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.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Cut to the Chase & The City That Cried Wolf

Two new shows at 59E59 offer an adult nursery tale and a kid-friendly bit of vaudeville. But The City That Cried Wolf is the one that's childish, blustering forward on puns and little else, and Cut to the Chase is all grown up, with solid performances and seamless direction.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Of late, I've become a big fan of 59E59 Theaters; not only do they produce a series of festivals that bring, amongst other things, tastes of off-Broadway British fare and the Edinburgh Fringe, along with consistently varied programming in their two studio spaces (theater B and C) and the solid offerings of the main Primary Stages space. (Not to mention their affordable pricing.) This month, the two smaller stages offer contradictory nights of entertainment: the first, Cut the Chase is vaudeville for kids, the second, The City That Cried Wolf, is a grown-up nursery tale. Both are derivative of very specific genres, but with Cut to the Chase, the enthusiastic execution makes the work seem fresh, and although The City That Cried Wolf mugs too much for the Jasper Fforde crowd, its nonstop punning is funny -- almost exasperatingly so.

With Cut to the Chase, the only point where the audience actually wants the show to cut to the action is in director Mark Lonergan's introduction, a short introduction about their influences (Keaton and Chaplin) and their target audience (the young, and the young at heart). Honestly, that's the only drag of the performance. Seconds later, hyperactive Dilly (Laura Dillman), clad in a bellhop's costume and armed with an infectious laugh, silently introduces the rest of the cast: Dobson (Mike Dobson), the dour drummer; The Great Jeske (Joel Jeske), the director; Julietta Massina (Juliet Jeske), the singing diva; Kasper (Ryan Kasprzak), the lovable scamp; Little Angela (Andrea Kehler), the annoying tease; and Roland Derek (Derek Roland), the lanky illusionist. This is all done in a matter of minutes, using no more than the most basic movements, a series of three farcically placed doors, and a few sliding curtains, and with the parts well established, the company breaks into a series of "acts," all of which revolve around the constantly thwarted romance of Dilly and Kasper.

The camaraderie and smooth transitions speak to the developmental technique of the company (which fleshed out Mr. Jeske's ideas with their own unique tricks), and to the strong hand of Mr. Lonergan, who succeeds at entertaining both the young and young at heart. In little over an hour, we're treated to a tap-triggered light show, a balloon-drumming exhibition, an amusing series of riffs on a piano, a magic act, several songs (ultimately parodies of the old 30s style), and quick-change choreography. It's good natured, genuinely funny, and a great time.

Photo/Oliver Jevremov

On the other hand, The City That Cried Wolf tries entirely too hard, and that's what ultimately brings down Brooks Reeve's hysterically scripted (if leaden) play. The show is a hard-boiled look at the death of Mayor Dumpty, as investigated by the private eye (or B.), Mr. Jack B. Nimble at the behest of the police force's golden egg, Mother Goose. If those puns delight you, you're in for a treat: Reeve's agglomerate of nursery tales are a riot, and the dirtier they get, the funnier. For instance, Jack's suspect, Little Bo Peep works at a certain sort of "peep" show -- she's a dancer at the Hey Diddle Diddle, where you might get solicited for Mrs. Muffet's "toffets" (and might even accept if you've had one too many hickory dickory daiquiris).

Unfortunately, the play finds a static direction from Dan Barnes and Leta Tremblay, who seem more interested in sight gags (Granny's cane is the biggest shotgun I've ever seen, and Little Bunny Foo Foo's appearance as a deranged, mallet-wielding psychopath is an indelible moment in the theater) than in structure. Additionally, while the leads are at least playing solid characters -- Adam La Faci's nonchalant narration as detective, Chloe Demrovsky's sultry flocking, and Michelle Concha's serious (yet surprisingly deft) commanding officer -- the other four actors get lost in the roughly ten roles they each play. Each one gets the point across -- for instance, Rebecca Jones plays a testy waitress named Mary Mary, and Mat Bussler clucks enough to remind us that he's Plucky Lucky in this scene -- but they do so with the minimum of effort, underplaying what is already a ridiculous concept.

The City That Cried Wolf
never gets a silly enough performance to justify the story; it could take a cue from Cut to the Chase, whose silly plot needs no justification, just performance.

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59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street) - through 12/30 (212-279-4200)
Cut to the Chase
is $15 for kids, $35 for adults: Tues. - Sat. @ 7:15 | Sun. @ 2:15 & 5:15
The City That Cried Wolf is $20: Tues. - Sat. @ 8:30 | Sat. @ 2:30 | Sun. @ 3:30 & 7:30

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Edward the Second (Red Bull)

Edward the Second is another notch in the belt for Jesse Berger and his Red Bull Theater company. Christopher Marlowe's text, as adapted by Garland Wright, now takes play in an anachronistic time of gay night clubs and gramophones, a world that stresses the characters rather than the themes, and places no judgment on the page, but simply gives it flesh -- erotic, teasing, half-shadowed flesh.

Photo/Brian Dilg

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

It's very noble simply to love and be loved in return, but when you're a king, love comes at a higher price. Edward II (Marc Vietor, with such believable longing and grasping physical prowess) may truly love Galveston (Kenajuan Bentley) and may in fact, be loved back (though Galveston teases and flaunts for a great many, as is his preening, sycophantic nature, Bentley plays him with something deeper reserved for the king). But his court is only the more irritated for it: Mortimer (Matthew Rauch), Lancaster (Davis Hall), and Warwick (Joseph Costa) kick up their heels at the titles so flagrantly granted to the low-class upstart; the Church, as portrayed by gaudy Archbishop (Raphael Nash Thompson), is irritated by the licentiousness of it; and Edward's wife, Isbaella (Claire Lautier) -- well, we all know what happens to a woman scorned, although Lautier keeps her head up for quite a while before turning to her misplaced fury.

As directed by Jesse Berger for his Red Bull Theater company, the work doesn't judge the homosexual currents any more than they would've been in the Elizabethan era that Christopher Marlowe wrote this for, but simply gives flesh to the page with a tautly erotic and highly physical staging that thrusts the action onto a narrow runway of a court that is half fashion show (I'd want to show off Clint Ramos's costumes, too), half military trenches. And while I'm no scholar of Edward the Second, Garland Wright's adaptation of it serves to heighten the emphasis on character rather than theme by setting the action in a malleable, anachronistic time, with language that is both harsh and pliant, all at once, something that's necessary for a plot full of reversals and sudden shifts in mood.

When Galveston returns to England for the first time, in the very wake of the old king's death, he imprisons the bishop who banished him (Arthur Bartow). In lesser hands, this would simply be a moment of satisfying vengeance, but Mr. Berger (perhaps after bloodying his hands so much in previous productions) goes one step further: Galveston all but rapes the holy man as he tightens the fetters, a point that also doubles as a bitter symmetry for what will eventually befall the king himself. So too does Mr. Berger handle a provocative scene later in the play, set at an opera house, in which we watch the king, lost half in love, half in music, waiting for Galveston to return (he has manipulated his wife, with false hope, into bringing back the very lover who displaced her): Galveston stands for a moment behind him, quietly savoring the power he holds over the king, along with the pomp of his own peculiar circumstances, and yet, when he touches the king's shoulders -- a simple touch -- the realization of that love would make even the coldest heart in the theater feel for the keening king.

More than love, however, the play also focuses on hate (if it is true that we should "Fie love that causes death and hate," what should we think of pure hate itself?). As Mortimer, Matthew Rauch is absolutely electric: "I am feared more than I am loved. Let them fear me," he utters without a hint of melodrama. He is the opposite of Edward -- decisive and strong -- and yet the court is no better in his usurping hands than in the rightful king's. He has a true love, too, in Isabella, but he never allows that to stand between him and power; instead, he channels his frustrations onto the former king, now a prisoner who squats, near-naked, in a pit of sewage.

Viscerally, Edward the Second is less satisfying than their previous revival, The Revenger's Tragedy: this production is efficient, and often bloodlessly so. (I'm told several squibs had technical difficulties when I attended.) But intellectually, Edward the Second is full of satisfying parallels and points about what happens to those leaders who ignore their subjects, and to those who force their love upon others, with little regard for personal choice. The warning comes from Edward's son, Edmund (Raum-Aron), who is forced to grow up all too fast, a steely, unhappy child who is the bleak start of a future strewn with corpses.

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Peter Jay Sharp Theater (416 West 42nd Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $20.00 (Student), $30.00 (Under 30), $40.00 (Regular)
Performances (through 1/13): Thurs. - Sat. @ 8 | Sat. @ 2 | Sun. @ 3

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Maudie & Jane

Tuesdays with Maudie: The Living Theatre’s new play can’t earn its few moments of grace.

By Ellen Wernecke

One’s a fashion editor and one’s an aimless retiree. One favors mini-dresses, the other shapeless rags. One bathes -- a lot, from what we see -- and one pretty much won’t bathe at all. And the one who feels comfortable talking about poop will eventually teach the other one to do so as well.

