Friday, May 30, 2008
Reviewed by Ilena George
Outside of Truxton, AZ, Doctor Harold Roth (Marty Brown), an argyle socks and suspenders-clad “archaeo-geo-physio-bio-neurologist,” is futilely searching for evidence of a rare species of toad capable of surviving underground. In tow is his wife, Faith (Rebecca Lingafelter), a poet who some time ago suffered a break with reality: she still functions, but only communicates in abstract statements and metaphors. Rounding out the team are Sherry (Sarah Claspell), the long-time personal assistant, and Brandon (Bobby Hodgson), the bumbling field assistant prone to fainting spells. Visiting for the weekend is the Roths’ college-aged son, Matt (Ian Merrigan), and his girlfriend Amy (Jenny Seastone Stern) who is meeting his parents for the first time and who has news she needs to share with Matt “in private.”
Playwright and set designer Al Schnupp cleverly plays on the archaeological theme: the audience witnesses the action from above, as though we were archaeologists and the play were the dig site we were uncovering. And the uncovering is a leisurely one. The first half of the play takes its time in introducing the characters; they bicker, they eat breakfast, they bicker some more. Casting a strange shadow over the proceedings is the impending arrival of Ruth Meyers (Aimée Phelan-Deconinck), an unauthorized visitor to the site who claims have an appointment to speak with Doctor Roth.
Although the play gains considerable momentum with Meyers’ arrival (Phelan-Deconinck is very effective at conveying both the seductive appeal and the dangerous threat Meyers poses), The Site is hard to engage with. Despite the variety and dramatic potential of plot points—unplanned pregnancy, grossly unethical scientific practices, an Othello-esque accusation of infidelity—the production meanders, tightening the threads of its storyline too slowly for a compelling narrative tension.
It’s hard to tell what tone the play is taking and in what direction the action is heading. The way characters overreact to mundane things (for instance, Matt brings a gun with him, so his father suggests he patrol the perimeter and “escort” any intruders back to the site) and treat the significantly abnormal as quotidian (the family engages with Faith’s semi-coherent ramblings but don’t seem to address her illness) makes the play seem absurd, even though the production is too sincere for that label.
My difficulty suspending disbelief was also partially due to the overly wrought language, which even the actors stumble over. To illustrate: “Well, get him up, the lazy cuss,” Roth commands, in reference to Brandon being late to work. Roth’s word choices feel forced: Matt tells his father to “speak regular,” and Faith’s half-poetic, half-disturbed ramblings are wholly unnatural. Strange casting choices also make the play a hard sell: few of the characters appear as old or as young as their characters presumably should be.
For each mystery Ruth Meyers lays bare during the story’s climax, the play leaves more questions unanswered. For someone who is so brilliant and has so many hyphens in his specialty, why is Roth’s research so mundane? And why are his crimes even more pedestrian? The production dips a toe into the murky waters of unethical scientific practices, and how far a brilliant scientist should be allowed to go in the name of intellectual pursuit, but fails to really dig in and get its hands dirty.
The Site by Al Schnupp
Directed by Mark Sitko
Walkerspace (46 Walker Street, between Church and Broadway)
May 18 - June 7, Wednesday - Sunday at 8pm, Monday, May 19 at 8pm.
Tickets $18: www.TheaterMania or 212-352-3101.
Monday, May 26, 2008
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
“Show, don’t tell,” goes the old saying about the best writing. It’s a maxim that's important for playwrights, and even more important for political dramas, which too often come across as unimaginative sermons. It’s a pleasure to find that in his excellent play, Artefacts, Mike Bartlett has found a way both to prove and break that rule. The stream-of-consciousness of a typical, selfish teenage girl (Kelly), allows him to tell quite a bit, but what she chooses to tell—what she focuses on—shows us quite a bit about ourselves.
“I just wanted one of those Saturdays, one of those good rainy Saturday afternoons when you lie back, watch a film, call your mates, text a boy, yeah?” It’s an earnest question, one that she delivers directly to the surrounding audience as she paces the carpeted center of the stage. Instead, she finds herself preparing to see Ibrahim, her father, who she has never met, and who—get this—is from Iraq: “So I’m half Iraqi. Shit man.” Slickly directed by James Grieve, her lengthy asides continue through the dialogue, giving us an idea not just of her attention span but of what goes through a young girl’s mind: “Mum asked, do I want to get him a present or something? Do I? No. Like what? He’s come from Iraq. I could probably give him a Mars bar and he’d be amazed. But no. Yeah. Maybe I should.” In this context, especially as performed by the exceptional Lizzy Watts, this telling reinforces the drama: it also, subtly, shows us Kelly’s racist perception of Iraq.
It’s a perception that doesn’t hold up, especially in Peter Polycarpou’s delicate portrayal of Ibrahim—not a heartless monster, but a man torn to pieces by ethics and a problematic lack of class. (He undermines his gift to Kelly, a priceless Mesopotamian pot, when he says he is “killing two birds with one stone”—he is also protecting it from those politicians who would “protect it” by keeping it themselves.) The same goes for Mouna Albakry, who as Ibrahim’s Iraqi wife, Faiza, does not speak a word of English in the play. It's a bold but wise choice, necessary to keep us grounded in Kelly's world, but it's Albakry expressive nature that pulls it off.
