy staple as vigorously as her feminine curves will allow. As Tish Thomas, she oozes sex appeal in the same manner as former Ally McBeal star Lisa Nicole Carson. As Officer Bell, David Jon Wilson challenges Torres for best voice. His vibrato is pumped out by his expert breath control, and just when you think he can't hold his note any longer, he thrills you by exceeding expectations. He's also pretty funny to boot.

The direction by Kate Middleton is strong, and the choreography by Jill Gorrie is loopy, but appropriate for this musical. The cast are very relaxed with each other, and their voices meld well to carry through the space. Overall, they have a penchant for comedy, which bodes well in a piece that inspires laughter, intended or not.

The People vs. Mona is a mediocre effort, lacking innovation and excellence in most areas. It does, however, consist of a lively cast that does its best to delight. And those endeavors should not be left without remark.

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Through August 4th. Tickets: $20 212-868-4444 or http://www.smarttix.com/. Abingdon Mainstage Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, New York, NY 10018

Richard III

A great lead performance anchors this new and unsettling production of Shakespeare’s classic history.



By Ellen Wernecke

As portrayals of disabled or physically challenged people go, “Richard III” is not the most sympathetic. Spoiler alert: After describing himself in the monologue which opens the play as “not shaped for sportive tricks” (and the disappointments in love that accompany that shape), Richard goes on a rampage, killing his brother and nephews because they’re in the way of the throne. Let’s leave it as, “not ADA approved.”

In the program notes for its presentation of “Richard III,” Nicu’s Spoon Theater attempts to turn this depiction on its head by asking, Could he have been justified? It gives one pause; how many years of being treated like a pariah can one man stand? The theater’s decision to include the show in its disability-themed season is a bit odd, considering we have no evidence outside of Shakespeare that Richard III was as Old Will depicts him -- maybe “rudely stamp’d” in ambition only.

However, the casting of Henry Holden, a superb actor who uses crutches because of a childhood bout with polio, as the would-be king is a master stroke that lifts the question out of the theoretical. Holden brings a freaky intensity to his Gloucester from the first second on stage; in the Spoon’s tiny theatre, I was almost afraid to look him in the eyes. Spurned in love, he reaches for power as an aphrodisiac, and given the tumultuous times in which he was surrounded, it makes sense. That Holden uses his own voice for soliloquies and asides, with Andrew Hutcheson providing booming, royal tones, is jarring at first, but it works because Holden is so committed to acting through it.

The surrounding cast is good (particularly Rebecca Challis, as Edward IV’s widow who swings from grief to rage and back), but this is Holden’s show, and his performance leads us to question Shakespeare’s original intent.


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Richard III
Through July 29, Nicu’s Spoon Theater, 38 W. 38th St., 5th Floor
Wed-Sun, 8PM
$14-18, OvationTix.com
For more information, visit Nicu’s Spoon’s website.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Seussical

There's a new and improved Seussical in town that's better than the Broadway original. Children will love that it asks them to use their imaginations. Parents will love that tickets are free of charge.

photo: Joan Marcus

Reviewed by Patrick Lee
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The theatregoers who will most enjoy the new TheatreWorksUSA production of Seussical probably have no idea that the show flopped famously on Broadway about seven years ago. They weren’t born yet.

This new eighty-minute production, running at the Lucille Lortel Theatre for another month or so with all tickets free of charge, uses a new, neatly condensed book which is lighter by a handful of songs and trimmed of almost all peripheral business. The cuts help: the intertwined stories of Gertrude McFuzz (the girl bird with a one-feather tail) and Horton The Elephant (who talks to microscopic people who live on a dust speck) are much easier for pint-sized tykes to follow now, even if they don't know the stories from the Seuss books.

What's more there's a lively sense of playfulness in this production that was noticably lacking on Broadway. As directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, this Seussical has a rag-tag "let's put on a show" feel, mostly due to the new concept of setting the show in a playground and creating a visual environment that demands some imagination from the audience. For instance, an open trunk becomes a bathtub, and a blue blanket thrown over its side becomes the bathwater overflowing. Moments of simple theatricality like these are what help give this Seussical some moments of charm for the youngest people in the audience.