Everyone learns a valuable lesson from “Maudie & Jane,” except the people for whom this two-paths-cross story is at all familiar. The chic Jane (Pat Russell) has a chance meeting with Maudie (Judith Malina) and ends up sitting in her crammed apartment, trying to overcome her own feelings of discomfort. Of course, she has to overcome that sentiment, otherwise there would be no relationship and no play, so she does.

This is very well-trod ground, and despite having source material stronger than a newspaper columnist’s sentimental dreams -- specifically, two novellas by Nobel Prize for Literature winner Doris Lessing -- the eminently talented actors who take the parts of the two women who become friends can’t overcome this obstacle. Russell is the audience’s first confidante, the downstage one (which on the steeply raked stage is no easy trick) and the one who shows herself vulnerable much more quickly than her neighbor and her secret past. Russell makes it easy to be drawn into the play at its start -- her rapport with the audience is established right away -- but as the story drifts toward familiarity, her open appeal loses its sheen. Maudie’s essence is that she is not the type to open up to strangers (at least, not coherently), and Malina handles that with aplomb, but her character suffers from the same effect.

Despite the plethora of lines taken verbatim from Lessing’s novel, “Maudie & Jane” is sentimentalized by overbearing music which swells over wordless scenes that otherwise might be moving, especially at such close range to the audience. Between the score and the reduction of Lessing’s work to a too-tidy pile, the adaptation never quite attains its own life.

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Through February 9 at the Living Theatre, 21 Clinton St.
Tickets, OvationTix.com
For more information, visit LivingTheatre.org

The Puppetmaster of Lodz

If not for a few loose strings in Gilles Segal's gripping play, The Puppetmaster of Lodz, this would be a seamless production, rich with the struggles of the human spirit -- channeled so well by Robert Zukerman -- and of the intellectual mind. Can there be life without trust?

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Finkelbaum (the magnificent Robert Zukerman) hasn't left his attic apartment in ten years. Occasionally, he peers nervously through the keyhole, listening and looking for intruders, before cracking the door wide enough to snatch the day's groceries, left by his good-natured concierge (Suzanne Toren), but for the most part, our frightened hero (clad in a dirty T-shirt, worn suspenders, and musty pants) simply talks to an unmoving lump in his bed, his wife, Ruchele . . . a life-sized puppet made of cloth. But don't judge so quickly. You might act the same if you'd narrowly escaped Birkenau, walked eight scattered sleepless days and nights through the woods, and at last found a bit of shelter near Berlin. You, looking for comfort, might also have built companions for yourself -- you are, after all, a puppetmaster -- and now you, too, might disbelieve that the war is over (though it is 1950, time is not nearly so strong as memory). After all, "they fabricated plenty of other things besides the news," you might say. "So that people would suspect nothing, they fabricated false train stations, false station masters, false houses, with false flower pots, and the people believed . . . believed . . . and when they made them enter a gas chamber, telling them it was a shower, they believed . . . they believed."

Such is the conceit of Gilles Segal's powerful play, The Puppetmaster of Lodz, and though it's not entirely clear why it has taken the concierge so long to seek professional help in coaxing out the survivor (or why they don't simply bash down the door), such logical thoughts only arise in retrospect, for within the play itself, "They say if you want to, you can. If you absolutely want to believe, you can always find a way . . . " And Segal has. In this fine translation by Tonen Sara O'Connor, brought to life by Silbert's rich performance (conviction, desperation, hope admixed with despair, &c.), it's easy for the audience to understand where Finklebaum is coming from: "It's hard to survive when you trust people." The question then: what sort of life can one have without that trust?

No life at all, which is why Finklebaum has tangled the strings of his imagination so tightly around himself that even when we can see the glimmer of recognition in his eyes, it is quickly dulled by the happy lies strewn around him. What's more, even Segal gives us a little reason to trust: in succession, a Russian, an American, a Jew, and a German all try their hand at convincing Finklebaum that he is now safe, yet all four roles are played by the same actor (Daniel Damiano), a point that only re-enforces Finkelbaum's perhaps righteous paranoia. Even cleverer, Segal plays with our own paranoia, making us wonder if Finkelbaum's refusal to accept reality isn't compensation for something darker, some secret about his escape that only comes out in darkly comic (and then simply dark) re-enactments of his life before and within the camp.

Bruce Levitt's direction is almost as striking as Ralph Lee's gaunt and forlorn puppets, and both work hand in hand (or wrist and string) to tenderly pull us along, right into darkness or, perhaps, salvation. Zukerman's performance is also helped by Roman Tatarowicz's clever set design, which cramps him in a dingy room that's akin to a bomb shelter, yet also crowds his visitors into a narrow hallway, of which we can really only see as much of as Finkelbaum can, through the peephole. But the best effect of all is Segal's writing, which goes from clever logic to wry dismissals, embittered refusals, and finally, bleak parody:

"What? it's not spectacular enough, is that it?" says Finkelbaum of the epic puppet show he's been working on. "Just wait . . . First, I haven't told you that he belonged to the Sonderkommando, that's to say that all day long he burned the bodies of his brothers and sisters. If that's not enough, we can make him be obliged to mount erotic performances by making use of fresh corpses like Japanese puppets for an S. S. officer, amateur aficionado of Bunraku . . . and if you absolutely insist, we can add some jazz music at that point and put in your tap number . . ." Here is a mind that's been stretched to the breaking point so many times that it desperately wishes it could go mad ("For me not to have become mad, that is the most shattering proof of the non-existence of God . . . a little imagination, yes . . . madness, no"). Instead, it can only reenact, and even those happy reenactments, undiluted by clouds of insanity, must turn to ash -- in fact, there's an oven conveniently placed in the corner.

The Puppetmaster of Lodz is pretty powerful stuff, and what's most impressive about the production is that you leave without feeling that you've had your strings pulled, or that your emotions have been manipulated at all. Instead, there is real empathy for the humanity that Segal has fashioned, and real mourning for all those lives lost, lives not necessarily lost to something as easy as death.

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Blue Heron Theatre @ The ArcLight (152 West 71st Street)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $20.00
Performances (through 12/23): Wed. - Sat. @ 8:00 | Sun. @ 3:00

Monday, December 17, 2007

Beckett Shorts

Probably the best looking exposure to some of Beckett's smaller works that you're likely to find on any stage, JoAnne Akalaitis's collection of Beckett Shorts is an impressive testament to one of the most theatrically innovative playwrights out there. The pieces are geared toward the physicality that centerpiece Mikhail Baryshnikov is more known for, but his economical grace is a boon toward clean storytelling, and this production is strikingly clear.

Photo/Joan Marcus

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Love Beckett or hate him, you aren't likely to find a crisper collection of his short plays produced anywhere; from JoAnne Akalaitis's firm direction to Philip Glass's foreboding compositions to Alexander Brodsky's bleak sandbox of a set, these plays -- a few no more than fragments -- seem fully realized, even if their messages still may not come fully into focus for the casual theatergoer. Still, for those who do not wish to sift through that stark desert sand, who do not want to find the hopeful yes that may be buried beneath all of those dissolute nos, there's at least an outstanding cast to watch: Bill Camp ("Rough for Theater I") and Karen Kandel ("Eh Joe") provide riveting interpretations of Beckett's text, and Mikhail Baryshnikov uses his physical grace to work as a mime in "Act Without Words I" and "Act Without Words II" (he's joined here by David Neumann), and as a soulful face caught in haunting contemplations, hinging the work with economical motion.

The curtain -- a wall of projected, randomized light -- wrinkles upward to reveal a desert and a man (Baryshnikov). Surrounding him are walls of solid shuttered blinds, save for two open exits to the wings and a photo-delayed projection of the stage along the back right wall, an effect that elicits the inescapable feel of a panopticon (which, if you believe in God, is what Earth is). In the bright light, our symbolic Everyman cannot hide, and simply does as commanded, following a shrill whistle, even as it continues to take advantage of him. In a series of comical events, the man attempts to obtain a floating carafe of water, but the deck is stacked against him: when he finally stacks two cubes together to reach the water, it rises ever higher. And when he gives up and looks to the other use of his tools -- to use his rope as a noose rather than a lasso -- even the tree folds up its branch and dangles tantalizingly out of reach. This piece, "Act Without Words I" is the perfect introduction to the plays, accessible to anyone who has ever drawn a single breath.

Its successor, "Act Without Words II," is also fairly representative of the human condition: two men sleep tightly wrapped in their green burlap sacks, on a narrow strip (one's lifeline, perhaps). Every so often, a goad rolls in from stage left, poking the closest sack until it gets up and works. The men never meet, but share the same clothes (and the same rotting carrot), each dragging the other's sack a little further stage right, living their routines in unremarkable repetition. Here, Akalaitis uses an ominous theme of Glass's like that of Jaws, turning the sure and steady appearance of the goad into a larger meditation on that lurking force that forces us to go on.

