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, April 08, 2008

We Call Her Benny

A woman goes on a quest to find her birth family while grappling with the issues that her lack of history has caused. Now beefed up in running time and content from its first run at the FRIGID New York Festival, the writing and choreography sometimes goes overboard, but the production is solid, even in its fragmented techniques.

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

"Your body would be great for sex," says 20-something year old Max (Danny Wiseman) to impressionable teenager Anna (Anna Bridgforth) in We Call Her Benny. But before you dismiss this as a run of the mill, come-on line that older boys use to bed younger girls, picture this guy as a clean-cut, innocent-looking friend of the family that's been fooling around with this girl since she was 12. It's not so typical anymore, is it? Now imagine that sexual dysfunction follows this girl into her adult life and marriage. Are you there? Writer and director Suzanne Bachner wants to put you in that place in order to understand one of the many difficulties associated with being adopted. In this portrait of an adoptee's life, Bachner follows Anna from infancy to adulthood as she struggles to find her identity and birth family.

The John Montgomery Theatre Company employs "kaleidoscopic" techniques to tell Anna's story. From the moment the show opens, the ten-actor ensemble get into formations that physically depict what the "active members" in the scene are feeling. For instance, if three characters are involved in a scene where one of them is angry, the remaining seven fall into a stance that demonstrates anger. This technique is the driving force of the play, and is used at every opportunity. Anna's sexuality and discomfort with it is a favored theme of the formations; as a result, the movements are excessively decadent (actors spend a lot of time on their knees, but they're not -- ahem -- praying). Although the choreography by Julie Rosier is complex, exciting, and well-done, the repetition is sometimes tedious and looks like a crutch for acting that, while good, simply isn't as remarkable as the direction.

The techniques also support Anna's feelings of displacement, her absent roots and trouble with intimacy. But because her thoughts and emotions are being performed, it is as if she doesn't own them. Because they exist outside of her body, made public by other actors, the essential intimacy of the scenes is lost.

Anna is portrayed by two different actresses: Bridgforth as a teenager, and Judy Krause as an adult. The two occasionally intersect, not as whole characters independent of each other, but as two halves desperately seeking each other at vital moments and trying to ultimately unite. Bridgforth plays Anna as an impetuous, restless girl that needs more answers than her therapist Dr. Weitzner (Einar Bob Gunn) or her adoptive Dad (Bob Celli) can provide. Krause suffers through the consequences of having unanswered questions from her youth through her unhealthy relationships. Even when she does manage to get answers, the damage proves hard to repair.

Bachner's script, although too long at two hours and sometimes verbose, is also full of raw phrases and honesty. For instance, when teenage Anna confronts Max about his behavior, he replies "You wanted me. I let you have me." Based on Bachner's dedication to her "real and only parents" in the playbill, it can be inferred that the story is at least partially autobiographical; it certainly seems as if Bachner is writing from personal experience. The Brother (Nathan Faudree), a character miscarried by Anna's adoptive mother before Anna is brought into the family, is an unconventional and haunting way to show how unimportant Anna considers herself to be. Even the dead are invalidating her. His lines of dialogue are the most biting because they can't be argued down; they exist in her head, and are rooted in the truth. It is a sad predicament upon a pile of sad predicaments.

We Call Her Benny, now beefed up in running time and content from the very first FRIGID New York Festival, is a strong showing from the cast and crew. Everyone works hard to complete seamless transitions from scene to scene. Rather than rely on sound clips, they often create a buzz from their own undulating voices. The precise direction keeps everyone in line: not easy when you're maneuvering ten actors around a modest space. It also allows the cast to handle many sensitive topics -- like simulating sex, which they seem to have a good time with, even when Anna isn't -- with professionalism. We Call Her Benny may touch us harshly, but it's still touching. A little jolt to the soul and the mind every now and then is not such a bad thing. Here, it's very good.

Through April 28th. Tickets: $18. 212-868-4444 Michael Weller Theatre-311 West 43rd Street,New York, NY 10036

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