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.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Coming Home

Living Image Arts explores the theme of coming home to unusual and uneasy circumstances with the presentation of three one acts. Although each play has good subject matter, Sparrow stands out as a rollercoaster of emotions, strong writing and solid performances.

Banaue Miclat and Luz Lor in "Sparrow"

Review by Cindy Pierre

Some homecomings are punctuated with streamers, banners, parties and happy tears. For the characters in Coming Home, homecomings represent fear, danger, a break in routine, and picking up where things were left off. Living Image Arts, now in residence at Theatre Row, takes on serious issues and upholds their mission of producing theater of substance by presenting three plays with heavy themes. But not all of these plays are created equal. Some fare better than others in driving the message home.

In Counting, Wanda (Maria Gabriele, also the playwright), an inmate being released from prison tries to impart wisdom and a way to cope with doing time to Gianna (Maria Elizabeth Ryan), an incoming prisoner. It's a bit of a device to have the two interact for such a long period of time, let alone share the same space, but the premise works to bolster the "show 'em the ropes" dynamic. Wanda introduces "counting," the process of assigning numeric values to anything and everything in the prison, as a way to pass time and avoid insanity. Wanda has gotten so good at it that she considers it a talent on the inside, but wonders what good it will do in the outside world with calculators and other forms of measurement. Although both women committed similar crimes (embezzlement), they share little common ground, and it takes a while before they begin to understand each other. Despite having experienced what Gianna is about to go through, Wanda's attitude starts off very cool and cavalier toward poor Gianna, sitting pregnant with fear. Under Christine Farrell's tense and terse direction, Gabriele is commanding while Ryan's vulnerability is a sight to see. The script may have some issues with plausibility and the pacing may be a little slow, but the show does provide a nice juxtaposition between the institutionalized and the recently free.

Linda Faigao-Hall's Sparrow, the strongest show of the trio, is about the complex, 10-year reunion in the Philippines between two former best friends, Tina (Luz Lor), an immigrant to the United States and Cris (Banaue Miclat), a former poet turned Maoist rebel. Faigao-Hall's writing is sharp, clever, and intense, executed wonderfully by Lor and Miclat under Ian Morgan's strong direction, but Lor exceeds Miclat in emotional and comedic expression. The script presents several meaty conflicts that include a broken friendship and a militant agenda. The former is a result of Cris welshing on a promise to join Tina in the U.S. to realize their artistic dreams: Cris was supposed to write her poetry while Tina provided the illustrations. Unfortunately, Cris's need to fight the capitalist regime--a gruesome, too-extreme story about soldiers butchering members of her family--superseded her desire to participate in the arts. Tina, with face clenched and dialogue sharply delivered, is both visibly and audibly still angered by the betrayal, but Cris maintains that she made the best possible choice. Cris calms Tina down by reminding her of the bond that they used to have, and in so doing, the actors make a smooth transition from a strained meeting to a friendly one. But Faigao-Hall doesn't let the moment remain saccharine for long, changing the mood from light to dark again whenever the pair stop seeing eye to eye. The waves may be frequent, but they are strong, and carry the audience through a riveting story. The only wrinkle in the script is the sharp transition from a cold reunion to a political agenda. Otherwise, with fresh, rarely dramatized material, a strong cast, and emotional turbulence, Sparrow is a powerful show.

The final show, William K. Powers' Last Call on Bourbon Street, is also the weakest. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, bar owner Benny (Tyler Bunch) and his regular customers and friends struggle to keep the Bourbon Street Bar and Grille open. FEMA is not coming through, the roof has been damaged by water, and business has gone south, but they still struggle on. There's Lady Beignet (Andrew Eisenman), an elegant drag queen; Pops (Todd Davis), Benny's accountant; and prostitutes Sally Ann (Raushanah Simmons), a statuesque and sassy African-American and Topsy (Amanda Bruton), an under-confident, mouthy and red heels-wearing vixen. When Mr. Herman (Stu Richel), an insurance agent, comes around to appraise the damage to the bar, they're all hell bent on telling him why New Orleans is so special to them, and why they're determined to stick around. Unfortunately, that's where the biggest problem lies. The play's plot turns into a preachy drama whose back to back stories are not arranged with any creativity or pacing. These sob-stories each have a Scarlett O'Hara "I'll never go hungry again" ending, and that gets tiresome. Benny's tale of the National Guard is a good one: in small doses, the tragedy is there. Instead, there's an avalanche of woe. Through dialogue, we understand that Powers wants to use a "what you see is not always what you get" mantra for this production, but there's very little mystery here. Last Call on Bourbon Street has great subject matter, but it's ultimately wasted on excess and predictability.

Set designer Sarah B. Brown does a good job of uniting the three plays with multi-functional wooden plats that serve as the backdrop for each play. In Counting, they serve nicely as cement prison walls, in Last Call on Bourbon Street, they act as the walls of a bar and blend right into the scene, but in Sparrow, they struggle to be jungle background. The plays may have different degrees of success, but the production is conceived well and in turn, inspires thought from the audience. Coming Home may not be perfect, but it's still a memorable contribution to theater and a stone in Living Image Arts' sound foundation.
Through June 15th. Tickets: $18. 212-279-4200 or The Lion Theater at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street.

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