From here, the play skips a few years ahead (from 1956) to one of Beckett's sketches of humanity, "Rough for Theater I." Like his most memorable work, Waiting for Godot, we find two lovable losers stranded in the middle of a cold and twilight desert; one is a blind fiddler (Baryshnikov), the other a wheelchair-bound cripple (Camp). In a sobering dialogue, the two both describe the other as a "poor wretch," and yet they have so much to offer one another, even if it is nothing more than companionship. Camp's boisterous character, who brags of pushing himself idly between points A and B, sees a little bit of his dead son in the fiddler, while the fiddler, who has found a simple peace in being still, angrily insists "I am not unhappy enough!" when suicide is broached. What's remarkable here is the way the quiet kindness of an old man's knee turns to such a violent cliffhanger, a key twist that Akalaitis simply provides to the audience, without any attempt to explain.

The final piece, "Eh Joe" was originally produced as a 1965 film, but is done here (as in Dublin, 2006) as a staged piece, with the film's content (a gradually closer and closer steady shot of Joe's unwaveringly heavy face) projected onto a scrim while the actors sit behind the ghostly light in their own private isolations. Baryshnikov sits upright on a bed with hardly a movement at all, entranced by the voice of a Woman (Kandel) that constantly accuses him, snidely, of being a heartless man, a man now trapped in "that penny farthing hell you call your mind," as he contemplates his old age ("Sit there in his stinking old wrapper hearing himself") and loneliness ("Anyone living love you now, Joe?"). The play proceeds with a steady, wearying rhythm that could very well be the erosion of the mind, and thanks to the staging, we can now see the Woman, too, as she rises from her chair and eventually crawls through the stand, whispering harshly by the end of things, speaking of memory and imagination, until finally, with the picture gone out of focus -- death presumably come at last (one interpretation pegs the nine movements of the camera as the nine levels of hell) -- the lights go out.

There's a lot to digest in these four plays, each a distinct glimpse at some hopefully hopeless measure of the human condition. Akalitis has placed them in chronological order, which gives insight into the focus of Beckett's work -- from highly physical to almost entirely vocalized and internal. She also manages to use Jennifer Tipton's lighting to tell a further story with the plays: the start is life, all bright and full of questioning experimentations, the middle and later years grow darker and darker, and by the final scene, the stage is almost entirely dark, lit only by the pallid glow of the actor's own face, projected back at him. Despite being barely seventy minutes long, it's a full-bodied work that thoroughly explores (in miniature) some of Beckett's best.

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New York Theater Workshop (79 East 4th Street)
Tickets (212-239-6200): $65.00 (Sundays Evenings: $20)
Performances: Tues. & Sun. @ 7 | Wed. - Sat. @ 8 | Sat. @ 3 | Sun. @ 2

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Dogs

Brad, sleeping on a couch, startles awake a short while after Davy's noisy entrance, wildly wielding a scrappy hunting knife from behind one of the couch’s unfashionable plaid cushions. Jumping to his feet, we see Brad is dressed in ratty red head-to-toe long johns, and some sort of animal costume that is halfway off, and tied disturbingly around his meager waist. Davy, meanwhile, is attempting to mend a stuffed dummy’s ripped neckline while drinking his recently opened beer. It’s been less than a minute since the lights went down, and there is already no shortage of compelling action. Dogs is already good.

Reviewed by Amanda Cooper

Two brothers are living sparingly in a run-down Alaskan cabin. They have recently invested their only money in a pack of dogs – supposedly huskies. The goal: to train them. To be attack dogs. Then sell them to those desperate enough to want an attack dog. These two are attempting to follow in their father’s footsteps, though from the sounds of it, his footsteps are far from ones to follow. Brad (Ross Partridge), the older brother, has been more or less home-ridden since his return from a short stint in jail. And he can’t get himself to stop wearing the old bear costume his mother made during his more tender years. The younger Davy (Joshua Leonard) has also been out of work – in fact, the town they live in seems to be beyond the edge of desperation since there has been zero work in the local cannery factory – and so he has turned his focus towards the dogs. The bloodied bandage around his wrist, however, is not a sign of success.

There are plenty of plays out there about complicated family relationships or which focus on the underprivileged. But what we are usually shown on stage are characters of a certain intelligence level. They are aware of what they are not receiving in life, and why. The unevenness of the world, of their situations, often compels the play, and the characters’ individual intricacies, forward. With Dogs, that is not the case. These are not characters usually put on stage. They are not intelligent. They are not self-aware. Yet they, too, are complicated. Brad and Davy’s lives are filled with coping mechanisms and resentful co-dependence. Their dreams are real, and even realistic – making their inevitable failure – clear from that first dog bite on the wrist – unequivocally sad.

“You can get paid a hundred bucks a day just to be an extra. Even more if you have lines.” Davy tells Viv, the new girl in town who already has a reputation for being easy. His dream is to move to L.A. to be an extra – perhaps score a line every now and again. He never speaks of being famous, or even rich. Viv(Jennifer LaFleur), too, has created coping mechanisms in her life: “It’s not my fault they’re horny,” she says of the men in town – the cannery workers who outnumber the women ten to one. She fiercely wants to be independent, but she is also full of fear, perhaps even justly so.

Playwright Norman Lasca has an artistic voice that is thick and complex, but also direct. He does not ask for sympathy from his viewer, but for acceptance. The emotional sores he leaves are about the truths in this play. These truths are, in many ways, the inevitables we already know; but we are frozen in our seats, waiting for these characters to reach them as well.

A killer creative team surrounds Lasca’s talent. Director Justin Ball is unafraid of the play’s grime, and successfully chooses not to polish over anything. The three actors – Ross Partridge, Joshua Leonard and Jennifer LaFleur are all impressive. They understand the limits of their characters, and do not attempt to superimpose unnecessary motives or morals. Set designer Kenneth Grady Barker has produced a rendering of a dilapidated cabin any theater would be proud of, and Christina Watanabe’s lights are the right balance of eerie and desolate for the play’s tone and locale.

Productions like this are not easy to come by – writers like Lasca – who is more or less unknown to the New York theater world – rarely receive such well-done premieres of full-length works. But it is also an extraordinary experience, as a theater-goer, to have: to be shaken by a pounding new theatrical voice.

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The Duo Theater 62 East 4th Street
Tickets: $18 through theatermania.com
Through Dec 22nd, thurs – sat @8pm, sun @3pm

Vital Signs: New Works Festival Week Three

Oh, American playwrights are just fine after all. In fact, they're absolutely vital, as evinced by this final installment of the Vital Signs one-act play festival. The event has been well curated and all of the plays bring something well worth seeing to the table, from Shelia Callaghan's always welcome eccentricity (remember when people actually enjoyed playing with language?) to another of Sharyn Rothstein's portrayals of real people caught up on the verge of something larger than themselves.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Between this week's series of one-acts and last week's, I think it's safe to say that Vital Signs has earned its name. These final four premieres share little in common -- there's a twisted fairy tale, a sequel to Our Town, a whimsically written parable, and a rhythmic love story -- save that they are all well-produced, honestly performed, and splendid to watch.

The opening play, Sharyn Rothstein's "Senor Jay's Tango Palace," uses a backdrop of that most passionate of dances as a cautionary warning to those who lose their spark. Marlo Hunter's direction (and choreography) lets Marmalade (Maria Parra) and Robert (Leo Ash Evens) loose in the background while Ben Johnson (Nick Merritt) and Senor Jay (Jose Febus) can only watch, as they do every night, their dreams flicker momentarily before them. They've also resigned themselves to the most dismal of dreams: Jay's is a rundown place, and Robert's more interested in groping the innocent Marmalade than he is in dancing with her. Although Ben's contemplative small talk is the highlight of the show, Jay's easy going nature is what sells it; Jay is another one of Rothstein's all-too-human failures: he humanizes everyone around him, even though he's lost his corazon.

The next piece, Cheri Magid's "The Lock," uses a staple of symbolism -- the fortress -- to look at the consequences of such imprisoning protection on The Lady (Carla Rzeszewski), and the truth behind such white-horsed characters as The Prince (Christian Felix). In a series of progressive scenes, simply directed by Blake Lawrence, Rzeszewski slowly kindles to life, blossoming before our eyes with a girlish vigor that keeps us rapt with anticipation. To tie each of the Prince's visits together, each one slowly dissolving the castle walls, Magid adds a Soothsayer (Alice Barden) whose simple poem haunts the proceedings with an eerily erotic message, full, like life, of foreboding and hope.

As for Shelia Callaghan's wonderfully written "Ayravana Flies or A Pretty Dish," the need for exotic excitement comes across a bit cryptically, but is completely carried by the characters: a shy (and English) Elephant (Fletcher McTaggart) and an excitable young cook, Olivia (Lauren Walsh Singerman). In a series of alternating monologues, Callaghan convinces us of how important it is that we really live and explore our world -- not just by vicariously throwing in foreign spices like cumin, or by working in an airport to be around those bold enough to fly, but by daring to take risks oneself, even when it may lead to disaster. McTaggart plays the elephant with the potential to soar, but it's Singerman who literally zooms across the stage, helping to make even the ambiguous portions of the script crackle with Callaghan's unique wit.

