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, October 30, 2007

12th Night of the Living Dead

What happens when you cross Shakespeare's Twelfth Night with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead? You get the perfect Halloween treat: a zombified Shakespearean comedy that is a well-balanced mixture of clever, disgusting and hilarious.

Photo by Tony KnightHawk

Reviewed by Ilena George

The La Tea Theater, which houses 12th Night of the Living Dead, forever won my admiration earlier this year as the venue for Point Break Live!, a production based on the Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swazye film about an FBI agent who goes undercover to infiltrate a gang of bank-robbing surfers. The show involved a lot of audience participation, from soaking the first two rows, to holding them up in a “bank robbery” to actually using a member of the audience each night to play Keanu Reeves’ part. 12th Night has a similar appeal: The show is playful, a little ridiculous and completely entertaining.

Although the space lends itself to productions that have an informal feel to them, that’s not to say that the production is poorly put together. Quite the opposite is true. As a whole, 12th Night of the Living Dead melds together Shakespearean and modern references in several entertaining and smart ways. Lillian Rhiger’s costumes mix elements from modern clothing with period dress: The opening scene features Orsino and one of his musicians dressed in bathing suits over white stockings, while also sporting ruffs. The men wear modern suit pants modified to become trunk hose. Even Feste, who is a long-haired, round sunglasses-wearing free spirit in this production, has his jeans hemmed up to the thigh.

Surprisingly, and satisfyingly, the zombie trope is completely apropos for the Twelfth Night story: not only does much of the dialogue readily adapt itself to a more horrific situation (“What kind of a man is he?” asks Olivia, referring to the zombified Viola/Cesario. “He is of…mankind,” replies Malvolio.), but turning the characters into ravenous, cannibalistic zombies also perfectly illustrates the complete self-absorption of all the lovers in the play.

The show stays true to Shakespeare’s dialogue. However, since the undead are rather reticent, the conversations get more and more one-sided as more and more characters become zombies. But many of the characters are so caught up in themselves that they are utterly unable to see the terrible reality right in front of them. Duke Orsinio’s solipsism is especially hilarious; he forms a close bond with Viola/Cesario, thinking “he” is a willing audience to his (Orsinio’s) constant ramblings on life and love, never realizing the obvious—that “Cesario” is a woman and, at least in this particular production, undead.

From Larry Giantonio’s stoner Feste, to zombie Viola (Lindsay Wolf) and her insatiable hunger for human flesh, to Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Benjamin Ellis Fine) and his dead-on comedic timing, to gaunt and severe Malvolio, played by Tom Knutson, the vivid characters are in turn winning, funny and all completely doomed. Although the zombie comedy can start to lose its luster— at times, there is such a thing as too much zombie physical comedy or dribbling blood—the production includes enough gory surprises to keep the material fresh. No pun intended.

12th Night of the Living Dead is a delicious gorefest, including a (literally) visceral death scene near the conclusion and a grand mêlée ending, one that guarantees a bloody good time.

..........................................................................................
12th Night of the Living Dead Adapted by Brian MacInnis Smallwood
Directed by John Hurley
La Tea Theater (107 Suffolk Street, between Rivington and Delancey)
October 25-November 10
Tickets: $18, 1-800-838-3006, www.brownpapertickets.com

Monday, October 29, 2007

Speech and Debate

Roundabout's youthfully oriented new play Speech and Debate has a lot to say about the issues that outcast students deal with (like sexual identity and social ineptness), but while it uses the various "subjects" of a speech and debate team to frame these points, it does so with broad comic strokes. The acting is, at times, a little much, but the overemphasis generally works to remind us that even if the subject matter is heavy, the characters dealing with it are still a little immature.

Photo/Joan Marcus

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

I went to high school at roughly the same time as young playwright Stephen Karam (26), and things weren't quite as silly as they're presented in his excellent new play, Speech & Debate. But times have changed, and Karam's done his research: he's taken two of the oldest stereotypes in the book, the untalented drama "major" and the overzealous nerd, paired them with an openly gay student, and modeled the scenes after various exercises from Speech and Debate. For instance, Extemporaneous Thought, follows Diwata's stream-of-consciousness rants (and Casio-composed songs) as she vents the only way she can: to her website, Monoblog. Or Storytelling, in which nebbish Solomon tries to interview "queenie" Howie over the phone, looking for the drama behind a drama teacher's online solicitations for sex. Though the play continues through Cross Examination, Declamation, and Student Congress (to name a few), it never strains the idea, and each scene cleverly ties these disparate students into an unlikely friendship, the kind that, given each one's secret, they all really need.

Speech & Debate is light and open-minded, but this doesn't stop it from being critical and dramatic where necessary. That Mr. Karam is able to jump from a teleconferenced chorus of song into a trumpeted chatroom conversation, and from there into a debate on freedom of speech (within a school) or the right to personal secrecy, speaks more clearly than I can toward his strength as a playwright. He's helped by the intimacy of the classroom set (the audience is proximal enough to be students) and by the masterful direction of Jason Moore (Avenue Q) who knows a thing or two about indulging quirks while still being truthful, if not insidiously so.

The acting is probably the weakest part of the show, and that's more a testament to the rest of the production than it is a critique of actors Sarah Steele, Jason Fuchs, Gideon Glick, and Susan Blackwell. They're all good, and they play well off one another, but they're channeling such exaggerated tics that they sometimes come across as self-aware and glib, particularly with Mr. Fuchs, who pulls faces more than some of the actors in 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. It still works, but it'd be nice to see more than a brief glimpse of the real Ms. Steele, who is currently hiding behind what I'll call her character's Eyebrows of Indignation.

Some nitpicking seems de rigueur for a show that boldly traverses comedy and drama so well, but I wouldn't want to risk discouraging anyone from seeing this delightful show. This is good, topical theater, done professionally, and ticketed cheaply ($20), so get going!

-------------------------------------------------------------
Roundabout Underground (111 West 46th Street)
Tickets: $20:00
Performances (through 12/16): Tues.-Sat. @ 8:00 | Sat. & Sun. @ 2:30 | Sun. @ 7:00

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Welcome to Nowhere (bullet hole road)

Reality, memory and identity are distorted for six nostalgic characters whose lives all converge on a road that is nowhere and leads to nowhere. Formerly of Richard Foreman's ontological theater, Temporary Distortion's clever use of multi-media to represent the psyche is impressive, but this pensive, occasionally bland performance will resonate with David Lynch fans who may cry foul for the aping. Photo by Kenneth Collins

............................................................
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

David Lynch, beware. There's a small theater in town named Temporary Distortion trying to steal the thunder of your Lost Highway, and they're doing it in just an hour. In Welcome to Nowhere (bullet hole road), they've taken your pale-hued, spooky characters, trained them to whisper ponderously, and have detached them from any linear story lines. But here, they've also spliced film with performance art, audio with visuals, and are using what appears to be tricked-out sound booths with a time-travel chamber as the light-happy set. But with all that glitz and creativity, the show is still sometimes snooze-inducing.

It's not the visuals. With carefully-calculated lighting design, interesting looking characters, good film work, catchy, repeat-along captions and a set straight out of a science lab, there's enough eye stimulation to keep you alert. And it's not the theme. Identity, memory and reality are always juicy themes to dig into, particularly when they're elusive and can't be pinned down to satisfy the need for regularity. The only things left are the pacing and the stylized vocal arrangements. For the most part, the pacing is lazy, tempered and monotonous, as are the monologues and dialogue. The words themselves are not noteworthy, and delivered in a mono-tempo and cadence, the allure dies quickly. But it is not all boring. Just when you are being lulled to sleep, the vocal design changes between two characters or music interjects your nap. But you have to wait 25 minutes for the first change, and that just may be 25 minutes too long.

Welcome to Nowhere is pretentious: it tries too hard. Perhaps it would be more successful as a single medium, like as a fully-fledged film. Then again, it's sexy and sports enough messed-up characters to make for good drama. It emulates a master--not well enough to hide the flaws--but in such a way that the flaws create their own flair. If Temporary Distortion can find some of that flair earlier, the show may evolve into that new, ground-breaking creature.

..............................................
Through October 27th. Tickets: $15. http://www.ovationtix.com/ Chocolate Factor: 5-49 49th Avenue, Long Island City, NY 11101 (Queens)

Friday, October 26, 2007

Yank!

Yank! may be a new musical, but it's deep in homage to the past, allowing it to feel like a revival, while still being topical (gays in the military before Don't Ask Don't Tell). There's chemistry between Hollywood-cool Mitch (Maxime de Toledo) and bumbling farm boy Stu (Bobby Steggert), and even without the trappings of behind-the-scenes WWII reportage, these twin tales of self-discovery and the struggle for identity would still be winning.