Bartlett’s writing is clever in the best possible way, for it turns shallow thoughts into deeper observations about character and pulls apt cultural metaphors out of those depths. For instance, when Kelly is drawn to Iraq by artifacts of her own (years of letters from Ibrahim that her mother had refused to deliver), she nervously confesses to Faiza that she tried to learn Arabic off her iPod, but usually just listened to Kanye West. Her observations about Iraq are telling, too: “I’m looking out the window and it’s weird, cos I’ve got armour and security and I’m travelling through these streets like I’m going to be shot any moment but outside there’s people talking and mums with pushchairs, and people shopping and stuff. You know. There’s traffic jams and traffic lights. It’s amazing. It’s normal.”
This obliviousness is thrust back in her face as she learns that her half-sister, Raya, has been abducted—a thing that is so “normal” in Iraq that the police recommend Ibrahim pay—and that Ibrahim, the ethicist, is questioning the morality of payment ("If ten families in a row do not pay, they will stop"). Some preaching follows—“Maybe all Iraqis are stupid”—but from the perspective of an abandoned daughter, not an ignorant Brit: “As I grew up, when bad things happened I used to hide under the blankets and I’d ask God for my dad to turn up that night and protect me.” (Comparatively, these weren’t even bad things.)
By the end of the play, things come full circle. Three years later, we can see how much has changed—or not—as Kelly leaves her Iraqi past behind: “I’ll go through these glass doors and a woman will offer to help me and I’ll be shopping and I’ll be feeling great. I will feel so fucking normal. Shopping and eating and coffee and out and home. It’ll be bright and it’ll be happy and it’ll be easy. And I won’t need to worry. Just me. Just as I wanted it. Just as it should be.” How’s that for a political slap in the face?
Artefacts (80 min.)
nabokov @ 59E59: Theater B (59 East 59th Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $37.50
Performances (through 6/8): Tues. – Sat. @ 8:15 | Sat. @ 2:15 | Sun. @ 7:15
Sunday, May 25, 2008
Friday, May 23, 2008
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Richard F. Stockton's courtroom drama Prisoner of the Crown is filled with so many dubious distinctions about the defendant, Sir Roger Casement, that the play should be a knockout. For example, put to death in 1916, Sir Roger has the "honor" of being the last knight ever to be executed for treason. Due to a literal reading of the letter of the law, he has the syntactical pleasure of being the only man ever "hung by a comma." In his trial, he had firsthand experience with the mudslinging of the government, which used the hint of homosexuality in his "black diaries," forged or not, to bias the jury. But the play suffers from a few other dubious distinctions: Richard T. Herd is credited as a co-author (which could explain the irregularity of the writing), and Ciaran O'Reilly has abandoned his stellar work with realism (Sive, Defender of the Faith), and plunged this work into a jazz-era hokeyness that undermines the thematic structure.
Prisoner of the Crown looks sloppy and misdirected. Whereas a playful show like Chicago has cause to break into song and dance, there's no reason to break the tension of Casement's trial. It's already chopped up enough, with comic asides to the audience from Patrick Fitzgerald and the sudden shifts that turn Philip Goodwin from the man on trial into the lone juror refusing to convict him. And it already looks thrown together, with props being wheeled around slapdash to allow for "scene changes," and Charles Corcoran's set feeling very pub-like--it's got everything but the bar (festive green strands dress the four corners up like St. Patrick's Day). Add in the sad jazz that plays between scenes and you've got an vague, anachronistic show that would rather play than be a play.
As with many Irish plays, I find myself drawn to the villain, that repugnant charmer. John Windsor-Cunningham doesn't disappoint, and his scenes with Ian Stuart are what draw our attention--and our scorn. As prosecutors, the two manipulate evidence and wonderfully undermine the defense; as jurors (all eight actors are at least double-cast in this role), the two push for a "guilty" verdict, and belittle those who disagree, calling any dissenter's sexuality into question. The problem is that while Tim Ruddy, as the defense's Sergeant Sullivan, provides them with a dramatic challenge, the rest of the cast is a bit of a pushover, especially the hero. Philip Goodwin plays him earnestly, but like an erstwhile martyr--that is, like a man already dead--and it's simply not an interesting choice.
Some audiences will no doubt enjoy the history lesson, primed as it is with lines like "No empire can survive the loss of its moral authority" to cast judgment on our current political mudslinging. More likely, audiences will be bored and confused by this unimaginative and unfortunately comic "swift boat" of a play. Here's a political parallel for you: one cannot run a campaign (or a play) on cleverness: you need passion, too.
[See also: Sarah Krasnow's review]
Prisoner of the Crown (130 min., one intermission)
Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd Street)
Tickets (212-727-2737): $60.00
Performances (through 7/6): Wed. - Sat. @ 8 | Wed., Sat., Sun. @ 3
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Reviewed by Sarah Krasnow
The program for Prisoner of the Crown includes a timeline of major events in the life of the subject, Sir Roger Casement. This historical drama by Richard F. Stockton and Richard T. Herd informs: the question is, does it also entertain, inspire, and move? Satisfying all these requirements puts a lot of strain on the authors of a bio-drama (even Aaron Sorkin had a hard time). The good news is, Prisoner of the Crown entertains. Due to the tightness of the writing, it often inspires. Now and then, it moves. However, for the most part, it plays out like a live performance at an Irish history museum, albeit one of unusually high quality.