The Seuss characters take on an additional, reality-grounded dimension in this production. The Wickersham brothers aren't depicted as monkeys in the jungle as they were in the book, but as varsity-jacketed hip-hoppers, and the Sour Kangaroo is just a bossy little playground bully with a stuffed animal peeking out from the shirt of her schoolgirl uniform. And so on...mostly; the nifty concept isn't followed through consistently, which is a shame.

The cast of twelve (an ambitious number by TheatreWorksUSA standards) work hard to sell the show and most of them meet the challenge of performing for children without condascending to them. Particularly good are Michael Wartella as JoJo - he anchors the show by reacting, wide-eyed and awestruck, to the story's events - and Kelly Felthous, who plays Mayzie with more than a touch of Galinda-like bubbliness. There's also good work by Karen Weinberg: she sings well and she avoids overdoing the schtick as Gertrude.

Still, it has to be said that a leaner, improved Seussical is still Seussical, and the energetic cast and the thoughtful, dynamic production can't completely overcome the musical's problems. Audiences whose ages are out of the single digits will notice that the show's brand of liveliness is generic, rather than distinctly Seussian - there's too little of the author's quirky flavor in the musical. That's especially true of the songs, which don't even attempt to capture the delightful rhythms from the Seuss books. It also has to be said, just for the record, that this production uses pre-taped music rather than a live orchestra.

Revised to please the little ones more than anyone else, this new Seussical bests its Broadway predecessor by asking kids to tap into their own imaginations. By extension it celebrates the simple magic of theatre. Take the kids- you'd have to be a grinch of a parent not to.

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Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher Street)
Tickets (212-332-0001): FREE; Distributed at the box office one hour prior to each performance; Limit 4 per person
Performances (through 8/17): Sunday @ 1:00 & 4:00; Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday @ 10:30 am & 1:00; Thursday @ 1:00 & 6:30

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The People vs. Mona

The People vs. Mona is a neat musical divertissment. On the flimsy surface, it's a courtroom mystery with a bluesy feel, but at heart, it's just a bunch of quirky characters having a grand ole time, and if you go, that's exactly what you'll have.

Photo/Randy Morrison

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The show might be called The People vs. Mona, but I doubt you'll find many people who don't fall in love with her hokey small-town charms. Tippo, Georgia might be filled with "gators and gospel," but what you'll remember from Jim Wann and Patricia Miller's lighthearted hit are the characters, and perhaps a few of the bluegrass (or perhaps "green"grass) numbers from the "McGnat" brothers (Ritt Henn, Jason Chimonides, and Dan Baily), a nice southern-fried trio that keeps even the most mundane of courtroom ordeals (swearing in, for one) lyrically aloft.

After a brief introduction to Tippo from our narrator, defense attorney, and straight man Jim Summerford (the pleasant Richard Binder), the play leaps from the neon-lit confines of Mona's Frog Pad bar to the oaken bench of the country courthouse, run by the hoochie- and coochie-less Judge Ella Jordan. The quick pace is designed to keep the witnesses and their songs a coming, self-parodying backup dancers and all, and it works: the lyrics aren't all that clever or catchy, but the antics of former kitten dancer Tish Thomas and Blind "They Call Me Blind Because I Can't See" Willy (a saucy and spry Marcie Henderson), or the lecherous Euple R. Pugh and sincerely happy motel owner Patel (a well-ranged Omri Schein) are.

As for our central characters, Wann and Miller go with the tried and true tale of new romance: Jim falls out of love with his pushy fiancée, the prosecutor Mavis Frye (Karen Culp), and into love with his client, the guiltily innocent Mona (Mariand Torres). Binder is appropriate stuck between Culp's high energy and Torres's low jazz, and the melodies seem to extend from the characters, with country songs like "A Real Defense," or the gospel showdown of bible passages in "You Done Forgot Your Bible" right up there with the sultry jazz of "Partner," the blues of "Lockdown Blues," or the marching band anthems of "Marching Thru Tippo." There's even a bit of operatic emoting, courtesy of the honestly awkward Officer Bell (a resonant David Jon Wilson).