Photo/Jennifer Maufrais Kelly
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Before the first chords of Yank!, The Gallery Players management spoke to the audience about ways in which it could help convince them to add more original musicals to their seasons. They mentioned voting for them over at the New York Innovative Theatre Awards. (Check!) They suggested telling their friends about it. (Check!) Then, having focused their creative minds into this wonderful production, they seemed to run out of other ways we could help convince them. Here are a few of mine:

(1) David Zellnik is a wonderful playwright. His last show, Serendib, balanced science and nature, playing the two off each other in a paralleled story between monkey and man. His new musical, Yank! (music by his brother Joe), is a warm-hearted and honest tribute to the WWII era, both in musical styling and depiction of gay prejudice. Country boy Stu (Bobby Steggert, well-qualified for the role after being a delightful rube in Roundabout's 110 in the Shade), out of place in the military, finds solace in the strength of Mitch (Maxime de Toledo), whose cool demeanor and charismatic looks (think Ben Affleck) give him the sobriquet "Hollywood." However, their romance is far from dreamlike (though there is a "jump the shark" dream ballet): Stu flees the front when a more "open" soldier, the gay-and-loving-it Artie (a delightful Jeffry Denman) picks him to be a photographer for Yank! magazine.

(2) Revivals are done to expose new audiences to old classics, or to bask in the memories of the past, but new works like Yank! are able to expose old audiences to new classics, while still giving the memories of the past. Here are the enjoyable song stylings of the '40s, but here's a story that's fresh and relevant, too. Languorous radio riffs like "Blue Twilight," up-tempo comic drifts on "Saddest Gal What Am," and tight choral numbers that can play the military aspect ("Credit to the Uniform") in the same breath as the civilian ("Your Squad is Your Squad"). Want a sweet, quiet duet, sung with nothing more distracting than a spotlight? ("A Couple of Regular Guys.") Want a toe-tapping, bring-the-house down number? ("Click.")

(3) It's normally awfully expensive for audiences to give a new show the benefit of the doubt. But $18 tickets scream for people to cross the river, especially when that new show has Broadway talent (Steggert and also Nancy Anderson, who plays all the female parts), a catchy score, and a revealing glimpse at an often glossed over truth about the military. For that price, you do get a few over-quirked actors, but everyone's hard-working, and the chorus of purposefully stereotyped actors ("We got one of each kind," says the Sarge) are as good as their names imply: Tennessee, Czechowski, Professor, and Rotelli, played to the hilt by Tyson Kaup, James Stover, Daniel Shevlin, and Chris Carfizzi.

Truth is, I have an ulterior motive. The Zellnicks have another musical, Casebook of Hapsburg, R---, and given how hard it is to mount even a black box show, we need more theaters with budget-stretching directors (like Igor Goldin, who crisply uses two rolling metal walls in about every way you can think of, and then some), and more audiences willing to tackle stories that have more than mere fluff. The Gallery Players are on the cusp of both, so let's all just push.

----------------------------------------------------
Gallery Players Theater (199 14th Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Performances (through 11/11): Thurs. - Sat. @ 8:00 | Sun. @ 2:00

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Savage in Limbo

Stuck between living and existing, a 32-year old virgin aggravates everyone around her with her rejection of routines and her push for innovation. With a tepid start and glaring production flaws, Savage in Limbo is far from perfect, but does boast a solid cast and great barroom philosophies.
Rebecca Whitehurt as Denise Savage in Savage in Limbo
......................................................

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

32-year old virgin Denise Savage (Rebecca Whitehurst) has an itch, and she's going to make sure that everyone at a Bronx pay-as-you-go bar tries to scratch it in The Process Group's production of John Patrick Shanley's Savage in Limbo. While nursing a couple of drinks, Savage starts vomiting her woes about her stagnant life and self-imposed chastity belt in the presence of her old classmates who are either equally disgruntled or in booze-inspired denial. There is Murk (Henry Zebrowski), a surly bartender with a limited soft side, April White (Brooke Delaney), a former nun hopeful now turned alcoholic, and Linda Rotunda (Jenny Grace), a recently abandoned girlfriend who takes pride in being a good bedmate.

It's the mid-80s, and with the exception of Murk and April who are like stationary parts of the set, everyone makes a narcissistic entrance. Unfortunately, their excessively-teased hair and authentic period garb by Katherine Brown aren't enough to make the audience take note of their arrival. Savage arrives first without pop, entering from the house under Bryan Close's direction. The long walk to the stage suggests that the bar is cavernous, but the mere two tables on stage that are set wide apart don't. And as it is clear that the bar only serves up drinks minus any entertainment or food, the implied size is impractical. The mistake to have the cast enter through the audience is further enhanced later when bonehead Tony Aronica (Robert Bray), former lover and Monday "workout" to Linda, carries on a conversation with Linda and Denise while retreating, forcing the audience to split their focus between opposite ends.

For the first half or so, Linda and Denise rekindle their acquaintance and disdain of one another. Their banter is so effortless and stereotypically Italian that it is as if they are carrying on in an SNL version of a women of the Sopranos spin-off. As Linda and Denise compare notes on each other's sucky lives, April and Murk sit by like two stooges with no life of their own. This is a faux-pass because we learn later that something is indeed brewing between these two, and they could have participated as more than observers for the better part of the play. Important information and good dialogue is exchanged between the two, but their rapid tongue fire makes us aware that this bar play is in desperate need of some background music. Everyone wants change from the mundane, and when Tony appears to explain his breakup with Linda, the determined five mix and match their destinies to come up with some illogical but decidedly different next steps.

Shanley
creates some strong, dysfunctional characters, most impressively with Linda and Denise. Grace and Whitehurst are dominant forces, dueling for titles in the most willful, most abrasive, and most compelling categories, but through Denise, Whitehurst wins for the most gutsy. Linda is both a novelty-seeking missile and a skeeball hurling herself towards several slots at once for any type of deviation. Yet, the prison of habits that she finds herself in is one that she has created for herself by attempting to defy habit. For even a path defined by constant change is a rigid path, and methods can never truly be escaped.

Although The Process Group's production of Savage in Limbo can use some reconfiguring, the script is a lot deeper than anticipated and pleasantly unpredictable. There are some great philosophies hidden behind the leotards and all that hairspray,which is one of the points that the characters try to make: there is more to them than meets the eye. Savage in Limbo teaches that if you don't like the cards in life that you've drawn, you can always shuffle the deck. However, own them and consider them before you return them and know that proof of life isn't always in a queen or a king.

.................................................

Through November 4th.

Tickets: $25. 212-868-4444.

Duo Theater: 62 East 4th Street, NY, NY 10003.

Philoktetes

A Greek war hero is visited by comrades who abandoned him on an island 10 years ago. A virtual quilt of various Philoktetes myths, this production starts off putt-putting, but eventually revs up to embody the hubris and the delicious drama that one should expect from a Greek tragedy. From left, Will Badgett, Jason Lew (on screen) and Louis Cancelmi in John Jesurun’s update of Sophocles’ “Philoktetes.” Photo by Paula Court.

........................................................

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Like a true Greek myth, John Jesurun's Philoktetes drips of power-infused speeches, arrogance, and a furious dance of wills. The dialogue, lyrical and well-crafted, is immediately established as one of the production's greatest strengths, even though the under-projected voice of Greek war hero Philoktetes (Louis Cancelmi) doesn't carry it well at first. That is the only mark on Cancelmi's performance, however. His Philoktetes is as menacing and focused as Zachary Quinto's Sylar from NBC's Heroes, and he even looks like Quinto himself. And keeping that menace going is an astounding feat, seeing as Philoktetes has been emasculated, cobbled, and stripped of all his glory by the gods.

On his way to Troy and suited with Heracles' poisonous bow and arrows, Philoktetes gets bitten by a snake that incapacitates him. His pain is so overbearing that his comrades, including Odysseus, abandon him on the island of Lemnos in solitude. After ten years of trying to sack Troy with little advancement, they learn from an oracle that they need Heracles' bow and arrows to claim victory. The play begins when Odysseus (Will Badgett) and Achilles' son Neoptolemus (a cheeky and untethered Jason Lew) encounter Philoktetes' shade. Or do they?

Instead of a broken or dead Philoktetes, Odysseus and Neoptolemus find him to be as strong and as defiant of the gods as before. His festering wound notwithstanding, he shows no weaknesses, hurling insults at his two visitors not only for what they did to him a decade ago, but because he knows their new purpose. And he's not giving up the goods, despite a valiant show of brawn and authority on Odysseus' part, and an implied sexual connection with a Neoptolemus that is less savage and barbaric than as usually portrayed in mythology (but similar to Sophocles' version in his own Philoctetes).