Prisoner of the Crown begins with a touch of narration from the endearingly mop-haired Patrick Fitzgerald as an unnamed Welsh sentry. More of his narration pops up now and again, but Stockton and Herd (officially, the play is by Stockton, with “additional material and original concept” by Herd; I’ll credit them both here) know to use it sparingly, as the rolling action and chameleon-like actors need little help in telling this story of an Irish patriot or English traitor, depending on your point of view. Roger Casement was born in Ireland to Irish-born parents in 1864 and was knighted in 1911 by King George V for exposing abuses of colonizing powers in South America and Africa, most famously the horrific treatment of the Congolese by King Leopold’s Belgian troops. It was when he tried his hand at winning Irish independence that Casement got in trouble: during World War I, he attempted to obtain a pledge of German support for a free Ireland and to incite Irish prisoners of war in Germany to an uprising. Caught as he returned to England, he was eventually hanged for treason. To prevent martyrdom, his enemies in the government released alleged diary pages describing his frequent participation in homosexual activities.
The events of Casement’s life as a prisoner unfold swiftly in Prisoner of the Crown, with each performer taking on multiple roles (one as many as seven). We begin with the jurors who have just heard the accused’s case, all in gray suits and glasses. Then lights dim, makeshift tables roll, and the scenes of Casement’s capture, imprisonment, banishment to the foul Cell 4 in the Tower of London, and the rest unfold to the tune of informative dialogue that could have been boring, but isn't, spoken with effortless shifts in English or Irish accent as the actors assume their various characters. Staccato scenes offer peeks at jury deliberation, creating just enough variety in the linear action without turning chronology on its head. Enemies conspire against Casement and friends try to help him, and the jury fills in much of the rest, neatly parsing out the exposition to keep the lecture factor to a minimum (though the use of an echo apparently tries to mimic the sound of speech in a cell, but unfortunately recalls a narrated museum diorama). Scene shifts happen with the dimming of the lights and the playing of a catchy but ominous saxophone-led soundtrack, the actors stepping and swaying in time, distracting us as with song and dance as sleights of hand go on right under our noses.
Scene changes happen literally with a whirl, as the precise cast removes spectacles or unfurls sheets and rotates into position. Indeed, the cast exudes precision and the audience never gets confused as to who is playing whom at what moment, despite all the overlap. The changes are clear yet subtle, but so subtle, in fact, and so brief is each character’s appearance on stage, that really the only critiqueable performance comes from Philip Goodwin as Roger Casement and his lone sympathetic juror. Goodwin plays both these characters with the careful articulateness of a just-minded and educated man, just barely masking the panic his situation engenders. His Casement, though, wallows in a gentle melancholy until his death. Surely the man who braved jungles on two continents and took on the king of Belgium had a tougher side to him.
In Act II, Stockton and Herd move away from the bio-drama motif and let the audience stretch their minds a bit. As the solicitors at Casement’s trial bicker over a technicality in treason law, unresolved for 600 years, and sidestep the issue of the defendant’s “diaries,” we participate, weighing our own notions of what constitutes treason in wartime and considering the difficulties in discounting an irrelevant, probably fabricated, but nonetheless unsavory blot on a defendant’s character. And here we really get to the point this play is meant to drive home: even in wartime, a nation’s laws still stand, whether it’s fighting in World War I, or, say, the Middle East somewhere. Casement’s prosecutor even uses the word “fairytale” in a reference that may fade over time but on this night got a big hoot of recognition from the audience. When Casement is hanged, we expect a blackout as the stool is pulled from his legs, but in a neat tech trick, Goodwin remains there swinging from the noose until the Welsh sentry delivers the closing lines. A play that began mostly with prelection ends with some power.
The Irish Repertory Theatre houses an unusual stage. Stage left lands flush against the wall, with the right corner and edge free, allowing for seats directly in front of the stage and 90 degrees to the side. Such a configuration gives the audience a narrow sightline, and in a production as information-heavy as this one, it’s hard to shake the museum diorama effect (having sat in the side section in the past, I assume those folks felt on the fringes of the museum crowd, getting only the side view of the display). We museum-goers marvel at the quality of the display, the skill with which it was assembled, and the important education it offers us. Still, we are peering at something encased in glass. The uncased impressionist paintings in the next room will probably stick in our memories, and certainly in our hearts, for longer.
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
When you think of people that are known for being isolated, perhaps geeks, dweebs, nerds, and the hygienically-challenged come to mind. Isolation is seldom a coveted circumstance. But despite its negative connotations, qualities such as strength, independence, and endurance are sometimes forged, making it not such a bad thing. Coyote Rep Theatre Company's The Lone Wolf Series: Four Solo Shows about Stepping Away From the Pack, examines solitude from all angles in presentations of two. And while the stories couldn't be more different in Jeanne LaSala's Spoiled Bea and Donnetta Lavinia Grays' the cowboy is dying, they each have their own brand of special.
One can immediately tell that LaSala is a trained dancer, from her frequently clean lines and lithe figure to the way she incorporates dance and movement every and any way she can in Spoiled Bea. Her excessive use of choreography is both artful and problematic, particularly since she plays Bea, a character who has lost the ability to dance. LaSala's comfort with the stage borders on exhibitionism, and her provocative, clingy pants put the nail on that perspective. Every time an opportunity arises to sink your teeth into the plot, she tears into another dance number, but they're not always successful. Some of them are tired, impromptu, and awkward, and are occasionally punctuated by strange sound effects. It is as if the story is a series of hiccups between what is obviously her true passion, and the hiccups themselves are all over the place thematically. She is expressive and capable of showing great emotion, but the focus of the show is often questionable. Bea has suffered a tragic accident that leaves her in a vegetative state and in the long-term care of a doctor that she refers to as "Huntly," and the majority of the show is about how she tries to communicate with him through her imagination of what could have been. "Huntly" (Brian Homer) is physically present as her dance partner, her prop distributor and her doctor, which negates the one-woman show classification. Through a few lines of dialogue that seem to jump out thoughtlessly rather than being carefully crafted, LaSala tells the audience members that they have limitless potential and should do something about it. It's a nice sentiment, but it's not one that's sufficiently explored. Even with all of the hard work displayed, this show aspires, but never quite inspires.