The final piece, It's Our Town, Too, is good -- but a bit exploitative. In the first scene, writer/Stage Manager Susan Miller introduces us to another town, a modern one filled with a gay couple, George and Louis (David Lloyd Walters and Dan Via) and a lesbian couple, Emily and Elizabeth (Alexis Slade and Amy Staats), who are about to see their adopted children Molly and Chance (Janet S. Kim and Jason Cruz) get married. By portraying modern relationships in Wilder's familiar model of family/town/community, Miller pays homage and makes a bold statement all at once. But her second scene, the "death" scene, seems to be pulled directly from the original Our Town, and seems to be placed there to mine our emotions without earning them: if the point is simply that gay, lesbian, or straight, there's no difference in the way we live, love, die, and grieve, then it's just overkill: the point is made already, now let it rest in peace.

All told, this twelfth installment of Vital Signs gives the impression that America has a fine and healthy heartbeat of new playwrights, ones who collectively draw from a rich culture of the past and actively develop -- with new voices -- a culture for the future.

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McGinn/Cazale Theater (2162 Broadway; Fourth Floor)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Performances (through 12/16): Thurs. - Sun. @ 7:00

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Edward II (re:Directions)

Nick Fondulis gives a commanding performance as Gaveston, beloved of the king and hated by everyone else, in Tom Berger's handsome production of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast project varying degrees of ineptitude.

Reviewed by Cameron Kelsall

Earlier this season, I bemoaned the fact that a rare New York staging of Christopher Marlowe's brilliant The Jew of Malta, featuring the estimable F. Murray Abraham, was saddled with an unimaginative staging. The chance to introduce a new audience to this wonderfully inventive dramatist was, essentially, squandered. Now, two productions of his Edward II are unfurling simultaneously, in similarly minded, modern-dress production. Judging from Tom Berger's handsome mise-en-scene, that belated introduction now seems entirely possible, despite some wildly uneven acting.

The drama unfolds around the strong, somewhat inappropriate (read: homosexual) relationship between the recently crowned titular king (Jason Summers) and Pierce Gaveston (the sensational Nick Fondulis), who was banned by the new king's father. When Gaveston reappears in the court, it is like a lover's return; Edward hangs off of him and showers him with titles and tributes. Soon, they are parading around the court like a Hollywood couple staging a public display of affection, and the court's advisers are not pleased.

It is easy to understand why this fluttery and weak-willed monarch is so intoxicated by his "beloved minion": as played by Mr. Fondulis, he calls to mind all modern stereotypes of celebrity hangers-on, acting the part of the perfect crony. Outfitted (by David Withrow) in clothing that would make even the most unconventional Project Runway contestant blush, he emits an aura of unbridled sexual fierceness that often stopped the action dead in its tracks. This was my first experience with Mr. Fondulis, but his comfort with and command of classical language is strong enough to advocate for him to become a permanent fixture of productions of the Elizabethan repertoire.

However, one quickly realizes that Gaveston is not developing into a major character, and, unfortunately, the rest of the cast simply cannot replicate Mr. Fondulis' seismic energy and verbal polish. Mr. Summers gets off to a respectable start as Edward, and offers several convincing portraitures of an affection-starved noble, but as the drama wore on, he seemed to lose interest, and walked through one of the most thrilling of downfalls. Conversely, Anais Koivisto's portrayal of Edward's queen, Isabella of Valois, flounders at first, and only comes alive in the final moments of action. Even with her late resurgence, though, she fails to prove outright that she is comfortable with the language of the play.

This smart and literate adaptation, written by Mr. Berger and Erin Smiley, reverses several gender roles, most notably that of the villainous Mortimer, who plans the overthrow of Edward. The concept is admirable, especially since it is posited that Mortimer and Isabella are, like Edward and Gaveston, gay lovers. However, in the hands of actress Cecile Monteyne, we are given a usurper as mild-mannered and speculative as the ruler she longs to see dead. Monteyne also portrays the relationship with Isabella as one of real, emotional love, a poor character choice. Mortimer, who is supposed to be as ruthless as Gaveston--this is why she views him as a threat--should be seen manipulating the queen to achieve her own ends, not cooing lovingly into her ear.

It's a shame that Mr. Berger couldn't put together a better group of actors, because there is a lot to recommend in his fine production. To my surprise, his use of newscasts to frame the action as England descends into civil war never grew annoying; in fact, the final broadcast chillingly illuminated the modern phenomenon of spin. The production is stark and minimalist, and lets the beautifully cultivated verse speak for itself. And, of course, there is Mr. Fondulis, turning in one of the most utterly watchable performances available in New York at the moment. His Gaveston doesn't appear in the second half of the play, for reasons that I won't reveal here. From the moment of his departure on, all of the kinetic energy vanishes. I should stress that this is the fault of the remaining performers and not the text. One should feel privileged to hear Mr. Marlowe's words, even coming from less than capable mouths. This is a case where the play truly is the thing.

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The Theater at the 14th Street Y (344 E. 14th Street, between 1st and 2nd)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $18.00
Two performances remain: Saturday, December 15 at 8PM and Sunday, December 16 at 2PM

A Very Nosedive Christmas Carol

The "very Nosedive" addition to the classic Christmas Carol title promises the usual festive story, along with bonus, over-the-top extras: and that's exactly what you'll get. Caroling monkeys and sock-puppet Tiny Tims, a Shakespearean Scrooge, and all the other fixings, only this time viewed from the perspective of four very frustrated ghosts, doomed to spend each Christmas doing the same old play.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

A Very Nosedive Christmas Carol is to the original as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is to Hamlet. James Comtois is no Tom Stoppard (Comtois is deliberately funny), but once again his Nosedive company strikes to the heart of what audiences really want this holiday season: laughs and eggnog (or eggnog and laughs, I'm sure he doesn't mind the order). In any case, the focus this time is on the supporting characters, Marley (Scott Lee Williams) and his cadre of ghosts, Past (Marsha Martinez), Present (Brian Silliman), and Future (Ben Trawick-Smith). You see, they're sick of haunting Scrooge (a delightfully Shakespearean Patrick Shearer) every year, and they're craving a release from the chains that bind them -- in a sense, they're scrooges themselves, denying what has become a postmodern Christmas staple.

At the same time, they're also actors -- playing a specific part for a specific audience -- and as they talk about their dismal auditions (Bloody Mary, Hamlet's father), they try to find ways to truly live each performance as if it were their first (even if that means putting stickers on a sleeping Scrooge). They all do their job very well, from Williams's mopey chain-rattling and misanthropic narration, to Martinez's endearingly cute performance, Silliman's technical prowess (his vocal warm-up is a scene-stealer), and Trawick-Smith's terrifying presence as some sort of cross between 80s hair metal lead singer and Grim Reaper (in other words, compliments to costumer Stephanie Williams).

As is typical of Nosedive productions, very little is taken seriously, and this play -- which we've all seen a million times before -- is the better off for it. The ghosts (like Scrooge) still learn a valuable lesson about Christmas cheer, but this time they do so in the midst of baby-chucking antics, caroling monkey puppets (and a sock-puppet Tiny Tim), and the most eccentric Cratchit family you've ever seen. Those portions that hew too close to the original, as with Scrooge's nephew (Matt Johnston), serve as reminders of how much more fun it is to watch a grown man (Marc Landers) walk around in a half-crouch so that he can play a little boy. As for the rest of the company, they're in particularly good form too, like Ben VandenBoom's emotional Bob and Jessi Gotta's charming Belle (I mention these two because they've played very different parts in other Nosedive productions).

A Very Nosedive Christmas Carol is now in its third year, and on the fast track to being a NYC staple of the season. So ho-ho-hurry over to the Red Room and get your jolly on.

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The Red Room (85 East 4th Street; Fl. 3)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Performances: 12/15 @ 11:00

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Devil's Disciple

Is it murder if you're gentlemanly about it? Are you good if you are narrowly religious, or is true good measured by action? George Bernard Shaw's wit is in exceptionally good form in The Devil's Disciple, as the Irish Rep's production, condensed and well-directed by Tony Walton. Overall, the play is a bit narrow in scope and spends most of the second act repeating itself, but the performances from Curzon Dobell in the first act and Lorenzo Pisoni in the second keep us interested.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The original production of George Bernard Shaw's revolutionary play, The Devil's Disciple (1897), had a featured cast larger than 33 in number, and spoke out with a wit and truth strong enough to make critics of the time agree it was "novel to the verge of audacious eccentricity." To mount it on the small Irish Rep stage, Tony Walton has condensed the play down to eleven main parts and nine actors, and in doing so has streamlined the action (save for a expository first scene) and focused on the hypocrisy that makes this play so endearing (albeit more than a little redundant).