Considering the play's not meant to be taken seriously, Kate Middleton does a surprisingly deft job of staging the cast of ten. Her work often takes a backseat to the choreography from Jill Gorrie, but the overall atmosphere is all hers, and the reason her actors nail so many of the jokes is because she doesn't emphasize them. The People vs. Mona is a smooth ride, right down to the clever confession scene, in which all the actors run through their key lines so that Jim can try to piece things together in his mind. The only thing really missing is the sense of southern heat: the play is so light that it never works up a sweat, nor gets the audience all atwitter.

Then again, with the sweltering weather outside, maybe a nice cool glass of clever, character-based musical comedy is just what the doctor ordered. The People vs. Mona is a taste of southern hospitality, in lyrical form: so go get you some.

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Abingdon Theatre (312 W 36th Street)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $20.00
Performances (through 8/4): Tuesday-Saturday @ 8:30; Sunday @ 2:30

Universal Robots

When Karel Capek and his brother wrote R.U.R., they were imagining a future of robotics that had theretofore been untapped. However, it's Mac Rogers' look back at the world that gave us R.U.R., and the modern political ramifications that he builds into his adaptation that makes Universal Robots seem so much more fulfilling.

Photo/Sandy Yaklin

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Mac Rogers has done precisely what the humans of Karel Capek's seminal play, R.U.R., did: he's built a better machine. His reimagining of Capek's work, now titled Universal Robots, explains how the eccentric Rossum built robots for the Republic of Czechoslovakia with the assistance of the persuasive Karel Capek (a very sharp David Ian Lee). While the moral and some of the characters are the same, the story is filled with a far more emotional ichor, and although Rogers' script is a bit overlong with historical fact and satire of Capek's early years, his second act is a phenomenally well-acted and -scripted piece of theater. I don't think Universal Robots will rise up and conquer humanity, like robots of both Rogers' and Capek's play, but I with a few tweaks, this play can certainly conquer a larger house.

The way Rogers has rewritten characters to produce actual drama is very effective: Karel's brother Joseph is now his sister, Jo (Jennifer Gordon Thomas), and is the true emotional yin to his ethically solid yang. Unable to ignore the virtual slavery, her compassion recasts her as a robot activist, whereas the male dominated Republic only listens to the romantic science of Peroutka (a nicely nerdy Ben Sulzbach) and the fierce realpolitik of president Masaryk (a gruff, fittingly flustered James Wetzel). In another twist, the robot inventor, Rossum, is now actually Rossum's widow, who, in a maddened state of grief, assumed his experiments, oblivious to the toll this has taken on her daughter, the innocent and beautiful Helena (a bubbling Esther Barlow).

The structure and direction, both by Rogers, are also very clever. By using a narrator (One, played by the crisp, clear, Michelle O'Connor), Rogers is able to loop around in time and abbreviate scenes that would otherwise be too long. In this vein, he's able to mock Capek's original style, dabble in some Brechtian analysis of Communism, and make some nice statements of his own ("Who is the most dangerous man in the world?" "A beautiful dreamer with the means to realize his dreams."). The downside is that these early moments all come across as asides to the central narrative, and stretch the show. Given the excellent cast, it's not a terrible use of time, but it makes the first and second halves of the play quite disparate.

A great deal of this bias, however, may be due to the scene-stealing Jason Howard, who not only comes to life as Robot Radius, but also makes the show come to life as well. His eerily precise recitations of robot rules not only match the alienating qualities the script requires but are replicated in his motion and emotion. Mr. Howard isn't the only actor in the show to have such range (indeed, most of the actors are double cast), but his "upgrades" are the most apparent.

Save for a few moments of flubbed lines (of which there are many), Universal Robots is a widely appealing play, one that not only shows off Rogers' talent as a writer, but as a director as well.

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Manhattan Theatre Source (177 MacDougal Street)
Tickets (212-501-4751): $18.00
Performances (through 7/19): Monday-Thursday @ 8:00

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Greenwich Village Follies

A light-hearted production with a heavy dose of love for the Village’s cultural heritage and Off-Broadway (and Off-Off and Off-Off-Off-Broadway) theater, The Greenwich Village Follies is high spirited and deliciously raunchy, offering an overview of the Village’s history in the form of an old-school musical revue.