Jesurun's vision for the setting incorporates several media components and near-optical illusions that are fantastic for this play. Three throne-like chairs orbit a representation of rushing waters in the center of the stage that is also reflected on the "ceiling." It is a great way to illustrate the fate of Philoktetes as well as each character's unwillingness to yield to the other. A camera lens magnifies the faces of the actors upstage, creating a larger than life depiction to match everything else. The visuals are appreciated and needed because save for one well-choreographed power exchange scene between Odysseus and Philoktetes, there is very little action to cut through the verbosity. But it's a good thing that the words delight.

Although Philoktetes moves slowly in some parts and relies heavily on words, Jesurun successfully gels contemporary references with classical ones, making it accessible to the audience if they happen to get confused by the poetry. The direction by Jesurun is strong, as demonstrated by the justly inflated performances of the cast. The production also makes a good case for the interchangeability of life and death, and the consideration of the unimaginable. Cursed and made to suffer alone, Philoktetes is robbed of his glory as a general. Yet, not even a deserted island seems to hold him back from being the captivating character that he is.

..................................................................
Through October 28th.
Tickets: $25, $.99 Sundays. www.smarttix.com.
Soho Rep: 46 Walker Street, New York, NY 10013

Monday, October 22, 2007

Seating Arrangements

The Bats are to acting as New Theater Corps would like to be toward criticism. If you're reading this, you might as well be sitting down and listening to them rap, sing, emote, or play violin as they discuss politics and passions. It's an intimate dinner party, and you're invited. Challah!


Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The Bats are to acting as the New Theater Corps would like to be for criticism: a local repertory company of upcoming talent who all share a passion and enthusiasm for the arts. On that basis alone, may The Flea, which hosts them, receive all the grants it needs, and many charitable donations. One such grant, from the Danish Arts Council, has brought the best out of what the Bats can offer with their young blood, as well as what The Flea can offer as a welcoming theater: in this case, Pold Worm Jensen's seating ARRANGEMENTS, or the most fun you can have at a banquet (that isn't really a banquet). Which makes sense when you consider that the play is based on Babette's Feast, but not at all about that famous short story-cum-film, save as a jumping off point for the actors, jumping in and out of characters in a semi-futurist style.

Since June 2007, Erik Pold (joined by set designer Stine Worm Sorensen and dramaturge Allan Richardt Jensen, all from Denmark) has been working with eight of the Bats to piece together a celebratory and revelatory piece about the values important to them -- not the modesty meets extravagance of the 1881 feast (these actors have great imagined lives, but as they confess, are mostly all without health care), but about their discomfort. In a stylized formality, these actors riff off the original material and jump into telling their own stories, the only ones they really and truly can, be that a hyperbolic rant against Donald Trump's SoHo zoning, or about recent immigration legislature.

Some of these brief conversations are paradoxic: a comfortable actress speaks about being uncomfortable having to discuss her Mormon roots (Jane Elliot). Some are familiar: an actor talks about how his repressed past in Ireland kept him from being who he truly was, until he found himself able to be persecuted for it in America (Donal Brophy). Some actors rap (Bobby Moreno), sing (Max Jenkins), or violin (Sylvia Mincewicz) through their frustrations, joys, and pains. Whatever the form, whatever the topic, it is all entertainingly intimate, not shared across a stage, but from plated seats beside you at the table. (Well, OK, if you're not early enough to snag a seat, you'll have to watch from a more formalized seating arrangement.)

Occasionally, the play is too formal; it would've been nice to see looser transitions, more natural moments of spontaneity, and more genuine conversation outside of the larger "numbers" that make the actors leap from their seats in outrage. At the same time, Pold keeps the "food" fresh by playing enough with blocking and lighting to make those events theatrical, yet personable. (I, for instance, was Riccardo, Assistant Sector Manager for a moment.) The thoughts are not unified, nor even complete, but the actors are, and I'll take the honesty of their clamor over the dissembling glaze of some flimsily commercial play any day.

--------------------------------------------
The Flea Theater (41 White Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $25.00
Performances: 10/24-10/27 @ 7:00 | 10/27 @ 3:00

Die Mommie Die!

It's been too many years since drag legend and playwright Charles Busch donned wigs and heels to treat New York to one of his smart and snappy campfests. While this new one is not quite in the same league as his best, it hardly matters: Busch is at the height of his powers as a performer.

photo: Carol Rosegg

-------------------------
Reviewed by Patrick Lee

Charles Busch is back on stage in a dress, and New York is a better place for it.

In Die Mommie Die!, his latest cross-dressed kitschfest which is set in the late ‘60’s and which lampoons Hollywood Gothics such as Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, he’s faded screen and recording star Angela Arden, whose celebrated career has hit the skids. Stuck in a loveless living-hell marriage with a movie producer who sabotages her Catskills comeback gig, Angela plots a divorce-by-murder right under the noses of her wayward teenage kids, her vain and oily “tennis instructor” (read: gigolo), and her snooping housekeeper. It’s done winkingly, as always with Busch’s drag plays, in the crooked finger between teeth style. There’s just enough fresh dirtiness to give it a contemporary kick: the murder weapon, for instance, is a poisoned suppository.

As Busch makes his first entrance from the garden, saying "Pardon my appearance, I've been up to my elbows all afternoon in manure," his appearance is, of course, flawless. The elaborate orange wig, the gorgeous floral gown, the magazine-perfect makeup: Busch is once again playing a camped-out version of a woman who could only exist in the Hollywood melodramas of more than a handful of decades ago. His every lift of an eyebrow and cross of his legs in Die Mommie Die is campy bliss, even for those in the audience who don't know the sources of Busch's inspirations. As he’s off stage only long enough to quick-change into yet another frock, Busch has fashioned himself a nearly non-stop star vehicle and it’s a joy to take the ride with him.

It is, however, not always a smooth ride. While its goof on late ‘60’s melodramas is always pleasurable, and its slick visual design does a terrific job of conjuring up the needed cinematic effects, Die Mommie Die! is not in the same class as the best Busch spoofs (such as The Lady In Question or Red Scare on Sunset) which have tighter narratives. The play only seriously falters in its climactic scene, which leaves Busch alone on stage to deliver a lot of exposition. This production is further let down by a sometimes unruly supporting cast, who often venture too far over the top. (Kristine Neilsen is the worst offender: her campy mugging gets easy laughs, but the play would be better served if she was more of grounding presence: we don’t need Vicki Lawrence to wear a curtain rod, too.)

The main attraction is Charles Busch camping it up on stage, and here he's at the height of his powers as a performer. That alone makes Die Mommie Die! one of the funnest nights out in town right now.

--------------------------------------------
New World Stages (340 W 50th Street)
Tickets (212-329-6200): $35.00 - $91.50
Performances: Tues-Fri @ 7:00 | Sat @ 7:00 & 10:00 | Sun @ 3:00 & 7:00

Philoktetes

MacArthur Fellow John Jesurun’s interpretation of a classic Greek myth offers a succinct and visually compelling meditation on a long, unwinnable war and the alienation of a disillusioned soldier. The minimalist set and evocative imagery provide a beautiful and dream-like background to the aggressive verbal attacks the characters launch at each other.


Will Badgett, Jason Lew and Louis Cancelmi
Photo by Paula Court


Philoktetes was a Greek general who, while en route to battle the Trojans, was abandoned by his fellow soldiers on an isolated island after being incapacitated by snakebite. However, after ten years of unsuccessful struggle against the Trojans, Odysseus consults an oracle who tells him the only way to win the war is to find Philoktetes and take Hercules’ bow from him. Jesurun’s play begins where the myth ends: Odysseus and Achilles’ son Neoptolemus visit Philoktetes and attempt to enlist his help.

The production has a fluid lyricism, both in its dialogue, which possesses the solemn sonority of scripture (and which, at times, is actually selections from the Bible) and visually as well. Two big screens, one angled down on the wall and the other on the floor, project images of nature—water, the full moon—and more abstract images—colors, sparks and trails of light—which establish both a lulling and uneasy atmosphere. At times, the actors used a camera at the back of the stage to appear in close up and larger-than-life on the wall screen.

Though there is more narrative than action, Philoktetes unfolds with tension of a courtroom drama: The characters coldly interrogate each other while harboring simmering contempt. Jesurun's minimal set and subtle staging heightens the effect of every sharp word or movement. Louis Cancelmi as Philoktetes is especially mesmerizing; his taut and restrained delivery speaks volumes as to the disillusionment that comes with prolonged isolation and the anger stemming from a soldier separated from his war. Will Badgett as a stern and be-suited Odysseus and Jason Lew as Neoptolemus are similarly entrancing.