To begin with, Shaw focuses on the strict and Puritan rule of Mrs. Dudgeon (Darcy Pulliam), a shrill housekeeper who never ceases to complain about having to care for her uncle's bastard, Essie (Cristin Milioti), let alone her own two "good-for-nothing" children. "Let her hear," she shouts at her well-behaved but doltish son, Christy (an eager and pleasing Craig Pattison). "People who fear God don't fear to give the devil's work its right name!" This sets up the historical values of the time (1777) and place (New Hampshire), although Shaw quickly goes about mocking these values by portraying Mrs. Dudgeon as an unflinchingly cold woman (she's the only one in the house who never seems to need to warm herself by the fire). He's also gives balance to the bitter Mrs. Dudgeon by making the minister, Anthony Anderson (a delightful Curzon Dobell) into a thoughtful rebel, and by turning the antihero, roguish and well-named Dick Dudgeon (the captivating Lorenzo Pisoni) into the unlikeliest of heroes.

Shaw spends his first act, then, dealing with the reversal of roles: the set roles that we imagine for Anthony and Dick are quickly reversed, with Dick bravely marching to the English gallows in Anthony's stead, and Anthony appearing to flee the scene with the cry "Minister be damned!" As for the second, the Shaw applies his grand wit to the concepts of martyrdom ("It is the only way a person can become famous without ability"), gentlemanly contradiction ("If we should have the misfortune to hang you, we shall do so as a mere matter of political necessity and military duty, without any personal ill-feeling"), and the laughable nature of the English army, as evinced by a clash between the thoughtful General Burgoyne (John Windsor-Cunningham) and the aggressive Major Swindon (Robert Sedgwick). Even as the noose is wrapped around his neck, Dick cannot resist mocking the proceedings.

Another plot running through the show is that of the minister's wife, Judith (Jenny Fellner), who deals with the baggage of Shaw's era: "I am only a woman, I can do nothing," she exclaims. After spending half the play despising Dick for no reason other than his reputation, she spends the rest of it trying to save his life, and thereby proving another of Shaw's points: "The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent toward them: that's the essence of inhumanity.. . . If you watch people carefully you'll be surprised to find how like hate is to love." This is what we see in the coolness of the military and in the iciness bestowed by an ill reputation (those who won't give Dick the time of day).

All told, The Devil's Disciple is a very funny play, but one which doesn't really channel Shaw's wit to his best effect. The message is limited, and the second act focuses too narrowly on insulting the poor marksmanship of British forces (ironically, with precise aim of his own). What's to be gleaned from this play, then, are the excellently balanced performances of Dobell and Pisoni, who make Anthony and Dick into the best of "enemies," as well as the moral message that religiousness is not a measure of good, but rather of selfishness, and that true good can only be measured by actions that so bestow it, be them by the self-proclaimed devil's disciple, or by a gun-toting minister.

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Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd Street)

Tickets (212-727-2737): $60.00

Performances (through 1/27): Wed. - Sat. @ 8:00 | Wed., Sat., Sun. @ 3:00

You People, short plays about those people

Reviewed by Amanda Cooper

An evening of one-acts can be a mixed blessing: If the current act being performed is lacking (or even torturous), a fresh start is never too far away. But this also means that a rockin’ play is never far from being over. Fortunately for theater company The Shalimar, their evening of one-acts, entitled You People, doesn’t have a dud (at least not in the evening I attended, when only four out of five plays were performed) – or anything close to it. But at the same token, the evening does not also provide something Spectacular.

The connective tissue for this group of short plays is the concept of “those people” – you know, not us. Not the urban-dwelling, liberal-minded, well-enough-to-do folk who most likely make up You People’s audience. The possibilities are far-reaching, and each playwright tackles a different person, or rather, type of person. Perhaps not purposefully, sex plays a significant role in each of these stories (are we, as a culture, a bit obsessed with how “the others” sexually satisfy?). Even the musical interludes between each piece – mock-pop numbers performed by rocker chicks and a dude – are almost exclusively sexual in content.

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy sex-talk on stage as much as the next liberal urbanite. And in fact, this universal interest isn't the point of these pieces; it's the vehicle for a perspective on a larger concept.

Deseret Desire” kicks off the evening with commentary on how far one goes to stay “true” to their religion. With a presentational approach to the material, the couple exaggerates their actions and emotions with positive results. Josh Liveright’s piece is directed with a clear presence by Camilo Fontecilla: Performers Laurie Naughton and Justin Okin do not literally interact with one another, but act out their relations from separated chairs to solid comic effect.

The self-obsession of an Upper East Side wife dominates “Miss Morely’s Revenge” so much that she can’t see the forest for the trees. Sharyn Rothstein’s storyline is about revenge taken by the overlooked in life – in this case, the large woman who the skinny matron doesn’t even think to suspect of being her husband’s lover. Though the concept is clever, Mrs. Hardy’s ignorance gets old well before the end. Dawn Evans, however, plays the Mrs. so tightly - she is so ignorant of the mockery being made of her - that there is sympathy possible for that skinny bitch, too.

And then there’s “Tostitos,” in which a teenager’s crush marks the beginning of her (scary) foray into independence. Written by Michael John Garces, easily the most established of the evening’s writers, this is the creative team with the most potential. Director May Adrales is an actor’s director, cultivating the characters and their subtext poignantly, and the foursome cast responds well. But the play, and this production, is attempting to accomplish too much. It’s a nuanced, coming-of-age story that ends up feeling skeletal in this short form.

Closing out the evening is the endearing and fresh “Blanco.” Blanca is an illegal alien who creates a fantasy life online in order to fulfill her unfulfilled dreams. Though the circumstances are wacky (umm, joining a gay porn site), there is a complementary quietness to the play with Blanca and her grandmother's lonely real lives. Writer Hilly Hicks Jr. seems to be experimenting with style in this play, and not all the devices work, but a one-act’s sure a great opportunity to take chances. Nameless narrators also become characters for moments, and music is awkwardly used to represent loss.

Theater company The Shalimar has cobbled together a sassy evening that can certainly give Us People some laughs, and even a little insight on what it may be like to not be… Us.

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The InterArt Annex (500 West 52nd Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $10.00
Performances (through 12/16): Thurs. - Sun. @ 8:00

Monday, December 10, 2007

He's Having a Baby

A Jewish man with all sorts of ingrained hang-ups about sex tied to his upbringing experiences hardship while trying to conceive his first child with his wife. Although this one-man performance lacks emotion and sometimes gets derailed from its purpose, it is engaging, well-acted, well-written, and flawlessly produced and offers a rarely seen male perspective on having a baby.

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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

In an age where the male perspective on having kids is usually boiled down to football dad or carrying on the family name, He's Having a Baby (written and performed by Andrew Kaplan) offers a broader, more sensitive point of view on the entire process. Drawing from his own harrowing experience, Kaplan takes us through the whole spectrum of incidents, from growing out of his own childish ways to anticipating his baby's. But while the portrayal of his journey is well-constructed and infinitely entertaining, Kaplan's stories occasionally jump off course and his feelings on the matter seem stoic.

Using only a giant E.P.T. test as his aid, Kaplan employs characterizations that are sometimes silly (a sperm represented as a mobster is of note) and monologues to match the weighty role that conceiving a child played in his family's lives. Constantly engrossing and never predictable, Kaplan affirms the importance of bringing life into this world by not only going through the rigors of predicting ovulation, getting his sperm tested and suffering through his wife's miscarriage, but also by expressing outrage with the constantly fertile and questioning the ones that discard their babies. Although Kaplan does show some conventional paternal interest in having a boy rather than a girl that ties to his own need to see himself reflected in the baby, he also has interests that are more admirable and that further his Jewish heritage as best described by the line "Who am I to stop a bloodline back to Adam?" He continues to delve into his cultural and religious upbringing by defining his views on sex, describing in detail the delayed loss of his virginity, and citing his Yeshiva education as the frame for his desire to reproduce. But as much as his anecdotes and background history are well-written and theatrically exciting, they are digressions from the actual baby-making, no matter how much he tries to rope them into the main theme. Also, although Kaplan's carefully chosen words and scenes have the potential to elicit various emotional responses from the audience, Kaplan himself appears indifferent from beginning to end. Despite a verbal break from his "32 years of suppressed crying" with his baby's birth, Kaplan chooses to either not revisit his overflow of emotions from a performance standpoint or simply cannot access them from his own testament of stoicism.

Cosmin Chivu directs Kaplan in a performance that is filled with humor and fun. In spite of his failure to communicate sorrow and pain, Kaplan does connect through the audience with frequent eye contact and regard. Evan O'Brient designs insightful lighting that supports the gravity of the situations as well as the absurdism. Kaplan learns through trial and error that the baby-conceiving manuals aren't always correct, and even investigates an unpopular, chuckle-worthy use for the all-purpose Robitussin: a thinner for cervical muscles. Through narratives, Kaplan discusses the ways in which society handles conception, and the dangers and responsibilities associated with making that decision. It is a loaded job, but one that you are happy he decides to take by the end of his 85-minute undertaking.