Reviewed by Ilena George

Back in the early 1900s, the Greenwich Village Theater (long since razed and replaced with a commercial building) became famous for housing the Greenwich Village Follies, a smaller scale version of big budget Broadway revues popular at the time. The Follies made up in talent what it lacked in financing. But while the old Follies had the distinction of becoming the Village’s first production to transfer to Broadway, I highly doubt it had the pot dealer’s chorus line, the hilariously bad wigs and mustaches or the anthropomorphized painter’s canvas of Andrew Frank and Doug Silver’s current incarnation, playing at the Manhattan Theatre Source.

From Peter Stuyvesant to the Stonewall Riots, Poe to Pollock, pot to peaceniks, The Greenwich Village Follies brings the Village’s colorful characters and events to campy life. It’s a more self-aware version of Schoolhouse Rock meets the Ziegfeld Follies after being robbed and forced to replace all their costumes and props with cheap knock-offs. But the cheapness—put on display by having the set resemble backstage, with props carefully hung up or shelved and always completely visible—is part of the charm. The show and its performers are playful throughout, from the actors’ pre-show schmoozing with the audience, to the production’s self-deprecation (“Of course most of our theatrical tradition is filled with unemployment, anemic ticket sales, and scavenging closed shows for set pieces.”), to its inclusion of a Greenwich Village trivia contest. Just as playful and catchy is the music—just try getting the (absolutely dead-on) Washington Square Park pot dealers’ anthem out of your head. Although the performers—John-Andrew Morrison, Charlie Parker, Guy Olivieri and Patti Goettlicher—are all very talented, the production plays up its Off-Broadway status and avoids taking itself too seriously; weak spots and awkward transitions are pointed out and commented on for comic effect. The actors all address each other by name and at one point Patti segues from Guy’s recounting of various facts related to African-American history to her ode to NYU by saying, “Hey guys—not to be the little white girl who’s not interested in black history but I’m ready for my NYU song.”

Some of the material covered, especially toward the beginning, feels geared towards out-of-towners—what self-respecting New Yorker doesn’t know that Washington Square Park used to be a potter’s field, or about the misogyny and prejudice behind the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire?—but the production really gains steam in its second half. Especially in “Splatter Me All Over,” where Charlie Parker as Jackson Pollock’s canvas urges the inebriated artist to cover her with what would become the artist’s signature paint drips. Parker’s captivating vocals and her ability to rock the hell out of the canvas costume (a sheet with a whole in it, stretched between two poles) makes this clever song astoundingly good. Beginning with a double entendre-laden ode to the Village’s sex shops, to a charming barbershop quartet-style homage to the recently-closed Chumley’s (the bar responsible for the expression “86 it”), to the completely brilliant “Splatter” and the surprisingly touching “Stonewall Girls,” Follies morphs from a varied and playful recap of historical events to a meatier and sleeker glimpse at the institutions and people that have shaped the Village. It’s still cheeky fun, but with a double shot of nostalgia and appreciation thrown in that just doesn’t come through in the same way earlier on.

The play ends with a musical version of former poet laureate of Brooklyn, Walt Whitman’s poem “City of Friends,” which begins: “I dream’d in a dream I saw a city, invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth;/I dream’d that was the new City of Friends.” With this capping off an evening of sincere New York love, only the hardest of hearts wouldn’t melt a little.

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The Greenwich Village Follies
By Andrew Frank and Doug Silver, original concept by Fran Kirmser
Directed by Andrew Frank
Manhattan Theatre Source (177 MacDougal Street)
July 6-28, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, Saturday July 28th at 7 and 9 pm
Tickets: $18, Theatermania (212) 352-3101 or www.theatermania.com

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Professional Skepticism

“Glengarry Glen Ross” meets Enron in this office drama.