On the other hand, the cowboy is dying is a fine model of a fully-developed story. It is a fusion of a great narrative, heartfelt drama, and original music dressed in soulful vocals. Grays captures our attention from the beginning, with bold claims of being able to start fires and thunderstorms even though her posture suggests uneasiness. However, that uneasiness folds neatly into the development of a socially uncomfortable character trying to find her niche. Unlike Spoiled Bea, cowboy makes better use of the sound clips to progress the plot and support the fluctuating emotions. Under Isaac Byrne's tight direction and her own comic timing, Grays links her dreams of being a preacher to her dreams of being an actor. When she struggles with integrating her lesbianism with her spirituality, her conflict is conveyed through her strong pipes (India Arie, watch out!) and intelligently written script. Grays is not afraid to get emotionally naked onstage either, singing "I know my body works even if you don't know. I know my body works even if you're through with it" to an unrequited love interest. The reasons for her isolation change throughout her life, but they all stem from a social root. She goes from being a outcast because of her connection to God to being confined within herself for fear of acting on her desires, and all of it is very gripping. She creates wonderful characters and anecdotes, and when she likens herself to the Marlboro man, it is not only hilarious, but also painfully tender. The cowboy may be dying, but unlike in the Westerns, we don't watch him go with sorrow. From his death springs the birth of a rising, talented artist.
The Lone Wolf Series is timely because it affirms the human ability to bend beyond expectations without breaking, particularly when there have already been so many trying times such as natural disasters and political uproar in 2008. This season stands in direct contrast to their first season's theme of "community,", but both are needed to fortify society. And if we can learn something about how to achieve progress from a theater show, then it's proven its substance. The Lone Wolf Series is much more than a good way to past the time. It is inspiration and vigor proclamation.
Through May 25th. Tickets: $18.
June Havoc Theatre, 312 West 36th Street1st floor, New York, NY 10018
Monday, May 19, 2008
BY ELLEN WERNECKE
As it turned out, the in-the-round seating of "Yellow Moon" (now playing at 59E59 as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival) provided the perfect vantage point from which to observe the transformation of the audience during the show. The gestures of the actors competed with the shell-shocked visages of the theatregoers who had not expected to be sealed in a black box with no set to speak of and nothing to look at besides the raw human passions on display. Perhaps the show should come with a warning label, given the stricken faces I saw. Director Guy Hollands works the set and his actors to perfection in this taut drama.
Subtitled "The Ballad of Leila and Lee," the play closes in on two teenagers, a shy Muslim girl (Nalini Chetty) and a ribald would-be Casanova (Andrew Scott-Ramsay) who meet at a supermarket, go to a graveyard and run away together. She feels trapped in her role as a good daughter and good student; he fears the long arm of the law after striking at his mother's boxer boyfriend in self-defense. Together they flee north, planning to look for Lee's long departed father.
The parallel between Leila's obsessive love of tabloid magazines and the larger-than-life adventure on which she finds herself is constructed early on and not entirely to the play's detriment; indeed, there is something mythic and foregone about the way Leila and Lee circle around each other, culminating in a sweet dance they share while trespassing in the Scottish highlands. David Greig's script sags a little in the second half of the show and punches the ending a little bit too hard, but I was never able to take my eyes off the teens in their ignominious quest.
Keith MacPherson and Beth Marshall play all the other characters in the show, and they are excellent, but they don’t have the magnetism the script gives Chetty and Scott-Ramsay to work with. Chetty in particular is probably the closest thing to an actual teenager I’ve seen on stage this year, all stammers and fluttering hands and awkward pauses. It’s a performance that ought to justify the inclusion of this excellent Scottish play in the festival.
YELLOW MOON runs through May 18 at the Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59. For more information, visit 59E59.org.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Even though her loyalty to Richard Nixon may have resulted in the intentional deletion of incriminating minutes of the Watergate tapes, you've got to hand it to Rose Mary Woods, who, as written by Susan Bernfield in New Georges's Stretch (a fantasia), is one hell of a dame. Brilliantly rendered by Kristin Griffith, this woman, a bundle of hard-fought opinions, smiles and beams as she struts in the spotlight of her memories: "Go fuck yourself! Sure, I can say that, sure, who else?" A bright bulb in a dim room, literally, lights rise to full to show her in a tacky nursing home in Alliance, Ohio, thinking wryly of the Bush/Kerry election. It's the first of many subtle tragedies in this marvelous play, to watch such vivacity wither into a wheelchair, to see her eyes narrow, her mouth tighten, and her body scrunch up. And then there's also a third Rose, a dream of a better time, whose speeches are accompanied by the clickety-clack rhythm of an IBM Selectric, not to mention two violins, a bass, and a trumpet, peeking out cabaret-like from behind a bright red curtain.