VBAC Productions' world premiere of He's Having a Baby asserts the impact that having a baby can have on men in a world where men are often silent or absent. It is a rarely-investigated point of view in a society where there is a growing surge in sperm banks and obstetricians trained to perform artificial insemination. This production recalls to mind Amy Wilson's recent one-woman show Motherload, but differs not only in content (Wilson's is post-birth), but also in the reliance on technology and showmanship. Yet, it can be improved. Already a good show, a tighter weave of the stories and a stronger show of emotion can make He's Having a Baby much better.

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Through December 23rd. Tickets: $25. TheaterMania at 212-352-3101

Altered Stages 212 W. 29th Street, New York, NY

Vital Signs: New Works Festival

The strength of new theater lies in its ability to provoke, expose, tease, and surprise the truth out of us, the audience that thinks it knows everything already. All five of the plays in the second of three sets at Vital Signs cleverly use misdirection to suck in the audience and get to them emotionally, and it's a festival well worth checking out.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Are there theatergoers out there who don't think that the development of new plays and voices is vital? If there are, they should get down to Vital Signs, a three-week series of new works, and one of the best opportunities to see the sort of things that concern contemporary playwrights. Though I can't yet say what next week will be like (though Sheila Callaghan and Sharyn Rothstein are both names the savvy theatergoer should know), my experiences with Week 2 lead me to believe you'll be in for a treat, as there was everything from a one-act musical about moving one with one's life ("Evict This") to a delicate parallel about accidental racism ("Lost in the Supermarket") and a heartbreaking love story ("Meeting"). Ironically, the only thing these plays had in common, despite strong performances and steady direction, were their unpredictable choices, which speaks to a need to communicate old ideas in a new way.

In Sonya Sobieski's Evict This, we're introduced to Lila (Jacyln Huberman), one of those people "who's got their shit together," she sings, seemingly happy with her affordable apartment, perfect hair, and other endowments. But it's not a perfect world: she's haunted by the ghosts of former tenants, two bickering sisters (Meg MacCary and Sheri Sanders) who like to point out that ever since they died seven years ago, they "haven't been the same since." Sobieski's script spends a little too much time misleading us with comic antics between Lila and her latest one-night stand, Guy, and a bored priest (both played by Mark Shock), but ends on a strong note: even after Lila's driven out the real ghosts, she's still emotionally fettered by the ones she conjures up on her own, like lethargy, and stuck in a worse limbo than her ghostly roommates.

Cahterine Allen's Class Behaviors also uses misdirection, this time by veiling its motives under an extremely passive-aggressive confrontation between the highly principled new principal, Rebecca (Vanessa Shealy) and a long-time benefactor of the school, the grand grandmother, Johanna Twilling (Ruthanne Gereghty). Based on Gwenyth Reitz's no-frills direction, we're meant to see Mrs. Twilling as the villain, a woman using her influence to slowly censor the school library, but it isn't long before the tables have changed, and the more liberal Rebecca is using her power to close off discussion with the censorship of Johanna. The play is little more than a parallel between democratic and republican zeal, but at least it's dramatically so.

The most experimental of the pieces is Steve Yockey's Kiss and Tell, which uses a frozen-time narrative to allow characters to confide momentarily in us (as all other action stops) when they're at their most vulnerable. The twist isn't hard to see, especially given all the jokey foreshadowing, but the innocence of all three characters and the violent undercurrent of homophobia carries the play through the obvious patches. It's met on the other side of the intermission by Laura Eason's formulaic Lost in the Supermarket, which cuts between the expectations of two different couples who each talk about the aftermath of a casual and easily forgotten (but all too common) incident of accidental racism in the supermarket. Both plays break up the natural rhythm of conversation to make a larger point, and while neither is perfect, their messages resonate with the audience.

But for all the experiments, sometimes simplest is best: Jason Salmon's excellent Meeting takes the whole "two strangers meet at a bar" device and turns it on its head, summing up years of relationships in one apparently hypothetical conversation. Marc (Joshua Burrow) is the successful guy who's still a kid on the inside, and Stacy (Desiree Matthews) is the prim and perfect (yet fragile) object of his desire, and as they banter through the "rules" of pickup lines, they both explore where this relationship might lead. Salmon's romantic idealism elicited many wistful sighs from the audience, which is why his misdirection was the most effective of the evening: we so want this relationship, emblematic of American values, to succeed, but only find ourselves thinking pessimistically and, ultimately, destroying ourselves in fear of the future. Jack Reiling's direction manages to keep some of the more scripted lines seem natural, and the actors both do an excellent job of connecting to one another, which in turn provokes a real engagement from the audience, and a mutual heartbreak as the show reaches its surprising end.

And that, above all, is the strength of new theater -- not just its power to provoke, but to surprise. We, who think we've seen it all, need more than ever to be reminded that there are an infinite number of ways to see a story, and even more ways to interpret one.

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McGinn/Cazale Theater (2162 Broadway; Fourth Floor)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Performances (Series 3 through 12/16): Thurs. - Sun. @ 7:00

You People

In five short glimpses of people you've seen before but possibly never considered, The Shalimar have painted an impressive mosaic of American life -- through the eyes of the disaffected, the obese, the immigrants, and the religious. From comic parables like "Deseret Desire" to the bleak realism of "Tostitos," it's time to meet You People.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Be they religious, obese, foreign, rebellious, or illegal, they're still people first, and The Shalimar's latest production You People aims to remind us of that, whether it's by doing a few rock numbers or a few one-act plays. This approach, while a bit sloppy and not as put together as LA FEMME EST MORTE (or Why I Should Not F!%# My Son), succeeds at being a lot like a melting pot of ideas, and there isn't a bad play in the bunch.

The first playful piece is Josh Liveright's Deseret Desire, in which we see two lovers getting all worked up with some serious kissing. Unfortunately for John (Justin Okin), Desiree (Laurie Naughton) will only take things so far on account of her religious beliefs ("butt stuff" is apparently OK from time to time -- ah, the vagaries of interpretation), and thanks to director Camilo Fontecilla's clever direction (the two sit at a distance from one another, responding to each other's kisses without actually giving or receiving them), we can actually see his frustration. It isn't long before John's agreeing to marry her, bring his kid up in the Church, hell, go to church himself -- anything for God, ahem, sex -- which says a lot about how some people treat religion in this country, especially when the sheets come off.

The next piece, Sharyn Rothstein's Miss Morley's Revenge is a more straightforward piece, and while it's nothing we haven't seen before, it's always a pleasure to see someone stand up for themselves, even when it's through the gaze of an impenetrable smile. In this case, Marilyn Hardy (Dawn Evans) is one of those self-righteous offenders who suggests "diets" and "moderation" like they've never been considered before, and Laura Morley (Kelli Lynn Harrison) just smiles and nods, being endearingly sarcastic as she plots her revenge. It's not a particularly deep play, but R. J. Tolan directs it without any menace, making it ordinary enough to remind us of just how often this well-intentioned discrimination goes on.

In Nastaran Ahmadi's Splinter, the discrimination is a bit more opaque. Man (Charles Semine) is an Irish student whose visa in America is about to run out. Woman (Jen Taher) would rather he didn't, as she's in love with him, but despite her desperate offers to marry him, he doesn't want to stay: "Being in America's only fun if you're American." It's an insidious comment, especially since Jessi D. Hill directs him as being so well-adjusted, happy, and normal; if we can't make this sort of visitor like us (the air has a smell, he says), who will like us?

Taking a more comic approach to the same thought is Hilly Hicks Jr.'s Blanco, in which an illegal immigrant, Blanca (Nina Freeman) tries to Google her American dream, with the help of her electronics store friend, Daryl (Blaire Brooks). Their discovery, through a gay video chat site, is that in America, you can not only achieve anything, but you can be anyone, and be accepted for it. Samuel Buggeln uses two unnamed actors (Chris McKeon and Chip Brookes) to bring the open gates of the Internet to life, but manages also to achieve a level of solemnity when "El Blanco" and "Army Cock" reveal who they are when they're not dreaming.

The best piece of the night is Michael John Garces' Tostitos, which is a rather frightening glimpse at disaffected youth in this country. Red (Andres Munar) rides around the stage on a bike, snarling at everything, while his punk hanger-on, Annie (Jenny Gomez) follows on a skateboard. Tanya (Barrett Doss), a good girl, has unfortunately fallen for Red, and he berates her even as he takes free sodas and candies from her, refusing to make any emotional connection. When Tanya's father, Danny (Edwin Lee Gibson) shows up, the two violently collide, and the lack of respect and understanding on both sides is frighteningly palpable. May Adrales doesn't hold anything back in the physical staging of this piece, which means she doesn't attempt to explain or justify the way these characters behave, and the piece is better for its mysterious bursts of anger, its violent teasing, and its aggressive banter (all of which Mr. Garces has refined far better in this short piece than in his last disjointed play, Acts of Mercy).