By Ellen Wernecke

The program notes for the dark comedy “Professional Skepticism,” the first production of the new Zootopia Theatre Company, mention that playwright James Rasheed based the show on his own career as a CPA. He deserves kudos for sticking it out that long, if this chronicle of an everyday audit gone nasty has any real-life precedent. Two staff accountants, weasely Paul (Matthew J. Nichols) and scrupulous Greg (Wesley Thornton), toil under a steady shower of abuse from their senior Leo (Steve French). Leo professes not to care about making it to the esteemed partner level, but Paul and Greg aren’t smart enough to hide their own ambition, if they even know how. When one of them finds major errors in the audit on deadline, it’s not a surprise that one of the team will sell the others out, just a matter of who’s going to profit.

"Professional Skepticism" is twisted fun, with an unsettling resonance for anyone who's ever thrown down the gauntlet in the name of office politics. The skepticism of the title -- what’s lost when personal relationships override business judgment -- is quoted as an advisory when Paul finds out Greg went out with a secretary from the firm being audited. But it’s a practice all of the accountants indulge in to keep them from going crazy in their claustrophobic office (the space of which director Kareem Fahmy uses every inch). Paul and Greg throw elbows to be assigned to a project with beautiful Margaret (Britney Burgess), the only accountant who seems to be having any fun, but she only has eyes for dour Leo. In this world, it’s better never to cash in that favor or do the downsizing math, because consummation means you’re just another company liability.


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“Professional Skepticism”
Till July 15, Dorothy Strelsin Theatre @ The Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex
312 W. 36th Street
Tickets $15-18, Smarttix.com
For more information, visit ZootopiaTheatre.org.

Professional Skepticism

A bottom-feeder CPA successfully uses the arrogance and negligence of his peers against them in James Rasheed's dog-eat-dog drama, Professional Skepticism. While the material is innately dry, the desperation-driven, twisty plot points, stellar cast, and fantastic set design make this production a worth-see.

Clockwise: Steve French, Britney Burgess and Matthew J. Nichols

in Professional Skepticism. Photo by Jonathan Slaff

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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre


While Morrissey's monster was spawned in November, James Rasheed's monster in Professional Skepticism took all of 25 days in August to be born. Of course said monster, CPA rookie Paul (wonderful anti-villain Matthew J. Nichols), needs more than a little prodding to become a ghoul. He needs to be bitch-slapped, goaded, and ridiculed by associates Leo (Steve French), golden boy Greg (Wesley Thornton) and vampy Margaret (Britney Burgess) before growing fangs and stomping hooves.

Mousy, penny-pinching, meticulous and clingy, Paul is pegged immediately as the quintessential, if sympathetic jerk. As Paul, Nichols writhes in embarrassment, afflicted professionally by Leo, emotionally by Greg, and romantically by Margaret. As his reduction is carefully crafted by Rasheed, it becomes easy to predict his metamorphosis from sniveling to cunning, sheepish to bold. Yet, unlike his counterparts, Paul elevates the competition by never using artifice to accomplish their doom. Instead, he uses the same attributes that they lord over him against them: unfounded conceit and carelessness. It is a beautiful formula, one where he merely exposes their faults rather than invent them. Nichols does marginal slapstick with this role, but he uses the levity well. A careful dollop of humor smeared over his master plan to ruin his competitors' careers is just the right amount to allow him to be the fine line between hero and villain.

The eclectic soundtrack by Andrew Papadeas, although not a part of the show that is referenced in dialogue, is sometimes used by Paul as a means to amuse and extend his position as an alright guy. He dances and prances as he plans. Unfortunately, these instances seem to violate the writer-actor code of creative license.

Rasheed spins an intriguing web of audits and frauds from what originally appears to be an ordinary yarn of he-saids and she-saids. As soon as the plot comes into fruition, much can be forgiven for the bland, life-as-an-accountant backdrop. Credit is due to the strength of Kareem Fahmy's direction for extracting the whole spectrum of acting from the cast, from indifference to rage.