It is the language of the play that is both the most beautiful and terrible part of the production. The play begins with Philoktetes’ entreaty, “Listen to me,” and it is difficult to disobey. References to gods, goddesses, and mythical creatures are uttered nearly in the same breath as references to modern conveniences (Chinese take-out, room service, etc) and slang. Ranging from repetitive call-and-response exchanges to visceral invectives (“Have another blood and honey sandwich, Odysseus, and contemplate your future under the boot.”), Jesurun’s imagery invokes the grim specter of war and an emphasis on the slow corporeal and metaphysical rot that ensues. This sparse and evocative play is not one to miss.

....................................................................................
Philoktetes by John Jesurun
Directed by John Jesurun
Soho Rep (46 Walker Street)
October 13-28, 7:30 pm
Tickets: $25, www.smarttix.com

Friday, October 19, 2007

Pulp

You don't need brains to enjoy Nosedive's homage to the pulp horror comics of yore, so feel free to bring zombies along with you. Pulp is pure, bloody humor, and M. Night Shyamalan could learn a thing or two about satisfying twists by checking out this anthology.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Pulp, a new horror anthology by Nosedive Productions, isn't just right for the October season, it's exactly what the doctor ordered. According to that eviscerating doctor of the opening number, "Metaphor," some pain is necessary to satisfy the audience's desire for catharsis, but this well-assembled production is pretty good about cauterizing the weaker portions and the evening is mostly a delightfully grim success.

The play follows our hosts, the Blood Brothers (Pete Boisvert and Patrick Shearer), as they shuffle across the dimly lit stage, making sure the show goes on, whether they have to force it to perform or not. Clad in slick but funereal suits, with bald heads and faces as white as the gleam in their sinister smirks, the two lend cohesion to the play, framing devices straight out of classic comics like Tales from the Crypt or House of Mystery. Shearer even sounds like the Cryptkeeper, all glib narration and unmasked revelry in the twists and comeuppances that befall each character.

Speaking of twists, the three central pieces by Mac Rogers, Qui Nguyen, and James Comtois all deliver. Comtois's "Listening to Reason," the strongest of the three, introduces us to a homicidal maniac (although, as our host points out, fan, addict, or fiend is more appropriate) who is undone by the very thing he takes such pleasure in, and the denouement--an intimate moment of uncontrollable laughter from the cornered killer, played by Marc Landers--is one of the creepiest things within Pulp. Rogers's "Best Served Cold," a close second, succeeds by pandering to the inevitable twist: our narrator delights in reminding Brianne, a waitress being held hostage by the wronged Marybeth, that she only needs to stall for eight minutes before a cop will arrive. The suspense is driven by this persistent nagging, and Jessi Gotta and Anna Kull deliver tight performances as the waitress and revenger. Nguyen's piece, "Dead Things Kill Nicely," suffers from some unbalanced performances, particularly from Stephanie Cox-Williams, and lacks the momentum of the other plays, but by keeping it physically close (and with such attention to the sex appeal of pulp's omnipresent damsels in distress), it manages to convey the proper mood.

The other acts are short and incomplete vignettes, but they work as palate cleansers, and go with the collective atmosphere of Nosedive, in which playwrights, actors, and directors freely participate in everyone's plays, and everyone has a chance to stand out (like Brian Silliman, as the inept but always smiling Magician in "Something Up His Sleeve"). That spirit also lends Pulp a bevy of sight gags (beyond the always funny splatter of blood packets), and that comic timing, applied to suspense, is what helps transition the pulp story to the stage. Nosedive knows what they're doing, and Pulp goes down smooth.

---------------------------------------------------
78th Street Theater Lab (236 78th Street)
Tickets: $18.00
Performances (through 10/27): Thurs. - Sat. @ 8:00

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Me, Myself, I and the Others

This absurdist comedy is a madcap look inside one's mind: and yes, it's about as disorganized in there as you'd expect. The production is tight, but the script is torn between simply being an experience and trying to be a narrative for the unseen protagonist. In truth, the show might work better in smaller, purer doses.


Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Remember the old commercials with the egg frying in the pan? You know, this is your brain on drugs? Well, that brain has nothing on the Seussian fantasy Wreckio Ensemble has cooked up in Me, Myself, I, and the Others, a madcap physical comedy written and co-directed by Dechelle Damlen. (She is joined by Kimberlea Kressal, who is excellent at directing such highly stylized pieces.) The mind is an asylum, populated by its own Looney Tune-like manifestations; the result is something like an old time circus freakshow. Entertaining, but you can't live in a concept, no matter how brilliant or well-executed.

I love Jian Jung's impressive Wonka-meets-Star Trek laboratory and Oana Botez-Ban's dysfunctional costuming (white coats meet colored tights, garters, and green medical gloves). But what works aesthetically only exacerbates what doesn't work emotionally. The show is dealing entirely in caricature, so there's no growth: in fact, there's very little drama. The expressionist absurdity sees to that, with conversations not just overlapping, but literally competing for attention. When the chaos coalesces, it all seems worthwhile, but Me, Myself, I, and the Others isn't sane: it wants to sustain the neuroses, not explain them.

Day Fantasist (Randi Berry) squeals about her hopes and dreams, then plunges into fright at her inadequacies; Random Haphazard (Benjamin Spradley) lurks by drawers filled with paper memories, cataloging our "hero's" thoughts; and Eye The Third (Karly Maurer) runs the show from a raised podium, like a DJ constantly scratching and remixing stray thoughts. Hangfire Rundwild (Santana Dempsy) is the wild child, clad in 80s spandex and a yellow boa styled into a punk lock of hair, and she jumps around stage with great enthusiasm for repeating the catchy choruses of songs ("You say hello, and I say goodbye"), and Really Mean (Anna Lamadrid) stands aloof, taking note of all the unsaid nasty thoughts like a legal stenographer. What little conflict there is in these disparate parts belongs mainly to Myself Workhorse (Paul James Bowen), who protests the unequal distribution of work, but his struggle for identity (or at least a job description) is artificial drama, as is the arrival of the real antagonist, Mr. Hang Back (Emily Firth).

The cast is so committed, they should be committed, and their endurance is at such a high level that the audience is at least kept on its toes. But these manifestations are set in their ways, and they have no inner selves, only a collective outer self with high tension, allergies, a violent craving for chocolate cake, and a need to sever ties with her old lover, none of which are truly satisfying perceptions to have. And because the play never fills us in, it only truly works when it remains eccentrically opaque. Perhaps Me, Myself, I and the Others would work better as a gallery installation -- something audiences could walk into, interact with, and then run from at the first yawn of boredom. As is, it's a pure experience that overstays its welcome.

---------------------------------------------
Wings Theatre (154 Christopher St.)
Tickets (www.wreckio.com): $20.00
Performances (through 11/3): Thurs., Fri., Sat., Mon. @ 8 | Sun. @ 3

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Beebo Brinker Chronicles

A pulp classic gets new life in the Hourglass Group’s outstanding new show.



Bill Dawes and Autumn Dornfeld in a scene from "The Beebo Brinker Chronicles." Photo by Dixie Sheridan.

By Ellen Wernecke

Who knew what danger lurks in the hearts of women? The Hourglass Group’s delightfully campy “The Beebo Brinker Chronicles” patterns itself after (and gently satirizes) a series of lesbian pulp novels by Ann Bannon in which smart singles and housewives succumb to the allure of the girl underworld. Unlike the lesbian-themed novels which had preceded it, Bannon, herself an unhappily married woman who would come out in the 1980s, let her characters rest in the knowledge that they loved women, even if the women they loved didn’t return their affections. (“The Beebo Brinker Chronicles” plays ‘50s notions--like the idea lesbian women could be “cured” by marriage--for laughs.)

Once, Laura (Marin Ireland) and Beth (Autumn Dornfeld) were lovers; now, Laura lives in Greenwich Village with a crush on her roommate (Carolyn Baeumler) and a gay best friend named Jack Mann (David Greenspan). Frustrated in love, Laura falls into bed with the notorious womanizer Beebo Brinker (Anna Foss Wilson), whose passion for the naïve blonde turns into a controlling affair from which she’s desperate to escape. Eight years later, Beth leaves her husband and goes to New York to meet her favorite novelist (Baeumler as well) and find her first true love.

At once slick and melodramatic, “The Beebo Brinker Chronicles” zings merrily from the shadowy Cellar bar to bedroom scenes, downtown to uptown (through Rachel Hauck’s clever set design). There’s a lot of dramatic door-slamming in between the voice-over narrations shared by several characters, but make no mistake, even the perfectly malevolent Wilson as Beebo, who draws on predatory figures the pulp genre loves, is depicted with a wink and a smile. If you can’t laugh at a character’s comment like “That’s the awful thing about lesbians, they have no discrimination,” this isn’t your weekend entertainment, but like the pulpy books it was based on, it’s a niche worth visiting.