Don't be confused by the subtitle: there are some fantastic elements (and I mean that both ways), but Emma Griffin's seamless direction makes it all so believable. In fact, the second tragedy is that it serves as a reminder of how unbelievably believable that shady 2004 election was, especially when The Orderly (Brian Gerard Murray) reads to Rose verbatim out of The Columbus Dispatch. The third tragedy is The Orderly himself, a naive and apathetic man who, having lost the ability to dream, is drawn, moth-like, to the intense fire that he can see within Rose. He and his bud-smoking Bud (Eric Clem) represent the sad apathy of Generation Y, sitting center stage in a depression which is literally their basement but works figuratively, too. "Protect and defend the Constitution of the United States," they say, joking around in the same way that they diligently discuss SpongeBob's and Bugs Bunny's sexuality. And then there's Bob (Evan Thompson), a former history teacher who, although older and wiser than The Orderly, latches onto Rose for similar reasons: she represents actual history, actual life. His liberal idealism represents another type of naivety for Rose to crush with her sarcasm: "Yellin' and screamin', creating a diversion till nobody knows what the hell is going on. Whoohoo! Fox News!"
As the play gets more pointedly political, it also grows more immediate, and the dreams get less "nice-y nice"; gone are the "little tiny marines doing a tap dance" as her helicopter pulls away from the White House, present are the paranoid dreams that she may be Deep Throat, the fears of "wolves at the door." Those around Rose grow less passive, too, awakened by a world that has just reelected Bush: "Tell ya what scares me," Bob says. "These kids, now. Hell, they don't even scare themselves, they don't know power -- that it's even possible." Meanwhile, The Orderly, having outgrown his now-tweaking friend, makes a heartfelt plea for salvation: "Old people, still dreamin away, and I can't make one thing come out!"
Stretch is a powerful, painful play about power, loyalty, and dreams. It's no stretch for me to say that it's unmissable; no stretch for me to say that Gypsy doesn't have the only Rose to watch this season.
[See also: Claire Epstein's review]
New Georges: Stretch (a fantasia)
The Living Theater (21 Clinton Street)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $20.00
Performances (through 5/26): Wed. - Mon. @ 8
Saturday, May 17, 2008
Reviewed by Claire Epstein
The fluttering click of an IBM Selectric typewriter. The perfect white glare of a spotlight on red velvet curtains. We are deep inside the consciousness of the glamorous, crass, ultra-capable personal secretary to President Nixon. And there she is—we have just met Rose Woods. "If you've never seen Nixon's, you've never seen receipts," she declares with real feeling. "Titled, totaled, signed and all properly done."
During the Watergate investigation, Rose Woods is believed to have erased a crucial 18 1⁄2 minute "stretch" of incriminating tape to protect "the boss." The good news is that you hardly have to know anything more about the Nixon administration to appreciate the delightful absurdity and poignancy of this bizarre play.
Stretch (a fantasia) shifts frequently from Rose's inner monologues to the nursing home where she resides in 2004, to the grungy basement where two teenage guys watch TV and smoke pot. One of the nineteen year-olds is an orderly at the nursing home who develops a strange fascination and a deep respect for "Miss Woods." The stoner scenes are set in a shallow pit center stage. The nursing home scenes and the scenes that occur inside the mind of Rose Woods unfold on the surrounding playing space. And at the back wall, an unconventional five-piece orchestra (two violins, an upright base, a trumpet, and an electric typewriter) is seated on a narrow strip of stage, often hidden by a curtain.
Kristin Griffith embodies the vivacious, middle-aged secretary with the heightened quality of a cabaret performer on the verge of breaking into song. In her dreams, Rose breathlessly narrates her experience of the fantastic kaleidoscopic visions that swirl around her. She dreams that she is Deep Throat skulking around the parking garages of Washington D.C., she dreams that she is an outraged Democrat at a protest rally (surrounded by her filthy hippie friends), she dreams that she is the Secretary (… of State!) wearing practical pumps and meeting with world leaders in foreign countries. While each dream sequence ventures into the realm of the absurd, each also contain a sense of emotional truth that adds depth to Rose's character.
Griffith's portrayal of the gruff, conspiracy-minded old lady in 2004 provides a strong contrast in characterization. This "present-day" Rose is disillusioned with politics. In the run-up to the presidential election, the teenage orderly reads her the newspaper and watches TV news in her room. He listens earnestly to every wisecrack and lecture she gives, trying to figure out who she supports and what she believes in. He is so fascinated with Rose that he watches her sleep when his shift is over. The scenes Rose shares with the retired high school history teacher who keeps trying to befriend her are often comical, tempered with flashes of vulnerability.
Director Emma Griffin does an excellent job of integrating the orchestra with the rest of the production. The music swells and recedes, underscoring the rhythm of Rose’s speech or playing in conversation with the actors. The red curtain between the musicians and the audience is raised and lowered at carefully chosen moments—sometimes revealing only one musician at a time. Composer and conductor Rachel Peters “plays” the IBM Selectric typewriter in costume as a secretary of the 1960s. The rhythmic whir of the keys adds an undercurrent of urgency to the score. This vision of a secretary’s bleak, monotonous existence at the typewriter provides a striking counterpoint to Rose Wood’s romanticized account of her life in the White House.
The best parts of Stretch occur outside the particulars of time and space. The personality of Rose Woods turns out to be a rich source and a fascinating subject, especially with Kristin Griffith bringing such verve and specificity to the lead role. The character’s snappy wit, larger-than-life persona, and captivating dream sequences are the highlights of the performance.