Although the cast is strong across the board, Steve French is especially marvelous as the ring-jerk Leo, concurrently revolting and likable. A classist and a racist, one can't help but anticipate his next insulting jab, particularly since he delivers them with a booming tone that you can't take completely seriously. He gets into character before the play's inception, demonstrating emotional preparation while sifting through documents at his over-sized desk. Or, perhaps it's a device to create the illusion of readiness. Either way, it works.

The set design by Andrew Lu is brilliant in the small space allotted by the Abingdon Theater, both cost and space effective. The over-sized desk denotes the importance of their profession, as does the many documents that cascade from a large folder on the ceiling unto the back wall. Pages are ripped from a large calendar that suspends from the ceiling as a deadline for an audit completion in August creeps close. Lu creates visual frenzy and desperation in a world often associated with order. It is a refreshing, seldom seen perspective.

All is fair in the pursuit of getting ahead, right? Not here. Partially based on Rasheed's past experience as a CPA, Professional Skepticism is an insightful look at the consequences of too much ambition and not enough ethics. Said to be a commentary on contemporary American life, the ambition almost exists as a separate character, whispering in everyone's ear, save Margaret, like a permissible Satan. Apart from a few quips about his undesirability, Margaret is a passive agent in Paul's monstrosity, and perhaps only a casualty by default. It is ironic that all the male characters claim a subdivision of the Christian faith, but yet most certainly behave in an adverse manner to its teachings. Turn the other cheek and the first shall be last, and the last first don't live here. But, as Paul says, he knows how to separate his professional life from his personal life, even if Rasheed's point of view may be that not all ties should be severed. To its own detriment, there are no victors in this play, but it is more dramedy than tragedy. Whether that mimics reality or not does not deflect from the fact that such endings can be perceived as unsatisfying. Regardless of your position on the ending, the sum of everything that precedes it hits the spot.

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Through July 15th. Abingdon Theatre: 312 West 36th Street, NY NY 10018. $15-18 Tickets: 212-868-4444. http://www.smarttix.com/


Saturday, July 07, 2007

Washing Machine

Finding beauty in the minimal, Washing Machine is a powerful one-woman exploration of the moments before and after the drowning of a five-year-old girl in a washing machine back in 2005. Nobody will know what that girl's mother thought for those twenty-one seconds she stared at her dying daughter through the glass, but Jason Stuart's writing, Michael Chamberlin's direction, and Dana Berger's powerful performance feel like pretty strong guesses.
Photo/Michelle Enfield

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Fist in the Pocket sure chose the right play to premiere their company with: Jason Stuart's stunning Washing Machine is equal parts creepy and charming, innocent and premeditated, choreographed and raw. In turn, Jason Stuart chose the right director for his work, his co-developer, Michael Chamberlin, who uses industrial minimalism to keep the focus on the story: What may or may not have happened to those involved in the washing machine drowning of a five-year-old girl. Chamberlin, then, chose the right actor to perform this demanding solo piece: Dana Berger launches herself into this role with enthusiasm and curiosity, yet always manages to pivot as crisply as the light design into each new character with a fresh tone, perspective, and rhythm.

In this melding of director, playwright, and actress, Washing Machine is able to cycle through a variety of styles. Brendan McCall's interpretive choreography goes from the euphoric first breath in the machine to the shuddering (yet still strangely beautiful) final asphyxiation. Akiko Kosaka's intimidatingly postmodern plastic representation of the washing machine and the hanging goldfish bags that keep the water so tantalizingly separate provides a space for exploration. Ben Kato's lighting takes on a personality of its own as it flickers from harsh to psychedelic, and the music (ebbing from techno to the climax of The Who's "Baba O'Reilly") ominously swells out of Elizabeth Rhodes' sound design.

The beautiful but barren aesthetic allows Ms. Berger to operate with athletic grace, springboarding from character to character before eventually diving into the murky depth of the play. In one scene, she's a rigid insurance claims adjuster, clinging to her cigarette for dear life; in the next, she's a slouching, bitter old man who always manages to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. She has to play not only the unfortunate child (whose tongue sticks out first in curiosity and later in a swollen, muffled scream), but the unfortunate young mother who, as if in a trance, stands gaping for 21 seconds before smashing the glass with a rock. Stuart and Chamberlin don't provide any answers to the girl's tragic death, so it's up to Berger to form connections with the characters, and her familiarity with them (even an abnormally young post-pubescent boy) allows her to be shockingly direct with the audience.