---
Through October 28 at the Fourth Street Theatre
83 East Fourth Street
For more information, visit HourglassGroup.org.

I Used to Write on Walls

Some playwrights dip into the pool of odd New Yorkers, set them in a room together, and call that a play. Others actually listen to what those characters have to say. Bekah Brunstetter belongs to that latter camp, and her new play, I Used to Write on Walls is a blast to watch.
Photo: Working Man’s Clothes/DARR Publicity

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Working Man's Clothes has another gripping, visceral hit on their hands, following up on Penetrator with Bekah Brunstetter's I Used to Write on Walls. Not that there aren't blemishes on that wall, or that the chalk Brunstetter uses to pen her play doesn't snap at a bunch of places; it's just that the overwhelming mood of the piece, from Georgia's beat poetry to Mona's mania to Anna's precociously dirty mouth, is one of lurking hilarity. And while the connection of disparate characters (four women, one wild surfer dude) isn't as strong as, say Six Degrees of Separation, it's fresh, hip, and a lot of fun.

The credit for much of that falls to the cast, who don't drop a beat, even when speaking a blend of the ridiculous and beautiful (i.e., "Teeth are the dirty little secret of your face."). Every line sounds natural and crisp, especially those from Diane (a gifted Maggie Hamilton), a vulnerable cop who we first meet leaving a lengthy, bubbly message with her date from the previous night, full of justifications, weak mirthless laughs (like hiccups), and a barely withheld desperation: "Thanks for the sex," she says, closing the phone. Then, looking at it quizzically, "Talk to you again never."

Like most of the women in this play, Diane is smart, and well aware of her faults: she just isn't able to stop them. Anna's mother (Rachel Dorfman), for instance, has to keep telling her beautiful daughter not to look her in the face because it burns her: if she could, she would just steal that face. Joanne (a loose and very pleasant Darcie Champagne) introduces herself to Diane with an acknowledgment that she usually doesn't have much self-confidence, as she hates her vagina. And Trevor (Jeff Berg, whose experience playing Tom Cruise has really paid off here), the "raddest philosopher ever" who they all admire, keeps sinking into woman after woman as a way of punishing himself before God for leaving his one true love behind. Not all of these exaggerated traits work, for instance, the dotty sadist, Mona (a terrifyingly good Ellen David), works more to wake something up in Trevor than she does as an actual character. And the daughter, Anna (Chelsey Shannon), is more a comic device than a need for the play. That said, she's still delightful, which is how Brunstetter gets away with her odd moments.

As co-directed by Diana Basmajian and Isaac Byrne, I Used to Write on Walls flies by in a rush. Even the intermission seems swift, with the first act energizing the audience in the same way as coffee (it almost shouldn't be, but it is). The second act gets a little cramped on stage, as the direction starts to blur the boundaries of each scene, but if sets and lighting are what WMC has to skimp on to produce shows like this, then so be it (read: donate money). I Used to Write on Walls refers to that personal sliver of regret we all have that we don't still do the things we used to. Thankfully, refreshingly so, Bekah Brunstetter hasn't given up on illustrating them to us.

-----------------------------------------------------------------
Gene Frankel Theater Underground (24 Bond Street)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $15.00
Performances (through 10/27): Thursday - Saturday @ 8:00

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Kosher Harry

A stranger in town gets people to speak their minds without really trying in Nick Grosso's British dark comedy about racism and disabilities. Produced in the co-playing manner that is customary at Nicu's Spoon, this play is all talk and very little action, but the cast tries hard to entertain and sometimes succeeds.


Shira Grabelsky - Michael DiMartino - Jennifer Giroux

Photo credit: S. Barton-Farcos

......................................................................

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Making nice to hide the vice appears to be the motto of the three people connected through a neighborhood diner in Nick Grosso's Kosher Harry. That is, until The Man comes around and blows off facades while making large talk with the three people in question: the waitress, an old woman and the cabbie that drives her around daily without compensation. While trying in vain to place an order, The Man gets more than an earful about these people's lives and their prejudices, but eventually does a little prodding of his own to scrape underneath the surface.

Eight artists play four characters in this ambitious collaboration between Nicu's Spoon and NY Deaf Theatre. Each team inhabits one side of the stage in a simultaneous run of the show, one for the hearing-impaired, and one for the rest. There is very little interaction between the two, but when there is, it is either to simulate a relationship or for practical measure: for instance, the two actresses who play The Old (and deaf) Woman (Wynne Anders, faring better in representing age than Shira Grabelsky) enter the stage with Anders sitting on a wheelchair and Grabelsky on her lap (Grabelsky is significantly smaller in size). It is a clever way to have the actresses enter with flair because the primary goal is to create mirror images of each other. Apart from the similar costume and props by S. Barton-Farcas, however, the cast rarely catch each other in script or gesture.

It is hard to comment on the performers who used sign language because one needs to be able to understand it in order to be fully equipped. It must be noted, however, that the particular performance I attended had a last-minute stand in for the The Man, an actress named Kimberly Mecane. Although any stammering or pauses could not be translated, Mecane seemed to hold her own against tall and bombastic Andrew Hutcheson in the same role until one particular scene where The Waitress manipulates The Man's, ahem, groin area. The Cabbies (Michael Dimartino, usually The Man, is a stand-in here, and Alvaro Sena) do their best to outdo each other, but Sena gets noticed for the wrong reasons. As The Cabby, Sena's natural Brazilian accent overrides his adopted British one, and his wild antics emulates Michael Richards' Kramer on Seinfeld. Dimartino's performance is markedly less flamboyant, but it's because he doesn't flail his arms and eyes around like Sena does, not because of his lack of speech. The Waitresses (Jennifer Giroux and S. Barton-Farcas) are similarly dressed from head to toe, but The Waitress' outlandishness is peppered by Farcas' inflections and her decidedly more garish gestures.

The co-play is theoretically a nice device that should drive the point home about interior disabilities versus exterior ones. However, the performers who do speak have enough trouble of their own communicating those sentiments without having the added distraction of visualizing in essence, two plays. Although the not quite racial slurs are frequent, the link between what they think and how that determines what they do is not always established. After all, they do very little, and as a result, their racism appears very harmless. Yet, had their racism been exceedingly harmful, Kosher Harry would be a tragedy rather than an absurdist comedy. Also, while the cast is busy talking about racism as a mental disability, the production uses various physical disabilities without relent. The disabilities are so prevalent that Grosso actually forgets to say very little that is substantial on the subject. The diner foundation on which the play rests is also implausible. There is a lot of jibber-jabber, and despite the saucy conversations, the service is far lousier and more annoying than anyone would tolerate, absurdist comedy or not. Supposedly a haven for all types of people, Kosher Harry the play treats Kosher Harry the deli like a dodge ball match where most of the players (most of them referenced and not present) don't know to duck or step aside. But by the end, even the whistle blowing on the game doesn't have much of an impact.

....................................................................
Through October 28th. Tickets: $18. Order Tickets By Phone:212-352-3101
Spoon Theater
38 West 38th St., 5th Floor
New York, NY 10018

When the Messenger Is Hot

Laura Eason’s winsome adaptation improves on Elizabeth Crane’s neurotic narrators by having them interact with each other.

By Ellen Wernecke

The most honest way to describe Elizabeth Crane’s captivating book of short stories, 2004’s When the Messenger Is Hot, is that it deals with the classic topics of chick lit—trouble with parents, emotional dissatisfaction, the search for Mr. Right—without resorting to the clichés of the genre. Her heroines don’t wear Manolo Blahniks and walk their pugs; they have weaknesses for “boy-men” and often have trouble seeing the forest for the trees, but don’t chronicle their weight in diaries or execute pratfalls in front of their office crushes.

These whimsical city girls are often a quarter-turn off of normal, seeing ghosts or deciding to relocate to a friend’s roof, but they never get so precious as to seem forced. Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of a new play adapted from several of the stories captures Crane’s tone brilliantly, while giving her narrators a stage-ready twist. While the book in its digressive, first-person form seems better suited to a series of monologues, “When The Messenger Is Hot” uses a three-woman chorus in cardigans for its heroine, Josie. Josie’s mother, an opera singer, has died of cancer, but she believes Mom isn’t really dead against all logic and reason. When Mom reappears suddenly, she no longer has reason to put her life on hold, as comforting as that sounds.