The evening transitions through each of these plays with songs from Davide Beradi and Tommy Smith, but with the exception of the last number, "You People," which actually engages the audience, these songs serve only to give the cast enough time to change the sets, and simply aren't clear enough; the direction from Shoshona Currier and Joey Williamson doesn't help either, as the 80s costuming doesn't fit the modernity of the other pieces, nor does it really speak to those people -- what they're doing is too easily identified with, too much a part of our culture. But if the play's the thing, then You People's got it.

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The InterArt Annex (500 West 52nd Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $10.00
Performances (through 12/16): Thurs. - Sun. @ 8:00

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Chekhov's Chicks

Though the individual scenes that Elizabeth Rosengren has pulled from Chekhov aren't much more than exercises in Scene Study, the way in which she makes their ideas about love collide is a insightful (and hopeful) study in the bittersweet hope of life. These pieces also join together to provide a much richer interpretation of The Bear that one usually gets out of the light farce, and it unites the whole evening of Chekhov's Chicks as a delightful reintroduction to Chekhov.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Ever since I dreamed of attending NYU's Gallatin program as a major in "The Philosophy and Psychology of Theater," the thought of theater's ability to really change one's perception and heal our ails -- if taken seriously -- has stuck with me, and consequently, is part of why I've stuck with it. That's why it was such a pleasure to attend Elizabeth Rosengren's Chekhov's Chicks, a play that mashes together several Chekhov plays and short stories in order to enlighten the audience about love and life. The production is quietly directed by Jewels Eubanks and sometimes (in that small, barely decorated Manhattan Theater Source space) comes across amateurishly, like a scene study class, but as a whole, it takes a delightfully active approach -- much like the "active love" of Ivanov -- until at last, after a full presentation of the short comic piece, The Bear, our hero is finally able to bear the pains in her heart.

The play begins by introducing us to the lesser known Anna Akimovna (Carolinne Messihi), a character from A Woman's Kingdom who suffers from loneliness and stress. Rather than sit around idly, she heads to a famous doctor -- Anton Chekhov (Chris Cotone) -- who quickly diagnoses the pain she feels in her heart: "I know that pain. There is nothing for it." Luckily, his muse, the actress Arkadina (Elizabeth Rosengren, who plays a kinder version of the Seagull matriarch) has another idea: what if she and her company perform some of the good doctor's plays, to see if those bold examples of life can't calm her aching heart.

Soon, we're watching the Three Sisters give the abject lesson that "people don't marry for love," but that "when you fall in love yourself, you realize nobody knows anything about it." A few moments later, Sasha (Taryn DeVito) is clarifying for Ivanov (Ramesh Ganeshram) that "The more you have to do for love, the better it is. I mean, the more you feel it." And in one of the more memorable scenes from Uncle Vanya, Yelena dreams of being that free-swimming mermaid, unfettered from dull marriage and able to love.

These excerpts are all sparsely directed and often have very little for them beyond the light of an artificial moon shining off the window, but they speak to the sort of love to be found crawling out of Chekhov's "comedies" (this joke is made more than a few times) and they do inspire a sort of hope in the hopelessness of fantasy love. But they lead the way for real resolution in The Bear, which is now imbued with enough context (like Homelife does for The Zoo Story) to make the presentation of what would otherwise simply be a lovesick farce into a really uplifting conclusion. More so, the audience is joined by the entire cast, and we can feel their excitement merging with that of the play -- in fact, Anna interrupts the performers several times with her own eagerness and hope, which makes the performance more thrilling.

Rosengren has pulled together a lot of Chekhov's better musings, and while these pieces often lose the tone of the plays (some of the actors are delivering surface readings only, with none of the subtext or real yearnings of these characters), this repurposing is smooth and emphatic in its own way. Then to end with a quoted example of my own, these chicks may occasionally be ugly ducklings, but they blossom at last into a beautiful swan.

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Manhattan Theatre Source (177 MacDougal Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Performances (through 12/15): Wednesday - Saturday @ 8:00

A Christmas Carol: the new musical

Just in time for the upcoming holiday season, the Vortex Theater Company guts Charles Dickens' morality tale and repackages it as a quirky, folk celebration worthy of That 70s show. Although there are some good songs and the interpretation is imaginative, the uncomfortable, bleacher-type seating, flighty dialogue, and softening of Scrooge dictate that this production is best viewed on a dose of mushrooms. .....................................................................
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre


The Vortex Theater's production of A Christmas Carol: the New Musical is neither a run-of-the-mill version of Charles Dicken's ghost classic nor is it a conventional theatrical or musical experience. And depending on your sobriety, that may not be such a good thing. Transforming the miser Ebenezer Scrooge (Jason Trachtenburg, of musical outfit the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players) into a corporate philanthropist in a country headed for environmental ruin, this version by Kris Thor and Joel Bravo is but a silhouette of the original concept with more questionable choices than triumphs.

Set during a December heat wave in present day North Carolina, the conditions already challenge the frigid temperatures of the original, allowing the audience to be more sympathetic towards a Scrooge that doesn't withhold heat. He has his own vices, however, and the upcoming spirits will tell him so. In this update with a vintage feel, Scrooge returns to the "grave" of the Carolina ash tree that he planted in memory of his mother and also returns to memories of a lost, but not forgotten love. If you expect the ghost of Jacob Marley (Joe Ornstein), his deceased business partner, to show up and set off the chain of events, expect again. Here, Jacob Marley is represented as a hardworking, stand-up man (not contemptuous) and his mentor, who remains insecure about his wife Belle's (Tracey Weller, in a much larger role than the original) former relationship with Scrooge. He does die, but his demise is pregnant with far more responsibility for Scrooge than he ever had in the Dickens story. In a haphazard fashion, Scrooge encounters a female ghost of Christmas Past, the Archivist (kooky Deborah Knox), a tag team to represent Christmas Present (an exciting and mischievous Julie LaMendola and Dan Gower), and keeping with the theme of a grim spectacle, a not-silent-enough Beekeeper (Libby King) representation of Christmas future. More character upheavals can be commented on, but the gist is, everything and everyone is different.

The major problems with this production stem from the portrayal of Scrooge and the manner in which the characters in his life are reimagined. This version deviates so much from the original that Scrooge's redemption is hardly realized. Trachtenburg's Scrooge is a fun-loving, almost comical character, and not the hard-nosed curmudgeon that needs to be taught some lessons. And although the ditties that he sings are entertaining, they antagonize the audience's need to dislike him before he is given some sympathy. Here, Scrooge seems more like a hapless participant in greed and social irresponsibility than a ruthless initiator. Although the backdrop of environmental disease is a nice touch, the foray into romance with Belle isn't. Some of the concepts such as the inclusion of home videos to visit his past and the beglittered half of Christmas Present hissing "ba humbug" are rich with sentimentality and humor, but some others such as an adult Wayne and Ignacious Bridge (Want and Ignorance, played by Michael Martin and Isaac Woofter, respectively) are tedious and don't make any sense. After all, this Scrooge's ignorance is not that deep and his desires are not that selfish. The dialogue is contemporary and will resonate with hipsters, but one needs to be in a particularly "lofty" zone to enjoy it or take it seriously.

A Christmas Carol: the new musical is more than a fresh spin on the classic. It is an entirely different experience with an ending that doesn't suggest that Scrooge learns what he's supposed to learn. If you're a traditionalist, this version will not satisfy your need to revisit the old story. However, if you're a hipster, a fan of folk-pop, or a recreational drug user who doesn't mind back pain (uncomfortable bleacher seats for a two-hour drama), this retelling will suit you just fine.

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Through December 22nd. Tickets: $12. 212-352-3101 Sanford Meisner Theater

164 11th Avenue, New York, NY 10011

Saturday, December 08, 2007

No Dice

No Dice is playing a high-stakes game without the dice -- it's an epic attempt to do everyday storytelling without actually having a story. The strange result compensates by distinctively ripping on dinner theater -- a communal event in itself -- to reflect ordinary life back on the audience through a mirror that grows less and less distorted with each hour. It succeeds -- through amiable force of will and exaggerated comedy -- at letting us tune into the "cosmic murmuring" that we otherwise ignore.

Photo/Peter Nigrini

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Kelly Copper has edited one hundred hours of conversations recorded by (and from) the Nature Theater of Oklahoma down to a three-and-a-half "epic of the everyday, and Pavol Liska, the director, has shaped this oral work into a strange, thrilling blend of theater (not just melodrama, but hokey dinner-theater melodrama) that tackles life with a series of absurd accents, ridiculous costumes, shared gesticulations (pulled from, among other places, a book on magicians and a video of disco moves), and the company's frenetic dance stylings. The resulting work, No Dice, defies expectations, but does so by continually flaunting the "conventions" that it is breaking: in one of the few segments that is repeated in Act II, we're reminded (via 2001: A Space Odyssey) that storytelling is supposed to have a story; at another point, the characters discuss the "friendly kind of mediocrity" of dinner-theater actors, who "try so hard you have to love them."