Washing Machine is, not surprisingly, a very clean production of a sadly dirty story. It's an hour-long glimpse at an otherwise unnoticed ripple in the pool of life. But unlike the chore with which its associated, this production is anything but perfunctory; it more resembles perfection.

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The Chocolate Factory (5-49 49th Avenue)

Tickets (212-352-3101): $15.00
Last Performance: 7/7 (tonight!) @ 8:00

Doppelganger

Fusing quantum physics and urban legend, Feed the Herd’s Doppelganger uses a technologically sophisticated space—complete with interactive video and sound effects triggered by the actors’ manipulation of the set—in a trippy exploration of how the heart and mind deal with loss.

Reviewed by Ilena George

“What if there are two types of reality?” muses George (Jermaine Chambers) during an acid-fueled moment of clarity, “What if there is something other than linear logic?”

Doppelganger
’s non-linear narrative poses this and other metaphysical questions by looking at two characters’ fragile mental states as they cope with grief following a traumatic death. George, originally an elevator-fearing corporate drone, becomes a frenzied risk-taker after witnessing his friend and co-worker Frank (Matt Hanley) fall out a window 40 stories up. Marcia (Heather Carmichael), Frank’s co-worker and erstwhile lover, hasn’t gotten a good night’s sleep since witnessing what remained of Frank after he hit the pavement. But Frank won't stay dead: both George and Marcia are haunted by various versions of Frank—from flashbacks to the day of Frank’s death, to Frank’s ghost, to his flesh-and-blood doppelganger. Potentially, Frank’s untimely demise sparked from an accidental meeting with his double, his doppelganger, while on line at a coffee shop.

Overseeing George and Marcia’s mental health, embodying corporate culture’s lack of soul and providing an overview of the double-slit experiment and other tenets of quantum physics is the office’s psychiatrist and motivational counselor, known only as The Doctor. Metha Brown’s eerie delivery and apparent omniscience, coupled with the set’s anxiety-provoking, quick-moving video projections of the characters stressing out, 40 stories worth of skyscraper rushing by and even relatively normal street scenes infuse ordinary objects and events—tables, papers, sleeping, speaking—with a sense of creepy malaise and anxiety.

The play consists of fragments—fragmented scenes, fragments of scenery, small personal objects suspended from the ceiling—that build on each other to depict the troubled mental landscape of these two characters as they try to sort out what exactly happened that day and what the aftershocks have been. Frank’s death consumes George and Marcia; they basically exist as characters only because of it and there’s something surgically clean about this obsession. Artistic attempts to parallel scientific principles with humanity and the human experience often don’t hold water. Just try reading Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. That is, saying something has a dual nature is not automatically the equivalent of a photon’s particle and wave-like characteristics. But Doppelganger allows the science some room to breathe, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions as to what exactly is going on. But while the science is evocative, Doppelganger’s visual representation of George and Marcia’s mental states is more striking.

But all these fragments put together create a portrait that still lacks a piece or two as almost nothing is fully explained or known for certain beyond the fact of Frank’s death (which may not even deserve to be called a fact). While the beginning and end neatly mirror each other, the story calls out for a few more pieces to make it complete. Perhaps a little too much is left up to the audience to fill in but if you enjoy a provocative challenge on the nature of reality in a uniquely equipped space, don’t be afraid to sharpen your mental pencils and color in the blanks for yourself.

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Doppelganger
By Simon Heath
Directed by Emanuel Bocchieri
3LD Art and Technology Center (80 Greenwich Street)
June 23 - July 21, Tuesday through Saturday at 8 pm
Tickets: $25, Theatermania (212) 352-3101 or www.feedtheherd.org

Mr. A's Amazing Maze Plays

The Ateh Theater Group's focus is to "tell unusual stories while reinventing the theatrical language in which we tell them." Alan Ayckbourn's childish romp is begging for reinvention, and this talented ensemble really manage to fill his play (and material) with quirky, emotive, characters.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Alan Ayckbourn has been criticized for not being the most substantive of playwrights, but has anybody ever stopped to consider how much fun his mindless comic romps can be? Ateh Theater Group's production of Mr. A's Amazing Maze Plays isn't worried about anything more than entertainment and the glimmering hope of a happy ending, and because of that, its over-the-top ensemble takes empty characters and fills them with excitement.