Because of Crane’s language and the interaction among the Josies—the young and naive (Kate Arrington), the mature and suspicious (Lauren Katz), and the eternally optimistic (Amy Warren), “When the Messenger is Hot” strikes a sprightly tone with this often dark, material. Her run-on sentences here become dialogues, leading to clever set pieces like Josie’s move to Chicago, where two Josies shout up from the back seat to the third next to Mom. She falls in love with a series of unsuitable men (all played, impressively, by Coburn Goss), but she can’t seem to put together the disparate strands of her life as well as the play depicts her tripartite personality. What follows is a short and sweet show that juggles laughs and terrible pain.

---
”When the Messenger Is Hot”
Through October 28, Steppenwolf Theatre Company
59E59, Theatre B
For tickets, visit TicketCentral.com or 59E59.org.

Start Up (GTA's Road Theater USA)

I like the ambition of GTA's newest German import from prolific modernist Roland Schimmelpfennig, taking the play Start Up on a sixteen city tour of America in only seven weeks. But I worry that that ambition may blunt the truisms at the heart of the play: that culture has no place in commerce, and that America has become "a country of cinematography."

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Start Up is destined to be one of those plays that is more remembered for its vehicle (an obnoxiously green school bus on a sixteen-state road trip to bring theater to the heart of America) than for its concept. That's unfortunate, because the actual ideas of this play are some of Roland Schimmelpfennig's strongest, and certainly the most accessible for America. (No surprise, it was written for our uncultured shores.) Our three ambitious and clueless German heroes (Kati, Rob, and Micha) have come pursuing the loftiest of American dreams. They want to start a business, yes, but not an easily marketable one: they want to theatrically share German culture. Instead, the proprietor, Ike, keeps pleading that they open a video store instead ("There's a real need for a video store").

So what's more important: culture or capitalism? It's a very good question to be asking, especially for theater, an enterprise which isn't always economically feasible. GTA, a company run by actor Ronald Marx (who last brought us the 2006 Stadttheater at HERE Arts Center), is looking to do both, by boldly marketing eccentric modern shows not just to New Yorkers, but to those who would be tourists, and he'll be bringing the theater to Kentucky, Tennessee, George, Arizona, and a lot of other hub cities that we wouldn't normally associate German theater with.

To handle such an enterprise, however, GTA has turned to a shaky multimedia presentation that keeps getting in our faces, only to back away. Start Up starts up by pumping the audience up with the Rocky theme, but then plunges them into a darkness lit only by the tech team's open laptop computers and a microwave that is steadily working its way through a popcorn bag. Later, Micha and Liz start to get a little wild and crazy, only for the show to cut to a lengthy documentary-style segment that follows Rob, Kati, and Ike as they journey around NYC to get food. (This segment may have been filmed live, but it hardly matters: theater is never as raw as it is when it's directly in front of us.)

The only place where this works is when the pace breaks so that Micha can lecture us (complete with PowerPoint slides) on Germany's economic fall and rise ("Nobody remembers the Marshall plan anymore"). It's a ballsy demonstration of the very type of "theater" that nobody likes to sit through, but it's necessary for contrast with the only types of conversations Ike (the American) can have with anyone outside his culture, with films as a sort of bastardized universal language. America is, according to the characters, "a country of cinematography," and it's not hard to see that: clips of Das Boot segue into recently filmed segments of the touring Germans in front of local landmarks (like Doc Holliday's over on 10th and A, or Coney Island), and conversations often wax on a yearning for the Western vistas of rolling hills (one scene overlaps one such rustic monologue with a lengthy zoomed tracking shot of New Yorkers walking by PS 122).

The filmed portions of Start Up are a little hard to take in; Schimmelpfennig's writing works best in close proximity, where he can still surprise you with an act of violence (Start Up happens to be calm and demonstrative, but Roland Sands, as Ike, is able to at least threaten it at any moment). On stage, it's also easier to see the talents of the cast, who act so casually familiar with one another that it really does almost feel like we're intruding on their business affairs, even when there's a panel of people on laptops stage left, or a boom mike operator following them around. Which, you know, really does sound a lot like America after all.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

None of the Above

Jenny Lyn Bader’s None of the Above features a Clueless-esque premise wherein a vapid teenage girl wins the heart of an intellectual older man, but with a higher education twist: A down and out linguistics graduate student takes on the challenge of tutoring an uptown girl toward a perfect score on the SAT. Emerging out of this familiar set-up are Clark (Adam Green) and Jamie (Halley Feiffer), two genuinely endearing characters with a common purpose and clever comedic timing.

Adam Green and Halley Feiffer in None of the Above
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Reviewed by Ilena George

Similar to its bubble-gum pink bedroom setting, the play is wrapped in a sugary sweet candy coating. And while it does at times have that unsatisfying feeling you get when consuming empty calories, the warmth the actors infuse into their characters breaks them out of their usual molds, saving them from becoming either too saccharine or too artificial.

From the absentee professional parents (one of whom is only reachable through the intercom on the wall) and omnipresent maids, to casual sex and drug and alcohol use and ostentatious displays of wealth, there is evidence everywhere of the many clichés applicable to a teenage Manhattanite attending private school. On the flipside of the tutor-tutee relationship, Clark, the tutor, is also introduced as stereotypically uptight: he counts words when people speak, uses five dollar vocabulary and absolutely loves tutoring. But we quickly learn that buttoned-down Clark hides some dark secrets and that Jamie’s claim that “Studying is just not me,” is also just a smokescreen for someone who is much brighter and much kinder than you might expect.

The characters quickly learn how to manipulate each other, coaxing out information in exchange for solving math problems, until Clark spills the beans about the preposterous contract he and Jamie’s father drew up when he agreed to be her tutor. Clark and Jamie realize they could both benefit from her acing the SAT and forge an alliance. From here, the plot turns loopily melodramatic, with the SAT escalating into a matter of life and debt.

But the two leads keep the escalating madcap plot within the realm of what’s emotionally believable. Green’s Clark is obviously charmed by Jamie’s mix of youth and sophistication and Feiffer’s irrepressible Jamie embodies that irrepressible interest many of us felt to find out who are teachers were outside the classroom. Green and Feiffer are both charming and each character’s reluctant fascination with the other keeps the action from getting stale when the play begins reiterating evidence that Jaime’s parents are never around, or that Clark has some serious baggage (from class issues to addictions). Added to the mix are some entertaining asides about the precociousness expected of private school kids, where Jamie periodically and off-handedly throws around esoteric bits of information she was taught at a very young age, including performing Faust in the 4th grade (“I was Gluttony,” Jamie shares wearily.).

The play has its rough patches, including some spots of clunky dialogue (“Clark, do you just think about the SAT all the time so you don’t have to deal with your real problems?”) and not completely believable teenage expressions (“Dumb as a doorbell,” “Cool your cookies”), and if over-the-top plot twists make you squirm, this may not be the bubble to fill in with a Number 2. But for a light-hearted, sometimes polysyllabic diversion, the answer is D: None of the Above.

....................................................................................
None of the Above
By Jenny Lyn Bader
Directed by Julie Kramer
Lion Theater (Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street)
September 25-November 25, Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm,
Sunday at 3pm
Tickets: $45, Ticket Central (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com
$20 Rush tickets available the day of the performance at the Theater Row Box Office

Departures

Kristen Palmer's Departures is a distillation of the love story into our fragile modern world, a show about two tentative lovers who fall into each other--at first out of convenience and carnal needs--and find something there that's sweet and scary all at once. It's a simple, lovely story, intimate in direction, action, and even the placement of the audience itself.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

For all that Romeo and Juliet is a good love story, for all the ages, there's something a little unsettling about it: the youth, the naivety, and the needless resolute tragedy of the ending. I find myself drawn to the fragility of Kristen Palmer's Departures a little more, a play whose tragedy isn't the finality of death, but the death knoll of long distance: Cara (Keira Keeley) is going home to America in three months, and Andrew (Travis York) will be left behind, to drink his way to an early death in mopey Wakefield, England. These two may speak less poetically than those star-crossed lovers, but there's something more immediate in their contemporarily beautiful words. By staying simple and true, with a fine cast and focused direction, Departures is a quiet marvel on its own; not meant to be compared with Shakespeare, but of fine caliber all the same.

Palmer's effect stems from the contrast between the openhearted emotion of Andrew and restrained concerns of Cara. Andrew's the sort of man who loudly (and at length) broadly declaims words like "sure" (and all other "indeterminate expressions of emotion") and casts all his loving fantasies as miniature epics of long-lost angels and dreams. On the other hand, Cara speaks from the terrible future she can't seem to escape, a place that's she run to trying to escape her equally terrible past, a past that shakes her into a cold sweat every night. But the two are united by their commonalities: they're both writers without outlets, they both seek the momentary respite of alcohol, and they both find great passion, whether it's through tense arguments or tender agreements. For dramatic sake, Palmer doesn't spend much time in the sweet somethings of their "doomed" relationship: the prelude to the play opens at the start of summer, and the remainder takes place three months later, two days before Cara's departure.