I considered writing this review as a conversation between me and me2, so as to give you a firsthand experience of the way No Dice makes use of incomplete thoughts, the standard interruptions like "like" and "uh-huh," (in fact, there's even a great scene where one character critiques another character's brusque usage of "uh-huh").
ME: So I get there, and I'm looking around at this space -- like, this empty space, this -- what used to be, like, some sort of an indoor playground.
ME2: Uh-huh.
ME: And I think -- I'm thinking -- you couldn't, you couldn't possibly pick, like, a better spot to do a play like this.
ME2: Ha-ha. Yeah. Wait, play like this?
ME: Yeah. Some sort of freewheeling, sort of natural mediation on life that, like is distorting yet inherently honest in the way it, how it reflects, right? How we -- who we are.
ME2: (long pause) I liked the signs there. Did you? Like them? (pause) Did you see them?
ME: Sure. "No adults are allowed in the Bouncy Castle."
ME2: "Big Person's bathroom."
ME: (explosive laughter) Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, yeah, such tiny toilets.
ME2: Yeah, such small toilets.
ME: Were we ever that small? I mean, can you think back to a time in your life -- what's the earliest -- god, how time flies.
As you can see, I didn't entirely decide against it, but the language itself is secondary to the presentation, which falls somewhere between the terse theatricality (scripted through improvisation and free play) of The Debate Society and the collage work of Chuck Mee, who is known to pull just as freely from Greek classics as he is from modern blogs. Where No Dice stands out is in the lack of storytelling, the way in which Anne Gridley, Robert M. Johanson, and Zachary Oberzan immerse themselves in the rhythm of life -- the "cosmic murmuring" of edited recordings, pumped into their ears via iPod buds and enthusiastically recited (note perfect) rather than memorized.

No Dice succeeds because this lack of storytelling. It's incredibly focused, don't misunderstand, but on the other things that build character: tales of guilt about working for your friend, and the anxiety about where that may lead; long conversations about taping a television series in Russia and the attempts to convince oneself that the experience justified doing it for free; stories about working as a temp for Wal*Mart, filling out TARs (Time Adjustment Reports), taking long smoke breaks, and stealing the free sodas. Then, to make it relevant to anyone (and far more endearingly comic), the actors play these parts as broadly and hammy as possible: Zack slips in and out of an Irish accent for emphasis and constantly blows bits of fake mustache out of his face; Robert parades around as a half-Jamaican pirate with Hassidic curls hanging off the ears of his wide-rim glasses; Anne (wearing a red wig that creeps farther and farther down her head) speaks in a cheesy French accent and perpetually winces or laughs nervously as if what's being said might get her shot. They're also joined by a wide-eyed Thomas Hummel (whose hidden talent for beat-boxing brings the a surge of energy to the show) and mysterious Kristin Worrall, both of whom spend their time adding a quiet underscore of facial expressions to the dialogs.

After the first hour, the accents start to fade, and the company -- now that it has your attention -- gets more personal with their work, coming right up to the audience to share stories about drinking problems or food (specifically pudding) addictions. The physical tics now seem normal, and the characters seem no different from the actors literally channeling them, especially when the conversation turns to No Dice's structure (once an 11-hour play), marketing (the "I'm a Sexy Robot" dance certainly got me to buy M&Ms), and performance (dinner-theater).

Obviously, No Dice isn't for everyone: those not involved in the arts may miss the self-loathing jokes, and those who are might not want such a broad mirror reflected so brightly back in their face. And but so plus then it's also almost four hours long, like August: Osage County, but without such immediate drama. My advice is to take SoHo Rep up on their generous prices and watch the first 100 minute act; it's an exhilarating chance to see a company trying to find a way to tackle that cosmic, universal sound.

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SoHo Rep @ 66 White Street
Tickets (212-868-4444): $25.00 ($0.99 on Sunday)
Performances (through 12/31): Fri. - Sun. @ 7:00

Iphigenia at Aulis

A Greek general offers up his daughter as a sacrifice to appease a goddess and win her favor for his army in Don Taylor's translation of the classic play by Euripides. Although this production has a fun, indie pop chorus, a fantastic lead and innovative lighting design and sound effects, the acoustics at the Milagro Theater amplify all sounds within the production and out, the depictions of some of the famed figures are peculiar, the costumes are mismatched, and the blocking is too broad, making Highwire Theatre's effort a valiant, but tepid one.
(l to r) David Lee - Agamemnon, Julia Davis - Iphigenia, Ninon Rogers - Clytemnestra - photo by Yael Gamson
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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

While the U.S. Marine Corps code is "unit, corps, God, country," the Greek army's code during the time of Euripides would have been "gods, country, pleasure," and maybe an honorary nod to "family." But in Iphigenia at Aulis, Agamemnon (David Ian Lee), the commander-in-chief of the Greek troops, grapples with his priorities when his own flesh and blood must be sacrificed.

When Agamemnon's army incurs the wrath of Artemis, warrior goddess of the wild and of the hunt (according to Homer, Artemis wanted to punish Agamemnon after he killed a sacred deer in a sacred grove and boasted that he was a better hunter), he knows that he must quickly come up with something to pacify her, as she has suspended the winds and made it impossible for the ships to set sail to Troy. To preserve their honor and reclaim Helen, Agamemnon's brother Menelaus' (Thomas Poarch) adulterous wife, it is imperative that a blood sacrifice be offered to Artemis. Because Agamemnon is at fault for the offense, he decides to offer the blood of his daughter, Iphigenia (Julia Davis), to calm Artemis down.

Agamemnon lures Iphigenia to Aulis with the promise of a wedding to Achilles (Eli James), the half-mortal hero. But, before she arrives with her mother and his wife, Clytemnestra (Ninon Rogers), he deliberates with Menelaus and his conscience, changing his mind several times over the fate of his doting daughter. When Clytemnestra learns of her husband's military strategy by her faithful slave the Old Man (the wonderful David Douglas), she devises a plan of her own with Achilles' assistance, vowing to keep her daughter alive at all costs.

The action of Iphigenia at Aulis is so diffuse onstage that it's difficult to absorb each actor's commitment to their roles in the Milagro Theater's broad space. The great acoustics of the Milagro allow for booming tones and a cadence that communicates the gravity of a situation that (with the exception of Lee) the actors' performances don't convey. As Agamemnon, Lee embodies a father stuck between a rock and a hard place, and does so with the spectrum of emotions that one would associate with such a predicament. Anyone that would like to dismiss Agamemnon's decision as a no-brainer in favor of his offspring would recognize his dilemma when measured against the hubris of the Greeks and the lines of discord on Lee's face. He is diminished in stature and power, however, by the much taller Rogers as his wife.

Insufficient lighting by Kj Hardy in the lethargic opening scene suggests night, but does nothing to brighten the characters faces or the audience's alertness. Hardy does, however, redeem himself with long, flashing fluorescent light bulbs that accompany the stomping of the soldiers during climactic scenes, even if their functions are sometimes delayed. The mixture of classic and modern costumes by David Withrow is peculiar, making us wonder if the production ran out of money after Agamemnon and Clytemnestra were adorned in lavish period clothing.

The production takes great liberties with the portrayals of some of the most famous figures, particularly with Achilles. Clad in a white leisure suit and a rope of bullets, James looks more like a refuge from Miami Vice, with the wile and sleaze to match. James' Achilles is more satirical than realistic, boasting none of the brawn and the grace that the widely accepted version of Achilles usually possesses. Achilles never looked so impotent. The Sailor (Jason Griffith) and Messenger (Tommy Dickie) are not the armor-clad warriors that one would expect, but they do remind us, with their posture and calculated steps directed by Jill Landaker, that they are upon a military vessel. Davis seems to be miscast as Iphigenia in the beginning, but does muster a smidgen of courage and strength in the end to earn the name that means "born to strength."

Highwire Theatre's production of Iphigenia at Aulis is a courageous one, but it has many kinks. Agamemnon's flippant manner and Clytemnestra's disbelief in Iphigenia's fate at the end of the play does not leave much of an opening for Euripides' follow-up play, Iphigenia in Tauris. Although the music by Kendall Jane Meade is melodious and sung well by Sarah Brill, Michelle O'Connor and Gillian Visco, their inclusion turns the Greek tragedy into a folk jamboree. Parallels can be drawn to the role of women in this military-heavy world to the women waiting for their sons and fathers to return from Iraq, but they're a stretch. The translation by Don Taylor is accessible to even the newly-initiated to Euripides, but this production is an example of an interpretation gone too modern and too awry.

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Through December 16th. Tickets: $18 212-868-4444.
Milagro Theater at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center
107 Suffolk Street(between Delancey and Rivington Streets)