New Georges: Stretch (a fantasia)
The Living Theater (21 Clinton Street)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $20.00
Performances (through 5/26): Wed. - Mon. @ 8
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
With a Seussful of allegory and a Churchill of rhythm, Torben Betts has conjured up one of the most distinct and comically unsettling shows of the season. The Unconquered gets the message across with all the subtlety of a Gorey pop-up book (grim and colorless), but the energetic bleakness of the performances make those two dimensions spring to life. Speaking of willful contradictions, the trappings of capitalism are the first to go, with Girl assailing Mother's "affectionate yet strangely passionate existence" and the "equanimity" of her routines. As Girl says, that's all "just so much . . . exhalation!" though it's important to note that the play's forceful repetitions are far more than hot air: they are the whetstone upon which the satire sharpens.
To keep things grounded, director Muriel Romanes makes a series of wise artistic choices. First, she extends the exaggeration of the text to Keith McIntyre's set: a crudely sketched pop-up house, hung from a perspective-cheating wire-frame. Next, she puts the actors in whiteface, a dehumanizing device that, when coupled with Catriona Maddocks's proper middle-class costumes, makes them into walking caricatures. Finally, with a painter's touch, she adds in Peter Vilk's gluttonous sound effects and Jeanine Davies's helicopter-like spotlight, and is able to neatly turn the wire-frame home into a gutted, chaotic mess.
With the circumstances so well established, the language is free to skirt between absurdism and realism, which is where The Unconquered makes the most of its allegorical plot. Mother and Father (Alexandra Mathie and Neil McKinven) -- two meek, materialistic fops -- watch as their daughter, Girl (Nicola Harrison) gets caught up in the consequences of a revolution that they have tried so hard to blissfully ignore. Unfortunately for them, the Free World (which "will not tolerate governments with unconventional philosophies") comes knocking on their door, a cardboard assault rifle that bears the standard of homogeneous violence. Worse, this childlike Soldier (Neal Barry), is so smitten with Girl that his determined lust turns to rape; worse still, the parents are bought off with a string of sausages and the promise of comfort. "I'm now not so concerned for the state of the world," says Father, trading in his suit for golf wear; "A good Christian man," repeats the Mother, selling herself on the soldier-cum-rapist. As for Girl, she is slowly moved backstage, behind the house's transparent back wall, where her screams to "Get out of my house" and "Get out of my country" can be better ignored.
Who said a play had to be subtle to be effective? In this case, The Unconquered makes its point best by being completely, brutally true to form: a play following in the footsteps of many nations before it.
The Unconquered (80 min.)
Stellar Quines Theatre Company @ 59E59 (59 East 59th Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $37.50
Performances (through 5/18): Tues. - Sat. @ 8:15 | Sat. @ 2:15 | Sun. @ 3:15 & 7:15
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
What do you get when you take a bevy of babes, throw them the sort of jungle wear found in the Bunny Ranch's lingerie catalog, hide them from the world's eyes, and keep them starving for male attention and baby seed? Every man's fantasy, right? Wrong! Frank Cwiklik's The Wild, Wild Women of Wakki-Nunu is a crazy adventure into the world of wet dreams made reality, but it's not all it's cracked up to be, something has-been actor, womanizer, and ne'er do well Jake Manley (Cwiklik) learns pretty quickly.
Wakki-Nunu begins like a night at the movies, with sketchy, grindhouse-like opening credits and images projected on a screen. These images are worthy of smiles on their own, but when they're tied into the rest of the show, it's even funnier, particularly since it's nothing like PBS's Nature, what should have been it's mentor. There's some intriguing man-eating and beating jungle music from the beginning, and the sound effects never let up in supporting the changing ambiance. Carl DiStefano (Kevin Myers) and mentally and socially advanced Amazon Nug (Sarah E. Jacobs) pop out as hosts for the show, and give the audience a preview of their importance to the plot. As Carl's personal Jeeves, Jacobs is smart and wickedly funny, particularly since her vocabulary consists of nothing but exclaiming her master's name in a multitude of ways: Carl! Carl....Carl?
If that doesn't sound crazy enough, the plot gets even harrier when their existence is made known to the world. To save his job and gain a time slot, Manley proposes that they film a nature show based on a tribe of Amazons rumored to live in the jungle. Sidekick and worshipper Cubby Gaines (Patrick Pizzolorusso), ambitious actress and model Bunny Barretta (a fun and charismatic Becky Byers), and tough feminist photographer Stevie Pulaski (Samantha Mason) all pile into a putt-putting airplane to accompany him on his quest. (Mystery-caper names....check.) On the way there, they crash (but don't burn), and are separated into two groups, Manley going one way, and the other three going another way. And that's when the real hijinks begin.
Manley meets the bone-carrying, grunt and growl-favoring Amazons who worship Hickory "Toot" Sweet (Douglas Mackrell) as their god, and do unspeakable things (mostly pleasurable) to him during the day and night. In between ululations, they break out into "tribal movements," which is really just laughable choreography by Sarah E. Jacobs (there is an entertaining and cheeky striptease in Act II which demonstrates how limber and sexual they are). Sweet hopes to do the old switcheroo with Manley by giving up his title as the "King of the Saucy Empire," and make a hasty getaway out of this warped utopia. Bunny, Cubby and Stevie come across Carl, a pampered neighbor of the Amazons whom they want nothing to do with. He's being waited on by Nug, but unlike her counterparts, it's a consensual relationship. He treats her like the unique and intelligent creature that she is, and she helps him out with the odds and ends.