Kerry Lee Chipman's set drops the two actors in the pit of what looks like a large half-pipe, as if they've literally fallen for each other, and then uses the opposite lips or outer boundaries of the central bedroom to set the distancing monologues. Director Kyle Ancowitz uses the tight central space to force the actors to really use one another--there's nowhere else for them to go. It also focusing the audience, who sit sits on opposite ends, like spectators at an amateur tennis match peering down at each new volley: Andrew plans to visit Cara by means of an illegal scheme his mates have cooked up; Cara can't stand Andrew being so close, because she can't afford to hurt anyone else; Andrew can't stand his own loneliness. There are no crazy twists, no last minute deus ex machina: the minute intricacies of the human heart are more than adequate.

Such simple work, even with the elevated, far from indeterminate language of the script, is actually hard to perform, as it requires attention to detail, especially with the audience looming so close. York and Keeley are a fantastic match, with fine chemistry both in their intimate moments under the covers and their public spats around the flat and in the hallway. York plays the more expressive character, and he does a fine job of keeping the play lively and on its feet, sweetly charming, and all the more sympathetic because of his wounded confidence. He says he won't get on without her, and there's the sense that he won't; likewise, thanks to Keeley's strong partnering, in Cara's eyes, it's clear that she can't live with the responsibility for Andrew's heart.

The play ends with Andrew driving Cara to the airport, and as Palmer points out earlier in the script, "when you leave, you don't get to find out what happens." But given the delight I had watching these two find sweet succor in one another, full of wistful glances even after their climactic fight, I'd like to hazard a pleasant guess and hope for the best.

--------------------------------------------
Access Theater (380 Broadway)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $18.00
Performances (through 10/28): Thursday - Sunday @ 8:00

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Good Heif

In a nondescript hot and dry region, a young man’s body comes of age and thus inspires his quest to determine what exactly makes a man a man. At approximately 80 minutes, this production is succinct with stylized performances and good direction, but the extraneous characters and multiple, competing themes (some left unresolved) demonstrate a lack of focus.









From L to R: John McAdams, Barbara Pitts, and Christopher Ryan Richards




Photo by Jim Baldassare


............................................................

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

According to the press materials, the concept of society and the paralysis and paranoia that it implies is put under a fine lens in Maggie Smith’s manhood vs. microcosm play, Good Heif. While that may be true, several other themes are brought to the forefront and nearly engulf Smith’s intended messages about ignorance and resistance to change, expressed largely through visuals and sexually analogous dialogue. In accordance with these messages, however, Good Heif is anything but dull.

Set in a hot and dry place with no specific time, Good Heif centers on a rural, hard-working family that consists of Pa (John McAdams), Ma (Barbara Pitts), and Lad (Christopher Ryan Richards). From the play's inception, it is established that digging is the basis for the community's economy, despite the wonderfully barren and “cracked-earth” set by Lauren Helpern. The physical comedy created under Sarah Cameron Sunde's direction is also there from the start, as the actors twist their bodies deliberately without shouting to penetrate an earth that cannot be penetrated with staffs. The cinematic and storm-like lighting by Juliet Chia introduces the family as well as two extraneous (but entertaining) characters, Burly Man (Paul Klementowicz) and Old Man (Yves Rene) to the stage. These townspeople weigh lightly on the plot, and could have been replaced by references in dialogue because the community's impact on this family is already implicit.

Lad is full of questions. He is perplexed by the incessant digging in an earth that doesn't yield any crops, and by the new developments in his body: he seems to be in a constant state of arousal with little or no proper stimulus required. Lad's excitement is distastefully but hilariously depicted with a bionic, ahem, phallic object that rises against his will. After receiving high fives from his Pa and the townsmen, Lad also receives some ill advice: a man isn't a man without digging, both in the laborious and sexual sense. And if Lad can't find a suitable “tunnel” in which to dig, there's a good heifer waiting for him on the pasture.

Toiling over the guilt of violating the poor heif, Lad encounters what he believes to be the bane of his conscience, Ol' Heif (April Mathis), or in his mind, the devil herself. As he continues to battle his growing member, no amount of church-going and “devil, devil, stay away” chanting can keep horned, bovine-like Ol' Heif from tempting him with crossing over to the land of the plentiful and pleasurable called thar (interestingly enough, one definition of Thar is a goat-like animal native of the Himalayas). And in between fashioning a hip corset for her son to stifle his problem, Ma convulses from sickness from the rigors of her work. Or perhaps, the spiritual sickness of being stagnant and afraid.

The cast of Good Heif throw themselves into an animalistic and uncivilized style of acting that bodes well for this piece. As the sole human female presence, Barbara Pitts as Ma distinguishes herself with haphazard body jerks and a facility for comedy. As the incarnation of the molested cow, Lad's hushed desires and his beaten conscience, April Matthis as Ol' Heif is sultry, seductive, and manipulates her limbs well for spectacle and humor.

Despite the ability to see the suspension wire as a poor representation of a luna moth “flying” away, Good Heif is produced by New Georges with few glitches and plenty of special effects that remain special. However, it is full of allegories that compete to leave a lasting impression. Sure, the theme of ignorance impeding growth and opportunities and breeding danger exists. Also present is the notion that adherence to proper behavior as deemed by society for acceptance is only achieved through fear. However, the persistent phallic symbols and talk about how manhood is equated with dominating womanhood suggests that the play's focus is deconstructing sexism and man's obsession with sex itself. Maggie Smith suggests that getting thar is a better goal than the nonsensical digging (even if the existence of freedom that "thar" brings comes into question) and that the true test of manhood comes in the ability to shed convention. Yet, it would help if that theme superceded all the others, and if the props and some carefully placed lines of dialogue fell in line with that concept. It would certainly strengthen an otherwise funny and imaginative play.

...................................................................

Through October 27th. Tickets: $20 http://www.smarttix.com/. Ohio Theater: 66 Wooster Street(Spring & Broome)

Monday, October 08, 2007

a Good Farmer

Everything takes time to mature, whether it's a relationship, trust, or even the delineation between an illegal immigrant and a legal one, and that's what Sharyn Rothstein's a Good Farmer manages to show so well (though it's far from an even account of both sides). Her play takes time to grow, too, with some awkward and exaggerated patches in the first act that are well-worth sitting through, given the ripe and emotional juiciness of the second.

Photo/Rick Berubé

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

From the plain cabbages littering the floor of the Bank Street theater to the widescreen image of an empty road to the two men in the corner plunking light underscores on the piano and guitar, you wouldn't expect a Good Farmer to be a serious look at immigration. But after a bumpy opening, Sharyn Rothstein's new play proves to be as intelligently open as her last (Neglect): it doesn't judge her desperate and misguided townsfolk, it simply presents them as they are.

Why shouldn't Gabe (Borden Hallowes) resent illegal immigrant Carla (Jacqueline Duprey), for taking jobs he believes are entitled to him as an American? Why shouldn't Rosemary (Elizabeth Bunnell) call Mexicans lazy, given that when it comes to doing work in her world (she's "CEO" of the PTA), they're too busy "working" elsewhere? And why shouldn't Bonnie (Chelsea Silverman) employ the only people willing to work for her, especially when it's the only way for her to save her farm and raise her child, given the cancerous death of her husband, David (Gerald McCullouch)? Underlying goodness, if it truly exists, is of no use if stifled by unconscious bigotry, and good intentions are so easily blinded by misdirected anger.

It takes Rothstein a little while to lay it all out, however, and the first act is sloppily one-sided (pro-immigration). For the first hour, the right-wingers of the show (Rosemary and Gabe) are exaggeratedly mean or comic, and the strong, working mothers (Bonnie and Carla) can do no wrong. (The one missing archetype is the bad farmer, but that's another play.) But after a menacing confrontation in a cornfield between Gabe and Carla ("No such thing as a good person. There's lucky and not lucky and that's all there is."), the play makes it a lot harder to defend any one person.

The second act opens, seven years earlier, with Carla unable to speak good English, and Bonnie doesn't want to hire her. As an audience, we already know that these seeds will turn out ripe, but it's easy to see why so many people, trapped in the immediate now, are afraid to trust. Nobody becomes friends overnight, but given time, even the most disparate of people can come together if their hearts are in the right place. As Carla points out to the immigration officer (and Jacqueline Duprey's sincere indignation is what sells the heart of this play): "We're just like you. With less choices."