Director Carlton Ward's greatest success is in transforming the saccharine of this children's play into the type of high-fructose corn syrup that's appealing to the twenty-something crowd looking for something different to do at 10:30 on a Friday night. Unlike the recently revived Intimate Exchanges, which changes each night, but in a predetermined way, Mr. A's Amazing Maze Plays spends half its time establishing the farcical character, and then indulges in a live "Choose Your Own Adventure," where the audience can democratically choose where to send our brave hero, Suzy, and her chipper dog, Neville. (Our rowdy audience, high on life and drunk on booze, managed to kill them both, although our twin narrators were kind enough to give us a second chance.)

The play (like the majority of the "rooms" our characters explore in the mansion of the villainous, voice-stealing Mr. Accousticus) is rather empty, and as I'd mentioned previously, so are the characters. What fills the show, then, is the delightful emoting of the ensemble cast: as Ms. Passerby, Elizabeth Neptune can't just stumble drunkenly around, she has to roll down the "steps" of the chashama theater, into the audience. Ryan Tresser, as Mr. Accousticus, doesn't just have an overblown accent: his revealing costumes and drawn-out movements are larger than life, too. Madeleine Maby, the Mother, mispronounceceses her words with gusto and runs her house like a charming terror, and Suzy and Neville (Alexis Malone and Charley Layton) never miss a chance to castigate the audience with their eyes whenever we mistreat them. (Given a choice between "a room filled with toys" and a deep dark chute that "I wouldn't go down for any reason, ever," our masochistic audience chose the latter.)

The show works best as futurism: the actors squabble over who gets to play which role, the narrators (Sara Montgomery and Ben Wood) keep the show moving smoothly through the audience bits, and there are more than a few moments of laughter overtaking the actors. Plus, when has adding a British accent (to people who are clearly not British) ever not been funny? Everybody at Mr. A's ends up having a great time, from the cast and crew to audience too.

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chashama (217 East 42nd Street)

Next playing: July 27, August 3 @ 10:30PM
Tickets: $10.00 General Admission

Monday, July 02, 2007

Feed the Herd's Doppelganger

review by Elizabeth Devlin

Feed the Herd Theatre Company’s production of Doppelganger, a new play by Simon Heath, includes cutting edge digital and physical technology while telling a story that blends the coldness and ridiculousness of American corporate culture with a view of complete emotional isolation in urban life.

The set, a simplistic-looking arena created out of filing cabinets with personal objects – books, dolls, knick-knacks, etc. strung up in the far background, is much more sophisticated than it looks. Sensors embedded in the set itself trigger video and sound cues based on actor’s movement and interaction with the environment. Video projections on uneven small screens above the actors alternately compliment and distract from the action.

The small cast of talented actors – including the intriguing Matt Hanley as the manic risk-taker Frank – does its best with the material. The theme of empathy in the play – and the idea that caring about other people drives one to insanity and self-destruction – extends too far, to the audience, causing us to care little whether any of these self-absorbed characters get through the emotional crisis they face after a tragic accident brings Frank to his demise. Marcia, portrayed by Heather Carmichael, is his lover, who witnesses his death on her way back to the office from a Starbucks run. Jermaine Chambers is George, who watches his buddy Frank begin his descent. Metha Brown is the egomanicial, slightly vicious psychologist that George and Marcia both visit to help them deal with the emotional trauma.

The incorporation of the high-tech and the simplistic in this play serve to alienate the characters from one another and the audience. Though George has monologues where he speaks of the unity of time and the universe, the overarching tone of the piece is nihilistic and depressing.


Doppelganger by Simon Heath, directed by Emanuel Bocchieri, runs through July 21st at the 3LD Art and Technology Center. For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit feedtheherd.org.