Apart from the rough, S&M type behavior (that some men would covet) and the sometimes questionable hygiene and physical appeal, Sweet's desire to fly the coop is never really supported. The audience can come up with reasons such as boredom and freedom, but the fun world created here doesn't exactly seem like a dungeon unless you consider it a dungeon of too many mistresses. Wakki-Nunu's Amazons are a peculiar breed because they don't exemplify female power or respect. Classical amazons aren't accustomed to worshiping males, even if they consider him a deity. But even that concept has a hole. (Ahem.) Although we're told in the script that they need a god to worship, they don't do much of that either, unless making their bodies available for sex is acceptable as worship.
It's a shame that the staging is so loose: for example, one character throws what's meant to be coffee in another one's face, but it's clearly water. The real McCoy or at least some food coloring would have gone a long way. One concept that is particularly successful is the dating game scene. With decent direction by Cwiklik and an amusing take on likes and dislikes, the cast pulls this one off easily. Still, one line comes close to describing this show succinctly: "You're always reaching too far and falling on your ass." Cwiklik may not have completely fallen on his keister here, but this production could be a whole lot more graceful and nimble.
Through June 3rd. Tickets: $20. http://www.smarttix.com/.
The Red Room (85 East 4th Street)
New York, NY 10003
Sunday, May 04, 2008
In the midst of unthinkable grief, a mother coping with the death of her son finds an unlikely ally in his former teacher. Intrigued yet horrified at the possibility that someone else is as upset over the death as she as, the two find connection in the midst of chaos.
Reviewed by Ilana Novick
“There are no words.” That's a common enough saying after tragedy, but to the woman known only as Calvin’s Mom (Jan Maxwell), it’s a hurtful cop-out. She’s against funerals, receiving lines, and even the people who think that they’re being kind when they say there are no words (in reference to the tragedy of her son’s death). Invading her mourning is a teacher of her son’s, Paul (Kieran Campion) -- a substitute no less--, whose claim to have had a bond with him angers her (how could he begin to presume he understands?). Still, just as she’s drawn to him because of the shared memory, Substitution finds strength in these interactive memories and what they reveal about grieving and life after another’s death. Paul’s relentless attempts to get Calvin’s Mom to bond with him over their shared loss (despite her adamant refusals) and her hurt responses reveal just how differently people experience grief, even if it’s over the same person. Would such bonding be an insult to the memory of the deceased?
Maxwell plays the mother as understandably haggard and careworn -- hunched over, her neck permanently tense, hair tangled, sweater unwashed, eyes narrowed in a cross between a sneer, and the moment just before the tears come -- her face stuck in the unique mixture of sadness and anger that follows news of death. She meets Paul at Calvin’s school, once a lively place, but now, after the accident, a building-size memorial. The students died on a boat trip and the colors of the set, turquoise and sea foam green, make it seem as if the characters are drowning in the memories of the sea accident.
Paul is as young and full of possibilities as Calvin’s Mother is tired and weary -- all razor sharp cheekbones and gym-toned arms. To top it off, he’s smart and seems to genuinely care about Calvin. Still, he’s jumpy and nervous, talking in a staccato jabber. He’s like a teenager in the midst of a sudden growth spurt, all arms and legs and energy that he doesn’t quite know what to do with. Calvin’s Mom responds to his babbling with a terse “Who the hell are you? You don’t know anything about my son.” Each time Paul offers some memory of Calvin’s interests or mannerisms, especially if it’s one unknown to Calvin’s Mom, she sees it as a slap in the face, an insult to her own memories of her relationship with her son. She’s intensely guarding her own right to mourn, incensed by the idea that a random man might have had a deep bond with her son, maybe even deeper than hers, and so would presume that he could understand what she’s going through. Grief is precious emotional real estate for her, the one thing that gives her power and identity in a time when she is anything but. In spite of her protests, she continues to find excuses to visit Paul at the school, and occasionally smiles and laughs in his presence, even as she questions the appropriateness of their meetings, the age difference, whether she should be allowed to continue her life when her son cannot.
Interspersed are scenes with two teenagers sitting on a school bus seat, on a platform above the area of the stage where Paul and Calvin’s Mom meet. Both will die in the same field trip accident as Calvin. Even dressed in superhero costumes (a teacher’s attempt to add some fun to the classroom), they seem like recognizable teenagers, playing games of predict the future of their classmates, the girl, Jule (Shana Downeswell) a little wise beyond her years, a little snarky (as many television and movie these days), and the guy, a cute Big Man on Campus Type named Dax (Drandon Espinoza), with a similar build to Paul, a little confused by all of Jewel’s philosophical musings, but loves her like a sister anyway. There fun to eavesdrop on and watch, two teenagers in mermaid fins and wings, being sweet to each other when they think no one else is looking.
As fun as Dax and Jule are to watch, it is less clear what their purpose is in the larger context of the play, and this is Substitution’s main weakness, a loose end in an otherwise insightful play. Is it a peek into what the adults will never know about the moments leading up to the accident? Or is it just a chilling glimpse at teenagers having fun, being so utterly themselves, before impending disaster? Are they supposed to be an innocent and more carefree parallel to the older and grieving Jack and Calvin’s Mom? Both are possibilities, but their scenes are over before their relationship is given a conclusion, or their larger purpose explained. Paul and Calvin’s Mom still have a tentative future at the end, however much the guilt over their potential happiness might weigh them down. The gradual melting of Calvin’s Mom’s reserve does not seem like weakness, as she might worry, or settling for a substitute life with a substitute teacher when her first choice life was taken from her. Instead, it’s a sign of strength and of hope, that even if she will always be hurt, she is not without support, or even a substitute teacher who is a real, first choice friend.