------------------------------------------------
Bank Street Theater (155 Bank Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $20.00
Performances (through 10/20): Wed. - Sat. @ 8 | Sun. @ 3

Sunday, October 07, 2007

When the Messenger is Hot

Laura Eason's adaptation suffers from multiple-personality disorder. The underlying core of Elizabeth Crane's When the Messenger is Hot makes for some fine anti-romantic comedy, but Steppenwolf needs more time in development. This collection of short stories is still disjointed and repetitious, and the eighty minutes aren't nearly as fast as the narrative patter.

Photo/Jay Geneske

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

I haven't read When the Messenger is Hot, the book of short stories by Elizabeth Crane that has been adapted by Laura Eason and developed by Steppenwolf Theatre Company (now visiting from Chicago as part of the 59E59 GoChicago! Festival). But lines like "watching the morning sun glint off his crack-pipe made me realize that maybe Steven and I weren't meant to be" easily make the jump from print to stage, the sort of self-conscious poetry that the narrator of her own play can get away with. Crane's voice (distinct, fresh, and delightfully deprecating) makes the jump, but the play itself doesn't totally work: it comes across exactly as what it is, a series of short stories that have been crammed together into an 80-minute play, more fractured confession (three actresses simultaneously play the lead, Josie) than solid narrative.

The pace works best when focussed around Crane's elegant fable, "Return from the Depot!", in which a daughter refuses to accept her mother's cancerous death and is vindicated when her mother returns, three years later, to chalk the whole thing up as a misunderstanding. It's a plucky piece, and the mother (Molly Regan) is a real firecracker of a broad, all curses and charm. The surrounding collection of stories, however, focus on Josie's inability to find a man who won't horribly mistreat her, and Coburn Goss (who plays all the men) doesn't have enough personality to keep these scenes fresh.

The play becomes a three-person monologue, the internal-made-external patter of the three Josies (Kate Arrington, Lauren Katz, and Amy Warren). There are a few segments where this works, such as in "Year at a Glance!", where the women glance back at their first year of grief and assess where they are: "I realize I am marking time in 'Days since.'/I join a support group./I quit the support group because it's depressing./I feel surprised it's depressing./I notice I am marking time in 'Months since.'" The quick banter here is necessary, and works to show the rapid and totally distinct shifts in a person's mind. But it's often more distracting than hilarious, something director Jessica Thebus must have noticed, as she has Kate Arrington grieve alone when her mother "disappears" again. There are some moments that can't be shared, and Arrington's performance, a flood of tears that dry up into an enabling laugh, is proof that the story isn't flawed, just strained by the presentation.

------------------------------------------------
59E59 Theater B (59 East 59th Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $40.00
Performances: Tues. - Sat. @ 8:15 | Sat. @ 2:15 | Sun. @ 3:15 & 7:15

Austentatious (NYMF)

This satiric musical, a “Waiting for Guffman” approach to “Pride and Prejudice,” is a surprise stunner.

By Ellen Wernecke

Who doesn’t want a piece of Jane Austen these days? It’s not as if the Regency author has ever seen her literary reputation suffer, but between the films “Becoming Jane” and “The Jane Austen Book Club” and a spate of new books about the life of the Darcys after overcoming their pride and prejudice, Austen would certainly be making red-carpet appearances were she still alive. In satirizing Austen fans as well as community theatre groups, interpretive dance and postmodernism, the new musical “Austentatious” assembles a number of rather easy targets, but attacks them in a skillful way bolstered by several strong performances.

The Central Riverdale Amateur Players wouldn’t get by without Sam (Stephanie D’Abruzzo, a Tony nominee for “Avenue Q”), the stage manager whose work is never fully appreciated. She’s got her hands full for this year’s production of “Pride and Prejudice,” starring among others the play’s adaptor and over-eager choreographer Emily (Stacey Sargeant), a community-theatre vet (Lisa Asher) and a stoner who’s just happy to be here (Paul Wyatt). With the newbie director (Stephen Bel Davies) unable to execute his vision of a meticulous period adaptation, it falls to Sam to bear Emily’s “romance told through dance,” from the tap-dancing Bennet sisters to a planned clog-off finale while she’s coaching the cast Darcy (George Merrick)

Like a crew of Christopher Guest players, the cast fully commits to its roles and the preposterous touches like a set of pink hats mandated by Emily for a Lydia-Bennet-goes-to-Amsterdam piece make total sense within the framework of the show. D’Abruzzo shines, not surprisingly, as the only person capable of reining in the show if someone would only listen; ironically, though, it’s that they don’t listen that “Austentatious” breaks through to its ridiculous finale. After having shown only moments of the mess in the making, the final “Pride and Prejudice” vaults over those moments to become an unintentional masterpiece with bears, clogs and “jazz-tures.” The other songs, like the director and Emily’s duet “I Can See It Now,” draw a lot of laughs, but the final show-within-a-show is what makes “Austentatious” fiendishly great instead of just comic.

---
Closed; formerly at the New York Musical Theater Festival.
For more information, visit From the Top Productions.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Kinderspiel

Does the citycountryworld have you down? Then avoid all truthy-making pointies and check out the silly talkenings of the Weimar-inspired Kinderspielers. Anything but a complete waste of time, the infantile improvisations of this theater-troupe-within-a-play are as appropriate for American depression now as they might have been in 1923 Germany.

Photo/Aviva Meyer

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

You'd have to be a foolyheadgirlthing to write a play set in an absurdly fictitious (but not improbable) cabaret in the Weimar Republic (1923) and to then quote Oscar Wilde's maxim: "All art is quite useless." You'd need quite a pair of balls to brag about how the expressionist theater company, the Kinderspielers, "dare to entertain you by completely wasting your time." And you'd need to be awfully clever to make a critic one of your characters, especially if her theory is that "frivolity is serious business."

I guess that makes Kiran Rikhye a large-balled, awfully clever, foolyheadgirlthing: her latest work with Stolen Chair Theater Company, Kinderspiel (child's play) is a double-bill that is avant-garde Cabaret ("infantile improvisation" meets lesbians and garters) when it comes to presentation, and starkly satirical when the plot is narrated to us "children." The play not only stands as a testament to the insane depression of the Weimar era, but illustrates the similarity between genius and insanity, and the odd power of art to transform one's perception of reality. Furthermore, by adding a journalist, Rikhye is also able to make an point about the danger of an explanation, with her mind clearly in favor of spontaneity and personal experience. (Do we demean things by giving them meanings?)

Her focal point is Louisa Reissner (Alexia Vernon), a popular burlesque dancer who is cast out of the spotlight when insane inflation (the program notes put it at 1.3 trillion marks to 1 dollar) dwindles her audience. Louisa flees into her own mind to sustain that flame of popularity, retreating into an innocent form of self-indulgent, childlike play, at which point she is stumbled upon by Max (Cameron J. Oro), an effeminate playboy with a mouth so full of candy, that he walks around, eyes glazed with the pointlessness of it all. Louisa's unforced behavior and deconstructed grammar ("Whatever we wants to, that's the pointy.") sparks a life in him that he thought lost, and the two begin to play.

They play so happily that the narrator, Heinrich (Sam Dingman), not only calls off his own suicide, but begins to sell tickets to their late-night sessions in an abandoned underground nightclub, finding the purpose the war took from him. As the play continues, they are joined by Sonja (Liza Wade White), an experimental, hands-on journalist who is thrilled by what she sees as a political statement (not to mention turned on by the loose Lousia), and Anna (Layna Fisher), a conservative widow who wants the dream, but can't overcome her inhibitions ("If things aren't clean, they're dirty").

Under St. Marks is the ideal theater: designer David Bengali pretty much just exposes the dingy frame of the space and then adds floor lights (not to take away from his work; it's so authentic). And from what I've seen, Jon Stancato is the ideal director: though Stolen Chair credits the entire cast and crew with Kinderspiel (such experimentations are the reason to support individual companies), Stancato is ultimately like the third-grade art teacher whose students make great fingerpaintings because he knows when to take the paper away from them. There's also a deeper sense of purpose to the lengthy cabaret demonstrations when in Stancato's hands: they build (along with Rikhye's script) to a point at which the playing is less innocent and more political, intentional or not, and the imaginary delivery of a stillborn child is a harsh scene.

Stolen Chair bills itself as a company dedicated to the "theft" of "historical performance styles," but it's a crime for which they'd never be convicted. Between this and their recent Commedia dell'Artemisia, they're dramatic Robin Hoods, stealing from a rich theatrical past and producing for a poorly educated present, and I look forward to their next production.

----------------------------------------------
Under St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $18.00
Performances (through 10/27): Thurs. - Sat. @ 7:30