Substitution is playing at the SoHo Playhouse,
Saturday, May 03, 2008
BY ELLEN WERNECKE
Even Brecht admirers might have some trouble with “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” his sprawling, Asian-inspired war play, punctuated by musings on social mores and the abuse of trust in a nation. Hipgnosis eliminates Brecht’s original frame (in which a group of peasants are hearing the story from the Singer) and gives some clarity to the work, although its asides on power and the way people act during war time often overwhelm the narrative.
As narrated by the Singer (Demetrios Bonaros, who also wrote all the music in this staging), a poverty-stricken nation is racked by a coup which puts the Fat Prince (John Castro) in power but leads to a civil war in which civilians are pitted against the Ironshirts (national guard). When the deposed governor’s wife (Ayanna Siverls) flees the town without bothering to pick her baby up off the ground where she left it, the heir to the throne, he is rescued by a palace maid named Grusha (Rachel Tiemann) who makes the treacherous journey north to her brother’s house for shelter. While she waits to be reunited with the soldier she promised herself to (Douglas Scott Streater), Grusha becomes more and more consumed with the baby’s survival, even though Ironshirts are one step behind her and hunting for the royal heir.
Bonaros’ music, performed a cappella alone or with other actors, assist in knitting together what can seem like many disparate scenes. They also contribute to the folk-tale mystique of the piece, which seems to take place outside of any recognized culture or civilization but bears the marks of many. (“The Caucasian Chalk Circle” inspired Charles Mee’s play “Full Circle,” in which he placed the action in 1989 Berlin amidst the falling of the Wall.) The foolhardy postwar declaration of “Now everything will be as it was!” is, of course, a farce, but the journey of Grusha from unwilling participant in the rebellion to her conception of herself as the baby’s true mother holds the ensemble together, particularly with the tenacious performance of Tiemann. Her undoubtedly exhausting journey gives, as a judge says late in the show, “proof of human feeling” out of the morass.
Through May 11 at the Theatres at 45 Bleecker
Tickets $19, Telecharge.
For more information, visit Hipgnosis Theatre.org.
Thursday, May 01, 2008
On the coast somewhere, twelve characters gather to reflect and express their experiences with love—the pain of loss, the sting of betrayal, and the joys of uniting. Inspired by an ancient story, George R. Carr's A Body Without a Head is a collection of poems adapted for the stage. The performance is a beautiful piece of expressionism dedicated to anyone who has ever lost their head to love.
Reviewed by Amy Freeman
The inspiration for George R. Carr's A Body Without a Head, a book of poetry that he has now adapted for the stage, is the ancient story of St. Torpez, who was beheaded by the Romans for converting. His body was placed in a box, which was placed into a boat and then set asea. The boat landed at a port called Heraclea. Upon opening the box, the inhabitants found the torso of Torpez to be as fresh as a living body. Seeing this miracle, the citizens also converted changed their city's name to St. Tropez.
However, beyond a prologue detailing the above story (spoken by the Earth goddess Gaia), the piece does not dwell upon the story. Upon entering the dim, blue gel-lit theater, the audience is greeted with the sound of ocean waves and led to seats by ushers carrying flashlights. After Gaia summarizes the St. Tropez story, the sound of breathing is heard, and a man swims through the audience to the stage. He climbs upon the shore and asks if anybody has ever lost their head to . . . love. Torpez is momentarily forgotten as we ponder the question put before us by a man in swim trunks and goggles.
Odds are, we all have, just like the remaining characters who, moaning, stumble to the shore/stage and flop upon it, as if shipwrecked. Their costumes are by Kevin Carrigan, at Calvin Klein, so the stage picture is very similar to an ad for ck One (which isn't a bad thing). The women are in slinky black slips and the men are shirtless in dark jeans. One would be very lucky to come in from the stormy ocean looking as polished as this cast.
The poems spoken by the cast are augmented by swirly and dreamy choreography and the continual sound of the ocean. The performance is a work of expressionism. The actors are quite good at emoting, tears drip from their eyes throughout the performance, they speak words of loss and love and injustice as though their lives depend upon it. Their movements in response to certain lines are extremely visceral, causing the audience to feel what they feel. When a character, Pollo, looks to his love, Dite, who has betrayed him, one can feel the shame as Dite refuses to look back. The characters take on the pain of St. Torpez at another point, imitating the injuries he suffered in such a way that a the heart drops and the stomach turns.
Other than their deep sense of emotion, not much information is provided on stage about who the characters are, giving them an timeless feel. We can assume that they know each other, and that they are paired off into couples. (The language is abstract and never explicitly states facts.) One character, Ares, has lost his love, Elizabeth, and now curses the country that bore him and ultimately lost him by saying "American soul. I do not know thee. I am of thee. . . But I have lost thee." Elizabeth is separated from the rest of the characters by her costume (a white dress and bridal veil) and the fact that she enters, as if called by Gaia, after the others.
A Body Without A Head is beautiful to watch. It is a performance about experience, not plot. The poems float by and what remains is the emotion of the characters, an emotion most people can relate to, though most would not have the wherewithal to express it so.
A Body Without a Head (70 Minutes)
Manhattan Theatre Source (177 MacDougal Street)
Tickets (www.theatresource.org): $18.00
Performances (through 5/2): Mon-Fri, 8PM